Archive for January, 2019


January 14, 2019

BAGHDAD (AP) — France is committing $1 billion euros ($1.15 billion) to help Iraq rebuild after its war against the Islamic State group, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Monday. Le Drian was in Baghdad on a busy day that also saw Iraq’s top officials receiving King Abdullah II of Jordan.

The French diplomat said the aid would go to rebuilding Iraq’s most devastated areas. He also promised that France would support Iraq’s stability, while seeking a rapid “political exit” from Syria, where France has deployed an estimated 200 troops in the battle against the extremist group.

“The situation in Syria has to stabilize, and we have to eliminate terrorism,” Le Drian said at a press conference with Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohamed Alhakim France is a member of the U.S.-led international coalition that has defeated the group in most of its territory in Iraq and Syria.

U.S. President Donald Trump surprised allies last month when he announced he was pursuing a complete military withdrawal from Syria. On Saturday, the U.S. began pulling equipment, but not troops, out of the country. An estimated 2,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Syria.

Iraq’s Planning Ministry last year estimated the cost of reconstruction at $88 billion. The country was able to raise $30 billion at a donor conference in Kuwait in February. Alhakim thanked France for its assistance to Iraq’s minority Yezidi community. Islamic State militants enslaved and killed thousands of Yezidis during their brief reign in north Iraq earlier this decade.

King Abdullah II met with Iraqi President Barham Salih and Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi. It was his first visit to the country in a decade. The king and prime minister discussed regional and bilateral issues, Abul-Mahdi’s office said in a statement.

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January 26, 2019

DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — A U.N. human rights envoy said that hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslim refugees won’t be able to return to Myanmar soon because of threats to their safety in the Buddhist-majority nation.

Myanmar has been criticized by global rights groups and many nations for state-sponsored violence against ethnic minorities. Yanghee Lee, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, on Friday also criticized India and Saudi Arabia for mistreatment of the Rohingya in those countries.

Lee spent 10 days in Thailand and Bangladesh, speaking to refugees living in Bangladesh, authorities, U.N. agencies and international experts. More than 700,000 Rohingya refugees have fled into Bangladesh since late August 2017.

“It is clear that Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh cannot return to Myanmar in the near future,” she said. She said violence against the Rohingya by the Myanmar army in Rakhine state that prompted them to flee to neighboring Bangladesh “bear the hallmarks of genocide.” Myanmar has repeatedly turned down her request for allowing her to visit the country.

Myanmar has rejected all the allegations that any crimes against humanity and genocide took place. Global rights groups have called the country’s top military officials to be tried for their alleged roles in the killing and rapes of Rohingya.

Lee said the violence against other minority groups must also end in Myanmar. “Its campaign of violence against ethnic minorities, including the Rohingya, the Kayin, the Kachin and the Shan, must end,” she said.

She added: “There must be accountability for the campaign of ethnic cleansing and possible genocide against the Rohingya, as well as the war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated against ethnic minorities around the country.”

Lee told journalists she was disturbed by reports of new violence in Rakhine state and she accused Myanmar of failing to create a peaceful environment so the refugees could return from Bangladesh. “The campaign of violence against the Rohingya continues, with the security forces slowly bleeding the remaining Rohingya population and continuing to force them to flee to Bangladesh,” she said.

Lee said she was dismayed by Saudi Arabia’s recent deportation of 13 Rohingya to Bangladesh, where they have been arrested and charged with forging the passports that they used to travel to Saudi Arabia.

About 1,300 Rohingya have recently arrived in Bangladesh from India, Bangladesh officials said earlier this week. Another 61 Rohingya, including many children, were arrested earlier this week by India in its northeastern states of Assam and Tripura. India rejected repeated U.N. calls against a decision by India to send at least 40,000 Rohingya back to Myanmar.

Bangladesh attempted to start repatriation in November last year under a deal with Myanmar despite reservations by the U.N. and other global human rights groups that conditions were not safe for Rohingya in Myanmar, which said it was ready to receive them. Bangladesh subsequently postponed the process.

The exodus of Rohingya began after Myanmar security forces launched a brutal crackdown following attacks by an insurgent group on guard posts in late August in 2017. The scale, organization and ferocity of the crackdown led the U.N. and several governments to accuse Myanmar of ethnic cleansing and genocide. Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had ordered border guards to open the border allowing them to get in.

Most people in Myanmar do not accept that the Rohingya Muslims are a native ethnic group, calling them as “Bengalis” who entered from Bangladesh centuries ago. Nearly all have been denied citizenship since 1982, as well as access to education and hospitals.

January 15, 2019

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Extremists launched a deadly attack on a luxury hotel in Kenya’s capital Tuesday, sending people fleeing in panic as explosions and heavy gunfire reverberated through the complex. A witness said he saw five bodies at the hotel entrance alone.

Al-Shabab — the Somalia-based Islamic extremist group that carried out the 2013 Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi that left 67 people dead — claimed responsibility. “It is terrible. What I have seen is terrible,” said Charles Njenga, who ran from the bloody, glass-strewn scene.

The coordinated assault began with an explosion that targeted three vehicles outside a bank, and a suicide bombing in the hotel lobby that severely wounded a number of guests, said Kenya’s national police chief, Joseph Boinnet.

Authorities sent special forces into the hotel to flush out the gunmen believed holed up inside. Well after nightfall, more than five hours after the attack began, Boinnet said the counter-operation was still going on.

It was not clear how many attackers laid siege to the complex, which includes the DusitD2 hotel, along with bars, restaurants, banks and offices and is in a well-to-do neighborhood with large numbers of American, European and Indian expatriates.

Boinnet did not disclose the number of dead. However, a Kenyan police officer who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media said that bodies were seen in restaurants downstairs and in offices upstairs, but “there was no time to count the dead.”

Also, a witness who gave his name only as Ken said he saw five bodies at the entrance. He said that other people were shouting for help and “when we rushed back to try to rescue them, gunshots started coming from upstairs, and we had to duck because they were targeting us and we could see two guys shooting.”

Kenyan hospitals appealed for blood donations even as the number of wounded remained unclear. Associated Press video from inside the hotel showed Kenyan security officers anxiously searching the building and scared workers emerging from hiding while gunfire could still be heard. Some women climbed out of windows. One man got up from the floor where he appeared to be trying to hide under a piece of wood paneling, then showed his ID badge.

As officers searched luxury fashion displays, wounded people were carried away on stretchers. Like al-Shabab’s Westgate Mall attack, this one appeared aimed at wealthy Kenyans and foreigners living in the country. It came a day after a magistrate ruled that three men must stand trial in connection with the Westgate Mall siege. A fourth suspect was freed for lack of evidence.

Al-Shabab has vowed retribution against Kenya for sending troops to Somalia since 2011. The al-Qaida-linked group has killed hundreds of people in Kenya, which has been targeted more than any other of the six countries providing troops to an African Union force in Somalia.

In the Westgate Mall massacre, al-Shabab extremists burst into the luxury shopping center, hurling grenades and starting a dayslong siege. In 2015, al-Shabab claimed responsibility for an attack on Kenya’s Garissa University that killed 147 people, mostly students. Tuesday’s violence also came three years to the day after al-Shabab extremists attacked a Kenyan military base in Somalia, killing scores of people.

Gunfire could be heard for hours after Tuesday’s attack began. Several vehicles burned, sending black smoke rising over the complex. Some people ducked behind cars, screaming, while others took cover behind fountains and other features at the lush complex.

Ambulances, security forces and firefighters converged along with a bomb disposal unit, and vehicles were cordoned off for fear they contained explosives. Police said they blew up a car that had explosives inside. An unexploded grenade was also seen in a hallway at the complex.

Security forces hurried out a large group of women, one of them still in curlers. Dozens of others were rushed to safety as plainclothes officers went shop to shop in the complex. Some people held up their hands to show they were unarmed.

A Kenyan intelligence official said the country had been on high alert since November, with information about potential attacks on high-profile targets in Nairobi. The official was not authorized to talk to the media and spoke on condition of anonymity.

A Somali diplomat who likewise spoke on condition of anonymity said Somali officials were in the hotel for meetings at the time of the attack and several were feared to still be inside. Despite the years of bloodshed, the Kenya-Somalia border remains porous, with al-Shabab extremists able to easily bribe their way across, according to a U.N. panel of experts.

The hotel complex in Nairobi’s Westlands neighborhood is about a mile (2 kilometers) from Westgate Mall on a relatively quiet, tree-lined road in what is considered one of the most secure parts of the city. The hotel’s website says it is “cocooned away from the hustle and bustle in a secure and peaceful haven.”

On Monday, the hotel promoted its spa by tweeting: “Is your new year off to a rough start?”

Associated Press writer Abdi Guled in Nairobi contributed.

January 14, 2019

The CEO of Israeli spyware company NSO Group has admitted that its software was used to spy on the Emir of Qatar.

In an interview with Yedioth Ahronoth this weekend, Shalev Hulio admitted that his company’s product was used to spy on Emir Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani, as well as Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani.

The interview disclosed that NSO’s “Pegasus” software – which can be used to remotely infect a target’s mobile phone and then relay back data accessed by the device – was used to intercept phone calls and text messages made by both the Qatari foreign minister and the Emir. These conversations reportedly concerned “hundreds of millions of dollars in ransom to Iran and Hezbollah for the release of several Qataris,” some of which was allegedly sent to the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani.

This spying was seemingly undertaken at the behest of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Hulio revealed that the Israeli Defense Export Control Agency (DECA) authorized three deals with the UAE for the sale of NSO software, despite the fact that DECA is only supposed to give authorization for the “purpose of fighting terrorism and crime”.

These deals – allegedly mediated by former senior Israeli defense officials with close ties to a senior Emirati official – raised a total of $80 million in revenue for NSO.

NSO’s Pegasus software has come under increasing scrutiny in recent months after the product was revealed to be complicit in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Though Hulio stressed in the interview with Yedioth Ahronoth this weekend that “Khashoggi was not targeted by any NSO product or technology, including listening, monitoring, location tracking and intelligence collection,” it appears that Saudi Arabia used NSO software to spy on many of Khashoggi’s friends and associates.

US whistle-blower Edward Snowden has been at the forefront of these claims, telling the Israeli newspaper: “I do not pretend that NSO is involved in hacking [directly] into Khashoggi’s phone, so their denial does not take us to a different conclusion. The evidence shows that the company’s products were involved in hacking into the phones of [Khashoggi’s] friends Omar Abdel Aziz, Yahya Assiri, and Ghanem Al-Masarir.”

The UAE is also known to have been using NSO’s software for some time. In 2016, Citizen Lab and Apple revealed there were attempts to infect an iPhone owned by the Emirati human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor. Mansoor had raised the alarm after receiving suspicious text intended to “bait to get him to click on a link, which would have led to the infection of his Apple iPhone 6 and control of the device through a spy software created by the NSO Group”.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20190114-israeli-company-admits-spying-on-emir-of-qatar/.

Baghdad (AFP)

Jan 13, 2019

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met with his Iraqi counterpart in Baghdad on Sunday for wide-ranging talks, including on US sanctions against Tehran.

The visit came just days after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a surprise stop on his regional tour to urge Iraq to stop relying on Iran for gas and electricity imports.

Washington has granted Baghdad a waiver until late March to keep buying Iranian gas and power, despite reimposing tough sanctions on Tehran in November.

After a two-hour meeting on Sunday, Iraq’s top diplomat Mohammed Ali al-Hakim said he had talked through the restrictions with his counterpart.

“We discussed the unilateral economic measures taken by the US and are working with our neighbor (Iran) on them,” Hakim said.

Zarif slammed Washington’s role in the region.

“These failures have continued for the past 40 years and my proposal to countries (in the region) is to not bet on a losing horse,” he told reporters.

Iran’s foreign minister went on to meet Iraqi premier Adel Abdel Mahdi, who released a statement affirming: “Iraq’s policy is built on seeking the best ties with all of its neighbors.”

Zarif is expected to attend several economic forums in various Iraqi cities, including Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdish north.

While in Baghdad, he discussed numerous political and economic issues with his Iraqi counterpart including Syria and Yemen.

Hakim said Iraq was in favor of the Arab League reinstating Syria’s membership, eight years after suspending it as the conflict there unfolded.

Following Zarif’s visit, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is also expected to travel to Iraq in the near future.

Iran is the second-largest source of imported goods in Iraq.

Besides canned food and cars, Baghdad also buys 1,300 megawatts of electricity and 28 million cubic meters of natural gas daily from Iran to feed power plants.

That dependence is uncomfortable for Washington, which sees Tehran as its top regional foe and expects Iraq to wean itself off Iranian energy resources.

But energy ties between Baghdad and Tehran appear to have remained close, with Iran’s oil minister visiting Baghdad last week to denounce US sanctions as “totally illegal”.

Source: SpaceWar.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Iran_foreign_minister_in_Baghdad_for_talks_999.html.

January 12, 2019

BANGKOK (AP) — An 18-year-old Saudi woman who said she was abused by her family and feared for her life if deported back home left Thailand on Friday night for Canada, which has granted her asylum, officials said.

The fast-moving developments capped an eventful week for Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun. She fled her family while visiting Kuwait and flew to Bangkok, where she barricaded herself in an airport hotel to avoid deportation and grabbed global attention by mounting a social media campaign for asylum.

Her case highlighted the cause of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, where several women fleeing abuse by their families have been caught trying to seek asylum abroad in recent years and returned home. Human rights activists say many similar cases go unreported.

Alqunun is flying to Toronto via Seoul, South Korea, according to Thai immigration Police Chief Surachate Hakparn. Alqunun tweeted two pictures from her plane seat. One with what appears to be a glass of wine and her passport and another holding her passport while on the plane with the hastag “I did it” and the emojis showing plane, hearts and wine glass.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed his country had granted her asylum. “That is something that we are pleased to do because Canada is a country that understands how important it is to stand up for human rights and to stand up for woman’s rights around the world and I can confirm that we have accepted the U.N.’s request,” Trudeau said.

Several other countries, including Australia, had been in talks with the U.N.’s refugee agency to accept Alqunun, Surachate said earlier in the day. “She chose Canada. It’s her personal decision,” he said.

Canada’s ambassador had seen her off at the airport, Surachate said, adding that she looked happy and healthy. She thanked everyone for helping her, he said, and added that the first thing she would do upon arrival in Canada would be to start learning the language. She already speaks more than passable English, in addition to Arabic.

The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees welcomed Canada’s decision. “The quick actions over the past week of the government of Thailand in providing temporary refuge and facilitating refugee status determination by UNHCR, and of the government of Canada in offering emergency resettlement to Ms. Alqunun and arranging her travel were key to the successful resolution of this case,” the agency said in a statement.

It wasn’t immediately clear what prompted Alqunon to choose Canada over Australia. Australian media reported that UNHCR had withdrawn its referral for Alqunon to be resettled in Australia because Canberra was taking too long to decide on her asylum.

“When referring cases with specific vulnerabilities who need immediate resettlement, we attach great importance to the speed at which countries consider and process cases,” a UNHCR spokesperson in Bangkok told The Associated Press in an email reply on condition of anonymity because the person wasn’t authorized to discuss the case publicly.

Australia’s Education Minister Dan Tehan said Saturday that Australia had moved quickly to process her case but Canada decided to take her in. He added that, ultimately, the outcome was a good one. “She’s going to be safe,” he said.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, cited Alqunun’s “courage and perseverance.” “This is so much a victory for everyone who cares about respecting and promoting women’s rights, valuing the independence of youth to forge their own way, and demanding governments operate in the light and not darkness,” he said in a statement.

Alqunun was stopped Jan. 5 at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport by immigration police who denied her entry and seized her passport. She barricaded herself in an airport hotel room and took her plight onto social media. It got enough public and diplomatic support that Thai officials admitted her temporarily under the protection of U.N. officials, who granted her refugee status Wednesday.

Alqunun’s father arrived in Bangkok on Tuesday, but his daughter refused to meet with him. Surachate said the father — whose name has not been released — denied physically abusing Alqunun or trying to force her into an arranged marriage, which were among the reasons she gave for her flight. He said Alqunun’s father wanted his daughter back but respected her decision.

“He has 10 children. He said the daughter might feel neglected sometimes,” Surachate said. Canada’s decision to grant her asylum could further upset the country’s relations with Saudi Arabia. In August, Saudi Arabia expelled Canada’s ambassador to the kingdom and withdrew its own ambassador after Canada’s Foreign Ministry tweeted support for women’s right activists who had been arrested. The Saudis also sold Canadian investments and ordered their citizens studying in Canada to leave.

No country, including the U.S., spoke out publicly in support of Canada in that spat with the Saudis. On Friday, Trudeau avoided answering a question about what the case would mean for relations with the kingdom, but he said Canada will always unequivocally stand up for human rights and women’s rights around the world.

Canadian officials were reluctant to comment further until she landed safely in Canada. Alqunun had previously said on Twitter that she wanted to seek refuge in Australia. Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne met Thursday with senior Thai officials in Bangkok. She later said Australia was assessing Alqunun’s resettlement request.

Payne said she also raised Australia’s concerns with Thai officials about Hakeem al-Araibi, a 25-year-old former member of Bahrain’s national soccer team who was granted refugee status in Australia in 2017 after fleeing his homeland, where he said he was persecuted and tortured.

He was arrested while vacationing in Thailand in November due to an Interpol notice in which Bahrain sought his custody after he was sentenced in absentia in 2014 to 10 years in prison for allegedly vandalizing a police station — a charge he denies. Bahrain is seeking his extradition.

Al-Araibi’s case is being considered by Thailand’s justice system, she said.

Gillies reported from Toronto. Associated Press video journalist Samuel McNeil in Sydney contributed to this report.

January 11, 2019

BANGKOK (AP) — Several countries including Canada and Australia are in talks with the U.N. refugee agency on accepting a Saudi asylum seeker who fled alleged abuse by her family, Thai police said Friday.

Thailand’s immigration police chief, Surachate Hakparn, told reporters the U.N. was accelerating the case, though he gave no indication of when the process would be complete. Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun was stopped at a Bangkok airport last Saturday by Thai immigration police who denied her entry and seized her passport.

While barricading herself in an airport hotel room, the 18-year-old launched a social media campaign via her Twitter account that drew global attention to her case. It garnered enough public and diplomatic support to convince Thai officials to admit her temporarily under the protection of U.N. officials.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees granted her refugee status on Wednesday. Alqunun’s case has highlighted the cause of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. Several female Saudis fleeing abuse by their families have been caught trying to seek asylum abroad in recent years and returned home. Human rights activists say many similar cases have gone unreported.

By Friday, Alqunun had closed down her Twitter account. Sophie McNeill, a reporter with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation who got in contact with Alqunun while she was stuck in the airport hotel room and has kept in touch with her, said Friday in a Twitter posting that Alqunun “is safe and fine.”

“She’s just been receiving a lot of death threats,” McNeill wrote, adding that Alqunun would be back on Twitter after a “short break.” Alqunun had previously said on Twitter that she wishes to seek refuge in Australia.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne met with senior Thai officials in Bangkok on Thursday. She later told reporters that Australia is assessing Alqunun’s request for resettlement but there was no specific timeframe.

Payne said she also raised Australia’s concerns with Thai officials about Hakeem al-Araibi, a 25-year-old former member of Bahrain’s national soccer team who was granted refugee status in Australia in 2017 after fleeing his homeland, where he said he was persecuted and tortured.

He was arrested while on holiday in Thailand last November due to an Interpol notice in which Bahrain sought his custody after he was sentenced in absentia in 2014 to 10 years in prison for allegedly vandalizing a police station — a charge he denies. Bahrain is seeking his extradition.

Al-Araibi’s case is being considered by Thailand’s justice system, she said.

January 08, 2019

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — The trial has opened of 28 people accused of involvement in the 2016 killing of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, including U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey blames for a failed coup the same year.

An off-duty police officer fatally shot Andrei Karlov at a photo exhibition in Ankara on Dec. 19, 2016. The officer was later shot dead at the scene by police. Turkish prosecutors say Gulen’s network was behind the killing, which they say aimed to derail warming ties between Turkey and Russia. Nine people were arrested. Others, including Gulen, are on trial in absentia on Tuesday.

Prosecutors are seeking life prison sentences for some of the defendants and maximum 15-year terms for others. Gulen has denied involvement in the coup and in Karlov’s killing.

January 08, 2019

BANGKOK (AP) — Human Rights Watch has called on the Australian government to allow entry to a Saudi Arabian woman who’s being processed by UN refugee authorities in Thailand after fleeing her homeland.

Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun was detained after arriving in Bangkok on Saturday, but has come under the protection of the UN’s refugee agency after refusing to return home. The 18-year-old says she had a visa to continue to Australia, but media reports say the Australian government has now cancelled it. Australian officials have not responded to multiple requests for comment.

Human Rights Watch’s Australian director Elaine Pearson says since Australia has expressed concern in the past about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, it should “come forward and offer protection for this young woman.”

JAN. 3, 2019

By Wade Sheridan

Jan. 3 (UPI) — Patriot Act host Hasan Minhaj has poked fun at Netflix for pulling an episode of the series from Saudi Arabia due to its content revolving around slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The streaming service announced they had removed the episode on Wednesday following a valid legal request from the Saudi government.

Minhaj is featured in the episode blaming Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for having Khashoggi — a Saudi citizen, U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist — killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. The CIA concluded in November that Salman ordered the killing.

“Clearly, the best way to stop people from watching something is to ban it, make it trend online, and then leave it up on YouTube,” Minhaj said on Twitter.

Minhaj’s comments refer to how the episode can still be accessed globally on YouTube.

Minaj also asked for donations to help the International Rescue Committee in Yemen. “Let’s not forget that the world’s largest humanitarian crisis is happening in Yemen right now. Please donate,” he said.

The IRC is asking for donations to help save lives in war-torn Yemen, stating that 22 million are in need of humanitarian aid.

Netflix launched Patriot Act in October. The talk show features Minhaj, a former star on The Daily Show, discussing politics and culture.

Source: United Press International (UPI).

Link: https://www.upi.com/Entertainment_News/TV/2019/01/03/Hasan-Minhaj-jokes-about-Patriot-Act-episode-pulled-from-Saudi-Arabia/1501546519504/.