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Thursday, 9th April 2020
3:17:28am

North Africa

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Egypt on Saturday ordered mosques and churches to shut their doors to worshippers in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus, after calls for the government to follow steps taken by neighbouring countries.

The North African country reported nine new coronavirus cases and two fatalities on Saturday, the health ministry said in a statement, bringing the totals to 294 confirmed infections and 10 deaths.

Many on social media had criticised the government for not cancelling weekly Friday prayers and masses at which worshippers crowd into mosques and churches.

The Ministry of Islamic Endowments said it would shut all mosques for two weeks “for the necessity of preserving souls”, but will allow them to broadcast prayer calls through loudspeakers.

In another statement, the ministry stressed that mosques will not open during the closure even for funeral prayers, adding such sermons should be done in open areas.

Egypt has more than 100,000 mosques.

Al-Azhar, Egypt’s top Sunni Muslim authority, said it would shut its historic mosque in old Cairo starting from Saturday “for the safety of worshippers, and until the end of the coronavirus epidemic”.

On March 15, Al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars said that governments had the right to shut mosques “to protect people from the coronavirus”.

Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church on Saturday ordered all its churches to shut their doors and suspend masses for two weeks over coronavirus fears, it said in a statement. 

The church also banned visits to monasteries and closed condolences halls attached to churches.

Each parish will name only one church for funeral prayers and the sermons will be restricted to the family of the deceased.

Christians represent around 10% of Egypt’s population of 100 million, according to unofficial estimates. The vast majority of the country’s Christians are orthodox.

The Coptic Catholic Church followed the same approach‮‮ ‬‬and ordered its followers on Saturday to pray at home until further notice. Its churches will open their doors for funeral prayers only, which will be restricted to family members.

Strengthening measures

Egypt, which has seen its tourism sector badly affected by the epidemic, will close all museums and archaeological sites starting March 23 until the end of the month for sanitisation, the tourism ministry said in a statement on Saturday.

Tourism revenue rose to a record high $12.57 billion in the financial year that ended in July 2019.

The most populous Arab country said on Thursday it would shut all cafes, shopping malls, sports clubs and nightclubs from 7 p.m. until 6 a.m. local time every night until March 31. It exempted supermarkets, pharmacies, bakeries and neighbourhood corner stores.

Egypt also shut schools and universities and moved to cut the number of public sector employees reporting to work in an effort to discourage crowding and slow the spread of the disease. 

Flights were grounded on Thursday until the end of March, with the exception of outward-bound flights needed by foreign tourists.

The government said that during the flight ban and school shutdown, hotels and all educational facilities would be sanitised.

-Reuters

Germany and the United Nations will push rival Libyan camps and their foreign backers fighting over the capital to agree on Sunday to a truce and monitoring mechanism as first steps towards peace, diplomats and a draft communique said.

But the meeting in Berlin at Chancellor Angela Merkel’s headquarters will not try to broker power-sharing between the eastern-based forces and the internationally-recognised government in Tripoli, said diplomats briefed on preparations.

The summit will put pressure on Khalifa Haftar and his eastern Libyan National Army (LNA) to halt a nine-month offensive against Fayez al-Serraj’s government in the coastal capital after a week-long lull in fighting.

About 140,000 people have been forced out of their homes.

“I hope the war ends and we have our country back to live in peace,” said Aisha Ali Saleh, a mother-of-eight in an apartment on an abandoned building site with no power or running water.

Haftar and Serraj are both due in Berlin - along with leaders of Russia, Turkey, Egypt and other Western and Arab powers - in the latest bid to stabilize the OPEC member nation in turmoil since the 2011 fall of strongman Muammar Gaddafi.

Members of the transatlantic alliance NATO and Arab countries were instrumental in removing Gaddafi then, and foreign powers have again been the drivers of the aftermath, supplying drones, guns and ammunition to the factions. 

Haftar is backed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Jordan, Sudanese and Chadian fighters, and most recently Russian mercenaries. France has also given some support.

On the other side, Turkey has rushed to Serraj’s rescue by sending troops to balance out recent gains by Russian snipers. Hundreds of pro-Turkey fighters from Syria’s war have also been deployed, diplomats say.

“Berlin is an opportunity to restart the political process and build on the pause in fighting,” said a Western diplomat.

A six-page draft communique seen by Reuters calls for “credible, verifiable, sequenced and reciprocal steps” starting with a truce to be monitored by technical committees.

That could involve beefing up the existing U.N. mission in Libya or deploying troops from Russia, Turkey or other states, the diplomats said. The draft vaguely mentioned long-delayed plans for elections and a national government, without any timeline, just calling for U.N.-led follow-up meetings.

MIGRANTS AND MILITANTS

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged Haftar and Serraj to come together in Berlin without adding conditions and blaming each other afterwards. “Relations between them are currently very tense, they don’t even want to be in the same room together,” he told reporters on Friday. 

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias met Haftar on Friday and urged him to adopt a “constructive spirit” in Berlin. Athens, which opposes a recent Turkey-Libya pact on Mediterranean sea boundaries, had wanted to participate in the summit.

Chaos in Libya has made it a hub for human traffickers to ship migrants to Italy, while Islamist militants have also exploited the disorder. The latest conflict has not, however, disrupted oil output at about 1.2 million barrels per day.

In the complex outside power-play, there was no indication that Egypt and the UAE, which see the former Gaddafi general Haftar as the best bet for stability, will end their support.

But Western diplomats hope they have realised Haftar cannot take Tripoli and that a stalemate would give Turkey a foothold, which Cairo especially fears. Turkey-Egypt ties have been frosty since the Egyptian army in 2013 ousted Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Mursi, an ally of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan.

“The longer the war takes, the stronger the Turkish presence in Libya,” the diplomat said.

Even if Haftar breached Tripoli defences, he would still have to conquer Misrata, a power centre in western Libya allied to Serraj and home to thousands of fighters.

Some Russian mercenaries have been pulled back in recent weeks from the Tripoli frontline, undermining recent progress by Haftar’s forces as Russia pressures him for a ceasefire.

Those displaced by the conflict live in cramped schools and buildings, with some recently moving closer to the city as Haftar’s forces advanced. 

Saleh’s husband died of a heart attack in April when the war started, cutting off his state pension of 450 dinars ($322.53).

“My 17-year-old son sleeps at night in our car so he can give us enough space,” she said, covering her face as she cried.

Saleh’s neighbour, 36-year old father-of-five Mohamed Siddiq, was optimistic. “Our hope is very, very big (that the Berlin conference) will announce a ceasefire.”

-Reuters

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Libyan peace talks will be held in Berlin, as Turkey and Russia appealed to the north African nation’s warring factions to enter a ceasefire.

“We hope that the joint efforts by Russia and Turkey will lead to success, and we will soon send out invitations for a conference in Berlin,” Merkel said on Saturday during a joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

She stressed that the United Nations would lead talks if a meeting were to take place in Berlin, and that Libya’s warring parties would need to play a major role to help find a solution.

The aim was to give Libya the chance to become a sovereign and peaceful country, Merkel said.

Putin expressed support for the process, saying it was a “timely” idea and necessary to bring the conflict in Libya to an end.

The comments came days after Turkey and Russia urged Libya’s warring parties to declare a ceasefire. 

Fayez al-Serraj, head of Libya’s internationally recognised government, said he welcomed the peace initiative by Russia and Turkey.

“The condition is the withdrawal of the attacking party, which does not seem willing to do so”, he said after holding talks with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte in Rome on Saturday.

Libyan forces loyal to eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar said this week they had taken control of the strategic coastal city of Sirte in a rapid advance preceded by air strikes.

Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army was also considered responsible for a deadly drone attack on a military academy in the capital Tripoli.

Conte said on Saturday he expressed his “consternation” to General Haftar for the January 4 attack in Tripoli, after meeting him in Rome earlier this week.

“We are working hard as a government for the immediate goal of a ceasefire and to steer the conflict towards a political solution,” Conte said. 

Turkey backs al-Serraj’s Tripoli-based Government of National Accord and has said it will send military advisers and possibly troops to reinforce its support, while Russian military contractors have been deployed alongside General Haftar.

Asked if he was aware of the presence of Russian mercenaries in Libya Putin said: “If there are Russian citizens there, then they are not representing the interests of the Russian state and they are not receiving money from the Russian state.”

-Reuters

Libya’s warring leaders were due to hold peace talks in Moscow on Monday with Russia and Turkey urging the rivals to sign a binding truce to end a nine-month-old war and pave the way for a settlement that would stabilise the North African country.

The Russo-Turkish push, which brings together the Libyan leaders for the first time in almost a year, is the latest attempt to end chaos that has engulfed the oil-producing country since the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

Khalifa Haftar, commander of the eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) faction which has been trying to conquer the capital Tripoli, and Fayez al-Serraj, who heads the rival Tripoli-based recognised government, were both in Moscow, Russian diplomats said.

Both men last met in Abu Dhabi in February last year before talks broke down over a power-sharing deal and Haftar moved his troops on Tripoli in April, expanding his control beyond the east and south.

The Moscow talks take place ahead of a summit in Berlin on Sunday which is expected to bring together the foreign backers of both Libyan camps.

Turkey backs Haftar’s rival, Serraj, while Russian military contractors have been deployed alongside Haftar’s LNA forces, which are also backed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Jordan.

The Tripoli war has wrecked Libya’s economy and risks disrupting oil production and triggering flows of African migrants trying to reach Europe by boats with the help of smugglers exploiting the chaos. 

SKIRMISHES

The Moscow talks come after a ceasefire, initiated by Turkey and Russia, saw a lull in heavy fighting and air strikes on Sunday, though both factions accused each other of violating that truce as skirmishes continued around Tripoli.

Haftar’s troops have not been able to breach Tripoli’s defences but have in recent weeks made some small progress with the help of the Russian mercenaries, residents say. That has pushed Turkey, which has business interests in the country, to deploy soldiers to Libya to help the embattled Tripoli government.

Russia and Turkey’s foreign and defence ministers held talks on Libya on Monday morning and would later be joined by the two Libyan delegations, Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, said.

Separately, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte flew to Ankara on Monday for talks on Libya with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan. Conte suffered a setback last week after Rome’s own bid to play a central role in resolving Libya’s conflict came off the rails.

Russia and Turkey have turned into major players in Libya, joining Arab countries such as Egypt or the UAE which have filled a void left by Western powers showing little interest in the OPEC producer since 2011.

Asked about Russian mercenaries, Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Saturday that any Russian citizens fighting in Libya were not representing the interests of the Russian state or receiving money from it. 

During a visit to Moscow on Saturday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Berlin wanted to host Libyan peace talks to build on what she said she hoped would be successful joint efforts by Russia and Turkey to stop the conflict.

Germany plans to hold that summit on Jan. 19, two participants in the preparatory negotiations said on Monday. The Turkish presidency said Erdogan would come to Berlin for a one-day visit on Jan. 19, but gave no further details.

-Reuters

At least 24 Tunisians were killed on Sunday after a bus crashed during an excursion in the northern town of Amdoun, the health ministry said.

The bus veered off a winding road when the driver failed to negotiate a sharp turn and crashed to the bottom of a ravine, the interior ministry said.

The bus was carrying 43 people, officials said.

President Kais Saied and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed attended the crash site in the northwestern region of Tunisia, which attracts large numbers of visitors but has poor infrastructure.

-Reuters

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