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Lebanese Christian leader Gebran Bassil says alliance with Hezbollah imperiled

The head of Lebanon’s largest Christian party said on Sunday that a 15-year-old alliance with the country’s powerful Shia group Hezbollah was no longer working and must evolve.

The televised speech by Gebran Bassil, who heads the Free Patriotic Movement, signaled an unprecedented level of frustration with Hezbollah and suggested the 2006 alliance credited with helping maintain peace in the small country was in jeopardy.

Bassil’s comments come amid a devastating economic crisis and also ahead of critical parliamentary elections in which his party is expecting tough competition. Undoing the alliance with Hezbollah would cost him more votes in the May elections.

But Bassil, a former foreign minister, said the alliance is costing him credibility with supporters. Bassil is also the son-in-law of Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun. He has positioned himself as a reformer and is believed to have ambitions to run for president himself.

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Bassil pinned his frustration on Hezbollah’s other ally, the powerful Shia Amal Movement, led by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. He said in recent months Hezbollah has backed Berri’s Amal at the expense of their own alliance.

“We reached an understanding with Hezbollah (in 2006) not with Amal,” Bassil said in an hour-long speech. “When we discover that the one making decisions in (this alliance) is Amal, it is our right to reconsider.”

Hezbollah and its allies control most seats in parliament and are the main backers of the government that took office in September. But the government and parliament have been paralyzed as political disagreements deepened and as Lebanon faces an unprecedented economic crisis unraveling since 2019.

Berri is an old-time rival of Bassil, who accused him of using his power in parliament to block several of his draft bills.

Recently, Hezbollah and Amal have been widely critical of the investigation into last year’s Beirut Port investigation, accusing the judge of being biased against their allies— a position at odds with Bassil's party.

Hezbollah has asked for the judge to be removed, leading to a paralysis within the government. Deadly clashes in October that pitted Amal and Hezbollah supporters against Christian gunmen were triggered by the investigation dispute and further strained relations with Bassil’s party, which accused Amal of the violence.

Bassil criticized Hezbollah for not backing his party on reform laws that he says aim to weed out corruption and ensure decentralized financial policies, or in efforts to protect constitutional powers of the president. Such choices have left Bassil unable to justify to his supporters Hezbollah’s decisions, he added, openly blaming Berri for the rift.

“It is understandable why the Americans want to corner Hezbollah, but it is not understandable why (Hezbollah) wants to corner themselves,” Bassil said of Hezbollah’s alliance with Berri.

Hezbollah is designated a terrorist group by the United States. Bassil has been placed on a U.S. sanctions list for corruption. He claims the sanctions are to pressure him to undo his alliance with Hezbollah.

“We don’t want to cancel or tear apart the (2006) memorandum of understanding,” Bassil said. “But we want it to evolve because it no longer responds to the challenges, particularly economic and financial, facing us.”

Supporters hail the alliance as a step toward a more democratic Lebanon, transcending traditional Christian-Shia rivalry. For Hezbollah, the alliance with Christian groups, which traditionally sided with the West, provided it with cover after its 2006 war with Israel.

“Naturally, we are stronger electorally if allied with Hezbollah,” Bassil said. “But between winning the elections and gaining ourselves, we choose ourselves, our credibility and our dignity.”

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Colombian military confirms possible balloon flying over its airspace


A day before a US military jet shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the country’s Atlantic Coast on Saturday, Colombia’s military confirmed a sighting of an airborne object similar to a balloon flying over its territory.

Colombia’s air force issued a statement on Saturday providing limited details concerning a possible balloon its air defense system had located Friday morning.

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US military officials on Friday said another Chinese balloon was spotted somewhere over Latin America but did not specify its location.

According to the Colombian air force statement, an “object” was detected over its territory at an altitude of 55,000 feet that had entered the South American country’s airspace to the north moving at an average speed of 25 knots, or roughly 29 miles per hour.

The statement added that the object exhibited “characteristics similar to those of a balloon,” and that the air force monitored it until if left the country’s airspace.

“It was determined that it did not represent a threat to national security,” the statement added.

No other official confirmation of unidentified balloons flying over other Latin American countries has been issued as of Sunday.

In recent days, however, balloon sightings have been made in Venezuela and Costa Rica by multiple social media users.

The saga of the downed Chinese spy balloon off the US coast captivated public attention for days, and was widely seen as worsening US-Chinese relations.

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South Africa records two imported cholera cases


South Africa has recorded two confirmed imported cases of cholera, the health department said on Sunday, as it called for vigilance.

The cases were of sisters who had in January travelled to Malawi, where a cholera outbreak since last year has claimed more than 1,000 lives as of January, the highest on record in the country.

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“Both patients had developed symptoms on their return to Johannesburg,” the health department said in a statement.

“A close contact (household family member) of one of the patients was admitted to hospital on 4 February with diarrhea and dehydration, and is considered a possible case,” it said, adding laboratory test results were pending.

Cholera is an acute diarrheal infection caused by the bacteria Vibrio cholerae and can be deadly if left untreated. It is mainly spread by contaminated food and water.

Cholera is not endemic in South Africa, the health department said. The last outbreak in the country was in 2008/2009 when about 12,000 cases were reported following an outbreak in neighboring Zimbabwe which led to a surge of imported cases and subsequent local transmission.

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Iran ex-President Khatami, former PM Mousavi call for political change amid protests


Iran’s former president Mohammad Khatami and former premier Mir Hossein Mousavi have both called for political changes amid the protests triggered by the death in custody of Mahsa Amini.

As the 44th anniversary of the 1979 Iranian Revolution approaches, one of the country’s main opposition figures, Mousavi, called on Saturday for the “fundamental transformation” of a political system he said was facing a crisis of legitimacy.

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And on Sunday, Khatami, the leader of the reformist movement, in a statement said: “What is evident today is widespread discontent.”

Khatami said he hoped that the use of “non-violent civil methods” can “force the governing system to change its approach and accept reforms.”

In a statement carried by local media, Mousavi said: “Iran and Iranians need and are ready for a fundamental transformation whose outline is drawn by the pure ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ movement.”

He was referring to the main slogan chanted in demonstrations sparked by the death on September 16 of Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurd.

She had been arrested by the morality police in Tehran for an alleged breach of the Islamic Republic’s dress code for women.

Mousavi, 80, said the protest movement began in the context of “interdependent crises” and proposed holding a “free and healthy referendum on the need to change or draft a new constitution.”

He called the current system’s structure “unsustainable.”

An unsuccessful presidential candidate in 2009, Mousavi alleged large-scale fraud in favor of populist incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, leading to mass protests.

He has been under house arrest without charge in Tehran for 12 years, along with his wife Zahra Rahnavard.

A close confidant of the Islamic Republic’s founder Ruhollah Khomeini, Mousavi was prime minister from 1981 to 1989.

“People have the right to make fundamental revisions in order to overcome crises and pave the way for freedom, justice, democracy and development,” Mousavi said in his statement.

“The refusal to take the smallest step towards realizing the rights of citizens as defined in the constitution… has discouraged the community from carrying out reforms.”

Khatami, 79, made similar remarks, warning that “there is no sign of the ruling system’s desire for reform and avoiding the mistakes of the past and present.”

President from 1997 to 2005 before being forced into silence, Khatami said he regretted that Iran’s population was “disappointed with Reformism as well as with the ruling system.”

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