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Archive for January, 2016

Official data: Saudi wastes $13.3bn of food each year

Monday, 25 January 2016

Saudi Arabia wastes nearly 50 billion riyals ($13.3 billion) of food per year, new data has revealed.

Alriyadh newspaper yesterday reported the Saudi Minister of Agriculture, Abdulrahman Al-Fadhli, saying Saudis waste a staggering 49.833 billion riyals of food per year, equivalent to 30 per cent of the local agricultural output and food imports.

Al-Fadhli explained that “Saudis waste nearly 250 kilograms of food per year, the highest in the world.”

He presented a report during a workshop in Riyadh which explained that there are 795 million hungry people around the world, noting that saving “only a quarter of the food wasted annually can provide food for 870 million people, and help eradicate hunger in the world.”

He stressed on the need to enact laws that limit food waste and appealed to the concerned authorities to punish those who deliberately waste food.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/23532-official-data-saudi-wastes-133bn-of-food-each-year.

Romania probes hundreds of books written by prisoners

January 25, 2016

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Romania’s crackdown on corruption and fraud in recent years has created a sudden and unexpected literary boom, as prisoners publish hundreds of non-fiction books on subjects as varied as soccer, real estate, God and gemstones.

It’s quite a feat for inmates with no access to books or the Internet, often without tables in their cells. Reports that one book, of 212 pages, was written in seven hours, has only increased suspicions that the improbable treatises are often ghost-written or plagiarized.

Under Romanian law, prisoners can have their sentences reduced by 30 days for every “scientific work” they publish, subject to a judge’s decision on whether the book merits it. Prisoners pay publishing houses to print their works — though they won’t be found in any bookshop.

The law dates from the communist era and was aimed at imprisoned intellectuals who were not suitable for manual labor. Skilled manual workers are able to work to reduce their sentences. Until recently only a handful of such books were published, but in 2014 that rose to 90 — and in 2015 it spiraled to 340.

Prosecutors are investigating whether rich and well-connected convicts are paying university professors — who are required to approve the subjects of the books — or others to write them for them. A prosecutors’ statement cited the case of the 212-page book written by an unidentified prisoner in under seven hours, as well as a 180-page book written in 12 hours.

Laura Stefan, an analyst at the Expert Forum think tank, which promotes transparency and good governance, says the “scientific works” coming out of Romania’s jails have more to do with the wealth and influence of the inmates than their literary talent.

“What we are seeing … is the result of high-level people ending up in jail. These very powerful people are also rich and they can afford to have high-quality counsel, lawyers who teach them how to use the legislation,” she told The Associated Press.

“The quality of the work is poor, and some are bluntly copied.” Allegations of plagiarism against ministers and high-ranking figures are commonplace in Romania, yet rarely investigated. A university panel in 2012 found that former Prime Minister Victor Ponta plagiarized his 2003 doctoral thesis,

Justice Minister Raluca Pruna has called for the law to be abolished in an emergency ordinance. “I noticed a very large growth (in publications) in a very short space of time,” Pruna told the AP. “It was clear the procedure had not been applied in a strict manner.”

She favors new legislation that would put writing a book on a par with activities such as painting and theater, which would together be taken into consideration when ruling on early release. The books are generally highly specialized or full of photos and short on text and would pass unnoticed were it not for the high-profile authors — including former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, a football club owner and a TV mogul— or the fact they were apparently penned on a prison bed.

Nastase, who published prolifically before he served two prison sentences for corruption, wrote two books while in jail. He declined to be interviewed for this article. However, graphic artist Marina Popovici, one of those sentenced alongside Nastase in 2012 for money-laundering and complicity to abuse of the public interest, praised the law and said it gave well-educated prisoners something productive to do.

“As a person who was active, I wanted to do something so as not to waste my time,” she said, clutching her book, “Precious Colored Gemstones.” She said she was given supervised access to a computer and insisted she wrote the book herself. Freed in 2015, she claims she was wrongly convicted and is appealing at the European Court of Human Rights.

Journalist and former senator Sorin Rosca Stanescu served nine months of a 2½-year sentence he was handed for using privileged information and setting up an organized crime group. He wrote three books on the Romanian press and Romania’s political life and now teaches classes about corruption plaguing the Romanian press. He also insists he wrote his own books.

But it’s hardly surprising that in such difficult conditions — prisoners rely on family and friends to photocopy pages from reference books and don’t have desks in their cells — and with most convicts first-time authors, there are suspicions some prisoners simply hired others to write for them.

Steaua football club owner Gigi Becali recently admitted that he didn’t write the four books that came out under his name on subjects ranging from Mount Athos to “merciful love and redemption.” The former European Parliament lawmaker was sentenced to 3½ years prison in May 2013 for a land exchange deal, kidnapping and match fixing. He did not respond to messages requesting an interview.

Lawmaker Gabriela Anghel, who’s taking Stanescu’s class on media corruption, thinks the law is wrong. “It’s not right to reduce someone’s sentence based on a book they may not have written. They should write, but not get their sentence reduced because of it,” she said.

France’s Hollande views Indian Republic Day parade

January 26, 2016

NEW DELHI (AP) — French President Francois Hollande was wrapping up his three-day visit to India Tuesday by watching an elaborate display of Indian military hardware and marching bands taking part in India’s Republic Day celebrations.

He was joined by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other top officials for the anniversary of India’s democratic constitution taking force in 1950. On Monday, French and Indian officials signed over a dozen agreements including one on jointly combating terror but stopped short of a final deal on New Delhi’s desire to purchase 36 Rafale fighter jets. Both Modi and Hollande said that they hoped that a final agreement would be hammered out soon.

Modi had first announced India’s intention to buy the French combat jets manufactured by Dassault Aviation in Paris in April. Since then official on both sides have been discussing prices, offsets and servicing details.

After viewing the parade, Hollande was expected to attend a reception at the Rashtrapati Bhawan, India’s sprawling presidential palace. The French leader arrived Sunday in the northern city of Chandigarh, where Modi joined him and lauded France’s decision to invest $1 billion every year in India in various sectors.

Chandigarh was designed in the 1950s by Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier and is one of three places that France has pledged to help develop as so-called “smart cities” with clean water supplies, efficient sewage disposal and public transportation.

Hollande and French business leaders met with their Indian counterparts to boost bilateral trade, which in 2014 totaled $8.6 billion.

EU ministers consider isolating Greece and its migrants

January 25, 2016

AMSTERDAM (AP) — European Union nations took a step Monday toward isolating Greece amid acrimony over Athens’ failure to stem the flow of migrants at its Mediterranean island borders.

Despite choppy seas and wintry conditions, more than 2,000 people are arriving in Greece daily, according to EU figures. Athens is under pressure to register and keep those coming in. Several EU nations have said that they could isolate Greece by closing off their borders so that incoming refugees would have to remain there.

The member states “gave a clear signal” that if they can’t stop the migrants reaching Greece, they would consider helping Greece’s neighbor Macedonia to better seal its border to slow the movement of migrants into other European countries, said Dutch State Secretary Klaas Dijkhoff.

Greek Immigration Minister Ioannis Mouzalas conceded his country was struggling to cope with the flow, but blamed EU member states for failing to provide enough manpower and boats to patrol Aegean Sea islands just a few kilometers (miles) from Turkey’s coast and not honoring pledges to relocate migrants.

Mouzalas told reporters Athens wanted 1,800 officers from the EU border patrol force known as Frontex, but got only 800. Of the 28 coast guard ships requested by Greece, only six have arrived, he added.

Mouzalas called the idea of sending Frontex officers to the Greek-Macedonian border to halt migrants there “illegal” and insisted more Frontex officers should be sent to his country instead. Ministers arriving for the meeting at Amsterdam’s Maritime Museum were met by protesters in two boats, one full of showroom dummies wearing red life vests similar to those worn by migrants crossing from Turkey and another with a large sign saying: “Leaders of Europe, it’s not the polls you should worry about. It’s the history books.”

The meeting comes only days after European Council President Donald Tusk warned that Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as Schengen, could break apart if the migrant strategy isn’t sorted out within two months.

Meanwhile in Brussels, Denmark’s foreign and immigration ministers sought to ease tensions over government plans to seize some of the assets of asylum-seekers to pay for their food and lodging. Under the plan, people would be allowed to keep 1,300 euros ($1,400). Any assets or cash beyond that amount could be taken unless the items hold sentimental value, like wedding rings.

“Those people who can manage by themselves shouldn’t have assistance from the state,” Migration Minister Inger Stoejberg told EU lawmakers. The new plan, which has been criticized by rights and refugee groups as well as migrants themselves, is to be debated in the Danish parliament on Tuesday.

Denmark received 21,300 asylum-seekers, one of the highest rates per capita in the EU, last year, and has introduced tougher border controls until at least early next month. European Commissioner Frans Timmermans told Dutch broadcaster NOS on Monday that 60 percent of migrants entering Europe are “from countries that you can assume they have no right to asylum.” He said such “economic migrants” should be sent home more quickly, to ease pressure.

Lorne Cook contributed from Brussels

EU opens new counterterrorism center

January 25, 2016

AMSTERDAM (AP) — The European Union on Monday launched a new law enforcement center to coordinate the fight against violent extremism, saying Europe faces the most significant terrorist threat in over 10 years.

“There is every reason to expect that IS (the Islamic State organization), IS-inspired terrorists or another religiously inspired terrorist group will undertake a terrorist attack somewhere in Europe again, but particularly in France, intended to cause mass casualties among the civilian population,” Europol, the EU-wide agency for law enforcement cooperation, said in a report. “This is in addition to the threat of lone-actor attacks, which has not diminished.”

The report coincided with the official opening of the European Counter Terrorism Center. Europol director Rob Wainwright said his organization’s new unit in The Hague, Netherlands will be staffed by 40-50 experts in counterterrorism and deal in intelligence-sharing, tracking foreign fighters and sources of illegal financing and firearms, and assisting EU countries in counterterrorism investigations.

Wainwright said over 5,000 EU nationals have been radicalized by fighting with Muslim extremists in Iraq and Syria, and that many have returned home. “The current threat demands a strong and ambitious response from the EU,” said Europol’s chief.

Vietnam Communist Party on track for smooth power transition

January 26, 2016

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party was on track Tuesday for a smooth power transition after settling a power struggle between the party chief and the pro-business prime minister trying to unseat him.

Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung effectively withdrew from the contest to become the Communist Party general secretary, clearing the way for his rival to keep the post in what appears to be a compromise to present a united front to the nation, delegates at a party congress said Monday.

The drama began after Dung was excluded from an official list of candidates for positions in the Central Committee that will be elected Tuesday. In an apparently orchestrated move, his supporters then nominated him on Sunday in a last-minute challenge. But according to party rules Dung was required to turn down the nomination since he was not an official candidate.

Dung abided by the party rules and refused the nomination. The congress then formally voted to accept his refusal. Had he wished, Dung could have tried to pull together enough support on the congress floor to have his refusal rejected. In that scenario, he might have won a place in the Central Committee, and then would have been in contention for party general secretary.

The path is now clear for Nguyen Phu Trong to stay as general secretary, the de facto top position in Vietnam’s collective leadership. The delegates were presented with 220 candidates late Monday, of whom 180 were elected to the Central Committee, one of the two pillars of the ruling establishment. The names of the winning candidates were not immediately announced, but Trong is almost certainly one of them.

Later this week, the congress will elect the all-powerful Politburo, which handles the day-to-day governance of Vietnam. It is expected that the Politburo will be expanded from the current 16 members to 18.

Of the Politburo members, one will be chosen general secretary. Three others will be chosen, in respective order of seniority, the prime minister, the president and the chairman of the National Assembly.

Trong had been trying unsuccessfully for years to sideline Dung, and while contests for the top post are not unheard of, they are usually settled well ahead of the party congress, which takes place once every five years to choose new leaders.

But this year the rivalry between Dung and Trong extended into the party congress, which ends Thursday, although regardless of who is in power the fundamental makeup of the government and its policies will not change radically, according to analysts.

Dung has built a reputation for promoting economic reforms and for boldly confronting China’s territorial assertiveness in the South China Sea. But even though Trong, a stolid party apparatchik with closer leanings toward China, is now set to take the top job, it doesn’t mean the economic reforms will stall or Vietnam will capitulate to Chinese assertiveness in Vietnamese-claimed waters, according to observers.

“Ideologically, there isn’t a yawning gap between Trong and Dung, although most people believe that the pace of economic reform might slow a bit if Trong remains at the helm and Dung is ousted,” said Murray Hiebert, a Southeast Asian expert based in Washington, DC.

Dung, who rose through the ranks of the party and held senior positions, is a two-term prime minister. His economic reforms have helped Vietnam attract a flood of foreign investment and helped triple the per capita GDP to $2,100 over the past 10 years.

Trong’s camp accuses Dung of economic mismanagement, including the spectacular collapse of state-owned shipping company Vinashin; failing to control massive public debt; allowing corruption; and not dealing adequately with the non-preforming loans of state-owned banks.

Vietnam is one of the last remaining communist nations in the world, with a party membership of 4.5 million out of its 93 million people. But like its ideological ally China, the government believes in a quasi-free market economy alongside strictly controlled politics and society.

Vietnam PM withdraws from contest for Communist Party chief

January 25, 2016

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Vietnam’s pro-business prime minister has effectively withdrawn from a contest to become the Communist Party chief, clearing the way for his rival to keep the post in what appears to be a compromise to present a united front to the nation, delegates at a party congress said Monday.

Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung had mounted a last-minute challenge during the congress after being excluded from an official list of candidates for positions in a key party panel. Had he continued his challenge, he could have become part of the Central Committee, and subsequently could have been in contention for party general secretary.

The path is now clear for Nguyen Phu Trong to stay as general secretary, the de facto top position in Vietnam’s collective leadership. Several delegates at the congress said Dung decided on Sunday to abide by party rules that obliged him to refuse the nomination for a Central Committee slot proposed by his supporters. The congress then voted on Monday to accept his refusal, completing a formality. The Central Committee, one of two pillars of the ruling establishment, will be chosen Tuesday.

Trong has been trying unsuccessfully for years to sideline Dung, and while contests for the top post are not unheard of, they are usually settled well before the party congress, which takes place once every five years to choose new leaders.

This year, the rivalry between Dung and Trong has gone down to the wire in the party congress, which began last Thursday and ends this Thursday. But regardless of who is in power the fundamental makeup of the government and its policies will not change radically, according to analysts.

Dung has built a reputation for promoting economic reforms, and being bold enough to confront China’s territorial assertiveness in the South China Sea. But even though Trong, a stolid party apparatchik with closer leanings toward China, is now set to take the top job, it doesn’t mean the economic reforms will stall or Vietnam will capitulate to Chinese assertiveness in Vietnamese-claimed waters, according to observers.

“Ideologically, there isn’t a yawning gap between Trong and Dung, although most people believe that the pace of economic reform might slow a bit if Trong remains at the helm and Dung is ousted,” said Murray Hiebert, a Southeast Asian expert based in Washington, DC.

Dung, who rose through the ranks of the party and held senior positions, is a two-term prime minister. His economic reforms have helped Vietnam attract a flood of foreign investment and helped triple the per capita GDP to $2,100 over the past 10 years.

Trong’s camp accuses Dung of economic mismanagement, including the spectacular collapse of state-owned shipping company Vinashin; failing to control massive public debt; allowing corruption; and not dealing adequately with the non-preforming loans of state-owned banks.

On Tuesday, the delegates will be presented with 222 candidates in an election for the 180-member Central Committee. After that, they will elect at least 16 members of the all-powerful Politburo, which handles the day-to-day governance of Vietnam. It is possible that the Politburo will be expanded to 18 members this year.

Of the Politburo members, one will be chosen general secretary. Three others will be chosen, in respective order of seniority, the prime minister, the president and the chairman of the National Assembly.

Vietnam is one of the last remaining communist nations in the world, with a party membership of 4.5 million out of its 93 million people. But like its ideological ally China, the government believes in a quasi-free market economy alongside strictly controlled politics and society.

Putin denounces Soviet founder Lenin

January 25, 2016

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday criticized Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin, accusing him of placing a “time bomb” under the state, and sharply denouncing brutal repressions by the Bolshevik government.

The harsh criticism of Lenin, who is still revered by communists and many others in Russia, is unusual for Putin, who in the past carefully weighed his comments about the nation’s history to avoid alienating some voters.

At the same time, he signaled that the government has no intention of taking Lenin’s body out of his Red Square tomb, warning against “any steps that would divide the society.” Putin’s assessment of Lenin’s role in Russian history during Monday’s meeting with pro-Kremlin activists in the southern city of Stavropol was markedly more negative than in the past.

Putin denounced Lenin and his government for brutally executing Russia’s last czar along with all his family and servants, killing thousands of priests and placing a “time bomb” under the Russian state by drawing administrative borders along ethnic lines.

As an example of Lenin’s destructive legacy, Putin pointed at Donbass, the industrial region in eastern Ukraine where a pro-Russia separatist rebellion flared up weeks after Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. More than 9,000 people have been killed in the conflict since April 2014, and clashes have continued despite a February 2015 peace deal.

He said that Lenin and his government whimsically drew borders between parts of the U.S.S.R., placing Donbass under the Ukrainian jurisdiction in order to “increase the percentage of proletariat” in a move Putin called “delirious.”

Putin’s criticism of Lenin could be part of his attempts to justify Moscow’s policy in the Ukrainian crisis, but it also may reflect the Kremlin’s concern about possible separatist sentiments in some Russian provinces.

Putin was particularly critical of Lenin’s concept of a federative state with its entities having the right to secede, saying it heavily contributed to the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. “It was a time bomb under our state,” he said, adding that Lenin’s was wrong in a dispute with Josef Stalin who advocated a unitary state model.

In the past, Putin has denounced Stalin for massive purges that killed millions, but noted his role in defeating the Nazis in WW II. In Monday’s comments, Putin also blasted the Bolsheviks for making Russia lose World War I in their quest for power, making Russia suffer defeat by Germany and cede large chunks of territory just months before it lost World War I. “We lost to the losing party, a unique case in history,” Putin said.

Putin said he sincerely believed in Communist ideology when he served in the KGB, adding that while promises of a fair and just society in the Communist ideology “resembled the Bible quite a lot” but the reality was different. “Our country didn’t look like the City of the Sun,” envisaged by socialist utopians, he said.

Laos assures US it will help counter Chinese assertiveness

January 25, 2016

VIENTIANE, Laos (AP) — The prime minister of communist Laos assured U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday that his small nation will help counter China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea.

Laos this year takes the rotating chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, with the group’s heads of state scheduled to hold a special meeting next month in Sunnylands, California, at the invitation of President Barack Obama as part of his foreign policy to reach out to the region as a counterweight to China.

Kerry’s visit to the landlocked nation of fewer than 7 million people was meant to pave the way for the summit, with a goal of making sure Laos holds the group together. Kerry arrived in the Laotian capital Sunday.

Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong “was very clear that he wants a unified ASEAN and he wants maritime rights protected and he wants to avoid militarization and avoid the conflict,” Kerry told reporters. “And that will develop as we go into Sunnylands, and there will be a greater, I’m sure, articulation of that unity going forward.”

ASEAN nations such as Vietnam and the Philippines have become increasingly concerned about China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, including its construction of man-made islands and airstrips in contested areas.

But other ASEAN nations are more pro-China, including Cambodia, which blocked ASEAN from reaching consensus on the South China Sea during its 2012 chairmanship of the group. Cambodia is Kerry’s next stop on an around-the-world diplomatic marathon this week that will also take him to China.

Murray Hiebert, a Southeast Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said “these statements by Lao leaders aren’t totally surprising.” He noted that a Communist Party congress in Laos last week removed a party chief generally considered as pro-Chinese and replaced him with one who appears to be more evenhanded in his views about China and Vietnam, Laos’ other big neighbor and fellow member of ASEAN.

Later this year, Obama will become the first U.S. president to visit Laos for the ASEAN summit. Laos is one of the last few communist nations in the world. The country has moved away from a hard-line communist system in the past two decades, but like its close ally Vietnam, it retains a one-party political system and its government has been criticized for being intolerant of dissent.

Kerry said relations with Laos are improving after a period of war and mutual suspicion. In addition to meetings with Thammavong and Thongloun Sisoulith, the deputy prime minister and foreign minister, Kerry toured That Luang, the golden-spired Buddhist structure that is Laos’ most sacred monument. Kerry also was scheduled to meet with members of Obama’s Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative.

Kerry and Laos’ leaders discussed increased U.S. funding for a variety of projects here. That includes the removal of unexploded bombs dropped by American warplanes during the Vietnam War era, which still cause frequent casualties. Kerry, a Vietnam War veteran, also brought up a new $6 million child nutrition program, and a U.S.-funded “smart infrastructure” for the Mekong River.

“We still have concerns about human rights and freedom of expression and other issues, and I raised those,” Kerry said. “But it is also – you know, we are partnering on a wide range of issues.” Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said he hopes for more human rights pressure on Laos as the country prepares to host world leaders all year.

“The international community should demand Laos’ leaders end their restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly, stop their crushing censorship of the media, and permit freedom of association for workers to form independent trade unions,” Robertson said.

Yemen peace talks underway as fighters ignore cease-fire

December 15, 2015

GENEVA (AP) — U.N.-brokered peace talks between Yemen’s internationally recognized government and Shiite rebels opened Tuesday in Switzerland with expectations for a deal low as fighters on both sides failed to honor a weeklong cease-fire in some parts of the country.

The truce, scheduled to start at noon on Tuesday, was meant to give the warring factions a chance to find a solution to the conflict that has engulfed the Arab world’s poorest country. Security officials said rebel shelling and ground clashes continued in southwestern Taiz province and a Saudi-led coalition struck back with airstrikes several times throughout the day.

Yemen has been torn by fighting pitting the rebels, known as Houthis, and army units loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh against forces of the internationally recognized government, which is backed by the Saudi-led coalition and supported by the United States, as well as southern separatists, religious extremists and other militants.

According to U.N. figures, the war in Yemen has killed at least 5,884 people since March, when the fighting escalated after the Saudi-led coalition began launching airstrikes targeting the rebels. In a statement, the U.N. special envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, emphasized the urgency of the talks in Switzerland — the latest in a series of negotiations and cease-fires that have so far failed to end the fighting.

“The people of Yemen are daily, indeed hourly, anticipating the outcome of these discussions. This meeting is their only glimmer of hope and must not be extinguished,” the envoy said. “The tongues of fire, the scenes of destruction, the reverberation of bombs and the soaring prices have turned their daily lives into a series of ongoing tragedies.”

Previous efforts to end the violence have ended in failure, as the government insisted the Houthis comply with a U.N. resolution that requires them to hand over weapons and withdraw from territory they captured over the past year, including the capital, Sanaa. The Houthis have demanded the country’s political future be decided through negotiations.

In the past, the rebels have said they are willing to honor the U.N. resolution but did not specify to whom they would hand over weapons and territory. Yemen’s civil war has divided the armed forces, which have units loyal to ousted president Saleh, a Houthi ally, and others who answer to the internationally recognized government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

Negotiations were taking place at the Swiss Olympic House in the village of Macolin, a training center for elite athletes. On Tuesday, police armed with automatic weapons were on patrol outside the facility, which was cordoned off with metal barriers requiring journalists to keep about 50 yards (meters) away.

The talks, which could go on for days, were shrouded in secrecy. Ahmed Fawzi, a U.N. spokesman in Geneva, said the participants signed a “non-disclosure” agreement pledging not to speak to the media until the negotiations were over. However, he said in a text message to the AP late Tuesday that the cease-fire violations had not impacted the talks.

Just hours before Tuesday’s scheduled start of the cease-fire, the Saudi-led coalition and pro-government forces seized the Red Sea island of Zuqar from the rebels. Yemeni security officials, who have remained neutral in the conflict, said both sides had intensified the fighting to solidify their positions ahead of the truce. There was no immediate word on casualties and the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.

The two sides had initially agreed to halt fire at midnight Monday but the coalition delayed the truce to midday Tuesday, without elaborating. During the cease-fire, both sides have agreed to allow the “unconditional movement of aid supplies, personnel and teams to all parts of the country,” the World Health Organization’s mission chief for Yemen, Dr. Ahmed Shadoul, told reporters in Geneva.

International aid groups have been sounding the alarm about roads blockaded by armed groups and rebels preventing the delivery of essential aid to the civilian population for months. Even if the talks succeed in brokering a peace deal, there are grave security challenges facing any unity government that might emerge in the country’s east and south, where the local affiliates of al-Qaida and the Islamic State group have exploited the chaos to grab land and exercise influence.

The Islamic State group has claimed attacks that killed at least 174 people in the war-torn country this year, according to an AP count, including a bombing last week in the port city of Aden that killed its governor. Aden has also witnessed a recent uptick in assassinations of government officials and senior military officers bearing the hallmarks of al-Qaida.

The internationally recognized government seized the strategic port city from the rebels earlier this year and made it a base for its operation. Once exiled in neighboring Saudi Arabia along with his Cabinet, Hadi returned to Aden in recent weeks.

Yemen’s al-Qaida branch has long been seen by Washington as the most potent affiliate of the extremist network and has been linked to a number of attempted attacks on the U.S. Al-Qaida fighters have captured much of Yemen’s sprawling Hadramawt province and its capital, Mukalla, as well as the capital of southern Abyan province, Zinjibar and the town of Jaar. In the areas they control, al-Qaida has publicly killed and flogged residents accused of “witchcraft,” drinking alcohol and swearing, among other things, residents there told the AP.

Al-Haj reported from Sanaa, Yemen. Associated Press writers Nour Youssef in Cairo and Boris Heger in Macolin, Switzerland, contributed to this report.

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