Top News: Saudi-led operation in Yemen ‘coming to an end’

The spokesman for the Saudi-led military coalition Brig. Gen. Ahmed al-Asiri said Thursday that major combat operations in Yemen are coming to an end, after which the coalition will work on “long-term” plans to bring stability to the country. Asiri reiterated that Saudi Arabia and the coalition will “stand by the legitimate Yemeni government and offer support until it is able to restore stability in the country.” [Al Arabiya, 3/17/2016]



Social Solidarity Ministry opens foreign NGO surveillance unit
The Social Solidarity Ministry has announced the opening of a special unit for observing and assessing the work of foreign non-governmental organizations operating in Egypt. According to the ministry’s official for NGO affairs, Khaled Sultan, the unit was created by Social Solidarity Minister Ghada Wali to “help the ministry and the organizations to operate in Egypt effectively.” He stressed that the unit’s function is to assist, rather than monitor, NGO work. However, Ayman Okeil, the director of Maat for Peace, Development and Human Rights, said the unit’s role will be to monitor NGOs. “The undeclared purpose of that unit is to further restrict the work of those organizations,” Okeil told al-Ghad satellite channel. “We are not against observation, but are against restricting the work of civil-society organizations.” [AMAY, 3/17/2016]

Court reduces jail time against anti-corruption activist Hamdi al-Fakharany
A Giza misdemeanors court lessened on Wednesday a four-year jail sentence against anti-corruption activist Hamdi al-Fakharany to two-years for misusing his official post. The court upheld the acquittal sentence in the bribery charge against Fakharany, but maintained that he is guilty of misusing his power in his capacity as head of the Anti-Corruption Commission and blackmailing a businessman. The verdict can be further appealed in front of the Court of Cassation. [Ahram Online, 3/16/2016]

Committee on crashed Russian plane in Sinai refers case to Egypt Attorney General
An official Russian report suggesting that “criminal activity” was behind the deadly crash of a Metrojet in central Sinai in October 2015 was referred to the Attorney General by Egypt’s independent investigations committee on Thursday, the first indication it suspects foul play. “As part of the ongoing collaboration between the countries participating in the investigation – notably Russia and Egypt – the committee received on March 14, 2016 an official report from Russia’s official investigation,” the statement from the investigations committee said. “After studying the report – which suggested that suspected criminal activity is possible – the committee has referred the matter to the Attorney General of Egypt,” the head of the committee Ayman Elmokadem stated. The local committee is currently in the process of conducting a technical study of the aircraft, he added. [Ahram Online, DNE, Reuters, 3/17/2016]

Cabinet to draft legislation regulating Uber and Careem
Egypt said on Wednesday it will regulate ride-hailing services Uber and Careem after they sparked protests from taxi drivers in Cairo over allegations the smartphone applications bypass traffic regulations. The legislation will both “protect citizens’ rights to choose the manner of transportation that suits them and also ensure that traditional taxi drivers would find work and make money,” the cabinet said in a statement, according to MENA. The parliamentary affairs ministry would “prepare legal amendments to regulate the applications after reviewing similar legislation in other countries,” the cabinet said, adding the changes would be presented within a month. Uber and Careem drivers would also “have to pay taxes” and their apps would need to establish a “suitable framework for traditional taxi drivers to join them,” the cabinet said in a statement. [Ahram Online, AFP, 3/17/2016]

For more in-depth Egypt news, please visit EgyptSource


Europe agrees sanctions on Libyan leaders blocking unity government
The European Union has agreed sanctions on three Libyan leaders who oppose a Western-backed unity government, clearing the way for travel bans and asset freezes to be imposed in the next few days. “Sanctions have been agreed,” reports a senior EU diplomat, saying that although the legal text to support the sanctions still needs to be drawn up, no government is expected to object to the proceedings. The three men are Nouri Abusahmain, President of Libya’s General National Congress in Tripoli, Khalifa al-Ghwell, Prime Minister of the Tripoli government, and Aguila Saleh, President of the House of Representatives. [Reuters, 3/16/2016]

Libya’s Tripoli PM warns UN-backed government not to enter capital
The Prime Minister of Libya’s Tripoli-based government has warned the UN-backed cabinet—currently based in Tunis—not to come to the capital, saying such a move would be illegal and suggesting ministers could face arrest. Khalifa al-Ghwell said he could not hand over authority to a government that does not enjoy the support of Tripoli’s parliament, the General National Congress (GNC). The United States and major European powers recognized the unity cabinet as Libya’s only legitimate government on Sunday, and are pushing for it to move to Tripoli and start work. Eastern opposition to a transfer of power is centered on concerns over future military leadership among allies of powerful commander Khalifa Haftar. In a recent statement the eastern government urged Libyans to fully support the army and “not count on the international community, which is still delaying in its support for Libya’s legitimate institutions.” [Libya Herald, Reuters, ANSAmed, 3/16/2016]

Egypt’s Sisi says Libya intervention risky, supports eastern commander
Military intervention in Libya is risky and foreign powers would be better off supporting eastern military commander General Khalifa Haftar, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was quoted as saying on Thursday. Interviewed in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, Sisi recommended supporting Haftar’s Libyan National Army – which is linked to the eastern government based in Tobruk – in the fight against jihadists. Egypt was putting pressure on Tobruk to accept a UN-backed unity government, he said, and wanted all parties to take their share of responsibility. [La Repubblica, Reuters, 3/17/2016]

Fearing ISIS spillover, France to push Tunisia aid
France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault travels to Tunisia on Thursday aiming to firm up security and economic ties as Tunis struggles with rising Islamist militancy fueled by Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) growth in neighboring Libya. Paris is providing intelligence for Tunisia’s special forces and implementing a 20 million-euro package aimed at equipping them. Key to France’s support is a 1 billion euro ($1.1 billion) aid package over five years to help Tunisia develop poor regions, stimulate job creation – especially for the youth – and modernize Tunisia’s administration, a major hurdle to the disbursement of international aid. On Wednesday, NATO Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs and Security Policy Thrasyvoulos Terry Stamatopoulos affirmed NATO’s willingness to strengthen military cooperation with Tunisia. [Reuters, TAP, 3/17/2016]

UN chief scraps plan to visit Morocco; Morocco pulls 84 staffers from MINURSO
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has scrapped plans to visit Morocco, his spokesman said on Wednesday, amid an escalating spat with Rabat over his use of the term “occupation” during a visit to the disputed territory of Western Sahara. Morocco has asked the United Nations to remove 84 staff members in the coming days from its Western Sahara mission, MINURSO, and threatened to pull out of UN peacekeeping missions after what it described as unacceptable comments by the UN chief. The source said the military and peacekeeping part of the mission would not be affected. Ban’s spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the loss of Morocco’s financial contributions to MINURSO, which amount to some $3 million, would have an impact on the mission. [Reuters, AFP, 3/16/2016]


Syrian Kurds declare federal region amid wide criticism
Syria’s three Kurdish-controlled autonomous regions voted on Thursday to approve the establishment of a federal system in the north of the country, defying warnings from Damascus and neighboring Turkey against any such unilateral move. Democratic Union Party (PYD) official Nawaf Khalil said in a statement that participants in the Rmeilan conference meeting have approved a “democratic federal system for Rojava-Northern Syria.” Voting on the federal model was delayed because of demands from local Arab and Assyrian communities for reassurances that it would not mean separation from Syria, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). The Syrian government and opposition immediately rejected the vote and said it had no legal or political impact. The Syrian Foreign Ministry described it as “unconstitutional and worthless,” warning against any attempt to encroach upon Syria’s territorial integrity. Turkey also opposed any unilateral steps to create new structures in Syria on an ethnic basis, a senior Turkish official. The United States warned Wednesday that it would not recognize an attempt by Kurdish groups to form an autonomous federal region. The State Department said Wednesday that any new federal model would have to emerge from peace talks. [AP, AFP, Reuters, WSJ, BBC, 3/17/2016]

Kurdish group claims responsibility for second Ankara attack
A Kurdish militant group on Thursday claimed responsibility for a suicide car-bomb attack in the Turkish capital which killed 37 people. In a statement posted on its website, the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons said the attack in Ankara was in “revenge” for Turkish military operations against Kurdish rebels in the southeast. The group said the attack was led by Seher Cagla Demir, code name Doga Jiyan, described as the first female suicide bomber in its ranks. “We claim the operation of March 13, 2016 … in the heart of the Republic of Turkey,” the statement said. The Turkey-based group is considered an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and has carried out several attacks, including one in Ankara in February that killed 29 people. [AP, WSJ, 3/17/2016]

Russia to complete Syria pullout within days
Russia will complete the withdrawal of the bulk of its forces from Syria before the end of the week, a top Russian general suggested in an interview published Thursday. “I think this will be over very quickly. … Within two-three days we will complete the task,” Viktor Bondarev, the commander of the Russian Air Force said. Putin stressed the Kremlin could scale up its presence again within hours and would continue to carry out air strikes there if needed. European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker said on Thursday that Russia’s military pullout from Syria is welcome and could help slow the flood of refugees. [AFP, Reuters, WSJ, Guardian, 3/17/2016]

Aid agencies call for full access in Syria as conflict enters sixth year
Humanitarian agencies demanded unconditional access to all communities in Syria as Russia continued on Wednesday to withdraw its military forces from the country. A joint statement signed by 102 humanitarian organizations urged all warring parties that humanitarian access must “include access to all people in need by whatever routes necessary.” The statement, signed by the UN children’s agency UNICEF, Oxfam, and others, noted “encouraging signs of progress” in Syria with the cessation of hostilities, allowing humanitarian agencies to “rush more food and other relief to communities desperate for help.” But access has to go beyond a temporary lifting of sieges and checkpoints, they said, saying there was an urgent need for a national immunization campaign for children. [Reuters, 3/17/2016]

Japanese journalist Junpei Yasuda missing in Syria, surfaces in video
A Japanese journalist believed to have been captured by militants in Syria last year appeared in a video posted online on Thursday. He delivered an emotional message to his family but revealed little about his captors’ demands or intentions. “I want to hug you, I want to talk with you, but I can’t anymore,” said Junpei Yasuda in the video. It was the first direct public evidence of his fate since he disappeared in the summer after telling associates that he was headed to Syria to cover the civil war there. Yasuda is believed to be held by the Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front that has taken a number of foreigners, including journalists. Some have been released, reportedly in exchange for ransoms. Yasuda makes no reference to his captors in the video. After identifying himself, he says it is his birthday, March 16, which suggests the video was recorded on Wednesday. [Reuters, AFP, NYT, BBC, 3/17/2016]

EU leaders push on with contested Turkey migrant plan
EU authorities sought on Wednesday to alter the terms of a provisional agreement brokered by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany to curb the flow of migrants and refugees streaming into Europe through Turkey. The revised proposals were put forward by President of the European Council Donald Tusk on the eve of a two-day meeting that was supposed to be the deadline for signing a deal with Turkey to ease the bloc’s migration crisis. Tusk’s revised proposals, which were discussed by representatives of the union’s governments on Wednesday, kept much of the plan put forward by Merkel intact. But Tusk, who represents the bloc’s 28 national leaders, backed important modifications in a bid to tamp down a wave of complaints from human rights groups about the risk of forcible returns of Syrians as a result of that arrangement. [NYT, Al Jazeera, Reuters, 3/17/2016]

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


Iraq cabinet warns Sadr protest camp ‘illegal’
The Iraqi cabinet has decided not to authorize a protest camp by followers of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, which is due to begin Friday in front of the fortified Green Zone. “Staging a sit-in is not permitted by law, especially in the current security circumstances, notably the threat by terrorist groups and the potential for this gathering to be targeted … The security forces are busy with the fight against [ISIS] and it is not possible to guarantee the protection of this gathering at all times,” a cabinet statement said. The cabinet stressed that it “supports the demonstrations demanding government reforms” and has protected one-day protests by the Sadr movement in recent weeks. Tens of thousands of Sadr supporters have been preparing for a days-long protest in central Baghdad aimed at pressuring the government to implement deeper political reform. [AFP, 3/16/2016]

Iraq says three missing after Air Force plane crashes near Kirkuk
An Iraqi Air Force plane crashed on Wednesday northwest of Kirkuk and its two pilots and a third member of the crew are missing, according to Brigadier General Yahya Rasool. The single turbo-propeller plane was on a “reconnaissance and combat mission” over territory held by ISIS in northern Iraq and an investigation is underway to determine whether the plane was shot down by militants or crashed because of a technical failure. The Amaq news agency, which supports ISIS, said the plane was shot down and posted a video showing a plane falling to the ground in the region of Hawija amid cheers from the fighters. [Reuters, 3/16/2016]

US military says Iraq offensive in Heet uprooted 35,000
In a video conference from Baghdad, Colonel Steve Warren acknowledged that the Iraqi offensive against ISIS near the town of Heet has driven some 35,000 people from their homes. Warren said the US-led coalition and international relief organizations are doing what they can to alleviate conditions. Last week the Iraqi Air Force dropped leaflets over the area warning that Iraqi forces were approaching. Warren also confirmed that Iraqi forces have detained 149 ISIS fighters trying to blend in with the civilians fleeing the area. In a statement released on Wednesday, UNHCR says it fears for the safety of families fleeing fighting between Iraqi government forces and ISIS near Heet and humanitarian partners are rushing to provide emergency assistance to displaced persons. UN Humanitarian Coordinator Lise Grande said, “The UN doesn’t have full access and we are very worried that some of the families who are escaping are in areas very close to the front lines.” [AFP, Reuters, 3/17/2016]

Iraqi forces free group of Yazidi women from ISIS
Iraqi security forces freed a group of Yazidi women held captive by ISIS in a covert operation behind the group’s lines inside the city of Mosul. A statement from the Ministry of Defense said the women were rescued in a secretive three-month operation involving Iraqi intelligence and security forces. The rescued women were moved out of Mosul to receive medical treatment, according to Iraq’s directorate of intelligence. Some 2,000 have managed to escape or have been smuggled out since ISIS captured around 5,000 Yazidi men and women in summer 2014, activists say. [Reuters, Rudaw, 3/16/2016]

Border between Iraqi Kurdistan and Syrian Kurdish region closed
The border between al-Malikiya in Syria’s Hassakeh province and Fishkhabur in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region closed in the afternoon, said Abdullah Sa’adoun, communications officer for the Syrian Kurdish internal security forces, known as the Asayish. Sa’adoun did not give a reason for the closure, but said it was closed by the Iraqi side. The closure comes on the same day that Syrian Kurds were expected to announce combining three Kurdish-held areas of northern Syria into a federal region. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed that the border was shut from the Iraqi side, but that the reason for the closure is not yet known. The crossing is located in a sensitive area at the intersection of the Syrian, Iraqi, and Turkish borders. [Reuters, 3/16/2016]


Toll from Hajja airstrike rises to 119, Ban condemns attack
The number of people killed in airstrikes by a Saudi-led coalition on al-Khamees market in northern Yemen’s Hajja province Tuesday has risen to 119, including up to 22 children, UNICEF said Thursday. On Wednesday UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the airstrikes that hit the market, underscoring that any intentional attack against civilians or civilian objects is a serious violation of international humanitarian law. He urged all parties in Yemen to “cease all military activities and resolve all differences and outstanding issues in a new round of peaceful negotiations facilitated by the Special Envoy for Yemen.” He also called for prompt, effective, independent, and impartial investigations into all allegations of serious violations. [AFP, UN News Centre, 3/16/2016]

Three Al-Qaeda suspects killed in motorbike blast in Yemen’s Aden
Three suspected Al-Qaeda militants on a motorbike were killed Wednesday as a bomb they were transporting exploded in the southern Yemeni city of Aden, a security official said. He said the motorbike blew up in the Dar Saad neighborhood of the city, where fighting has raged between extremists and government forces. [AFP, 3/16/2016]

Saudi Arabia to freeze banks accounts of suspected Hezbollah supporters
The financial investigation unit of the Saudi Interior Ministry will freeze the bank account of any citizen or expatriate suspected of belonging, supporting, or financing Lebanon’s Hezbollah, sources said Thursday. The temporary freeze of accounts for three or more months will include liquid assets as well as the seizure of properties until the investigations have been completed. The sources said that expatriates supporting or sympathizing with terrorist organizations, including Hezbollah, will be deported after serving their jail terms and prevented from entering Saudi Arabia in the future. [Saudi Gazette, 3/17/2016]


World Bank may grant Tunisia up to $1 billion annually for five years
The World Bank is seeking to grant Tunisia $750 million to $1 billion a year as part of a program to mobilize $20 billion over five years for countries in Middle East and North Africa, according to World Bank Vice President for MENA Hafez Ghanem. He said that the World Bank aims to grant Tunisia $4 billion over the next five years for priorities including institutional reform, improvements in the business climate, education reforms, and rural development. His remarks came on the sidelines of a conference in Tunis on regional and sustainable development organized by Japanese International Cooperation Agency. Ghanem also announced that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will visit Tunis on 28, 2016 to show support of the international community for Tunisia. [TAP, 3/16/2016]

Egypt keeps pound stable at 8.78 pounds per dollar on Thursday
The Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) is expected to keep the pound stable at a regular foreign currency auction today, a day after it strengthened in an exceptional foreign currency auction. In a sale to cover temporary overdrafts of foreign currency at banks on Wednesday, the CBE sold $1.514 billion to banks at a rate of 8.78 pounds, up from the devalued rate of 8.85 that was announced on Monday. Sources said the banks that received dollars at the sale were requested to deposit the same amount back into the CBE for one year at an interest rate of 1.2312 percent. Head of Equities at Cairo-based Beltone Financial Hany Genena said Wednesday’s appreciation was part of the CBE’s strategy to clamp down on the black market. “This is flexibility in action, the kind of volatility the central bank wants to ingrain in the market,” Genena said. “The bank is trying to break the old return pattern that traders profited from, in which the pound was always weakening.” [Reuters, 3/17/2016]

Algeria to reduce imports by 15 percent amid oil price drop
Algeria has decided to reduce its imports by 15 percent in 2016 to preserve foreign currency reserves, Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal said in a letter to the central bank and state banks. Importers have been waiting for months for a complete government list of licenses on a range of goods. “They are slowly, steadily putting down obstacles on imports as a way to cut demand,” said one importer. The central bank also recently added a further restriction on imports, requiring importers to get a pre-clearance of import operations through online registration with state banks. Customs Director Kaddour Bentahar said the measure would help reduce illicit cash transfers and false transactions that have exaggerated the flow of foreign currency. However, the International Monetary Fund said this week that “import restrictions, while perhaps providing a temporary relief, introduce distortions and cannot substitute for reforms aimed at boosting export.” [Reuters, 3/16/2016]

Tripoli restricts non-essential imports for three months
The Ministry of Economy in Libya’s Tripoli government says it will ban the import various nonessential commodities for the next three months. The list of banned imports includes cars and heavy machinery, gold, dates, olive oil, certain house appliances, and other products. The ministry said the restrictions are part of the Central Bank of Libya’s (CBL) plans. It said the CBL had allocated a specific budget to open letters of credit to finance the import of essential commodities, mostly food and medical items, over the next three months. The import restrictions come as Libya faces a severe shortage of foreign currency. [Libya Monitor (subscription), 3/16/2016]

Erdogan aide says Turkey may cut interest rates
Turkey’s central bank may cut its overnight lending rate, according to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s chief economic adviser Cemil Ertem. In an interview Thursday, Ertem said the cost of borrowing in Turkey remains excessively high and the overnight lending rate is a major indicator watched by commercial lenders. Erdogan has repeatedly called on the central bank to lower interest rates to reduce inflation. “We think that Turkey’s existing economic model has come to a successful ending, and that there’s a need for a transition to a new model,” Ertem said. “The ongoing debate about interest rates is essentially a debate about a new growth model.” [Bloomberg, 3/17/2016]