Lebanon public offices to close for Easter

BEIRUT: Public offices, government institutions and municipalities across Lebanon will close Apr. 18-19 and April 21 for Good Friday and Easter, according to a statement from Prime Minister Tammam Salam Thursday.

This year, Easter falls on the same date for both the Western and Orthodox churches.

The Daily Star

Protest against new rent law in Beirut

BEIRUT: A group of people Thursday briefly blocked a road in a Beirut neighborhood to protest the new rent law, which was passed by Parliament a day earlier.

Tens of demonstrators gathered in Wataa al-Msaitbeh to voice their opposition against the controversial law, which they say will displace hundreds of families.

More than 200,000 apartments, mostly in Beirut, are rented under an old law that governs lease contracts enacted before 1993. Inhabitants pay minimal rent fees that often amount to less than LL1,000,000 annually.

Under the new law, rents would increase over six years until they reach 5 percent of the current market value of an apartment. Owners have the freedom to either sell the apartment or lease under a new contract and price.

The Daily Star

More than 1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon: UN

BEIRUT: The number of Syrians registered as refugees in Lebanon after fleeing war in their country has surpassed one million, the UN refugee agency said on Thursday.

Refugees from Syria, half of them children, now equal a quarter of Lebanon’s resident population, the UNHCR said in a statement, warning that most of them live in poverty and depend on aid for survival.

The UN agency said the figure is “a devastating milestone worsened by rapidly depleting resources and a host community stretched to breaking point”.

Tiny Lebanon has now become the country with “the highest per capita concentration of refugees worldwide,” and is “struggling to keep pace”, the statement said.

“The influx of a million refugees would be massive in any country. For Lebanon, a small nation beset by internal difficulties, the impact is staggering,” UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres said in the statement.

Syria’s three-year war has killed more than 150,000 people, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights while half of the population is estimated to have fled their homes.

Of those who have fled Syria, nearly 600,000 have registered as refugees in Jordan and around 670,000 in Turkey.

According to the Guterres, ” Lebanon has experienced serious economic shocks due to the conflict in Syria”, while security has deteriorated as a result of rising regional instability.

The influx has put severe strains on Lebanon’s health and education sectors as well as on electricity, water and sanitation services.

“The Lebanese people have shown striking generosity, but are struggling to cope. Lebanon hosts the highest concentration of refugees in recent history,” Guterres said.

The UNHCR chief urged the global community to boost its support for Lebanon.

“International support to government institutions and local communities is at a level that, although slowly increasing, is totally out of proportion with what is needed,” Guterres said.

The humanitarian appeal for Lebanon “is only 13 percent funded,” even as the needs of a rapidly growing refugee population become ever more pressing.

Half the refugees are children, the UNHCR report said.

“The number of school-aged children is now over 400,000, eclipsing the number of Lebanese children in public schools. These schools have opened their doors to over 100,000 refugees, yet the ability to accept more is severely limited,” it added.

The vast majority of Syrian refugee children, however, are out of school.

Because of the dire economic situation their families endure, many children are now working, “girls can be married young and the prospect of a better future recedes the longer they remain out of school,” it said.

AFP

Occupation of AUB turns ‘symbolic’

BEIRUT: Students at AUB erected some 20 tents on campus Wednesday for a symbolic occupation of College Hall in protest against a proposed tuition hike. It was unclear, however, how many of the roughly 100 students would actually stay the night.

Some faculty voiced support for the occupation, a marked escalation by students in their monthslong campaign against the fee increase. The university insists that a raise in tuition is required to maintain the institution’s high quality operations but has not committed itself to a figure yet.

Passing through the protest camp Wednesday afternoon, however, professor Vijay Prashad said the university’s rhetoric was hollow.

“You hear this language, ‘excellence,’ ‘high quality,’ but what that means in terms of the classroom nobody knows,” he told The Daily Star. “Another way to do education is to develop education with compassion. I haven’t heard the word compassion among administrators as a goal of education in a very long time. They only want to talk about excellence, which nobody can define.”

Watching the camp being set up, Dean of Student Affairs Talal Nizameddin said he thought it was sending the wrong message.

“I don’t like the idea of tents. They have a negative history in Lebanon,” he told The Daily Star, but added that he respected the students’ views.

He questioned the level of support for the occupation and voiced doubt about whether many students would actually spend the night.

“I think a lot of students sympathize, but are they active? Are they really that involved?” he asked. “You can’t have a small minority manipulating [the whole community].”

However, Nizameddin said the students had been “really good, really cooperative” in their dealings with the administration: “They’ve been very civilized, firm and vocal. I think we can respect that and give them the space to do that.”

While initially reticent, President Peter Dorman allowed the occupation to take place after students agreed to certain stipulations, according to Amir Richani, a student leader.

“We had a meeting with Peter Dorman, and actually we had to negotiate some of the terms [of the occupation],” he told The Daily Star.

As per the conditions, male and female protesters are required to sleep in separate tents, alcohol is prohibited and the noise must be kept to a minimum at night.

Richani acknowledged that the camp was largely intended to draw attention to the broader issues rather than actually seize control of any campus buildings.

“It’s really more symbolic than anything else,” he said. “For now, we have to wait for the Board of Trustees, who are working on the budget, but I think that this will just show that we haven’t forgotten about the situation and we’re willing to fight for it until the end.”

Showing that the students can sustain a peaceful and productive protest is also an important aspect of the occupation, engineering student Weam Dallal said.

“We can function, we can study, we can do our daily activities here even if we are striking,” he explained. “The civilized and peaceful camp will send a message.”

At the protest camp, some played cards while others finished homework assignments or talked with faculty and staff who walked through.

Still, many students passed the protest camp with relative apathy, and even some involved in the protest said they would not spend the night.

“I have too much work,” one said. “I live really close by,” another added with a shrug.

The Daily Star

Three killed, 16 wounded at Fort Hood Army base

FORT HOOD, Texas: A soldier opened fire on fellow service members at the Fort Hood military base, killing three people and wounding 16 before committing suicide at the same post where more than a dozen people were slain in a 2009 attack, authorities said.

The shooter, who served in Iraq in 2011, had been undergoing an assessment to determine whether he had post-traumatic stress disorder, according to Lt. Gen. Mark A. Milley, the senior officer on the base.

There was no indication the Wednesday attack was related to terrorism, Milley said.

A Texas congressman said the shooting happened at a medical center. Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, also identified the suspect as Ivan Lopez. But additional details about the gunman were not immediately available.

The injured were taken to Darnall Army Community Hospital at Fort Hood and other local hospitals. Dr. Glen Couchman, chief medical officer at Scott and White Hospital in Temple, said the first four people admitted there had gunshots to chest, abdomen, neck and extremities and that their conditions range from stable to “quite critical.”

The 2009 assault on Fort Hood was the deadliest attack on a domestic military installation in U.S. history. Thirteen people were killed and more than 30 wounded.

After the shooting began, the Army’s official Twitter feed said the post had been locked down. Hours later, all-clear sirens sounded.

On Wednesday evening, a fatigue-clad soldier and a military police officer stood about a quarter-mile from the main gate waving away traffic. Other lanes were blocked by a police car and van.

Meanwhile, relatives of soldiers waited for news about their loved ones.

Tayra DeHart, 33, said she had last heard from her husband, a soldier at the post, that he was safe, but that was hours earlier.

“The last two hours have been the most nerve-racking I’ve ever felt. I know God is here protecting me and all the soldiers, but I have my phone in my hand just hoping it will ring and it will be my husband,” DeHart said.

Brooke Conover, whose husband was on base at the time of the shooting, said she found out about it while checking Facebook. She said she called her husband, Staff Sgt. Sean Conover, immediately to make sure he was OK, but he could not even tell her exactly what was going on, only that the base was locked down.

“I’m still hearing conflicting stories about what happened and where the shooting was exactly,” Conover said in a telephone interview, explaining that she still did not know how close the incident was to her husband.

President Barack Obama vowed that investigators would get to the bottom of the shooting.

In a hastily arranged statement in Chicago, Obama said he was following the situation closely. He said the shooting brought back painful memories of the 2009 attack.

Obama reflected on the sacrifices that troops stationed at Fort Hood have made – including enduring multiple tours to Iraq and Afghanistan.

“They serve with valor. They serve with distinction, and when they’re at their home base, they need to feel safe,” Obama said. “We don’t yet know what happened tonight, but obviously that sense of safety has been broken once again.”

The president spoke without notes or prepared remarks in the same room of a steakhouse where he had just met with about 25 donors at a previously scheduled fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee. White House officials quickly pushed tables to the side of the room to make room for Obama to speak to the nation.

The November 2009 attack happened inside a crowded building where soldiers were waiting to get vaccines and routine paperwork after recently returning from deployments or preparing to go to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Army psychiatrist Nidal Hasan was convicted and sentenced to death last year in that mass shooting. He said he acted to protect Islamic insurgents abroad from American aggression.

According to testimony during Hasan’s trial last August, Hasan walked inside carrying two weapons and several loaded magazines, shouted “Allahu Akbar!” – Arabic for “God is great!” – and opened fire with a handgun.

Witnesses said he targeted soldiers as he walked through the building, leaving pools of blood, spent casings and dying soldiers on the floor. Photos of the scene were shown to the 13 officers on the military jury.

The rampage ended when Hasan was shot in the back by Fort Hood police officers outside the building. He was paralyzed from the waist down and is now on death row at the military prison at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.

After that shooting, the military tightened security at bases nationwide. Those measures included issuing security personnel long-barreled weapons, adding an insider-attack scenario to their training and strengthening ties to local law enforcement, according to Peter Daly, a vice admiral who retired from the Navy in 2011. The military also joined an FBI intelligence-sharing program aimed at identifying terror threats.

In September, a former Navy man opened fire at the Washington Navy Yard, leaving 13 people dead, including the gunman. After that shooting, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the Pentagon to review security at all U.S. defense installations worldwide and examine the granting of security clearances that allow access to them.

Asked Wednesday about security improvements in the wake of other shootings at U.S. military bases, Hagel said, “Obviously when we have these kinds of tragedies on our bases, something’s not working.”

Associated Press

Sleiman launches long-awaited bill to decentralize government

BAABDA, Lebanon: President Michel Sleiman officially launched a draft bill for administrative decentralization Wednesday, arguing that the new legislation would promote national unity in Lebanon as well as transparency and accountability.

Called for in the 1989 Taif Accord that ended the Civil War, the legal reforms aim to redistribute the authority, responsibility and financial resources needed to provide public services among a wider variety of levels of government.

“Administrative decentralization provides balanced development and strengthens national unity and diversity in Lebanon without obstructing federalism or any kind of partition,” Sleiman said to a large gathering of ministers and ambassadors at Baabda Palace.

He also said the bill provided “transparency, accountability and monitoring, bringing the citizen closer to holding accountable those he has elected,” describing it as of equal importance to the electoral law and the budget law, since it affects both.

He expressed hope that the law would be passed by the Cabinet before the end of its term.

When Sleiman was elected in 2008, he vowed to bring in the decentralization law during his tenure, making it a key part of his election platform.

The bill, prepared by a committee headed by former Interior Minister Ziad Baroud, contains 147 items and prioritizes the powers and rights of the municipalities, particularly with respect to financial autonomy.

The aim is to create an elected council in each of the country’s 25 qadas with wide-ranging financial and administrative powers. This would comprise a popularly elected general committee, whose number of members would be based on the qada’s population up to a maximum of six, and a 12-person board of directors chosen by the general committee. A specialized independent body would organize the councils as well as oversee the elections.

As long as they fulfill certain criteria, any individual aged 21 or over would be able to run for council, a significantly lower minimum age than for national elections, which require potential candidates to be at least 25.

The board of director’s main role would be to take care of the yearly budget and development plans for the qada. The general committee’s purpose would be to oversee the board of directors, but the latter would retain executive power concerning all public matters.

Citizens would be able to oversee the work of the council and would have the power to file objections to its plans and projects.

The plan would also involve removing the current qaimaqam position, transferring his powers to the council, and would replace the independent municipality fund with a decentralized fund.

In the capital, a special Beirut council would be formed with a general committee of 72 members and a 12-person board of directors.

The bill also calls for the voting age to be lowered from 21 to 18, which would require altering Article 21 of the Constitution.

The legislation is intended to make sure all state departments are represented within the country’s qadas in order to ease citizens’ administrative paperwork and better address their needs.

The decentralization bill will not, however, abolish the central government and its commitments toward qadas regarding infrastructure, education, health and transportation.

According to Sleiman, the bill would improve citizens’ participation in democracy, which he said was not currently being practiced properly. It would also allow youths to participate at a deeper level than just the general elections and would allow for the greater involvement of women in the decision-making process, something he said was lacking within both Parliament and the Cabinet.

“Partnership between the private and public sectors is important, and it [the bill] promotes employment opportunities for the youth, which curbs migration and brain drain and reinforces the economy,” Sleiman said. “Villages will regain their sons scattered abroad.”

He also noted the importance of security, which he said would be bolstered by the decentralization law by the creation of a qada police force with its own training center.

“This is a serious project and this police [force] will have the capacity of law enforcement officers, and this will greatly help in maintaining security,” the president said.

Sleiman also voiced hope that future oil revenues would play a role in promoting the decentralization fund, the goal of which is to fund and develop qadas and municipalities.

“Let us make the electoral occasions ones of joy for the Lebanese and continue the application of the Taif Accord through the creation of a senate and develop a parliamentary law, and abolish political sectarianism with the will of all Lebanese,” he said.

At the palace, Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk lauded the bill, which he said “ensured commitment to the Constitution and the Taif Accord” and was “a standard of criteria for evaluating the modern state and society.”

The Daily Star

Cabinet fills key vacancies, appoints oil committee

BEIRUT: The Cabinet made 10 key appointments Wednesday, including the police chief and the state prosecutor, and formed a ministerial committee to study the designation of Lebanon’s offshore blocks for oil exploration.

The government appointed Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Basbous as director general of the Internal Security Forces after he served as acting director general.

Acting State Prosecutor Judge Samir Hammoud also became a full-fledged state prosecutor.

The breakthrough in appointments came two days after a stormy session over the issue and is expected to pave the way for filling the scores of vacant senior posts in the public sector.

The government, which convened under President Michel Sleiman at Baabda Palace, also appointed Mansour Daw as governor of the south, Faten Youness as director general of political and refugee affairs in the Interior Ministry and Judge Ahmad Hamdan as head of the Court of Accounts.

The Cabinet renewed the term of Kamal Hayek as a director general of Electricite du Liban and appointed Habib Merhi a general inspector at the Health, Agricultural and Social Inspection Department at the Agriculture Ministry.

Hanna al-Amil became the director general of the Sugar Beet and Cereals Department and Lana Dargham the director general of the Lebanese Standards Institution.

It also appointed Johny Abu Fadel as the director general of the National Employment Organization.

Wednesday’s appointments were divided equally between Muslims and Christians.

The ministers then listened to a presentation by members of the Petroleum Administration on dividing Lebanon’s territorial waters into blocks and on the specification book that companies should satisfy to be awarded tenders for offshore oil and gas exploration.

The government formed a ministerial committee to study the issue and present the Cabinet with a report at a later session.

Chaired by Prime Minister Tammam Salam, the committee is comprised of Deputy Prime Minister Samir Moqbel, Energy Minister Arthur Nazarian, Environment Minister Mohammad Machnouk, Public Works Minister Ghazi Zeaiter, Health Minister Wael Abu Faour, Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil.

The designation of offshore blocks for oil exploration has been a source of contention between Speaker Nabih Berri and Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement.

The speaker has called for auctioning off all of Lebanon’s 10 blocks to bidding companies in one round in order to prevent Israel from exploiting any of Lebanon’s blocks near its borders.

But the Petroleum Administration has named only five blocks, a move supported by Bassil, who argues that approving all the blocks for drilling in one batch is not a transparent act.

The Cabinet was briefed by Moqbel and Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk on the security plan the Lebanese Army began implementing in Tripoli Tuesday.

Speaking to reporters after the session, Information Minister Ramzi Joreige said the Cabinet stressed that the plan was permanent and that its implementation had proven that the Army and the ISF operate with high levels of coordination and were able to relieve residents of Tripoli. Tripoli has witnessed rounds of deadly fighting between supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the predominantly Alawite neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen and rivals in the mainly Sunni district of Bab al-Tabbaneh since the start of Syria’s war in March 2011.

On his way to the Cabinet session, Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi told reporters that the security plan in his home city of Tripoli was very satisfying.

“Bringing peace back to Tripoli is a challenge. It is important to see our children happy carrying their school bags again,” he said. “God willing, the atmosphere will continue as such and Tripoli will only be a city of coexistence and peace.”

Rifi did not rule out the possibility that he would visit Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, saying residents of both neighborhoods “are my people.”

Rifi said he planned to actively resume contacts with Hezbollah to protect the country, which he said was exhausted from Sunni-Shiite tension.

The Cabinet will meet again Tuesday.

The Daily Star

Syrian report: mortar shells kill 5 in Damascus

DAMASCUS, Syria: Syria’s state run news agency says indiscriminate mortar attacks by rebels have killed five civilians and wounded dozens in the capital, Damascus.

The Syrian Red Crescent Society also said its first aid teams were on high alert Wednesday after a barrage of mortar shells struck Damascus and nearby suburbs. It said more than 50 injured were transferred to hospital.

Rebels frequently target Damascus, seat of President Bashar Assad’s power, with mortar shells. But Wednesday’s barrage appears to be one of the heaviest in weeks.

SANA said the deaths included a man who was killed when two mortar shells slammed into the Faihaa Sports City in Damascus, and another who died when mortar shells hit the predominantly Alawite Mazzeh 86 district of the capital.

Associated Press

LF to announce Geagea’s candidacy for president

BEIRUT: The Lebanese Forces will announce this week Samir Geagea’s candidacy for president, the country’s top Christian post, the party said Wednesday.

“We will hold a news conference Friday and announce Geagea’s candidacy for president,” an LF spokesperson told The Daily Star.

Geagea said last week he was a “natural candidate” to succeed President Michel Sleiman and vowed to prioritize the controversial issue of Hezbollah’s military involvement in Syria if elected.

The LF leader is a staunch critic of Hezbollah, Iran and the Syrian regime and one of the main pillars of the Western-backed March 14 coalition.

He completely refused to work alongside Hezbollah in Prime Minister Tammam Salam’s national unity government, which was formed last month, with the party’s withdrawal from Syria set as a condition for his participation in the new Cabinet.

Geagea’s rival, MP Michel Aoun has also hinted at his interest in running for the presidency.

On March 25, Lebanon entered its two-month constitutional deadline to elect a new head of state in which the speaker is expected to convene Parliament for a vote.

Born on Oct. 26, 1952, in the Beirut eastern suburb of Ain al-Rummaneh, Geagea joined the Kataeb party in his early years and later became the head of the Lebanese Forces militia in 1986.

He was arrested in 1994 over his suspected involvement in a bomb attack on the Our Lady of Salvation Church the same year. He was also sentenced to life imprisonment over his alleged involvement in political assassinations during the Civil War and was not released until July 2005, when Parliament passed an amnesty law.

Geagea was also the target of an attempted assassination in 2012 in his Maarab residence and has accused the Syrian regime and its allies in Lebanon of being behind the killings of political figures in the country.

The Daily Star

AUB students ‘occupy’ campus building

BEIRUT: Students at the American University of Beirut Wednesday erected tents on campus in a symbolic occupation of a central building in protest of the proposed tuition hike.

The move is the latest escalation by students who oppose the proposed tuition increase for next year, something the administration says is needed due to the funds needed to maintain AUB’s standard of operations.

A member of the student committee helping to organize the protest said AUB President Peter Dorman allowed the three-day occupation on condition that protesters were separated in single sex, alcohol-free tents.

Some activists and student leaders played cards while others studied in the camp as faculty and staff surveyed the scene.

Policemen were stationed at all entrances to the Beirut university. Students at the protest camp insisted that they were committed to nonviolence.

The Daily Star

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