Tag Archives: Middle East

COVID-19: Israel reopens further.

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Netanyahu is hoping that the successful vaccine procurement and rollout will boost his support ahead of March 23 elections, Israel’s fourth vote in less than two years.

Nearly three million people, almost a third of Israel’s population, have received the two recommended doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine, the world’s quickest inoculation pace per capita.

With a steady flow of data proving the Pfizer vaccine’s efficacy in stopping serious illness from Covid-19, Israel’s government has begin gradually easing restrictions.

Shopping malls and stores with street access re-opened Sunday, with certain limitations on crowd size.

But gyms, swimming pools, hotels and some cultural facilities are re-opening only to those who have been fully vaccinated and obtained the so-called green pass.

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Israel’s green pass scheme is being closely-watched as a possible model for how other economies might re-open once a substantial part of the population is vaccinated, while stirring controversy over unequal access for those who opt out of the jab.

People carry shopping bags as Israel reopens swathes of its economy, while it continues to lift restrictions of a national lockdown. Photo: MINT

Lifting weights at gym in Petah Tikva near Tel Aviv late Saturday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted Israel was moving ahead “with caution,” while imploring “everyone to get vaccinated.”

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Standing at the entrance of a posh Tel Aviv gym, 90-year-old Ora Davidovicz said she “couldn’t wait” to go swimming.

“It’s been almost a year since I went to the pool,” she told AFP. “I’ve been counting the days.”

“All I have to do is put on my swim suit,” she said, before heading in.

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As of Sunday, nearly 3.2 million Israelis are eligible for the green pass, according to the health ministry.

That includes 2.5 million people who had their second shot more than a week ago as well as nearly 700,000 people who have recovered from Covid-19.

At the family-owned Katalina shoe store in central Tel Aviv, Mordechai Nazarian said his business had been closed for eight of the last 12 months, with “little openings here and there” as Israel lifted restrictions between lockdowns.

“We hope this one is the right one,” he told AFP.

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Israel, which has one of the world’s most sophisticated medical data systems, secured a substantial stock of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine by paying above market price and by striking a data-sharing deal with the drug giant.

Netanyahu is hoping that the successful vaccine procurement and rollout will boost his support ahead of March 23 elections, Israel’s fourth vote in less than two years.

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#Newsworthy

Iran to host UN Chief ahead sanctions deadline.

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The former president withdrew from the nuclear accord in 2018, while Iran started the next year to suspend its compliance with most key nuclear commitments in response.

UN nuclear watchdog head Rafael Grossi was to open talks Saturday in Iran on the eve of Tehran’s deadline for US sanctions to be lifted, as President Joe Biden called for “careful diplomacy”.

The deadline, set by Iranian lawmakers, carries the threat of a suspension of some nuclear inspections, stoking international concern about a possible expulsion of UN inspectors.

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But Iran has stressed it will not cease working with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) or expel its inspectors.

Iran and the IAEA have yet to release details on the visit by the UN body’s chief Grossi that runs into Sunday.

He will “meet with senior Iranian officials to find a mutually agreeable solution, compatible with Iranian law, so that the @iaeaorg can continue essential verification activities in Iran”, Grossi wrote Friday on Twitter.

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“Looking forward to success – this is in everybody’s interest,” he added.

Iran has notified the IAEA that it will suspend “voluntary transparency measures”, notably inspection visits to non-nuclear sites, including military sites suspected of nuclear-related activity, if the United States has not lifted the sweeping sanctions former president Donald Trump reimposed in 2018.

The new measures are to go into effect on Tuesday.

Iran’s atomic body spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi said last week that talks with Grossi will focus on how to cease “voluntary actions beyond safeguard (measures) and how to continue cooperation”.

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‘Diplomatic back-and-forth’

The visit comes in the wake of Biden’s call on Friday for European powers to work together to curb Iran’s “destabilising” activities, a day after committing to rejoin talks on Tehran’s nuclear programme.

Biden told the Munich Security Conference that the United States would work closely with allies in dealing with Iran after his predecessor Trump took an aggressive unilateral approach.

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“The threat of nuclear proliferation also continues to require careful diplomacy and cooperation among us,” Biden told fellow leaders via teleconference.

“That’s why we have said we’re prepared to reengage in negotiations with the P5+1 on Iran’s nuclear program,” he said, referring to the five UN Security Council permanent members and Germany.

Tehran has repeatedly said it is ready to return to its nuclear commitments on condition that Washington does so first by lifting the sanctions reimposed by Trump that have dealt a heavy blow to Iran’s economy.

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Following an offer for talks by the Biden administration, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted Friday that Iran would “immediately reverse” its retaliatory measures if the US lifts “all sanctions imposed, re-imposed or re-labelled by Trump”.

The former president withdrew from the nuclear accord in 2018, while Iran started the next year to suspend its compliance with most key nuclear commitments in response.

In an opening gesture, the Biden administration has dropped a push for more sanctions crafted by Trump, and removed restrictions on Iranian diplomats accredited to the United Nations in New York.

Iran’s government spokesman Ali Rabiei on Saturday stressed that Tehran’s latest nuclear move will not prevent it from responding to any US show of goodwill, and expressed optimism regarding the ongoing diplomatic process.

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It is “neither against our (deal) commitments nor an obstacle for proportionate and appropriate response to any US action to prove (its) goodwill,” he wrote in an op-ed on Iran daily.

“We can confidently predict that diplomatic initiatives will work well (to achieve) the desired outcome, despite diplomatic back-and-forths, which are the natural prelude to the return of all sides to commitments including the lifting of all sanctions in the near future,” he added.

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#Newsworthy

Storyline: West urges Iran to fully comply with new nuclear deal.

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The ministers “expressed their shared concerns over Iran’s recent actions to produce both uranium enriched up to 20 percent and uranium metal”

European powers and the United States on Thursday warned Iran it would be “dangerous” to carry out a threatened limit to UN nuclear agency inspections, adding Tehran must return to full compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal.

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The foreign ministers of France, Germany and the United Kingdom – which form the so-called “E3” group – met Thursday in Paris to discuss security in Iran and the Middle East region, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken joined them by videoconference.

“Regarding Iran, the E3 and the United States expressed their shared fundamental security interest in upholding the nuclear non-proliferation regime and ensuring that Iran can never develop a nuclear weapon,” the ministers said in a joint statement after a virtual meeting.

Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant is the country’s only nuclear power station and is currently running on imported fuel from Russia that is closely monitored by the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency | Noble Reporters Media | Adigun Michael Olamide | NoRM News

Their statement urged “Iran to consider the consequences of such grave action, particularly at this time of renewed diplomatic opportunity”, adding that they all shared the aim of Iran returning to “full compliance” with the accord.

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The ministers “expressed their shared concerns over Iran’s recent actions to produce both uranium enriched up to 20 percent and uranium metal”, the statement said.

It was the second time that US Secretary of State Blinken had held discussions with his European counterparts since President Joe Biden took office last month promising to work more closely with allies than his predecessor, Donald Trump.

Iran has said it will stop part of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections of its nuclear facilities on February 21 if the other signatories do not implement their own commitments under the 2015 deal. The accord has been unraveling since Donald Trump pulled the US out of the agreement in 2018.

“The measures that have been taken in Tehran and may be taken in the coming days are anything but helpful. They endanger the Americans’ path back into this agreement. The more pressure that is exerted, the more politically difficult it will be to find a solution,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters in Paris.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the president of the European Council spoke with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani this week to try to end the diplomatic standoff.

The head of the IAEA is scheduled to travel to Iran this weekend to find a solution that allows the agency to continue inspections.

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#Newsworthy

Top diplomats from Europe, US ‘talks on reviving’ 2015 Iran deal.

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Khamenei emphasised Wednesday that Iran wanted to see action from the US administration that would help its economy.

Top diplomats from European powers and the United States will hold talks to see how to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, days ahead of a deadline set by Tehran that could hinder these efforts.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian will host his German and British counterparts in Paris on Thursday, with new US Secretary of State Antony Blinken joining via videoconference, the French foreign ministry said on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Iran plans to restrict some UN nuclear agency inspections if the US does not lift its sanctions – imposed since 2018 by former President Donald Trump – by February 21, under the terms of a bill adopted by its parliament in December.

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Highlighting the tough path ahead, German Chancellor Angela Merkel voiced “concern” that Iran was failing to meet its obligations in telephone talks with President Hassan Rouhani, her spokesman said in a statement.

Analysts have said only a small window of opportunity remains to save the landmark deal, which received a near-fatal blow when Trump walked out in 2018.

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The administration of current US President Joe Biden has said it is prepared to rejoin the deal and start lifting sanctions if Iran returns to full compliance, a precondition disputed by Tehran.

Iran mulls more non-compliance
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Rafael Grossi will travel to Tehran on Saturday for talks with the Iranian authorities to find a solution for continuing inspections in the country, the agency said.

It warned that the step threatened by Tehran would have “a serious impact on the IAEA’s verification and monitoring activities in the country.”

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In Washington, State Department spokesman Ned Price said that Iran should provide “full and timely cooperation” with the IAEA.

“Iran should reverse the steps and refrain from taking others that would impact the IAEA assurances on which not only the United States, not only our allies and partners in the region, but the entire world relies,” he said, adding that Blinken saw an “important role” for the European Union, of which France and Germany are members.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has demanded ‘action, not words’ from the US if it wants to revive Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers [Khamenei.IR/AFP]

Ellie Geranmayeh, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said it was “unlikely” the meeting on Thursday would produce a significant political or economic gesture to prevent Iran from going ahead with the restrictions.

“This deadline has been on the cards for months, and in absence of economic relief Iran’s leaders feel compelled to move ahead,” she told the AFP news agency.

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The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed in Vienna in 2015, saw Iran curtail its nuclear programme in exchange for a gradual easing of international sanctions.

But Iran has stepped up its nuclear work in violation of the accord after US sanctions were reimposed as part of Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy to weaken the Iranian government.

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The UN nuclear watchdog said last week that Iran had started producing uranium metal in a new violation of the accord, prompting European powers to warn that Tehran was “undermining the opportunity for renewed diplomacy.”

In her talks with Rouhani, Merkel said that “now was the time for positive signals that create trust and increase the chances of a diplomatic solution”.

However, the Iranian presidency said Rouhani in the call “criticised Europe’s performance” on its JCPOA commitments after the US withdrawal.

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‘Only action’
While Iran’s policy is ultimately determined by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iranian presidential elections in June add another time pressure factor.

Rouhani – a key advocate of nuclear diplomacy with global powers – is set to step down after serving the maximum two consecutive terms, and a more hardline figure may replace him.

“There is a short window of time to limit the damage that could ensue from Iran’s next steps, for example by reducing the impact of such moves on the quality of inspections by international monitors,” Geranmayeh said.

She said Washington should move in political and practical terms to show Iran that the Biden administration “is distancing itself from Trump-era maximum pressure.”

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Khamenei emphasised Wednesday that Iran wanted to see action from the US administration that would help its economy.

“This time only action, action. If we see action from the opposite side, we will act too,” he said.

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#Newsworthy

Turkey’s Erdogan accuses US of being supportive of terrorism in Iraq.

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The US State Department on Sunday it “deplores the death of Turkish citizens” but was waiting for further confirmation that Ankara’s account of the 13 men’s death was true.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday accused the United States of siding with “terrorists” after blaming outlawed Kurdish militants of executing 13 Turks in northern Iraq.

Erdogan’s comments came a day after Ankara said Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) rebels had killed 13 captives — most of them Turkish soldiers and police officers — they had allegedly abducted in southeast Turkey and kept in an Iraqi cave.

The PKK has been waging an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984 that is believed to have left tens of thousands dead.

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The United States and Turkey’s other Western allies recognise the PKK as a terror group.

But Washington has supported another Kurdish militia in Syria that Turkey sees as an offshoot of the PKK.

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Turkey this month launched a military operation against rear PKK bases in northern Iraq that Erdogan said on Monday was designed in part to free the 13 hostages.

“The statement made by the United States is a farce,” Erdogan said in his first public comments on the incident.

“You said you did not support terrorists, when in fact you are on their side and behind them,” Erdogan said in televised remarks.

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The US State Department on Sunday it “deplores the death of Turkish citizens” but was waiting for further confirmation that Ankara’s account of the 13 men’s death was true.

The PKK said the 13 died when Turkish forces bombed the cave where the men were being kept.

“If reports of the death of Turkish civilians at the hands of the PKK, a designated terrorist organisation, are confirmed, we condemn this action in the strongest possible terms,” the State Department said in a statement.

Erdogan said Turkey’s NATO allies had to pick sides.

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“After this, there are two options. Either act with Turkey with no ifs or buts, without questioning, or they will be a partner to every murder and bloodshed,” he said.

“The terrorist organisation on our doorstep, on our borders, is killing innocents.”

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#Newsworthy

Turkish sailors ‘kidnapped’ off Nigeria return home.

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Pirate attacks on ships worldwide jumped 20 percent last year driven by a record spate of kidnappings off West Africa, the International Maritime Bureau said last month.

Fifteen Turkish sailors who were kidnapped on a cargo ship off the coast of Nigeria last month arrived back in Istanbul on Sunday, where they were welcomed by their families, state news agency Anadolu reported.

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The ship, the Mozart, had been en route from Nigeria’s economic capital Lagos to Cape Town in South Africa when it was boarded on January 23.

The unidentified armed men killed an Azerbaijani sailor and wounded several of the Liberian-flagged vessel’s crew.

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The ship then sailed on to Gabon before contact was officially lost.

Turkey already said Friday that the sailors had been released.

They arrived at Istanbul’s international airport on Sunday to be greeted with applause in the presence of their relatives and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Anadolu reported.

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The ship’s captain, Mustafa Kaya, told waiting media that the crew had been held in a forest.

“We suffered no physical abuse, but psychologically, it was very difficult,” he said.

Neither the government nor the ship’s owners have released any information about the sailors’ release, but their kidnappers had made a ransom demand.

Pirate attacks on ships worldwide jumped 20 percent last year driven by a record spate of kidnappings off West Africa, the International Maritime Bureau said last month.

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Out of 135 sailors abducted globally last year, 130 were recorded in the Gulf of Guinea — the highest-ever number of crew members kidnapped in the area stretching thousands of kilometres (miles) from Senegal to Angola.

Ten sailors from the Turkish navy also kidnapped off the coast Nigeria were freed in August 2019.

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#Newsworthy

Dozens of oil tanker blast triggers inferno on Afghanistan-Iran border.

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Afghanistan has received waivers from Washington allowing it to import oil and gas from Iran despite US sanctions.

Dozens of oil and gas tankers carrying millions of dollars’ worth of fuel caught fire on Saturday, creating an inferno at Afghanistan’s biggest trade crossing with Iran, officials said.

The blaze broke out in the early afternoon at Islam Qala port, 120 kilometres (75 miles) from the western city of Herat, engulfing the tankers that were parked nearby after crossing the border.

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“There were between 200 and 300 fuel tankers there and we managed to save some, but most have been engulfed and the fire is so huge that nobody can get to within even a kilometre of it,” said Younus Qazi Zada, head of the Herat Chamber of Commerce.

“The initial estimate is of millions of dollars of losses, but we have to wait until the fire is extinguished for a proper assessment of damage.”

At least 17 people have been taken to hospital, some of them with serious burns, said Ibrahim Mohammadi, head of the Herat ambulance service.

A security forces personnel walks amidst wreckage of gas tankers after a fire accident at Islam Qala on the outskirts of Herat, in the border between Afghanistan and Iran on February 14, 2021. (Photo by HOSHANG HASHIMI / AFP)

Jailani Farhad, the spokesman for the governor of Herat province, said dozens of tankers were ablaze.

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“We don’t have the required facilities to contain it, so through the foreign ministry, we have asked the government of Iran to help us contain the fire,” he said.

The cause of the fire was unknown, he added.
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Videos posted on social media show towering flames and huge clouds of thick black smoke billowing into the sky.

Around 60 percent of Herat province was without power as a result of the fire, Afghan energy company DABS said.

Islam Qala is one of the major ports in Afghanistan, through which most official trade with Iran is conducted.

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Afghanistan has received waivers from Washington allowing it to import oil and gas from Iran despite US sanctions.

Iran foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said the border “was held open for trucks, cars and people running from the fire” towards Iran.

He added that authorities from both countries were helping to tackle the blaze.

Taking advantage of the situation, Taliban insurgents attacked a nearby security post after the blaze broke out, Farhad added.

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Afghanistan has been hit by a surge in violence despite peace talks that started in September between the Taliban and the Afghan government, which have so far failed to achieve a breakthrough.

The rise in violence has led US President Joe Biden’s administration to launch a review of a deal signed between Washington and the Taliban last year that paved the way for the withdrawal of all American troops in the coming months.

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#Newsworthy

Saudi Arabia to set new Huthis strike as US set to lift embargo.

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The State Department condemned Wednesday’s strike on the airport but Blinken said the terror designation of the Huthi movement would still be lifted as planned next Tuesday.

Saudi Arabia said it foiled a Huthi drone attack on a southern airport Saturday just days before the new US administration is to stop designating the Yemeni rebels as a “terror” group.

Saudi air defences “intercepted and destroyed a drone rigged with explosives which had been launched by the Huthis against Abha airport,” the Saudi-led coalition fighting the rebels said in a statement quoted by state television.

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Abha airport was already targeted by the rebels on Wednesday when a drone strike left a civilian aircraft ablaze.

Forces loyal to Yemen’s Saudi-backed government get into position during clashes with Huthi rebel fighters in al-Jadaan area about 50 kilometres northwest of Marib in central Yemen on February 11, 2021. – Yemen’s Iran-backed Huthis rebels have resumed an offensive to seize strategic oil-rich Marib, the government’s last northern stronghold, the loss of which would be disastrous for the beleaguered leadership. (Photo by – / AFP)

The Huthis say that the airport, little more than 100 kilometres (60 miles) from the border, is a legitimate target as it has been used as a base for the coalition’s widely condemned bombing campaign in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia and its allies say that Huthi attacks on the airport amount to “war crimes” as the airport is heavily used by Saudis enjoying the milder climate of the mountains around Abha.

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Wednesday’s drone attack came hot on the heels of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s announcement that he would lift the terror designation of the Huthis imposed by his predecessor Mike Pompeo.

The designation had been widely criticised by aid organisations, who warned it would hamper their efforts to alleviate what the United Nations describes as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Despite nearly six years of Saudi-led military intervention, the Huthis remain in control of the Yemeni capital Sanaa and much of the north, and aid groups say they have little choice but to work with them.

The State Department condemned Wednesday’s strike on the airport but Blinken said the terror designation of the Huthi movement would still be lifted as planned next Tuesday.

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He said sanctions on individual Huthi leaders would remain in place.

“The United States remains clear-eyed about Ansarullah’s malign actions and aggression,” Blinken said, referring to the Huthi movement by its formal name.

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#Newsworthy

Turkish politics ‘choked’ amid Erdogan’s call to alter constitution.

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Under Turkish law, changes require 400 lawmakers to pass without a need for a referendum.

Four years after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan assumed sweeping powers, he has wrong-footed his opponents once again by calling for a new constitution, sparking accusations of trying to set up a diversion from the country’s woes.

Taking seemingly everyone off guard, Erdogan mentioned early last week during one of his near-daily speeches that “it may be time for Turkey to reopen the debate about a new constitution”.

The timing aroused immediate suspicions over the intentions of a man who has been at the apex of Turkish political life since 2003, first as prime minister and since 2014 as president.

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The 66-year-old Turkish leader is facing a sudden burst of student protests, an economy that was under strain even before the coronavirus pandemic struck last year, and polls showing a melting support base.

The current constitution was changed in a controversial 2017 referendum which created an executive presidency.

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It went into force barely a year later when Erdogan won re-election, with the amendments allowing him to consolidate his power.

Since then the only politicians demanding constitutional changes have been members of the opposition, all calling for a return to the previous parliamentary democracy.

Few think this is what Erdogan has in mind.

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“This is only an attempt to change the agenda so that the economy, the pandemic, farmers’ concerns, traders’ worries and rights violations aren’t discussed,” Idris Sahin, deputy chairman of the opposition Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA), told AFP.

DEVA was launched last year by Ali Babacan, a former Erdogan ally who won the West’s trust as economy minister.

Turkish President and leader of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during his party’s group meeting at the Turkish Grand National Assembly in Ankara on February 10, 2021. (Photo by Adem ALTAN / AFP)

‘Not sincere’
Sahin dismissed Erdogan’s move as “absolutely not a sincere idea”, describing it instead as a belated response to opposition parties’ attempts to dilute the executive presidency.

He surmised that the president’s team realised that “for the first time, they weren’t setting the agenda. They lagged behind the opposition.”

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Last month, Babacan and Kemal Kilicdaroglu of the main opposition CHP party agreed to work together on a “strengthened parliamentary system”.

Aware of these efforts weeks before the president took his stand, Erdogan’s coalition partner Devlet Bahceli of the ultranationalist MHP branded attempts to tinker with the executive presidency as “proof of desperation”.

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Bahceli also suggested changing the law on political parties, further fuelling speculation that he wields outsized power despite being Erdogan’s junior partner, and was a major instigator behind the president’s call for a new basic law.

The MHP leader soon also backed the move.

But, like DEVA’s Sahin, a Western diplomat was sceptical that Erdogan is angling for actual changes.

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“In the short term, the main objective seems to be to divide the opposition by forcing parties to take a stance on the constitutional debate which will probably be framed along the lines of ‘with or against Turkey’,” the diplomat told AFP.

‘Not serious’
Some think that if Erdogan does have anything specific in mind, it could be about scrapping an electoral rule that requires a presidential candidate to garner more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a second round.

“At this stage, this is not a serious or a well-developed proposal,” said Galip Dalay of the Robert Bosch Academy and Chatham House.

But “if he goes for the change of constitution, his main goal would be to change the requirement of the election of the president,” Dalay said

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Aysuda Kolemen of Berlin’s Bard College agreed, projecting a scenario in which the opposition would have to rally behind a single candidate to challenge Erdogan in the next presidential vote, expected in 2023.

“If they can’t, Erdogan can win again,” Kolemen said.

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But nothing is certain. Last week, the independent newspaper Cumhuriyet said the 50 percent-plus-one threshold would remain unchanged.

Tough sell
Either way, Erdogan faces an uphill struggle to get any new constitution approved.

Under Turkish law, changes require 400 lawmakers to pass without a need for a referendum. With 360 votes, a proposal can be put to the people.

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Since Erdogan’s AKP party and the MHP have only 337 votes, they would need to work with at least some of the opposition to get changes through.

Another question is whether the public would support a new basic law.

“Selling a new constitution just four years after a profound overhaul is not going to be easy,” the Western diplomat said.

DEVA Party’s Sahin voiced similar thoughts.

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“The changes are so new. Won’t people ask, do you want a constitution for you or for society?” Sahin asked.

“Unfortunately recent constitutional changes turned into something done for one man’s welfare and future. So it’s not possible for the public to support it.”

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#Newsworthy

Yemen: Al-Qaeda’s leader upon UN arrest lies appear in video.

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AQAP claimed responsibility for the 2019 mass shooting at a US naval base in Florida, in which a Saudi air force officer killed three American sailors.

The leader of Al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen appears to be still at large despite a United Nations report which claimed he had been under arrest for months, the SITE Intelligence Group and two local tribal leaders said Thursday after he was seen in a video released by the jihadist group.

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Khalid Batarfi, who has been the leader of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) for about a year, talks about the storming of the US Congress last month in the video, which came out Wednesday.

The video, which opens with footage of the January 6 assault by Donald Trump supporters, belies reports that Batarfi was under arrest, said SITE, which monitors extremist organisations.

In the 20-minute video titled “America and the Painful Seizure”, Batarfi says “storming the Congress is only the tip of the iceberg of what will come to them, God willing”.

A report filed to the UN Security Council last week claimed Batarfi was arrested and his deputy, Saad Atef al-Awlaqi, killed during an “operation in Ghayda City, Al-Mahrah governorate, in October”.

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Two local tribal leaders in the Al-Bayda governorate in central Yemen, where AQAP is active, told AFP there was a high probability the person arrested was not Batarfi but another member of the jihadist group.

“Most probably, he wasn’t arrested, and the one who was arrested was another senior leader in the group,” one of the tribal leaders said.

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The UN report, which summarised global potential jihadist threats, did not disclose his whereabouts or reveal any further details of the October operation.

‘Global terrorist’
AQAP revealed it had appointed Batarfi, believed to be in his early 40s, as its leader in February 2020 following the death of his predecessor Qassim al-Rimi in a US air strike in Yemen.

(FILES) In this file image grab taken on June 16, 2015 from a video released by Al-Malahem Media, the media arm of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), shows Khalid Omar Batarfi (also known as Abu Meqdad al-Kindi) a spokesman for AQAP announcing in a video posted online, the death of its leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi, number two in the global jihadist organisation, in a US drone strike. – The leader of Al-Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate has been under arrest for several months, according to a United Nations report released on February 4, 2021, in what will be seen as a huge breakthrough in the fight against the global jihadist threat. The document said Khalid Batarfi, was arrested and his deputy, Saad Atef al-Awlaqi, died during an “operation in Ghayda City, in Yemen’s al-Mahrah Governorate, in October.” (Photo by – / AL-MALAHEM MEDIA / AFP)

Batarfi, who was designated a global terrorist by the US State Department in 2018, has appeared in numerous AQAP videos over recent years, according to SITE, and appeared to have been Rimi’s deputy and group spokesman.

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Washington considers AQAP to be the worldwide jihadist network’s most dangerous branch, and has waged a long-running drone war against the leaders of the group.

AQAP claimed responsibility for the 2019 mass shooting at a US naval base in Florida, in which a Saudi air force officer killed three American sailors.

The Sunni extremist group thrived in the chaos of years of civil war between Yemen’s Saudi-backed government and Iran-backed Huthi rebels.

AQAP has carried out operations against both the Huthis and government forces as well as sporadic attacks abroad, including on the offices of the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo in 2015.

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Analysts say its abilities on the ground have dwindled, although it still inspires attacks carried out by “lone wolf” jihadists or former operatives.

Yemen has been wracked by conflict since 2015, when a Saudi-led coalition intervened after the Huthis seized control of the capital Sanaa.

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#Newsworthy

Egypt reopens Gaza border.

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The opening came on the second day of talks between Palestinian factions in Cairo aimed at clearing the way for the first elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since 2006.

Egypt on Tuesday opened its border with the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip “indefinitely”, a security source said, as it hosted inter-Palestinian reconciliation talks.

“This isn’t a routine or normal opening. This is the first time in years that the Rafah border crossing is opening indefinitely,” the source told AFP.

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“It used to open only three or four days at a time,” he noted.

Rafah is the only passage to the outside world for Gaza — a densely populated enclave of around two million Palestinians, half of whom live below the poverty line — that is not controlled by Israel.

Gaza residents expressed a mixture of bitterness and relief Tuesday as they crossed into Egypt.

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“I have been waiting for six months for the crossing to open… The repeated closures have cost me a semester of my studies. I hope it’s really permanent,” university student Ibrahim al-Shanti, 19, told AFP.

Members of the Palestinian security forces loyal to Hamas, mask-clad due to the coronavirus pandemic, stand guard at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, in the southern Gaza Strip, on February 9, 2021, as vehicles pass through leaving the Gaza Strip after Egypt’s announcement to let through incoming traffic until further notice. – Egypt on February 9 opened its border crossing “indefinitely” with Gaza — the Israeli-blockaded Palestinian enclave — against the backdrop of Palestinian political unity talks in Cairo continue, a security source said. (Photo by SAID KHATIB / AFP)

Yasser Zanoun, 50, urged political leaders to negotiate a permanent arrangement for impoverished Gaza’s worsening humanitarian plight, compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“This crossing must be open 24 hours a day, throughout the year. There are lots of humanitarian cases that are extremely dire,” Zanoun said.

The opening came on the second day of talks between Palestinian factions in Cairo aimed at clearing the way for the first elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since 2006.

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The Islamist movement Hamas won an unexpected landslide in the last vote, a victory not recognised by president Mahmud Abbas’s Fatah, leading to bloody clashes the following year and a split in Palestinian governance, since when Egypt has intermittently closed the Rafah passage.

Fatah has run the Palestinian Authority in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Hamas has held power in the Gaza Strip since 2007, the year Israel imposed a devastating blockade on the coastal enclave.

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#Newsworthy

COVID-19: Lebanon medicines shortage inflict fears.

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Some Lebanese media had quoted a study suggesting it might be a miracle cure for Covid-19 — a claim for which there is insufficient evidence, according to health agencies.

With Lebanon’s economy in a tailspin and the coronavirus pandemic wreaking chaos, panic-buying has gripped pharmacies, creating shortages and a flourishing black market.

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All manner of pharmaceutical products have started disappearing from the shelves in recent weeks, including some of the most widely needed.

Mostly imported, they include any medicine thought to fight symptoms of Covid-19, pills for patients with chronic diseases, baby formula and even vitamin supplements.

One customer, Abbas, 37, said he was giving up as he stepped out of a large Beirut pharmacy.

“I asked for two things,” he said — aspirin and an antibiotic. “I found neither.”

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Abbas said he would have to buy them at much higher prices on the black market, adding dejectedly that the store had also run out of the special shampoo he had been buying for years.

“This country is really going to the dumps,” he said.

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Lebanon was already facing its worst economic crisis in decades and dollar shortages before the pandemic.

Now, with Covid-19 overwhelming hospitals and little public trust authorities can secure vaccines any time soon, people have been rushing to pharmacies to buy medicine.

But even drugs that are rumoured to help treat Covid-19 and oxygen tanks are becoming scarce, as people stock up, anticipating they may have no alternative but to sit out an infection at home.

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As boxes disappear from shelves, a black market has emerged, offering medicine or medical equipment — sometimes counterfeits — at many times the normal price.

Black market
Inside the Mazen Pharmacy, one of Beirut’s largest, a pharmacist turned a customer away, saying the medication was “out of stock”.

Pharmacy owner Mazen Bissat said: “People are scared medicine will run out, so they’re stockpiling at home enough for a month, even six months, according to what they can afford.

“There’s a medicine shortage, and suppliers have not delivered on quantities requested by the pharmacies.”

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He said the makers of a popular, over-the-counter painkiller “just delivered 300 boxes. So we only display 10 a day to be able to make them last until the end of the month,” he said.

To slow the depletion, the health ministry has ordered pharmacists to sell some medication only on prescription, and suppliers to limit deliveries to pharmacies.

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Karim Gebara, the head of the medicine importers syndicate, said Aspirin demand had skyrocketed.

Two companies “delivered 500,000 boxes in January, whereas normal demand in 2020 was just 200,000”, he said. “But even with that, there isn’t any left.”

When people cannot find medicine in shops, they sometimes turn elsewhere.

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Gebara said there had been a run on Ivermectin, which is used to treat parasite infections.

Some Lebanese media had quoted a study suggesting it might be a miracle cure for Covid-19 — a claim for which there is insufficient evidence, according to health agencies.

Customers browse the aisles for medicine at a pharmacy in the Lebanese capital Beirut, on February 2, 2021. – With the economy in a tailspin and the COVID-19 pandemic wreaking chaos, panic-buying has gripped Lebanon’s pharmacies, creating shortages and a flourishing black market. (Photo by JOSEPH EID / AFP)

This had led to “the emergence of a black market”, said Gebara, as people started smuggling it in from abroad, with a box selling for the equivalent of $35.

But even after an importer obtained permission to bring it to Lebanon at a subsidised cost of $1, Ivermectin is still hard to find and the informal market for it is thriving.

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‘Alarming’
Gebara said hoarding by manufacturers was one problem, among others.

We are facing “delayed money transfers abroad from the central bank”, he said.

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“If the manufacturer abroad does not receive his dues on time, he delays the shipment.”

With dwindling foreign currency reserves, the central bank is struggling to continue funding key imports at a preferential exchange rate, and fears have risen that medicine subsidies will be lifted soon.

Moreover, subsidised medicine is being smuggled out of Lebanon, Gebara said.

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In recent months, travellers have been stopped at Beirut airport trying to fly out to Egypt or Iraq with bags filled with subsidised medicine — some of which turned up as far as the Democratic Republic of Congo.

All in all, “it’s an alarming situation that keeps on feeding off itself”, Gebara added.

Expecting subsidies to be lifted, some suppliers have been accused of holding on to their stock so they can sell it later at a higher set price.

In January, the economy ministry seized such a stockpile of baby milk formula.

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After visiting several pharmacies in and around Beirut, 36-year-old Nadine said she still had not found powdered milk for her baby girl.

“They’re even profiteering off baby milk… You can find an alternative to painkillers. But milk is essential.”

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#Newsworthy

Israeli PM, Netanyahu appears in Court over corruption.

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Israel’s parliament speaker and Netanyahu loyalist Yariv Levin insisted the court must “postpone” the trial’s upcoming phase.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared in court briefly Monday, reaffirming his innocence, as his corruption trial enters an intensified phase weeks before a fourth national election inside two years.

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Netanyahu, the first Israeli premier to be indicted in office, was formally charged last year over allegations that he accepted improper gifts and sought to trade regulatory favour with media moguls in exchange for positive coverage.

The combative 71-year-old prime minister, who has blasted the charges as “fabricated and ludicrous”, spent just 20 minutes inside the courtroom at Monday’s hearing.

He had been compelled to appear to deliver a formal response to the allegations.

Shortly after lead judge Rivka Feldman Friedman opened the hearing by reading the cases against him, Netanyahu said that he stood by his innocence as previously expressed in writing.

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“I confirm the written answer submitted in my name,” Israel’s longest-serving premier said, shortly before exiting the courtroom and rejoining his motorcade.

Monday marks the last pre-trial hearing with upcoming sessions focused on testimony and evidence.

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The hearing was continuing, with the premier’s lawyers Boaz Ben Zur accusing Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit — a Netanyahu appointee — of mishandling the case.

Netanyahu has repeatedly charged that he is the victim of a witch-hunt, with the allegations against him trumped-up.

The trial schedule may force the prime minister to appear in court multiple times a week, as he campaigns ahead of Israel’s fourth election in less than two years to be held on March 23.

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‘Election meddling’?
When Netanyahu last appeared in court nine months ago, he was fresh off a political victory, forming a coalition government with election rival Benny Gantz, following three inconclusive national polls.

But that fraught coalition proved short-lived and collapsed in December, with Gantz branding Netanyahu as serially dishonest.

It is unclear whether the cloud of the trial will hurt the premier’s re-election chances in March.

Israel’s parliament speaker and Netanyahu loyalist Yariv Levin insisted the court must “postpone” the trial’s upcoming phase.

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Proceeding now “will be lending a hand to blatant meddling in the elections”, he told the right-wing Israel Hayom newspaper on Sunday.

Several recent polls show that Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud remains the strongest party by a comfortable margin, but it is far from certain that it will be able to form a 61-seat majority with its conservative and religious allies.

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For the first time in his political career, Netanyahu is also facing a challenge from a prominent Likud defector: Gideon Saar, who broke with the prime minister to form his own New Hope party.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to a hearing in his corruption trial at the Jerusalem district court, on February 8, 2021. – Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returns to court to formally respond to the corruption charges against him, as his trial enters an intensified phase six weeks before he faces re-election. (Photo by – / POOL / AFP)

4,000, 2,000, 1,000
The charges against Netanyahu are divided into three separate cases.

The most serious — known as Case 4,000, in which the premier is accused of bribery, fraud and breach of trust — centres on the allegation that he negotiated with Shaul Elovitch of telecommunications giant Bezeq to secure positive coverage on his Walla! news site in exchange for policies benefiting Bezeq.

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Elovitch and his wife were also indicted.

Case 2,000 concerns allegations Netanyahu sought a deal with the owner of the Yediot Aharonot newspaper that would have seen it give him more favourable coverage.

Case 1,000 involves allegations Netanyahu and his family received gifts, including luxury cigars, champagne and jewellery estimated to be worth more than 700,000 shekels ($213,000), from wealthy individuals, in exchange for financial or personal favours.

The prime minister denies wrongdoing.

He would be forced to resign if convicted with all appeals exhausted, but that process is likely to take several years.

Weekly protests against him have rumbled on for months, with some demonstrators focusing on the graft allegations.

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Dozens of protesters met Netanyahu’s motorcade at the court Monday, some carrying placards branded with the words “Crime Minister” and others taunting him as he entered and exited the court.

“We are here to swipe (away) all the dirt and all the corruption that he has created,” protester Claudia Manoquian told AFP.

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#Newsworthy

Saudi Arabia intercepts armed drone, says it’s from Yemen.

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The Saudi-led military coalition “intercepted and destroyed an armed drone,” said spokesman Turki al-Maliki in a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency.

Saudi Arabia intercepted an armed drone launched towards the kingdom by Yemen’s Huthis, state media said Sunday, a day after the US moved to delist the rebels as a terrorist group.

The Saudi-led military coalition “intercepted and destroyed an armed drone,” said spokesman Turki al-Maliki in a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency.

“It was launched systematically and deliberately by the terrorist Huthi militia to target civilians and civilian objects in the south of the region.”

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The incident was not immediately claimed by the Iran-backed Huthis.

The US State Department on Friday said it had formally notified Congress of its intention to revoke a terrorist designation against the rebels, which had been announced at the end of the administration of former president Donald Trump.

The delisting move came a day after US President Joe Biden announced an end to US support for Saudi-led offensive operations in Yemen.

Humanitarian groups were deeply opposed to the designation, saying it jeopardised their operations in a country where the majority of people rely on aid, and that they have no choice but to deal with the Huthis, who control much of the north.

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Saudi Arabia, which entered the Yemen conflict in 2015 to bolster the internationally recognised government, has repeatedly been targeted with cross-border attacks.

Last month, it said it had intercepted and destroyed a “hostile air target” heading towards the capital Riyadh.

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#Newsworthy

Khamenei says Iran won’t resume nuclear commitments until US succumb.

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The new administration of US President Joe Biden has expressed willingness to return to the deal, but insisted that Tehran first resume full compliance.

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Sunday the US must “completely lift” sanctions first, followed by verification by Tehran, before the Islamic republic returns to its nuclear deal commitments.

“If they want Iran to return to its commitments … America must completely lift sanctions, and not just in words or on paper,” Khamenei said in a televised speech to air force commanders.

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“They must be lifted in action, and then we will verify and see if they have been properly lifted, and then return,” he added.

The 2015 landmark deal has been hanging by a thread since US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from it in 2018 and reimpose sanctions on Tehran.

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Tehran a year later suspended its compliance with most key nuclear commitments to the deal.

The new administration of US President Joe Biden has expressed willingness to return to the deal, but insisted that Tehran first resume full compliance.

On January 4, Iran announced it has stepped up its uranium enrichment process to 20 percent purity, far above the 3.67 percent level permitted by the deal, but far below the amount required for an atomic bomb.

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And it may restrict by February 21 nuclear inspections if US sanctions are not lifted or other key parties to the deal do not help Tehran bypass them, according to a law passed by the parliament in December.

According to Khamenei, Iran has “a right to set conditions for the continuation” of the deal as it has upheld its end, unlike the US and the three European members of the deal — Britain, France and Germany — who have “violated all their commitments”.

handout picture provided by the office of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on February 7, 2021, shows him delivering a speech in front of commanders of the air force,days ahead of the 42nd anniversary marking the victory of the Islamic revolution. Khamenei said today the US must “completely lift” sanctions first, followed by verification by Tehran, before the Islamic republic returns to its nuclear deal commitments. KHAMENEI.IR / AFP

“No one in the Islamic republic cares for the nonsense claimed by those not entitled to anything,” he said.

Khamenei insisted that the condition set by Tehran for the US is Iran’s “definite policy”.

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Iran “will not turn back from” it, he said.

On Monday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif asked the European Union to coordinate a synchronised return of both Washington and Tehran into a nuclear deal, after a diplomatic standoff on who will act first.

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#Newsworthy

Al Jazeera’s Journalist, Mahmoud Hussein released from Egypt jail since 2016.

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In June 2017, Egypt joined Qatar’s Gulf neighbours – Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain – in snapping ties with Doha and launching a blockade against it, alleging it backed terrorism and was too close to regional rival Iran. Qatar denied the claims.

Egypt has released Al Jazeera journalist Mahmoud Hussein after more than four years in detention without formal charges or trial.

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Hussein, an Egyptian national held under preventive detention since December 2016, was released from jail on Saturday.

In a statement, Mostefa Souag, acting director general of the network, said the release of Hussein was “a moment of truth and an inspiring milestone towards press freedom”.

“Al Jazeera Media Network welcomes the news of Mahmoud’s freedom and believes that no journalist should ever be subjected to what Mahmoud has suffered for the past four years for merely carrying out his profession.

“Today, we are pleased he is finally reunited with his family, after being robbed four years from his life and deprived of his fundamental rights. We wish Mahmoud a speedy recovery and hope he will be able to overcome this past ordeal and start a new chapter in his distinguished career.”

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Earlier on Saturday, Hussein’s daughter Az-Zahraa posted a message on Facebook saying, “Thank God the decision to release Baba has been implemented.

“… Today, Baba is in his house. Thankfully.”

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Extended pre-trial detention
A father of nine, Hussein has decades of experience in reporting for Arabic-language news channels. After years of freelance work with Al Jazeera Arabic, Hussein joined the network full-time in 2010, first in Cairo, later in Doha.

The 54-year-old was arrested in Cairo on December 23, 2016, while visiting his family for a holiday. He was interrogated for more than 15 hours without a lawyer present, before being released and then arrested again days later.

Egypt’s Ministry of Interior publicly accused him of “disseminating false news and receiving monetary funds from foreign authorities in order to defame the state’s reputation”, but no charges were ever formally brought against him.

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Shortly after his arrest, Al Jazeera launched a worldwide media campaign calling for his release.

Hussein’s detention was extended more than a dozen times, far surpassing Egypt’s maximum period for pre-trial detention [File: Al Jazeera]

Egyptian authorities, however, extended Hussein’s detention more than a dozen times, far surpassing the country’s maximum period for pre-trial detention in violation of both Egyptian and international law.

During his time in jail, Hussein suffered physically and psychologically. He was held for long periods in solitary confinement and denied proper medical treatment when he broke his arm in 2017.

In January 2018, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that the conditions of Hussein’s imprisonment amounted to “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment”.

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In May 2019, Hussein was transferred from Cairo’s Tora prison to a holding cell in Giza, in preparation for his release under “precautionary measures”.

Under these measures, he was supposed to be freed from jail with only limited restrictions on his movement.

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While waiting for final clearance, Hussein was suddenly transferred to a prosecutor’s office and then sent back to jail. His family waited in vain outside to greet him.

With no reason given, authorities overturned the decision to release him at the last minute and then announced that a new investigation had been opened against Hussein.

‘Symbol of press freedom’
There was no official comment by the Egyptian authorities on Hussein’s release on Saturday, which came a month after Egypt and Qatar restored ties following a Gulf summit held in Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia.

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In June 2017, Egypt joined Qatar’s Gulf neighbours – Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain – in snapping ties with Doha and launching a blockade against it, alleging it backed terrorism and was too close to regional rival Iran. Qatar denied the claims.

“While he was incarcerated, Mahmoud had become a symbol of press freedom across the globe,” Souag said in his statement.

“On the day of his release, Al Jazeera calls for the freedom for all journalists who are unjustly imprisoned all around the world.

“We commend all international human rights organisations, media institutions, journalists for their continuous support and condemnation against the arbitrary detention of Mahmoud Hussein.

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“On this day, Al Jazeera Media Network extends its gratitude towards those organisations, and all the voices of truth that have called for Mahmoud’s freedom and for the freedom of the press.

“Journalism is not a crime,” Souag concluded.

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#Newsworthy

Israeli PM, Netanyahu pledges to fight anti-semitic ICC ruling.

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Palestinian prime minister Mohammed Shtayyeh praised the ICC ruling as “a victory for justice and humanity,

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday angrily rejected an International Criminal Court’s ruling that paves the way for war crimes probe into the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, condemning it as “pure anti-Semitism”.

“As prime minister of Israel, I can assure you this: we will fight this perversion of justice with all our might,” Netanyahu said in a statement.

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“This is pure anti-Semitism.”

On Friday, the ICC ruled that it has jurisdiction over the situation in the occupied Palestinian territories, paving the way for the tribunal to open a war crimes investigation.

ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda had asked the court for its legal opinion on whether its reach extended to areas occupied by Israel, after announcing in December 2019 that she wanted to start a full probe.

The ICC said its judges had “decided, by the majority, that the Court’s territorial jurisdiction in the Situation in Palestine… extends to the territories occupied by Israel since 1967, namely Gaza and the West Bank, including east Jerusalem”.

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Palestine is a state party to the court, having joined in 2015, but Israel is not a member.

Israelis protest amid the coronavirus pandemic crisis against their Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and demand his resignation over corruption cases and his failure to combat the Covid-19, on January 5, 2021 in Tel Aviv. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Israel occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the Six-Day War of 1967 and later annexed mostly Arab east Jerusalem.

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Today they are home to at least five million Palestinians defined by the United Nations as living under Israeli occupation. The Gaza Strip is blockade by Israel and ruled by the Islamist Hamas group.

Palestinian prime minister Mohammed Shtayyeh praised the ICC ruling as “a victory for justice and humanity, for the values of truth, fairness and freedom, and for the blood of the victims and their families”.

The Islamist movement Hamas, which rules Gaza and has fought three wars against Israel, said: “the most important step… is to bring the Zionist criminals of war before international courts and hold them responsible”.

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But Netanyahu cried foul against any bid by the ICC to investigate “fake war crimes”.

“The court, established to prevent atrocities like the Nazi Holocaust against the Jewish people, is now targeting the one state of the Jewish people,” he said.

“First, it outrageously claims that when Jews live in our homeland, this is a war crime.

“Second, it claims that when democratic Israel defends itself against terrorists who murder our children and rocket our cities, we are committing another war crime,” he added.

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He said the ICC should be investigating “brutal dictatorships like Iran and Syria who commit horrific atrocities almost daily”.

The US State Department said it has “serious concerns” about the ICC ruling, adding that Israel should not be bound by the court as it was not a member.

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#Newsworthy

Beirut blast: German firm heads to Lebanon.

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In November, Lebanon signed a contract with Combi Lift, which was already working at the port, to clear containers carrying hazardous chemicals.

A German firm has treated 52 containers of hazardous material at Beirut port and will ship them out of Lebanon, the German ambassador said Saturday, months after a monster port blast.

Andreas Kindl said on Twitter that the heavy lift transport company Combi Lift “has treated 52 containers of hazardous and dangerous chemical material that had been accumulated over decades and were a threat to the people in Beirut”.

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“They stand ready to be shipped to” Germany, he added.

The August 4 explosion of a stockpile of ammonium nitrate fertiliser that had been left to languish haphazardly at the Beirut port for years killed more than 200 people, wounded at least 6,500 others and ravaged swaths of the capital.

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Lebanon’s worst peace-time disaster sparked concerns over remaining shipments of hazardous chemicals still stored at the blast site.

In November, Lebanon signed a contract with Combi Lift, which was already working at the port, to clear containers carrying hazardous chemicals.

The containers, which include corrosive acids, had been stored in an open-air cargo zone for over a decade under the supervision of Lebanon’s customs authority, officials said at the time.

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If they catch fire “Beirut will be wiped out”, interim port chief Bassem al-Kaisi said in November.

Kindl on Saturday published pictures on Twitter showing fraying containers at the port and what appears to be chemicals leaking from some of them.

Lebanese authorities have said Combi Lift will ship the chemicals in special containers as part of a $3.6 million deal, with the port authority reportedly to pay $2 million of that.

Lebanon’s army and port authority have said they do not have the expertise to handle such a process.

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Lebanon has launched an investigation into the August blast amid public anger against a political class widely blamed for the tragedy.

At least 25 people have been arrested, including the port chief and the head of the customs authority, but no politician has been held to account.

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#Newsworthy

COVID-19: Iran to begin vaccinations ‘in the week’

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The president expressed hope that the first three categories would be inoculated before the Persian New Year on March 21.

Iran will kick off its coronavirus vaccination campaign within a week, President Hassan Rouhani said Saturday after the country received its first batch of Russia’s Sputnik V jab.

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The Islamic republic is fighting the Middle East’s deadliest outbreak of the coronavirus, with over 58,000 lives lost out of more than 1.4 million cases of infection.

Iran has bought two million doses of the Sputnik V vaccine, health ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour told AFP.

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The first batch arrived in the country on Thursday, and the country is scheduled to receive two more batches by February 28.

“Vaccinations will start this very week; this is a real cause for celebration,” Rouhani told a televised meeting of Iran’s Covid-19 taskforce.

He did not give a specific date, only saying that the programme would begin before next Wednesday, which marks the 42nd anniversary of the victory of the Islamic revolution.

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Health workers would be the first to get the jabs, followed by the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions, Rouhani said.

The president expressed hope that the first three categories would be inoculated before the Persian New Year on March 21.

Russia registered the Sputnik V vaccine — named after the Soviet-era satellite — in August last year, before the start of large-scale clinical trials.

In addition to the Russian jab, Iran is expecting to receive 4.2 million doses of a vaccine from the Anglo-Swedish firm AstraZeneca in February.

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They were purchased via Covax, the mechanism for the equitable distribution of vaccines established by the UN World Health Organization.

Iran started clinical trials of one of its own vaccines in late December, and according to Rouhani, they may become available by early summer.

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#Newsworthy

Lebanon: 6 months after heavy Beirut blasts; scars remain fresh.

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Achkar laughed ironically when asked if she had received anything from the government. She said she was fortunate, and though she could not afford rebuilding, she had a place to stay outside of Beirut.

Six months after a massive explosion devastated Beirut, the scars of destruction remain everywhere.

The dire state of Lebanon’s economy has handicapped rebuilding efforts, with victims and survivors saying the government continues to offer no reconstruction aid while failing to determine who was responsible.

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“The way that the government is treating this is insulting,” said Mireille Khoury, whose 15-year-old son Elias died in the August 4 explosion.

Khoury is among the many people in the Lebanese capital who are calling for an independent international investigation.

They believe a Lebanese court will fail to hold powerful figures to account or competently investigate the explosion that killed some 200 people, wounded more than 6,000 people – many severely – and damaged or destroyed tens of thousands of homes.

“After six months, the investigation here in Lebanon has gone nowhere,” she said.

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While a Lebanese judge has issued indictments and charges in the case, no one thus far has been tried or convicted in relation to the explosion, which was fuelled by 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that had been stored improperly in a warehouse at Beirut’s port for six years.

The inquiry, led by Judge Fadi Sawan, stalled in December after he issued indictments for Hassan Diab, who was prime minister of the country at the time of the explosion, and three former cabinet ministers.

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Diab refused to show up for questioning, and two of the former cabinet members sued in Lebanon’s Court of Cassation – the country’s highest court – to have Sawan removed.

A general view shows the damage following the blast in Beirut’s port area on August 4, 2020 [File: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters]

That suit has since failed, and in January the Court of Cassation ruled that the investigation could continue, but it is currently paused because Lebanon is under a 24-hour curfew until at least February 8 to stem the spread of coronavirus.

Even so, many doubt any court proceeding in Lebanon will result in justice.

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“There is a question about the independence of a Lebanese inquiry, after decades of United Nations reports that the Lebanese system is a deeply flawed system,” said Antonia Mulvey, the executive director of Legal Action Worldwide, which is advising a group of victims and survivors of the explosion.

“At this stage, we really must be shining a spotlight on the lack of access to justice and also that victims and their families have not been consulted in the proceedings to date and not had their voices heard.”

Sawan has so far charged more than 30 people with criminal negligence for failing to remove the dangerous cargo from the port, but in a statement on Wednesday, US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the prosecution has failed to protect the rights of those charged and detained in the case.

“The court handling the case appears to have run roughshod over detained defendants’ due process rights, signaling that it is unable or unwilling to deliver justice,” said Aya Majzoub, Lebanon researcher at HRW.

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“Sawan has, since August, brought charges against 37 people, 25 of whom are detained under conditions that appear to violate their due process rights. Those detained are mostly mid to low-level customs, port, and security officials; and their families and lawyers say that the judicial authorities have not yet presented the specific charges or evidence against them,” the statement added.

Diab resigned from his post six days after the explosion as public anger boiled over into street protests, but he remains in a caretaker capacity as Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri has so far failed to form a government.

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Though it is not rare for Lebanon to remain for months at a time without a fully functioning government while the country’s factions bicker over cabinet lineups, the months since the explosion have been particularly tumultuous.

The country’s COVID-19 outbreak has worsened dramatically, and the caretaker government has had trouble striking a balance between restricting the spread of the virus and keeping the fragile economy alive. Late last month, demonstrations in the northern city of Tripoli against coronavirus restrictions and the lack of government turned violent, leaving one protester dead.

Economic woes, slow rebuilding
Meanwhile, many buildings look much as they did six months ago, when survivors and bodies were still being pulled from the rubble. The effects of inaction are also visible, as winter rains have fully brought down some buildings that were structurally damaged by the explosion.

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“A month ago, the building next to us collapsed,” said Khalaf Abbas Faraj, a Syrian refugee who lives with his family about 500 metres (1,640 feet) from the site of the explosion in Beirut’s Karatina neighbourhood, adjacent to the port.

Faraj said “only one wall” of the one-room apartment he shares with wife and four of his five children remained intact after the explosion. All of them sustained minor injuries, and his youngest daughter, six-year-old Aline, remains terrified of loud noises.

“My daughter always asks if it’s going to happen again,” he said.

On the other side of the port, as she surveyed the now-empty building in the Gemmayze neighbourhood where she had lived for 50 years, Simone Achkar praised God she and her sister had survived the explosion with only minor wounds. One of her neighbours was killed and another paralysed when the building next door to hers collapsed.

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Achkar laughed ironically when asked if she had received anything from the government. She said she was fortunate, and though she could not afford rebuilding, she had a place to stay outside of Beirut.

Lebanon’s currency has lost approximately 80 percent of its value against the US dollar in the past year, making imports of construction materials – everything from window glass to aluminium to steel – prohibitively expensive and slowing down rebuilding.

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“All the materials are priced in dollars, and we are in a very difficult economic situation, and the material is very expensive, yet it is a necessity to make people return safely to their homes,” said Mohamad Ghotmeh, the head of CTI Contracting, a firm working on seven projects in the explosion-damaged zone.

Ghotmeh said if it had not been donations by NGOs, nothing would have been rebuilt so far, but that even those funds were not enough.

A man stands next to graffiti at the damaged port area in the aftermath of a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, August 11, 2020 [File: Hannah McKay/Reuters]

“Until now, the government has not funded any private house or private entity to return home,” Ghotmeh said. “Aid was only related to the basic emergencies, food and shelter.”

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Ghotmeh scoffed at an announcement earlier this week by the country’s finance minister that more than $5.5m of reconstruction aid would soon be disbursed.

“The ministers do a lot of press releases, but nothing is tangible,” Ghotmeh said.

Among those who have managed to rebuild are the family of 23-year-old Laura Sayegh, whose mother spent three weeks in a coma and was blinded by the explosion.

“We’re still very good compared to others who lost a family member,” Sayegh said.

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When asked about the government’s inaction after the explosion and the fact that the event had occurred in the first place, Sayegh’s response underscored how little Lebanese have come to expect from the state.

“To be honest – I’m not surprised.”

Story Source : Al Jazeera

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#Newsworthy

COVID-19: Saudi Arabia warns after infections rise

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Saudi Arabia has reported more than 368,000 coronavirus cases and nearly 6,400 deaths, the highest among Gulf Arab states.

Saudi Arabia’s health minister warned Sunday that new coronavirus restrictions could be imposed amid an uptick in infections, as the kingdom slows the rollout of vaccines due to supply delays.

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“We have seen in recent days a noticeable and continuous rise in coronavirus infections,” Tawfiq al-Rabiah said in a video message, blaming “gatherings and lax enforcement of preventative measures”.

“The lack of compliance will undoubtedly force us to introduce measures to protect society,” he added, without elaborating.

Health workers perform nose swab tests during a drive through coronavirus test campaign held in Diriyah hospital in the Saudi capital Riyadh on May 7, 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. FAYEZ NURELDINE / AFP.

But the kingdom has also reported a high rate of recoveries, while daily infections dipped below 100 in early January from a peak of nearly 5,000 last June.

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However, new daily infections have been steadily climbing in recent weeks, with 261 cases reported by the health ministry on Sunday.

Saudi Arabia launched its coronavirus vaccination campaign on December 17 after receiving the first shipment of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

The health ministry said the programme would roll out in three phases, starting with people over 65 and those with chronic ailments or at high risk of infection.

But earlier this month the ministry said it was forced to slow the rollout due to a delay in vaccine deliveries.

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Saudi Arabia had said it would end travel restrictions for its citizens and reopen its borders on March 31.

But on Friday the interior ministry said it had pushed back the date to May 17 due to vaccine delays, in a bid to avoid a second coronavirus wave.

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#NobleSport

Breaking: Palestinian killed amid West Bank attack.

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The Israeli army said it killed a Palestinian who carried out an attempted knife attack Sunday in the Gush Etzion area of the occupied West Bank.

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“A knife attack was reported at the Gush Etzion junction, south of Bethlehem,” the army said in a statement. “The attacker was neutralised.”

The attacker “is dead”, the army told AFP, confirming that the military had killed the assailant.

The military later said the incident took place at a bus station, where soldiers were providing security to Israelis, with the suspect “running” at the forces while brandishing a stick with three knives fastened to it.

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It said no military personnel were wounded in the attack.

Gush Etzion is a bloc of two dozen Israeli settlements and outposts near Bethlehem.

There is frequent friction at the nearby junction, which has been the site of numerous so-called lone wolf Palestinian attacks.

Israel has occupied the West Bank since the 1967 Six-Day War.

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There are currently about 475,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank living in communities considered illegal by most of the international community, alongside some 2.8 million Palestinians.

All Jewish settlements in the West Bank are regarded as illegal by most of the international community.

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#Newsworthy

COVID-19: Iran expects first batch of Russian vaccine by Feb. 4 – Ambassador

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Iran is fighting the Middle East’s deadliest outbreak of Covid-19 with more than 57,800 dead out of over 1.4 million cases.

Iran’s ambassador to Russia said Saturday that Tehran expects to receive the first batch of Moscow’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine by February 4, state news agency IRNA reported.

The news comes just days after Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif announced the vaccine had been approved by the Islamic republic.

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“A contract for the purchase and joint production was signed yesterday between Iran and Russia,” envoy Kazem Jalali said, quoted by IRNA.

Two more batches are to be delivered by February 18 and 28, he added, without specifying quantities.

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei earlier this month banned the use of vaccines made by the United States and Britain, calling them “completely untrustworthy”.

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The country says arch enemy US has blocked its access to vaccines through Washington’s tough sanctions regime.

While food and medicine are technically exempt, international banks tend to refuse transactions involving Iran.

Russia registered the jab — named after the Soviet-era satellite — in August last year, before the start of large-scale clinical trials, leaving some experts wary.

Sputnik V’s developers have since said the vaccine is more than 90 percent effective and several countries outside of Russia have begun administering it, including Argentina.

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Hungary has also said it has reached a deal to buy the vaccine, although it has not been approved by the European Union.

Iran started clinical trials of its own vaccine in late December.

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#Newsworthy