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Tunisia sees record number of

tourists as attack effect fades

By Tarek Amara


Tourist numbers to Tunisia

will hit a record high this year, fully re-

versing the damage inflicted on the sec-

tor by attacks on holidaymakers in 2015,

the tourism minister said on Wednesday.

After three years of shunning Tuni-

sia in the wake of a gun attack on a beach

in Sousse that killed 39 tourists and one

at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis

that killed 21, major European tour op-

erators have started to return.

“We aim to receive 8 million tourists

this year with strong booking rates from

European customers and other new cus-

tomers,” Tourism Minister Salma Loumi

said. “The return of British tourists is a

very good signal for us.”

Last week, Thomas Cook flew British

tourists to Tunisia for the first time since

a militant killed 30 Britons in Sousse.

TUI said last month it too planned to

offer holidays in Tunisia again, starting

in May.

The 8 million forecast brings tour-

ist numbers above the pre-attack level

of 7.1 million in 2014. Arrivals fell to 5.3

million in 2015. Loumi said tourism rev-

enues would be up 25 percent on last

year when they reached 2.8 billion dinar

($1.2 billion).

Aoun holds ‘constructive’ talks with Iraqi leaders


President Mi-

chel Aoun led a delegation Tues-

day to Iraq on the first visit by

a Lebanese head of state to the

war-scarred country, for talks

that included ways to eradicate


Aoun held talks with Iraqi

President Fuad Masum and Prime

Minister Haider Al-Abadi before

he was due to travel to Armenia

later Wednesday.

“We had constructive talks

which reflect the historical and

brotherly ties that link our two

countries and our people,” Aoun

told a joint news conference with

Masum. “I would like to take ad-

vantage of this occasion to con-

gratulate the Iraqi people for their

firmness, patience and determina-

tion in the face of adversity... and

terrorism,” he said.

Iraq has been scarred by de-

cades of conflict.

After an eight-year war with

neighboring Iran in the 1980s,

and the 2003 US-led invasion,

Iraq was targeted by Daesh (the

so-called IS) group which seized

swathes of the country following

A handout picture provided by the Lebanese photo agency Dalati and Nohra on Tuesday shows Lebanese

President Michel Aoun (center-left) cutting a cake with the Iraqi President Fuad Masum (center-right) earing the

flags of both countries, during the former’s official visit to the Iraqi capital Baghdad, accompanied by former

Iraqi prime ministers Iyad Allawi (left) and Nouri Al-Maliki.


Netanyahu aide turns

state’s witness: Media


A confidant of

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has

agreed to provide testimony on behalf of the

state about alleged corrupt dealings between the

government and the country’s biggest telecoms

group, Israeli media reported on Wednesday.

Shlomo Filber, who was arrested this week along

with top executives at Bezeq Telecom, had been

a personal appointment of Netanyahu’s to head

the Communications Ministry. Police now suspect

Bezeq received regulatory benefits, and in return,

Netanyahu received favourable media coverage

on a popular news website that is also controlled

by Bezeq’s former chairman. The Bezeq

executives have denied the allegations. Israel’s

Ynet news website reported that Filber has

now agreed to testify for the state in the case,

a development that could further complicate

things for Netanyahu as he battles mounting

corruption allegations. Israeli authorities were not

immediately available to confirm that a deal with

Filber had been reached.

— Reuters

Palestinian dies from

wounds after clashes


A Palestinian has died of wounds

sustained last week during clashes with Israeli

forces along the Gaza border, the Health Ministry

said Wednesday. Ahmed Abu Helo, 19, died “as

a result of wounds he received last Friday east of

Rafah (in southern Gaza),” a ministry statement

said, adding he had been injured in clashes

with Israeli forces along the border. Clashes are

common on Fridays, with an uptick in tensions

since US President Donald Trump’s controversial

recognition of occupied Jerusalem as Israel’s

capital. Since that Dec. 6 announcement, which

angered Palestinians who consider at least the

east of the city as the capital of their future state,

26 Palestinians and two Israelis have died. Four

Israeli soldiers were injured along the border on

Saturday after an improvised explosive device

was planted during a protest Friday, the Israeli

army said.

— AP

Libyan must allow

Tawergha return: UN


A UN human rights expert is urging

Libyan authorities to ensure the safety of

hundreds of former residents of the northern

town of Tawergha, “who are stranded and

even dying in the desert despite an agreement

allowing their safe return.” The group, mostly

dark-skinned Libyans who were due to return on

Feb. 1 under an agreement with the neighboring

city of Misrata, have been barred from entry and

harassed by militias. The entire population of

around 40,000 people was forcibly evacuated in

2011 as collective punishment for their perceived

support for deposed leader Muammar Gaddafi.

Special Rapporteur Cecilia Jimenez-Damary says

in a Tuesday statement she was “appalled” at the

situation, in which “two men have died already

following strokes, possibly as a result of the harsh

weather conditions.”

— AP

Uber pulls out of

Morocco amid tensions


Uber is pulling out of Morocco — a

decision the San Francisco-headquartered

company says is linked to the North African

country’s failure to reform its strict transport rules.

For nearly three years, Uber has been operating

illegally in Morocco — despite currently having

19,000 users in the country and over 300 drivers.

In a statement Uber said “as long as there is

no real reform ... we are forced to suspend our

operations.” Uber drivers have often been targets

of intimidation. Videos have captured Uber

drivers in Casablanca surrounded by regular taxi

drivers, awaiting the authorities, and in some

instances the clashes have become violent.

Bouchaib Abdel Moughit of Casablanca’s Taxi

Union voiced relief at Uber’s departure: “For three

years, they stole our living. The competition was


— AP

Iran teams

carry crash

dead down

from Zagros


Iranian emergency

teams on Wednesday began re-

covering the bodies of the dead

from a plane that crashed high

in the Zagros mountains with 66

people on board, officials said.

No survivors have been

found from Aseman Airlines

flight EP3704, which disappeared

from radar on Sunday morning,

around 45 minutes after taking

off from Tehran on a domestic


Search helicopters finally lo-

cated the crash site after a break

in the weather on Tuesday at a

height of around 4,000 meters

(13,000 feet) in the Dena range.

But the altitude and weather

conditions have meant that he-

licopters cannot land to recover

the bodies of the dead and they

are being brought down on the

backs of emergency personnel

to a road at the foot of the moun-


“At the moment, we have a

snowstorm and icy winds on the

peaks and visibility is very low,”

the deputy commander of army

ground forces, Brigadier General

Nozar Nemati, told state tele-

vision. “We decided that those

bodies that can be carried down

would be brought down by army

commandos or by the emergency

services,” he said.

Mohsen Mehralizadeh, the

governor of Isfahan province

from where part of the recovery

operation is being coordinated,

said 32 bodies had been found so


The first seven were being

brought down on Wednesday

morning, state television re-


Crevasses and the risk of

avalanches made the operation

hazardous and time-consuming,

emergency officials said.

The crash of the ATR-72

twin-engine plane, which had

been in service since 1993, has re-

awakened concerns over aviation

safety in Iran, which has been ex-

acerbated by international sanc-

tions over the years.

Aseman Airlines was black-

listed by the European Commis-

sion in December 2016.

It was one of only three air-

lines barred over safety concerns

— the other 190 being black-

listed due to broader concerns

over oversight in their respective



Syria’s Ghouta residents

‘wait to die’ as bombs fall


Residents of Syria’s east-

ern Ghouta district said they were

waiting their “turn to die” on Wednes-

day, after rockets and barrel bombs fell

on the besieged rebel enclave targeted

for days by some of the most intense

bombardment of the war.

At least 10 people died in one vil-

lage and more than 200 were injured

early on Wednesday. At least 274 peo-

ple have been killed in the district in

the last three days, the British-based

Syrian Observatory for Human Rights

war monitor said.

Another 13 bodies, including five

children, were recovered from the

rubble of houses destroyed on Tuesday

in the villages of Arbin and Saqba, the

observatory reported.

The eastern Ghouta, a densely

populated agricultural district on the

outskirts of Damascus, is the last major

area near the capital still under rebel


The district, home to 400,000 peo-

ple, has been besieged by government

forces for years.

A massive escalation in air strikes

since Sunday has become one of the

most intense of the Syrian civil war,

now entering its eighth year. The Unit-

ed Nations has denounced the bom-

bardment, which has struck hospitals

and other civilian infrastructure, say-

ing such attacks could be war crimes.

The pace of the strikes appeared

to slacken overnight, but its intensity

resumed later on Wednesday morning,

the Observatory said. Pro-government

forces fired hundreds of rockets and

dropped barrel bombs from helicop-

ters on the district’s towns and villages.

“We are waiting our turn to die.

This is the only thing I can say,” said

Bilal Abu Salah, 22, whose wife is five

months pregnant with their first child

in the biggest eastern Ghouta town

Douma. They fear the terror of the

bombardment will bring her into labor

early, he said.

“Nearly all people living here live

A wounded Syrian lies on a gurney inside a makeshift hospital in the rebel-held town of Douma, following airstrikes by regime

forces on the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, Tuesday.


in shelters now. There are five or six

families in one home. There is no food,

no markets,” he said.

A commander in the coalition

fighting on behalf of Assad’s govern-

ment told Reuters overnight the bomb-

ing aims to prevent the rebels from

targeting the eastern neighborhoods of

Damascus with mortars. It may be fol-

lowed by a ground campaign.

“The offensive has not started yet.

This is preliminary bombing,” the

commander said.

The Syrian government and its ally

Russia, which has backed Assad with

air power since 2015, say they do not

target civilians. They also deny using

the inaccurate explosive barrel bombs

dropped from helicopters whose use

has been condemned by the United


Conditions in eastern Ghouta, be-

sieged since 2013, had increasingly

alarmed aid agencies even before the

latest assault, as shortages of food,

medicine and other basic necessities

caused suffering and illness.

Rebels have also been firing mor-

tars on the districts of Damascus near

eastern Ghouta, wounding two people

on Wednesday, state media reported.

Rebel mortars killed at least six people

on Tuesday. “Today, residential areas,

Damascus hotels, as well as Russia’s

Center for Syrian Reconciliation, re-

ceived massive bombardment by ille-

gal armed groups from eastern Ghou-

ta,” Russia’s Defense Ministry said late

on Tuesday.

Eastern Ghouta is one of a group

of “de-escalation zones” under a dip-

lomatic ceasefire initiative agreed by

Assad’s allies Russia and Iran with Tur-

key which has backed the rebels.

But a rebel group formerly affili-

ated with Al-Qaeda is not included in

the truces and it has a small presence



Tourist numbers in 2017 were al-

ready up 23 percent on the previous year

to 7 million, as hotels filled beds with

Russian and Algerian visitors, but opera-

tors say they spend less than European


Tourism accounts for 8 percent of

Tunisia’s gross domestic product. A re-

turn of European visitors would give a

strong boost to the struggling economy

and raise the country’s weak foreign cur-

rency reserves.


Last week, Thomas Cook flew

British tourists to Tunisia for

the first time since a militant

killed 30 Britons in Sousse.

a 2014 offensive.

In December, Abadi declared

“the end of the war” against Daesh

and complete control of Iraq’s bor-

ders with neighboring Syria, where

the militants still control pockets

of territory.

Aoun told reporters that Leba-

non, too, had suffered from the

militants but succeeded in pushing

them back from a border region

with Syria.

He said Arab states and the in-

ternational community must build

“joint efforts to fight against ter-

rorism in an efficient and radical

way, to eliminate them and end

the factors that favor terrorist ide-


With Iraq also looking to raise

tens of billions of dollars to help

reconstruct the country after the

fight against Daesh, Aoun said

Lebanese firms “with their exten-

sive expertise” and investors were

ready to get involved.

Abadi said talks had focused

on “strengthening bilateral rela-

tions in the areas of economy,

trade and reconstruction”.

Aoun, a Christian, also visited

a church in Baghdad where mili-

tants killed 55 worshipers in 2010.

The attack on Our Lady of

Salvation church in the capital’s

main commercial district of Kar-

rada was claimed by the Iraqi

branch of Al-Qaeda.

At the start of the visit, Ma-

sum surprised Aoun, a former

general and army chief, with a

birthday cake decorated with the

Lebanese and Iraqi flags. Aoun

turned 83 earlier this week.

Aoun was accompanied by

several Cabinet ministers .