Top News: Presidency Council members arrive in Tripoli; Tripoli declares State of Emergency

Unconfirmed reports say that that four members of the Presidency Council have arrived in Tripoli to prepare for the arrival of Prime Minister-designate Faiez Serraj and rest of the Council. The four are Deputy Prime Ministers-designate Ahmed Maetig, Fathi Majberi, and Abdelsalam Kajman, with Minister for Specialized Councils Affairs Mohamed Ammari accompanying them. Officials working with Council have refused to confirm or deny the reports, but Tripoli Prime Minister Khalifa Ghwell announced a state of emergency shortly after reports of their arrival in the capital started to circulate. In a statement, the so-called National Salvation government in Tripoli said Thursday that it tasked the Defense Ministry, militias and security apparatus to “take all security measures necessary to preserve the country’s stability by increasing patrols and security checks.” [Libya Herald, AP, AFP, 3/25/2016]



Egypt’s cabinet approves bill facilitating industrial project permits
Egypt’s cabinet approved a bill on Thursday that would ease the issuing of permits for new industrial projects by reducing the registration period, the Ministry of Industry and Foreign Trade announced in a press release. The new bill would allow applicants for an industrial facility permit to operate after notifying the relevant administrative authority, with the exception of projects with high risk to the environment. According to ministry head Tarek Qabil, the new law would simplify procedures for issuing industrial licenses and remove red tape. “The proposed law would address the issues of granting operating licenses, such as delays, which is a major deterrent to foreign investment,” Qabil said, adding that “the new draft law will reduce the current duration of issuing licenses, from 634 days to just 30 days, which represents a significant administrative revolution in the investment climate in Egypt.” He also explained that the law would contribute to the activation of the Central Bank of Egypt’s (CBE) initiative to provide EGP 200 billion for financing SMEs and enable these entities to benefit from available concessional financing. The draft law will be submitted shortly to the parliament for discussion, Qabil added. [Ahram Online, DNE, 3/24/2016]

Police say murdered Italian student’s bag found with gang
Egypt’s Interior Ministry said in a statement Thursday that security forces had retrieved a bag and passport belonging to murdered Italian student Giulio Regeni that was in the possession of a criminal gang impersonating policemen who had been killed in a shootout. The Interior Ministry said that a red handbag bearing the Italian flag was found, and inside it was Regeni’s passport and other items such as a visa card, two cell phones, a “feminine wallet” with the word love on it, and a dark substance resembling hashish. “A highly skilled investigation team was formed to uncover the mystery of several reported forced robberies and incidents of impersonating police officers,” the ministry said in a statement. The ministry added that the gang had robbed several Egyptians, as well as a Nigerian, a Portuguese man, and an Italian. Italian politicians and state media cast doubt Friday on Egypt’s claims with former Premier Enrico Letta tweeting, “I’m sorry, I don’t buy it.” While Italy’s state-run RAI questioned the Egyptian scenario and demanded the truth, there was no official Italian response. Prior to the Interior Ministry statement, local media had published a slew of articles linking the suspects to Regeni’s murder but the public prosecution denied any correlation according to privately-owned newspaper Al-Shorouk. [Ahram Online, DNE, Reuters, 3/25/2016]

Foreign Ministry fires back at international condemnation of NGO case
Egypt’s Foreign Ministry criticized on Thursday statements by “foreign officials” made over the reopening of investigations into several Egyptian NGOs for allegedly receiving funds illegally from foreign governments and institutions. In an official statement, the Foreign Ministry said that the comments were characterized by “distorted  generalizations to accuse the Egyptian government of stifling the freedom of civil society organizations in Egypt in their work, without providing any tangible evidence to support these claims.” On Wednesday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement in which he “reiterated his support for the important work of Egyptian human rights organizations in promoting and implementing universal principles and standards of human rights,” following a meeting with Bahey Eldin Hassan, the director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS). According to a CIHRS statement, Ban and Hassan discussed the UN’s responsibility towards the continuing deterioration of human rights in Egypt. The statement added that Hassan met with US Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power. [Ahram Online, SIS, Mada Masr, 3/24/2016]

For more in-depth Egypt news, please visit EgyptSource


ISIS releases photos of executions and floggings in Libya’s Sirte
The Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) has released brutal images of the execution of two men in the Libyan city of Sirte. The images, entitled the “Establishment of ‘Hudud’ (restrictions) in the City of Sirte” and released by the group’s Wilayat Tarabulus (Tripoli State) media wing, show a crowd gathered to watch the execution of two men, killed by a masked gunman at close range. Men are also shown standing in front of a militant holding a whip. The crimes of the men executed and flogged are not given, but hudud crimes include violations of religious beliefs such as adultery. Earlier this week, the same media wing also released propaganda images of ISIS militants handing out sweets to citizens of Sirte in celebration of the triple suicide bomb attacks in Brussels that left 31 people dead. [Newsweek, 3/25/2016]

British SAS deployed in Libya since start of year, says leaked memo
British Special Air Service (SAS) forces have been deployed in Libya since the beginning of the year, according to a confidential briefing given to US congressional leaders in January by Jordan’s King Abdullah. A leaked memo indicates that US lawmakers were personally briefed about plans for Jordan’s special forces to operate in Libya country alongside the British. King Abdullah confirmed his country’s own special forces “will be embedded with British SAS” in Libya. The meeting included Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee John McCain, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Corker, and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. King Abdullah said UK special forces needed his soldiers’ assistance when operating on the ground in Libya, explaining “Jordanian slang is similar to Libyan slang.” A Senate source confirmed US lawmakers met with the king in a private meeting in early January but refused to confirm “what may or may not have been discussed.” [The Guardian, 3/25/2016]

Morocco says Western Sahara decision irreversible, UNSC concerned
Morocco’s decision to reduce United Nations (UN) staff at the Western Sahara mission is “sovereign and irreversible,” Foreign Minister Salaheddine Mezouar said Thursday. However, he added that the government is committed to military cooperation with the UN to guarantee the ceasefire in the region. Earlier this month, Morocco ordered the UN to pull out civilian staffers and close a military liaison office for the MINURSO peacekeeping mission after UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon used the word “occupation” to describe Morocco’s annexation of the disputed territory. Angola’s UN Ambassador Ismael Gaspar Martins, president of the UN Security Council this month, told reporters that the Council “expressed serious concerns about developments” in Western Sahara. He said Council members “stressed the importance of addressing in a constructive, comprehensive and cooperative manner the circumstances that led to the current situation so that MINURSO may resume its full capacity to carry out its mandate.” [Reuters, 3/24/2016]


North Korea troops in Syria to help Assad
North Korean military units are in Syria to help President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, a member of the Saudi-backed Syrian opposition recently claimed. “Two North Korean units are there, which are Chalma-1 and Chalma-7,” Asaad al-Zoubi, a leading figure in the Syrian opposition’s High Negations Committee (HNC) delegation, told state-owned Russian news agency TASS. Currently there is no hard evidence that North Korean troops are on the ground fighting alongside the pro-Assad forces or that Pyongyang is currently providing material support to the Syrian government, though there is a long history of known Syrian-North Korean military cooperation. [Alarabiya, Washington Post, Diplomat, 3/25/2016]

Fighting against ISIS rages in central Syrian town of Palmyra
Syrian soldiers advanced slowly in heavy fighting with Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) fighters near Palmyra’s ancient ruins Friday, state media and a monitoring group said, in an offensive which could open up swathes of eastern Syria to government forces. Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) Director Rami Abdulrahman said the fighting had reached Palmyra’s Roman-era ruins, where he said the army could not rely on air cover because of the risk of further damage to the ancient site. Russian jets have continued to support the Syrian army and its allies as they push their offensive on the desert city, despite Moscow’s recent announcement that it was withdrawing the bulk of its military forces. A Russian special forces officer was killed in combat near Palmyra in the last week, Interfax said, suggesting the Kremlin has been more deeply engaged in the Syrian conflict than it has acknowledged. [Reuters, AFP, AP, 3/25/2016]

‘No Drama, No Walkouts’ and no progress in Syria peace talks
As Syrian peace talks were adjourned in Geneva after 10 days, the UN mediator said he was encouraged that there was “no drama, no walkouts,” but, while a shaky truce has continued to hold across the war-torn country, there was also no visible sign of progress on a lasting settlement. The ultimate goal for UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura is a plan for political transition in Syria. In the wake of the Brussels bombings—claimed by ISIS, which has flourished in Syria’s conflict—de Mistura sought to focus international attention on the next-step, saying that to defeat “terrorism, you have to find a political solution in Syria.” [AP, 3/25/2016]

PKK attack on military station kills three soldiers
Three Turkish soldiers were killed late on March 24 in a Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) car bomb attack in the southeastern province of Diyarbakır, the Turkish General Staff has announced. PKK militants attacked the Mermer Gendarmerie Post on the Diyarbakır Lice motorway at around 9:10 p.m. by detonating a bomb-laden car, killing three soldiers and wounding another 24. The PKK, which is fighting for autonomy for Kurds in the country’s southeast, has been bombing police stations and military vehicles as part of its campaign while Kurdish militants, linked to the PKK, have been battling the Turkish forces in some urban districts. Turkey’s military, meanwhile, has been attacking suspected PKK hideouts across the border in northern Iraq. The latest aerial air offensive was on Wednesday, when Turkish F-16 and F-4 jets raided 11 PKK targets including ammunition depots, bunkers, and shelters, the military said Thursday. [AP, Anadolu Agency, Hurriyet, NYT, 3/25/2016]

Russia to “unfreeze” relations with Turkey if Ankara takes responsibility for warplane incident
The Russian Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matviyenko has said that Russia is prepared to “unfreeze” and normalize its relations with Turkey if Ankara takes responsibility for its shooting down of a Russian warplane last November. “Russia-Turkey relations are not at their best, to put it mildly. As you know, we are not to blame for the deterioration of the relations. We are ready to unfreeze them if the Turkish leadership recognizes its responsibility in downing a Russian aircraft over Syrian territory. However, there are not such hints from the Turkish side,” she told the Russian state-owned RIA Novosti news agency. [Rudaw, 3/25/2016]

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


Mosul offensive under way as Iraqis retake key areas around Mosul
Iraq’s armed forces went on the offensive against ISIS in the northern province of Nineveh on Thursday in what Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi described as the first phase of a campaign to liberate areas around the city of Mosul. A total of eight villages in Qayyara, which is south of Mosul, have been confirmed as liberated, and Mosul itself has already been cut off on three sides by the Peshmerga, who are less than 9 miles from its northern outskirts. A contingent of Sunni tribal fighters also took part in Thursday’s offensive, and backed by air power from a US-led coalition, Peshmerga forces, and Shia militias, the joint Iraqi forces recaptured several villages from ISIS. Peshmerga commander Najat Ali said Iraqi forces had taken a couple of villages without any resistance but ISIS engaged the forces in other areas in fierce firefights and had set oil ablaze to produce smoke as a shield against coalition air strikes. A senior US official said US Marines fired illumination rounds to help the Iraqi forces locate ISIS fighters, and also fired artillery rounds in support of the operation southeast of Mosul. Colonel Steve Warren, a US military spokesman in Baghdad, said the retaking of the villages in Nineveh was a “planned operation” that was successful, but added that it did not necessarily point to the beginning of the long-awaited assault on Mosul. The Nineveh Operation comes as Iraqi forces reportedly cut supply lines between Raqqa, ISIS’s de facto capital in Syria, and Anbar Province in a separate operation to weaken the group. [Reuters, NYT, AP, 3/24/2016]

Iraqi oil minister suspends participation in cabinet meetings
On Thursday, Iraqi Oil Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said he is suspending his participation in cabinet meetings until parliament votes on his resignation, which he offered last summer, according to a post on his official Facebook page. Abdul Mahdi said his decision was aimed at “confronting an atmosphere of anxiety and chaos” in anticipation of the heavily criticized reshuffle. Abdul Mahdi has asked Deputy Oil Minister Fayadh al-Nema to fill in for him at the ministry until a decision is made in parliament. [Reuters, 3/24/2016]

Iraq calls on international community to airdrop aid to stranded civilians in Fallujah
Governor of Anbar province Suhaib al-Rawi stated, “We are urging Baghdad, the international community and the UN to ramp up their efforts and end the massacre ISIS is committing against the city’s residents.” Rawi further suggested that the only way to rescue the people of Fallujah from ISIS is an immediate liberation of the city, and expulsion of the estimated 300 to 400 ISIS members still in the city. [Rudaw, 3/24/2016]


Saudi defense minister and US counterpart affirm security ties
Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his US counterpart Defense Secretary Ash Carter affirmed over a phone call on Thursday both country’s defense relationship. In a statement summarizing the call, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said they also discussed the security situation in the Middle East, including ways to work together to strengthen cooperation on counterterrorism efforts. Carter welcomed Saudi Arabia’s contributions to the coalition campaign to counter ISIS (or ISIL), and the pair discussed ways to expand their cooperation. During the phone call, both parties also talked about Iran’s role in the region and ways of combating violence and extremism in the region. [Al Arabiya, 3/25/2016]

Saudi journalist jailed for five years over tweets
A Saudi journalist has been sentenced to five years in prison over tweets deemed insulting to the kingdom’s rulers, Amnesty International said Friday. Alaa Brinji, who has reportedly already served two years behind bars, was found guilty Thursday of a list of charges including “insulting the rulers (and) inciting public opinion,” the rights group said in a statement. Brinji was also convicted of “accusing security officers of killing protesters” in the Shia town of Awamiya in Saudi’s restive Eastern Province. [AFP, 3/25/2016]

Houthis and pro-government forces swap prisoners
Houthi militants and pro-government forces successfully exchanged prisoners in Ibb on Friday, after a deal reached through tribal mediation. The Houthis handed over 13 captured pro-government fighters in exchange for seven militants. [Al Masdar, 3/25/2016]


World Bank plans to lend Tunisia $5 billion over five years
The World Bank plans to lend Tunisia $5 billion over five years to support the country’s democratic transition and revive its economy, World Bank Tunisia Country Manager Eileen Murray said. “The bank has developed a strategy for five years and plans to lend Tunisia $1 billion per year,” she said. “We have confidence in Tunisia’s transition and will continue to support its economy and to finance infrastructure projects and financial and education sectors.” Murray said the World Bank will support reforms to create an environment conducive to stimulating investment and job creation. It also plans to intensify efforts to support development in disadvantaged areas. She said Tunisia’s economic reforms are heading in the right direction but will take more time. She urged Tunisia to continue reforms in the financial sector and in transparency to attract foreign investment and boost employment. [Reuters, 3/25/2016]

Siemens, Iraq sign MoU for energy modernization
German industrial group Siemens signed a memorandum of understanding with Iraq to modernize the country’s energy infrastructure and oil and gas sector. Under the terms of the MoU, the firm will develop an enhanced energy concept to advise the Iraqi government on the development of the country’s power generation and infrastructure. “With this important agreement we intensify the long lasting partnership between Siemens and Iraq,” Siemens Managing Board Member Siegfried Russwurm said. “With our broad portfolio and comprehensive expertise in power generation, transmission as well as in [the] oil and gas sector we will assist and support the Iraqi Government to develop a sustainable and modern electricity system to ensure the country’s economic and social development,” he added. Russwurm signed the deal in Baghdad with Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi and Minister of Electricity Qassim al-Fahdawi. [Reuters, Trade Arabia, 3/24/2016]

Syrian pound falls below 500 per dollar
The Syrian pound fell to a record low below 500 to the dollar on the black market on Thursday driven down by doubts that the conflict, which has cost the country an estimated $260 billion, can be resolved soon. Thursday’s rates reflect a more than 90 percent fall in the pound since the crisis erupted in 2011. “The dollar has become a safe haven currency and there are few hopes that [talks in] Geneva [will] put an end to conflict,” said a Damascus-based banker. The pound has continued to suffer from fears about the impact of Russia’s military drawdown in Syria. “The fear after the Russian pullback that the regime could fall had prompted panic buying of dollars in the market and this has been a major psychological factor that has weighed down on the pound since then,” said Head of the Jordanian Exchange Association Alaa Diraniya. He said the pound hit 500 on the black market in Damascus on Thursday and opened at 495 in Aleppo. The central bank set the rate at just under 443 pounds. At the start of the Syrian crisis, the dollar was worth 47 pounds. [Reuters, 3/24/2016]

Erdogan aide says Turkey’s central bank should have cut rates further
The Central Bank of Turkey should have cut interest rates more at this week’s policy meeting, aide to President Tayyip Erdogan Cemil Ertem said Friday. The bank kept its benchmark rate steady for the 13th straight month on Thursday, but cut its overnight lending rate for the first time since February 2015 during the last meeting of Governor Erdem Basci’s current term. Markets are waiting to see whether Basci will be reappointed for another five-year term after April 19. In a presentation to economists on Friday, the bank said it had decided to take a “measured” step towards policy simplification. However Ertem said that the 25-basis point cut in the overnight lending rate, the highest of the three rates the bank uses to set policy, would not be enough to have an impact. “If it had at least cut the upper band by 75 basis points it would have had a more positive impact,” he said, adding the bank’s move will constrain growth. [Reuters, 3/25/2016]

Egypt fails to secure April LNG shipments
Egypt’s state-owned EGAS has so far failed to fill a tender to buy two liquefied natural gas (LNG) shipments due in April, trade sources said. EGAS launched a tender last week that was only open to some of its existing suppliers for the delivery of one cargo in April 1-7 and another in April 27-28. Traders said the first delivery window was difficult to arrange given the short notice period. For the late-April cargo, EGAS lined up commodity trader Trafigura as the supplier, but the deal ran into difficulties after EGAS tried to shift delivery to mid-April. As of Thursday, the slots have still not been filled, however EGAS is still in talks with potential suppliers. [Reuters, 3/25/2016]