Middle East Updates Saudi Military Spending Rose 17 Pct in 2014

Saudi minister in Pakistan after lawmakers reject troop request; Report: Egypt Muslim Brotherhood verdicts 'blatantly unjust,' says Human Rights Watch; 12 killed by bombings in Baghdad, Iraq.

A Saudi fighter jet takes off to participate in airstrikes in Yemen.
A Saudi fighter jet takes off to participate in airstrikes in Yemen.Credit: Reuters

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Latest updates:

1:37 A.M. Saudi military spending rose 17 pct in 2014

audi Arabia's military spending grew 17 percent in 2014 to $80.8 billion, data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) showed on Monday, the biggest annual hike by any of the world's top 15 military spenders.

Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia launched air strikes last month on Houthi rebels in neighbouring Yemen, leading a regional coalition against Shi'ite fighters it says are backed by rival Gulf power Iran.

"While total world military spending is mostly unchanged, some regions, such as the Middle East and much of Africa, are continuing to see rapid build-ups that are placing an increasingly high burden on many economies," said Sam Perlo-Freeman, Head of SIPRI's Military Expenditure project.

"These increases partly reflect worsening security situations, but in many cases they are also the product of corruption, vested interests and autocratic governance." (Reuters)

April 12

9:42 P.M. Saudi minister in Pakistan after lawmakers reject troop request

Saudi Arabia's minister for religious affairs arrived in Pakistan late on Sunday, two days after the country's parliament rejected a Saudi appeal for support for its military intervention in Yemen.

His arrival follows a visit by the Iranian foreign minister last week, in which the Iranians urged Pakistan to support dialogue in Yemen rather than sending troops.

On Friday, Pakistan's parliament voted not to join the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, dashing Riyadh's hopes for powerful support from outside of the region in its fight to halt Houthi rebels, some of whom have links to Iran.

Saudi Arabia had asked fellow Sunni-majority Pakistan to provide ships, aircraft and troops for the campaign, now in its third week, to stem the influence of Shi'ite Iran in what could develop into a proxy war between the Gulf's two dominant powers.

"The resolution passed by Pakistan's parliament is Pakistan's internal matter," Saleh bin Abdul-Aziz bin Mohammad al-Sheikh told reporters at the airport.

He added: "We have very good relations with Pakistan, and we expect a lot of good from it. Pakistan is a very important country, it is a big country in the Islamic world."

"Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have had very strong relations ever since Pakistan's creation...we should try and improve these ties as best we can." (Reuters)

9:15 P.M. Egypt Muslim Brotherhood verdicts 'blatantly unjust,' says Human Rights Watch

An Egyptian court's decision to sentence 14 men to death and jail 37 others accused of ties to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood was "politically motivated" and "blatantly unjust," Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Sunday.

The court condemned Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badie and 13 other senior members of the group to death on Saturday. American-Egyptian Mohamed Soltan, the son of a Brotherhood preacher who received a death sentence at the same hearing, was among those sentenced to life in jail.

The men were among thousands of people detained after freely elected Islamist president Mohamed Mursi was toppled in 2013 by the military under Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is now president. Sisi describes the Brotherhood as a major security threat.

The White House has condemned the verdict against Soltan, who was found guilty of supporting the veteran Islamist movement and transmitting false news.

Saturday's case was known in local media as "The Rabaa Operations Room" trial in reference to a sit-in at Rabaa square in 2013 in which hundreds of people protesting at the overthrow of Islamist President Mohamed Mursi were killed when security forces tried to clear the area by force. (Reuters)

8:30 P.M. 12 killed by bombings in Baghdad, Iraq

Authorities in Iraq say a series of bombings targeting public places in the capital, Baghdad, have killed 12 people.

Police officials say a bomb exploded on a commercial street in downtown Baghdad, killing four people and wounding nine others.

Earlier, two bomb blasts near an outdoor market killed five people and wounded 10 others in the western suburbs of the capital. Another bomb exploded on a commercial street in Baghdad's district of Amil, killing three people and wounding 11 others.

Medics in nearby hospitals confirmed the casualties. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. (AP)

6:55 P.M. Report: Washington Post reporter facing 'espionage' charges in Iran

A news agency says a Washington Post journalist detained in Iran for over eight months is accused of "espionage."

The semiofficial Fars news agency says Jason Rezaian, who has been held on unspecified charges since July 22, is also facing the charge of "acting against national security." The report did not elaborate on the source of the information, but the FARS agency is regarded as close to Iran's hard-liners.

Previously, Iranian officials have only said Rezaian is facing "security" charges and that he will stand trial in Iran's Revolutionary Court, which mostly hears cases involving security offenses.

The Post, U.S. officials and Rezaian's mother repeatedly have called for his release. (AP)

6:11 P.M. Iran denies military advisors captured in Yemen

Iran has denied reports that Iranian military advisers were captured in the Yemeni city of Aden, state news agency IRNA reported on Sunday.

"Iran has no kind of military force in Yemen," IRNA quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian as saying.

Local militiamen in Aden said on Saturday they had captured two Iranian military officers advising Houthi rebels, whose rapid advances in Yemen have drawn air strikes from Tehran's regional rival Saudi Arabia. (Reuters)

5:53 P.M. Yemen president Hadi appoints ex-prime minister as vice president

Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi appointed former prime minister Khaled Bahah as his vice president on Sunday, Yemeni officials told Reuters.

Bahah is popular across Yemen's spectrum of feuding parties, and his new job may create hopes for a negotiated solution to a conflict that has seen more than two weeks of Saudi-led bombing of Hadi's opponents, the Iran-allied Houthi militia. (Reuters)

5:47 P.M. Egypt arrests journalist critical of police

Egypt's Ministry of Interior says it has arrested a journalist who it claims is wanted in seven different cases — just days after he published a series of critical articles about the police.

In a statement posted on its Facebook page Sunday, the Ministry of Interior says Hamid Abdel Halim, a journalist for the privately-owned Dostour newspaper, was arrested Saturday as part of a routine round-up of fugitives. It says Abdel Halim is wanted for cases dating back to 2003, including drugs, theft and bribery.

The statement also says it has requested that the Public Prosecutor launch an investigation related to Abdel Halim's recent series of articles critical of the security apparatus. (AP)

5:25 P.M. Sinai police station on fire after suicide bomb attack

A police station in al-Arish, the capital of Egypt's turbulent North Sinai province, is ablaze after a suicide attacker slammed an explosive-laden vehicle into it, a local security official tells DPA.

The attack has caused deaths and injuries, but numbers cannot yet be confirmed, the official says, speaking on condition of anonymity. (DPA)

3:24 P.M. Saudi Arabia dismisses Iran calls for Yemen cease-fire

Saudi Arabia dismissed Iranian calls for an end to its air strikes on neighbouring Yemen on Sunday, saying Tehran should not interfere in the conflict.

Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies began air strikes against Iranian-allied Houthi militia fighters in Yemen more than two weeks ago, to try and prevent them making further advances.

"How can Iran call for us to stop the fighting in Yemen ... We came to Yemen to help the legitimate authority, and Iran is not in charge of Yemen," Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said in the Saudi capital Riyadh at a press conference with French counterpart Laurent Fabius. (Reuters)

3:23 P.M. Sinai Province claims attack that killed six in Egypt

A Twitter feed that describes itself as the official account for Sinai Province, a militant group that has pledged allegiance to Islamic State, claimed responsibility for the bomb detonated on northern Sinai which killed six people and wounded two others.

The army said in a statement that "terrorist and extremist elements" were behind the roadside attack on an armored military vehicle in the town of Sheikh Zuweid. Two of those killed were officers, it said.

The Sinai Province renamed itself from Ansar Beit Al Maqdis last year after swearing allegiance to Islamic State, the ultra-radical Sunni militant group that has seized swathes of Iraq and Syria, drawing U.S.-led airstrikes. (Reuters)

3:00 P.M. At least 9 said killed in Syrian government airstrikes on Aleppo

A Syrian government air raid struck near a school in an opposition-held neighborhood in the northern city of Aleppo on Sunday, killing at least nine people, including five children, activists said.

The Aleppo Media Center and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the air raid hit the opposition-held Ansari neighborhood. The bloodshed comes a day after rebel shelling and government airstrikes killed more than 30 people on both sides of the divided city, which is carved into government- and rebel-controlled areas.

The Observatory said at least nine people were killed in Sunday's airstrike, and warned that the tally could rise because many of the wounded were in critical condition. The Aleppo Media Center put the death toll at 10 and said dozens of people were wounded. (AP)

12:45 P.M. Blast in Egypt's North Sinai kills five soldiers

An explosion targeting a military vehicle killed five soldiers near the town of Sheikh Zuweid in Egypt's North Sinai on Sunday, a security source said, a region beset by Islamist militant violence.

North Sinai is the epicenter of an insurgency that has killed hundreds of members of the security services mid-2013, when then-army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi after mass protests against his rule.(Reuters)

12:28 P.M. Gunmen attack South Korea embassy in Tripoli, two guards killed

Unidentified gunmen fired shots at the South Korean embassy in Tripoli on Sunday killing two local security guards, a South Korean official in Seoul said.

The gunmen fired from a car at the embassy compound, killing two security officers who were Libyan government employees and wounding another, the South Korean foreign ministry official said, asking not to be identified.

The official said the embassy is staffed by two foreign service officials and one administrative staff member.(Reuters)

12:12 P.M. Medical source: Air strikes kill eight civilians in Yemen

Saudi-led airstrikes targeting a military camp killed eight civilians in the central Yemeni city of Taiz on Sunday, a medical source said.

The air raids were aimed at a site held by soldiers loyal to former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who have joined up with Iranian-allied Houthi rebels against local militias in the south, the source said. (Reuters)

12:07 P.M. Yemen rebels pushing to capture oil-rich province

Yemen's Houthi rebels were locked in a fight on Sunday with loyalists of embattled President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi for the eastern province of Mareb, a key oil-producing area.

The fight erupted after Houthi insurgents set up a checkpoint in the town of Serwah, about 40 kilometers west of Mareb, to use it as a launch pad for overrunning the province, local tribal sources said.

"Clashes are still under way. The Houthis have suffered unspecified casualties," a source said on condition of anonymity. (DPA)

10:57 A.M. Iraqi minister confirms Islamic State destroyed ancient ruins

An Iraqi Antiquities Ministry official, speaking Sunday on condition of anonymity, said all the items that Islamic State militants bombed at the ancient Iraqi city of Nimrud were authentic.

An online video, posted late Saturday, purported to show militants using sledgehammers, jackhammers, a bulldozer and ultimately explosives to level the site, located near the militant-held city of Mosul.

Some of the figures in the video appeared to have rebar, ribbed bars of steels designed to reinforce concrete that are a technique of modern building. In March, both Iraqi and United Nations officials warned the site had been looted and damaged. (Associated Press)

8:21 A.M. Saudi king relieves health minister, second in a month

Saudi Arabia's King Salman has relieved Health Minister Ahmed al-Khatib of his post, removing a second minister handling social welfare issues in the space of a month as he reshapes the cabinet soon after coming to the throne.

Mohammed bin Abdulmalik bin Abdullah Al Al-Sheikh will be acting health minister, state news agency SPA said in a brief report on Saturday. It did not say why Khatib was relieved.

In early March, Salman removed the housing minister, a day after pledging to speed efforts to end a shortage of homes in his first address to the nation since becoming monarch in late January.

This followed a cabinet reshuffle in late January in which Salman appointed new ministers to several portfolios including agriculture, education and information. He also reorganized the policy-making apparatus, abolishing some committees and creating a new economic council chaired by his son. (Reuters)

3:00 A.M. Obama: Framework deal is best way to prevent Iran from getting bomb

President Barack Obama said Saturday that partisan wrangling over the emerging nuclear agreement with Iran and on other foreign policy matters has gone beyond the pale, singling out two senior Republican senators for particularly harsh criticism. "It needs to stop," he declared.

Obama said he's still "absolutely positive" that the framework agreement is the best way to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. And he added that if the final negotiations don't produce a tough enough agreement, the U.S. can back away from it. (Associated Press) Full story

12:30 A.M. Egypt court sentences U.S.-Egyptian citizen to life in prison

An Egyptian criminal court sentenced a dual U.S.-Egyptian citizen on a monthslong hunger strike to life in prison Saturday on charges of financing an anti-government sit-in and spreading false news.

Mohammed Soltan, the son of a prominent member of the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, was arrested in August 2013, when security forces came looking for his father at his house. They didn't find the father at the time, but arrested him instead, Soltan's family said. His father, Salah, was detained later.

Mohammed, a 27-year-old Ohio State University graduate and former Barack Obama campaigner, has been on a hunger strike over his detention for more than 14 months, and his health is rapidly deteriorating, his family said. (Associated Press)

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