Beirut, Dec 26 (AP/UNB) — Israeli warplanes flying over Lebanon fired missiles toward areas near the Syrian capital of Damascus late Tuesday, hitting an arms depot and wounding three soldiers, Syrian state media reported, saying that most of the missiles were shot down by air defense units.
The TV, quoting an unnamed military official, identified the warplanes as Israeli. Lebanon's the state-run National News Agency earlier reported that Israeli warplanes were flying at low altitude over parts of southern Lebanon.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, said Israeli airstrikes targeted three positions south of Damascus that are arms depots for Lebanon's militant Hezbollah group and Iranian forces.
The reported attack near Damascus is the first since U.S. President Donald Trump announced last week that the U.S. will withdraw all of its 2,000 forces in Syria, a move that will leave control of the oil-rich eastern third of Syria up for grabs.
Following Trump's announcement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that Israel would "continue to act against Iran's attempts to entrench itself militarily in Syria, and to the extent necessary, we will even expand our actions there."
Nearly an hour after the attacks began, Damascus residents could still hear the air defense units firing toward targets in the air.
"The aggression is still ongoing," said a presenter on state TV, which interrupted its programs to air patriotic songs.
Later the TV quoted an unnamed military official as saying that Syrian air defenses "shot down most of the missiles before reaching their targets and the aggression damaged an arms depot and wounded three soldiers." It added that the Israeli warplanes fired the missiles from Lebanese airspace.
Israel's military spokesman's unit did not confirm the raids, but said in a statement that "an aerial defense system was activated against an anti-aircraft missile launched from Syria." No damage or injuries were reported by the Israeli military.
Israel is widely believed to have been behind a series of airstrikes in the past that mainly targeted Iranian and Hezbollah forces fighting alongside the government in Syria. Tuesday's attack is the first since a missile assault on the southern outskirts of Damascus on Nov. 29.
Russia announced it had delivered the S-300 air defense system to Syria in October. That followed the Sept. 17 downing of a Russian reconnaissance plane by Syrian forces responding to an Israeli airstrike, a friendly fire incident that stoked regional tensions.
Iran, Dec 25 (AP/UNB) — Iran's president submitted next year's budget to parliament on Tuesday, the first since the United States restored sanctions that had been lifted under the nuclear deal.
The $47.5 billion budget is less than half the size of last year's, mainly due to the severe depreciation of the local currency following President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. The Iranian rial has fallen from around 42,000 to the dollar a year ago to around 100,000 today.
The government plans to fund 35 percent of the budget with oil revenues, projecting exports of up to 1.5 million barrels a day at a maximum of $54 a barrel. It did not say whether it projects a deficit.
The U.S. restored tough sanctions on Iran's vital oil industry in November, but granted waivers to a number of nations allowing them to continue imports in exchange for commitments to reduce them over time.
President Hassan Rouhani said the sanctions have hurt Iran but will not bring the Islamic Republic "to its knees."
He said the sanctions will mainly harm Iran's economic development and its poorer citizens. The government is allocating $14 billion to import medicine, medical equipment and other necessities, slightly more than the $13 billion allocated last year.
Lawmakers interrupted Rouhani's speech on two occasions to protest the government's water policies. Iran is suffering from a decade-long drought, and water shortages have sparked protests over the past year.
Saudi Arabia, Dec 23 (AP/UNB) — Prince Talal bin Abdulaziz, a senior member of the royal family who supported women's rights and once led a group of dissident princes, has died at the age of 87.
Prince Talal was an older brother to King Salman and the father of businessman Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. The royal court said prayers for Prince Talal, who died on Saturday, will be held in Riyadh on Sunday.
In the 1960s, he led a group of princes who called for a constitutional monarchy that distributes some of the king's powers. He led the group from Beirut and Cairo, which under Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser was an adversary of Riyadh.
After rifts emerged between Prince Talal and Cairo, he was allowed to return to Saudi Arabia in 1964.
Saudi Arabia, Dec 22 (AP/UNB) — Women, some without headscarves, drove themselves to a Formula-E car race where thousands of young Saudis and hundreds of international visitors partied into the night at concerts by Enrique Iglesias, The Black Eyed Peas and DJ David Guetta.
It's a vision of Saudi Arabia that epitomizes Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's top-down reform efforts. The spectacle would have been unthinkable until recently in the ultra-conservative kingdom where religious police used to enforce strict gender segregation, scolded women for not covering their hair and barged into restaurants to demand music be turned off.
The concerts and car race cap several months of profound change in Saudi Arabia, including the opening of the first movie theater in April and the lifting of the world's only ban on women driving in June.
But there's a hard limit to the reforms — as revealed by the brutal killing of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents close to the crown prince in October and the reported torture of several women's rights activists in detention. While the arena for fun is widening, the space for political engagement and dissent has virtually disappeared.
The 33-year-old crown prince, backed by his father King Salman, presides over a nation where he alone defines the pace and scope of change.
It's difficult to gauge the prince's domestic popularity, given the reservations and fear many have of criticizing the leadership. But his reforms are popular among young Saudis who believe their cities should offer some of the glitz and entertainment of neighboring Dubai or Abu Dhabi.
"This is a major change in Saudi Arabia and we are proud of it," said Abdelrahman al-Mahmoud, 29, a spectator at the electric car race in the capital, Riyadh. He expressed pride in a nation he feels is finally coming into its own.
When asked about the crown prince, al-Mahmoud described him as "the most popular guy" in Saudi Arabia. Pressed for his thoughts on Khashoggi's killing, he tensed up, like other Saudis interviewed at the race, and said he came to enjoy the day and didn't want to discuss politics.
The death of Khashoggi, who was killed and dismembered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, seemed a world away from the carefree atmosphere at the race last weekend where concert-goers belted out "Long live Salman" to house beats remixed by Guetta, the DJ.
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, three prominent women's rights activists are being held in Riyadh's Ha'ir Prison. They were arrested in May, enduring abuse and torture at the hands of masked interrogators in the Red Sea city of Jiddah before being transferred to Riyadh this month.
The women, among more than a dozen female activists being held, were whipped and caned on their backs and thighs, and electrocuted, according to five people with knowledge of their treatment. All spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal and to protect personal details about the detainees.
They said some of the women were forcibly touched and kissed, at least one was water-boarded and one attempted suicide during confinement. They said one woman was threatened with being raped, killed and dumped in a ditch, allegedly by a senior official wearing a mask. The detainee purportedly recognized him by some of his features.
The allegation could not be confirmed independently.
The government has denied charges of abuse as "wild claims" that are "simply wrong."
The arrest of women's rights activists, accused of vague national security crimes, was one of the incongruities in the reform agenda that Khashoggi wrote about in Washington Post columns before he was killed.
The kingdom denies the crown prince knew of the plot. He's been supported by President Donald Trump who has touted U.S.-Saudi ties. The U.S. Senate, however, passed a unanimous resolution saying it believes the crown prince is to blame for the murder. His critics point to U.S. intelligence reports and say an operation like this could not have happened without his knowledge.
The killing badly damaged Prince Mohammed's international image as a transformational leader committed to changes Saudi Arabia's allies in the West long hoped for.
Those changes are being promoted cautiously at home.
While the English-language Saudi newspaper Arab News touted the Formula-E as a "coming of age" event for the reform agenda, the more widely seen Arabic-language state TV channel only briefly carried images of the crown prince at the race and did not show the concerts or women without headscarves— images that much of the Saudi public strongly disagrees with.
For 22-year-old Maram Ali, who normally wears a headscarf in public, the race was a rare chance to literally let her hair down. Like many women at the event, she kept the required loose-fitting robe, known as an abaya, on but walked around without a head-covering.
"These changes should have happened a long time ago," she said, crediting the crown prince. "People are opening up. ... It's not like before where we were going backward and the world outside is moving forward."
The reform agenda is fueled in part by the need to power the economy in the face of lower oil prices. Unemployment has risen to almost 13 percent, while the cost of electricity and water have skyrocketed as subsidies are rolled back. This week, the king announced an extension of a multibillion-dollar package of monthly allowances for much of the public.
A father of two who goes by the name Abu Turki said he's been out of work for six months after he lost his job because of company cost-cutting. He supplements his government benefits, some of which run out in six months, working as a driver for the ride-hailing app Uber.
Like many Saudis, he'd heard of the Formula-E race, but for religious reasons that for decades have been propagated in this conservative nation home to Islam's holiest sites, he didn't agree with the idea of unrelated men and women mixing.
Speaking from behind a black face veil, Jawaher Othman, 55, had mixed feelings. She said the cool weather encouraged her to visit the race, but she had no intention of staying for the concert.
"May God correct their path and bless them," she said of young concert-goers. "I personally don't agree with the concerts and it's not for me, but it's not up to me ban it or say anything."
Jerusalem, Dec 20 (AP/UNB) — Israel on Wednesday urged a special session of the U.N. Security Council to condemn the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and designate it a terrorist organization following the discovery of cross-border tunnels stretching into Israel.
Following a stormy session, the council took no action on the Israeli request, though several members sided with Israel and expressed concerns over Hezbollah's violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution that ended a 2006 war between the bitter enemies.
Israel has previously urged the U.N.'s most powerful body to condemn Hezbollah, but has never succeeded because of divisions in the council, and there was no move Wednesday to circulate a draft resolution on the tunnels. A key reason for the lack of council action is that some members would insist that Israeli violations of the 2006 resolution also be included in a resolution.
Early this month, Israel announced the discovery of what it said was a network of cross-border Hezbollah attack tunnels and launched an open-ended military operation to destroy them. It so far has exposed four tunnels that it says were to be used to infiltrate and attack Israeli towns and abduct Israeli civilians.
Ahead of Wednesday's debate, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged the council to condemn Hezbollah.
"This is not merely an act of aggression. This is an act of war," Netanyahu said. "The people of Lebanon have to understand that Hezbollah is putting them in jeopardy and we expect Lebanon to take action against this."
At the United Nations, Israeli Ambassador Danny Danon showed an aerial photograph of what Israel called a "private compound" near the border that concealed a tunnel. He also presented an aerial photo showing what he said were weapons-storage sites concealed in a border village.
He said Israel had given the U.N. peacekeeping mission, known as UNIFIL, "precise information" about the tunnels that was shared with the Lebanese army. He accused the Lebanese army of then relaying the information to Hezbollah, allowing it to try to conceal the tunnels.
"Lebanese army officials are working for Hezbollah, while UNIFIL is not working to fulfill its mandate in the region in the necessary manner," Danon said.
The U.N.'s peacekeeping chief, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, said UNIFIL had confirmed four tunnels, including two that cross the frontier into Israel.
Calling them a "serious violation" of the 2006 cease-fire resolution, Lacroix said UNIFIL is "acting judiciously" to complete its investigation and to work with both sides to disable all tunnels that cross the border.
"This is a matter of serious concern," he said.
Lebanon's ambassador, Amal Mudallali, said her country took the matter seriously and remains committed to the cease-fire resolution.
"This commitment is not rhetoric, and these are not mere words, because this commitment is in the interest of my country and my people," she said, adding that the Lebanese army is "deployed heavily" in the south to make sure the cease-fire is honored.
But she also accused Israel of repeatedly violating the resolution by having its air force routinely fly through Lebanese skies.
"If we were to call for a Security Council meeting every time Israel had violated Lebanon's sovereignty since 2006, you will be in a 24/7 shift to address them," she said.
Several council members joined Israel in condemning the tunnels. Sweden said Hezbollah's military capabilities pose a "clear risk" to regional stability. The Netherlands strongly condemned the tunnel activities as a "flagrant violation" of Israeli sovereignty and international law.
Russia's deputy U.N. ambassador, Vladimir Safronkov, stressed Moscow's "historically friendly relations" with Israel and Lebanon in his speech to the council. Like many other council members, he called for calm and dialogue as well as an end to "emotional polemics."
Safronkov said Russia takes note of UNIFIL's preliminary conclusion on the violation of the 2006 resolution over the tunnels. But he quickly referred to Israeli violations as well.
"We see that all violations of the provisions in this Security Council resolution should cease, from either side — all violations," Safronkov said. "We cannot have a selective approach to implementation of the resolution."
He said Israel has a right to prevent illegal incursions into its territory but expressed hope its activities "will not go against the grain" of the 2006 resolution.
Hezbollah, a powerful organization that acts independently in Lebanon, has yet to comment on the Israeli discovery.
Israel has long called for a crackdown on the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, a heavily armed mini-army that is believed to possess an arsenal of some 150,000 rockets that can reach nearly all of Israel.
In recent years, Hezbollah has been bogged down in fighting in Syria on behalf of Syrian President Bashar Assad's government. But with that civil war winding down, Israeli security officials fear Hezbollah is refocusing its attention on Israel.
Though it appeared the Lebanese army was unaware of the Hezbollah tunnels, Netanyahu said, they know about it now and must neutralize them for their own country's sake. Israel holds the Lebanese government responsible for the actions of Hezbollah.
"The fact that the Lebanese army is doing nothing means that they are either unable or unwilling or both to do anything about this. But it doesn't absolve Lebanon's culpability," he said. "My message is: Hezbollah is putting you in great jeopardy."
Israel also accuses Hezbollah of using private homes to store weapons or other military activity. Netanyahu called these actions a "double war crime" since it threatened to harm Israeli civilians and put Lebanese civilians in danger as well.
On Wednesday, the Israeli military escorted reporters along the Israel-Lebanon border to the site of one of the tunnels found in recent weeks near the town of Metula. Heavy mist and rain nearly obscured the Lebanese villas perched on the mountains overlooking Israeli army bulldozers and tractors trundling through the mud.
Hezbollah, Lebanese and Palestinian flags fluttered on the opposite side of the border as Israeli soldiers lowered cameras 26 meters (85 feet) into the mouth of a rock-hewn tunnel they said was the first exposed in "Operation Northern Shield" emanating from the Lebanese village of Kafr Kela just a few hundred meters (yards) away.