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The death toll of August 4 devastating explosion in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, has exceeded 200, according to officials.

Beirut Governor Marwan Abboud said dozens were still missing, many of them foreign workers.

On August 9, there was a second night of violence in Beirut, as police clashed with protesters angry with the government’s response to the disaster.

The resignation of three members of the cabinet, including the justice minister on August 10, has not quelled the fury.

Fresh protests have been called for August 10 when PM Hassan Diab is due to chair a cabinet meeting.

PM Diab has said the blast was the result of the detonation of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that had been stored unsafely at Beirut’s port for six years.

The decision to keep so much hazardous material in a warehouse near the city center has been met with disbelief by many Lebanese, who have long accused the political elite of corruption, neglect and mismanagement.

Marwan Abboud was quoted by the al-Marsad Online news website as saying the death toll from the explosion had risen to 220, and that 110 people remained missing.

The governor told the Al Jadeed TV channel that many foreign workers and lorry drivers were among the missing, which he said had made identifying them more difficult.

The Lebanese army, meanwhile, said it was calling off the rescue phase of the search operation at the port because no survivors had been found.

Elsewhere in Beirut, hundreds of thousands of people are living in severely damaged homes, many without windows or doors.

STR/AFP via Getty Images

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Officials have estimated that the explosion caused more than $3 billion of damage and that Lebanon’s collective economic losses may amount to $15 billion.

Lebanon was already suffering a major economic downturn before the explosion, with families pushed into poverty and hunger, and UN agencies have warned of a humanitarian crisis unless food and medical aid are delivered swiftly.

International donors pledged $297 million in aid for Lebanon at a virtual summit on August 9 hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron.

A joint statement underscored their concerns about corruption, saying that the assistance should be “directly delivered to the Lebanese population, with utmost efficiency and transparency”.

The donors said further assistance was dependent on Lebanese authorities fully committing to “timely measures and reforms expected by the Lebanese people”.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron has made a surprise visit to Saudi Arabia amid an escalating crisis between the kingdom and Lebanon.

The president’s trip comes days after Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri resigned while in Riyadh, saying he feared for his life.

Meanwhile, foes Saudi Arabia and Iran have accused each other of fuelling instability in Lebanon and the wider region.

Emmanuel Macron and Saudi officials also discussed the crisis in Yemen, where Riyadh is leading a war against rebels.

France has historical ties with Lebanon, as its former colonial power before it gained independence during World War Two.

President Macron was in the UAE on November 9 to open the Louvre Abu Dhabi, a spin-off of the famous Paris art museum.

Ahead of his two-hour visit to Riyadh, Emmanuel Macron said all Lebanese officials should live freely, “which means having a very demanding stance on those who could threaten any leader”.

Image source Wikimedia

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Lebanon: PM Saad al-Hariri Resigns Fearing for His Life

No details of the alleged plot against Saad al-Hariri have been made public.

Uncertainty surrounds Saad al-Hariri’s circumstances, amid rumors he was being held in Riyadh.

President Macron said on November 9 he had had informal contact with Saad al-Hariri, without giving details, while the French foreign minister said France believed Saad al-Hariri was able to move freely.

On November 5, Saad al-Hariri said in a TV broadcast that he was resigning because of the unspecified threat to his life.

In the video statement, Saad al-Hariri also attacked Hezbollah, which is politically and militarily powerful in Lebanon, and Iran.

There are fears Lebanon could become embroiled in a wider regional confrontation between major Sunni power Saudi Arabia and Shia-dominated Iran.

President Macron is a keen supporter of the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, which both the Saudis and the Trump administration have heavily criticized.

Before going to Saudi Arabia, Emmanuel Macron said that he had heard “very harsh opinions” on Iran from Saudi Arabia, which did not match his own view.

“It is important to speak with everyone,” the president added.

However, an official communiqué from his office following the visit did not say Iran was among the matters discussed, Le Monde reported.

Tensions between Saudi Arabia, Iran and Lebanon have soared since Saad al-Hariri announced his resignation.

On November 9, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies told their citizens in Lebanon to leave the country immediately. The move came after Saudi Arabia accused Iran of “direct military aggression”, saying it supplied a missile which it says was fired by Hezbollah at Riyadh from Yemen on November 5.

Iran has dismissed Saudi Arabia’s allegations as “false and dangerous”.

Lebanon’s PM Saad al-Hariri has announced his resignation in a TV broadcast from Saudi Arabia.

Saad al-Hariri also said that he feared for his life, while fiercely criticizing Iran.

He accused Iran of sowing “fear and destruction” in several countries, including Lebanon.

Saad al-Hariri’s father, former PM Rafik al-Hariri, was assassinated in 2005.

The Hariri family is close to Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional competitor.

Saad al- Hariri has been prime minister since December 2016, after previously holding the position between 2009 and 2011.

“We are living in a climate similar to the atmosphere that prevailed before the assassination of martyr Rafik al-Hariri,” he said in the broadcast from Riyadh.

“I have sensed what is being plotted covertly to target my life.”

Image source Wikimedia

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Lebanon restricts entry for Syrian refugees

Saad al-Hariri also attacked the Iran-backed Shia movement Hezbollah, which wields considerable power in Lebanon.

Addressing “Iran and its followers”, the prime minister said Lebanon would “cut off the hands that wickedly extend into it”.

Iran said the resignation would create regional tensions and rejected Saad al-Hariri’s accusations as “unfounded”.

Saad al-Hariri has made several visits in the past few days to Saudi Arabia, whose leadership is strongly opposed to Iran.

His announcement came a day after a meeting in Beirut with Ali Akbar Velayati, an advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Kahmenei.

Taking up the prime minister’s office in 2016, Saad al- Hariri promised a “new era for Lebanon” after two years of political deadlock.

The coalition government Saad al-Hariri led brought together almost all of the main political parties in Lebanon, including Hezbollah.

His father, Rafik al-Hariri, was killed by a bomb in 2005 in an attack widely blamed on Hezbollah.

Lebanese officials have unveiled a plan tackle the eight-month Beirut garbage crisis.

A landfill site will be temporarily opened and two new sites will be set up in a bid to end the crisis over uncollected trash in the capital.

Piles of rotting refuse in Beirut’s streets have prompted a mass anti-government movement.

Officials say the new move will solve the problem for the next four years while a permanent solution is found.

However, protesters have gathered in Beirut, threatening to paralyze the country from March 14.

The crisis began with the closure of Beirut’s main landfill site at Naameh in July 2015 with no alternative in place.

During hot summer weather, piles of rubbish grew so large that residents resorted to burning it on the streets, releasing toxic fumes.Beirut garbage crisis 2016

The trash has since piled up on beaches, in mountain forests and along river beds.

Protesters blame the crisis on political paralysis and corruption and set up a “You Stink” movement.

In 2015, many took to the streets, leading to violent clashes with police.

Information Minister Ramzi Jreij said on March 12 that the Naameh landfill would reopen for two months “to take in the rubbish that has already piled up”.

Speaking after an emergency cabinet session, Ramzi Jreij said that two other “temporary” landfills would be opened in the city’s suburbs.

During the meeting, about 3,000 demonstrators from the You Stink movement marched to central Beirut demanding a permanent solution to the crisis.

“The final warning has been sent, and we are now in a new phase. On Monday we will paralyze the country,” protest organizers said in a statement.

Earlier this month, the group posted pictures on its Facebook page of mountains of rubbish festering across Lebanon.

One video filmed by a drone showed bags of rubbish stretching for miles like a flowing river.

The footage also mocked Lebanon’s tourism ministry over a video it had commissioned on the country’s natural beauty.

Muammar Gaddafi’s son, Moutassim Gaddafi aka Hannibal, has been freed after being briefly kidnapped by an armed group in Lebanon, security sources say.

In a video shown on Lebanese TV, Hannibal Gaddafi was seen appealing for more information concerning the 1978 disappearance of the prominent Lebanese Shia cleric Musa al-Sadr.

The late Libyan leader’s son was freed in the city of Baalbek and dispatched to Beirut, police told AP.

Photo Reuters

Photo Reuters

Hannibal Gaddafi, a 40-year-old former playboy, was given sanctuary in Oman in 2012.

His father Muammar was overthrown by rebels in a 2011 uprising.

Musa al-Sadr, one of the most prominent Shia clerics of the 20th Century, disappeared along with two others during a trip to Libya in 1978.

Muammar Gaddafi denied any involvement in his disappearance, but many suspect him of having orchestrated it.

The case has long soured relations between the two countries.

It is not known how long Hannibal Gaddafi has been in Lebanon.

Hannibal Gaddafi was under house arrest while in Oman with his sister Ayesha and mother Safiya.

Lebanese prosecutors have charged a Saudi prince and nine other people with drug smuggling, a week after a record seizure at Beirut’s airport.

The prince was not named, but Abd al-Muhsen bin Walid bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud was detained on October 26 in Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport.

The prince was about to conduct a flight on his private plane to Saudi Arabia.

Photo Yahoo News

Photo Yahoo News

He and four other Saudis were arrested after two tonnes of Captagon pills were found in cases being loaded on a private jet.

The others charged in the case – three Lebanese and two Saudis – are at large.

Captagon pills, which typically contain amphetamine and caffeine, are consumed widely in the Middle East.

The drug has helped fuel the conflict in Syria, generating millions of dollars in revenue for producers inside the country as well as being used by combatants to help them keep fighting.

Prince Abdel Mohsen Bin Walid Bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia and four other people have been arrested in Lebanon in the largest drug seizure in the history of Beirut airport, a security source has said.

The prince was among those detained by airport security while allegedly “attempting to smuggle about two tonnes of Captagon pills and some cocaine,” the security source said.

“The smuggling operation is the largest one that has been foiled through the Beirut International Airport,” the source told the AFP news agency on condition of anonymity. Prince Abdel Mohsen Bin Walid Bin Abdulaziz arrested in Lebanon

Captagon is the brand name for the amphetamine phenethylline, a synthetic stimulant.

Manufacturing of the substance thrives in Lebanon and war-torn Syria, which have become a gateway for the drug to the Middle East and particularly the Gulf.

The UN Office of Drugs and Crime said in a 2014 report that the amphetamine market is on the rise in the Middle East, with seizures mostly in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria accounting for more than 55% of amphetamines recovered worldwide.

The security source said the drugs had been packed into cases that were waiting to be loaded onto a private plane that was headed to Saudi Arabia.

Lebanon’s state news agency said the private plane was to head to Riyadh and was carrying 40 suitcases full of Captagon.

The five Saudi citizens were still in the airport and will be questioned by Lebanon’s customs authority, the source added.

Lebanon has imposed stricter conditions for Syrians entering the country in a bid to slow the flow of asylum seekers trying to escape the war.

Previously, travel between Syria and Lebanon was largely unrestricted, but now Syrians will have to obtain a visa.

Lebanon hosts more than a million Syrian refugees and this is the latest step to try to stem the influx.

Millions of Syrians have been displaced by the civil war as rebel forces try to oust President Bashar al-Assad.

The uprising began with protests against Bashar al-Assad’s rule in 2011 and degenerated into civil war in 2012. The rise of Islamist groups has added to the refugee problem.

Lebanon, which shares a border with Syria, is one of the most affected country by the large numbers of refugees.

Before now, Syrians could stay in Lebanon for up to six months automatically. Under the new measure, Syrians wanting to enter Lebanon will have to fulfill certain criteria in order to be granted a visa at the border.

It is unclear what the rule will mean for the many Syrians already in the country and not registered as refugees.Syrian refugees in Lebanon

Every Syrian wanting to enter Lebanon will need to state a clear purpose for their visit, and, if approved, a visa will be issued for a certain duration.

Syrians coming to work in Lebanon will also have to be sponsored by a Lebanese individual or company.

A spokesman for the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in Lebanon, Ron Redmond, said that over the past 6 to 8 months a number of measures had already reduced the number of people seeking registration as refugees. But the UN had worked out a system with the government to enable the most vulnerable to still gain access.

Lebanon has long been struggling to cope with the number of refugees fleeing the war in Syria.

There are currently more than 1.1 million registered refugees in Lebanon putting a huge strain on the country’s infrastructure and resources.

The Lebanese government says the actual number of refugees in the country is about 1.6 million.

Clearly the Lebanese government wants to reduce the flow, says Rami Khouri, Senior Fellow at the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut.

Many refugees live in poor conditions.

In October, Lebanon’s social affairs minister announced that the country would stop accepting all refugees except emergency cases, but would still allow Syrians to enter for other purposes, such as work and tourism.

The latest UNHCR figures show a total of 3.2 million Syrians registered as refugees in Lebanon and elsewhere.

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At least four people have been killed by a suspected bomb explosion in a Hezbollah stronghold in a Shia-dominated southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon.

Flames were seen pouring from the facade of a multi-storey building, with large plumes of smoke.

Local media quoted officials as saying the blast was caused by a suicide bomber.

There has been a spike in sectarian tension in Lebanon blamed on the conflict in neighboring Syria.

Hezbollah forces have been fighting in support of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, while Lebanese Sunni Muslims tend to back the Syrian opposition.

At least four people have been killed by a suspected bomb explosion in a Hezbollah stronghold in a Shia-dominated southern suburb of Beirut

At least four people have been killed by a suspected bomb explosion in a Hezbollah stronghold in a Shia-dominated southern suburb of Beirut

The blast occurred in Arid Street in the Haret Hreik district. Large crowds gathered at the scene as Hezbollah’s emergency services worked to extinguish the blaze.

Hezbollah sources quoted by the organization’s al-Manar TV said four people had been killed. Several more are reported to have been wounded.

Body parts thought to be those of the suicide bomber were scattered at the scene, Lebanon’s national news agency reported.

Caretaker PM Najib Mikati called a meeting of the government’s emergency response committee.

It is the latest of several recent explosions in Lebanon. Five people were killed and many others injured by a bomb blast on January 2 in the same Beirut district.

A car bomb hit a southern suburb of the Lebanese capital Beirut killing at least 5 people and injuring other 20, media and officials say.

The suburb is a stronghold of the Shia militant group Hezbollah.

Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV station said the blast destroyed part of a facade of a building in a densely populated area of Haret Hreik district.

Beirut has been recently been hit by attacks linked to heightened Sunni-Shia tensions over the Syrian war.

Beirut has been recently been hit by attacks linked to heightened Sunni-Shia tensions over the Syrian war

Beirut has been recently been hit by attacks linked to heightened Sunni-Shia tensions over the Syrian war

Former minister Mohamad Chatah, a Sunni and a critic of Hezbollah, was killed by a car bomb last Friday. Six other people died and at least 50 were injured.

Former PM Saad Hariri, to whom Mohamad Chatah was an adviser, blamed Hezbollah for that attack but it has denied any involvement.

No-one has yet said they carried out the attack, but it came a day after Majid al-Majid, the head of a Sunni jihadist group which claimed a suicide bomb attack on the Iranian embassy in Beirut in November, was reportedly arrested.

Al-Manar TV showed large crowds gathered around twisted and burnt-out vehicles in front of a building that had been badly damaged in Thursday’s blast.

Initial reports say the bomb was detonated in a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

The street is home to shops, restaurants and residential buildings. The TV said the explosion took place a few hundred metres from the nearest Hezbollah political offices.

Majid al-Majid, the Saudi “emir” of the al-Qaeda-linked Abdullah Azzam Brigades, had said that attacks would continue in Lebanon until Iranian and Hezbollah forces stopped fighting alongside government forces in Syria.

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Lebanon has reportedly arrested Majid al-Majid, the head of a jihadist group that claimed the suicide bomb attack on Iran’s embassy in November.

Defense Minister Fayez Ghosn told AFP that Majid al-Majid, the Saudi “emir” of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Abdullah Azzam Brigades, was being held by Lebanese army intelligence in Beirut.

Hezbollah’s al-Manar television also said Majid al-Majid was detained “recently”.

Majid al-Majid, head of al-Qaeda-affiliated Abdullah Azzam Brigades, was being held by Lebanese army intelligence in Beirut

Majid al-Majid, head of al-Qaeda-affiliated Abdullah Azzam Brigades, was being held by Lebanese army intelligence in Beirut

The embassy attack killed 23 people, including the Iranian cultural attaché.

A cleric close to the Abdullah Azzam Brigades warned attacks would continue in Lebanon until Hezbollah forces stopped fighting alongside government forces in Syria and its prisoners were released in Lebanon.

Wednesday’s reports did not say when Majid al-Majid was captured.

Al-Manar cited Lebanese security sources as saying that two attacks on army checkpoints outside the southern city of Sidon on December 15 had been attempts to free him.

A soldier and four gunmen were killed in the ensuing clashes in the suburb of Majdelyoun, for which there was no claim of responsibility.

Lebanon’s army is to receive a $3 billion grant from Saudi Arabia.

Lebanese President Michel Sleiman made the announcement in a televised address after the funeral of a senior Lebanese politician killed in a car bomb attack. He said it would help fight terrorism.

Mohamad Chatah, a Sunni Muslim, was a staunch critic of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Lebanon’s Shia Hezbollah movement that backs him.

Saudi Arabia and Hezbollah have taken opposite sides in the Syrian conflict.

Mohamad Chatah was killed in a car bomb attack in Beirut

Mohamad Chatah was killed in a car bomb attack in Beirut

“The king of the brotherly Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is offering this generous and appreciated aid of $3 billion to the Lebanese army to strengthen its capabilities,” Michel Sleiman said in his address.

He said it was the largest assistance provided in Lebanon’s history and would be used to buy weapons from France.

French President Francois Hollande said his country would “meet” any demands for weapons from Lebanon during a visit on Sunday to Saudi Arabia aimed at boosting commercial ties with the kingdom.

“I am in touch with President Sleiman… If demands are made to us, we will meet them,” Francois Hollande said.

President Michel Sleiman said the Saudi aid would finally allow the Lebanese army to “confront terrorism” and put an end to the proliferation of arms.

Lebanon’s ex-Finance Minister Mohamad Chatah and four others have been killed in a huge explosion in central Beirut.

Mohamad Chatah was an adviser to the former PM Saad Hariri, a Sunni Muslim. A car was seen in flames near government offices and the parliament.

The Syrian conflict has increased sectarian tensions in Lebanon.

The Lebanese Shia militant movement Hezbollah has sent fighters to Syria to back the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

Bashar al-Assad comes from the Alawite sect, a heterodox offshoot of Shia Islam.

Lebanon’s ex-Finance Minister Mohamad Chatah and four others have been killed in a huge explosion in central Beirut

Lebanon’s ex-Finance Minister Mohamad Chatah and four others have been killed in a huge explosion in central Beirut

Some of the Syrian rebel groups are affiliated with the Sunni Muslim al-Qaeda network.

Iran, which backs Hezbollah, saw its embassy in Beirut attacked last month.

The Beirut blast damaged several buildings near the Phoenicia Hotel and set several cars ablaze.

Dozens of people were reported injured.

Mohamad Chatah became finance minister in 2008. After Saad Hariri lost the premiership in early 2011 Mohamad Chatah served as his senior adviser.

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Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon have been hit by a fierce winter storm, the UN say.

There has been snow, rain, high winds and freezing temperatures in the north of the country and the Bekaa Valley, home to more than 200 informal camps.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it was “working harder than ever” to protect the more than 800,000 Syrians sheltering in Lebanon.

The Lebanese army is helping distribute emergency kits, including blankets.

“We are worried, because it is really cold in the Bekaa region, and we’re extremely worried about the refugees living in makeshift shelters, because many are really substandard,” UNHCR spokeswomen Lisa Abou Khaled told the AFP news agency.

At least 80,000 refugees will have to spend the winter in tents. Many others are living in unfinished or unheated buildings with only slightly more protection.

Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon have been hit by a fierce winter storm

Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon have been hit by a fierce winter storm

Lisa Abou Khaled said the UNHCR had stockpiles of items to help refugees whose shelters might be damaged or destroyed, including plastic sheeting, floor mats, blankets and mattresses. Supplies have also been given to local councils.

“The Syrian refugees here are shivering with cold, especially the ones in tents,” said Wafiq Khalaf, a councilor in Arsal, a town in the northern Bekaa Valley that has seen 20,000 people arrive in the past few months.

“Water has come into the tents from the roofs, and from the ground where there is flooding,” he told AFP.

“At the moment there is more than 10cm [3.9in] of snow on the ground, but more is expected.”

Forecasters are predicting between 7.6cm and 13cm of snow in total.

The latest warning comes after the UNHCR announced on Tuesday that it would be airlifting food and other aid items into northern Syria from Iraq for the first time.

Twelve planeloads of supplies will be flown in over the next few days, ahead of what the UN fears will be the region’s harshest winter in a century.

The decision was made after land convoys were shot at, harassed, and detained at check points, officials said.

Almost 2.3 million Syrians have fled into neighboring countries since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011, according to the UN. There are also an estimated 6.5 million internelly displaced people (IDP’s) inside Syria, and many more in need of aid.

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Two explosions have hit the Iranian embassy in Beirut in quick succession, killing at least 22 people.

The Iranian cultural attaché in Lebanon, Ebrahim Ansari, was among the dead. Officials said the death toll could rise.

TV images showed burning cars, bodies on the street and damaged buildings.

Iran is a major backer of the Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah, which has sent fighters to Syria to back the government of Bashar al-Assad.

Reports said one of the blasts was caused by a suicide bomber, while the second was a car bomb.

This has not been officially confirmed.

Two explosions have hit the Iranian embassy in Beirut in quick succession, killing at least 22 people

Two explosions have hit the Iranian embassy in Beirut in quick succession, killing at least 22 people

Reuters quotes Lebanese officials as saying CCTV footage showed a man rushing towards the outer wall of the Iranian embassy before blowing himself up, causing the first blast.

The Iranian ambassador to Beirut confirmed Ebrahim Ansari’s death to Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV, but said it was not clear if he had been in the embassy itself or one of the residential buildings nearby.

Ebrahim Ansari had only taken up his post a month ago, he said.

The ambassador blamed Israel for the attack – an accusation Israel swiftly rejected.

Syria condemned the explosion.

The Syrian conflict has increased sectarian tensions in Lebanon.

South Beirut, including the area around the Iranian embassy, is considered a Hezbollah stronghold. It has been hit by several attacks in recent months.

Caretaker PM Najib Mikati called the attack “a cowardly terrorist act”, Lebanese state news agency NNA reported.

“The aim of the blast is to stir up the situation in Lebanon and use the Lebanese arena to convey messages,” he said.

Tehran and the Shia militant group are key backers of the Syrian government, which is currently trying to cut off one of the Syrian rebels’ last remaining supply routes across the Lebanese border.

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Nine Lebanese Shia pilgrims kidnapped by Syrian rebels in May 2012 have been released and arrived back in Beirut.

There were jubilant scenes as they were greeted on the tarmac by family members and Lebanese politicians.

Two Turkish pilots who were being held hostage in Lebanon were also freed as part of a complex swap.

Murat Akpinar and Murat Agca were seized in Beirut in August in a retaliatory abduction.

They were met by their relatives and Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan after flying to Istanbul on a Qatari jet late on Saturday.

A third part of the hostage negotiations – reportedly mediated by Qatar, Turkey and the Palestinian Authority – involved the release of a number of female prisoners being held by the Syrian government.

Nine Lebanese Shia pilgrims kidnapped by Syrian rebels in May 2012 have been released and arrived back in Beirut

Nine Lebanese Shia pilgrims kidnapped by Syrian rebels in May 2012 have been released and arrived back in Beirut

It is not yet clear whether that has taken place.

The Lebanese group, all men, were released by their captors on Friday evening and driven to Istanbul, from where they flew to Beirut.

At the airport they were greeted by friends and family, as well as politicians and religious leaders.

The men appeared tired but in good health.

The nine Lebanese were among 11 people seized while making their way back to Lebanon after a tour of holy sites in Iran. Two of them escaped.

They were reportedly being held in northern Syria by fighters from a Sunni-based rebel group opposed to President Bashar al-Assad.

The rebels insisted their hostages were fighters with the Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah, and were demanding the release of women detainees held by the Syrian regime in exchange.

Then in August, Murat Akpinar and Murat Agca were seized from a bus close to Beirut’s international airport. A previously unknown group called Zuwwar al-Imam Rida said it had kidnapped them, and that they would be freed if the Lebanese group were set free.

It demanded that Turkey used its influence with Syrian rebels to make the swap possible.

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Wadih El Safi – one of the pillars of Arab music – has died at the age of 92 in a hospital in Lebanon.

Wadih El Safi was at the forefront of a movement that made Lebanese music hugely popular in the region.

Often referred to as the “voice of Lebanon”, Wadih El Safi Safi was one of the big names in what was seen as a golden age of Arab music.

Since his death was announced, many have paid tribute to what they describe as a musical legend.

Wadih El Safi Safi was with his son when he was taken ill on Friday, and later died in hospital.

Wadih El Safi was at the forefront of a movement that made Lebanese music hugely popular in the region

Wadih El Safi was at the forefront of a movement that made Lebanese music hugely popular in the region

A Christian, Wadih El Safi first came to prominence in the late 1930s when he won a Lebanese singing contest.

In subsequent decades, Wadih El Safi contributed to a movement revitalizing Lebanese music that saw it spread in influence across the Arab world.

With a catalogue of some 3,000 songs, Wadih El Safi Safi was best known for creating a modernized form of folk music, but he also sang Lebanese and Arabic poetry.

Hundreds have paid tribute to Wadih El Safi since his death was announced, with some dubbing him the Frank Sinatra of the Middle East.

A union for Lebanese musicians has called on the authorities to declare a national day of mourning, the NNA news agency reports.

Meanwhile, the office of President Michel Suleiman described Wadih El Safi’s death as a “great loss for Lebanon’s folk music”.

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Two huge explosions killed at least 42 people and wounded more than 400 others in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli, health officials say.

The explosions are thought to represent the deadliest attack in Lebanon since the end of the civil war in 1990.

As Friday prayers ended, a blast hit the al-Taqwa mosque, which is usually attended by prominent Sunni cleric Sheikh Salem Rafii. He was unharmed.

A second blast five minutes later hit the al-Salam mosque in the Mina area.

War in neighboring Syria has raised sectarian tensions between the city’s Sunni Muslim and Alawite communities.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has condemned the attacks and called for calm and restraint.

Sheikh Salem Rafii is one of the most prominent Sunni leaders in Lebanon and is believed to have been a possible target.

He is opposed to Lebanon’s militant Shia Hezbollah group and has previously urged young Lebanese men to join opposition fighters in Syria.

Two huge explosions killed at least 42 people and wounded more than 400 others in Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli

Two huge explosions killed at least 42 people and wounded more than 400 others in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli

It is not clear whether he was at the al-Taqwa mosque at the time of the attack, although some reports say he was giving a sermon.

Ambulances rushed to the aftermath of the blasts and heavy black smoke covered the sky.

“It was as if there was an earthquake, the whole city seemed to be shaking,” a local resident told Lebanon’s Daily Star newspaper.

Television pictures showed damaged cars on fire, with their windows smashed, and people running through the streets trying to carry wounded people to safety.

Bodies could be seen on the ground and windows were broken on surrounding apartment blocks.

The preacher at the al-Salam mosque – the site of the second explosion – is also an opponent of the Syrian government and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, Associated Press reports.

No group has taken responsibility for the latest attacks.

In a statement reported by Lebanon’s National News Agency, Hezbollah strongly condemned the blasts.

The group said the attacks aimed to “sow seeds of strife among the Lebanese and drag them into bickering under a sectarian guise”.

Outgoing Lebanese PM Najib Mikati and President Michel Suleiman have also condemned the attacks, calling on citizens to unite against violence.

A spokesman for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said: “The secretary-general calls on all Lebanese to exercise restraint, to remain united, and to support their state institutions… in maintaining calm and order in Tripoli and throughout the country, and in preventing the recurrence of such destructive actions.”

Tripoli, a city of nearly 200,000 people and Lebanon’s second largest, is one of the country’s most volatile sectarian fault lines, with a small Alawite population living in the midst of a Sunni majority.

The Alawite community tends to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with Sunnis mostly backing the rebels fighting him.

The bombs come a week after a massive car bomb rocked a Shia district of Beirut, leaving 27 people dead. The area hit contained Hezbollah strongholds.

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A car bomb blast has killed at least two people in the centre of Beirut, Lebanese security sources say.

About 15 people are also reported to have been wounded in the explosion in Sassine Square, a busy part of Beirut’s eastern Ashrafiya district.

Ambulances have been seen rushing to the square. Witnesses say the blast was heard several kilometres away.

The intended target is unclear. Tensions in Lebanon have been rising as a result of the conflict in Syria.

Friday’s attack is the first major car bomb attack in Beirut for four years.

It occurred near the headquarters of the Kataeb, better known as the Phalange, a Maronite Christian group.

Ashrafiya is a predominantly Christian district.

Several cars were set on fire as a result of the blast. TV footage showed considerable damage to of buildings.

A nearby hospital is calling for people to donate blood to help treat the wounded.


Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar and Kuwait have urged their citizens to leave Lebanon amid signs that the conflict in Syria is spilling over into its western neighbor.

The four Arab states urged immediate action after a string of kidnappings of Sunni Muslims by a powerful Shia clan.

They were retaliating for the abduction of a clan member by rebels in Damascus.

Meanwhile, a summit of Islamic countries meeting in Mecca has suspended Syria’s membership.

The Organisation of Islamic Co-operation’s secretary-general, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, said the body had no room for a regime that kills its own people.

Correspondents say the move further isolates President Bashar al-Assad after the Arab League suspended Syria last November.

Lebanese citizens were further caught up in the Syrian crisis on Wednesday when warplanes struck the town of Azaz north of Aleppo, reportedly killing 30 people.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait have urged their citizens to leave Lebanon amid signs that the conflict in Syria is spilling over into its western neighbor

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait have urged their citizens to leave Lebanon amid signs that the conflict in Syria is spilling over into its western neighbor

Among those reported wounded in the attack close to Syria’s border with Turkey were seven Lebanese hostages held by the rebels since May. Four more hostages were said to be missing after the building they were in was hit.

After unconfirmed TV reports that the four had died, rioters were said to have burned tyres on the main road to Beirut airport and an Air France flight switched routes to Jordan “for security reasons”.

The al-Meqdad clan said it had abducted more than 20 people it claimed were connected to Syrian rebels. A video broadcast by a pro-Syrian TV channel showed what it said were two of the men, apparently including a Free Syrian Army captain.

Although most of the men abducted were Syrians, a Turkish businessman and a Saudi national were also reported to be among those seized.

Syrian rebels say the man they seized in Damascus was fighting for the Syrian government on behalf of Lebanon’s Shia Hezbollah movement.

A video of Hassan Salim al-Meqdad was released by his captors on Tuesday in which the captive, surrounded by three masked gunmen, says he was one of 1,500 Hezbollah fighters who arrived in Syria in early August. The statement was dismissed by his family – the al-Meqdad clan – as a lie.

The clan, who are thought to be heavily involved in smuggling, have been described as a family with a military wing.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are all Sunni Muslim countries that support the Syrian rebels fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad.

As the al-Meqdads threatened to carry out further abductions, the official Saudi news agency Spa quoted a foreign ministry official as saying Saudi citizens should avoid “travelling to Lebanon for their own safety”.

A UAE foreign ministry official said it issued its alert after the embassy “received information about UAE nationals being targeted and because of the difficult and sensitive circumstances in Lebanon”, state news agency Wam reported.

Lebanon is a popular tourist destination for Saudis and citizens of other Gulf states.

The abductions were condemned by Lebanese Prime Minister Nagib Mikati and President Michel Suleiman.

“Spreading chaos in the country will not bring about the liberation of hostages. On the contrary, chaos could cause [the hostages] harm and threatens the sovereignty of the state,” the president said.

Like Syria’s other neighbors – Turkey, Iraq and Jordan – Lebanon has absorbed thousands of refugees fleeing from the conflict.

But unlike the other countries, Lebanon risks being plunged into sectarian strife, possibly even a return to civil war, by the strains inflicted on its own delicate internal situation by the Syrian crisis, correspondents say.

Last week, former information minister Michel Samaha was arrested and accused along with two Syrian military figures of plotting to destabilize Lebanon and incite sectarian fighting.

Tripoli – Lebanon’s second city – has recently witnessed street gun battles between supporters and opponents of President Bashar al-Assad.