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Iran says it has ended anti-government protests and blames US, Israel and Saudi Arabia for unrest

- 1515384719 iran us flag protest - Iran says it has ended anti-government protests and blames US, Israel and Saudi Arabia for unrest


Iran’s Revolutionary Guard said security forces have ended the unrest linked to anti-government protests which erupted last month. 

In a statement on its website, the powerful paramilitary force blamed the unrest on the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia, as parliament and security officials met to discuss the boldest challenge to the clerical establishment since 2009.

The Guard also claimed an exiled opposition group known as the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq and supporters of the monarchy that was overthrown in the 1979 Islamic Revolution were behind the protests.

Price hikes sparked demonstrations last month, with the protests spreading to at least 80 cities and towns. At least 21 people were killed in scattered clashes.

The protestors, many of them young and working-class Iranians, vented anger at high unemployment and official corruption. The demonstrations were the largest seen in Iran since the disputed 2009 presidential elections. 

Some protesters called for the overthrow of the government. Many also protested against the Revolutionary Guard’s huge budget, its costly interventions across the region, and against the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to whom the force is loyal.

More than 1,000 people have been arrested since the protests began. They include around 90 university students, of whom 10 remained unaccounted for, reformist MP Mahmoud Sadeghi told the semi-official ISNA news agency. 

Several parliament members and university officials have expressed concern over the fate of students arrested during the protests. Tehran University Vice-President Majid Sarsangi said the university had set up a committee to track them.

Relatives of detainees were reported to have gathered outside prisons seeking information about the fate of their loved ones.

A police spokesman said most of those arrested were “duped” into joining the unrest and had been freed on bail. He added: “But the leaders of the unrest are held by the judiciary in prison.”

Residents of several cities confirmed to Reuters that protests had subsided after the government intensified a crackdown by dispatching forces to a number of provinces.

Videos on social media showed a heavy police presence in cities on Saturday night, including Khorramabad in south-western Iran where on Wednesday evening protesters threw stones at riot police.

Iran‘s parliament held a closed session on Sunday in which senior security officials briefed them on the protests and the conditions of the detainees, the agency reported. 

“It was emphasised that foreign elements, and in particular the United States, played a basic role in forming and manipulating the recent unrest,” IRNA quoted lawmaker Jalal Mirzaei as saying. 

The United States and Israel expressed support for the protests, which began on 28 December in Iran’s second largest city, Mashhad, but their governments both denied fomenting them. 

As protests ebbed, the government lifted restrictions it imposed on Instagram, one of the social media tools used by protesters to mobilise. But access to a more widely used messaging app, Telegram, was still blocked, suggesting authorities remained uneasy about the possibility of further protests.

Parliament spokesman Behrouz Nemati said MPs and security officials had decided that Telegram restrictions should be lifted only after the app committed to ban “hostile, anti-Iranian channels that promote unrest”, state television reported.

Late last month Telegram, which has 40 million users in Iran, shut down a channel that the government had claimed encouraged violence, but declined to block other channels, prompting Tehran to bar access to the app.

Many Iranians access Telegram by using virtual private networks (VPNs) and other tools to bypass government filtering of the Internet.

In recent days, government supporters have held several mass rallies across the country to oppose the unrest.

Thousands staged rallies in a backlash against the anti-government protests, with some demonstrators chanting “death to America”, “death to Israel”, “death to Britain” and “death to seditionists”. 

State television showed live pictures of rallies in several cities, including central Shahr-e Kord, where hundreds gathered despite heavy snowfall.

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Middle East

‘Trump – he wants us to die’: Palestinians fear US aid cuts could ignite Gaza tinderbox

- 1516643641 unrwa gaza palestinians - ‘Trump – he wants us to die’: Palestinians fear US aid cuts could ignite Gaza tinderbox


With their horses and carts, beaten up cars, the refugees of Gaza’s Beach camp arrived early on Monday for their quarterly food boxes, given out on a rota system by UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees.

Some had come several days before their designated pick up day, fearing that soon the free flour, lentils, sardines and oil on which their lives depend, would be gone.

“[Donald] Trump – he wants us to die,” they cried angrily, as huge flour sacks thumped on the ground. They were talking of the US President’s shock decision last week to slash US funding to UNRWA by more than half, a move which threatens food aid to Palestinian refugees not only in Gaza but in camps in the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan – where 5 million refugees rely on UNRWA for basic services, including health and education. 

“They have tried with the bombs and now they want us to starve,” said Rihab Abu Sharifa, a 45-year-old widow, who shares her breeze block and asbestos home with 18 others, including her 12 grandchildren.

Anger about Mr Trump’s cuts to UNRWA [the United Nations Refugee and Works Agency] spilled out in Gaza on the same day as Mike Pence, the US vice president, held talks in Jerusalem with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, about a new “peace plan”.

But Mr Pence only stoked fresh outrage amongst Palestinians as he confirmed the US plan to move its embassy to Jerusalem. He also declared the city “Israel’s capital”, despite Palestinian claims that East Jerusalem – illegally annexed by Israel – should be the capital of a future Palestine.

US Vice President Mike Pence (left) meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, Israel. (Haim Zach/GPO via Getty Images)

At the same time 2,000 miles away, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas was urging European leaders to recognise the state of Palestine, and being told in return that the EU remains critical of the American approach and committed to a two-state solution with Jerusalem as a shared capital.

While Jerusalem hit the headlines, however, the most serious threat to any new peace plan came with America’s announcement of cuts to UNRWA’s aid budgets, to which the US is the largest donor. A promised initial payment from the US – more than $195m (£140m) for the first quarter of 2018 – was slashed without warning to $60m, triggering fears that food aid, as well as schooling and medical aid, would all be hit.

Fears about what this might mean were already clear to see on the faces of the “absolute” and “abject poor” of Gaza’s Beach Camp, as they grabbed their UNRWA food boxes and made for home. UNRWA officials – normally a cautious breed – predicted a “catastrophe” if the boxes are not there when the refugees return for their next three-month supply.

Such warnings in Gaza are not unusual. Many predicted a new intifada following the last Israeli bombardment of 2014, and again after the recent US decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but the Palestinians – too disillusioned with failed peace efforts, and divided amongst themselves – have largely stayed calm.

Yet the situation unfolding now is unprecedented, observers here said. The people of Gaza have lived through several cycles of war, and suffered under a 10-year blockade imposed by Israel. “They have seen the peace efforts fall apart and their own leadership divided. But nobody has ever taken away their bread and that is precisely due to UNRWA’s presence in all Palestinian camps,” said senior UN officials here.

Moreover, there is every reason to fear that the US cut to UNRWA’s budget has a political agenda and will be followed by a decision to remove the Palestinian refugees’ right of return home from any future deal. The right to return has been a core Palestinian claim, enshrined in UN resolutions, since the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 when the refugees were driven out of their homes in what is now Israel and have never been allowed back.

Such fears have been further fuelled by reports that America wants to limit the number of Palestinians defined as refugees by all but the first generation, who are fast dying out.

“Just as President Trump has taken Jerusalem off the table so he seems to want to take refugees off the table, ” said Matthias Schmale, director of UNRWA in Gaza.

For now, however, the immediate concern is calming fears of hunger in the camps.

While Gaza’s main streets present a veneer of energy, with shops apparently well stocked, few are buying even in the affluent areas. Minutes away, in the alleys of refugee camps where more than one million depend on UNRWA food aid, a more depressing story unfolds. ­­

Stories of domestic abuse, theft, violence and suicide spill out of nearly every household. Unemployment in the camps is as high as 70 per cent and again and again, the main fear is that food aid will stop.

Riba Abu Sharifa takes us into the ground floor of her tiny breeze block house where amid piles of unwashed clothes and detritus she shares a room with two unmarried sons.

Behind towels, strung up for doors, her two jobless sons live with their wives and children, five each, in two single rooms. Electricity is on for just a few hours a day and sanitation is near collapse as raw sewage pours into the sea nearby.

The cuts to UNRWA will affect not only food aid, but end the already slow post-war reconstruction program and lead to cuts to UNRWA jobs, thereby further undermining the Gaza economy. Equally dangerous, say officials, will be cuts to the UNRWA school budget, pushing children onto the streets instead of into classes.

Aid workers here hold out hope that the EU, UNRWA’s second biggest donor, as well as Arab countries will fill the budget cuts made by the US. There is also speculation that Israel itself will call on the US to reverse the cuts, in the knowledge that a humanitarian disaster on its doorstep could destabilise Israel itself and the whole region.

In UNRWA’s Gaza offices, however, they know that if Israel sees a chance to remove the refugees right of return, with US backing, it will seize it. One official commented: “We hope the money will be forthcoming but we are planning for chaos”.

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Middle East

Kabul attack latest: Survivors of Taliban hotel siege that killed 18 recount horrific ordeal

- 1516639827 afghan hotel survivors - Kabul attack latest: Survivors of Taliban hotel siege that killed 18 recount horrific ordeal


Survivors of the Taliban attack on Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel recounted on Monday the ordeal of the deadly, 13-hours-long weekend standoff that claimed 18 lives, including 14 foreigners. 

The siege ended on Sunday with Afghan security forces saying they had killed the last of six Taliban militants who stormed the hotel in suicide vests late the previous night, looking for foreigners and Afghan officials to kill. 

More than 150 people were rescued or managed to escape, including 41 foreigners. Eleven of the 14 foreigners killed were pilots and employees of KamAir, a private Afghan airline. A statement by KamAir later said some of its flights were disrupted because of the attack. 

Six Ukrainians, two Venezuelan pilots for KamAir and a citizen from Kazakhstan were among the those killed in the attack on the hotel, 

Mohammad Humayun Shams, the telecommunications director of eastern Laghman province who was visiting Kabul and staying at the hotel, said he was able to escape by jumping into a tree form a hotel window as the attackers roamed the hallways, killing people. 

“It was the worst night of my life,” Shams said, adding that as he ran, he didn’t know who were the police and who were the Taliban – they all had the same type of uniforms. 

Afghan authorities have not confirmed the attackers wore police uniforms. Security officials said 34 provincial officials were at the hotel for a conference organised by the Telecommunication Ministry. 

On Monday, Afghan security forces remained positioned on all the roads leading to the hotel, barring everyone from access to the area. 

Jawad Zia, the director at the Kabul Intercontinental, which is not part of the InterContinental chain, said dozens of the hotel rooms were damaged in the attack. 

“We have damaged rooms in each floor of the hotel,” he told the Associated Press over the phone. 

Among Afghans killed in the attack was a telecommunications official from western Farah province; Waheed Poyan, Afghanistan’s newly appointed consul general to the Pakistani city of Karachi; and Ahmad Farzan, an employee of the High Peace Council, a commission created to facilitate peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban and other opposition groups. 

Along with Shams, five other hotel guests, including a foreigner, managed to jump into the tree. From there, they climbed down to the ground and Shams called the police with his mobile. 

They were told to stay put until the police came to take them away, hours later. 

“I am still in shock… in fact can’t believe I am alive” he added. 

AP

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Mike Pence angers Palestinians by saying it is ‘an honour to be in Israel’s capital, Jerusalem’

- 1516636037 pence netanyahu 0 - Mike Pence angers Palestinians by saying it is ‘an honour to be in Israel’s capital, Jerusalem’


US Vice President Mike Pence sparked fresh anger at the beginning of a visit to Israel when he said it was an honour to be in “Israel’s capital, Jerusalem”. 

Mr Pence made the comment during a Monday meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that formed part of an exceptionally warm welcome for the American official.

The Israeli leader told Mr Pence it was the first time a visiting dignitary could say those words and thanked Mr Pence for President Donald Trump’s “historic” recognition of Jerusalem.

Mr Netanyahu also praised the American-Israeli alliance, saying it had “never been stronger.”

Mr Pence was greeted with the American national anthem and he spoke briefly with Israeli soldiers before beginning his meeting with Mr Netanyahu. 

He said he was grateful to be representing the US President and that his decision to designate Jerusalem as the Israeli capital would “create an opportunity to move on in good faith negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.” 

He added that he hoped “we are at the dawn of a new era of renewed discussions to achieve a peaceful resolution to a decades-long conflict”.

But the move to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has drawn criticism from the Palestinians and from the Arab allies of the US.

After Mr Trump’s initial Jerusalem announcement, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he would not meet Trump administration officials and called off a meeting with Mr Pence that had been scheduled for mid-December. 

Mr Abbas again snubbed the US administration when he overlapped with Mr Pence in Jordan from Saturday evening to midday on Sunday.

The Palestinian leader was on his way to Brussels for a meeting with European Union foreign ministers. On Monday, Mr Abbas called on EU member states to recognise a state of Palestine in the pre-1967 war lines, saying state recognition would encourage the Palestinian people to hope and wait for peace.

The EU’s top diplomat Federica Mogherini assured Mr Abbas of the EU’s commitment to Jerusalem as the shared capital of Israel of Israel and a future Palestinian state.

Nabil Abu Rdeneh, an adviser to Mr Abbas, reiterated that the United States “is no longer acceptable as a mediator” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

In Jerusalem, however, the Israeli Prime Minister called Mr Pence “a great friend of Israel” and said there was “no alternative for American leadership” in the peace process. “Whoever is not ready to talk with the Americans about peace — does not want peace.”

A small group of Palestinians in the West Bank town of Bethlehem protested Mr Pence’s arrival by burning posters with his image. 

Mr Pence delivered a speech to the Israeli Knesset after his meeting with Mr Netanyahu during which he said the US embassy would move to Jerusalem by the end of 2019.

The main Arab party in the Israeli parliament protested against Mr Pence’s speech by standing and holding signs, but they were swiftly ejected from the session.

The Knesset, which is accustomed to such high profile visits, had added a new layer of security ahead of Mr Pence’s appearance. 

Before the protest, Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint Arab List, said the party will not provide a “silent backdrop” to a man he called a “dangerous racist”. 

AP contributed to this report

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