Top News: Battle for Aden Airport Forces Closure

Forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh stormed the international airport in the southern port city of Aden on Thursday, triggering an intense, hours-long gunbattle before security forces loyal to President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi repelled them. The fighting forced the airport’s closure, and passengers on a flight to Cairo on the tarmac were rushed off the plane and into the terminal building. Sporadic clashes between the two sides’ loyalists erupted around Aden killing at least five. Eyewitnesses claim that the presidential palace in Aden was evacuated after a fighter jet flew over the building. There are conflicting reports as to whether or not the area was shelled after smoke was seen rising from the scene. [NYTAl JazeeraAPAl MasdarAl Arabiya, 3/19/2015



Mubarak-era interior minister acquitted of corruption, set for release
A Cairo criminal court on Thursday acquitted Mubarak-era interior minister Habib al-Adly of corruption charges, paving the way for his release. Adly was cleared of charges of using his political influence to acquire illicit gains amounting to 181 million Egyptian pounds ($23.72 million). Thursday’s verdict marks the final trial al-Adly is currently facing, according to his lawyer, Essam al-Batawy, who said his client will be released “within days.” The lawyer said his defendant has completed his sentences, including a three-year jail term on another corruption case for charges related to exploiting policemen and security vehicles for private purposes, and a one-month sentence for failing to uphold an administrative court decision while in office. “[Adly] will be at home in three, four days’ time,” Batawy said. The court on Thursday also ordered that a freeze in funds belonging to Adly and his family be lifted. [Ahram Online, Reuters, AP, Aswat Masriya, 3/19/2015]

Twenty-eight suspected militants killed in security campaign in North Sinai
A security campaign targeting “extremists” and “terrorist hotbeds” in North Sinai on Thursday left twenty-eight suspected militants killed, the state agency MENA reported. Security forces also arrested six suspects in their campaign in the cities of al-Arish, Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah, MENA reported. Amid intensified campaigns to fight insurgency, especially in North Sinai, the armed forces spokesman said on March 1 that the military had killed 173 people, whom it described as “terrorists” in February. One-hundred and fifteen more “terrorists” were killed during the first two weeks of March, the spokesman said. [Aswat Masriya, 3/19/2015]

Police general, conscript to be tried over concealing evidence in killing of female protester
Egypt’s public prosecutor on Tuesday sent to trial a police general and a conscript for concealing evidence in the fatal killing of a leftist female protester, Shaimaa al-Sabbagh, during a peaceful rally in central Cairo, a judicial source said. The prosecutor said in a statement that the pair, including a major general who the led forces that dispersed the protest, will be tried over charges of denying seeing the suspect while shooting al-Sabbagh. The source said the charges might be punishable by up to a year in jail. The move came a day after another police officer was charged over the shooting of Sabbagh. [Ahram Online, 3/18/2015]

Sisi to fly to Ethiopia to resolve differences over Renaissance Dam
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is flying to the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa on Monday to resolve the remaining differences over the Renaissance Dam, before the signing of the “Declaration of Principles” framework agreement in Khartoum. The draft agreement was amended to ensure Egypt’s rights to 55.5 billion cubic meters of Nile water, while additional amendments reduced the dam’s 74 billion cubic meter storage capacity. Sources said the draft proposed binding mechanisms for the three countries, obliging them to implement the findings of the international consultancies that will soon be announced. Mohamed Abdel Rahman, head of the National Council for the Affairs of Farmers and Agricultural Producers, said Sisi’s visit confirms that contentious issues can be solved through dialogue. [Egypt Independent, 3/19/2015]

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2,000 Libyan policemen in Cairo for training
Libya’s Tobruk-based government sent 2,000 police for training at the Egyptian Police Academy in Cairo. The Libyan Interior Minister Colonel Ahmed Barka stressed that Egypt and Libya are committed to working together to stamp out the threat of terrorism in the region and that Libya seeks to benefit from Egyptian anti-terrorism expertise. Barka also pointed out that poor police training was not the only factor preventing Libya’s stability; he said that the UN arms embargo inhibits Libya’s police forces from acquiring the arms it needs to properly combat terrorism. [Libya Herald, 3/18/2015]

Libya’s Tripoli government ‘ends medical supplies to east
The Tripoli-based government has sent a batch of medical supplies for the eastern region of Libya, where hospitals are facing severe shortages due to injuries from heavy fighting. Among the supplies sent were surgical equipment and vaccinations. The Tobruk-based government, which is stationed in eastern Libya, has promised to provide funds to fix the hospital shortages, however it cannot access Libyan Central Bank accounts to provide the necessary money. [Libya Monitor (subscription), 3/18/2015]

Tunisia to reopen airspace to flights from western Libya; Matiga airport disrupted by airstrike
Tunisia will again allow flights from western Libya to enter its airspace for the first time in several months, cancelling a previous notice that banned flights from Matiga and Misrata airports from flying over Tunisian airspace. This decision appears to follow Tunisia’s decision to reopen its consulate in Tripoli last month. Meanwhile, the Tobruk allied Libyan National Army forces conducted air strikes on Tripoli’s Matiga airport causing a temporary closure. The forces of General Khalifa Haftar have been attacking locations at or near the airport for several months, although no casualties were reported from the attack. [Libya Monitor (subscription), 3/18/2015]

Tunisia vows ‘war against terrorism’ after museum attack; Tunis terrorist cell dismantled
In the aftermath of the attack at the Tunisian parliament and Bardo museum that killed twenty-two people, President Beji Caid Essebsi vowed to fight terrorism, “without mercy to our last breath.” Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of the Islamist Ennahda movement also said he is convinced Tunisians will remain united. While earlier this week, Tunisian security forces dismantled a takfirist terrorist cell in a northern suburb of Tunis. The seven individuals arrested, some of whom had returned from fighting in Syria, were in close coordination with fighters still in Syria and recruiting youth to go fight there. [AFP/Yahoo, All Africa, 3/19/2015]

Gunman known to intelligence ahead of attack on Tunisian museum; EU blames ‘terrorist organizations’
Tunisia has identified the two gunman in yesterday’s attack on the Bardo museum as Yassine Laabidi and Hatem Khachnaoui, both were killed by security services in a raid. Prime Minister Habib Essid said that Laabidi was known to intelligence officials, although not for anything specific and neither men were known to have formal links with extremist groups. No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, but European Union (EU) foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini blamed terrorist organizations. Mogherini stated that the attacks strengthened Europe’s determination to cooperate with Tunisia in confronting terrorism. [AP, Reuters, 3/19/2015]


Moscow says to host Syria talks April 6
Representatives of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and opposition figures will meet for peace talks in Moscow on April 6, three months after a meeting ended without concrete results. The ministry spokesman did not specify which opposition representatives and officials from Assad’s government would attend the talks. Deputy foreign minister Gennady Gatilov said this month that members of Syria’s exiled opposition National Coalition, which did not take part in the first round of talks in January, were “considering coming to Moscow” for the next meeting. Gatilov said the UN’s Syria peace envoy Staffan de Mistura would also take part in the talks. The Syrian government and some opponents agreed to a list of ten points called the “Moscow principles.” Two previous rounds of talks in Geneva ended without success, the last of which took place in February 2014.[AFP, 3/18/2015]

SNC chief talks future of nation with German FM
Syrian National Coalition (SNC) chief Khaled Khoja, who was elected in January, met on Wednesday in the German capital Berlin with Germany’s Foreign Minister, discussing the situation of Syrian refugees in Germany and the road ahead for Syria without President Bashar al-Assad. Khoja thanked German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier for the country’s resettlement of Syrian refugees, and for his country’s support for a moderate political opposition. While most European nations have been unwilling to let in refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria, Germany is an exception: it has already accepted 6,000 Syrian refugees and has pledged to take up to 20,000. During their meeting, Khoja and Steinmeier “agreed that a comprehensive approach is urgently required to defeat [the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL)] and address the root cause of the extremism through a political transition to a future Syria without Bashar al-Assad.” [Al-Arabiya, 3/19/2015]

ISIS Yazidi attacks may be genocide
The UN says jihadists from ISIS may have committed genocide and war crimes against the minority Yazidi community in Iraq. In a new report, it says the ISIS had “the intent… to destroy the Yazidi as a group.” Tens of thousands of Yazidis fled villages in northern Iraq amid ISIS advances last summer. Many were killed, captured, and enslaved. Yazidis follow an ancient faith that jihadists regard as devil worship. The report, commissioned by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, was based on more than 100 interviews with survivors of attacks in Iraq between June 2014 and February this year. In related news, French President Francois Hollande issued a call to preserve the cultural heritage threatened by the ISIS in Iraq and Syria, calling events described by UNESCO as “cultural cleansing.”[BBC, AFP, Reuters, 3/19/2015]

Canada PM says will extend and expand Iraq mission
Canada’s Prime Minister will present a plan to extend Canada’s military mission in Iraq next week. Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Wednesday his Conservative government will introduce in Parliament a request for an “extension and expansion” of the mission against ISIS. It was due to expire at the end of March. Canada has sixty-nine special forces soldiers with Kurdish peshmerga fighters. They were sent to help train Kurdish fighters last September in a mission that was billed as a non-combat mission with the troops working far behind the front lines. The fact that they’ve have been training and assisting on the front lines and directing airstrikes has stirred controversy in Canada. A Canadian soldier was killed in a friendly fire incident earlier this month. Canada’s military is not involved in Syria, but Harper said the proposal would deal with that issue. He said he would provide more details next week.[AFP, AP, 3/18/2015]

US aircraft strike ISIS drone in Iraq
US warplanes have bombed a small drone used by ISIS extremists in Iraq, marking the first time US-led forces had targeted an unmanned aircraft flown by the jihadists. The strike took place on Tuesday near the western city of Fallujah, destroying “a remotely piloted aircraft” and a vehicle with the ISIS forces, according to a statement from the US military command overseeing the campaign against the group. The drone, used for battlefield surveillance, was “small-scale” and not a sophisticated aircraft equivalent to some US-made robotic planes that can fly at high altitudes or launch missiles.The air strike on the ISIS drone was among eleven carried out by US-led aircraft in Iraq and two conducted in Syria on Tuesday and Wednesday morning. The strikes included five air raids near the western town of Ramadi in Iraq, with two IS-held bridges targeted along with a sniper position, an excavator and an ISIS “tactical unit,” the military statement said. In related news, Iraq has not requested air support from the coalition for its campaign to retake Tikrit from ISIS insurgents, which has been halted for nearly a week. [AFP, 3/18/2015]


Battle for Aden airport forces closure
Forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh stormed the international airport in the southern port city of Aden on Thursday, triggering an intense, hours-long gunbattle before security forces loyal to President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi repelled them. The fighting forced the airport’s closure, and passengers on a flight to Cairo on the tarmac were rushed off the plane and into the terminal building. Sporadic clashes between the two sides’ loyalists erupted around Aden killing at least five. Eyewitnesses claim that the presidential palace in Aden was evacuated after a fighter jet flew over the building. There are conflicting reports as to whether or not the area was shelled after smoke was seen rising from the scene. [NYT, Al Jazeera, AP, Al Masdar, Al Arabiya, 3/19/2015]

Yemeni tribesmen free French woman kidnapped last month
Yemeni tribesmen on Thursday freed Isabelle Prime and Shereen Makawi who were kidnapped last month in Sana’a. Frenchwoman Isabelle Prime, a consultant for Yemen’s Social Fund for Development, and her Yemeni translator Shereen Makawi were abducted by gunmen in downtown Sana’a while the pair were on their way to work. It was not immediately clear whether they were freed after weeks of talks between local officials and tribesmen in Khawlan, a sparsely policed mountainous area outside the capital, or whether a ransom was paid. [Reuters, 3/19/2015]

Former Kuwaiti Prime Minister cleared of coup plot
Kuwaiti prosecutors said Wednesday they would not press charges against a former prime minister and an ex-parliament speaker over allegations of coup-plotting and corruption. In April last year, Sheikh Ahmad Fahad al-Sabah, a senior member of the ruling family, presented videotapes allegedly showing former premier Sheikh Nasser Mohammad al-Ahmad al-Sabah and former parliament speaker Jassem al-Khorafi planning a coup. Public prosecutor Dherar al-Asousi said in a statement that an investigation had found the accusations against the two former top officials were not supported by evidence. [Gulf News, 3/19/2015]

UAE recalls envoy to Sweden over criticism of Saudi Arabia
The United Arab Emirates said Wednesday that it has recalled its ambassador to Sweden to protest comments made by Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom criticizing neighboring Saudi Arabia. The move comes one week after Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador to Sweden after Wallstrom strongly criticized the women’s rights situation in Saudi Arabia and the flogging in January of a Saudi blogger convicted of insulting Islam and breaking internet laws. [Al Arabiya, AP, 3/18/2015]


Slightly firmer oil may help Gulf stabilize
Oil’s overnight rebound and a dovish statement from the US Federal Reserve may help Gulf stock markets stabilize on Thursday after falling sharply earlier this week, although crude prices remain volatile and unpredictable. Gulf equities dropped in panic sell-offs on Wednesday after US crude futures slid to a fresh six-year low and Brent oil also retreated. But both oil benchmarks then jumped as the US dollar fell after the Federal Reserve indicated it preferred a more gradual path to normalizing US interest rates, despite being open to the first rate hike in almost a decade. In addition to hurting oil prices, the strong dollar has had a negative effect on non-oil exporting companies from the Gulf, reducing their competitiveness. [Reuters, 3/19/2015]

Egypt targets 4.5-5 percent growth in 2015-2016
Egypt expects greater investment and ongoing fiscal reforms to boost economic growth in the 2015/16 fiscal year to 4.5-5 percent and shrink its budget deficit to 9.5-10 percent of gross domestic product. In a preliminary statement about next year’s budget Egypt’s finance minister announced that the government would continue to cut subsidies gradually and make cash transfers to the poor, which make up about 40 percent of Egypt’s 90 million people. The country’s budget deficit, long beset by costly fuel and bread subsidies, is set to exceed 10 percent for the same period. Egypt’s current account deficit stood at $4.301 billion between July and December 2014, compared with a deficit of $866.0 million in the same period the previous year, the central bank said on Thursday. [Reuters, Mada Masr, 3/19/2015]

Oman boosts refining capacity to beef up oil products exports
According to industry sources, Oman will more than double its refinery output by 2019 as part of efforts to boost exports and compete with OPEC members Saudi Arabia and Kuwait for a bigger slice of the global market. A refinery upgrade and a new project would raise Oman’s refining capacity to 312,000 bpd in four years. The country currently exports a medium sour crude with high sulphur content called Oman blend. The Middle East overall has been actively bolstering its refining capacity to cater to its export markets, notwithstanding concerns about oversupply amid the shale oil and gas production boom in the United States. [The Saudi Gazette, 3/19/2015]

Iraq may issue $5 billion bonds, to pay oil firms soon
Iraq is considering an international issue of $5 billion worth of five-year, US dollar-denominated bonds to help cover its budget deficit, and will, according to its Finance Minister, soon start paying some debts to foreign oil companies. A $5 billion bond issue could prove a large amount for international investors to digest at one time, especially given political and economic instability in Iraq. The minister did not elaborate on the timing or financial terms of the plan. Cheap oil has ravaged Iraq’s state finances. The government has projected a budget deficit of roughly $21 billion this year and it has been building up debts to companies developing its oil fields. [Reuters, 3/18/2015]