Archive for January 19, 2020

Hundreds injured as fierce protests rock Beirut amid simmering crisis 

January 19, 2020

Source: Hundreds injured as fierce protests rock Beirut amid simmering crisis | The Times of Israel

Demonstrators clash with police as anger resurfaces over economic pressure and persisting political impasse after three months of protests

Anti-government protesters use a metal barrier to ram security forces taking cover during clashes in the central downtown district of the Lebanese capital Beirut near the parliament headquarters on January 18, 2020. (ANWAR AMRO / AFP)

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Clashes between police and Lebanese protesters wounded more than 220 people on both sides Saturday in the highest such tally in three months of anti-establishment demonstrations.

Thick white smoke covered the downtown Beirut area near Parliament as police and protesters engaged in confrontations that saw groups of young men hurl stones and firecrackers at police who responded with water cannons and tear gas. Some protesters were seen vomiting on the street from inhaling the gas.

The sound of ambulance sirens rang out across Beirut as the Red Cross reported 80 wounded had been taken to hospitals and 140 more were treated on site.

The protest movement rocking Lebanon since October 17 revived this week as a deepening economic crisis increases pressure to form a new government.

No progress appears to have been made towards finalizing the cabinet, which protesters demand be comprised of independent experts and exclude all established political parties.

Lebanon has witnessed three months of protests against the political elite who have ruled the country since the end of the 1975-90 civil war. The protesters blame politicians for widespread corruption and mismanagement in a country that has accumulated one of the largest debt ratios in the world.

Anti-government demonstrators clash with riot police at a road leading to the parliament building in Beirut, Lebanon, Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020. (AP/Bilal Hussein)

The protesters had called for a demonstration Saturday afternoon with the theme “we will not pay the price” in reference to debt that stands at about $87 billion, or more than 150% of GDP.

After several hours of clashes, the violence died down as demonstrators dispersed. Several were arrested, local media said.

The violence began after dozens of protesters — some concealing their faces in scarves — threw rocks and large plant pots at police guarding the road leading up to parliament.

Others charged police lines with traffic signs and metal barriers.

Anti-government demonstrators clash with riot police at a road leading to the parliament building in Beirut, Lebanon, Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020. Riot police fired tears gas and sprayed protesters with water cannons near parliament building to disperse thousands of people after riots broke out during a march against the ruling elite amid a severe economic crisis. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Security forces behind the barricades responded with water cannon and tear gas to disperse the crowds.

As clashes continued, some two dozen men believed to be parliament guards attacked the protesters’ tents in Martyrs Square, setting them on fire. A gas cylinder inside one of the tents blew up. The fire spread quickly and charred a nearby shop.

Civilian men believed to be the private unit of the parliament guards, burn the tents of the anti-government protesters, during ongoing protests against the political elites in Beirut, Lebanon, Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020. Riot police fired tear gas and sprayed water cannon near parliament in Lebanon’s capital Saturday to disperse thousands of protesters after riots broke out during a march against the ruling elite amid a severe economic crisis. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

The bells of nearby St. George Cathedral began to toll in an apparent call for calm, while loudspeakers at the adjacent blue-domed Muhammad Al-Amin mosque called for night prayers.

Later in the evening, hundreds of protesters chanting “Revolution” chased a contingent of riot police near the entrance of the mosque, forcing them to withdraw. Inside the mosque, several men were treated for gas inhalation and some families were said to be hiding inside.

An anti-government demonstrator throws back tear gas at riot policemen with a tennis racket, in Beirut, Lebanon, Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020. (AP/Bilal Hussein)

“We call on the security forces to be merciful with women and children inside the mosque,” a statement blared through the mosque’s loudspeakers.

President Michel Aoun called on security forces to protect peaceful protesters and work on restoring clam in downtown Beirut and to protect public and private propery. He asked the ministers of defense and interior and heads of security agencies to act.

“The confrontations, fires and acts of sabotage in central Beirut are crazy, suspicious and rejected. They threaten civil peace and warn of grave consequences,” tweeted outgoing Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who lives nearby. He called those behind the riots “outlaws” and called on police and armed forces to protect Beirut.

The National News Agency said demonstrators also vandalized bank facades in central Beirut.

‘Popular anger’

“A direct and violent confrontation is taking place with anti-riot police at one of the entrances to parliament,” the Internal Security Forces said earlier on Twitter.

“We ask peaceful protesters to keep away from the site of the rioting for their safety.”

They published photos of several wounded policemen and a video showing pillars stripped of their tiles, reportedly to be thrown at security forces.

A 23-year-old woman named Maya said she was protesting because politicians seemed to be ignoring demands for an overhaul of the old political class.

“I’m here because after more than 90 days in the streets, they’re still squabbling over their shares in government… It’s as if they didn’t see our movement,” she told AFP.

“Popular anger is the solution,” she said.

Lebanese police walk after dispersing a protest in Beirut, Lebanon, Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020. (AP/Hassan Ammar)

Forming a cabinet is an often convoluted process in Lebanon, where a complex system seeks to maintain balance between the country’s many political parties and religious confessions.

But protesters say they want to scrap the old system, and demand a new government of impartial technocrats to address mounting economic woes, including a severe liquidity crisis.

This week public anger has been directed at banks, with branches in the capital’s Hamra district vandalized following widely unpopular limits on withdrawals and transfers.

Panic and anger have gripped the public as their local currency, pegged to the dollar for more than two decades, plummeted. The Lebanese pound lost more than 60% of its value in recent weeks on the black market. The economy has seen no growth and foreign inflows dried up in the already heavily indebted country that relies on imports for most of its basic goods.

This picture taken on January 18, 2020 shows a view of debris by the security forces’ barricade in the central downtown district of the Lebanese capital Beirut near the parliament headquarters, following clashes with anti-government protesters there. (ANWAR AMRO / AFP)

Dozens were detained for several nights after clashes on Tuesday and Wednesday, before being released.

Human rights groups condemned the arrests and what they described as unacceptable violence against largely peaceful protesters.

Hariri and his government stepped down under pressure from the street on October 29, but they have remained in a caretaker capacity until a new cabinet is formed.

Political factions that agreed on December 19 to appoint former education minister and professor Hassan Diab as the new premier are now disagreeing over proposed ministers.

Diab had been expected to announce an 18-member Cabinet on Friday, but last minute disputes among political factions scuttled his latest attempt.

The World Bank has warned that the poverty rate in Lebanon could rise from a third to half of the population if the political crisis is not solved soon.


Iran warns of ‘repercussions’ for IAEA after European moves over nuclear deal 

January 19, 2020

Source: Iran warns of ‘repercussions’ for IAEA after European moves over nuclear deal | The Times of Israel

Parliamentary speaker responds to UK, France, Germany launch of dispute process charging Iran with failing to uphold terms of 2015 nuclear agreement, saying it’s ‘unfortunate’

Illustrative: IAEA inspectors at Iran's nuclear power plant in Natanz on January 20, 2014. (IRNA/AFP Kazem Ghane)

Illustrative: IAEA inspectors at Iran’s nuclear power plant in Natanz on January 20, 2014. (IRNA/AFP Kazem Ghane)

TEHRAN, Iran — Iran’s parliamentary speaker on Sunday warned of unspecified repercussions for the UN’s nuclear watchdog if European nations that launched a dispute mechanism against the Islamic Republic act “unfairly.”

Britain, France and Germany launched a process last week charging Iran with failing to observe the terms of the 2015 deal curtailing its nuclear program, while Tehran accuses the bloc of inaction over US sanctions.

The EU three insisted they remained committed to the agreement, which has already been severely undermined by the US exit from it in 2018 and Washington’s reimposition of unilateral sanctions on key sectors of Iran’s economy.

“What the three European countries did regarding Iran’s nuclear issue… is unfortunate,” parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani was quoted as saying by state news agency IRNA.

“We clearly announce that if Europe, for any reason, uses Article 37 of the nuclear agreement unfairly, then Iran will make a serious decision regarding cooperation with the agency,” he said, referring to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Then-Iranian parliament speaker Ali Larijani speaks during a press conference in Tehran, Iran, March 13, 2017. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

Since May 2019, Iran has progressively scaled back some commitments under the agreement in response to the US sanctions and Europe’s inability to circumvent them.

It has stressed, however, that they can be reversed if Tehran’s interests are realized.

Iran’s latest and final step in January entailed forgoing the limit on the number of machines used to make uranium more potent.

The 2015 nuclear deal — known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — was struck in Vienna by Iran, the EU three, the United States, China and Russia.

It has a provision that allows a party to claim significant non-compliance by another party before a joint commission.

This photo released by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran on November 5, 2019, shows centrifuge machines at Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP)

Articles 36 and 37 of the deal say if the issue is not resolved by the commission, it then goes to an advisory board and eventually to the UN Security Council, which could reimpose sanctions.

The decision to begin the so-called dispute mechanism process comes as tensions soar between the West and Iran following the killing of top commander Qassem Soleimani in a US air strike, and the admission by Tehran days later that it had accidentally shot down a Ukrainian airliner.

“The issue is not Iran’s behavior,” said the parliamentary speaker. “It is America’s threats that have pushed a powerful European country to a humiliating and unjust” position, said Larijani.

Germany confirmed last week that the United States had been threatening to impose a 25-percent tariff on European cars if the bloc continued to back the nuclear deal.


After failed launch last year, Iran preparing to send satellites into space

January 19, 2020

Source: After failed launch last year, Iran preparing to send satellites into space | The Times of Israel

The Zafars will monitor natural resources and the environment, state media says; Western nations fear Tehran’s space program could be used to develop long-range missiles

Illustrative: This picture, released by the official website of the Iranian Defense Ministry on July 27, 2017, claims to show the Simorgh satellite-carrying rocket at Imam Khomeini National Space Center, Iran. (Iranian Defense Ministry via AP)

TEHRAN, Iran — Iran said Sunday that two newly constructed satellites have passed pre-launch tests and will be transported to the nation’s space center for eventual launch, without elaborating.

Telecommunications Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi tweeted about the development, calling it an “important research step.”

Iran has not said when it will launch the satellites, but often coordinates its launches with national holidays. It will celebrate the 41st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution next month.

Iran’s largely state-run media say the 90-kilogram (200-pound) Zafar satellites each have four high-resolution color cameras and will monitor and transmit data on natural resources as well as agricultural and environmental developments.

Iran says its satellite program, like its nuclear activities, is aimed at scientific research and other civilian applications. The US and other Western countries have long been suspicious of the program because the same technology can be used to develop long-range missiles.

In this August 31, 2019 photo, Iran’s Minister of Information and Communications Technology Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi looks at The Nahid-1 domestically built satellite at the space research center in Tehran, Iran. (Information and Communications Technology via AP)

Iran tried and failed to launch two satellites into orbit in January and February last year.

A rocket exploded inside the Imam Khomeini Space Center in August during what officials later said was a test-launch. Iranian officials did not acknowledge the mishap until satellite imagery showed the explosion. Officials blamed a technical malfunction.

In a separate incident, a fire killed three researchers at the space center, which is some 240 kilometers (150 miles) southeast of the capital, Tehran.

Iran has sent several satellites into orbit over the past decade, and in 2013 it launched a monkey into space.


US sanctions Iranian general for ‘massacre of 148 helpless Iranians’ in protests 

January 19, 2020

Source: US sanctions Iranian general for ‘massacre of 148 helpless Iranians’ in protests | The Times of Israel

State department targets IRGC’s Hassan Shahvarpour over bloody crackdown in the Mahshahr region, but Washington adds Iran is deescalating tensions

Brian Hook, a US special representative on Iran, takes questions from the media at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, January 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Brian Hook, a US special representative on Iran, takes questions from the media at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, January 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

WASHINGTON, United States — The United States on Friday slapped sanctions on another senior Iranian official over a crackdown on protests but said Tehran appeared to be following through on deescalating military tensions.

The United States said it was blacklisting Revolutionary Guards Brigadier General Hassan Shahvarpour for crushing protests in November in the southwestern city of Mahshahr.

The city, home to many from Iran’s Arab minority, was a hotbed of protests that broke out after an abrupt hike in fuel prices. Amnesty International says hundreds died across the country.

“He oversaw the massacre of 148 helpless Iranians in the Mahshahr region,” Brian Hook, the US pointman on Iran, told a news conference.

He said that the United States had received 88,000 tips from Iranians about November’s protests after appealing for information to break through internet restrictions.

“We are continuing to review all information we received from the Iranian people and we will continue to hold more regime officials responsible for human rights violations,” he said.

Justice for Iran@Justice4IranEn

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The sanctions mean Shahvarpour is banned from entering the United States — a symbolic step as US President Donald Trump has stopped visas for virtually all Iranians, from inside or outside the government.

The United States earlier this month killed the powerful head of the Revolutionary Guards, Qassem Soleimani, in a drone strike in Baghdad after months of rising tension and rocket attacks on US forces in Iraq.

Despite a fiery sermon Friday by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Hook said that Iran did not appear to be escalating the military conflict.

“They appear to be standing down for now,” Hook said.

“But we have a combination of maximum economic pressure and restoring deterrence by the credible threat of military force if attacked,” he said.


IDF begins installing tunnel-detecting sensors along Lebanese border 

January 19, 2020

Source: IDF begins installing tunnel-detecting sensors along Lebanese border | The Times of Israel

Military launches effort a year after finding Hezbollah underground cross-border passages, says it believes there are still no new tunnels into northern Israel

Israeli troops search for attack tunnels dug into Israel from southern Lebanon that the Israeli military believes Hezbollah planned to use in future wars, in January 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israel Defense Forces on Sunday began installing a series of underground sensors along the northern border in order to detect any new subterranean tunnels entering Israeli territory from Lebanon. The effort comes a year after the military discovered and destroyed six such passages dug by the Hezbollah terror group.

IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said the decision to install the sensors near Misgav Am now was not based on fresh intelligence that Hezbollah was digging a cross-border tunnel there, but was in light of the fact that the sensor technology being used had recently been declared operational, following a series of tests.

“The installation of this system is a preventative infrastructure step, it is not based on new intelligence,” the military said.

On Sunday morning, the IDF began digging the holes needed to install the detection system, which was recently deemed fully operational. The first of these sensors, which collect both acoustic and seismic data, will be installed near the community of Misgav Am in the northern Galilee. The process was expected to take several weeks, Conricus said.

The military appeared to be widely publicizing this new effort in order to prevent confusion or panic on both sides.

“This is an action that will be seen and heard both in our territory and on the Lebanese side — we want to prevent a miscalculation,” said IDF Spokesperson Brig. Gen. Hidai Zilberman.

IDF reveals what it says is the longest cross-border attack tunnel dug by Hezbollah from Lebanon into Israel, May 29, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

The military planned to install additional detection systems along other points on the border in the future, with the exact number and location dependent upon intelligence about where Hezbollah intended to dig its tunnels and available funding.

Conricus estimated that in total the military would be operating along the border toward this effort for several months.

In December 2018, the IDF launched Operation Northern Shield, an effort to locate and destroy tunnels dug by Hezbollah into northern Israel from southern Lebanon. In total, the military said it found six such passages and rendered them inoperable — either using explosives or filling them with concrete — last year.

Senior military officials have said they believed that these six were the only Hezbollah tunnels to cross the Israeli border, though the terror group may have been in the process of digging more.

Conricus said in recent months the military has been performing a series of tests on the new sensor technology in order to ensure that it could be deployed.

“We now have technology available that our professional engineering officers deem ready to become operational,” he said.

Israeli troops search for attack tunnels dug into Israel from southern Lebanon that the Israeli military believes Hezbollah planned to use in future wars, in January 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

Conricus said the military informed the peacekeeping United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), which operates in southern Lebanon, of its plans to install these sensors along the so-called Blue Line, the unofficial but widely recognized border between Israel and Lebanon.

A UNIFIL spokesperson confirmed to The Times of Israel that the IDF had updated the peacekeeping force about this operation.

“In line with our liaison and coordination mechanisms, we have been informed by the IDF,” the UNIFIL official said.

Conricus said the IDF had also informed local Israeli municipal governments of its plans.

The IDF believes that the six tunnels dug by Hezbollah into northern Israel were built with the specific purpose of allowing thousands of Hezbollah terrorists to stage an infiltration attack on military and civilian targets in northern Israel as a surprise opening maneuver in a future war.

Approximately eight years ago, Hezbollah created a special forces unit — known as the Radwan Unit — specifically tasked with crossing into Israel and causing as much mayhem and destruction as possible both for the sake of the destruction itself and for the “symbolism” of having troops carry out attacks inside Israel.

The military credits the discovery and destruction of these tunnels with removing what otherwise would have been a potentially devastating weapon in Hezbollah’s arsenal.

As far back as 2014, residents of northern towns raised the alarm regarding the possibility of Hezbollah tunneling below the border to carry out attacks, after an extensive series of underground passages dug by the Hamas terror group were discovered under the Gaza border in the south.

Israel has fought two wars in Lebanon, one in 1982 against Palestinian terrorist groups, and another in 2006 against Hezbollah, as well as a number of smaller operations.

Though seen as volatile, the border has not seen significant fighting since the end of the 2006 war.


Russian sources: Moscow gave Iran the high precision tech for missiles that struck US bases in Iraq – DEBKAfile

January 19, 2020

Source: Russian sources: Moscow gave Iran the high precision tech for missiles that struck US bases in Iraq – DEBKAfile

The high precision technology accounting for the astonishing accuracy of Iran’s missile strike on the US Ain Al Asad air base in Iraq on Jan. 8 came from Moscow, say Russian media quoting local military sources.

They name the technology as the GLONASS global navigation system, which corresponds to the American GPS, and had the effect of reducing the Iranian missiles’ targeting error to just 10 meters.

The same sources report that the Iranians launched altogether 19 missiles against the Ain al Asad base n western Iraq, of which 17 struck dead center of their targets.

DEBKAfile’s military sources report that the accuracy of impact amazed US and Israel intelligence, which had not been aware of this Iranian capacity. Its significance is such that – whether provided by Russia or self-made – Iran’s short- and medium-range missiles can reach any point in the Middle East that is unprotected by effective anti-missile systems within a 700km radius.

Still defending Russia’s downing of the Ukrainian airliner, killing all 176 people aboard, hours after the Iranian attacks on US bases in Iraq, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed there were “at least six F-35 fighters in the air in the Iranian border area at the time” when Iranian forces “were braced for some kind of US military retaliation.” Lavrov did not say whether the planes belonged to the US air force or Israel.