Tajikistan grants amnesty for over 100 Syria, Iraqi returnees

2018-02-08

DUSHANBE – Tajikistan has granted amnesty to more than 100 of its nationals following their return home from Syria and Iraq, where they had joined radical Islamist groups, the interior minister said Thursday.

Speaking at a news conference in the Tajik capital Dushanbe, Interior Minister Ramazon Rahimzoda said the returnees had been pardoned in line with a 2015 government pledge.

“Regarding the fate of 111 Tajik citizens who returned from Syria and Iraq voluntarily, all of them are free under Tajik law,” Rahimzoda said.

Most of the returnees in question had spent time in Syria, which became a magnet for jihadists from around the globe following its descent into civil war in 2011.

Rahimzoda also told reporters that 250 citizens of Tajikistan, a majority-Muslim country, had died fighting for radical groups in Iraq and Syria, mostly the Islamic State group.

Authorities have previously said that over 1,000 Tajik citizens, including women, had joined the radical militants.

Most had traveled to Syria and Iraq through Russia, where over a million Tajiks are believed to work as labor migrants.

The Islamic State group’s most high-profile Tajik recruit Gulmurod Khalimov had served as the chief of the interior ministry’s special forces unit prior to his sensational defection in 2015.

Russia’s defense ministry said in September last year that Khalimov, who may have been IS’s “minister of war”, had been killed in an airstrike.

Rahimzoda said Thursday that Tajikistan was still verifying that report.

Mountainous Tajikistan, the poorest former Soviet republic, shares a 1,300-kilometer (800-mile) border with Afghanistan, long a hotbed of Islamist militancy and the world’s largest producer of opium and heroin.

Governments have warned that fighters returning to their home countries after the collapse of the Islamic State group could raise the terror threat there.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=87176.

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Popular campaign in Kuwait streets to oppose normalization with Israeli occupation

February 2, 2018

On Wednesday, the National Union of Kuwaiti Students launched a popular campaign against normalization with the Israeli occupation under the title “Kuwaiti against normalization”.

On Thursday, the Union of Kuwaiti Students distributed huge announcements in the streets of Kuwait to combat all forms of normalization with the Israeli occupation.

The announcements included a warning against academic normalization with the occupation under the cover of research and knowledge cooperation between Arabs and Israel and pointed out that “just dealing with Israel as a state and not as occupation is normalization in itself.”

The Union, which is controlled by Islamists in Kuwait, announced the convening of a seminar against normalization next Tuesday (06/02/2018).

It is worth noting that the National Union of Kuwaiti Students is a student organisation which was established on December 24, 1964 to represent students of the State of Kuwait who are studying both inside and outside the country. The Union consists of branches that are annually managed by elected administrative bodies, the largest of which is the branch of the University of Kuwait.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20180202-popular-campaign-in-kuwait-streets-to-oppose-normalisation-with-israeli-occupation/.

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Israel downs Iranian drone and strikes Syria, F-16 crashes

February 10, 2018

JERUSALEM (AP) — The Israeli military shot down an Iranian drone it said infiltrated the country early Saturday before launching a “large-scale attack” on at least a dozen Iranian and Syrian targets inside Syria. Responding anti-aircraft fire led to the downing of an Israeli fighter jet.

Israel said the drone infiltration was a “severe and irregular violation of Israeli sovereignty” and warned of further action against unprecedented Iranian aggression. The military said its planes faced massive anti-aircraft fire from Syria that forced two pilots to abandon an F-16 jet that crashed in northern Israel. One pilot was seriously wounded and the other lightly. Syrian officials reported large explosions in the center of the country and the Syrian counter fire set off warning sirens throughout northern Israel.

The Israeli strikes marked its most significant engagement since the fighting in neighboring Syria began in 2011 and said Iran would be held responsible for its outcome. “This is a serious Iranian attack on Israeli territory. Iran is dragging the region into an adventure in which it doesn’t know how it will end,” Israel’s chief military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis, said in a special statement. “Whoever is responsible for this incident is the one who will pay the price.”

Gen. Hossein Salami, acting commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, did not acknowledge Israel’s claim it shot down the drone. “We do not confirm any such news from Israel,” he said. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasem called the Israeli claim “ridiculous.”

But the joint operations room for the Syrian military and its allies denied the drone violated Israeli airspace, saying it was on a regular mission gathering intelligence on Islamic State militants. Syria’s Defense Ministry said in statements on its website that its air defenses responded successfully to the Israeli operation and hit more than one plane. “The Israeli enemy has once again attacked some of our military bases in the southern area and our air defenses responded and foiled the aggression,” it said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman were convening the top brass at military headquarters in Tel Aviv to discuss further response. Israel has mostly stayed out of the prolonged fighting in Syria, wary of being drawn into a war in which nearly all the parties are hostile toward it. It has recently been warning of the increased Iranian presence along its border, but military spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said Saturday’s incident marked the most “blatant and severe violation of Israeli sovereignty” yet.

He said Israel has no interest in further escalation but that it would “extract a heavy price” for such aggression. Conricus said Iran was “playing with fire” by infiltrating Israeli airspace, and said the unmanned aircraft Israel shot down was “on a military mission sent and operated by Iranian military forces.” He said Israel recovered the dispatched drone, which was clearly Iranian.

In response, Conricus said Israeli jets destroyed the Iranian site in central Syria that launched it. Upon their return, the jets came under heavy Syrian anti-aircraft fire and the pilots of one of the F-16s had to escape and the plane crashed. It’s unclear whether the plane was actually struck or if the pilots abandoned their mission for a different reason.

If the plane was in fact shot down by enemy fire, it could mark the first such instance for Israel since 1982 during the first Lebanon war. Regardless, Damascus residents celebrated the news. Wassim Elias, 39, a government employee, called it retribution for the many Israeli raids on Syrian soil before. “This earned the Syrian army and every Syrian citizen prestige. This is what we have always demanded,” he said.

Firas Hamdan, 42, a public servant, said such Syrian responses will ensure no more Israeli attacks in Syria. “Such attacks should be confronted and the response should be tougher to give the Israelis a lesson.”

In subsequent attacks, Israel struck four additional Iranian positions and eight Syrian sites in Syria. The military said significant damage was caused. Conricus said the Israeli jets faced between 15 to 20 anti-aircraft missiles fired by SA-5 and SA-17 batteries. All the Israeli jets in those sorties returned home safely.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war in Syria, said Israel targeted the edges of a military air base, called T-4, in the Homs desert near Palmyra, where Iranian and Hezbollah forces are based alongside Syrian troops. The Observatory said the raids resulted in casualties, but didn’t specify. It also said Israeli raids targeted areas in southwestern Damascus, bordering the southern provinces. This was followed by raids on Syrian government posts along the Damascus-Beirut road, close to the border between Syria and Lebanon.

Syrian state TV said air defenses hit more than one Israeli plane and that a girl was injured when Israeli missiles fell near a school in a neighborhood in Damascus’ countryside. A Syrian lawmaker, Feras Shehabi, said the response marked a “major shift in the balance of power in favor of Syria and the axis of resistance.” He said “Israelis must realize they have no longer superiority in the skies or on the ground.”

Retired Lt. Col. Reuven Ben-Shalom, a former Air Force pilot, said the fierce Israeli response was meant not only to counter the immediate threat but also to send “very clear messages” to show Iran how deep Israel’s knowledge was of its activity in Syria.

“The fact that a drone like this is identified, tracked and intercepted so smoothly by the Israeli air force demonstrates our capabilities, demonstrates our resolve not to allow the breach of Israeli sovereignty,” he said. “I think it’s good that our enemies learn and understand these capabilities.”

Israel has long complained about the involvement of archenemy Iran, and Iranian proxy Hezbollah, in the Syria war. The Shiite allies have sent forces to back Syrian President Bashar Assad, who appears headed toward victory after years of fighting. Israel has said it will not accept a permanent military presence by Iran and its Shiite allies in Syria, especially near the Israeli border.

Israel has been warning of late of the increased Iranian involvement along its border in Syria and Lebanon. It fears Iran could use Syrian territory to stage attacks or create a land corridor from Iran to Lebanon that could allow it to transfer weapons more easily to Hezbollah.

The Israeli Cabinet recently held a meeting on the Golan Heights near the border with Syria to highlight new threats, which are attributed to Iran’s growing confidence given Assad’s apparent victory in Syria thanks to their help.

Israel has shot down several drones that previously tried to infiltrate its territory from Syria. The targeting of Iranian sites in response, however, marks an escalation in the Israeli retaliation. The military confirmed that the initial target in Syria — the unmanned aircraft’s launch components — was successfully destroyed.

El Deeb reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Zeina Karam in Beirut, Albert Aji in Damascus and Amir Vahdat in Tehran contributed to this report.

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Saudi Arabia frees wealthy prince held in anti-graft drive

2018-01-27

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Authorities have so far not commented on his case.

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Middle East Online.

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

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Israel plans for railway connecting it with Saudi Arabia

January 16, 2018

The Israeli government has begun preparing plans to build a railway linking Israel with Saudi Arabia to transfer goods and people, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed reported yesterday.

Reporting the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, the London-based website said that the 15 million shekels ($4.5 million) cost of the plans for this project was included in the 2019 budget, which was approved three days earlier.

The initial plan for the project is to build a railway station in the city of Bisan with a railway network which travels through Jordan to Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

Currently, Yedioth Ahronoth said, Israel is transporting goods arriving in Haifa Port and heading to Iraq, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States through Jordan, noting that the war in Syria led these countries to use Israeli ports instead of those in Syria.

The paper reported that the Israeli Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz called this railway the “Peace Line”, adding that Israel would open a new commercial crossing to deal with goods exported by the Gulf States and Iraq through Israeli ports.

According to the Israeli newspaper, the Israeli Railway Commission has already formed a team of experts to lay down plans for this project, which, it said, would improve Israel’s international status as the railway will connect Europe with the Middle East.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20180116-israel-plans-for-railway-connecting-it-with-saudi-arabia/.

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Bahrain sentences six to death for ‘assassination plot’

2017-12-25

DUBAI – Bahrain’s top military court sentenced six men to death on Monday after convicting them of charges including plotting to assassinate the Gulf state’s armed forces chief, state media reported.

It was the first official mention of any plot against the life of Field Marshal Sheikh Khalifa bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa, who is a member of the ruling family, but the Bahrain News Agency gave no further details of when or where it was alleged to have taken place.

Tiny but strategic Bahrain has been gripped by unrest for years as its Sunni royal family has resisted demands from its Shiite majority for a constitutional monarchy with an elected prime minister.

A judicial source said that all six of those sentenced to death on Monday were Shiites.

BNA said that one of them was a serving soldier before his arrest and that all six were also stripped of their citizenship.

The court sentenced seven other defendants to seven-year jail terms and deprived them too of their citizenship. Five men were acquitted.

Only 10 of the defendants are in custody, BNA said. The other eight are on the run — either inside Bahrain or in Iran or Iraq.

Since crushing Shiite-led street protests in 2011, Bahraini authorities have cracked down on all dissent, banning both religious and secular opposition parties and jailing hundreds.

Human rights watchdogs say that counter-terrorism legislation has been abused to prosecute many peaceful opposition figures.

The United States has criticized Bahrain for its human rights record but the kingdom holds a strategic position just across the Gulf from Iran and provides the home base for the US Fifth Fleet.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=86556.

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Iran FM warns neighbors, says they seeking unrest in Iran

January 08, 2018

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran’s foreign minister on Monday warned neighboring countries over fomenting insecurity in Iran in a reference to anti-government protests that have roiled the country over the past two weeks.

The remarks by Mohammad Javad Zarif at a security conference in Tehran echoed the Iranian authorities’ stance, which alleges that foreign powers — including regional rival Saudi Arabia — stirred up unrest linked to the protests.

“Some countries tried to misuse the recent incidents,” Zarif said without blaming any specific country, and added that “no country can create a secure environment for itself at the expense of creating insecurity among its neighbors.”

“Such efforts” will only backfire, the official IRNA news agency quoted Zarif as saying. The anti-government demonstrations first broke out in Mashhad, Iran’s second-largest city, on Dec. 28 and later spread to several other cities and towns. The protests were the largest seen in Iran since the disputed 2009 presidential election. They were sparked by a hike in food prices amid soaring unemployment but some demonstrators later called for the government’s overthrow and chanted against the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

At least 21 people were killed and hundreds arrested. Large pro-government rallies were held in response, and officials have blamed the anti-government unrest on foreign meddling. In the past few days, Iranian authorities said the protests are waning and on Sunday, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard claimed the nation and its security forces had ended the wave of unrest.

The powerful Guard blamed the unrest on the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia, as well as an exiled opposition group known as the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, and supporters of the monarchy that was overthrown in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Zarif also mentioned an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council on Friday. The United States had called the meeting, portraying Iranian protests as a human rights issue that could spill over into an international problem.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said the session had put Iran on notice that “the world will be watching” its actions but envoys from several other countries expressed reservations whether the Council was the right forum for the issue.

Zarif on Monday depicted the session as a fiasco and evidence that the Trump administration is “isolated at the international level.” The world “witnessed that (all other) members of the UN Security Council spoke about preventing the meddling in Iran’s internal affairs,” he said.

Zarif also warned that the Islamic State group is still active and a threat in the region and beyond, despite the destruction of its self-proclaimed “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq and called for a “complete crush” of the militant group.

Also Monday, Iran’s moderate President Hassan Rouhani said despite the abuse of the protests by outsiders, the authorities should heed the message of the people. “People rightfully say: ‘See us, listen to our words,'” Rouhani said.

He stressed that his policy of economic reform is the “right” way forward and urged for the lifting of bans on messaging apps, including the popular Telegram messaging service, that were shut down during the protests.

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