x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Lost to the flames

Wildfires raged out of control in Greece, destroying homes in the suburbs of Athens, a mother and her two children died in a house blaze in Al Ain, and Israel edged towards a freeze on building in the Occupied Territories, raising hopes of a deal soon.

A man battles the blaze in a forest north of Athens. Wildfires around the Greek capital have forced thousands of people to flee the suburbs.
A man battles the blaze in a forest north of Athens. Wildfires around the Greek capital have forced thousands of people to flee the suburbs.

Thousands of people were forced to flee their homes, camping grounds and hospitals as wildfires blazed for three days in the suburbs of the Greek capital, Athens. The fires, described as the worst since 2007, when 70 people were killed, also destroyed about 200 square kilometres of homes and forests. Hundreds of firefighters, some of them brought in from neighbouring countries and backed by helicopters, fought the blazes but were hampered by the dry, shifting winds. No one was injured, but opposition parties have called for the resignation of several ministers who they said had failed to protect the environment.

A Muslim woman won a last-minute reprieve from Malaysia's religious authorities who had sentenced her to six lashes with a rattan cane for drinking beer. Kartika Shukarno had consented to the punishment but said she wanted it carried out in public to serve as a lesson to all Muslims. However, authorities appeared to have a last-minute change of heart. On the day the sentence was to be carried out, Ms Shukarno was taken from her father's home, but returned a short while later. Authorities at first said the sentence would be carried out after Ramadan but then said they would review it completely. Malaysia's secular government applauded the decision, saying they believed the sentence was too harsh and that it could ruin the country's international reputation.

The UAE carried out its first extradition to the UK in a move that could have ramifications for foreigners seeking refuge in the Emirates from crimes committed abroad. The extradition treaty was signed last year, but Jeleel Ahmed, 27, a British national, is the first to be sent back under the new law. Ahmed was accused of stabbing a man in Birmingham three years ago. He had been questioned in Britain over the murder but released when there was insufficient evidence against him. British police contacted their UAE counterparts and requested the extradition last year.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, reportedly proposed freezing settlement construction in the Occupied Territories for nine months as a first step towards the resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians, but has remained firm on building in East Jerusalem. The proposal was apparently laid out to George Mitchell, the US Middle East envoy, at a meeting in London where Mr Netanyahu also met with his British counterpart, Gordon Brown. The US president, Barack Obama, was said to have been pushing hard for a resumption of talks which had unravelled after Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007 and Israel's subsequent war on the enclave in January of this year. Mr Obama was believed to have offered a deal in which the US would take a harder line against Iran in return for Israel freezing settlements. More talks between the two are expected next week, and a deal could be announced as early as next month.

A mother and her two children, one of whom was just 18 months old, suffocated to death when their house in Al Ain caught fire. Firemen were able to extinguish the flames within 10 minutes, but the dense smoke kept them from reaching the family for another two hours. The mother, Khawla Fadel, 26, is believed to have taken her two children, Suhail, 18 months, and Rawda, four, into the upstairs bathroom to try to protect them from the fire, which police believe was started by the sparks from an unattended incense brazier. Another three women and two children, most of them relatives, were treated at hospital. The grandfather of the children suffered a heart attack when he reached the burning house.

Residents and officials in New Jersey are protesting a possible visit to their state by the Libyan leader, Muammar Qadafi, next month. Mr Qadafi, who is to address the UN General Assembly, wants to pitch a Bedouin-style tent on the grounds of a sprawling estate owned by the Libyan Embassy. But residents are not happy. They have accused Mr Qadafi of supporting terrorism by giving a hero's welcome to the Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset Ali al Megrahi, who was sent back to Libya last week after serving just eight years of a life sentence for blowing up a Pan Am flight in 1988. Nearly 40 of the 270 people killed when the plane exploded over the Scottish town of Lockerbie were from New Jersey. Mr Qadafi initially wanted to pitch his tent in New York's Central Park.

Dubai was named in yet another survey as one of the world's most expensive cities, beating London, Paris and New York as the most costly when it comes to services, especially eating out and hotel stays. The survey by the investment bank UBS compared the cost of a basket of 27 services, from restaurants to haircuts. The cost of the basket in Dubai was US$823 (Dh3,022), well above the average for the 71 cities of $503 and higher than London ($630), New York ($770) and Paris ($770). The survey also looked at the cost of everyday expenses, including rent, with Dubai ranking 19th, up three places from last year. A key contributor to Dubai's jump in the rankings was the rate of inflation, which had been growing at a hefty 10.6 per cent per year, compared to London, where it was just 2.6 per cent, the survey said.

Edward Kennedy, the surviving son of what has arguably been America's most influential political family, died after a battle with brain cancer. He was 77. Kennedy, who earned the nickname "liberal lion" for his championing of civil and social rights in the Senate, where he held a seat for nearly 50 years, was diagnosed with a malignant tumour in 2008. His death drew tributes from both sides of the US political spectrum and from around the world.

Yemen's president vowed to defeat a Shiite rebellion within weeks. The government launched a military campaign two weeks ago to crush the rebels in northern Sada'a province, pouring all its resources into Operation Scorched Earth two weeks ago. Since then, hundreds of people have been killed and tens of thousands displaced by the fighting. The rebels reject the current government and want to restore the Zaidi imamate overthrown in a 1962 coup. Thousands of people have been killed since the conflict first erupted in 2004.

The Middle East also mourned the loss of a political heavyweight. Abdul Aziz al Hakim, a leading Iraqi Shiite cleric who opposed Saddam Hussein's rule and rose to prominence after the dictator's ouster in 2003, died after a battle with lung cancer. Al Hakim had opposed the eight-year Iraq-Iran war and had lived in exile in Tehran for 20 years. After Saddam's fall, he was credited with building better relations with the United States and Iraq's neighbouring countries. He was head of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, one of Iraq's most powerful Shiite parties, and his passing is likely to throw the country's political scene into some turmoil.

Sulaiman al Fahim, the Dubai property magnate, completed his purchase of Portsmouth Football Club, known to its fans as Pompey. The protracted deal is believed to have been concluded earlier this week for an undisclosed sum. His spokesman, Ivo Ilic Gabara, said the contracts had been signed but refused to give details of when the transaction was completed or the purchase price. British media speculated the deal was worth about £40 million (Dh240m).

* The National