MENA UPDATE: 8 May, 2014May 8, 2014 in Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, MENA, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Yemen
8 May: Approximately 50 illegal migrants have gone missing in the desert along the border between Algeria and Niger after being abandoned by their smugglers. Nigerien authorities alerted their Algerian counterparts to the disappearance of the migrants, including women and children. The Algerian army immediately mobilized ground and airborne units in a wide-scale search operation, however, chances are slim to find them alive due to the harsh weather conditions in the area. The source also indicated that the missing migrants may not have crossed the Algerian border.
7 May: In an ongoing operation, Algerian troops have killed 10 militants near Tin-Zaouatine, bordering Mali. The army also captured eight automatic Kalashnikov-type rifles, an RPG-7 rocket launcher, technical equipment and a “large amount” of ammunition. The operation began after “effective use of information on suspicious movements of a terrorist group.” Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in his first comments since his re-election, called it “an attempted infiltration by a heavily armed terrorist group with elements from Mali, Libya and from Tunisia.” In April, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) claimed responsibility for an ambush on army patrols in the mountains east. The attack killed 14 soldiers, making it the deadliest attack on the military in years.
8 May: Egypt’s interim government will restore daylight saving beginning 15 May to alleviate a crippling energy crisis. Daylight saving time was abolished three years ago, however, energy crisis, exacerbated by hours-long crippling blackouts in Cairo and other provinces, has prompted its reintroduction. The holy month of Ramadan will be exempt from Daylight Savings time, to help reduce fasting time. Ramadan, which begins in late June this year, is when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset.
The energy crisis is a major platform in the current election campaigns. The candidates— Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi and Hamdeen Sabbahi— have been consistently asked how they plan to deal with the problem, which was a major issue driving the opposition of Mohammed Morsi prior to his overthrow. Sisi has suggested a national program to replace regular light bulbs with high-efficiency bulbs to reduce consumption; while Sabbahi has called for exploration of solar energy.
Egypt is struggling with diminishing revenues and a growing need to pay for energy subsidies, estimated to comprise one fifth of the nation’s budget. Most of Egypt’s major gas fields are being depleted, and new fields won’t begin to produce for years, particularly as oil and gas companies are reluctant to invest due to the past three years of instability and economic crisis; the government currently owes at least $4.5 billion to international oil and gas companies. Further, electricity consumption increases at a rate of seven percent per year because of a combination of energy-heavy industries, steady population growth and increasing technology use.
7 May: A huge explosion has occurred near a nuclear facility in the northern Iranian city of Qazvin. The explosion was said to have taken place in a storage facility near a reportedly secret nuclear enrichment plant in Abyek. The Iranian government said no casualties were reported, however Iranian opposition says scores of people have been killed. At least 50 people were injured, and a fire has swept through the city. Fire-fighters are seeking to prevent the fire from spreading to a nearby car oil storage facility. The Iranian army has closed off much of the city. Authorities are uncertain whether the explosion was targeted. Opposition members have said that Iran’s nuclear facilities have been repeatedly targeted by Israel and the West. A Western intelligence source said, “There could be a small facility in the [Qazvin] area, but it is not regarded as major.”
7 May: Jordanian military clashed with at least 10 militants along the Syria border, marking the second high-profile incident in the border region in less than a month. Jordanian border guard traded fire with an unidentified group of individuals as they attempted to illegally cross into Jordan from Syria. Two gunmen were injured in the clashes. Sources suggest that the gunmen were Jordanian citizens returning to the country after fighting alongside Islamist militants in southern Syria. They were reportedly returning to seek medical attention for wounds sustained while fighting alongside Al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front.
In late April, the Jordanian air force targeted a convoy of unidentified armoured vehicles attempting to cross into Jordan after they failed to heed a series of warning shots. Jordan has conducted a security clampdown on the nation’s 370 kilometre shared border; security forces have arrested over 50 Jordanian and alleged foreign jihadists over the past two weeks. More than 2,200 Jordanians are currently fighting alongside Islamist militias in Syria, predominantly serving under Al Nusra or Al Qaeda affiliate the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
7 May: The UN agency for Palestinian refugees said Lebanon is denying entry to Palestinians fleeing the war in neighbouring Syria, despite its insistence there was “no decision” to keep them out. “UNRWA has been monitoring the situation at the crossing point at Masnaa between Lebanon and Syria and can report that no Palestine refugees from Syria have been allowed into Lebanon today and that some families trying to cross have been refused entry.” said UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness, adding that they have received assurances from Lebanese authorities that these restrictions are temporary. On Tuesday, Lebanese security chiefs agreed “there is absolutely no decision to bar them from entry, and the border is open to them.”
The statement came after the UN and Human Rights Watch expressed concern over “increased restrictions” on fleeing Palestinians entering Lebanon. While Lebanon has not signed the international refugee convention, the nation has generally kept its border open to people fleeing the conflict in Syria despite the scale of the influx. Lebanon currently hosts over one million refugees from Syria, more than any other country. The nation has the highest refugee population per capita in the world; among their number are 52,000 Palestinians.
Rights activists say Palestinians in Syria have been targeted by both sides in the conflict, making them one of the country’s more vulnerable groups. The Yarmuk district in south Damascus, the most populous Palestinian district, has been under blockade by the army since last year. Civilians in the area are trapped and receive very limited supplies of food and medicines, which are organised by UNRWA and other agencies. Turkey and Jordan, which also host large numbers of refugees from Syria, have barred entry to Palestinians.
4 May: The Libyan Congress has appointed, and then rejected a new interim prime minister, hours after he was sworn in. Ahmed Matiq thought he had secured a majority support of 121 deputies after several rounds of voting in Congress; however the process was chaotic, causing Congressional chairman Ezzedine Al-Amawi to later declare the vote illegal because voting continued after he had declared the voting session to be over. Al-Amawi asked former Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani, who resigned in April following a gun attack on his family, to continue as caretaker, Al-Thani has agreed to comply with the request.
The vote was originally scheduled to take place on Tuesday, but it was interrupted when gunmen stormed the General National Congress. Elections for a new parliament that will replace the General National Congress are expected later this year.
7 May: A cap or an outright ban may be placed on recruiting expatriate workers from nationalities deemed to have “negative records”, according to a proposal by Oman Municipal Council members. Elected officials in Muscat governorate have advocated capping the number of expats of certain nationalities in recruitment. Some of the council members have suggested that visas “for certain nationalities, which have negative records”, should be stopped. According to official figures, there are 597,769 Indians, 510,470 Bangladeshis, 222,355 Pakistanis, 43,201 Ethiopians, 31,511 Indonesians, 29,426 Filipinos, 23,021 Egyptians, 12,867 Nepalese and 12,557 Sri Lankans in Oman.
7 May: A Saudi Arabian has sentenced Raif Badawi, the editor of an internet forum he founded to discuss the role of religion in the country, to 10 years in jail and 1,000 lashes. Badawi, who started the Free Saudi Liberals website, was originally sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes in July last year, but an appeals court overturned the sentence and ordered a retrial. He was also fined 1m riyals (£160,000). The website, which included articles that were critical of senior religious figures such as Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti, has been closed since his first trial. Badawi’s defence lawyers called the sentence too harsh; however the prosecutor had demanded a harsher penalty, demanding that he be tried for apostasy, which carries a death penalty in the nation. The apostasy charges were dismissed; the ruling is subject to appeal.
In a separate ruling, the court also convicted the administrator of a website on charges of supporting internet forums hostile to the state and which promoted demonstrations. The administrator was sentenced to six years in jail and a 50,000 riyal (£7,860) fine.
8 May: Rebel fighters are believed to have detonated a bomb in a tunnel beneath the Carlton Citadel Hotel, near Aleppo’s medieval citadel and souk. The explosion destroyed the hotel and several other buildings. The Carlton Citadel is situated inside a 150-year-old building that faces the entrance of the 13th-Century citadel, which, along with the rest of the Old City is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was reportedly being used by government forces. Preliminary reports state the hotel had suffered “huge damage”, but did not reveal any casualties. Opposition activists say that government troops were based there and that a number had been killed. Other sources state that a number of security forces personnel and militiamen loyal to President Bashar al-Assad were believed to have been killed.
Syria’s state news agency reported that “terrorists” had blown up tunnels they had dug underneath archaeological sites in the Old City. A statement from the Islamic Front said its fighters had “levelled the Carlton Hotel barracks in Old Aleppo and a number of buildings near it, killing 50 soldiers”.
7 May: Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki has offered amnesty for Islamist fighters have not committed any acts of murder, saying the “door of hope and repentance is open.” The offer came during his visit to Mount Chaambi, where extremists have been fighting security forces near Tunisia’s border with Algeria. The offer of amnesty is similar to one conducted by Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s in 2005. Algeria’s National Reconciliation Charter lured thousands of insurgents home, although some rejoined their groups later. In addressing the militant groups, Marzouki said, “You are fighting an imaginary enemy” and death won’t lead to martyrdom. The offer applies only to those who haven’t killed. For over a year, security forces have tracked extremists in the Mount Chaambi area. Over a dozen soldiers have been killed in clashes.
8 May: Yemen’s main oil export pipeline has been bombed, halting crude flows. Other gunmen have attacked electricity lines, causing a power outage in most of the country’s northern cities. No group has claimed responsibility but Yemeni tribesmen often attack oil pipelines and power lines. Al-Qaida-linked militants have also carried out such attacks. This latest round of attacks coincided with an offensive by Yemeni government forces to capture of the militants’ main stronghold in Yemen’s southern region. The pipeline, which carries crude from Maarib fields in central Yemen to the Red Sea, was bombed twice in less than 12 hours on Tuesday. In a separate event, gunmen forced the closure of the Maarib gas-fired power plant after twice attacking its power transmission lines on Wednesday. It was the third attack on electricity lines in less than 48 hours.