Beirut, Jan 15 (AP/UNB) — An Arab economic development summit that Lebanon is hosting this weekend has been marred by controversy days before delegates arrive.
Should regional outcast Syria be invited, as demanded by Lebanon's powerful Hezbollah militant group, an ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad? Should Libya get a seat at the table, despite the unresolved mystery surrounding the disappearance of a Lebanese cleric in Libya four decades ago?
And should Lebanon, which has been without a government for more than eight months, even be allowed to host as it stands at the brink of economic collapse?
Yes, according to President Michel Aoun, who is hoping to use the platform to boost Lebanon's sinking economic credentials. Lebanon's powerful parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, disagrees, saying a country paralyzed by its own divisions cannot successfully host a meeting of Arab nations.
The turmoil and chaos is nothing new to Lebanon, a tiny country fragmented along political and sectarian fault lines. Even in the best of times, it seems to be permanently on the edge of an impending crisis. Now, as a government vacuum stretches into its ninth month, there are real concerns that the ongoing political impasse will scuttle pledges worth $11 billion by international donors and lead to economic disaster.
On Monday, organizers of the Arab Economic and Social Development Summit, or AESD, held a press conference, announcing summit preparations were in place.
"All practical and logistic preparations for this summit have been completed," said Rafik Shalala, the summit's spokesman. Antoine Choucair, a member of the organizing committee, said the event's cost is estimated at $10 million, paid for by the host country.
The AESD was formed in 2009 as an exclusively economic and development conference that tends to involve the private sector, including banks, chambers of commerce, industry and agriculture. The agenda does not include the reconstruction of Syria, much of it ruined in nearly eight years of civil war.
Choucair said up to six heads of state are expected to attend, although that number will likely be lower.
At the heart of Lebanon's political deadlock are divisions between its two opposing pro and anti-Syrian camps. The country held parliament elections in May and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah scored significant gains, but politicians have been unable to form government since. And as President Bashar Assad and his ally Iran are largely seen as having won the war in neighboring Syria, there are concerns that Assad's government is once again trying to reassert its influence in Lebanon.
The question of whether to invite Syria, whose membership in the Arab League was suspended in 2011, quickly became an issue.
Pro-Syrian groups led by Hezbollah have insisted that the Syrian government should be invited.
"In the absence of a government, and because Lebanon should have a uniting, not divisive (Arab) role, and because we don't want the summit to be a failure, I think it should be postponed," Parliament Speaker Berri said, according to his Shiite Amal party, adding that he believed that if the summit is held, Syria should be invited.
"It is not Lebanon who issues the invitations, Lebanon abides by the decisions of the Arab League," Lebanon's Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil responded in a tweet.
Then last week, a new debate erupted over whether Libya should be invited in a dispute that stems from the 1978 disappearance of Shiite cleric Imam Moussa al-Sadr, founder of the Amal party now headed by Berri. The cleric vanished on an official visit to the country when it was ruled by Moammar Gadhafi. The issue remains a longstanding sore point between the two countries, even though Gadhafi was overthrown and killed in 2011.
Al-Sadr's family believes he may still be alive in a Libyan prison, although it is widely believed that the cleric, who would be 90 years old today, is dead.
Berri's Amal group says Libyan authorities have been uncooperative in the case. The party said that Libya's U.N.-recognized government in Tripoli should not be invited, and its supporters threatened to cut off Beirut's airport road to prevent the Libyan delegation from reaching the summit venue should they arrive in the country.
On Sunday night, a group of Amal supporters tore down a Libyan flag decked on a Beirut street along with those of other participant nations, and replaced it with the green flag of the Amal party. The Libyan foreign minister reportedly said in an interview with a local channel Sunday night that Libya will cancel its participation in the summit over the insult to the Libyan flag. Shalala, the summit spokesman, said they have not been officially notified of the Libyan decision.
The fracas over a 40-year-old issue has led to accusations that pro-Syrian groups were trying to derail the summit, because of the absence of Syria. Nadim Koteich, a Lebanese political satirist, lamented the political scene whereby a political group's unilateral decisions are met with silence by the state.
"All Arab countries concerned about Lebanon as a state ... should boycott the economic summit and tell their delegations to cancel their travel to the Lebanese jungle, until the restoration of (Lebanese) sovereignty," he wrote in a Twitter post.
Riyadh, Jan 15 (AP/UNB) — U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he told the king and crown prince of Saudi Arabia on Monday that the Trump administration expects the kingdom to hold accountable "every single person" responsible for the slaying of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed inside one of the country's consulates after writing columns critical of the government.
In talks with Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has been accused by some of complicity in the murder, Pompeo said he had been clear about the administration's expectations.
At the end of a trip to Riyadh that also focused on Mideast crises and countering threats from Iran, Pompeo said he had raised the Khashoggi case in his meetings with the king and crown prince along with other human rights issues, including the fate of women's rights activists detained in the kingdom.
"We spoke about the accountability and the expectations that we have. The Saudis are friends and when friends have conversations you tell them what your expectations are," the secretary said. "Our expectations have been clear from early on: Every single person who has responsibility for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi needs to be held accountable."
He said the Saudis understood and had reiterated pledges to pursue the case wherever it leads. He would not comment on U.S. intelligence that has suggested the crown prince may have ordered the killing.
The relationship between Riyadh and Washington remains tense following the killing of Khashoggi, who lived in Virginia and wrote columns for The Washington Post, at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October.
Saudi Arabia has charged 11 people in the death, including several officials close to the crown prince but U.S. lawmakers have been critical of its response, demanding that America withdraw its support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen in response.
Pompeo traveled to Saudi Arabia as part of a broader Middle East tour that has already taken him to Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. He was to depart from the kingdom for Oman shortly after his meetings in Riyadh but canceled plans to wrap up the trip in Kuwait on Tuesday, due to a death in his family.
At each stop, Pompeo has sought to reassure Arab leaders that President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria does not mean Washington is abandoning the Middle East or the fight against the Islamic State group.
Pompeo said he believed he had been successful in explaining Trump's position despite a lack of detail on exactly how and when the withdrawal will take place and differences with Turkey over the fate of U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters after American forces leave.
Trump tweeted late Sunday that the U.S. will "attack again from existing nearby base if it (IS) reforms. Will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds." Trump's decision to leave Syria, which he initially said would be rapid but later slowed down, shocked U.S. allies and angered the Syrian Kurds.
Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said later Monday that they spoke by phone to discuss cooperation on the withdrawal of the approximately 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria.
Trump backed away from the economic threat in a later tweet. He said he and Erdogan in their phone call discussed creating a 20-mile buffer zone along Turkey's border with Syria as well as economic cooperation between U.S. and Turkey and its "great potential to substantially expand!"
Pompeo also pressed the Saudis on bringing an end to the near two-year-old dispute with its Gulf neighbor Qatar, which has badly hindered U.S. efforts to create a united Arab military alliance to counter Iran.
Tehran, Jan 14 (AP/UNB) — A decades-old Iranian Boeing 707 military cargo plane reportedly carrying meat from Kyrgyzstan crashed on Monday while trying to land west of Iran's capital, killing 15 people on board and leaving a sole survivor, authorities said.
The crash of the jetliner marked just the latest aviation disaster for Iran, which hoped to replace its aging fleet under terms of the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
But instead, President Donald Trump's withdrawal from the accord in May scuttled billions of dollars in planned sales by Airbus and Boeing Co. to the Islamic Republic, only increasing the danger for passengers in Iran planes.
The aircraft, which bore the paint scheme of the Iranian air force's Saha civilian airline, was making emergency landing around 8:30 a.m. Monday at Fath Airport, an airfield controlled by Iran's powerful paramilitary Revolutionary Guard. The plane skidded off the runway, crashed through a perimeter fence and into a residential neighborhood.
Iranian state television aired images of smoke-charred homes and the fuselage of the aircraft lying on the ground in the neighborhood. Nearby was one of its land gear, torn away. Small fires burned around it.
The plane was meant to land at the nearby Payam International Airport, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) west of Tehran, the Iranian capital.
Authorities did not immediately offer a reason for the crew's decision to land instead at Fath Airport. That airport is some 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) southwest of Payam. Its runway is some 1,100-meters (3,600-feet) long, compared to Payam's 3,600 meters (11,800 feet). In November, a commercial airline reportedly mistook Fath for Payam, but was able to abort its landing.
Iran's state-run IRNA news agency later quoted an anonymous aviation official saying Monday's doomed flight likewise mistook Fath for Payam.
Pirhossein Koulivand, the head of the country's emergency medical services, said that of the 16 people on board the plane, only the flight engineer was known to have survived. IRNA reported all 15 bodies of the crew who died had been recovered by Monday afternoon.
Iran's air force said in a statement that the fate of the crew, including their possible "martyrdom," is under investigation. It wasn't immediately clear who owns the plane, though Gen. Shahin Taghikhani, an army spokesman, told state TV that the plane and its crew were Iranian.
Iranians often use the word "martyrdom" for those who die in war or national service.
The plane reportedly was carrying a cargo of meat from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan's capital, to Iran. Since 2016, Iran has been importing meat from Kyrgyzstan, usually via Saha. It imported 150 tons in 2016 and 350 tons in 2017.
Saha Airlines operated one of the world's last commercial flights of the Boeing 707, which was first manufactured in 1958 and helped usher in the jet age. The four-engine, narrow-body aircraft were built until 1979.
Maintenance information regarding the Boeing 707 that crashed Monday was not immediately available. However, Iran has struggled obtaining parts for its aging fleet of airlines, nearly all purchased during the time of the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Saha Airlines' Boeing 707s suffered a previous fatal crash in April 2005, when a flight coming from the Kish island crash-landed at Mehrabad Airport in Tehran, killing three passengers.
Riyadh, Jan 14(AP/UNB) — U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held talks in Saudi Arabia Monday on a range of Mideast crises, topped by the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, threats from Iran and the Saudi response to the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi last year.
Pompeo met with Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on the latest stop of his Middle East tour that has so far been dominated by questions and concerns about the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. The State Department said Monday that Pompeo would cancel his planned final stop in Kuwait on Tuesday due a death in his family. He will still travel to Oman later Monday.
In Riyadh, the Saudi-led fight against Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen, where the situation has been deemed the world's worst humanitarian crisis, will be a major agenda item, as well as holding perpetrators accountable for Khashoggi's slaying.
Pompeo told the crown prince that his Middle East journey, which has taken him to Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, had been "good" so far.
"I want to talk to you about a couple of places we've been. We think we learned a lot along the way that will be important going forward," he said.
The prince replied that the Saudis would "try to add more positivity, as much as we can."
Speaking with senior Saudi officials on his arrival in Riyadh late Sunday, Pompeo stressed the importance of supporting a political solution to end Yemen's civil war and "the need for continued regional efforts to stand against the Iranian regime's malign activity and to advance peace, prosperity, and security," the State Department said.
The department said Pompeo also made clear the importance of a credible investigation into Khashoggi's killing at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October. Pompeo "emphasized the importance of Saudi Arabia continuing its investigation into the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in order to ascertain facts, assess information, and hold those responsible accountable."
The relationship between Riyadh and Washington remains tense following Khashoggi's brutal slaying and dismemberment at the consulate. Members of Prince Mohammed's entourage have been implicated in the killing and U.S. lawmakers have demanded America pull back its support of the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
"We will continue to have a conversation with the crown prince and the Saudis about ensuring that the accountability is full and complete with respect to the unacceptable murder of Jamal Khashoggi," Pompeo told reporters in Qatar on Sunday before heading to Riyadh. "We'll continue to talk about that and make sure we have all the facts so that they are held accountable certainly by the Saudis, but by the United States as well, where appropriate."
The ongoing dispute between Qatar and four of America's other close Arab partners will also feature in Pompeo's talks as it continues to be a major hindrance in a U.S.-led effort to unite the Gulf Arab states, Egypt and Jordan in a military alliance to counter Iran.
Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates began a boycott of Qatar in June 2017, alleging Qatar funds extremist groups and has too-cozy ties to Iran.
Qatar has long denied funding extremists, but Doha shares a massive offshore natural gas field with Tehran that gives its citizens the highest per-capita income in the world. It restored diplomatic relations with Iran after the crisis erupted, marking a setback for Saudi Arabia, which views the Shiite power Iran as its main regional rival.
A similar dispute involving Qatar erupted in 2014. But this time positions have hardened against Qatar, whose support for Islamist opposition groups has angered the Arab nations now boycotting it.
However, comments in Doha by Pompeo and Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani gave no sense of any movement in the ongoing diplomatic crisis with Doha.
Later, speaking to a U.S. Embassy staff member in Qatar who said her job was moving to the UAE due to the boycott's effects, Pompeo was even more frank.
"It's on everyone's mind and not at all clear that the rift is any closer to being resolved today than it was yesterday — and I regret that," Pompeo said.
Jerusalem, Jan 13 (AP/UNB) — Israel's prime minister says the country struck an Iranian weapons storage facility over the weekend at the Damascus International Airport.
Benjamin Netanyahu's comments on Sunday at his weekly Cabinet meeting mark a rare public acknowledgement of Israeli activity in Syria.
Israel is believed to have carried out hundreds of airstrikes against Iranian and Hezbollah targets throughout the Syrian civil war but has generally refrained from commenting about them for fear of being drawn into the fighting.
Only recently has it begun to speak publicly about thwarting the weapons smuggling from Iran through Styria into Lebanon. Israel's outgoing military chief, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, did so over the weekend in various interviews.
Netanyahu says Israel says the recent strikes prove "we are committed more than ever to act against Iran in Syria."
Israel's military says its troops have found the sixth and the last tunnel dug by Hezbollah militants for cross-border attacks and that its operation at the Lebanese border is now over.
Military spokesman Jonathan Conricus says the final tunnel is the largest one discovered so far, running hundreds of meters (yards) from under a Lebanese home and deep into Israeli territory.
Israel launched the "Operation Northern Shield" last month to detect and destroy what it called a vast network of Hezbollah tunnels aimed for militants to sneak across the border and carry out attacks.
Israel and the United Nations say the tunnels violate a cease-fire resolution that ended a devastating war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006. Conricus says the U.N. peacekeeping mission, known as UNIFIL, has been updated.