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UAE foreign minister meets Assad, most senior Emirati visit to Syria since war began

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November 9, 2021

BEIRUT (Reuters) -The United Arab Emirates foreign minister met President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus on Tuesday, a sign of improving ties between Assad and a U.S.-allied Arab state that once supported rebels trying to overthrow him.

Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed is the most senior Emirati dignitary to visit Syria in the decade since the eruption of a civil war in which several Arab states backed mainly Sunni Muslim insurgents against Assad.

Washington, which opposes efforts to normalise ties with Assad or rehabilitate him until progress is made towards a political solution to the conflict, said it was concerned about the move by its ally the UAE.

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The foreign minister led a delegation of senior Emirati officials that discussed bilateral relations and cooperation in a meeting with Syrian counterparts, a statement by the Syrian presidency said.

The participants discussed exploring “new horizons for this cooperation, especially in vital sectors in order to strengthen investment partnerships in these sectors”, the statement said.

Sheikh Abdullah underlined in his meeting with Assad “UAE’s keenness on the security, stability and unity of Syria,” UAE’s state news agency WAM said.

He also stressed the “UAE’s support for all efforts made to end the Syrian crisis, consolidate stability in the country, and meet the aspirations of the brotherly Syrian people,” WAM reported.

UAE senior official Anwar Gargash, diplomatic adviser to the Emirates president, wrote on Twitter that “the UAE continues to build bridges, boost relationships, and connect what was cut off… and will be keen to spare the region further congestion and continuous conflicts.”

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A correspondent for Lebanon’s al-Manar TV, which is run by Lebanon’s Hezbollah, an Assad ally, said heavy security had been observed on the road from Damascus airport to the city.

The UAE has been at the forefront of efforts by some Arab states to normalise ties with Damascus https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/arabs-ease-assads-isolation-us-looks-elsewhere-2021-10-10, and earlier this year called for Syria to be readmitted to the Arab League. It reopened its embassy in Damascus three years ago.

Jordan and Egypt, both U.S. allies, have also taken steps toward normalising relations since Assad, with Russian and Iranian help, defeated rebels across much of Syria, apart from some northern and eastern areas that remain outside his grasp.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Washington was concerned by the meeting “and the signal it sends,” and had told the UAE that it will not “support efforts to normalize or to rehabilitate Bashar al-Assad, who is a brutal dictator.”

“We urge states in the region to carefully consider the atrocities that this regime, that Bashar al-Assad himself has perpetrated on the Syrian people over the last decade, as well as the regime’s ongoing efforts to deny much of the country access to humanitarian aid and security,” Price said.

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Washington has also said it will not lift sanctions, including measures that can freeze the assets of anyone dealing with Syria, regardless of nationality.

The UAE may have asked Damascus not to trumpet the visit due to sensitivities in its ties to the United States, said Joshua Landis, a Syria specialist at the University of Oklahoma. “No one wants to get their head too far over the parapet,” he said.

Last month, King Abdullah of Jordan spoke to Assad for the first time in a decade, and the border between the countries was reopened for trade. The Egyptian foreign minister also met his Syrian counterpart in September, the highest level contact between the countries since the civil war began.

“Both the UAE and Egypt have long believed that the Damascus government serves as a break on the spread of Islamist groups in the region,” Landis said. Investment is expected once Syria is readmitted to the Arab League, he added, though private firms would wait to see how the United States would respond first.

(Reporting by Yasmin Hussein, Kinda Makieh and Aziz El Yaakoubi; Additional reporting by Nayera Abdallah in Cairo and Humeyra Pamuk and Simon Lewis in WashingtonWriting by Maha El Dahan/Tom PerryEditing by Peter Graff, Mark Heinrich and Jonathan Oatis)

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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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