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UN Secretary-General on solidarity visit to crisis-hit Lebanon

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United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres arrived in Lebanon on Sunday, on a high-profile visit he said will focus on supporting the people of the crisis-stricken country.

Guterres is expected to press for reforms from the country’s political leaders, who have been deeply divided over key issues leading to a paralysis of the government and parliament. The divisions have delayed key reforms needed to get negotiations with the International Monetary Fund off the ground.

The political class is also divided over the domestic probe into the disastrous August 2020 Beirut Port explosion that killed over 216 people, injured thousands and compounded Lebanon’s problems after leaving large parts of the capital destroyed.

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Guterres is planning to visit the port to pay a tribute to those killed in the explosion and meet with families of the victims. He said his visit is dedicated to showing support to the Lebanese and urge leaders to take steps to overcome the crisis. He is also meeting President Michel Aoun.

“When I was high commissioner for refugees, I came many times to Lebanon and I could see the solidarity of the people of Lebanon with so many refugees. And I believe this is the moment for us all in the world to express the same solidarity with the people of Lebanon," Guterres said upon arrival. "So if there is a word to characterize my visit, that word is solidarity.”

In a message broadcast Friday before he arrived, Guterres urged Lebanon's political leaders to “put the people first” and implement reforms that promote accountability and transparency and root out corruption.

The economic collapse in Lebanon has been described as one of the worst in the world in over 150 years. Inflation and prices of basic goods have skyrocketed in Lebanon, which imports more than 80 percent of its basic goods.

Shortages of basic supplies, including fuel and medicine, and restrictions on bank withdrawals and transfers, particularly in foreign currency, have increased the desperation of the Lebanese in the once middle-class country.

Poverty has increased exponentially while the political class, blamed for years of corruption and mismanagement, has failed to offer drastic solutions to the crisis. International donors have extended humanitarian assistance to Lebanon to deal with the crisis, but decline to offer support to the government before a plan for reform is agreed upon.

Guterres also stressed that next year’s elections will be key for laying the foundations for a better future.

Politicians are also divided over the date and details of holding the elections, expected next spring. A decision by the country’s constitutional council is expected to settle the dispute.

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Aramco CEO says oil demand nearing pre-pandemic levels: Report

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Saudi Aramco CEO Amin Al Nasser said that the demand for oil is nearing pre-pandemic levels, Asharq Business reported in a tweet on Monday.

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Syrian prison battle death toll tops 150, concern over fate of minors

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Kurdish forces locked down a Syrian city Monday to trap ISIS fighters who attacked a prison there five days earlier, leaving more than 150 dead in fierce battles.

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The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) charged that the ISIS militants were using hundreds of minors as “human shields” inside the Ghwayran prison in the northeastern city of Hasakeh.

The UN childrens’ agency UNICEF called for the protection of some 850 minors detained inside the jail, some as young as 12, warning that they could be “harmed or forcibly recruited” by ISIS.

More than 100 ISIS fighters late Thursday stormed Ghwayran prison using suicide truck bombs and heavy weapons, setting off days of clashes both inside the facility and in surrounding neighborhoods.

The fighting died down Sunday evening as the US-backed SDF consolidated control over areas around the jail and declared the entire city locked down for a week.

“To prevent terrorist cells from escaping… the Kurdish administration in northeast Syria announces a complete lockdown on areas inside and outside Hasakeh city for a period of seven days starting on January 24,” the administration said.

Businesses were ordered to close with the exception of essential services, such as medical centers, bakeries and fuel distribution centers.

Civilians were hunkering down Monday in their homes as Kurdish fighters backed by the US-led coalition combed the area for hideout terrorists, said an AFP correspondent.

The SDF erected several checkpoints at the entrances to Hasakeh, with even tighter security measures imposed in neighborhoods adjacent to the jail, the correspondent said.

The SDF said in a statement its advances inside the prison were stymied by the use of hundreds of minors as “human shields” by IS jihadists holed up in a dormitory.

The group said the adolescents, who had been detained over suspected links to ISIS, were being kept in a “rehabilitation center” in the jail.

The Britain-based group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Monday that a precarious lull in fighting continued to hold, as holdout terrorists were refusing to surrender.

The group raised the death toll from the clashes to 154 killed since Thursday, including 102 terrorists, 45 Kurdish fighters and seven civilians.

In other parts of Syria’s northeast under the administration’s control, a nighttime curfew was set to go into force Monday from 6:00 p.m. until 6:00 a.m.

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Lebanon to respond to confidence-building measures proposed by Kuwait before Saturday

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Lebanon’s response to confidence-building measures proposed by Kuwait will be ready before Saturday, Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib told reporters on Monday.

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Kuwait’s foreign minister presented a 12-point proposal to Lebanese officials to end a diplomatic rift with Gulf states.

It included Lebanon committing to the 1989 Taif Agreement that ended Lebanon’s civil war, tightening border controls to prevent drug smuggling to the Gulf and stepping up security, diplomatic sources told Reuters on Sunday.

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