Weekly News 18 March – 22 March 2019 | Mediterranean Affairs


Monday, 18 March 2019

Terrorism: Jacinda Ardern has said she will render the person accused over the Christchurch terrorist attack “nameless” and urged the public to speak the victims’ names instead. Addressing parliament for the first time since Friday’s attack, the New Zealand prime minister said the accused would face “the full force of the law in New Zealand” but that she would never speak his name. Opening with the Arabic greeting “as-salaam Alaikum”, she said the day of the attack would “now be forever a day etched in our collective memories”. (The Guardian)

A number of gun owners have voluntarily given up their semi-automatic rifles in the wake of the Christchurch terror attack and the Government’s announcement that it will ban these weapons. Multiple people have taken to social media to post about giving up their guns. (New Zealand Herald)

France: France will ban “yellow vest” rallies in some areas of the country after violence that erupted during Saturday’s demonstration in Paris. At a press conference on Monday, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said by “as early as next Saturday” authorities will ban gatherings in areas that have been the most affected by the demonstrations — as soon as they are aware that extremists “claiming they belong to the ‘gilets jaunes'” are present. Philippe named Paris’ Champs Elysées, Pey-Berland Square in Bordeaux and Capitol Square in Toulouse as areas that would be subject to such bans. He said that rioters who weren’t part of the yellow vest movement were to blame for the violence. (CNN)

Russia: Russia has decided to deploy nuclear-capable Tupolev Tu-22M3 strategic bombers to the Crimean peninsula in response to the US rolling out missile defense systems in Romania, the RIA news agency cited a senior Russian lawmaker as saying on Monday. Russia plans to station the bombers at the Gvardeyskoye air base in Crimea, Viktor Bondarev, head of the upper house of parliament’s defense and security committee, was quoted as saying. Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, and President Vladimir Putin flew into the Black Sea peninsula on Monday to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the annexation. (Euractiv)

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Italy: Forty-nine rescued refugees and migrants, including 12 minors, remained stranded at sea on Tuesday on board a nonprofit rescue ship as Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini barred them from disembarking in Italy. Rescuers from the Italian aid group Mediterranea Saving Humans pulled the migrants off a sinking rubber dinghy near Libya on Monday and brought them close to the Italian island of Lampedusa. (Al Jazeera)

UK: Theresa May’s government has been plunged into constitutional chaos after the Speaker blocked the prime minister from asking MPs to vote on her Brexit deal for a third time unless it had fundamentally changed. With 11 days to go until Britain is due to leave the EU, May was forced to pull her plans for another meaningful vote because John Bercow said she could not ask MPs to pass the same deal, after they rejected it twice by huge margins. EU officials, meanwhile, were considering offering her a new date for a delayed Brexit to resolve the crisis. (The Guardian)

Netherlands: A man has been arrested after three people were killed and five wounded, some seriously, in a shooting on a tram in the Dutch city of Utrecht. Gokmen Tanis, a 37-year-old born in Turkey, was found several hours after the attack in a building about two miles (3km) from the scene. Authorities said the attacker’s motive was unclear. Police raided several properties and arrested two others in connection with the incident, Dutch media reported. The shooting sparked a city-wide manhunt and the closure of schools. (BBC)

Turkey: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was heavily criticized on Monday for using the New Zealand mosque terrorist’s video footage to inflame his supporters at election rallies.  He said Tarrant’s manifesto was to keep Turks from Europe. After Erdogan spoke, a Turkish gunman in the Netherlands shot three people dead on a tram. Gokmen Tanis, 37, was arrested on Monday night after an eight-hour manhunt in the Dutch city of Utrecht. (Arab News)

Syria: US-backed Syrian fighters are reported to have overrun an encampment that made up most of the last patch of territory held by the Islamic State group. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance said militants refusing to surrender had pulled back to a sliver of land along the River Euphrates south of Baghuz, and that clashes continued. Although it warned the battle was not over, some fighters began celebrating. Baghuz’s fall would bring an end to the “caliphate” proclaimed by IS in 2014. (BBC)

Italy: Milan’s renowned La Scala opera house will give back 3 million euros ($3.4m) of Saudi money, after rejecting a controversial deal that would have given the Kingdom’s culture minister a seat on the board. The Italian theater had negotiated an agreement which would have seen it receive 15 million euros from Saudi Arabia over five years. But news of the deal sparked a furious backlash, with politicians and art critics demanding the opera house shun funding from the Gulf nation over its human rights record. La Scala confirmed on Monday that the plan would not go ahead, after it was rejected at a board meeting, adding that the initial 3 million euro payment had been made without the opera house’s approval. (CNN)

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Egypt: DW’s guest columnist and novelist Alaa al-Aswany has been sued by military prosecutors in Egypt after he criticized the way military officials are appointed to civil posts in an article for DW’s Arabic section. “I learned two days ago that I have been referred to a military court, accused of having insulted the head of state and incited hatred against the regime, as a result of my most recent novel and what I write for DW,” al-Aswany said in his most recent column on Tuesday. “My only crime is being an author, expressing my opinion, and criticizing those who deserve it, even if it’s [President Abdel-Fattah] el-Sissi.” (Deutsche Welle)

Italy: the Senate voted Wednesday (20 March) to block the trial of far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini for allegedly illegally confining migrants rescued at sea by an Italian coastguard ship last year. Senators voted 237 to 61 in favour of the immunity commission’s recommendation that Salvini, who heads the anti-immigrant League party, should not face trial. The case relates to the rescue in August of 190 people by Italy’s Diciotti coast guard ship, who were left stuck at sea for five days without permission to dock. (Euractiv)

Serbia: Radovan Karadžić has been sentenced to life in prison at an appeal court in The Hague for his role in mass killings of civilians in the conflict that tore Bosnia apart a quarter century ago. Five judges at the UN-mandated court upheld the 2016 verdict at the former Bosnian Serb leader’s first trial almost in its entirety, dismissing all but one of Karadžić’s appeals as “mere disagreement” with the court’s conclusions rather than valid legal objections. By a majority of three to two, the judges decided to increase his original 40-year jail term to life in prison, saying the trial chamber had “abused its discretion” in passing sentence. (The Guardian)

EU: The European Commission fined Google €1.49 billion on Wednesday (20 March), after concluding that Google had breached EU laws by restricting rival online advertising services to access third-party websites. This case closed a decade-long saga between Brussels and the tech giant. Google’s total bill with Brussels has reached €8.25 billion, for abusing its dominant position to exclude rivals over the past years. But the company is not off the hook, as the Commission is still looking into the search market for jobs and for local businesses. (Euractiv)

Italy: Italy has signalled its determination to play a central role in China’s grand plan to build a Silk Road-styled global trade network, despite rattling its EU and US allies with its plan. The country’s populist government is poised to endorse its participation in Beijing’s $1tn Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a global trade project aimed at connecting Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe via a network of ports, railways, tunnels and other infrastructure, by signing a non-binding memorandum of understanding (MoU) during the Chinese president Xi Jinping’s visit to Italy this week. Italy, which would become the first G7 country to back the initiative, hopes it will revive its sluggish economy and help open up greater access to China’s lucrative market. (The Guardian)

Thursday, 21 March 2019

Italy: A bus carrying 51 schoolchildren was hijacked by its driver and set alight near Milan in Italy. The children, some of them tied up, were rescued through smashed windows at the back of the bus and no-one was badly hurt. Fourteen people suffered smoke inhalation. The driver, a 47-year-old Italian citizen originally from Senegal, has been arrested. A teacher who had been on the bus said the suspect – named by police as Ousseynou Sy – was known to be angry about Italy’s immigration policy and about the deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean. “He shouted, ‘Stop the deaths at sea, I’ll carry out a massacre’,” police spokesman Marco Palmieri said. (BBC)

Netherlands: The governing centre-right coalition in the Netherlands has lost its senate majority after a populist party surged in provincial elections. The anti-immigration Forum for Democracy is set to win most votes and have as many seats in the upper house as Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s party. The election came two days after a suspected terror attack in Utrecht. Addressing supporters, party leader Thierry Baudet bitterly criticised Mr Rutte’s immigration policies. (BBC)

Lebanon: In January, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went on a diplomatic mission to scuttle Syria’s readmission to the Arab League. On Thursday, he is expected in Lebanon, where he is set to target another one of Iran’s allies, Hezbollah. Pompeo is scheduled to hold talks with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and is expected to ask him to make greater efforts to shield Lebanese policies from Iranian influence – while knowing that that may be hard to achieve since Hezbollah has three appointees in Hariri’s cabinet and, along with its allies, controls 70 of the 128 seats in parliament. (Al Jazeera)

Friday, 22 March 2019

Syria: The US Defense Department said on Friday that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) no longer holds any territory in Syria, according to a White House spokeswoman. US Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan briefed President Donald Trump as he was travelling to Florida on Air Force One, spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said. She said that the “territorial caliphate has been eliminated in Syria”. Responding to a question regarding whether the armed group’s territory had be “100 percent” eliminated, Sanders said “yes”. (Al Jazeera)

Israel: Donald Trump said that the United States should recognise Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, Syrian territory Israel has occupied since 1967. “After 52 years it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which is of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and Regional Stability!” the US president said on Twitter on Thursday. The US president’s statement was welcomed by Israeli premier and close ally Benjamin Netanyahu, who linked it to Iran’s involvement in the Syrian war next door. (Middle East Eye)

Syria: Syria has condemned US President Donald Trump’s statement that it is time to recognise Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights, while its close military ally Russia said changing the status of the territory would violate the United Nations agreements. Syrian state news agency SANA cited a foreign ministry source on Friday as saying Trump’s statement showed “the blind bias of the United States” towards Israel. It did not change “the reality that the Golan Heights was and will remain Syrian, Arab”, the source said. (AL Jazeera)

UK: The EU has handed Theresa May two weeks’ grace to devise an alternative Brexit plan if her deal falls next week after the prime minister failed to convince the bloc that she was capable of avoiding a no-deal Brexit. After a marathon late-night session of talks, the EU’s leaders ripped up May’s proposals and a new Brexit timeline was pushed on the prime minister to avoid the cliff-edge deadline of 29 March – next Friday. Under the deal agreed by May, Britain will now stay a member state until 12 April if the withdrawal agreement is rejected by MPs at the third time of asking. The government will be able to seek a longer extension during that period if it can both “indicate a way forward” and agree to hold European elections. In the unlikely event that May does win the support of the Commons when the Brexit deal goes to MPs again on Tuesday, the UK will stay a member state until 22 May to allow necessary withdrawal legislation to be passed. (The Guardian)