Beirut, Oct 21 (AP/UNB) — Protesters closed major roads around Lebanon ahead of an emergency Cabinet meeting on Monday, as politicians scrambled to put together a rescue plan for the country's crumbling economy and stem five days of mass anti-government protests.
Demonstrators placed barriers across major intersections in Beirut as well as other cities and towns across the country. Schools, universities, banks and government institutions remain shuttered as the country is gripped by the largest protests since the so-called Cedar Revolution in 2005.
Hundreds of thousands participated in Sunday's marches in downtown Beirut, in what has turned into a widening revolt against the country's sectarian status-quo and entire political elite. The outrage over the government's mismanagement of the economic crisis and proposed new taxes has unified Lebanon's often fractious society.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri has given his government — an unwieldy national coalition of nine largely sectarian parties — a deadline that expires Monday evening to come up with convincing solutions to the economic crisis. He is expected to put forward a reform plan during the Cabinet's morning meeting at the presidential palace in Beirut's southeastern suburb of Baabda.
Amid the unrest, Lebanese troops were deployed on the main road to the palace to clear the way for Hariri and government ministers to reach Baabda.
Local media reported that the government's plan includes measures such as raising taxes on the country's banking sector, cutting salaries of top officials, legislators and ministers by half, abolishing taxes imposed recently and fixing the electricity sector that has cost state coffers billions of dollars over the past years.
Many protesters say they don't trust any plan by the current government. They've called on the 30-member Cabinet to resign and be replaced by a smaller one made up of technocrats instead of members of political factions.
The protests are building on long-simmering anger at a ruling class that has divvied up power among themselves and amassed wealth for decades but has done little to fix a crumbling economy and dilapidated infrastructure.
"I am with the reforms. I am against the destruction of Lebanon," said Rabih Zghaib a protester in Beirut. "Lebanon has been badly damaged by the politicians for 30 years. Today their thrones are shaking."
In Tehran, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif expressed hope that Lebanon's government and political parties pay "attention to people's demands," the semi-official Fars news agency reported.
It was the first remarks by an Iranian official about the protests in Lebanon.
Iran enjoys wide influence in Lebanon through the militant Hezbollah organization that is armed and funded by Tehran. Hezbollah and its allies have a majority of seats in Lebanon's parliament and Cabinet.
In 2005, Lebanon witnessed protests and a mass uprising against Syria's occupation of the country, after Damascus was blamed for the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a large car bomb.
Cairo, Oct 21 (Xinhua/UNB) – Egypt inaugurated on Sunday the Middle East's largest metro station in the capital Cairo as part of the country's plans to renovate the city's fastest means of transportation.
Egyptian Transportation Minister Kamel al-Wazir attended the official launch of operations of Heliopolis Station, a facility constructed on 10,000 square metres, according to a statement by the transportation ministry.
The minister said that the air-conditioned station is the largest subway station in Egypt, the Middle East and Africa, adding that the cost amounted to about 1.9 billion Egyptian pounds (116.8 million U.S. dollars).
Al-Wazir added that the government is determined to continue developing the subway network in accordance with the best international standards as it is one of the key solutions to reduce traffic congestion in the overcrowded city.
The three-level station is 225 meters long, 22 meters wide and 28 meters deep from the street level. It includes eight exits and entrances, 18 fixed stairways, 17 escalators and four elevators.
The station, which is on Cairo Metro's third line, is located in the middle of Heliopolis Square, one of the largest squares in the capital.
The 45-km-long third line is vital as it connects the east with the west of Cairo. It is also linked with the first and second lines. In addition, the third line will be also connecting Cairo with the new administrative capital through the electric train which is being currently built.
Over 3.5 million of Cairo's 21 million inhabitants rely on the metro network, one of the oldest in the Middle East and Africa, for their daily travel.
In 2018, Egypt raised the price of tickets on Cairo's underground metro, based on the length of each stop.
Commuters are now charged a base fare of 3 Egyptian pounds for the first nine stops, 5 pounds for up to 16 stops, and a maximum of 7 pounds for more than 16 stops.
The increase came amid accumulated losses of hundreds of millions of Egyptian pounds and a total deficit of 94 percent in the maintenance and renovation budget of the 2017-18 fiscal year for the metro system, which put the network at risk.
Beirut, Oct 20 (Xinhua/UNB) -- Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces party, asked his four ministers on Sunday to resign from the government, the National News Agency reported.
Geagea, who is an ally of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, called on Hariri to resign on Friday in a statement published on the party's website following the protests that took place all over Lebanon.
Lebanese citizens took to the streets since Thursday to oppose the new taxes that the government was planning to impose on the people instead of adopting measures to cut the budget deficit.
Geagea has on many occasions voiced his rejection for the 2020 state budget discussed by the government, because it does not include serious reforms to cut the budget deficit which has reached 11.4 percent of the GDP.
Beirut, Oct 20 (AP/UNB) — A senior Syrian Kurdish official says his forces will pull back from a border area in accordance with a U.S.-brokered deal after Turkey allows the evacuation of its remaining fighters and civilians from a besieged town there.
Redur Khalil, a senior Syrian Democratic Forces official, said Saturday the plan for evacuation from the town of Ras al-Ayn is set for the following day, if there are no delays.
He says only after that will his force pull back from a 120-kilometer (75-mile) area between the towns of Ras al-Ayn and Tal-Aybad. It will withdraw and move back from the border 30 kilometers (19 miles).
This is the first time the Kurdish force has publicly acknowledged it will withdraw from the border, saying it has coordinated it with the Americans. The agreement has not specified the area of its pullback.
Previous agreements between the U.S. and Turkey over a "safe zone" along the Syria-Turkish border floundered over the diverging definitions of the area.
Khalil said a partial evacuation happened earlier Saturday from Ras al-Ayn after much stalling and with U.S. coordination.
A U.S. official says America is continuing to withdraw troops from Syria.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says a couple hundred have left. They are largely consolidated in one location in the west and a few locations in the east.
About 1,000 U.S. forces were previously deployed in parts of northeast Syria alongside Kurdish-led forces, but President Donald Trump abruptly announced he would withdraw them, opening the way for Turkey's military offensive into the area.
The official also says the U.S. is aware of ongoing violations of the cease-fire but the military is not closely monitoring the agreement. The official said it will still take a couple weeks to get forces out of Syria.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's spokesman says he was stunned by the tone and content of a recent letter from Donald Trump.
In the Oct. 9 letter, Trump urged Erdogan to act in a humane way in Syria and warned him that the world "will look upon you forever as the devil if good things don't happen. Don't be a tough guy. Don't be a fool!"
Ibrahim Kalin, a senior adviser to Erdogan, told The Associated Press that he received the letter and presented it to his boss.
Kalin said: "I personally was very surprised by the tone, the style of it. But also, more so by its content."
He said Erdogan "asked me to convey our message to the Americans that we reject this letter completely in its style as well as in its substance."
Kalin said Turkey's response to the letter came later that day when it launched its air and ground offensive against Kurdish fighters in Syria.
Erdogan on Friday said he and Trump share "love and respect," but also told reporters he would not forget the letter and "do what's necessary" about it, without elaborating.
The spokesman for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says Turkey wants Syrian government forces to move away from a border area so it can resettle up to 2 million refugees.
Ibrahim Kalin told The Associated Press in an interview that Erdogan will raise the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin when they meet in Sochi, Russia, on Tuesday.
Syrian government forces have moved into some border areas as part of a deal with Kurdish fighters who are being targeted by Turkey's offensive in northern Syria. That has complicated Turkey's plan to create a "safe zone" south of its border with Syria where it would resettle Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey. The territory had previously been vacated by U.S. troops.
Kalin said the refugees "don't want to go back to areas under regime control."
He says: "This is one of the topics that we will discuss with the Russians, because, again, we are not going to force any refugees to go to anywhere they don't want to go. We want to create conditions that will be suitable for them to return where they will feel safe."
A senior Turkish official is denying that the Turkish military is blocking the withdrawal of Syrian Kurdish fighters from the border areas following a U.S. brokered cease-fire.
The official said Saturday that Ankara got "everything we wanted at the negotiating table" in talks with Vice President Mike Pence.
"It is bizarre to think that we'd violate an agreement that we like," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Kurdish fighters say they can't withdraw from Ras al-Ayn, a town at the border with Turkey, because Turkish-backed fighters have besieged them and prevented the evacuation of the wounded.
On Saturday, a medical convoy was allowed into the town, evacuating nearly 40 wounded. Activists said others remain in need of evacuation in a hospital controlled by the Kurdish forces.
Activists say a medical convoy including the Syrian and Kurdish Red Crescent has entered the Syrian border town of Ras al-Ayn, which has been besieged for days by Turkish-led forces, and it delivered aid and evacuated wounded.
Dani Ellis, a volunteer in northeast Syria who travelled with the convoy, says Turkish-backed fighters opened a corridor Saturday for the convoy to reach a hospital and surrounding neighborhoods still controlled by Kurdish-fighters at the southeast edge of Ras al-Ayn.
She said fighting in the town the past three days had been intense but as they entered the town only a few shots in the distance were heard. The hospital was dark and without electricity. Kurdish-led forces have complained that Turkey was violating the U.S.-brokered ceasefire by continuing the siege and assault on Ras al-Ayn and preventing the evacuation of wounded.
The convoy of about 20 ambulances delivered basic supplies and brought out 37 wounded civilians, medical personnel and fighters, but did not have space to evacuate all the wounded. Most had gunshot injuries.
A convoy of the Turkish Red Cross also said it entered Ray al-Ayn on Saturday evening, delivering supplies
The Turkish Red Crescent says it has delivered humanitarian aid to hundreds of people in the town of Ras al-Ayn in northern Syria following Turkey's military offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces.
The humanitarian organization said it delivered food aid to 2,000 people. Video showed Turkish soldiers and Turkey-backed Syrian forces as people lined up for aid packs.
Turkish Red Crescent and Turkey's Disaster and Emergency Management Agency staff delivered the aid.
Turkey launched its operation into northeastern Syria last week against the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG, which it calls terrorists.
A 120-hour cease-fire brokered by the U.S. and Turkey was mostly holding on its second day, despite accusations of violations from both the Syrian Kurdish forces and Turkey.
A war monitor group says Turkey-backed Syrian fighters have clashed in several locations with Kurdish forces, in possible violations of a U.S.-brokered cease-fire in northern Syria.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Saturday that the Turkish proxy forces crossed into Syria east of Ras al-Ayn to a village where clashes have been ongoing since Friday.
Washington brokered a five-day cease-fire late Thursday meant to slow down a Turkish offensive on the Kurdish-held region across the border.
Ankara wants the Kurdish forces to vacate a large zone along its borders.
On Saturday, Syrian state media said Syrian government forces — newly deployed south of Ras al-Ayn to boost Syrian Kurdish attempts to fend off the invasion — have clashed with the Turkish-backed forces.
Turkey's interior minister says 41 suspected Islamic State members were re-captured after fleeing a detention camp earlier this week in Syria, amid heavy fighting between Turkish and Kurdish forces.
Suleyman Soylu said that 195 other suspected IS members had already been re-taken.
His comments were carried by Turkish television on Saturday.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused Syrian Kurdish forces of releasing some 750 IS members and families, amid Turkey's offensive.
Private IHA news agency said the Turkish nationals among the re-captured were brought over to Turkey in vans, where Erdogan said they would be imprisoned and tried.
Turkey's state-run English language broadcaster TRT World said the IS members and families were captured by Turkey-backed Syrian opposition forces. The foreign nationals, many of them Europeans, would be transferred to a Turkey-controlled zone in northern Aleppo, according to the broadcaster.
Syrian Kurdish forces say Turkey is failing to abide by terms of a U.S.-brokered cease-fire, refusing to lift a siege it imposed on a key border town in northeastern Syria 30 hours after the truce went into effect.
The Syrian Democratic Forces called Saturday on U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who negotiated the deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to take responsibility for enforcing the five-day cease-fire.
The cease-fire got off to a rocky start, with sporadic fighting and shelling around Ras al-Ayn Friday. The border town is a test for the deal in which Turkey asks that Kurdish fighters vacate the frontier zone.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Saturday that Turkey-backed Syrian fighters have prevented a medical convoy from reaching Ras al-Ayn since Friday.
Istanbul, Oct 20 (AP/UNB) — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants Syrian government forces to move out of areas near the Turkish border so he can resettle up to 2 million refugees there, his spokesman told The Associated Press on Saturday. The request will top Erdogan's talks next week with Syria's ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Arrangements along the Syrian-Turkish border were thrown into disarray after the U.S. pulled its troops out of the area, opening the door to Turkey's invasion aiming to drive out Kurdish-led fighters it considers terrorists.
Abandoned by their American allies, the Kurds — with Russia's mediation — invited Damascus to send troops into northeastern Syria as protection from Turkish forces. That has complicated Turkey's plan to create a "safe zone" along the border, where it can resettle Syrian refugees now in Turkey. Most of those refugees fled Syria's government.
Erdogan's spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin said Ankara does not want either Syrian forces nor Kurdish fighters in the border area because refugees would not go back to areas under their control.
Turkey has said it wants to oversee that area.
"This is one of the topics that we will discuss with the Russians, because, again, we are not going to force any refugees to go to anywhere they don't want to go," he said. "We want to create conditions that will be suitable for them to return where they will feel safe."
Turkey has taken in about 3.6 million Syrians fleeing the conflict in their homeland but now wants most of them to return. So far, very few have returned to an enclave Turkey already took over and has controlled since 2017.
Under an agreement made by the U.S. and Turkey Thursday, a five-day cease-fire has been in place. Turkey expects the Kurdish fighters to pull back from a border area.
A senior Syrian Kurdish official acknowledged for the first time that the Kurdish-led forces agreed to the pull-back, stating that his forces will move 30-kilometer (19 miles) south of the border.
Redur Khalil, a senior Syrian Democratic Forces official, told the AP that the withdrawal will take place once Turkey allows the Kurdish-led force to evacuate its fighters and civilians from Ras al-Ayn, a border town under siege by Turkish-backed forces. He said that Kurdish-led force was preparing plans to conduct that evacuation on Sunday, if there are no further delays.
Khalil said Kurdish-led fighters would pull back from a 120-kilometer (75-mile) stretch along the border from Ras al-Ayn to Tal Abyad, moving past the international highway.
"We are only committed to the U.S. version not the Turkish one," Khalil said.
A previous agreement between the U.S. and Turkey over a "safe zone" along the Syria-Turkish border floundered over the diverging definitions of the area.
Erdogan has said the Kurdish fighters must withdraw from a far larger length of the border from the Euphrates River to the Iraqi border — more than 440 kilometers (260 miles) — or else the Turkish offensive will resume on Tuesday.
But U.S. officials say the agreement pertains to the smaller section between the two towns. Kalin confirmed that is the area affected by the pause in fighting, but said Turkey still wants the larger zone.
Two days into the cease-fire, the border town of Ras al-Ayn has been the sticking point in moving forward.
"We hope that as of tonight or tomorrow, they will stick to this agreement and leave the area," Kalin said.
The Kurdish official meanwhile said his force had negotiated with the Americans the details of its pull-back from the border, starting with the Ras al-Ayn evacuation. But he said the evacuation stalled for 48 hours because Turkish-backed forces continued their siege of the town.
A partial evacuation took place Saturday. Medical convoys were let into part of the town still in Kurdish hands, evacuating 30 wounded and four bodies from a hospital. Khalil said the plan to complete the evacuation from Ras al-Ayn is now set for Sunday.
Turkish officials denied violating the cease-fire or impeding the fighters' withdrawal, blaming the continued violence on the Kurds.
If Kurdish fighters then pull back from the 120-kilometers (75 miles) border area, it is uncertain what the arrangement would be along the rest of the northeastern border, most of which remains solely in the hands of Kurdish-led fighters.
Last week, Syrian forces began deploying into Kurdish areas, moving only into one location directly on the border, the town of Kobani, and a few positions further south.
Khalil said the Syrian government and its ally Russia did not want to deploy more extensively in the area, apparently to avoid frictions with Turkey.
"We noticed there was no desire (from the Russians and Syria) to have the Syrian military on the dividing line between us and the Turks except in Kobani," he said.
The border town of Kobani also stands between Turkish-controlled Syrian territories to the west and Kurdish-held eastern Syria.
Khalil said it was not clear what would happen after his forces' withdrawal and five-day cease-fire ends.
"The deal essentially is handing Syrian land to a foreign country. This is not good. It is bad for us," he said. "We have nothing to win. The only win is the international sympathy."