Top News: Six Dead in Apparent Gas Attack in Syria

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Tuesday that government forces carried out a poison gas attack that killed at least six people in the northwest, and medics posted videos of children suffering what they said was suffocation. It cited medical sources as saying they died from what was likely chlorine gas released from barrel bombs dropped on Monday. The Idlib branch of the Syrian Civil Defense rescue organization, known as the White Helmets, which operates in insurgent-held areas, posted seven videos on YouTube documenting the incident. The reports came a day after Kurds in neighbouring Iraq said that Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) insurgents used chlorine gas against military police and peshmerga forces in December 2014 and January 2015.  [AFPReutersAP, 3/17/2015] 



Egypt to try police officer for killing Shaimaa al-Sabbagh
Egypt’s prosecutor-general has referred a police officer to criminal court over the killing of leftist activist Shaimaa al-Sabbagh at a peaceful protest in January. “The public prosecution’s investigation uncovered that the death of (Sabbagh) occurred after she was hit with birdshot which one of the police officers of Central Security Forces fired in the direction of her and other protesters to break up a demonstration in Talaat Harb square,” the prosecutor’s statement said. The Central Security Forces officer, who remained unidentified, is accused of an action that “led to the death of” Sabbagh – a lesser charge than murder. Lawyers said that depending on which article of the penal code is applied to him, the sentence could range from three to ten years. The prosecution also referred members of the Socialist Popular Alliance Party, who organized the protest, to criminal court for violating the 2013 protest law, which outlaws unauthorized demonstrations. [Ahram Online, Reuters, AP, Aswat Masriya, Mada Masr, 3/17/2015]

Egypt charges Muslim Brotherhood, Ultras over soccer violence deaths  
Egypt’s public prosecutor said on Tuesday members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and Zamalek supporters, the Ultras White Knights, were charged with killing and inciting violence in connection with the deaths of twenty-two soccer fans who clashed with security forces last month. The defendants are charged with acts of thuggery related to intentional murder, destruction of buildings and public properties, resisting authorities, and possession of explosive materials. The prosecution has referred twelve Brotherhood members, and four Ultras White Knights members to a criminal court, ordering the arrest of four defendants who are still at large. In a statement on state television, the prosecutor general said investigations placed the blame on the Muslim Brotherhood, claiming the group plotted the violence, aiming to destabilize the country. [Ahram Online, Reuters, Aswat Masriya, Mada Masr, 3/17/2015]

Badie, thirteen Muslim Brotherhood figures sentenced to death in ‘Rabaa Control Room’ case  
A Cairo criminal court sentenced Mohamed Badie, the Muslim Brotherhood’s supreme guide, and thirteen other leading members of the group to death on Monday for inciting murder in the case known in the media as the “Raba’a control room” trial. The judge presiding over the trial, Mohamed Nagi Shehata, who also presided over the Al Jazeera and Kerdasa trials, said there is plenty of evidence to prove that the convicted have supplied the Brotherhood with “funds and weapons.” The court formally referred the case to the Grand Mufti, the country’s highest Islamic legal official, which is the first step towards imposing a death sentence. The court has also set April 11 as the date to announce its verdict concerning other defendants in the case, among them hunger-striking Mohamed Soltan. [Ahram Online, DNE, Reuters, Aswat Masriya, Mada Masr, 3/16/2015]

Sisi, Saudi Prince end summit satisfied, expectant of bilateral relations
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz discussed deepening bilateral relations after Sharm al-Sheikh’s Economic Summit. The Saudi Kingdom contributions reached $4 billion, nearly half of which are destined to shore up Egypt’s cash reserves. Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz said the kingdom’s support would enhance intraregional trade and investment in Egypt and help stabilize the monetary market. The crown prince, also the former head of the Saudi General Intelligence Services, told Sisi that King Salman bin Abdulaziz is keen on following in the footsteps of his older brother King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz concerning working together with Egypt towards economic development. [DNE, 3/16/2015]

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Families flee Libya’s Sirte; Tunisian ISIS field commander reportedly killed in Libya
Dozens of families fled Sirte on Monday after two days of clashes between Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) militants and fighters loyal to the Tripoli-based government. The families travelled west to Misrata, a stronghold for Operation Libya Dawn militia allied to the Tripoli-based General National Congress, as more fighting is expected to continue in Sirte. ISIS also reported the death of one of its top field commanders in Libya–one of the most wanted militants in Tunisia. Ahmed al-Rouissi was considered the mastermind of a string of attacks carried out by the radical Islamist Ansar al-Sharia movement, including the assassination of left-wing politicians Chokri Belaid and Mohammed Brahmi. [Reuters, AP, 3/17/2015]

Spain says oil embargo should be considered if Libya talks fail
Spain said the European Union (EU) should consider an oil embargo and a freeze on Libyan central bank assets if UN-brokered talks to resolve the country’s political crisis fail. Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo said that if the talks fail, the EU should take measures to force the parties back to the table. He further stated that efforts must be made to convince all parties that only with political stability can there be economic growth. [Reuters, 3/16/2015]

European Union backs Libya peace talks, shies away from security mission
The European Union (EU) on Monday threw its weight behind UN-brokered peace talks in Libya as they enter a decisive phase, but backed away from planning a security mission until stability returns to the conflict-torn country. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said that the EU does not see any alternative to the political dialogue. European foreign ministers insist that political unity and integration must precede any EU action in Libya. They also said that the EU would not act without an official request from the United Nations or an invitation from Libya itself. [AP, 3/16/2015]

Tobruk dismisses ambassador to Kuwait; House orders al-Thinni to reinstate interior minister
The Tobruk-based House of Representatives (House) has dismissed its ambassador to Kuwait, stating that he no longer represents the Libyan government. Meanwhile, the House has instructed Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni to reinstate the suspended Interior Minister Omar al-Sinki. In February, al-Thinni removed al-Sinki from his post after the interior minister had accused General Khalifa Haftar of being a dictator and called for the UN dialogue to be held in Misrata, a stronghold of the rival Tripoli-based government’s ally, Operation Libya Dawn. House President Agheela Saleh sent a letter to al-Thinni instructing him to reinstate al-Sinki. [Libya Monitor (subscription), Libya Herald, 3/17/2015]

Tunisia open to discuss EU migration center plan
Tunisia is open to discuss a European Union (EU) request to step up migrant reception centers in the country as part of a wider EU initiative to cope with an influx of asylum seekers. Libya, Tunisia’s turbulent neighbor, is the starting point for many migrants headed to southern Europe. The EU is looking to prescreen migrants in Tunisia as they leave from or travel through it due to the EU border agencies’ inability to cope with the number of people arriving. The EU’s top immigration official will travel to Tunisia soon for discussions about the project. [AP, 3/17/2015]


Six dead in apparent gas attack in Syria’s Idlib province
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Tuesday that government forces carried out a poison gas attack that killed at least six people in the northwest, and medics posted videos of children suffering what they said was suffocation. It cited medical sources as saying they died from what was likely chlorine gas released from barrel bombs dropped on Monday. The Idlib branch of the Syrian Civil Defense rescue organization, known as the White Helmets, which operates in insurgent-held areas, posted seven videos on YouTube documenting the incident. The reports came a day after Kurds in neighbouring Iraq said that Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) insurgents used chlorine gas against military police and peshmerga forces in December 2014 and January 2015.  [AFP, Reuters, AP, 3/17/2015]

United States says Assad will never be part of Syria peace talks
US officials Monday denied there were any plans to meet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, saying he would “never” be part of any peace negotiations to end the civil war. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, “There always has been a need for representatives of the Assad regime to be a part of that process… It would not be, and would never be—and it wasn’t what Secretary Kerry was intending to imply [in his interview his CBS on Sunday]—that that would be Assad himself.” Secretary of State John Kerry had stressed however that negotiations would be in the context of a 2012 Geneva communique, which has called for a political transition in Syria. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on Monday rejected any role for Assad in Syrian peace talks, saying it would be a “scandalous gift” to ISIS. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Tuesday compared talks with Assad to shaking hands “with Hitler or Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic, [or] Saddam.” [Naharnet, 3/16/2015]

UN investigators offer to share names of Syria war crimes suspects
UN war crimes investigators for Syria said Tuesday that they would share names and details from their secret lists of suspects with any prosecution authorities preparing cases. Paulo Pinheiro, chairman of the United Nations’ Commission of Inquiry, urged national authorities to contact the independent investigators who have compiled five confidential lists over nearly four years. Pinheiro and his team, including former UN war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte, said last month they planned to publish names of suspects and push for ways to bring them to justice. In related news, seventy-eight nations and forty international organizations will attend the third donors’ conference in Kuwait, aimed at raising billions of dollars for Syria. Nations are expected to announce pledges for UN humanitarian operations in Syria where 12 million people need urgent aid. Ban urged the Security Council on Thursday to overcome divisions and take action to end the war in Syria as the conflict entered its fifth year with little prospect for peace. [AFP, Reuters, 3/17/2015]

Regime strikes on ISIS-held Raqqa killed scores of civilians
Amnesty International Tuesday criticized the Syrian government bombings last November that targeted Raqqa, the de facto capital of ISIS, saying the airstrikes killed dozens of civilians and may amount to war crimes. Amnesty International said in a statement that it has documented a series of Syrian government airstrikes between November 11 and 29 that killed up to 115 civilians, including fourteen children, in the northern city of Raqqa. [AFP, AP, 3/17/2015]

Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood formally divided
Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood has formally split after seventy years — a break-up blamed on long-running ideological disputes, but also on a government attempt to further weaken what was once the country’s main opposition group. The split deals a new blow to the region-wide Muslim Brotherhood movement, which has been outlawed as a terror group by close Jordan allies Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. In Jordan, some warned that the government’s apparent divide-and-control policy could backfire by pushing more Brotherhood supporters into the ranks of extremists like the ISIS group. The new, officially licensed Brotherhood offshoot defines itself as a strictly Jordanian group, saying it cut ties with the regional movement to avoid being branded as militant. The split was formalized earlier this month when a government licensed the breakaway faction. The core movement promptly expelled the defectors.[AP, 3/16/2015]


Houthis release prime minister and cabinet members from house arrest
Yemen’s dominant rebel Houthi group has released Prime Minister Khaled Bahah and all his cabinet ministers, after nearly two months under house arrest. In a statement on his Facebook page on Monday, Bahah said the move was a goodwill gesture to ease talks on Yemen’s political transition but said he did not intend to resume his post. After Bahah was released, sources close to him say that he left Yemen intending to visit family in New York. [Al Jazeera, Yemen Times, Asharq al-Awsat, Al Masdar, Reuters, 3/16/2015]

Houthis kidnap three security officers
Armed Houthi rebels kidnapped three members of Yemen’s Political Security Organization (PSO), one of Yemen’s security and intelligence gathering organizations. The three men were kidnapped at the airport in Sana’a and their current whereabouts are unknown. There has been no official comment by the Houthis since the incident. [Al Masdar, Mareb Press, 3/17/2015]

NYU professor banned from entering UAE
The United Arab Emirates, where New York University (NYU) opened a new campus last year, has barred an NYU professor Andrew Ross from traveling to the monarchy after his criticism of the exploitation of migrant construction workers there. The professor, who teaches at the university’s New York campus and specializes in labor issues, said on Monday that he learned over the weekend that he had been barred from the country, ostensibly because of unspecified security concerns. He had planned to spend his spring break in the UAE, continuing his research on labor conditions. [NYT, 3/16/2015]

Bahrain seizes bomb-making equipment aboard bus from Iraq
Bahraini security forces have seized bomb-making equipment being smuggled from Iraq aboard a passenger bus for use in attacks in the Gulf kingdom. The public prosecutor said that authorities found 140 detonators, forty-one electrical circuits, a remote control device and some cellular telephones hidden inside electrical appliances aboard the bus when it was stopped for a routine search on the King Fahd Causeway linking Bahrain with Saudi Arabia. [Reuters, Bahrain News Agency, 3/16/2015]

US embassy remains closed in Saudi Arabia
The United States embassy in Saudi Arabia said it would remain closed to the public for a third day on Tuesday because of security concerns. Consular services had initially been suspended on Sunday and Monday but the closure will continue for an extra day. Officials have not elaborated on details behind the increased security concerns. [AFP, 3/17/2015]


Kuwait considering imposing corporate tax
Kuwait has sought help from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to introduce corporate taxes in a bid to diversify revenue in the face of falling oil prices. Kuwait currently imposes no taxes on local companies, Kuwaiti citizens, and expatriates but it requires foreign firms to pay 15 percent tax on their profits. The IMF has advised Kuwait in the past to subject local companies to corporate tax as part of a series of measures aimed at boosting non-oil revenues and cutting spending. [Reuters, The Jordan Times, 3/17/2015]

Saudi oil exports fetch SR 87 billion in 2 months
According to local media, Saudi Arabia exported nearly 466.6 million barrels of crude oil in the last two months of the current year with proceeds amounting to SR 87.5 billion ($23.3 billion). Domestic consumption during the same period reached nearly 150 million barrels, or 20 percent of the total output. [Arab News, 3/17/2015]

Qatar seeks regulatory norms for Islamic finance
Qatar has called for a global regulatory framework for the industry, saying it is needed to ensure the sector’s stability. According to the Governor of Qatar’s Central Bank, an important task of the authority would be to collect data on credit risks of Islamic financial institutions so that those risks could be identified. The governor also warned that Islamic financial institutions might face problems in attracting liquidity due to a lack of product diversification in the field. [The Peninsula, 3/17/2015]

Morocco improves its trade balance
Latest figures from the Exchange Office revealed that Morocco’s trade deficit narrowed to 20.51 billion dirhams by the end of February against 32.64 billion dirhams a year earlier. Imports decreased by 15.2 percent mainly due to the falling oil prices, which also led to a decline in the country’s imports of energy. The import-export ratio has reached 61.7 percent against 48.3 percent by the end of February, the Office said. The change is also due to the 8.2 percent increase in exports. [Morocco World News, Reuters, 3/17/2015]