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Lebanon’s president probes ‘possibility of external interference’

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(Last Updated On: August 7, 2020)

Lebanon’s president said on Friday an investigation into the biggest blast in Beirut’s history would examine whether “external interference” had a role, as residents tried to rebuild their shattered lives and homes after the explosion, Reuters reported.

The search for those missing intensified, as rescuers sifted rubble in a race to find anyone still alive after Tuesday’s explosion that killed 154, smashed up a swathe of the city and sent shockwaves around the region.

“The cause has not been determined yet. There is a possibility of external interference through a rocket or bomb or other act,” President Michel Aoun said in comments carried by local media and confirmed by his office.

He said it would also consider whether it was a result of negligence or an accident. 

Aoun previously blamed negligence in the storage of highly explosive material for years at the port.

The United States has previously said it has not ruled out an attack. 

Israel, which has fought several wars with Lebanon, has also previously denied it had any role.

Meanwhile, security forces fired teargas at a furious crowd in Beirut late on Thursday, as anger boiled over at the ruling elite, who have presided over a nation that faced economic collapse even before the deadly port blast injured 5,000 people.

The small crowd, some hurling stones, marked a return to the kind of protests that had become a feature of life in Beirut, as Lebanese watched their savings evaporate and currency disintegrate, while government decision-making floundered.

“There is no way we can rebuild this house. Where is the state?” Tony Abdou, an unemployed 60-year-old.

His family home is in Gemmayze, a district that lies a few hundred meters from the port warehouses where 2,750 tonnes of highly explosive ammonium nitrate was stored for years, a ticking time bomb near a densely populated area.

A security source and local media previously said the fire that caused the blast was ignited by warehouse welding work.

Volunteers outside swept up debris from the streets of Beirut, which still bears scars from the 1975-1990 civil war and has often witnessed big bombings and other unrest since then.

“Do we actually have a government here?” said taxi driver Nassim Abiaad, 66, whose cab was crushed by falling building wreckage just as he was about to get into the vehicle.

“There is no way to make money anymore,” he said.

The government has promised a full investigation. 

State news agency NNA said 16 people were taken into custody. But for many Lebanese, the explosion was symptomatic of the years of neglect by the authorities while state corruption thrived, Reuters reported.

Officials have said the blast, whose seismic impact was recorded hundreds of kilometers away, might have caused losses amounting to $15 billion – a bill the country cannot pay when it has already defaulted on its mountain of national debt, exceeding 150 percent of economic output, and talks about a lifeline from the International Monetary Fund have stalled.

Hospitals, many heavily damaged as shockwaves ripped out windows and pulled down ceilings, have been overwhelmed by the number of casualties. Many were struggling to find enough foreign exchange to buy supplies before the explosion.

In the port area, rescue teams set up arc lights to work through the night in a dash to find those still missing, as families waited tensely, slowly losing hope of ever seeing loved ones again. 

Some victims were hurled into the sea because of the explosive force.

A pressing challenge for the government is ensuring the nation has enough food, after the blast destroyed the country’s only major grain silo. 

UN agencies were working to hand out food parcels and deliver medical supplies.

Offers of immediate aid have also poured in from Arab states, Western nations and beyond. But none, so far, address the bigger challenges facing a bankrupt nation.

French President Emmanuel Macron came to the city on Thursday with a cargo from France. 

He promised to explain some “home truths” to the government, telling them they needed to root out corruption and deliver economic reforms.

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Iran’s plan to jail Afghan migrants sparks concern in Kabul

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(Last Updated On: November 29, 2020)

Concerns have been raised over Iran’s plan to impose prison terms of up to 25 years on anyone considered an “illegal migrant” in the country and of giving officials the go-ahead to fire on vehicles suspected of carrying asylum seekers, Arab News reported. 

If Iran’s parliament approves these proposed measures, as many as 2.5 million Afghans living in Iran could be affected. 

What has also added to concerns is that many Afghans do not have any identification documents such as passports, visas or residential permits, Arab News reported. 

“We are highly concerned about this. We hope that Iran will not resort to such a move,” Abdul Basit Ansari, an adviser for Afghanistan’s ministry of refugees, told Arab News.

“We can jointly work to solve this issue, and we insist on voluntary repatriation of Afghans,” he added.

This comes after Iran’s Sharq newspaper, citing the country’s Islamic Council, said recently that Iran’s parliament was working to “regulate illegal migrants” and would put its proposals up for approval “very soon.”

Arab News stated that under the plan those entering or living in Iran without a permit will be jailed for up to 25 years, and will face hefty fines and confiscation of property.

An Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hamid Tehzeb, said Kabul has conveyed its concerns to Iranian authorities through its ambassador in Tehran.

“There are serious efforts underway to deal with this issue through diplomatic channels,” Tehzeb told Arab News.

Experts accused Tehran of “taking advantage” of Kabul’s domestic issues.

“Iran is doing whatever it can to frighten or expel the refugees,” Fazl Rahman Orya, a political analyst, told Arab News.

Shafiq Hapal, another analyst, told Arab News that Iran’s move could be a result of a “larger fear” in Tehran that fighting will escalate in Afghanistan after foreign troops leave, forcing hundreds of thousands to seek refuge in Iran.

“I think Iran is making its preparations now to prevent a sudden flow of uncontrolled migration to Iran. It wants to frighten any Afghans who are thinking of escaping there,” he said.

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Afghan Republic’s team agrees ‘in principle’ to peace talks procedures 

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(Last Updated On: November 28, 2020)

The Afghanistan Republic’s peace negotiating team said on Saturday night that both sides have agreed in principle to the rules and procedures regarding talks going forward but that this does not mean the framework has been finalized. 

“The negotiation teams of both sides have ONLY agreed in principle to the 21 articles of the rules & procedures, with the exception of the introduction because it requires further discussion & clarification. Therefore in the joint meeting on Nov 17, 2020 in the presence … of the host country, it was decided that the rules & procedures will only be considered final once it is presented to the general meeting of both delegations & approved there,” the Afghan Republic’s statement read. 

“The IRoA (Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) has shared our understanding of the elements of the introduction with the other side (Taliban),” read the statement.

This statement followed soon after Naeem Wardak, the Taliban’s spokesman in Doha posted on Twitter that the “procedure” to take the intra-Afghan negotiations forward was finalized between the two sides on November 15. 

In a series of tweets Naeem said: “The procedure of Intra-Afghan negotiations between the negotiating teams was completed and finalized in 21 articles on the 15th of November 2020.”

He said this framework was then interpreted in the presence of the “host/facilitator country”, that being Qatar, two days later – on November 17. 

“A copy of it was handed over to the host/facilitator country after it was approved by both negotiating teams,” he tweeted.

This comes after reports first emerged around November 23 that there had been a breakthrough in stalled talks in Doha, which officially started on September 12. 

Sources said early this week that Afghanistan Republic’s chief negotiator Massoom Stanikzai and presidential peace advisor Salam Rahimi were in Kabul to discuss progress with President Ashraf Ghani. 

But both parties to the talks remained tight-lipped about any progress.

In fact, Presidential Palace spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said at a press conference on Wednesday that no progress had been made in Doha regarding peace talks.

Sediqqi said the Taliban’s demands contradict the Afghan Constitution but he did confirm that Stanikzai had been in Kabul.

Seddiqi said the republic’s negotiating team will hold discussions with the Taliban in respect of the Afghan Constitution and on the advice of the peace consultative Jirga.

Wednesday’s denial comes after some sources told Ariana News on condition of anonymity that Afghan leaders had approved some points that had been contested – leading to a breakthrough in the talks.

 

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Khamenei promises retaliation for killing of Iranian scientist

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(Last Updated On: November 28, 2020)

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Saturday Tehran would retaliate over the killing of the country’s top nuclear scientist, who the West claimed was heading up a secret nuclear weapons program for Iran. 

Khamenei said in a statement scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh had been killed “by brutal mercenaries”. 

“Two important issues should be seriously put on the agenda by all those involved, first, the pursuit of this crime and the definitive punishment of its perpetrators and commanders, and second, the pursuit of the martyr’s (Fakhrizadeh) scientific and technical efforts in all the areas in which he was involved. 

Khamenei who has said Tehran never sought nuclear arms and pledged in his statement to continue the work of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who died on Friday after gunmen ambushed him in his car near Tehran.

Reuters reported that the killing, which Iran’s president was swift to blame on Israel, threatens to spark a new Middle East confrontation in the final weeks of US President Donald Trump’s term.

It could also complicate any efforts by President-elect Joe Biden to revive a detente with Tehran that was forged when he was in Barack Obama’s administration. Trump pulled Washington out of the 2015 international nuclear pact agreed with Tehran.

Israel’s N12 news channel meanwhile said Israeli embassies around the world had been put on high alert after the Iranian threats of retaliation. 

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told a televised cabinet meeting that Iran would respond “at the proper time.”

“Once again, the evil hands of Global Arrogance and the Zionist mercenaries were stained with the blood of an Iranian son,” he said, using terms officials employ to refer to Israel.

Israel has declined to comment on the killing. The White House, Pentagon, US State Department and CIA also declined to comment, as did Biden’s transition team, Reuters reported.

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