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Yemen’s Marib city battens down as Houthis advance through energy-rich province

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November 3, 2021

By Mohammed Ghobari and Ghaida Ghantous

ADEN (Reuters) – Expecting a possible siege, pro-government forces in central Yemen are preparing to defend Marib city, their last northern stronghold, against advancing Houthi fighters bent on taking full control of one of Yemen’s key energy-producing regions.

Should Marib governorate fall to the Houthis it would deal a blow to the military coalition led by Saudi Arabia that has been battling the Iran-aligned group for over six years and to United Nations-led peace efforts.

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The looming battle for Marib City would also put at risk its population of three million people, including nearly 1 million who fled other parts of Yemen since it became ensnared in a regional power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Houthi military spokesman Yahia Sarea announced on Tuesday they had seized Marib’s al-Jubah and Jabal Murad districts, after last month taking al-Abdiyah and Harib, saying “our mujahideen continue the march towards Marib City”.

They have advanced on most districts in Marib, Yemen’s only gas-producing region and home to one of the country’s largest oilfields in Marib Al Wadi, which along with Marib City remain fully under government control.

It is not clear if the Houthis will launch a direct assault on the capital of Marib governorate or move to take the nearby oil and gas facilities and besiege the city.

Their territorial gains in Marib as well as in oil-rich Shabwa in the south, come despite coalition airstrikes and fierce battles that have exacted a heavy toll on both sides, but also killed civilians.

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“Houthi control of all of Marib looks only a matter of time though it could take several months, unless government forces receive better quality weapons from the coalition and overcome differences amongst them,” said Maysaa Shuja Al-Deen, a fellow at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies.

Government forces say they will not cede. Trenches, sand bags and land mines are in place around the city, two military sources and a local official said.

“If the Houthis move through the desert towards oil and gas fields east of Marib City they will be easy prey for coalition warplanes, so they will try to encircle the city from three fronts, but we can withstand and break them,” a military commander, who declined to be named, told Reuters.

Marib lies east of the capital Sanaa, which the Houthis seized along with most of north Yemen in 2014 when they ousted the Saudi-backed government, prompting the coalition to intervene only to become mired in a military stalemate.

The United Nations and United States have struggled to engineer a truce needed to revive political talks to end a war that has killed tens of thousands and left millions hungry.

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“Our immediate concern is about the safety and protection of civilians in Marib. In just the first six months of this year, more civilians there were killed or wounded than in the previous two years combined,” said Erin Hutchinson, Norwegian Refugee Council’s country director in Yemen.

Talks between Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran aimed at easing tensions have made little progress and the Houthi advance in Marib is likely to further embolden Tehran. The two foes have for years vied for control across the region.

“From an Iranian perspective, their ally in Yemen the Houthis appear very close in effect to winning the war in the north, if not the entire country. It is extremely difficult to understand why they or the Houthis would feel this is the right moment to stop,” said Peter Salisbury, a senior analyst at International Crisis Group.

Riyadh, which wants to exit a costly war but needs security guarantees including over Houthi missiles that have targeted Saudi cities, has seen power shift to the Houthis since 2019, when ally the United Arab Emirates largely wound down its presence.

“The Saudis…will not leave (Yemen) at any cost, they need to present their intervention as somewhat successful,” Salisbury said.

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Even if Riyadh reaches a deal with the Houthis, ending the war requires agreement among Yemen’s myriad factions.

“Is it possible to work towards an internally coherent settlement? It’s just a lot of moving parts,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Lisa Barrington in Dubai; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

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Indonesia Semeru volcanic eruption kills 13; 10 evacuated

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December 5, 2021

JAKARTA (Reuters) – Ten people trapped after Indonesia’s Semeru volcano erupted have been evacuated to safety, the country’s disaster mitigation agency (BNPB) said on Sunday, as the death toll from the disaster climbed to at least 13 and with dozens injured.

Semeru, the tallest mountain on Java island, threw up towers of ash and hot clouds on Saturday that blanketed nearby villages in East Java province and sent people fleeing in panic.

The eruption severed a strategic bridge connecting two areas in the nearby district of Lumajang with the city of Malang and wrecked buildings, authorities said.

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BNPB official Abdul Muhari said in a news release that 13 people have been killed after the eruption, two of whom have been identified. Ninety-eight have been injured, including two pregnant women, and 902 have been evacuated, the statement said.

Thoriqul Haq, a local official in Lumajang, said earlier that sand miners had been trapped around their work sites.

BNPB said at least 35 people had been hospitalised, while Lumajang’s deputy head said 41 people suffered burns.

Semeru, more than 3,600 metres (12,000 feet) high, is one of Indonesia’s nearly 130 active volcanoes. It erupted in January, causing no casualties.

Indonesia straddles the “Pacific Ring of Fire”, a highly seismically active zone, where different plates on the earth’s crust meet and create a large number of earthquakes and volcanoes.

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Separately, an earthquake of magnitude 6 struck north of Halmahera on Sunday, the European-Mediterranean Seismological Centre (EMSC) said. Halmahera is about 2,000 km (1,200 miles) northeast of Semeru.

(Reporting by Stanley Widianto and Nilufar Rizki; Editing by Ed Davies)

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Analysis-Modi’s farm reform reversal to deter investment in India’s agriculture

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December 5, 2021

By Mayank Bhardwaj and Rajendra Jadhav

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India’s repeal of agriculture laws aimed at deregulating produce markets will starve its vast farm sector of much-needed private investment and saddle the government with budget-sapping subsidies for years, economists said.

Late last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government introduced three laws meant to open up agriculture markets to companies and attract private investment, triggering India’s longest-running protest by farmers who said the reforms would allow corporations to exploit them.

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With an eye on a critical election in populous Uttar Pradesh state early next year, Modi agreed to rescind the laws in November, hoping to smooth relations with the powerful farm lobby which sustains nearly half the country’s 1.3 billion people and accounts for about 15% of the $2.7 trillion economy.

But by shelving the most ambitious overhaul in decades, Modi’s backtracking now seemingly rules out much-needed upgrades of the creaky post-harvest supply chain to cut wastage, spur crop diversification, and boost farmers’ incomes, economists said.

“This is not good for agriculture, this is not good for India,” said Gautam Chikermane, a senior economist and vice president at New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation.

“All incentives to shift towards a more efficient, market-linked system (in agriculture) have been smothered.”

The u-turn does allay farmers’ fears of losing the minimum price system for basic crops, which growers say guarantees India’s grain self-sufficiency.

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“It appears the government realised that there’s merit in the farmers’ argument that opening up the sector would make them vulnerable to large companies, hammer commodities prices and hit farmers’ income,” said Devinder Sharma, a farm policy expert who has supported the growers’ movement. 

But the gruelling year-long standoff also means no political party will attempt any similar reforms for at least a quarter-century, Chikermane said.

And, in the absence of private investment, “inefficiencies in the system will continue to deliver wastage and food will continue to rot,” he warned.

COLOSSAL WASTE

India ranks 101 out of 116 countries on the Global Hunger Index, with malnutrition accounting for 68% of child deaths.

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Yet it wastes around 67 million tonnes of food every year, worth about $12.25 billion – nearly five times that of most large economies – according to various studies.

Inadequate cold-chain storage, shortages of refrigerated trucks and insufficient food processing facilities are the main causes of waste.

The farm laws promised to allow private traders, retailers and food processors to buy directly from farmers, bypassing more than 7,000 government-regulated wholesale markets where middlemen’s commissions and market fees add to consumer costs.

Ending the rule that food must flow through the approved markets would have encouraged private participation in the supply chain, giving both Indian and global companies incentives to invest in the sector, traders and economists said.

“The agriculture laws would have removed the biggest impediment to large-scale purchases of farm goods by big corporations,” said Harish Galipelli, director at ILA Commodities India Pvt Ltd, which trades farm goods. “And that would have encouraged corporations to bring investment to revamp and modernise the whole food supply chain.”

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Galipelli’s firm will now have to re-evaluate its plans.

“We have had plans to scale up our business,” said Galipelli. “We would have expanded had the laws stayed.”

Other firms specialising in warehousing, food processing and trading are also expected to review their expansion strategies, he said.

PERISHABLE PRICES YO-YO

Poor post-harvest handling of produce also causes prices of perishables to yo-yo in India. Only three months ago, farmers dumped tomatoes on the road as prices crashed, but now consumers are paying a steep 100 rupees ($1.34) a kg.

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The laws would have helped the $34 billion food processing sector grow exponentially, according to the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), an industry group.

Demand for fruits and vegetables would have gone up. And that would have cut surplus rice and wheat output, slicing bulging stocks of the staples worth billions of dollars in state warehouses, economists said.

“Crop diversification would also have helped rein in subsidy spending and narrow the fiscal deficit,” said Sandip Das, a New Delhi-based researcher and farm policy analyst.

Food Corporation of India (FCI), the state crop procurement agency, racked up a record 3.81 trillion rupees ($51.83 billion) in debt by last fiscal year, alarming policymakers and inflating the country’s food subsidy bill to a record 5.25 trillion rupees ($70.16 billion) in the year to March 2021.

However, while the federal government now has limited scope for change, local authorities “can opt for reforms provided they have the political will to do so,” said Bidisha Ganguly, an economist at CII.

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Similarly, venture capital-funded startups have also expressed interest in India’s agriculture sector.

“Agritech, if it is allowed to take root, has the potential to enable a better handshake of farmers and consumers through their technological platforms,” Chikermane said.

(1 = 74.83 rupees)

(Reporting by Mayank Bhardwaj and Rajendra Jadhav; additional reporting by Aftab Ahmed; editing by Gavin Maguire and Kim Coghill)

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Orthodox priest shouts ‘Pope, you are a heretic’ at Francis in Athens

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December 5, 2021

By Philip Pullella and Karolina Tagaris

ATHENS (Reuters) -An elderly Greek Orthodox priest shouted “Pope, you are a heretic” as Pope Francis was entering the Orthodox Archbishopric in Athens on Saturday and was taken away by police, a reminder of the lingering distrust between the two divided churches.

Video showed the man, who was dressed in black robes and black hat and had a long white beard, shouting the words in Greek outside the building before police bundled him away.

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Witnesses said he shouted loud enough for the pope to hear the commotion. The man appeared to have fallen while being taken away and was lifted up by police.

Francis arrived in Greece on Saturday for a three-day visit that Greek Catholics hope will bring the Eastern and Western churches closer together.

Christianity split into the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches in 1054 in what is referred to as the Great Schism, and for centuries relations were rocky.

In his address to the archbishop, Beatitude Ieronymos II, Francis asked forgiveness in the name of the Roman Catholic Church for its part in the historical wrongs that led to the breakup.

“Tragically, in later times we grew apart. Worldly concerns poisoned us, weeds of suspicion increased our distance and we ceased to nurture communion,” Francis told Ieronymos, whom he met during his first trip to Greece in 2016.

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“I feel the need to ask anew for the forgiveness of God and of our brothers and sisters for the mistakes committed by many Catholics,” Francis said.

Pope John Paul II first asked forgiveness for the Catholic role in the break-up when he visited Greece in 2001.

Catholics and Orthodox have been involved in dialogue aimed at eventual reunion for decades and cooperate in many social initiatives but the two sides are still far apart theologically.

“We believe you have the courage and the sincerity to examine the failures and omissions of your fathers,” Ieronymos told Francis. “Between those who want to be called Christian brothers, the best language is, and always will be, honesty.”

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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