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RIYADH: Muslims around the world marked the start of Ramadan yesterday, a month of intense prayer, dawn-to-dusk fasting and nightly feasts. Muslims follow a lunar calendar and a moonsighting methodology that can lead to different countries declaring the start of Ramadan a day or two apart.

However, this year religious authorities in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Indonesia and most other parts of the world announced based on their sightings of the moon that daily fasting would begin yesterday. Authorities in Pakistan have yet to announce the sighting of the moon.

During Ramadan, observant Muslims abstain from eating and drinking from sunrise to sunset for the entire month. A single sip of water or a puff of a cigarette is considered enough to invalidate the fast. The fast is intended to bring the faithful closer to God and to remind them of the suffering of those less fortunate. Muslims often give to charities during the month, and mosques and aid organizations organize free meals for the public every night. Fasting also is seen as a way to physically and spiritually detoxify through exercising self-restraint.

Sexual intercourse between spouses also is off-limits during the day, while Muslims also are encouraged to be mindful of their behavior and to avoid gossiping, cursing and quarreling. This year, Ramadan falls during the summer, which means long and hot days of fasting. Mainstream scholars advise Muslims in northern European countries with 16 hours or more of daylight to follow the cycle of fasting of the nearest Muslim majority nation to them to avoid impossibly long hours without food or water.

Chairwoman Pia Jardi at the Finnish Muslim Union in Helsinki said Muslims there will be fasting for 21 hours and have just three hours - or even less - for eating, drinking and prayer before the sun rises again. “The good thing is that you’ll eat with moderation and that you’ll stick very much into the true, simple spirit of Ramadan,” Jardi said. “Long fasting time means you rarely want to eat heavily.” In a statement, President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle extended their “warmest greetings to all those observing the month of fasting in the United States and around the world.”

The world’s 1.6 billion Muslims traditionally break their fast like the Prophet Muhammad did around 1,400 years ago, with a sip of water and some dates at sunset. Then family and friends gather for a large feast. Part of the evening is often spent at the mosque in prayers called “taraweeh.” Children, the elderly, the sick, women who are pregnant or menstruating and people traveling are not obligated to fast. Non- Muslims or adult Muslims not observing the fast who eat in public during the day in Ramadan can be fined or even jailed in some Middle Eastern countries, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, home to large Western expatriate populations in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Fasting during Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam, along with the Muslim declaration of faith, daily prayer, charity and performing the hajj pilgrimage in Mecca. Muslims celebrate the end of Ramadan with a three-day holiday called Eid Al-Fitr. — AP

DOHA: A senior US envoy said yesterday the growth of the Islamic State militant group had global implications and could “wreak havoc on the progress of humanity” if unchecked. Retired Gen John Allen, appointed by US President Barack Obama to build a coalition against Islamic State, told a conference in Qatar the group was not merely an Iraqi problem or a Syrian problem but “a regional problem trending towards global implications”. The group has lost about a quarter of the populated areas it once held in Iraq, but countering its ideology might take a generation or more, he told the Brookings Institution’s US-Islamic World Forum.

Last month, the Iraqi government had its worst military setback in nearly a year when Islamic State seized Ramadi from a weakened Iraqi army. The capital of the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim province of Anbar is 90 km west of Baghdad. Since then, government troops and allied Shiite Muslim militia have been building up positions around Ramadi. Many Iraqi Sunnis dislike the ultra-hardline Islamic State but also fear the Shiite militias after years of sectarian strife.

Allen said there was no future for Iraq without Sunni support and stressed the need for the government to control the Shiite militias, some of whom have links to Iran. “We said many times that it is critical that all forces in the battle field must be under the command and control of the government of Iraq for the counter-ISIL operation to be successful,” he added, using a common acronym for Islamic State.

Washington remained “very attentive and concerned about extremist militia elements frequently influenced by Iranian leadership, where Iran may play a significant role in their presence,” he said. He added that Turkey’s borders with Syria and Iraq were the “last line of defense” against foreign fighters coming into the conflict - but other countries also needed to help stop the influx. Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad should have no place in a solution to Syria’s war, he added, repeating Washington’s stance on efforts to end the fighting.

Over 10,000 killed
Meanwhile, more than 10,000 jihadists have been killed in air strikes against the Islamic State group over a nine-month coalition campaign, US deputy secretary of state Antony Blinken said yesterday. “We have seen enormous losses from Daesh (IS), more than 10,000 since the beginning of the campaign and this will end up having an impact,” Blinken told French radio, without specifying whether the losses were in Iraq or Syria. Blinken was speaking a day after an international conference in Paris in which 20 or so representatives of the anti-IS coalition pledged support for Baghdad’s plan to claw back territory from the marauding jihadists who have conquered large parts of Iraq and Syria.

The coalition’s strategy has been criticized for relying on air strikes without committing boots on the ground, but Blinken stressed there had been “significant progress”. Islamic State now controls “25 percent less of Iraq after nine months, a lot of their equipment has been destroyed and many Daesh members have been eliminated,” said Blinken. He nevertheless acknowledged the “resilience” of the group after the coalition has launched about 4,000 air strikes on them. In a separate French radio interview, Iraq’s ambassador to France, Fareed Yasseen, said the allies had heeded Baghdad’s calls for more weapons to combat the group. “The Americans have promised us and will shortly deliver missiles that will make the difference against these truck bombs ... which made us lose Ramadi,” a key Iraqi city close to the capital. “The French will be giving us similar weapons, ammunition and we are discussing other cooperation projects,” the ambassador told Europe 1 radio.—Agencies

 

BEIRUT: The Islamic State group seized territory from both Syrian government forces and rival rebels over the weekend further expanding the caliphate it has proclaimed straddling Iraq and Syria. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that following gains in both Homs province in the centre and Aleppo province in the north, IS now controlled half of the country’s land area.

Geographer and analyst Fabrice Balanche said that across Iraq and Syria, the jihadist group now controlled nearly 300,000 square kilometres (115,000 square miles), an area the size of Italy. In Aleppo province-on Syria’s border with Turkey- IS has expanded its control at the expense of rival rebel groups. IS captured the village of Suran on Sunday taking them to within 10 kilometres (six miles) of the border, the Observatory said.

Three days of heavy fighting left 30 IS fighters and 45 rival rebels dead, the Britain-based watchdog said. Yesterday, the group advanced towards the town of Marea, which lies on a key supply route from Turkey for its rebel opponents. IS previously targeted Marea in April, detonating two car bombs and killing 15 rebel fighters, but it was unable to take the town. In central Syria, IS ousted government forces on Saturday from a strategic crossroads south of the ancient oasis city of Palmyra.

The checkpoint and nearby village of Basireh lead south to Damascus and west to Homs, as well as east to IS-controlled areas of Iraq. “The road is now open (for IS) from Palmyra to Anbar province in Iraq, without any obstacles,” said local activist Mohammed Hassan al-Homsi. IS overran Palmyra on May 21 after a bloody advance across the desert from their stronghold in the Euphrates valley to the east. The city’s fall came hot on the heels of the jihadists’ capture of Anbar provincial capital Ramadi from Iraqi government forces.

That defeat forced Baghdad to call in Iran-backed Shiite militia forces to the predominantly Sunni province in a move that risks complicating its efforts to win the population back from the Sunni extremists of IS. An Iranian officer was killed last week while advising Iraqi forces on their campaign to recapture Ramadi, Iranian state media reported yesterday. In northeastern Syria, IS has advanced to within two kilometres (little more than a mile) of the provincial capital of Hasakeh, the Observatory said. Yesterday, “an IS fighter blew himself up at a progovernment checkpoint near Hasakeh, killing at least nine regime loyalists,” it added.

Syria’s ‘unwinnable’ war
Syrian government forces have proved increasingly unwilling to fight IS in areas that are regarded as marginal. For the regime, “the territories that are vital to protect... are Damascus, Homs, Hama, and the coast,” a security source said. Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said the government was suffering from a severe shortage of military personnel both because of heavy battlefield losses and because of difficulties recruiting replacements. “The armed forces and pro-government militia are unwilling to fight in areas where the local population isn’t also fighting,” he told AFP. In particular, soldiers were hesitant to get involved in areas with a Sunni Muslim majority, compared to those which are largely Alawite-the offshoot of Shiite Islam to which President Bashar al- Assad belongs.

A pro-regime Facebook page publishing news from the Assad heartland of Latakia lamented the “thousands of martyrs and wounded” that coastal provinces had suffered during the war, demanding that other areas take up arms so that minorities would not carry the burden alone. Analyst Aron Lund said that IS and its Syrian government and rebel opponents were engaged in a bloody multi-front war in which there would be no winners. “Cities will be taken and retaken, and battles will be won and lost, until we all lose track,” he said. “But you cannot win a war like Syria’s any more than you can win a plague or an earthquake.” — AFP

 

CAIRO: Egypt summoned Pakistan's charge d'affaires to protest Islamabad's criticism of the death sentence handed down to ousted president Mohamed Morsi, the foreign ministry said on Tuesday.

Egypt denounces any “interference in its internal affairs which casts a shadow on relations between the two countries,” the ministry said in a statement a day after summoning Mohamed Eijaz.

Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president, and more than 100 other defendants were sentenced to death by a court on May 16 for their role in a mass prison break during the 2011 uprising.

The sentence was criticised by human rights groups, the United States and the European Union, as well as Pakistan.

“The dispensation of justice must be based on the principles of equity and fairness,” Pakistan's foreign ministry said in a statement issued on May 19.

“This is all the more important when political prisoners especially a former elected president, who was ousted from office, is brought before the court of law."

Morsi was ousted by then-army chief and now President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in July 2013 after massive street protests against his one-year rule.

Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan had also criticised an Egypt court's decision to sentence to death deposed Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, saying it "bodes ill" for the Egyptian people and democracy in Egypt.

DUBAI: A suicide bomber killed 21 worshippers during Friday prayers in a packed Shiite mosque in eastern Saudi Arabia, residents and the health minister said, in an attack claimed by the Islamic State militant group. It was one of the deadliest assaults in recent years in the kingdom, where sectarian tensions have been frayed by nearly two months of Saudi-led air strikes on Shiite Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen.

More than 150 people were praying when the huge explosion ripped through the Imam Ali mosque in the village of Al-Qadeeh, witnesses said. A video posted online showed a hall filled with smoke and dust, with bloodied people moaning with pain as they lay on the floor littered with concrete and glass. More than 90 people were wounded, the Saudi health minister told state television.

"We were doing the first part of the prayers when we heard the blast," worshipper Kamal Jaafar Hassan told Reuters by phone from the scene. It was the first attack targeting minority Shiites since November when gunmen opened fire during a religious celebration in Al-Ahsa, also in the east where most of the group live in predominantly Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia.

Islamic State said in a statement that one of its suicide bombers identified as Abu 'Ammar al-Najdi carried out the attack using an explosives-laden belt that killed or wounded 250 people, U.S.-based monitoring group SITE said on its Twitter account. A photograph posted on social media showed the mutilated body of a young man, said to be the bomber.

Sectarian tensions
The Saudi Interior Ministry described the attack as an act of terrorism and said it was carried out by "agents of sedition trying to target the kingdom's national fabric", according to a statement carried by state news agency SPA. The agency quoted an Interior Ministry spokesman as saying that the bomber detonated a suicide belt hidden under his clothes inside the mosque.

"Security authorities will spare no effort in the pursuit of all those involved in this terrorist crime," the official said in a statement carried by state news agency SPA. A hospital official told Reuters by telephone that "around 20 people" were killed in the attack and more than 50 were under treatment at the hospital, some of them suffering from serious injuries. He said that a number of other people had been treated and sent home. In April, Saudi Arabia said it was on high alert for a possible attacks on oil installations or shopping malls.

In Beirut, Lebanon's Hezbollah, an ally of Saudi Arabia's regional rival Iran, condemned the attack but said authorities in the kingdom itself bore responsibility. "Hezbollah holds the Saudi authorities fully responsible for this ugly crime, for its embrace and sponsorship for these criminal murderers ... to carry out similar crimes in other Arab and Muslim countries," the Shiite group said in a statement.

The statement appeared to echo Iranian accusations that Saudi Arabia sponsors ultra-orthodox Sunni militant groups in the region, an allegation usually taken to refer to groups such as Islamic State and al Qaeda. Riyadh denies the allegations. In Yemen, a bomb at a Houthi mosque in the capital Sanaa yesterday was also claimed by Islamic State.- Reuters

KATHMANDU (Agencies): Powerful aftershocks rocked Nepal Sunday, panicking survivors of a quake that killed more than 2,500 and triggering new avalanches at Everest base camp, as mass cremations were held in the devastated capital Kathmandu. Terrified residents, many forced to camp out in the capital after Saturday’s 7.8-magnitude quake reduced buildings to rubble, were jolted by a 6.7-magnitude aftershock that compounded the worst disaster to hit the impoverished Himalayan nation in more than 80 years. At overstretched hospitals, where medics were also treating patients in hastily erected tents, staff were forced to flee buildings for fear of further collapses. “Electricity has been cut off, communication systems are congested and hospitals are crowded and are running out of room for storing dead bodies,” Oxfam Australia chief executive Helen Szoke told AFP. Climbers reported that the aftershock caused more avalanches at Mount Everest, just after helicopters airlifted to safety those injured when a wall of snow hit base camp on Saturday, killing at least 18 people.

Disaster
The deadliest disaster in Everest’s history comes almost exactly a year after an avalanche killed 16 sherpa guides, forcing the season to be cancelled, and as around 800 mountaineers were gathered at the start of the new season. AFP’s Nepal bureau chief Ammu Kannampilly, who was on assignment at base camp, reported that six helicopters had managed to reach the mountain on Sunday after the weather improved. A stunning image captured by the agency’s South Asia photo chief Roberto Schmidt showed a massive cloud of snow and debris cascading onto base camp, burying scores of climbers and flattening tents. “People being stretchered out as choppers land — half a dozen this morning,” Kannampilly said in a text message. “Weather clear, some snowfall.” Offers of help poured in from around the world, with dozens of nations or aid groups volunteering everything from sniffer dogs to an inflatable hospital. India dispatched 13 military aircraft to Nepal loaded with tonnes of food, blankets and other aid.

The Kathmandu-based National Emergency Operation Centre put the toll in Nepal at 2,430 while around 6,000 more people had been injured. Officials in India said the toll there now stood at 67, while Chinese state media said 18 people had been killed in the Tibet region. “We have deployed all our resources for search and rescues,” police spokesman Kamal Singh Bam told AFP. “Helicopters have been sent to remote areas. We are sifting through the rubble where buildings have collapsed to see if we can find anyone.”

The fresh aftershocks forced Kathmandu airport to close for around an hour as air traffic controllers evacuated their centre. Several flights had to be diverted in mid-air. The country’s cellphone network was working only sporadically, while large parts of the capital were without electricity  AFP correspondents in Kathmandu reported that tremors were felt throughout the day, including one strong aftershock at dawn before the 6.7-magnitude follow-up quake that struck in the afternoon.

The historic nine-storey Dharahara tower, a major tourist attraction, was among the buildings brought down in Kathmandu Saturday. Police said around 150 people were thought to have been in the tower at the time of the disaster, based on ticket sales. “At least 30 dead bodies have been pulled out. We don’t have a number on the rescued but over 20 injured were helped out,” Bishwa Raj Pokharel, a local police official, told AFP. “We haven’t finished our work there, rescue work is still continuing. Right now, we are not in a position to estimate how many might be trapped.” As rescuers sifted through the huge mounds of rubble in the capital, some using bare hands, hospitals were overwhelmed with victims who suffered multiple fractures and trauma.

Morgues were overflowing with bodies. At the city’s oldest Bir Hospital, an AFP correspondent saw grieving relatives trying to swat away flies from around a dozen bodies placed on the floor of the morgue after storage space ran out. The first mass cremations were held at the Pashupatinath district of Kathmandu, with the smoke from the funeral pyres wafting across a swathe of the city. Samir Acharya, a doctor at Nepal’s Annapurna Neurological Hospital, said medics were working out of a tent set up in a parking lot to cope with the injured, while some patients were too scared to stay in the building. Experienced mountaineers said panic erupted on Saturday at Everest base camp, which has been severely damaged, while one described the avalanche as “huge”. “We have airlifted 52 from the base camp so far, 35 have been brought to Kathmandu,” said Tulsi Gautam of Nepal’s tourism department which issues permits to climb the world’s highest mountain. “Those who are able are walking down. Others are being airlifted.” George Foulsham, a Singapore-based marine biologist, described the moment disaster struck. “I was outside, saw a white 50-storey building of white come at me. I ran and it just flattened me,” he told AFP. “I tried to get up and it flattened me again. I couldn’t breathe, I thought I was dead. When I finally stood up, I couldn’t believe it passed me over and I was almost untouched. “I saved for years to climb Everest. It feels like the mountain is saying it’s not meant to be climbed for now.” Nepal and the rest of the Himalayas are particularly prone to earthquakes because of the collision of the Indian and Eurasia plates. An 6.8 magnitude quake hit eastern Nepal in August 1988 killing 721 people, and a magnitude 8.1 quake killed 10,700 people in Nepal and India in 1934.

Sorrow
Meanwhile, His Highness the Amir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al- Sabah sent a cable Sunday to President of Nepal Ram Baran Yadav, expressing his sorrow over the casualties that resulted from the devastating earthquake that hit his country, wishing that Nepal can overcome effects of this natural disaster. His Highness the Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah and His Highness the Prime Minister Sheikh Jaber Al-Mubarak Al-Hamad Al-Sabah sent similar cables. Elsewhere, the European Commission on Sunday released three million euros ($3.25 million) in emergency aid for Nepal, where over 2,500 people died in a massive earthquake the previous day.

The aid is in addition to assistance offered by individual EU nations and the deployment of European Commission humanitarian aid and civil protection experts to the crisis area. “The commission’s emergency aid will go towards the most urgent needs in the worst affected areas, including clean water, medicine, emergency shelter and telecommunications,” the EU’s executive arm said in a statement. “I have mobilised all our means for emergency response to help the survivors and authorities in the aftermath of this tragedy.

What is needed most are medical teams and relief supplies. I call on all EU member states to join the coordinated European response,” said EU Commissioner for Crisis Management, Christos Stylianides. The EU Civil Protection Mechanism has been activated, via which member states including Belgium, Finland, Germany, Greece, Netherlands, Poland and Sweden immediately offered search and rescue teams, water purification systems and technical assistance.

Other member states have also expressed their willingness to help, the commission statement said. Powerful aftershocks rocked Nepal Sunday, panicking survivors of the quake and triggering new avalanches at Everest base camp, as mass cremations were held in the devastated capital Kathmandu.

The International Monetary Fund said on Sunday it was ready to send a team to Nepal to evaluate financial needs after the earthquake that killed more than 2,400 people and devastated Kathmandu valley. “An IMF team stands ready to visit Nepal at short notice to help the government assess the macroeconomic situation and determine any financing needs,” managing director Christine Lagarde said in a statement.

The IMF is coordinating with the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank to evaluate the impact from Saturday’s quake of 7.9 magnitude, which toppled buildings in the capital Kathmandu and triggered avalanches on Mount Everest. Overwhelmed doctors moved hundreds of patients onto the streets of Kathmandu on Sunday when aftershocks rattled hospitals and buildings. Sick and wounded people lay on a dusty road outside Kathmandu Medical College while hospital workers carried more patients out of the building on stretchers and sacks. Orla Fagan, spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said the most serious challenge facing victims of the earthquake was worsening weather conditions at a time when people were living outdoors, afraid to go back into their earthquake- weakened homes.

SANAA: The Red Cross and UN flew medical aid into Yemen's capital yesterday after southern city Aden was battered by the heaviest night yet of Saudi-led air strikes targeting Shiite rebels. The United Nations also called for a daily "humanitarian pause" of a few hours, saying aid was desperately needed in the conflict-ravaged country. The International Committee of the Red Cross said it dispatched an aircraft to Sanaa, its first aid shipment since the international campaign against Shiite rebels began last month.

"This is the first ICRC plane to have landed in Sanaa. It is loaded with 16 tonnes of medical aid," said Marie Claire Feghali, Red Cross spokeswoman in Yemen. Residents and officials in Aden said the city was pounded after Huthi Shiite rebels and renegade soldiers loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh reached the city's northern entrance.

"The raids began at around 10:00 pm (1900 GMT) on Thursday and were the most violent since the start of 'Operation Decisive Storm'," a resident told AFP. Residents also said coalition aircraft targeted other positions, including a city centre stadium and rebel-manned checkpoints. More than two weeks of heavy bombardment by the Saudi-led alliance against opponents of exiled Yemeni President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi and fighting between rival militias prompted the UN call for a freeze in the violence.

Aid 'not enough'
UN humanitarian coordinator in Yemen, Johannes Van Der Klaauw, told reporters in Geneva that an "immediate humanitarian pause in this conflict" was desperately needed. He insisted that the aid delivered to date was far from enough. "The situation in Aden is extremely, extremely preoccupying if not catastrophic," he said, warning that Yemen's second largest city had fallen prey to "urban warfare" and "uncontrollable militias".

The World Health Organization said nearly 650 people have been killed and more than 2,000 injured in the fighting, but the actual number of fatalities is likely to be far higher since many people are not reaching hospitals and being buried immediately, Van Der Klaauw said.

The UN's children agency UNICEF said it had airlifted 16 tonnes of aid to Sanaa, including medical supplies for 80,000 people as well as food supplements for 20,000 children. "The supplies we have managed to bring in today can make the difference between life and death for children and their families," said UNICEF Yemen Representative Julien Harneis.

The Saudi-led coalition says it will continue its raids on Yemen until Iran-backed Huthi rebels, who seized control of Sanaa and central areas last year, retreat to their northern mountain stronghold. In the most direct American criticism yet of Tehran's backing for the rebels, Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday the United States would not accept foreign interference in Yemen. "There have been-there are, obviously-flights coming from Iran. Every single week there are flights from Iran and we've traced it and know this," he told PBS television.

Pakistan stands back
Iran's leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has warned that the air campaign against the Huthis must end. "This move is not acceptable in the region and I would warn that they must stop these criminal acts in Yemen," he said on his website. On Friday, Pakistan's parliament rejected calls to join the anti-Huthi coalition, turning down longstanding ally Riyadh's request for troops, ships and warplanes.

"Parliament of Pakistan... underscores the need for continued efforts by the government of Pakistan to find a peaceful resolution of the crisis," it said. Yesterday's Red Cross shipment was made up of "drugs and surgical instruments", said the ICRC. "These supplies will mean the difference between life and death for those wounded in this conflict," said Cedric Schweizer, who leads the ICRC team in Yemen.

On Wednesday, two aid boats arrived in Aden carrying supplies and personnel destined for people trapped by and wounded in ongoing battles. The UN refugee agency UNHCR said on Friday that at least 900 Yemenis had fled the violence to countries in the Horn of Africa over the past 10 days. UN chief Ban Ki-moon urged the warring factions to return to political talks, which were aimed at ending Yemen's slide into chaos since Saleh's 2012 ousting. "The last thing the region and our world need is more of the chaos and crimes we have seen in Libya and Syria," Ban said ahead of a trip to Qatar. - AFP

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