Top News: French special forces waging secret war in Libya

French special forces and intelligence commandos are engaged in covert operations against Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) militants in Libya in conjunction with the United States and Britain, the French newspaper Le Monde reported on Wednesday. It said President Francois Hollande has authorized “unofficial military action” by both an elite armed forces unit and the covert action service of the DGSE intelligence agency in Libya. What Le Monde called “France’s secret war in Libya” has involved occasional targeted strikes against ISIS leaders, prepared by covert action on the ground. The Defense Ministry declined comment on the substance of Le Monde’s story but a source close to Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said he had ordered an investigation into “breaches of national defense secrecy” to identify the sources of the report. [Reuters, ANSAmed, Le Monde (French), 2/24/2016]



Sisi allocates EGP 200 billion for youth, says Russian plane brought down by terrorists
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi says unfair criticism of parliament and the government is contributing to attempts to bring down the state, telling Egyptians not to listen to anyone but him. Sisi did not go into specifics in a speech broadcast live Wednesday, saying only that he would eradicate anyone plotting to bring down the state. Sisi also said the Russian plane that crashed in Sinai last year was downed by terrorists seeking to damage Egypt’s tourism industry and relations with Moscow. During the speech, Sisi presented the government’s development program, Egypt’s vision 2030, revealing that the government allocated 200 billion EGP ($25.5 billion) for youth development projects. He blamed the cabinet for the delay in establishing a furniture industry zone in Damietta and called on it to provide youth with “all they need” to establish their projects. “I will keep building [Egypt] until my death or the end of my tenure,” Sisi said. [AP, Ahram Online, Reuters, Cairo Post, AMAY, SIS, 2/24/2016]

Italian student may have been killed for revenge says Interior Ministry
The Interior Ministry says investigators believe that “personal reasons” were behind the torture and murder of the Italian student Giulio Regeni, whose body was found in Cairo this month. The ministry said in a statement on Wednesday that investigation “indicates a criminal motive and a desire of revenge for personal reasons.” The ministry added that investigations revealed that Regeni had an extensive circle of contacts, despite his short stay. The investigative team reportedly identified some of Regeni’s contacts, summoning Egyptians and foreigners from those circles and questioning them about their relationship with him. It also warned against “spreading unfounded information” to “mislead public opinion,” a reference to earlier reports in the international media suggesting the Egyptian police were involved in Regeni’s killing. [Egypt Independent, AP, Reuters, Mada Masr, Ahram Online, 2/24/2016]

Egyptian human rights activist Hossam Bahgat banned from travelling
Prominent investigative journalist Hossam Bahgat said on Tuesday that he was not allowed to travel pursuant to an order issued by the prosecution, with no reasons given to him for the ban. Bahgat said in a post on his Facebook page that he was heading to Jordan for a UN conference on justice in the Arab world when authorities at the Cairo International Airport informed him that his name was included on a travel-ban list. In November, Bahgat was detained four days pending investigation for “publishing false news that harms national interests and disseminating information that disturbs public peace.” Bahgat said in his post that this was the first time he was prevented from exiting the country. [Ahram Online, DNE, Aswat Masriya, Mada Masr, 2/23/2016]

Privacy International reveals intelligence unit tasked with acquiring surveillance tools
London-based watchdog Privacy International exposed an Egyptian intelligence unit tasked with acquiring surveillance tools in a report released Wednesday. No information exists detailing the history of the Technical Research Department (TRD), but Privacy International’s report cites correspondence and contracts with surveillance tools suppliers that point to some of its activities. The Systems Engineering Egypt (SEE Egypt) website cites TRD as one of its clients affiliated with the military. SEE Egypt acts as a mediator in selling its partners’ products, include surveillance products such as Blue Coat, which provides Deep Packet Inspection technology, CCTV equipment, and software. Privacy International writes that TRD is possibly striking deals to acquire surveillance technology on behalf of General Intelligence Services. According to an intelligence expert, TRD was founded during Hosni Mubarak’s rule. Meanwhile, according to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Egypt’s arms imports witnessed a “steep rise” in 2015. The report says that Egypt’s arms imports increased by 37 percent between 2006-10 and 2011-15. [Mada Masr, 2/24/2016]

For more in-depth Egypt news, please visit EgyptSource


Libyans celebrate in Benghazi after military takes key city areas
Military forces loyal to Libya’s eastern government said on Tuesday that they took control of two key neighborhoods in Benghazi, building on gains made against Islamist fighters over the previous three days. Libyans took to the streets in celebration after army units, backed by civilian fighters, cleared a major part of the eastern city. The celebration comes hours after troops earlier in the day pushed into the once populous district of al-Laithi, a stronghold of Islamic militias who withdrew within hours. Over the past days, the army had made important advances. The fighting is still going on, especially in militia-controlled pockets in southern and western areas of Benghazi. Many parts of the city lie in ruins, with buildings leveled and their residents long gone. A hospital source said 20 people had been killed and 45 wounded in the latest clashes. [AP, Reuters, AFP, 2/23/2016]

ISIS militants forced out of Libya’s Sabratha after clashes
ISIS militants briefly entered the center of the western Libyan city of Sabratha and took over the security headquarters during overnight clashes with local military brigades, killing and beheading 12 security officers before retreating, two city authorities said. The fighting in Sabratha started when local brigades attacked suspected ISIS hideouts south of the city. The militants took advantage of the security vacuum downtown before being forced out by the brigades. An official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the total number of officers killed in the occupation and ensuing clashes reached 19. [AP, Reuters, Libya Herald, 2/24/2016]

UN envoy cautions against pressuring potential Libyan unity government
UN Special Envoy for Libya Martin Kobler has cautioned Western powers to move carefully if a unity government is formed in Libya and not pressure it to immediately back foreign military intervention against ISIS in the country. Speaking to the European Parliament Kobler said any new authority “will be at the beginning a weak government.” He said intense xenophobia among Libyan politicians and that forcing a new government to back outside strikes could undermine it. However, he acknowledged the effort to take on Islamic State was pressing. After addressing the European Parliament, Kobler met with EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini. [WSJ, EEAS, Libya Herald, 2/23/2016]

Tunisian LGBT group’s suspension revoked
Shams, a rights group for the decriminalization of homosexuality in Tunisia, said Tuesday on its official Facebook page that it has won a legal battle against the government, which had suspended its activities for 30 days in early January. The official recognition on May 18, 2015 of Shams had sparked heated debate in Tunisia. Shams has since gained a reputation for standing up for citizens sentenced to jail by Tunisian courts for homosexuality and advocates to abolish the relevant article of the criminal code (Article 230). [ANSAmed, 2/23/2016]


ISIS tightens grip on Syrian government road to Aleppo
on Tuesday, ISIS fighters were reported to have tightened their grip on a Syrian government supply route to Aleppo as the army battled to retake the road as part of its campaign to seize the city. As Damascus accepted a US-Russian plan for a “cessation of hostilities” between the government and rebels due to take effect on Saturday, heavy Russian air strikes were also said to be targeting one of the last roads into opposition-held parts of Aleppo. Rebels say the exclusion of ISIS and the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front will give the government a pretext to keep attacking them because its fighters are widely spread in opposition-held areas. [Reuters, 2/24/16]

UN aid convoys head to two Syrian besieged towns
On Tuesday, UN aid convoys headed to two Syrian towns besieged by government forces to deliver life-saving food and medicine to some 30,000 people, a UN spokesman said. The deliveries to the towns of Moadamiyeh and Kafr Batna, near Damascus, came after aid reached five besieged towns last week, part of a major push to reach civilians facing starvation. “These are the first of what we hope to be a series of deliveries to meet the needs of people that humanitarian workers have not been able to reach for a long time,” said UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric. The convoys carried enough food and medical supplies to help some 20,000 people in Moadamiyeh and 10,000 in Kafr Batna, he said. [AFP, 2/24/16]

Turkey casts doubt on chances of ceasefire in Syria; pushes for PYD, YPG to be excluded from process
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan accused the West, Russia and Iran of all seeking to further their own interests in Syria and said on Wednesday he feared a US-Russian ceasefire plan would do little more than benefit President Bashar al-Assad. “If this is a ceasefire that is up to the mercy of Russia, which has brutally attacked the moderate opposition and aligned with Assad under the pretext of fighting Islamic State, we fear that the fire pouring over the innocent people will never stop,” Erdogan said. The president has also insisted that Syrian Kurdish militia group the People’s Protection Units (YPG) is a terrorist group and urged for it to be excluded from the cease-fire agreement. In an apparent response to US statements calling the YPG an effective partner in the fight against ISIL in Syria, Erdogan said the notion that the YPG was supported because it is fighting ISIL was a “great lie.” During his speech, Erdogan also touched upon Ankara’s ongoing rift with Moscow, claiming Russia is continuing to violate Turkish airspace. [Al Jazeera, AP, Reuters, AFP, Hurriyet, Today’s Zaman, 2/24/2016]

DNA report suggests Ankara bomber was Turkish: security forces arrest relatives
A DNA report from a suicide bombing that killed 29 people in the Turkish capital Ankara last week suggests the main perpetrator was Turkish-born, not Syrian as initially stated by the government, a senior Turkish security official said on Tuesday. The political wing of the YPG, a US partner against ISIS in northern Syria, has said the Turkish government has tried to pin the blame for the Ankara attack on it as a pretext for shelling its positions in Syria. The Turkish armed forces shelled YPG positions in northern Syria in the days after the Ankara bombing and launched air strikes on PKK camps in northern Iraq. Davutoglu said earlier on Tuesday that TAK’s claim of responsibility for the Ankara bombing was a diversionary tactic and that the Kurdish militant groups were all part of the same “terrorist structure.” Turkish police arrested the perpetrator’s father and brother. Both have been detained for “spreading propaganda for a terrorist organization,” and nine more have been taken into custody for attending the TAK member’s condolence ceremony in Van. [Hurriyet, ANF, Reuters, Today’s Zaman, 2/24/2016]

For more in-depth Syria news and analysis, please visit SyriaSource.


MEPs support independence referendum plan in Kurdistan Region
The European People’s Party (EPP) and the European Friends of Kurdistan Group have reiterated their support for the Kurdistan Region in the anticipated referendum on Kurdish independence in a meeting on Tuesday with the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) Representative to the EU, Dlawar Azhgayi. In the meeting, Azhgayi discussed the current situation on the battlefield against ISIS in northern Iraq, reiterating that Peshmerga forces are fighting terrorism on behalf of the world, and that they need to be provided with further international support. Concerning the anticipated referendum on Kurdish independence, Azhgayi asked for EU support for this “natural right of the Kurds.” The EPP delegation promised to continue supporting the Kurdistan Region, and strengthening their relations with Erbil for further cooperation. [Bas News, 2/24/16]

Kurdish Yazidi MP wins International Women’s Rights Award 2016
A global coalition of 25 human rights organizations announced Tuesday that the prestigious International Women’s Rights Award will go this year to Vian Dakhil, a Yazidi member of the Iraqi parliament, and to German psychologist Jan Ilhan Kizilhan, for their “extraordinary and inspiring” work to rescue Yazidi and other women enslaved, assaulted, and sexually abused by ISIS in Syria and Iraq. The award was delivered to MP Dakhil during her participation at the 8th annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, where she said that she is not working for the rights of Kurdish women alone, but rather to protect all the women across the globe. [eKurd, Bas News, 2/23/2016]

Rescued Swedish girl says life under ISIS ‘really hard’
In an interview with a Kurdish TV channel, the 16 year old Swedish girl rescued by Kurdish Special Forces detailed her journey to Iraq via Syria and also said that life in the so-called caliphate was “really hard.” The 16-year old said she had met her boyfriend in mid-2014 after dropping out of school in Sweden and that he duped her into making the journey. The couple set off from Sweden in late May 2015 and made their way across Europe by bus and train until reaching the Turkish border province of Gaziantep and then crossed into Syria. From there, ISIS members ferried them by bus with other men and women to the city of Mosul in neighboring Iraq and provided them with a house, but without electricity or running water. The teenager is currently in Iraq’s Kurdistan region and will be handed over to Swedish authorities. [Reuters, NYT, 2/24/16]


Yemeni army recaptures key base near capital
Yemen’s army and pro-government forces recaptured a strategic military camp near the capital Sana’a on Wednesday. Saudi-led coalition airstrikes destroyed facilities in Fardhat Nahm camp near Sana’a belonging to Houthi militants and forces loyal to ousted former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The destruction of Fardhat Nahm came after coalition forces targeted Houthi militia base camps in Harf Sufyan district of Amran, north of Sana’a. [Al Arabiya, 2/24/2016]

$247 million in aid pledged for Yemen
The Yemen Humanitarian Crisis conference on Wednesday pledged $247 million in aid and increased relief efforts in the war torn country. Dignitaries from the governments of Qatar and Yemen and representatives of various regional and international aid organizations gathered in Doha for the event organized by Qatar Charity to bring renewed attention to the Yemen crisis. [Gulf News, 2/24/2016]

Kuwait asks its citizens to leave Lebanon
The Kuwaiti embassy in Beirut advised its citizens to leave Lebanon on Wednesday. The embassy urged Kuwaitis to take precautions during their travels and to avoid unsafe locations. The embassy also warned Kuwaiti citizens against traveling to Lebanon. The news comes a day after Saudi Arabia and Bahrain issued similar travel warnings regarding Lebanon. The UAE, meanwhile, placed a total ban on its citizens traveling to Lebanon. [Al Arabiya, 2/24/2016]

Saudi Arabia and Qatar nearly triple arms imports amid ISIS threats and Syria, Yemen wars
Saudi Arabia and Qatar have boosted arms imports by more than 275 percent in the last four years, according to a report published recently by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The increased spending on weapons comes as both Middle Eastern countries have grown deeply entangled in regional military conflicts, including in Yemen and Syria. While weapon imports by European states fell by 41 percent in the same time period, the sharp increase in weapon sales to Arab states sent the global arms trade rocketing by 14 percent. Saudi Arabia is today the greatest importer of arms, while the United States remained globally the largest exporter. 9.7 percent of US arms deals went to Saudi Arabia, while 9.1 percent went to the United Arab Emirates. [IB Times, 2/23/2016]

Bahraini opposition leader gets year in prison for 2015 speech
A Bahraini court sentenced an opposition political figure on Wednesday to a year in prison over a speech he made in 2015 calling for change in the kingdom. Former Secretary-General of the Secular National Democratic Action Society Ebrahim Sharif was convicted on a charge of inciting hatred. The court dismissed another charge Sharif faced accusing him of promoting the overthrow of Bahrain’s government. Sharif made the speech in July 2015, just a month after serving over four years in prison for his role in the 2011 protests. In the speech he said opponents of the government engaged in peaceful protests while authorities used violence to put down demonstrations. [AP, 2/24/2016]


Saudi Arabia rules out production cuts
Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi said Tuesday he was confident that more countries would join an agreement to freeze oil output at existing levels in talks expected in March. However, he effectively ruled out production cuts by major crude producers anytime soon. “A freeze is the beginning of a process. If we can get all the major producers to agree not to add additional barrels, then this high inventory we have now will probably decline in due time,” he said, but added that production cuts will not likely occur because he does not believe most producers would remain committed to decreasing their output. Iraqi Oil Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said Tuesday that the success of a freeze depends on unified support among producers. “If some people freeze and others raise, then this is not a good policy,” he said. Head of Iraq’s State Oil Marketing Organization (SOMO) Falah Alamri said that any change in the country’s output would have to be taken jointly with international oil companies. [Reuters, WSJ, NYT, 2/23/2016]

Kurdish oil flows shut as pipeline sabotaged in Turkey
Oil exports from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) are set to be suspended for a second week running, a shipping source said, depriving the region of its main revenue stream. The pipeline to the Turkish port of Ceyhan from fields in northern Iraq, which carries around 600,000 barrels per day (bpd) of crude oil, has been halted since February 17 and is unlikely to resume pumping until February 29. The outage is one of the longest in the past two years. Industry sources have said the pipeline was sabotaged and that crude flows had been turned off due to ongoing security operations in Turkey’s Sirnak province. As a result of the outage, Iraq’s state-run North Oil Company (NOC) has been forced to cut production to around 120,000 bpd from 200,000 bpd. [Reuters, 2/23/2016]

EIB mobilizes EUR 250 million for Tunisia
The European Investment Bank (EIB) has announced EUR 250 million in financing aimed at modernizing Tunisia’s road infrastructure and strengthening support for entrepreneurs. EIB Vice President Roman Escolano said the funding is key for Tunisia’s economic development, social cohesion, and job creation efforts. EUR 150 million will be allocated to modernizing priority roads in greater Tunis, Sfax, and Nabeul. The EIB will also inject EUR 100 million into Tunisia’s economy to provide access to financing for Tunisian small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Escolano also emphasized the EIB’s support for Tunisia’s banking sector. The funds brings total EIB financing for new projects in Tunisia to nearly EUR 1.5 billion since the 2011 revolution. [TAP, EIB (French), 2/23/2016]

Egypt’s value added tax to be set at 10 percent
Egypt’s value added tax (VAT) has been set by the government at a flat rate of 10 percent. The VAT will be applied to each member of the production chain of goods and services, instead of the current sales tax paid by customers. The VAT that the consumer pays when the product comes on the market applies to the cost of the product, minus the cost of the components that have already been taxed. The VAT will raise the price of goods by between 0.5 and 2.5 percent, according to a previous statement by the Finance Ministry. The VAT bill is currently under review by the parliament. [Ahram Online, 2/24/2016]