Top News: Iran accuses Saudi warplanes of attacking its embassy in Yemen

Iran on Thursday said Saudi warplanes had attacked its embassy in Yemen’s capital, a development that would exacerbate tensions between the two feuding powers, and Riyadh said it would investigate the accusation. “Saudi Arabia is responsible for the damage to the embassy building and the injury to some of its staff,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossein Jaber Ansari said on Iranian state television. Residents and witnesses in the capital Sanaa said there was no damage to the embassy building in Hadda district. Tensions between the two countries have heightened since Saudi Arabia’s execution of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr and the subsequent attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran. [Reuters, 1/7/2016]



Former rival presidential candidate Sabbahy slams Sisi regime
Former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahy criticized President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and his regime in an interview Wednesday evening by TV presenter Wael al-Ibrashi. “The way we are being ruled is exactly like Hosni Mubarak’s era, despite four different rulers since the [25 January] 2011 Revolution,” Sabbahy said. He also claimed that Sisi was losing popularity for failing to provide solutions for the Egyptian people. [DNE, 1/7/2016]

Egypt to try six reporters for allegedly defaming minister
An Egyptian prosecutor has referred up to six local journalists to trial for allegedly spreading “false news” that defamed Justice Minister Ahmed al-Zind. Prosecutor Fathi Bayoumi said Wednesday that the six were sent to court after investigators found that they “intentionally published false information to defame” Zind. The reports said Zind, as head of the powerful Judges Club, sold state lands to a relative at below market price. The journalists are: state-owned Al-Ahram website editor-in-chief Hisham Younis and journalist Ahmed Amer, well-known journalist Abdel Haleem Kandeel, editor-in-chief of al-Masreyoon Gamal Sultan, its executive editor-in-chief Mahmoud Sultan, and journalist Iman Yehia. Younis said Zind first filed his report against him in August 2014 before taking the post of Justice Minister. A prosecutor questioned Younis and Amer, but the case was not referred to court. Younis said he is not surprised that the case has resurfaced and was referred to court as “ever since Zind was appointed minister, he has been motioning cases against his person.” [AP, Ahram Online, DNE, Aswat Masriya, Mada Masr, 1/6/2016]

NGO manager detained pending investigations
Giza prosecutors ordered Emad Ramadan, General Manager of the Egyptian Democratic Institute (EDI), detained 45-days pending investigations into charges of unlicensed firearms possession on Tuesday. Ramadan Mostafa, a parliamentary affairs researcher at EDI witnessed the arrest of his manager on Monday, saying that “security forces dressed in civilian clothes stormed the EDI’s office.” Ramadan was later transferred to Boulaq al-Dakrour police station from where he was referred to Giza prosecution authorities. EDI was among the NGOs receiving foreign funding that were raided in 2011. According to Mosatafa, the EDI survived the incident by proving to authorities the legitimacy of its work and its compliance with local laws and regulations. Ramadan himself was accused of illegal weapons possession in 2011, but upon presenting an alibi, the charges against him were dropped. [DNE, 1/6/2016]

Egypt’s Christians celebrate Christmas amid tight security; Sisi visits cathedral during mass
Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Christians flocked to churches Wednesday night to attend mass on Christmas Eve. Police painstakingly searched more than 300 churches in the capital, Cairo, alone for explosive devices, according to police Major General Gamal Halawa. Roadblocks were set up before churches nationwide and cars and motorcycles were temporarily banned from idling in front of them, he added. For the second year in a row, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi paid a visit to Cairo’s St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Cathedral during mass. “Nothing will harm us [Egyptians], whether our economic or political circumstances,” he said during a speech at the cathedral. He apologized to Egypt’s Christians for the “delay” in restoring churches and Christians’ houses that were attacked in the fallout from the military’s ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi in 2013. During the Christmas Eve sermon, Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II thanked Sisi for attending the mass. [AP, Ahram Online, AMAY, Aswat Masriya, 1/7/2016]

For more in-depth Egypt news, please visit EgyptSource


Truck bomb kills 65 at Libyan police training center
In one of the deadliest terror attacks in Libya to date, at least 65 people were killed and 200 wounded on Thursday when a massive truck bomb driven by a suicide bomber exploded at a police training center in Zliten, a coastal town between the capital Tripoli and the port of Misrata. No group has immediately claimed the attack. The explosion occurred when the bomb-laden truck charged through the security gate at the facility and detonated in a large crowd of officers and new police recruits, said Abdul Ghani Ben Zahiya, chief of the Zliten Military Council. Witnesses said residents were ferrying victims to Misrata hospitals in ambulances and cars, many with shrapnel wounds. The town, which is closely allied to Misrata, has been one of the locations for smuggling migrants to the Europe, but has no known extremist presence. The border police was using the base to train 400 police recruits, a Zliten security official said. [Reuters, Libya Herald, AP, AFP, NYT, WSJ, Washington Post, 1/7/2016]

Fires spread to seven tanks at Libyan oil terminals
Fires have spread to seven oil tanks at Libya’s ports of Ras Lanuf and Es Sider following attacks this week by Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) militants, a Petroleum Facilities Guards (PFG) spokesman said on Thursday. Spokesman Ali al-Hassi said five storage tanks were burning at Es Sider and two at Ras Lanuf. National Oil Corporation spokesman Mohammed al-Harari said firefighters have been unable to access the area to tackle the fires due to the security situation. Two tanks were hit by shelling this week and the fires have since spread. Al-Hassi said the PFG remained in control of the area and that there were no clashes on Thursday. An oil official based in eastern Libya estimated that the tanks hold up to 460,000 barrels each. [Reuters, Libya Monitor (subscription), 1/7/2016]

Haftar orders air force to defend oilfields amid fears of further ISIS attacks
The head of the Libyan armed forces, General Khalifa Haftar, has ordered fighter planes at Benghazi’s Benina air force base to move to Ras Lanuf to protect the oil terminals and nearby oil fields from further attacks by Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) fighters. The order follows an accusation from Ibrahim Jadhran, who heads the Petroleum Facilities Guards (PFG) forces that guard the oil facilities in that area, that Haftar’s air force did nothing to defend the oil installations at the Ras Lanuf and Sidra terminals when they were attacked by ISIS on Monday and Tuesday. Aircraft were used to attack ISIS following the attack, but they are said to have come from Misrata. [Libya Herald, 1/6/2016]

UN Envoy says ISIS attacks highlight need for implementation of peace accord
UN Special Envoy to Libya Martin Kobler, who last month helped usher in a UN-brokered political agreement for a national government in the strife-torn country, has said an attack by Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) on oil installations highlights the need for immediate implementation of the accord. “Every wasted day in failure to implement the Libyan Political Agreement is a day of gain for Daesh (an alternative name for ISIS),” Kobler said of the attacks on Es Sider and Ras Lanuf oil terminals, “These oil resources are property of the Libyan people and future generations.” [UN News Centre, UNSMIL, 1/6/2016]

Tunisian Prime Minister reshuffles cabinet
Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid proposed 13 new ministers on Wednesday in a cabinet reshuffle he hopes will boost the effectiveness of his government as it battles jihadist violence and tries to revive the economy. Essid named new ministers of the interior, justice and foreign affairs, among others. He gave no reason for the changes but late last year he said he would replace ministers to increase the efficiency of his government. Essid’s office named Hedi Majdoub as the new interior minister and a former presidential adviser, Khemais Jhinaoui, as foreign minister. A complete list of the new ministers and those remaining in office can be found here. The Prime Ministry’s cabinet must now be approved by an absolute majority in the parliament. Members of Nidaa Tounes have reportedly rejected the replacement of former Interior Minister Najem Gharsalli by Majdoub, while Ennahda representative Abdellatif Mekki has indicated that his party will accept Essid’s new government.
[Reuters, Mosaique FM (French), TAP, 1/6/2016]


Russian activists say have evidence of Russian cluster bombs in Syria
A group of Russian activists said on Thursday they had evidence that Russian aircraft deployed in Syria were armed with cluster bombs, challenging official denials. Last month, Russia’s Defense Ministry denied Human Rights Watch allegations that Russia had either dropped cluster bombs in Syria, provided a new batch to the Syrian air force, or both. But the Conflict Intelligence Team, a group of Russian investigative bloggers, on Thursday published photos and video footage taken from Russian media and the Defense Ministry that the group said showed the munitions at the Hymeymin airbase in Syria, which is used by the Russian air force. Meanwhile, the head of Russia’s Orthodox Church justified the Kremlin’s bombing campaign in Syria, calling it a “defensive war” in an interview released Thursday as the country marked Orthodox Christmas. Patriarch Kirill said Moscow’s military strikes were necessary to protect Russia from “terrorism.” [Reuters, 1/7/2016]

‘Dire situation’ in besieged villages in Syria
The situation in three besieged villages in Syria is “extremely dire,” the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has warned. Activists say civilians have died because of a lack of food and medicine in rebel-controlled Madaya, near Damascus, or died trying to escape. People are also reported to be eating grass to survive in the government-held Fuaa and Kafraya, in the northwestern province of Idlib. The ICRC said it hoped to get aid to all three villages in the coming days. One activist said from Madaya, “Negotiations have no meaning all the time we are besieged, all the time we are hoping for a cup of milk for a child. What are we going to negotiate over? Our dead?” [BBC, Guardian, 1/6/2016]

Syrian army, rebel fire kills 26 around Damascus
Government and rebel bombardment killed up to 26 civilians and wounded dozens in the Syrian capital and a nearby opposition bastion on Wednesday, state media and an activist group said. Mortar rounds fired from the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta region onto residential areas of Damascus left eight civilians dead and 23 wounded, the official SANA news agency reported. The attack came after the army fired rockets onto the Eastern Ghouta town of Douma earlier in the day, killing six civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). Ten other civilians, including a child, were later killed in government air strikes on the town of Hazzeh and one in Mesraba, east of the capital, SOHR said. [AFP, 1/6/2016]

Russia reportedly deploying advisors near Palmyra
Russia has dispatched military advisors west of Palmyra in a bid to shore-up regime military efforts against the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) and protect key airbases on the edge of Syria’s desert, according to an activist media outlet. “Over the past few days Russia has sent small special units and military advisors with extensive experience in mountain and desert combat [to] the area west of the city of Palmyra that is still controlled by regime forces,” All4Syria reported Wednesday. A “regime force” source told the pro-rebel website that “these units will execute command-and-consultation missions, and provide assistance and military advice to regime forces in that area.” [NOW, 1/7/2016]

President Obama says Turkey must withdraw ‘unauthorized’ forces in Iraq
US President Barack Obama has told Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi that, Turkey should wıthdraw any military forces in Iraq that are “not authorized by the Iraqi government.” Relations between Turkey and Iraq have been tense since December 4, 2015, when Turkey deployed additional troops, hundreds of commandos and a small mechanized unit to the Bashiqa camp, which lies near Mosul held by ISIS The move infuriated Iraq to the extent that it brought the issue before the United Nations Security Council, asking it to use it powers to force Turkey to pull its troops from Iraq. Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said on December 30, 2015 that Baghdad would continue to pursue peaceful means but that if “fighting is imposed on us, we will consider it to protect our sovereignty.” [Hurriyet, Reuters, 1/7/2016]

Iraqi Shia militias in mass anti-Saudi protest
Two thousand members and supporters of Iraq’s powerful Shia militias demonstrated Wednesday against Saudi Arabia’s execution of a prominent Shia cleric, which sparked a regional row. The protest took place in central Baghdad at the same time that government officials were attending military parades for Army Day, a national holiday in Iraq. The militiamen were also in their best uniform, carrying flags and banners bearing the portrait of executed cleric Nimr al-Nimr. Most of the big groups in the Popular Mobilization Units were represented. “The boot of a Hashed is worth more than Saudi Arabia,” chanted the crowd which gathered in Tahrir (liberation) square. A leader of the Waad Allah (Promise of God) militia Maytham al-Allaq said, “Our demands to the Iraqi government are clear.…They include the expulsion of the Saudi ambassador from Iraq and return of the Iraqi ambassador from Riyadh.” [AFP, 1/6/2016]

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


Yemeni forces recapture strategic port
Yemeni forces backed by a Saudi-led Arab coalition landed by sea at the Red Sea port of Maydi, in Hajjah Province, near the border with Saudi Arabia late on Wednesday, opening up a new front in a nine-month-old civil war. Hajjah’s neighboring Saada province is a stronghold of the Houthi group, who have seized large parts of northern and central Yemen including the capital from forces loyal to Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi. Major General Adel Qumairi of the pro-government forces told Arabiya TV that his forces had “completely taken control” of the city. [Reuters, 1/7/2016]

China sends envoy to Saudi and Iran amid feud
Amid the escalating tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, China has sent an envoy to the two countries, the foreign ministry said on Thursday, calling on all sides to exercise restraint. Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Ming was currently in Saudi Arabia and would travel on to Iran, ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a daily news briefing. Tensions between the two countries have heightened since Saudi Arabia’s execution of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr and the attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran. [Asharq Al-Awsat, 1/7/2016]

Qatari envoy to Iran recalled over attacks
Qatar recalled its envoy to Tehran on Wednesday in protest over the attacks targeting Saudi Arabia’s missions in in Iran, a Foreign Ministry statement said. “The ministry summoned this morning Qatar’s ambassador to Tehran against the backdrop of attacks on the embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in Tehran,” the agency quoted Director of Asian Affairs Khalid Ibrahim Abdulrahman al-Hamar as saying. The move follows similar actions by neighboring Gulf countries in response to the attack on the Saudi Embassy in Iran. [Al Arabiya, 1/7/2016]

Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Egypt block access to Qatari-owned news website
Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates are blocking access to a Qatari-owned news website in a sign of escalating tension in the region. A spokesperson for Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, which runs The New Arab and its Arabic language version, described the move as surprising and unexplained. In a statement, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed said, “The blocking of these websites goes against the company’s principles of supporting democracy, human rights and liberty, as well as the notion of press freedom.” The sites were particularly popular in those countries that had put the blocks in place, it added. The site, like fellow Qatari news outlet Al Jazeera, has come under fire from Egyptian authorities, which have accused it of being a mouthpiece for the Muslim Brotherhood. [The Guardian, 1/7/2016]


Iran bans imports from Saudi Arabia, faces Saudi boycotts
Iran and Saudi Arabia took further steps to sever commercial ties on Thursday, as Tehran announced a ban on imports from Saudi Arabia and Saudi groups called for boycotts of Iranian products. Iran’s government said it had forbidden imports from Saudi Arabia after a cabinet meeting chaired by President Hassan Rouhani on Thursday morning. The cabinet also reaffirmed a ban on Umrah pilgrimages to Mecca that was imposed in April. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said on Monday that the kingdom was halting air traffic and trade links with Iran, although none of the few Saudi companies with interests in Iran have yet to announce changes to their operations. Saudi Chamber of Commerce leaders said a trade boycott of Iranian products would cause the kingdom little economic harm. [Reuters, 1/7/2016]

Egypt to impose import rules to shore up reserves
Egypt plans to impose new regulations to reduce low-quality imports in an effort to shore up its foreign currency reserves and protect local industries. The regulations will require that foreign factories exporting mostly consumer goods register with Egyptian authorities and provide documentation of licenses and proof of inspection. The regulations would come into effect in late February and cover a wide range of goods, including dairy products, cosmetic items, soft drinks, chocolate, children toys, and furniture. Economists said the decision was aimed at reducing smuggling and informal import activity. One economist estimated that the new import restrictions would help Egypt save about $7 billion annually. However, Head of the Importers Division at the Cairo Chamber of Commerce Ahmed Shiha said the regulations violate agreements under the World Trade Organization, circumventing laws that regulate trade and increase the risk of monopoly. [AP, 1/6/2016]

World Bank cuts Turkey growth forecasts
The World Bank has revised its growth forecast for Turkey in 2016 and 2017 to 3.5 percent from 3.9 percent and 3.5 percent from 3.7 percent respectively. Growth in the country is estimated to have accelerated to 4.2 percent in 2015 from 2.9 percent in 2014, the bank said in its Global Economic Prospects report. “Economic activity has been substantially above expectations, despite geopolitical tensions, as well as continuing policy uncertainty that was amplified by the inconclusive June elections,” the report noted. However, the bank warned that “policy uncertainty remains, as key economic policy decisions of the new government are awaited.” The World Bank said regional growth in the Middle East and North Africa would accelerate to 5.1 percent in 2016, compared to 2.5 percent in 2015. [Anadolu Agency, Hurriyet, 1/7/2016]

Algeria’s energy export volumes fall in first nine months of 2015
Algeria’s energy export volumes dropped 2.8 percent in the first nine months of 2015 due to a 1.9 drop in overall energy output and a 7.5 percent rise in domestic consumption, the Energy Ministry said. The government had already said energy earnings would fall by 50 percent to $34 billion in 2015 before reaching $26.4 billion this year, pushing down reserves to $121 billion. Algeria’s Central Bank Governor Mohamed Laksaci on Wednesday said falling energy revenue would cause foreign exchange reserves to drop to $152.7 billion in the third quarter of 2015 from $178.94 billion at the end of 2014. Laksaci also said the central bank would begin refinancing banks starting in February. [Reuters, 1/6/2016]