TEL AVIV, Israel: Tension seems to be rising between Iran and Israel as the latter’s defense minister said his country is upgrading contingency plans to strike Iranian targets if Tehran shows signs of nuclear escalation. Israel is still working on its plans, but that “we have them in our hands of course,” Israeli defense minister Benny Gantz told the American cable network Fox News on Thursday. His comments came as President Joe Biden considers re-joining a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers to limit Iran’s nuclear program, with some changes to toughen curbs on Tehran’s activities. The US’s Former President Donald Trump pulled his country out of the atomic accord in 2018 and imposed a so-called campaign of maximum pressure, including sanctions, on Tehran. Since then, Iran has stepped up uranium enrichment. The UN nuclear watchdog — the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, which monitors Iran’s nuclear program — said earlier this week that Iran nearly tripled its stockpile of enriched uranium since November in violation of its deal with world powers. Deadlock over how to revive the deal struck between Iran and the Biden administration, with Tehran demanding an immediate lifting of sanctions while the US calling on Iran to first return to full compliance with the agreement’s restrictions. Israel has vehemently opposed the nuclear deal. Meanwhile, tensions have been rising between arch foes Israel and Iran. Last week, an Israeli-owned cargo ship, the Helios Ray, was damaged by a mysterious explosion in the strategically important Gulf of Oman. Iran denied accusations of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that they attacked the vessel. During Fox News interview, Gantz was asked about the ongoing uranium enrichment and whether Israel was completing preparations to strike Iranian targets if needed. “We have them (plans) in our hands of course but we will continue constantly improving them,” Gantz said. “The Iranian nuclear escalation must be stalled. If the world stops them before, it’s very much good. But if not, we must stand independently and we must defend ourselves by ourselves.” Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. Unlike Iran, Israel’s atomic program, which is widely believed to include an undeclared nuclear bomb program, is not under the watch of the IAEA. During the interview, Gantz showed a map of Lebanon that he said includes ground forces, missiles and launching sites set up by the militant Hezbollah group, a proxy for Iran. “This is a target map. Each one of them has been checked legally, operationally, intelligence-wise and we are ready to fight,” he said. Previously, Israel’s military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi, warned that in future conflicts, Israel would use heavy force in residential areas where Hezbollah rockets are stored and launched. He has said Israeli troops would warn civilians to evacuate their homes before launching such strikes.
LONDON: The UN’s highest human rights body has condemned Iran’s “systematic intentional use of lethal force” against the country’s minorities, following a violent crackdown last month by security forces in Sistan-Baluchistan province.
“We condemn use of force violations in recent weeks by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and state security forces against unarmed fuel couriers and protesters belonging to the Baluch minority,” said Rupert Colleville, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The Feb. 22 killing of “at least 12 individuals, including at least two minors,” on the Iran-Pakistan border sparked a “series of violent events and unrest,” he added.
In the days following the border killings, protesters across cities in Sistan-Baluchistan sacked government and IRGC buildings and clashed with security forces.
Colleville said due to the “widespread shutdown of internet access across several cities” in the province, it has been difficult to confirm the exact number of protesters killed.
The UN estimates that up to 23 people could have been killed, while sources with links inside Iran told Arab News at the time that the violence could have claimed as many as 40 lives.
“We deplore the systematic intentional use of lethal force by Iranian border officials, especially against border couriers from the Kurdish and Baluch minorities,” Colleville said.
Iranian Kurds, too, have faced violence at the hands of the regime. “During 2020, a total of 59 Kurdish couriers were reported to have been killed by border officials in provinces in the north-west of Iran,” Colleville said.
“We call for prompt, impartial and full investigations into all such killings, and accountability for those found to be responsible for unlawful use of force leading to death or serious injury. Victims and their families have the right to truth and redress.”
Iran has long been criticized for its treatment of various ethnic minorities. According to Amnesty International, “ethnic minorities, including Ahwazi Arabs, Azerbaijani Turks, Baluchis, Kurds and Turkmen” face “entrenched discrimination, curtailing their access to education, employment and adequate housing.”
Aside from systemic economic and social disadvantage, they also find themselves at the sharp end of Iran’s much-maligned judicial and penal system, according to Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.
She said last month that she had “serious concerns that the authorities are using the death penalty to sow fear among disadvantaged ethnic minorities, as well as the wider population.”
She added: “The disproportionate use of the death penalty against Iran’s ethnic minorities epitomizes the entrenched discrimination and repression they have faced for decades.”
BOSASO, Somalia: At least seven soldiers were killed when fighters of the Somali Islamist group Al-Shabab stormed a jail in the semi-autonomous state of Puntland early on Friday, police and the group said. Al-Shabab said it had freed at least 400 prisoners, many of them its members, in its assault on the main prison in Bosaso, Puntland’s largest city, in the early hours of Friday. The authorities did not confirm that figure. “Last night many well-armed men attacked us from various directions. We fought back but finally they entered the central jail by force using explosions. They freed the prisoners and took most with them,” Mohamed Abdi, a prison guard, said. “There was a hellish battle... As I fought inside, we lost five soldiers.” He said two other soldiers who had been sent to reinforce the regular prison guards were killed in their car which was set on fire. Al-Shabab confirmed that its fighters had carried out the attack and said they had freed at least 400 prisoners. The group often exaggerates its successes in such assaults. “The prisoners included men and women who were Al-Shabab members and were in jail for over 10 years,” Abdiasis Abu Musab, Al-Shabab’s military operations spokesman, told Reuters. Al-Shabab frequently carries out such attacks in Somalia and elsewhere as part of its campaign to oust the central government in Mogadishu and establish its own rule based on its strict interpretation of Islamic sharia law. Bosaso police commander, Col. Hussein Ali, said an operation was underway to recapture prisoners who had escaped or had been taken away by the fighters.
DUBAI: The UAE has recorded 3,072 new coronavirus cases in the past 24 hours after conducting 242,742 tests, state news agency WAM reported. The Ministry of Health and Prevention said the total number of infected cases since the pandemic began has reached 405,277, while the total fatalities stand at 1,269 after 10 deaths were confirmed. Meanwhile, 2,026 people had recovered from the virus, raising the total number of recoveries to 389,304.
DUBAI: Pope Francis called for an end to extremism and violence in his opening address Friday on the first-ever papal visit to Iraq, long scarred by war and now gripped by coronavirus.
The 84-year-old pontiff, who said he was making the first-ever papal visit to Iraq as a ‘pilgrim of peace,’ will also reach out to Shiite Muslims when he meets Iraq’s top cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani.
The Pope landed in the afternoon at Baghdad's International Airport, where he was greeted by Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, as well as groups showcasing Iraq's diverse folklore music and dance.
He then met with President Barham Saleh, who had extended the official invitation to the pontiff in 2019, as well as other government and religious figures.
“May there be an end to acts of violence and extremism, factions and intolerance!” he urged in the stirring address, his first after arriving in the country.
Follow live coverage of his first day itinerary below... (All times GMT)
15:00 - That concludes the public engagement of the Pope on the first day of his trip.
On Saturday, Pope Francis will travel by plane to the cities of Najaf and Ur, where he will meet Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiites.
14:15 - During his flight from Rome to Baghdad, the Pope sent telegrams while flying over Palestine, Israel, and finally Jordan, to each of the respective heads of state.
14:00 - Next, Pope Francis visits Our Lady of Salvation Syro-Catholic Cathedral in Bagdhad, where he will meet with worshippers, bishops & religious figures. Video below.
13:45 - WATCH - ICYMI: Pope Francis and the Iraqi prime minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi are greeted by traditional dancing shortly after the pontiff's arrival in Iraq.
13:30 - Pope Francis' address at the Presidential Palace touches upon the need for Iraq's internal differences to be resolved and how its institutions fighting corruption must be strengthened.
13:00 - After a brief discussion, and exchange of symbolic gifts and a look at some of the artifacts of the Presidential Palace, Pope Francis and Salih now hold a short briefing.
12:15 - President Barham Salih greets the Holy Father and, as a symbol of peace, doves are released into the Baghdad sky...
12:00 - Next on the Pope's agenda is an official welcome ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Baghdad, where he will meet with President Salih in the private office of the palace.
11:30 - Following a brief discussion with the Iraq prime minister, the Pope will head to the Presidential Palace for a reception with President Salih. On leaving the airport, the Pope was treated to traditional Iraqi dance.
11:15 - Pope Francis and Al-Kadhimi now head into a VIP hall within the airport for an official reception and welcome.
11:00 - The Pope touches down at Baghdad International Airport, where he will receive an official welcome and meet with Iraqi prime minister Al-Kadhimi.
09:45 - Here is what to expect during his four days of stay in Iraq:
Day 1: Baghdad
Upon arrival in Iraq, Pope Francis will meet privately with Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi.
Then, following an official welcome ceremony at the Presidential Palace, Pope Francis will visit President Barham Salih. The Holy Father’s first public event will be with authorities, civil society and the diplomatic corps at 3:45 p.m. in the Presidential Palace.
Afterwards, he will travel to the Syriac-Catholic Cathedral of “Our Lady of Salvation” and meet with Bishops, priests, religious persons, seminarians and catechists.
Day 2: Najaf, Ur, Baghdad
On Saturday, Pope Francis will travel by plane to the cities of Najaf and Ur, before returning to Baghdad.
The Pope’s first event of the day is a courtesy visit in Najaf to Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiites.
He will then depart for Nasiriya to lead an interreligious meeting at the Plain of Ur.
The Pope will then return to Baghdad, where he will celebrate the Divine Liturgy at the Chaldean Cathedral of Saint Joseph.
WATCH: Preparations for Pope Francis’s Holy Mass at the Chaldean Cathedral of Saint Joseph, video below
Day 3: Irbil, Mosul, Qaraqosh
On Sunday, his third day in Iraq, Pope Francis will travel to Irbil, Mosul and Qaraqosh.
He is due to be welcomed upon his arrival in Irbil by the President of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan and the civil authorities of the region.
He will then meet with Nechirvan Barzani and Masrour Barzani, respectively President and Prime Minister of the autonomous region, privately, before departing by helicopter for Mosul.
This section contains relevant reference points, placed in (Opinion field)
In Mosul, Pope Francis will lead a prayer of suffrage for war victims at Hosh Al-Bieaa.
He will then travel to Qaraqosh where he will visit the faithful at the Church of the Immaculate Conception.
Afterwards, he will return to Irbil where he will celebrate Holy Mass at the ‘Franso Hariri’ stadium. The Pope will then travel back to Baghdad after the Holy Mass.
WATCH: Iraqi Christians in California watch Pope Francis’s visit from afar, video below
Day 4: Baghdad, Rome
Pope Francis will depart from Baghdad International Airport following a brief farewell ceremony. He is expected to arrive at Rome’s Ciampino Airport at late evening.
DUBAI: Russia and Turkey both see a ‘window of opportunity’ to salvage the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement and have called on the US to lift crippling sanctions imposed against Tehran.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said the Biden administration’s lifting of the sanctions against Iran over its nuclear work, and returning to the 2015 nuclear deal will contribute to regional stability and economic prosperity, news channel Al-Arabiya reported.
“President Erdogan, who stated that he wished the new US administration would abandon unilateral sanctions on Iran and lift restrictions on the prosperity of Iranian people, said the statements on the issue in recent days had led to a new window of opportunity,” an earlier statement from the Turkish presidency said.
Meanwhile, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Thursday the US should take measures to show the seriousness of its intent to return to the Iranian nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
The US unilaterally quit the deal under the Donald Trump administration in May 2018, and the Biden administration said it would return to the deal if Iran started complying with its terms.
But Tehran wants the US to return to the agreement first and lift the sanctions.
“The window of opportunity for rescuing the nuclear deal has not yet been closed. A prerequisite is the full and consistent implementation of the 2015 comprehensive agreements by all countries that developed and concluded them. We are working closely with all JCPOA participants to achieve this goal,” Lavrov was cited by Russian state news agency Interfax as saying.
“However, not everything here depends on us or the European participants in the action plan. The principal point is the position of the Joe Biden administration on the nuclear deal. In our opinion, Washington’s steps would contribute to unblocking the situation around Iran and its nuclear program, which would send a signal to Tehran demonstrating the seriousness of the US intentions to return to the JCPOA,” he added.
The landmark 2015 nuclear agreement was signed by the United States plus other major powers China, Russia, Germany, France and Britain after long negotiations with Iran. The deal has been on a brink of collapse since Trump’s decision to withdraw from and reimpose sanctions on Tehran.
Iranian president Hassan Rouhani has estimated that the US sanctions have caused $200 billion in damages to the country.
“If the new US administration wants to make up for the mistakes of the previous administration, we have left the path clear for them,” Al-Arabiya reported, citing Rouhani’s speech on Thursday.
“Some friends said that the US should first compensate the damages it has done to the Iranian nation, which is of course more than $200 billion, but we have said that we will leave the claim for damages to the next stage for now, but first, they have to show their good will by lifting the sanctions and fulfilling their obligations,” Rouhani said.
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