Top News: ISIS Seizes Part of Syria’s Palmyra

ISIS militants took control of the northern sector of Syria’s historic city of Palmyra Wednesday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. State television said, “Armed forces targeted ISIS terrorist groups north of Palmyra and blocked their infiltration of the northern parts of the city.” It was the second time ISIS has overrun northern Palmyra after it seized the same neighborhoods Saturday but held them for less than twenty-four hours. In Hasakah province, Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) backed by US-led airstrikes have killed at least 170 ISIS militants in an attack near the town of Tel Tamr.[BBCAPReutersAFP, 5/20/2015]



Egypt’s Judges Club head appointed new justice minister
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Wednesday named a controversial senior judge known for his deep hostility toward the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood as justice minister. Ahmed al-Zend was a key player in a conflict in 2013 between the judiciary and Islamist parties over proposed changes to the judicial powers law. The amendments, which were not passed, would have seen the retirement age of judges reduced from 70 to 60, effectively forcing a quarter of Egypt’s serving 13,000 judges into early retirement. Zend is also known for strongly advocating the controversial right to appoint the sons of judges within the judiciary. “The sons of judges will continue to be appointed annually,” the state-run al-Ahram quoted Zend as saying. “No power in Egypt will stop this holy crawl toward its judiciary.” In a speech from last year posted on YouTube, Zend denounced Egypt’s 2011 uprising, saying it allowed the Brotherhood to seize power. [Ahram Online, DNE , Egypt Independent, AP, Reuters, Aswat Masriya, Mada Masr, 5/20/2015]

Endowments ministry preachers to be forced into retirement if they protest
The endowments ministry has circulated a press release to all of its departments in various governorates threatening to force any employee or imam into early retirement if he protests or stages a sit-in inside the ministry’s headquarters. The release was attached to a judicial ruling giving the ministry the right to impose these measures if protests are carried out at its headquarters. “Whoever objects to the decision should file a lawsuit,” said Head of the Religious Sector of the Endowments Ministry Mohamed Abdel Razeq. Head of the preachers, Mohamed al-Bastawisy, expressed the union’s rejection of the decision, adding that the Endowments Minister issued the decision so that no one could ask for his dismissal or denounce his policies. “No one has the right to force a public official into early retirement and the Constitution guarantees the right for anyone to demonstrate,” he said. “The endowments’ imams will not accept the gagging policy because we are fed up,” said Bastawisy. [Egypt Independent, 5/20/2015]

Egypt court schedules defense hearing after prisoners executed
An administrative court has set June second as the date to hear defense lawyers file a case to stop the execution of six defendants who were hung on Sunday in the ‘Arab Sharkas’ case. A lawyer had filed the case in front of the administrative court, claiming that the presidential decision to approve the death sentences was unconstitutional, Al-Ahram Arabic news website reported. [Ahram Online, 5/20/2015]

German parliament rescinds invitation to meet with Sisi in June, cites human rights concerns
Head of the German Parliament Norbert Lammert canceled a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi scheduled for early June due to concerns regarding “the human rights situation in Egypt,” German newspaper Der Spiegel reported on Tuesday. In a statement issued by the German Parliament, Lammert criticized the current political situation in Egypt. The statement said, “Since no efforts seem to have been made toward maintaining the peace in Egypt or towards democratic development,” he “sees no basis for a conversation with the Egyptian president.” Egypt’s foreign ministry denied Tuesday that it had requested a meeting between Lammert Sisi, when he visits Germany in June. A spokesperson at the Federal Press Office in Berlin said Wednesday that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s invitation to Sisi to visit Germany in June “remains.” [Mada Masr, 5/19/2015]

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One dead in clashes between Libya’s Tripoli government and ISIS; Tobruk soldiers protest
Forces loyal to a Libya’s Tripoli-based government fought Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) fighters near the town of Sirte on Wednesday, killing one person and wounding seven. Fighting broke out between ISIS militants and members of the Misrata-based Brigade 166 that led to the death of at least one Misratan. Meanwhile, a group of army protesters blockaded the entrance to the regional military headquarters in Tobruk, claiming they had not been paid for nearly a year, stopped after being promised that they would be given a month’s back pay and the rest in installments. They claimed to have not been paid since February 2014. [Reuters, Libya Herald, 5/20/2015]

Libya sends special envoy to discuss migrant plan with EU
Libya’s Tobruk government sent a special envoy to speak with the European Union (EU) about its proposed military operation to destroy the boats of human traffickers who increasingly set off for Europe from the chaotic North African country. Some kind of consent from Libya is needed if the EU wants to operate in the country’s territorial waters. Tobruk released a statement explaining its eagerness to cooperate to prevent the flow of migrants, but did not say whether Libya would accept an EU mission in its territorial waters. [AP, 5/19/2015]

Man suspected in Tunisia museum attack arrested in Italy
Italy has arrested a Moroccan man on suspicion of helping to organize the March attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunisia that killed twenty-two people. Abdelmajid Touil was arrested Tuesday night on a Tunisian arrest warrant at the home of his mother and two brothers in Gaggiano, near Milan. The accusations in the Tunisian arrest warrant against Touil include premeditated murder, conspiracy to commit attacks against the state, belonging to a terrorist group, and recruiting and training others to commit terrorist attacks. The only trace that Italian authorities had of Touil prior to his arrest was that he had arrived in Italy on February 17 along with migrants from a smuggler’s boat, but they were unsure how or if he left Italy and returned. [AP, 5/20/2015]

55 percent of Tunisians believe freedom of speech under threat
A recent poll found that 55 percent of Tunisians believe their freedom of speech is under threat by the government. The poll conducted by Emrhod Consulting for Tunisian media found that 54.7 percent of those surveyed believe that the government is silencing critics compared to just 42 percent when Beji Caid Essebsi first took office in January this year. Also, 46 percent of Tunisians are satisfied with the performance of new Prime Minister Habib Essid and 45 percent are pleased with President Beji Caid Essebsi. Worryingly, just four in ten Tunisians remain positive about the country’s economic prospects in the future. [Tunisia Live, 5/19/2015]

Deaths of Tunisian journalists in Libya called into question
Two Tunisian journalists who disappeared in Libya could still be alive, Tunisia’s Foreign Minister said Tuesday, calling into question reports that they were killed by the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL). Foreign Minister Taieb Baccouche said further proof is needed to confirm Sofiene Chourabi and Nadhir Ktari are dead, instead stating that the information he has today confirms that they are still alive. A Tunisian investigative judge is in Libya trying to determine their fate. He has run into difficulties given ISIS control of the area where the journalists disappeared. [AP, TAP/All Africa, 5/19/2015]

Algerian forces kill twenty-two militants in northern region
Algerian security forces killed at least twenty-two militants in a major operation in a region east of the capital, according to the Defense Ministry. The army is still pursuing other members of the group and the statement did not give further details or mention the affiliation of the fighters involved. The operation took place east of Algiers near Bouira, which was part of a region known for being a stronghold for militants during the Algerian civil war. [Reuters/Al Arabiya, 5/20/2015]


Rebels seize key regime base in Idlib province
Rebels from the Jaysh al-Fatah (Army of Conquest) coalition seized the Syrian regime’s largest remaining military base in northwestern Idlib province Tuesday. The loss of Mastouma base leaves only a few positions in regime hands in the province. “All regime forces have withdrawn from Mastouma, the largest regime base in Idlib, leaving it completely in the hands of opposition fighters,” according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Houssam Abu Bakr, a leader in the Ahrar al-Sham group, which is a member of the Army of Conquest, said the fighters would continue their push towards Ariha and other areas. [AFP, Al Arabiya, BBC, NY Times, 5/19/2015]

ISIS seizes part of Syria’s Palmyra
ISIS militants took control of the northern sector of Syria’s historic city of Palmyra Wednesday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. State television said, “Armed forces targeted ISIS terrorist groups north of Palmyra and blocked their infiltration of the northern parts of the city.” It was the second time ISIS has overrun northern Palmyra after it seized the same neighborhoods Saturday but held them for less than twenty-four hours. In Hasakah province, Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) backed by US-led airstrikes have killed at least 170 ISIS militants in an attack near the town of Tel Tamr.[BBC, AP, Reuters, AFP, 5/20/2015]

Attack on Russian embassy in Syria condemned
The United Nations and the United States condemned Tuesday a mortar attack on the Russian embassy in Damascus that did not cause any known injuries. Lithuanian Ambassador Raimonda Murmokaite, whose country holds the UN Security Council presidency this month, said the “terrorist” attack caused “serious damage.” The Council stressed that host countries have an obligation to “take all appropriate steps to protect diplomatic and consular premises.” The Council also stressed the need to bring the perpetrators of the attack to justice. Earlier in the day, Moscow said the mortar fire appeared to have come from the Jobar neighborhood. [Al Arabiya, AFP, 5/20/2015]

International meeting on Iraq and Syria in Paris June 2
An international meeting on the conflicts in Iraq and Syria will take place in Paris on June 2, French government spokesman Stephane Le Foll said Wednesday. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced at a cabinet meeting “that there would be a meeting in Paris on the whole situation in Syria and Iraq,” Le Foll said, adding that Secretary of State John Kerry would attend. The last such summit was held in Paris in September and saw representatives from around thirty countries and international organizations meet to come up with a strategy to combat the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL). [AFP, 5/20/2015]


Yemeni dialogue conference signs treaty on crisis
A Yemeni dialogue conference being held in Riyadh signed an agreement on Tuesday, the third and last day of the meeting. A spectrum of Yemeni political parties participating in the conference, excluding Houthis and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh – inked what has been termed as the “Riyadh Document.” The document included articles that urge the establishment of an army, demanding from international organizations to withhold any dealings with “coup leaders,” a reference to Houthi militias. The Document also pledged to discuss the draft of the constitution to encourage public debate and plan a referendum. Regarding Yemen’s south, the document pledged to guarantee Yemenis the right to decide the political importance of the south within the framework of a united republic. In order to “guarantee the implementation of the document,” the conference agreed to establish a national committee to supervise the enactment of the Riyadh Document. [Al Arabiya, Yemen Post, Yemen Times, 5/19/2015]

Houthi targets hit by Saudi strikes on Yemen
Saudi-led strikes targeted Houthi depots in several places across Yemen early Wednesday. The coalition strikes hit ammunition warehouses and Houthi militiamen in the cities of Sanaa and Amran, and targeted Saada airport. There has been no word on casualties yet. The coalition also carried out four raids on militia locations in the port and coastal town of Zinjibar in the Abyan governorate, including a battalion under the control of the insurgents. Clashes erupted between Popular Resistance forces and Houthi-allied Republican Guard forces in the city of Lawdar, after the latter had tried to withdraw from its locations across the city following the airstrikes.[Al Arabiya, 5/20/2015]

Houthis push for Iran participation in UN peace talks
The Houthis have informed the new UN envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, that they want Iran to be included in any peace talks sponsored by the UN. A senior Houthi figure was quoted saying that Iran will participate in the Geneva conference called for by Ould Cheikh. The Houthis are currently boycotting a three-day conference on Yemen in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia that seeks to find a political solution to the crisis. [Al-Arabiya, 5/19/2015]

Iran ship heads towards Red Sea amid fears of Yemen showdown
An Iranian cargo ship heading to Yemen is expected to cross into the Red Sea on Thursday amid fears of a showdown with Saudi-led forces enforcing restrictions on Yemeni ports. The approaching vessel threatens to broaden a regional confrontation over Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Muslim allies have launched almost two months of attacks on Houthi fighters it says are armed by Shi’ite power Iran. By crossing the strait, the Iranian ship will sail past Djibouti where the United Nations is coordinating aid for Yemen. American officials have called on Iran to divert the ship to Djibouti to allow the ship’s cargo to be inspected. [Reuters, 5/20/2015]


IMF extends standby loan for Tunisia; data shows fall in industrial activity
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) announced that it has extended a standby loan for Tunisia by seven months in order to give the North African nation more time to enact banking and fiscal reforms. The IMF approved a $1.75 billion standby arrangement for Tunisia in June 2013, of which about $1.15 billion has been disbursed. The seven-month extension keeps the loan in place until the end of this year. Official data showed on Wednesday that Tunisia’s economic growth slowed to 1.7 percent year on year as industrial activity declined. Four towns began a general strike in against unemployment in response to the slowed industrial activity. [Reuters, 5/19/2015]

Egypt opens new power plant as peak energy season approaches
Egypt has opened a 750 megawatt power plant in the northern outskirts of Cairo as the country tries to stave off power cuts that have plagued Egyptian lives and businesses in the summer months of the last few years. The $500 million plant in Qalyubia is part of the state’s 2012-2017 plan to provide environmentally friendly electricity. In addition to investing in new plants, Egypt has secured a floating liquefied natural gas (LNG) import terminal and signed LNG import agreements with Russia and Algeria. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources said there is no intention to raise fuel prices after a new smart card system is introduced. [Reuters, 5/19/2015]

Saudi Arabia, partners turn down Chinese requests for extra oil
Saudi Arabia and its main Middle East partners in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) are turning down Chinese requests for extra oil as they hold back fuel for their own refineries in response to record demand. While Saudi and other refusals for additional crude supplies may not be part of a new pricing strategy, the rejections to their biggest client help explain a 40 percent rise in oil prices this year as Chinese importers have had to seek more oil from other suppliers. A source said Chinese requests for more crude from Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were similarly turned down. [Reuters, 5/20/2015]

Libya’s NOC chief sees higher oil prices, not relying on OPEC
The head of Libya’s National Oil Corp (NOC), Mustafa Sanallah, said that the NOC is working to boost output and regain market share taken by other producers. He said he expects oil prices to rise starting in the second half of this year and to continue to rise in 2016. He added that Libya hopes to increase the amount of oil it is pumping by 200,000 barrels per day (bpd), from the current 436,000 bpd, in the next two months by repairing damaged fields and engaging with those who have blocked pipelines and fields. Libya’s El Feel oilfield remains closed due to a strike by security guards, the NOC said Wednesday. [Reuters, 5/19/2015]