Mecca, Aug 10 (AP/UNB) — More than 2 million pilgrims were gathered in the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia on Friday to perform initial rites of the hajj, an Islamic pilgrimage that takes the faithful along a path traversed by the Prophet Muhammad some 1,400 years ago.
The hajj in Islam is meant to be a great equalizer and unifier among Muslims, with pilgrims shedding overt displays of wealth and materialism. All male pilgrims wear simple terry cloth white garments and women don conservative dress and headscarves, forgoing makeup, nail polish and perfume in an effort to draw closer to God and engage in intense worship for the five-day hajj.
On Friday, thousands of pilgrims circled the cube-shaped Kaaba in Mecca, Islam's holiest site. They circle the Kaaba counter-clockwise, their hearts tilting toward the structure that's meant to symbolize the monotheistic principle of the oneness of God in Islam. Muslims around the world pray toward the Kaaba daily, using compasses to help them pray in its direction.
The hajj is one of the largest and most diverse gatherings in the world, drawing more than 1.8 million people from around the world this year, according to Saudi officials. Several hundred thousand more pilgrims are Saudi residents or citizens. Last year, 2.4 million people took part in the hajj, with similar numbers expected for 2019.
"I am very happy now. It is the first time I am here in Mecca. I am very excited," Siti Haslina Yousof, a Malaysian pilgrim in Mecca, said.
The U.S. consulate in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia said some 20,000 U.S. citizens and residents were expected to take part in this year's hajj.
The pilgrimage this year takes place amid a backdrop of political and sectarian tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran and as conflicts continue to flare in Yemen, Syria and Libya. Muslim minorities around the world also face increased threats, with Uighurs facing repression in China, Rohingya facing genocide in Myanmar and Kashmiris under a sweeping curfew and communication blackout in the Indian-administered territory.
"I cannot express my feelings. The atmosphere is spiritual, still and tranquil. We hope Yemen will be united for good," said Ali Ahmed Al-Sudani, a Yemeni pilgrim who said he was praying for unity in his war-torn country.
Saudi King Salman invited as his guests to the hajj this year 200 survivors and relatives of victims of a shooting spree in Christchurch, New Zealand, where a white gunman opened fire and killed 51 people in two mosques.
Those on the hajj view the pilgrimage as an opportunity to strengthen one's faith, erase past sins and start anew. The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam, required of all Muslims to perform once in their lifetime if they are physically and financially able.
For the well-heeled, the pilgrimage includes a partial stay in towering five-star hotels with lavish buffets overlooking the Kaaba. But for most, it means sleeping in simple accommodations or even spending weeks sleeping on the ground around Mecca's Grand Mosque to perform daily prayers and rites near the Kaaba ahead of the hajj.
Many pilgrims will save for years to perform the hajj. Charities and wealthier Muslims often also help fund those unable to cover the costs.
In addition to being financially costly, the hajj is physically demanding, involving much walking and travel between various points along the route.
To ease the journey, the kingdom recently unveiled the first phase of a new high-speed train connecting pilgrims between holy sites in the cities of Mecca and Medina. The kingdom also has a new e-visa system in place for pilgrims.
Still, the hajj remains a precarious journey. In 2015, several thousand pilgrims died in a stampede and crush of pilgrims in Mina on a narrow pedestrian-only road leading to a site where Muslims take part in the symbolic stoning of the devil during the last three days of the hajj. The government never released a final death count.
To curb the potential for a viral outbreak of any kind, Saudi Arabia this year stopped issuing visas to people from Congo, citing the Ebola outbreak there.
By Friday evening, most pilgrims will be in Mina, where they will spend the night in air-conditioned tents, before heading to Mount Arafat early Saturday, an area about 20 kilometers (12 miles) east of Mecca. There, the more than 2 million pilgrims will stand shoulder to shoulder for an emotional day of repentance and supplication at the site where the Prophet Muhammad delivered his final sermon, calling for equality and unity among Muslims.
"We feel very excited and will pray for all people," said Malaysian pilgrim, Farida bin Abdulrahman, as she prepared to depart toward Mina for the evening.
Sanaa, Aug 10 (AP/UNB) — Fighting between Yemeni government forces and southern separatists entered a third day Friday, leaving more than 20 killed, including five civilians, officials said.
The clashes could further complicate Yemen's bloody civil war and fracture the government side in the conflict. The government forces, backed by a Saudi-led coalition, have been battling rebels since 2015.
Also on Friday, the rebel Houthis announced the brother of their leader was killed by the Saudi-led coalition.
The announcement by the rebel-run Interior Ministry in the capital, Sanaa, posted on the rebel Almasirah website offered no details on the killing of Ibrahim al-Houthi, brother of rebel leader Abdel-Malek al-Houthi.
Yemeni security officials said people allied with the Saudi-led coalition killed Ibrahim al-Houthi and an associate in Sanaa earlier this week. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
Farea Al-Muslimi, a visiting researcher with Chatham House, a London-based policy institute, said Ibrahim was a low-level figure who the Houthi leader used as a special envoy.
Abdel-Malek "used to rely on him to do political mediation, convey certain messages, strike political deals, or send threats, but the latter did not have any official title or position within the group," he said.
The rebel statement said Ibrahim was "assassinated by treacherous hands" in the Saudi-led alliance fighting the rebels on behalf of Yemen's internationally recognized government.
Yemen's stalemated war between the Iran-aligned Houthis and the government has claimed tens of thousands of lives, thrust millions to the brink of famine and spawned the world's most devastating humanitarian crisis.
The rebels control the country's north and Sanaa, while government forces of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi hold mainly southern Yemen.
But the south is also a stronghold of Yemen's separatists, who have clashed with Hadi's forces since Wednesday. Paradoxically, the separatists are supported by the United Arab Emirates, a key member of the Saudi-led alliance and as such, a Hadi ally — at least in theory.
Some 20 people were killed, including five civilians, and dozens were wounded in the violence, according to doctors in the southern port city of Aden and security officials, who all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
The clashes have pitted Hadi's guards against a UAE-backed militia known as Security Belt. Hani Bin Braik, deputy head of the so-called Southern Transitional Council, had called upon separatists to march on the presidential palace in Aden and topple Hadi.
The government, in turn, has accused the separatist leader of fomenting sedition that would only serve the rebels and called upon the Saudi and Emirati governments to press the separatists to halt their attacks.
The International Crisis Group warned Friday the fighting would "make an already multi-faceted conflict even more complex and intractable."
"Such a conflict would deepen what is already the world's worst humanitarian crisis and make a national political settlement harder to achieve," read a statement issued by the Brussels-based group.
The United Nations issued a statement late Friday saying Secretary-General Antonio Guterres "is deeply concerned by the violent clashes in Aden" and is calling on the parties to stop the fighting and engage in dialogue.
Similar clashes erupted in January 2018 when separatists attempted to seize government facilities and military bases in Aden. Peace was restored after a few weeks.
"We have seen what happens when you simply put a lid on things. In January 2018 the conflict was simply frozen in place and this is the result of that," said Peter Salisbury, senior analyst with ICG, a non-profit research institute.
A political and security arrangement envisaging a cease-fire and the inclusion of separatists into the government could serve as a long-term solution to the conflict, Salisbury explained.
Videos showing Hadi's forces on Aden streets carrying machine guns and cheering to prove they were in full control were circulated online. Hadi's fighers chanted "God is great, and we are all with legitimacy, we are all Abed Rabbo." In some of the videos, gunshots could be heard in the background and vehicle-mounted weapons could be seen.
The national airline, Yemenia Airways, the only operating airline in and out of Yemen, on Thursday diverted all flights to Seiyun airport, nearly 840 Kilometers (522 miles) northeast of Aden airport due to the volatile situation.
The International Rescue Committee announced Friday that it would suspend its aid operations in Aden citing the ongoing clashes.
"This spike in violence and instability is damaging vital infrastructure, including water supply, and will complicate aid efforts," the IRC said in a statement.
Separately, the World Food Program said Friday it would resume food aid for the 850,000 people in Houthi-controlled Sanaa City after the end of the upcoming Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.
The partial suspension of aid to Sanaa began in late June amid accusations the rebels were diverting the food from the hungriest people in the Arab world's poorest country, which has been pushed to the brink of starvation. The suspension affected 850,000 people in Sanaa, where the WFP says the bulk of the looting was taking place.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said WFP welcomed what it called "important and positive steps" taken by Sanaa authorities on safeguards to ensure that food assistance reaches the most vulnerable people in Houthi-controlled areas.
He said as part of an Aug. 3 agreement, WFP will also start registering 9 million people in Houthi-controlled areas for smartcards, and it will be granted unimpeded access to all areas where it needs to work.
United Nations, Aug 8 (AP/UNB) — Reports suggest more than 100,000 people in Syria have been detained, abducted or gone missing during the eight-year conflict, with the government mainly responsible, the U.N. political chief said Wednesday.
Rosemary DiCarlo urged all parties to heed the Security Council's call for the release of all those arbitrarily detained and to provide information to families about their loved ones as required by international law.
She told the council that the U.N. can't verify the figure of more than 100,000 because it has been unable to gain access to places of detention and detainees in Syria. She said its information comes from accounts corroborated by the Commission of Inquiry on Syria authorized by the U.N. Human Rights Council and human rights organizations since the conflict started in 2011.
DiCarlo also reiterated U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres' call for the Syria conflict to be referred to the International Criminal Court, saying accountability for serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law "is central to achieving and maintaining durable peace in Syria."
DiCarlo spoke at an open meeting following the Security Council's unanimous approval in June of its first-ever resolution focused on the many thousands of people missing in conflicts around the world. The International Committee of the Red Cross, which was mandated by the 1949 Geneva Conventions to address and oversee the issue of missing persons in conflicts, said it registered over 45,000 missing cases in countries around the world in 2018 alone.
The council meeting, initially requested by the United States, offered a rare opportunity for the U.N.'s most powerful body to hear directly from families of the detained.
Dr. Hala Al Ghawi and Amina Khoulani, who both campaign for freedom and justice for Syrian detainees, criticized the council for its failure to end the war and urged its deeply divided members to adopt a new resolution to pressure all warring parties to reveal the names and whereabouts of all those detained — and release all those arbitrarily detained.
Al Ghawi said she left Syria at the end of 2011 after her husband was detained and held in a cell "so tiny that he didn't have space to sit down." He was released but she said her brother, father-in-law and some cousins remain missing.
Al Ghawi said many medical colleagues were also detained by the Syrian government for helping wounded protesters, and "some of them were killed under torture while in detention."
"As families, we have suffered enough and I'm here today to urge you to act," she said.
Khoulani, whose three brothers were taken by the Syrian government eight years ago, said they all died in detention and she herself was imprisoned for six months, "arrested by the Air Force Intelligence Branch for my peaceful activism." Her husband was detained in a military prison for 2 1/2 years, and "we were both lucky to survive, but many others weren't as lucky."
Khoulani said that while the majority of the missing were detained by the Syrian government, armed opposition and extremist groups like the Islamic State group "are also guilty of detention and disappearance."
"The United Nations Security Council has utterly failed Syrian detainees and their families," she said. "It's your responsibility to protect Syrians from a system that kills, tortures, and illegally detains its own citizens, in systematic violation of international law."
The council's deep divisions were clearly evident when Syria's closest council ally, Russia, spoke.
Russian deputy ambassador Dmitry Polyansky dismissed what he called "unverified and extremely non-objective data regarding the situation in Syria," and criticized Western nations that called the meeting for providing no information on people missing and detained in opposition-held areas.
"We have repeatedly stated that it is unacceptable to politicize humanitarian and human rights issues," Polyansky said. "However, we are once again hearing accusations against one of the parties, the official authorities in Damascus, while outright terrorists ... are being presented as innocent victims."
He said a Working Group on Detainees and Missing Persons comprising Russia, Iran and Turkey as well as experts from the U.N. and the Red Cross arranged a prisoner exchange July 31 and is developing procedures "for establishing a database of persons considered to be missing by the Syrian government and the opposition."
Syrian Charge d'Affaires Louay Falouh said the U.S. and United Kingdom had "no right" to call for a council meeting, accusing them of imposing "unilateral coercive measures" on the Syrian people, adopting "immoral conduct" and exploiting the humanitarian issue.
British Ambassador Karen Pierce retorted that nine countries on the 15-member council called for the meeting and there were no objections.
Pierce said Syria had not answered the most critical questions and again asked: "Would the Syrian authorities please provide a list of who is detained, where they are detained and, for those people who have died, their burial sites? And will they allow ... access to the detention sites?"
Tehran, Aug 7 (AP/UNB) — Iran's president reiterated Tuesday that if Washington wants to open negotiations with Tehran, it must lift all sanctions against his country "before everything else."
Iranian state TV said President Hassan Rouhani made the comments during a meeting with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Rouhani also reiterated that America's sanctions on his country are an act of "economic terrorism," the report said.
Tensions have escalated since President Donald Trump last year withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers and imposed new and harsher sanctions on Iran's oil and banking sectors.
The U.S administration last week also announced financial sanctions on Zarif, after Trump last month imposed similar measures on Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. The sanctions are seen as part of a U.S. pressure campaign on Iran.
Iran's U.N. ambassador, Majid Takht Ravanchi, sent a letter Tuesday to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres protesting what he called the "illegal" sanctions on Zarif. Ravanchi said they are part of U.S. policy "waging economic terrorism against the Iranian people and bringing pressure to bear on their representatives."
Iran considers the sanctions "a flagrant infringement of the fundamental principles of diplomatic law" that contravene the privileges and immunities of U.N. diplomats and the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, he said.
The ambassador said the sanctions signify "the U.S. regime despises diplomacy, which is one of the greatest achievements of humanity to preserve and uphold peace and security among nations" He said the U.S. action "threatens multilateralism as the foundation of international relations and sets a dangerous precedent, paving the way for those who aspire to rather divide, not unite nations."
"It is imperative for the international community to condemn the United States' unlawful behavior in the interest of promoting multilateralism ... (and) stand firm in defending the established principles of international law," Ravanchi said.
Tehran, Aug 6 (AP/UNB) — Iran's president has reiterated that if Washington wants to open negotiations with Tehran, it must lift all sanctions against his country "before everything else."
Iranian state TV says President Hassan Rouhani made the comments during a meeting with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Tuesday.
Rouhani also reiterated that America's sanctions on his country are an act of "economic terrorism."
Tensions have escalated since President Donald Trump withdrew last year from the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers and imposed new and harsher sanctions on Iran's oil and banking sectors.
The U.S administration last week also announced financial sanctions on Zarif, after Trump last month imposed similar measures on Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. The sanctions are seen as part of a U.S. maximum pressure campaign on Iran.