Top News: Houthis and Saudis agree on border truce and prisoner swap

Houthi militants have freed a Saudi soldier in return for seven detained Yemenis as part of a tribal-mediated border truce agreed by both sides, the Saudi-led coalition said Wednesday. The agreement reached during a visit by a Yemeni tribal delegation to the kingdom is the first of its kind since the Saudi-led coalition began a military campaign against the rebels in March last year.The frontier between war-ravaged Yemen and its northern neighbor has seen many deadly incidents over the past 12 months. Yemen’s delegation sought to negotiate a truce “along the border with the kingdom to allow the entry of medical and humanitarian aid to Yemeni towns near the theater of operations,” the coalition statement said. [AFP, 3/9/2016]



Egypt parliament approves new bylaws
Egypt’s parliament approved on Tuesday its new internal bylaws that will regulate the conduct of MPs over the next five years. Over the past three months, since parliament’s first session, the proceedings were regulated by the 1979 bylaws. At the end of the debates on Tuesday, parliament speaker Ali Abdel-Al said that “this is parliament’s first concrete achievement and these bylaws are slated to reinforce parliament’s supervisory and legislative powers.” Bahaa al-Din Abu Shoqa, the Wafd Party MP and chairman of the committee that drafted the bylaws, said that “parliament’s new bylaws are a new step towards democracy in Egypt.” Abu Shoqa explained that a six-member committee will be created to put the new bylaws in their final form. “This is a necessary step ahead of referring the bylaws to the State Council to revise them in legal and constitutional terms,” said Abu Shoqa. The final debates on parliament’s bylaws saw significant changes on Monday and Tuesday. Meanwhile, parliament voted on Tuesday in favor of barring MP Kamal Ahmed from attending parliamentary sessions for the remainder of the year for assaulting a fellow MP. A disciplinary committee said Ahmed violated parliamentary ethics and rules when he hit his colleague Tawfik Okasha with his shoe. In a plenary session held on February 28, Ahmed hit Okasha with his shoe in protest against the latter holding a dinner meeting with the Israeli Ambassador to Egypt Haim Koren. [Ahram Online, DNE, 3/8/2016]

Interior Ministry says Kerdasa Massacre defendant killed in Giza
The Ministry of Interior said in a statement Wednesday that police killed a “wanted militant” in an exchange of fire with police in Giza. The suspect was sentenced to death on charges of storming the Kerdasa police station and killing 11 police officers and two civilians in August 2013. Police say he was also sentenced to life in a separate case on charges of theft, and to another three years on charges of betrayal of trust. According to the ministry statement, the suspect was gunned down in his car by police after he refused to give himself up in an ambush in the Giza neighborhood of Hadayek al-Ahram. The statement added that after searching his car, police found a machine gun and dozens of bullets. [Cairo Post, 3/9/2016]

Lawyer representing cases of forced disappearances reported missing
The father of lawyer Islam Salama reported him missing on Wednesday, stating that his son was arrested in a security raid on his residence early Tuesday in Gharbiya. Salama was working on several cases involving forced disappearances, lawyers told Mada Masr. Ahmed Salama said security forces arrested his son on Tuesday from his home in the town of Zifta, adding that all attempts to identify his son’s whereabouts, or the nature of the charges leveled against him, were unsuccessful. Rights lawyer Mohamed al-Baqer says no further information has been revealed regarding the whereabouts of the missing lawer. Salama has defended people who were allegedly disappeared, tortured, and arbitrarily arrested, as well as political detainees. Salama has also represented defendants in several high profile cases, including the Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis case. Baqer said the Lawyers’ Syndicate has “done nothing” regarding the incident, adding that the Interior Ministry is “blatantly” attacking lawyers.  According to Daily News Egypt, a group of lawyers protested outside the Lawyers Syndicate, demanding security officials reveal Salama’s whereabouts. According to Sayyida Qandil, a civil rights lawyer, and one of the participants the syndicate’s Freedoms Committee refused to participate in the protest. [DNE, Mada Masr, Cairo Post, 3/9/2016]

Social Solidarity Ministry dissolves 28 Brotherhood-affiliated NGOs in Qalyubia
Social Solidarity Minister Ghada Wali ordered on Wednesday the dissolution of 28 non-governmental organizations in Egypt’s Delta governorate of Qalyubia over alleged affiliations with the Muslim Brotherhood. The ministry also decided to freeze the activities of 36 other NGOs, forming a committee to manage them pending investigation, Deputy Social Solidarity Minister Mohamed al-Sayed said.  According to Wali, the confiscated assets and properties of the dissolved NGOs are to be transferred to a governmental fund established to support governmental organizations and national bodies, in accordance with a 2002 law regulating NGOs. [Cairo Post, 3/9/2016]

For more in-depth Egypt news, please visit EgyptSource


Tunisia forces clash with militants, seven killed in border town
Tunisian security forces have killed seven gunmen in further clashes near the Libyan border, bringing the number of assailants killed since the raid on Ben Guerdane on Monday to 43. At least 55 people died on Monday in Ben Guerdane during an attack by Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) fighters. Security forces supported by helicopters are trying to track down armed attackers who fled and are thought to be holed up in uninhabited houses in the region. Military raids late on Tuesday and into Wednesday morning recovered weapons and at least ten other people have been arrested, a security source said. [Reuters, AP, TAP, 3/9/2016]

US commander in Africa says Libya is a failed state
Libya is a failed state, according to the top US general in Africa, who said that foreign fighters, weapons, and illegal migrants are flowing through the North African country, supplying the conflicts in Syria and Iraq with combatants and threatening US allies. In testimony Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Army General David Rodriguez said the recent agreement to form a unity government in Tripoli is an important step. Yet even with strong international support, the new government will struggle for the “foreseeable future” to establish its authority and secure Libya’s people and borders, he said. Rodriguez estimated that it would take at least 10 years to achieve long-term stability in Libya. [AP, 3/9/2016]

Libya’s eastern parliament condemns Serraj visit to Jakarta
The House of Representatives (HOR) once more failed to reach quorum on Tuesday, preventing the body from debating the Government of National Accord proposed by Prime Minister-designate Fayez Serraj. The parliament did, however, release a statement condemning Serraj for attending the Islamic summit in Jakarta on the grounds that his presence violated the 2011 Constitutional Declaration. Until approval of the UN-brokered Libyan Political Agreement is finalized, it said, executive powers in Libya are held by the HOR and the interim government of Abdullah al-Thinni. In the west, the Tripoli public prosecutor has threatened three members of the Presidency Council’s Temporary Security Committee with treason charges, based on accusations of collaboration with foreign bodies and an attempt to overthrow the Libyan government. [Libya Herald, 3/8/2016]

Italy says no ransom paid for Italian hostages in Libya
Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni says no ransom was paid to win the release of Italian hostages held for nearly eight months in Libya. Two of the hostages escaped last week after being left unattended in a hideout in the western Libyan city of Sabratha, while the other two died in a shootout while being transferred to another location. Gentiloni told the Senate on Wednesday that the kidnappings last July appears to have been carried out by local criminal groups. He said there was no evidence that ISIS was involved and said that there had never been any claims of responsibility. [AP, 3/9/2016]

Morocco accuses UN’s Ban of dropping neutral tone in Western Sahara dispute
Morocco’s government has accused UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon of no longer being neutral in the Western Sahara conflict, saying he used the word “occupation” to describe Morocco’s presence in the region. Ban said last week he would restart UN efforts to reach a solution after visiting camps in southern Algeria for the Polisario Front leadership and refugees who fled the conflict. “The kingdom of Morocco has noticed … the Secretary-General has dropped his neutrality and impartiality and has shown a guilty indulgence with a puppet state without attributes, territory, population, nor a recognized flag,” a statement from the Moroccan government said. [Reuters, 3/9/2016]


US says air strike likely killed a top ISIS military commander in Syria
The equivalent of a defense minister to the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) is believed to have been killed in a US air strike in northeastern Syria according to a US official. The Pentagon said Tuesday the target of the March 4 attack was Omar al-Shishani, a red-bearded Georgian fighting with the group in Syria, cautioning that results of the operation were still being assessed. One official speaking on condition of anonymity later said Shishani “likely died” in the assault by waves of US warplanes and drones, along with 12 other ISIS fighters. Al-Shishani is the nom de guerre of Tarkhan Batirashvili, who ranked among the most wanted under a US program with a $5 million bounty on his head. [AFP, Reuters, BBC, WSJ, 3/9/2016]

UN sees no halt in Syria truce, talks to run to March 24
Syria’s cessation of hostilities is open-ended in the view of the United Nations and the major powers, UN Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura said Wednesday, brushing off a widespread perception that the truce needed renewing after two weeks. De Mistura plans to launch “substantive, deeper” talks on Monday between the Syrian government and opposition representatives, though they will still be “proximity” rather than direct talks. The talks will focus on the core issues of governance, elections within 18 months, and a new constitution, not to run beyond March 24 when there would be a break before resuming. Secretary of State John Kerry and his French, German, British, and Italian counterparts will meet Sunday in Paris to discuss the Syrian crisis ahead of the planned talks in Geneva. According to French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, the five diplomats will examine the status of the ceasefire in effect since February 27 and “if everything is going forward as we hope … encourage the opposition to return to the negotiating table.” [Reuters, AFP, 3/9/2016]

US military said to need a boost in fight against ISIS, requests restart of train and equip
The head of US armed forces in the Middle East Gen. Lloyd Austin told Congress on Tuesday that the United States will need to employ more military resources to take back key areas of Iraq and Syria, adding he recently made recommendations for that phase of the fight against ISIS. “As we look towards Raqqa [in Syria] and Mosul [in Iraq], clearly there will be things that we will want to do to increase the capability a bit, to be able to increase the pace of operations, and that will require some additional capability,” Austin said. Austin also said the US military has requested permission from the administration to restart a halted program to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels, stating, “I’ve asked for permission to restart the effort by using a different approach.” Head of Special Operations Command General Joseph Votel said the broad strategy to work with local ground forces to isolate ISIS in Raqqa does not yet amount to a plan to storm the city. [WSJ, 3/9/2016]

Turkey ends sweep in Kurdish town of Idil, says 114 militants killed
A counterterrorism operation by Turkish security forces in the southeastern district of Idil came to an end Tuesday, a security source said. The 20-day operation in the district in Sirnak province resulted in the killing of 114 PKK terrorists and the seizure of weapons including rocket launchers, hand grenades, and long-barreled weapons. Meanwhile, security sources said three new police stations will be constructed in Idil as part of new measures to prevent the creation of barricades and trenches by PKK militants in the future. Three new checkpoints will also be built in the district’s entries and exits, with around 750 riot and counterterrorism police forces to be deployed at checkpoints and police stations in the area. A blanket curfew, which went into effect on February 16, remains in place in the neighborhoods of Idil. [AP, Hurriyet, Anadolu Agency, 3/9/2016]

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


ISIS detainee tells US officials of plan to use mustard gas
An Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) detainee currently in American custody at a temporary detention facility in Erbil, Iraq, is a specialist in chemical weapons whom American military officials are questioning about the group’s plans to use the banned substances in Iraq and Syria, defense officials said. Defense officials said the detainee, described by the military as a “significant” ISIS operative who was captured a month ago by commandos in an elite American Special Operations force, has, under interrogation, provided details about how the group had weaponized mustard gas into powdered form and loaded it into artillery shells. One defense official said that it was not concentrated enough to kill anyone, but that it could maim people. [NYT, 3/9/2016]

WFP says serious food shortages in Fallujah, besieged by Iraqi army
According to the World Food Program (WFP), humanitarian disaster is looming in the western city of Fallujah, an ISIS stronghold under siege by security forces, where tens of thousands of people face food shortages. Fuel and cooking oil are no longer available and the price of a kilo of flour leaped to $20 in January, up more than 800 percent from December, the WFP said. WFP spokeswoman Marwa Awad stated, “The humanitarian situation in Fallujah is dire and residents need immediate assistance … We are aware that no food is going into the city and that militant groups are controlling the remaining food supplies.” The Iraqi army, police, and Shia militias backed by coalition air strikes imposed a near total siege late last year on Fallujah. Since September 2015, the WFP has been unable to access the city and of the estimated 30,000 – 60,000 residents are surviving on potatoes and other local food after moving to rural areas on the outskirts of the city. [Reuters, 3/8/2016]

US Army plane crashes in Iraq, crew uninjured
A US military aircraft with four crew members crashed in Iraq on Saturday, but none were injured and initial reports ruled out hostile action, a Department of Defense official said on Tuesday. Admiral John Richardson said that Navy helicopters rescued four crew members on Saturday after the aircraft’s emergency landing and the rescue mission was launched from Erbil in northern Iraq. The plane was a twin turboprop, fixed-wing aircraft and the cause of the crash was under investigation. [Reuters, the Washington Post, 3/8/2016]

Japan gives $15 million to UN-Habitat projects in Iraq
Japan has given the United Nations Human Settlements Program (UN-Habitat) $15 million to implement two projects in Iraq. Under the project titled “Gender-Sensitive Durable Shelter Support for IDPs in Iraq,” UN-Habitat aims to provide dignified and durable solution to protracted humanitarian crisis through establishment of gender-sensitive IDP shelter sites equipped with durable prefabricated shelters as well as basic infrastructure and public facilities. The Government of Japan also supports UN-Habitat to tackle the crisis in Iraq from a different angle, aiming to promote urban recovery of newly liberated areas and in targeted areas in Iraq and facilitate returns under the project titled “Promoting Urban Recovery in Newly Liberated Areas in Iraq.” [Iraq Business News, UN-Habitat, 3/8/2016]

UN expert urges Iraqi government to protect marginalized ethnic, religious groups
Speaking at the end of her first official visit to Iraq, UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues Rita Izsák-Ndiaye said, “A clear message must be sent to all of Iraq’s diverse communities that they have a future in the country … the message from the government must come in the form of legal, policy and institutional protection frameworks with immediate and concrete measures to ensure their security, dignity, rights and equality.” Since February 27, Izsák-Ndiaye had been assessing the situation of minority communities throughout Iraq. “Due to years of marginalization, conflict, ethnic and religious tensions, and recent terrorism, communities seem to have lost trust in each other and in the government.” She said that while the Iraqi government must prioritize the clear and immediate danger posed by ISIS, the challenges that many minority groups face do not begin or end with the group. [UN News Centre, 3/8/2016]


Ministers ban Hezbollah media in GCC
The Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) information ministers agreed on Tuesday to take all legal measures to ensure there are no deals or agreements with any channel connected in any way with Lebanon’s Hezbollah or any of its leaders or affiliates. The agreement was reached as the ministers of the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia met in Riyadh to discuss ways to implement the decision taken on March 2 by the GCC and at the meeting of the Arab interior ministers to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist group. The designation was based on the charges that Hezbollah was a group that incited hatred, chaos, and violence in a blatant violation of the sovereignty, security, and stability of GCC and Arab countries. [Gulf News, 3/9/2016]

US presses Saudi Arabia not to further punish Lebanon economically
The Obama administration is pressuring Saudi Arabia not to take further steps to punish Lebanon economically in retaliation for the growing political power amassed in Beirut by Hezbollah, US and Arab officials said Tuesday. The dispute over Lebanon marks the latest foreign policy rift to emerge between Washington and Riyadh, particularly concerning the regional role played by Iran and its proxies. Senior US diplomats, including Secretary of State John Kerry, have privately warned Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states that they were overreacting and risked destabilizing Lebanon’s broader economy. [The Wall Street Journal, 3/8/2016]


Egypt further eases restrictions on foreign currency
The Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) removed caps on foreign exchange deposits and withdrawals for companies importing essential goods on Wednesday to increase liquidity in the dollar-starved economy. The decision came a day after the CBE lifted caps on withdrawals by individuals. “The initial [reactions] of the bank’s decisions started to show today, as the currency market appeared calm after [people] realized that they can withdraw and deposit at anytime,” said CBE Governor Tarek Amer. He also said on Tuesday that removing caps on individuals would help the CBE increase Egypt’s foreign reserves to $25 billion by the end of 2016. The CBE also held a meeting with foreign exchange bureaus in an effort to keep black market rates under control. Exchange bureau sources said the meeting resulted in putting a limit on the black market’s dollar value. “The agreement was not to exceed the 9.25 pounds to the dollar price on the parallel market in return for the central bank not interfering with exchange bureaus,” a source said. [Bloomberg, Reuters, 3/9/2016]

Senior Saudi prince says jobs are top priority
Saudi Arabia’s Prince Sultan bin Salman said Tuesday the kingdom has focused on job creation. The Prince said the fall in oil prices has prompted Saudi Arabia to rethink its economic and spending policies. “I think it’s good to go into a mode in Saudi where we begin to re-eye the economy,” he said. When oil prices were higher, he said, the government did not do enough to diversify the economy. “I have been in fact criticizing, if you like, the government’s funding of so many sectors that have not yet produced the jobs, so many sectors that have not really added value to the economy,” he said. The Prince, who heads the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, said the kingdom’s tourism industry can create such jobs for Saudis. In an effort to provide more jobs to Saudi citizens, the Ministry of Labor also said Tuesday that it will ban foreign workers from the mobile phone industry. [AP, 3/8/2016]

Saudi Arabia seeks $6-8 billion bank loan
Saudi Arabia is seeking a bank loan of between $6 billion and $8 billion in what would be the first significant foreign borrowing by the Saudi government in over a decade. Riyadh has asked lenders to submit proposals to extend it a five-year US dollar loan, sources said. Last week, Saudi Arabia had asked banks to discuss the idea of an international loan, but details were not specified. London-based advisory firm Verus Partners, set up by former Citigroup bankers, is advising the Saudi government on the loan, sources said. The firm has sent requests for proposals to a small group of banks on behalf of the Saudi Ministry of Finance. [Reuters, 3/9/2016]

Oil exporters to meet this month  to discuss freeze
The world’s largest oil exporters both in and outside the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) plan to meet in Moscow on March 20 to discuss an output freeze, Iraq’s Deputy Oil Minister Fayadh al-Nema said. “[Iraq] is prepared to cooperate to discuss a plan to freeze production levels with the most prominent oil producers in the world and to guarantee that Russia and Saudi Arabia, the biggest oil producers and exporters, will sit at the negotiating table.” Russia’s Energy Ministry spokeswoman said Wednesday that no date has been set for a possible meeting between OPEC and non-OPEC nations. Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak said last week that a meeting between OPEC and other leading oil producers could take place between March 20 and April 1, possibly in Russia, Vienna, or Doha. On Tuesday, Kuwait’s acting Oil Minister Anas al-Saleh said Kuwait will commit to a potential global oil production freeze if major oil producers join the pact. [Reuters, 3/9/2016]

Standard Chartered in talks on $2 billion Iraq bond sale
London-based Standard Chartered Plc is in talks with Iraq’s Finance Ministry to take part in a $2 billion bond sale this year. The bank is also holding talks with other government institutions about their financing needs, Chief Executive Officer in Iraq Andreas Meletiou said Tuesday. “We also want to partner with the [Iraqi] government in their efforts to rebuild Iraq and assist in the modernization of the banking sector,” Meletiou said. “We have been in discussions with the Ministry of Finance on its $2 billion bond issuance, anticipated to take place in 2016.” Meletiou said the bank’s main focus in Iraq is to serve international clients operating in the country’s power, water, oil, gas, telecoms, and infrastructure industries. [Bloomberg, 3/9/2016]