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2018-01-23

RABAT – Morocco’s king appointed five new ministers on Monday, a government statement said, after several top officials were dismissed in October for failing to improve the economic situation in a region shaken by protests.

King Mohammed VI named ministers for education, planning, housing, health and for African relations, the statement said.

In October the king had dismissed ministers and top officials after an economic agency found “imbalances” in implementing a development plan.

Protests erupted in the Rif region around the northern city of Al-Hoceima in 2016, triggered by the death of a fishmonger whose produce was confiscated by police.

The man’s crushing to death in a garbage truck during a confrontation with police became a symbol of corruption and official abuse.

Protests, also fueled by economic underdevelopment, continued there this year.

Political protests are rare in Morocco, where the palace remains the ultimate power.

The protests, the largest in Morocco since the days of the 2011 “Arab Spring”, were directed at the government and the king’s entourage rather than the monarch himself.

Police confiscated fish they said the fishmonger had bought illegally and then dumped it in a garbage truck. Desperate to recover his stock, Fikri jumped inside and was killed by a rubbish crusher.

In July the king pardoned dozens of people arrested in the protests and blamed local officials for failing to quickly implement development projects which stoked public anger.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=86886.

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2018-01-24

BENGHAZI – More than 30 people were dead and dozens wounded after two car bombings outside a mosque frequented by jihadist opponents in Libya’s second city Benghazi, medical officials said Wednesday.

The attack after evening prayers on Tuesday underlined the continued chaos in Libya, which has been wracked by violence and divisions since dictator Moamer Kadhafi was toppled and killed in a 2011 NATO-backed uprising.

Benghazi has been relatively calm since military strongman Khalifa Haftar announced the eastern city’s “liberation” from jihadists in July last year after a three-year campaign, but sporadic violence has continued.

The bombers blew up two cars 30 minutes apart outside the mosque in the central neighborhood of Al-Sleimani, according to security officials.

Emergency and security workers who had rushed to the scene were among those killed in the second blast.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility but the mosque is known to be a base for Salafist groups which fought the jihadists alongside Haftar’s forces.

Mourners gathered outside the mosque on Wednesday, walking through puddles of water stained red with blood. Vehicles in a parking lot outside the mosque were burnt-out and mangled, their windows shattered.

The city’s Al-Jala hospital received 25 dead and 51 wounded, its spokeswoman Fadia al-Barghathi said. The Benghazi Medical Center received nine dead and 36 wounded, spokesman Khalil Gider said.

Ahmad al-Fituri, a security official for Haftar’s forces, was among those killed, military spokesman Milud al-Zwei said.

Medical officials said many of the wounded were in critical condition and the death toll was likely to rise.

– Political turmoil –

Haftar supports an administration based in the east of the country. It declared three days of mourning following the attack.

A UN-backed unity government based in the capital Tripoli, the Government of National Accord (GNA), has struggled to assert its authority outside the west.

The GNA condemned the attack as a “terrorist and cowardly act”.

The UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) denounced the bombings as “horrific” and warned that “direct or indiscriminate attacks against civilians… constitute war crimes”.

UN efforts to reconcile the rival administrations have produced no concrete result.

Haftar said in late December he would support elections in 2018 to bring the country out of chaos, but suggested he could take measures if efforts for “a peaceful power transition via free and democratic elections were exhausted”.

Haftar’s opponents accuse him of wanting to seize power and establish a military dictatorship, while his supporters have called for him to take control by “popular mandate”.

UN envoy Ghassan Salame presented a plan to the Security Council in September to hold parliamentary and presidential elections this year, but analysts are skeptical they will take place.

Clashes between rival militias are common, with fighting at Tripoli’s airport last week leaving 20 dead and forcing the cancellation of all flights for five days.

The turmoil has stifled efforts to restore oil-rich Libya’s economy and made the country fertile ground for extremists.

The Islamic State group has a significant presence and was in control of coastal city Sirte from late 2014 to late 2016, when the jihadists were pushed out by pro-GNA forces.

People-smugglers have also taken advantage of the chaos to turn the country into a major gateway for migrants heading to Europe.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=86906.

2018-01-27

RIYADH – Saudi Arabia released billionaire Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal on Saturday nearly three months after his arrest in an anti-corruption drive targeting the kingdom’s elite, a business associate said.

“He (Prince Al-Waleed) is out,” the associate said, requesting anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Prince Al-Waleed, dubbed the Warren Buffett of Saudi Arabia, was among some 350 suspects rounded up since November 4, including billionaire tycoons and ministers who were detained in Riyadh’s luxury Ritz-Carlton hotel.

Prince Al-Waleed is the latest in a series of high-profile detainees to be freed from the hotel. The terms of his release were not immediately clear.

Authorities have previously said most of those detained struck monetary settlements in exchange for their freedom, which could earn state coffers about $100 billion.

Another high-profile detainee, former National Guard chief Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, was released recently following his “settlement” with authorities which reportedly exceeded $1 billion.

Saudi Arabia also on Friday released the owner of the influential Arab satellite network MBC nearly three months after his arrest, sources said.

Waleed al-Ibrahim was among the suspects rounded up since November 4.

Ibrahim held a family gathering at his residence after his release, three MBC employees said on condition of anonymity. The staff also received an official e-mail congratulating them on his freedom.

The Financial Times reported earlier Friday that authorities had ordered Ibrahim to hand over his controlling stake in MBC to secure his release.

Authorities have so far not commented on his case.

The government on Friday also released a number of other detainees including Khaled Tuwaijri, former chief of the Saudi royal court, and Turki bin Nasser, former head of the country’s meteorology agency, a source close to the government said.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 32-year-old son of the king, has spearheaded the unprecedented crackdown on corruption among members of the government and royal family, as he consolidates his grip on power in the kingdom.

The windfall settlements agreed with those detained will help the government finance a multi-million dollar package announced by King Salman this month to help citizens cope with the rising cost of living, Finance Minister Mohammed al-Jadaan told Al Arabiya television in Davos on Wednesday.

Some critics have labelled the campaign a shakedown, but authorities insist the purge was aimed to target endemic corruption as Saudi Arabia seeks to diversify its oil-dependent economy.

The Ritz-Carlton is set to re-open for business next month as the campaign draws to an end, sources at the hotel have said. Its website lists rooms as available from February 14.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=86960.

2018-01-24

BERLIN – Berlin and Ankara planned to discuss on Wednesday Turkey’s cross-border offensive against a Kurdish militia in Syria, officials said, amid controversy over German-built tanks being deployed in the conflict.

German ambassador Martin Erdmann and Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli were to talk about “how the Turkish operation is equipped,” said German foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Adebahr.

The German government has come under domestic pressure after battlefield images appeared to show Turkey deploying German-made Leopard 2 tanks in its offensive to oust Kurdish militants in northern Syria.

The Kurdish Community Group of Germany accused Berlin of “complicity through weapons delivery to the terror state Turkey”.

German conservative lawmaker Norbert Roettgen, who heads the parliamentary committee of foreign affairs, urged Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel to halt further arms deals with Turkey.

“It is completely out of the question for Germany to increase the combat strength of the Leopard tanks in Turkey if the Turkish army is going after the Kurds in northern Syria,” Roettgen told Tagesspiegel daily.

Roettgen, a leading figure in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU party, said weapons deliveries to Turkey should instead “be banned due to the human rights situation and the dismantling of the rule of law in the country.”

Germany’s criticism of the human rights situation in Turkey, particularly after the government’s crackdown following a failed coup in 2016, badly strained ties between the NATO allies.

Relations have started to gradually thaw in recent weeks with the foreign ministers of both countries vowing to mend ties.

But Turkey’s offensive against the Kurdish militia threatens to reverse the rapprochement with Germany, which is home to large ethnic Turkish and Kurdish minorities.

Berlin delivered 354 Leopard 2 tanks to Turkey between 2006 and 2011.

Under the weapons deal sealed in 2005, Ankara is prohibited only from giving or selling the tanks to third parties without prior approval from Berlin, with no other restrictions on how the tanks are used.

– Skirmishes –

Leading Turkish and Kurdish groups in Germany on Wednesday accused each other of “importing” a foreign conflict in the wake of Ankara’s cross-border offensive against a Syrian Kurdish militia.

Skirmishes have erupted between the two groups in Germany since Turkey on Saturday launched its operation “Olive Branch” to oust the US-backed YPG, whom Ankara views as a terror group, from their Afrin enclave in northern Syria.

Three million ethnic Turks live in Germany, the largest diaspora and a legacy of the country’s “guest worker” program of the 1960 and 70s, as well as hundreds of thousands of Kurds.

Germany’s Turkish-dominated Coordination Council of Mosques said the conflict had been used as an excuse to launch a spate of “attacks on Turkish mosque groups” in Europe’s biggest economy.

“The fighting in northern Syria has been taken as an opportunity to incite against Turkish infrastructure and in particular mosques, and to import terror into Germany,” it said in a statement.

At least two mosques of the Turkish-controlled Ditib group were hit in western Germany’s Minden and the eastern city of Leipzig, said the council.

Windows of the buildings were smashed and walls vandalized, said the council, without naming possible suspects.

It also pointed to a brawl that broke out between Kurds and Turkish passengers at Hanover Airport on Monday, which forced police to intervene to separate the two sides.

“We condemn these attacks and call for calm on all sides,” said the council.

The Kurdish Community of Germany, for its part, accused Ditib imams of calling for jihad against the Kurds in Syria.

“The believers are told to pray for a victory of the Turkish army in the war against the Kurds,” the Kurdish group said, deploring the “instrumentalisation of religion and mosques for a war”.

“Mosques, that are partly financed by taxes and donations from citizens in Germany, are praying for glorious victory and death through jihad, the holy war,” added the group’s deputy leader Mehmet Tanriverdi.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=86911.

2018-01-23

PARIS – Three French women who joined the Islamic State group before being captured by Iraqi forces could be facing the death penalty as they await trial in Baghdad, sources close to their cases said.

The women were detained after Iraqi fighters ousted the jihadists from Mosul last July, one source said, confirming a report on RMC radio.

One 28-year-old woman left in 2015 for the group’s “caliphate” stretching over parts of Syria and Iraq along with her husband, who has reportedly been killed.

She is being detained with her daughter, who was born after their arrival.

“We don’t know what exactly she is accused of, what her detention conditions are like and whether she is being allowed the means to defend herself,” said the woman’s lawyer, .

He said he had received “no response” from France’s foreign ministry on the case, for which the Red Cross has been his only source of information.

A second woman, a 27-year-old named as Melina, also left for the region in 2015, and is being held with her baby. Her three older children have been returned to France.

“We expect France, if Melina is sentenced to death, to mobilize with the same intensity it has for other French citizens sentenced to death, in particular Serge Atlaoui,” said her lawyers, William Bourdon and Vincent Brengarth.

French diplomats have waged an intense campaign to free Atlaoui, who is being held in Indonesia and facing the death penalty on drug trafficking charges.

But government officials have said French fighters arrested in Syria and Iraq should be tried there if they can be guaranteed a fair trial.

Defense minister Florence Parly said Sunday that “we can’t be naive” regarding French citizens who left to join IS.

“When they are caught by local authorities, as far as possible they should be tried by these local authorities,” she told France 3 television.

– Children detained –

On Sunday, an Iraqi court condemned a German woman to death by hanging after finding her guilty of belonging to IS, the first such sentence in a case involving a European woman.

In December, an Iraqi-Swedish man was hanged along with 37 others accused of being IS or Al-Qaeda members, despite efforts by Sweden to have the prisoner serve a life sentence instead.

Iraqi authorities have not disclosed how many jihadists are being held prisoner since the counter-offensive that dislodged IS fighters from the country’s urban centers last year.

Around 40 French citizens, both men and women, are currently in detention camps or prisons in Syria and Iraq, including about 20 children, a source close to the matter has said.

On Monday, Parly reiterated that she had “no qualms” regarding the fate of French jihadists, despite requests by some of them to be repatriated.

“These jihadists have never had any qualms about what they’re doing, and I don’t see why we should have any for them,” she said.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=86899.

2018-01-08

BEIRUT – Syria’s army has broken the siege of an army base encircled by opposition forces on the eastern outskirts of Damascus, state television and a war monitor reported on Sunday.

Last Sunday, rebels, mainly belonging to the Islamist Ahrar al Sham faction, widened their control of parts of the Military Vehicles Administration base in the Eastern Ghouta town of Harasta.

Army elite forces, backed by Russian jets, launched an offensive to break the siege and liberate at least 200 troops who were believed to be trapped within its sprawling, heavily defended grounds.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that the Syrian forces had “opened a loophole” that led them into the base.

Extensive bombing and violent clashes were taking place inside and around the base late at night, while the army fought its way to recapture the compound’s buildings, the state tv reporter said during a live broadcast from a nearby location.

“Fighting is underway to expand the route that was opened into the base … and the army will press on with its offensive beyond liberating the base,” he added, expecting the battle for the base to end in the coming few hours.

The tv station aired footage of the battles earlier in the day that showed heavy smoke billowing from the battered buildings targeted by the army fire.

Rebel fighters had stormed the base last November in a drive to relieve pressure on Eastern Ghouta’s towns and villages.

The base has long been used to strike at the densely populated Eastern Ghouta in an attempt to force the rebel enclave into submission. More than 300,000 people there have lived under siege by army troops since 2013.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=86688.

January 1, 2018

Thousands of Syrian families have fled violent clashes between Daesh and the Syrian forces in the country’s north-western province of Idlib, Anadolu Agency reported yesterday. Many have taken refuge in camps scattered along the border with Turkey.

Early last week, the Syrian army, backed by Russian air power and pro-Iranian fighters, launched intense airstrikes targeting areas in the southern countryside of Idlib province. Idlib and the eastern countryside of Hama province are the only areas that still remain outside government control.

The ten-day offensive and clashes between the regime army and Daesh fighters have also forced the refugees to head to Idlib’s southern countryside of Sinjar, which was later targeted by the army, displacing at least 6,500 civilians.

At least nine civilians were reported dead by the regime airstrikes over the weekend.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20180101-syrians-continue-to-flee-violent-clashes-in-idlib/.

Sunday, 31 December, 2017

Hundreds of opposition fighters arrived on Saturday in the Syrian provinces of Idlib and Daraa after they were displaced from the towns of Beit Jin and Mogher al-Meer in Damascus’ western Ghouta suburb.

The evacuation was made possible after an agreement with the Syrian regime forces that began sweeping the two towns.

State television showed footage of the convoy of buses containing the rebels moving out of Beit Jin.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Saturday that six bus convoys left Beit Jin as part of the agreement between Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and other factions and between the regime.

The buses that arrived in the southern region of Daraa were transporting some 100 fighters from the factions, as well as some 30 of their family members. The buses that arrived in the northern Idlib province also held similar numbers.

The International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Red Crescent said on Friday they had finished a medical evacuation of 29 very sick people from eastern Ghouta as part of a swap deal for prisoners held by the rebels.

Beit Jin’s location near Israeli-controlled territory made it a strategic flashpoint given the role of Lebanon’s “Hezbollah” in fighting the rebels there.

Israel has bombed “Hezbollah” convoys and weapons caches several times in Syria this year and fired on military positions in Syria after projectiles landed in the Golan Heights.

Source: Asharq al-Awsat.

Link: https://aawsat.com/english/home/article/1128841/displaced-syria%E2%80%99s-beit-jin-arrive-idlib-daraa.

December 31, 2017

Around 30 sub-groups of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have unified under the banner of the country’s “National Army”, the Syrian interim government announced on Saturday.

The announcement came after the head of the interim government, Jawad Abu Hatab, met the subgroup leaders in the northern city of Azaz.

Speaking to journalists after the meeting, Abu Hatab noted their primary aim as keeping hold of the area liberated from Daesh through Operation Euphrates Shield and defending people by standing against the Assad regime and terror groups like Daesh and the PKK/PYD.

In the wide-ranging Euphrates Shield Operation launched last summer, the Free Syrian Army — with the support of the Turkish army — had cleared 2,000 square kilometers (772 square miles) of land along the Turkish-Syrian border of terrorist elements.

Abu Hatab said they have unified three army corps through the project totaling 22,000 soldiers.

“First army corps is the one trained in Turkey. The second and the third consists of nearly 30 groups,” he said, adding that the most important matter is to form an army from the whole region.

“This is possible with Turkey’s support,” Hatab said, who also recalled Turkey’s efforts through Operation Euphrates Shield, which let thousands of Syrian refugees to return to their country.

Chief of General Staff of the interim government Col. Haitham Ofeisi said the formation of the “National Army” was the result of the unification of three corps.

“First we took this decision in the Euphrates Shield Operation Zone. Of course, we have made this decision with the support of Turkey,” he said adding that they would continue the process in remaining places.

Ofeisi vowed that they would clear Daesh and PKK/PYD terrorists group as well as Assad forces from the region while more army corps would be formed under the General Staff in the freed areas.

“We believe that the future of Syria will be good and we will go to all lengths of this revolution that we have started in 2011.

He said one of the targets “is to give all type of struggles against the division of our lands by Daesh and PKK/PYD terrorist organizations”.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20171231-free-syrian-army-subgroups-unite-to-form-national-army/.

December 28, 2017

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has categorically rejected the Sochi conference sponsored by Russia scheduled for the end of January.

In a statement released yesterday, the group said that the conference is an attempt to consolidate the Russian occupation and ignore the political solution stipulated in the Geneva resolutions, which starts with the formation of a fully-fledged transitional authority which does not include Bashar Al-Assad and his regime.

The group reiterated its adherence to the principles of the Syrian revolution of overthrowing Al-Assad and his regime and rebuilding the country as a state of justice, freedom, equality and human dignity.

It also called on all revolutionary forces and Syrian national figures to boycott the Sochi conference. The Syrian opposition negotiating body said there was widespread rejection of the conference among opposition groups.

Russia, Turkey and Iran, the guarantors of the ceasefire in Syria agreed at the conclusion of the Astana 8 meeting last week to hold the Syrian national dialogue conference in the Russian resort of Sochi on 29-30 January.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20171228-syria-muslim-brotherhood-rejects-russia-sponsored-peace-talks/.