Syrian rebels starving in Eastern Ghouta, the last Damascus enclave

The TimesBel Trew, Cairo
Conditions in the last rebel-held suburb of Damascus have reached a critical point with food in desperately short supply amid plunging temperatures, aid agencies and locals have warned.

Youths in Damascus show solidarity with Kerim
Youths in Damascus show solidarity with KerimAMER ALSHAMI/ANDALOU AGENCY/GETTY IMAGES

Eastern Ghouta, a suburb northeast of the Syrian capital, has been pummelled by hundreds of airstrikes and artillery shells since mid-November, when the Assad regime stepped up its air campaign to finally crush the opposition’s longest-surviving enclave.

The Red Cross expressed alarm at the humanitarian crisis faced by the 400,000 civilians estimated to be in the area. There is a “frightening food shortage” and temperatures have fallen close to freezing at night.

“The humanitarian situation in Eastern Ghouta has reached a critical point . . . Some families can afford to eat only one meal a day,” Robert Mardini, the middle east director, said.

Doctors in the area told The Times that the medical situation was catastrophic because life-saving medicines and supplies were no longer available.

“We have a list of 572 patients who need to be urgently evacuated because their treatment is not possible in Ghouta,” said one doctor. “So far the authorities have allowed only 12 cases to be evacuated to the capital’s hospitals via the Red Cross. We have 138 children who need to be urgently evacuated . . . 16 have already died.

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Poor Egyptians dig up homes in search of antiquities

The TimesBel Trew, Matariya
An illicit trade in antiquities is booming in Egypt helped by a growing number of people illegally digging under their homes for treasure.

The authorities are struggling to stop the digs and have raised the maximum sentence for illegally selling antiquities from seven years in prison to life, but the collapse of the economy and the currency has encouraged the trade.

“In our business we deal in dollars most of the time so if you sell something for $10 which was worth seven Egyptian pounds, it’s now worth 18,” one antiquities trader said. “That’s more than double. The business has become more profitable for many people.”

He has worked as a broker for 17 years, acquiring antiquities from looters and selling them to buyers in Europe and the US. He said that a new wave of opportunists had started digging under their homes. The busiest areas are two poor districts of Cairo that sit on top of the ancient city of Heliopolis, which was populated from the pre-dynastic period to the Middle Kingdom, up until 1800BC. “The devaluation could be the reason why many more people who live in areas like Matariya and Ain Shams districts have begun digging only recently,” he said.

Between 2011 and 2014 the country lost $3 billion in artefacts taken from sites and museums, according to the International Coalition to Protect Egyptian Antiquities. Whole sites, including the 4,000-year-old Dahshur necropolis and Abusir cemetery, have been gutted.

Poor Egyptians are using desperate means to make money as inflation soars and energy and fuel subsidies are cut. Now that the value of the dollar has doubled many are trying to find ancient objects to sell internationally.

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Libyan militia chief admits deal with Tripoli to stem migrant flow

The Times
A powerful Libyan militia commander and suspected trafficking kingpin has struck a deal with Tripoli to stem the flow of migrants to Europe in exchange for cars, boats and the recognition of his force as a legitimate security body.

Ahmed Dabbashi, who commands the Anas Dabbashi brigade, said that he met officials from Libya’s UN-backed government in July to discuss how to shut down people trafficking along the coast. In the meeting the officials agreed to clear the accusations of criminality hanging over his brigade.

The deal coincides with a sharp fall in the number of migrants crossing from Libya to Italy in the past few weeks, down by 86 per cent last month. However, the militia warned that migrant numbers would climb again if the brigade stopped receiving financial help.
Mr Dabbashi, known by his nickname al-Ammu (The Uncle), has long been accused of running a trafficking network from the smuggling hub of Sabratha. Security officials in Sabratha and Tripoli said this week that his militia was paid millions of euros by Italy in a deal with the Libyan government to stop his trade.

It would not be the first time that Europe has paid unsavoury figures in Libya to halt the flow of migrants to its shores. The EU pledged €50 million to Libya in 2010 under Colonel Gaddafi to fight illegal migration.

Mr Dabbashi denied the smuggling charges and the Italian deal. He said that his brigade, which has 500 men and is part of the unity government’s defence ministry, was just policing the coastal city.

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Photo: AP

Obituary: Khaled Asaad

The TimesKhaled Asaad, a quiet bespectacled man who for 40 years was the caretaker of the 2000-year-old city of Palmyra in Syria, often joked that he was “born in the shadows of the Temple of Bel” and that was what compelled him to dedicate a lifetime to its preservation.

The director of Palmyra’s antiquities and museums between 1963 and 2003, he had an almost neurotic-like obsession with the ancient trading hub and desert oasis that stood on the Silk Road. No one could do anything without going through him; one colleague nicknamed him “Mr Palmyra”.

It was this bond with the Unesco world heritage site that made him an enemy of Islamic State (Isis). As fanatics stormed the city in May, Asaad refused to abandon his work. When he allegedly declined to reveal hidden stores of treasures, he was murdered for being a “director of idolatry” and a spy.

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