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Lebanon president looks to heal Saudi rift, says wants best relations

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October 30, 2021

By Timour Azhari and Maha El Dahan

BEIRUT (Reuters) -Lebanon’s president said on Saturday he wants the best relations with Saudi Arabia, looking to heal a rift with the kingdom after it expelled Beirut’s envoy and banned Lebanese imports in a diplomatic spat that risks adding to Lebanon’s economic crisis.

In a tweet Michel Aoun said Lebanon is keen on strengthening links via bilateral deals, after mounting tensions following critical comments by a Lebanese minister about the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen.

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The row has spurred calls by some top politicians for the resignation of Information Minister George Kordahi, while others opposed such a move, which could undermine the government as a whole.

Following a near three-hour ministerial crisis meeting on Saturday, Education Minister Abbas Halabi said the government could not afford to resign over the diplomatic dispute.

“The country cannot be left without a government,” due to other pressing matters, and would continue to work to resolve the rift, Halabi said.

Saudi Arabia expelled Lebanon’s envoy and banned all Lebanese imports on Friday, and Bahrain and Kuwait followed suit, giving the top Lebanese diplomats 48 hours to exit. The United Arab Emirates later said it would withdraw all its diplomats and banned its citizens from travelling to Lebanon.

Kordahi’s resignation would have knock-on effects that could threaten Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s coalition government, tasked with addressing a financial crisis dubbed by the World Bank as one of the worst in modern history.

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Kordahi left without making a statement after a visit to the country’s top Christian cleric, Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai on Saturday.

Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib said Mikati’s contacts with officials from a number of states showed opposition to the resignation of the government, formed only last month after a 13-month stalemate.

“They told Mikati, ‘if you are thinking about resignation, take that out of your head,’” he said.

Richard Michaels, deputy head of the U.S. mission in Lebanon, had joined the crisis meeting in Beirut, a U.S. Embassy spokesperson said, declining to comment further.

NATIONAL INTERESTS

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Kordahi has been publicly backed by the Iran-backed Hezbollah armed group and has declined to apologise or resign over the comments, which have dealt the worst blow to Saudi-Lebanese relations since Saad al-Hariri’s 2017 detention in Riyadh.

The minister’s political patron, Suleiman Frangieh of the Hezbollah-allied Marada Movement, told a news conference he had refused an offer by Kordahi to resign and would not name a successor should he do so.

A group of former Lebanese prime ministers called on Saturday for Kordahi to resign, however, saying his comments had inflicted a strong blow to relations with Gulf Arab nations.

Fouad Seniora, Hariri and Tammam Sallam, some of the country’s top pro-Saudi politicians, said in the statement that Kordahi’s remarks “harmed Lebanon’s supreme national interest”.

If Kordahi resigns, ministers backed by Hezbollah and its Amal ally could follow suit at a time when the government is already paralysed by a dispute over an inquiry into the August 2020 explosion that devastated parts of Beirut.

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A senior political source told Reuters that the United States and European nations were in contact with Lebanese officials to prevent the government from falling and there were no immediate indications any ministers would resign.

Mikati has been hoping to improve ties with Gulf Arab states strained for years because of the influence wielded in Beirut by Hezbollah.

Ali Shihabi, a Saudi analyst, said the latest row was rooted in Saudi concern over Hezbollah’s growing grip on Lebanon despite huge Saudi financial support and hundreds of thousands of Lebanese working in the Gulf.

“Kordahi’s statement stung particularly hard since his career was made with Saudi-owned media … but this is bigger than just him,” he said.

(Reporting by Timour Azhari, Laila Bassam Yasmin Hussein and Alaa Kanaan; Editing by Mark Heinrich and David Holmes)

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Poor weather hampers search and rescue efforts at Indonesia volcano

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December 6, 2021

By Willy Kurniawan

SUMBERWULUH, Indonesia (Reuters) – Officials monitoring Indonesia’s Semeru volcano on Monday warned residents to remain vigilant after a deadly eruption over the weekend, as heavy wind and rain brought search-and-rescue efforts to a halt.

The tallest mountain on the island of Java erupted dramatically on Saturday, shooting a towering column of ash into the sky that blanketed surrounding villages. Fourteen people were killed and dozens more injured.

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Aerial footage showed roofs jutting out of an ashen landscape, while on the ground military officers, police and residents dug through mud with their hands to extricate victims.

GRAPHIC-Indonesia Semeru eruption

To view the graphic, click here: https://graphics.reuters.com/INDONESIA-VOLCANO/klvyknzmbvg/INDONESIA-VOLCANO.jpg

On Monday, the head of the Semeru Volcano Observatory, Liswanto, warned people to keep a safe distance from the mountain, amid reports anxious residents had returned to their homes to check on belongings and livestock.

“The status of Mt. Semeru is still at level 2, which means at this level, people need to be more vigilant because the potential threat is still there,” he said.

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More than 50 people had suffered injuries from the eruption, mostly burns. Lava flows destroyed a strategic bridge connecting two areas in the nearby district of Lumajang with the city of Malang.

In the Sumberwuluh area, where two trucks lay half-buried by volcanic ash, recovery efforts came to an abrupt halt because of strong winds, a Reuters witness said.

Public kitchens and health facilities have been set up for more than 1,000 people who have been displaced.

A trauma healing team to work with children affected by the eruption has been dispatched, CNN Indonesia reported, while hundreds of aid packages, including rice, blankets and clothes and other basic necessities have been sent to the area.

Semeru is one of more than 100 active volcanoes in Indonesia, a country that straddles the Pacific Ring of Fire, an area of high seismic activity that rests atop multiple tectonic plates.

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GRAPHIC-The Pacific Ring Of Fire

To view the graphic, click here: https://graphics.reuters.com/INDONESIA-VOLCANO/zjvqkyeamvx/RING-OF-FIRE.jpg

(Writing by Kate Lamb; Editing by Karishma Singh and Gerry Doyle)

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Solomon Islands prime minister faces no-confidence vote after riots

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December 6, 2021

By Kirsty Needham

SYDNEY (Reuters) -Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare faces a motion of no confidence on Monday, after anti-government riots just over a week ago saw dozens of buildings burnt down and shops looted in the capital of the Pacific island nation.

Boats have been banned from Honiara harbour, and more than 200 police and soldiers from Australia, Fiji, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea are on alert, amid fears the vote could trigger another outbreak of violence.

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However, Monday’s motion is not expected to gain enough support from government MPs to pass, even though four of them resigned.

Church leaders called for talks between the national government and the most populous province of Malaita to resolve a range of domestic issues and a dispute over the switching of diplomatic ties to China from Taiwan in 2019.

Sogavare was “in the service of a foreign power,” opposition leader Matthew Wale said in parliament, accusing the prime minister of using money from China in a national fund to prop up his political strength before the vote.

“The prime minister is dependent on the National Development Fund (NDF) money to maintain his political strength,” Wale said. “How can he make decisions only in the interests of the Solomon Islands?”

Sogavare’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Citizens are angry at inadequate healthcare, prime land being taken by foreigners, and logging companies overriding local interests, Wale said.

The looting and violence that erupted November 24 must be condemned, he added, but said, “It pales in comparison to the looting that happens at the top.”

Anti-government protests spiralled into violence that killed four and destroyed large parts of Honiara’s Chinatown after Sogavare refused to speak with protesters who had travelled from Malaita.

The province has a history of disputes with Guadalcanal province where the national government is based, and opposed the 2019 switch.

About 1,000 people gathered in the provincial capital of Auki to listen to a livestream of the parliament session.

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A political aide to Malaita’s premier, Daniel Suidani, told Reuters it appeared the no-confidence motion would be defeated.

Suidani is expected to make an announcement on Tuesday outlining a referendum for independence for Malaita, the adviser, Celsus Talifilu, said by telephone.

Health minister Culwick Togamana backed Sogavare’s leadership amid the COVID-19 pandemic and said he should not resign. There have been 20 cases and no deaths, the World Health Organization (WHO) has said.

China had agreed to upgrade the Solomon Islands’ hospital and universities, said South New Georgia MP Danny Phillip.

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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U.S. condemns militant attack in Mali that killed 31

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December 6, 2021

(Reuters) – The United States “strongly condemns” a militant attack on a bus in central Mali that killed at least 31 people and wounded 17, the State Department said on Sunday.

Unidentified gunmen on Friday opened fire on the bus as it traveled from the village of Songho to a market in Bandiagara, 6 miles (10 km) away.

The villages sit in the heart of the Mopti region, an epicenter of violence in Mali fueled by insurgents linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State.

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“The United States strongly condemns the attack on civilians on Saturday near Bandiagara, Mali, which left 31 dead and 17 injured,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a written statement.

“We extend our deepest condolences to the Malian people and will continue to partner with them in their pursuit of a safe, prosperous, and democratic future,” Price said.

Jihadist attacks have surged across Africa’s Sahel region, killing thousands and displacing millions across Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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