BBC 2024-02-04 00:02:04


US and UK launch strikes on Iran-backed Houthi targets in Yemen

David Schenker, former US assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, has just been speaking to the BBC following the latest wave of strikes against Houthi targets in Yemen.

The action, carried out by the US and the UK alongside their allies, has been described by Washington and London as a way to “degrade” the group’s capabilities to attack shipping vessels in the Red Sea.

Addressing the current landscape in the region, Schenker says shipping traffic in the Suez Canal is “down 50%”.

“Something has to be done about the Houthis,” he warns, adding that “this is just a start, quite frankly”.

Quote Message: Iran is backing them to the hilt and they will not back down or be deterred. So I think it is incumbent on the administration to continue to work to degrade their capability to disrupt this global shipping and to fire missiles, drones, rockets at Israel.”

But Schenker adds the US “can’t just go after the proxies and not after the patron”, referring to Iran.

So far, the US has targeted militias and groups affiliated to Iran in Syria, Iraq and Yemen – but not in Iran’s territory.

What are routes out of this ‘dangerous moment’ in Middle East?

As expected, Friday night’s US strikes were carefully calibrated, going further than the US has gone in Iraq and Syria in recent months – but stopping short of directly attacking Iran, the power Washington says is behind much of the Middle East’s recent instability.

Is a wider conflagration in the region now more likely – or are there other ways out of what the US has described as this “dangerous moment”?

And is a ceasefire in Gaza one of those ways?

First of all, let’s look at what the Americans have actually done.

The attacks were widespread – 85 targets at seven sites across Iraq and Syria – and designed to degrade the capabilities of pro-Iranian militias and their Iranian backers, the Quds Force (the expeditionary wing of Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the IRGC).

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Washington will do its own battle-damage assessment, but this is likely to be more about physical disruption than the number of fighters killed.

By telegraphing its intentions over several days, Washington gave the Quds Force and its local allies time to get out of harm’s way.

Washington has made it clear it is not interested in a direct confrontation with Iran. Friday’s action was all about preventing a repeat of the attack which killed three US service personnel in Jordan on 28 January.

Nor were its actions confined to the purely military.

It also imposed sanctions on companies allegedly involved in Iran’s ballistic missile and drone programmes, as well as six officials from the IRGC’s Cyber-Electronic Command.

“I think America has gone to great lengths to calibrate and attempt to reset deterrence in the region,” the former commander of UK Joint Forces Command, Gen Sir Richard Barrons, told the BBC.

Whether this works remains to be seen.

Three days ago, the leader of Kataib Hezbollah, one of the leading Iranian-backed Iraqi militias, said it had suspended operations against US forces, a possible sign that Iran was already looking to avoid a further escalation.

But now that the US has struck back, could Tehran’s calculation change?

“The United States hasn’t struck Iran, so there isn’t anything for Iran to do,” Prof Mohammad Marandi of Tehran University told the BBC on Saturday morning.

While it’s true that the Biden administration resisted the urge to target Iran directly, Tehran’s calculations are not likely to be so black and white.

It has also said that it is not interested in a war with America, but through its allies and proxies across the Middle East, from Hezbollah in Lebanon to the Houthis in Yemen, it has a range of options to choose from.

Both sides are weighing up their next steps, with Joe Biden saying on Friday that the US response had only just begun.

“It will continue at times and places of our choosing,” he said.

But even as the two sides eye each other suspiciously, and calculate the benefits and costs of further escalation, diplomatic efforts are once again under way to try and address the conflict, whose tsunami-like waves have been crashing across the Middle East for the past four months – the war in Gaza.

Biden’s tireless Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, is about to embark on his fifth tour of the region since early October.

Over the course of five days, he’ll visit Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, Israel and the West Bank.

Every trip so far has been about trying to put out the brush fires threatening to engulf the Middle East. Each time the Secretary of State returns to the region, there seems to be a new one.

Mr Blinken’s fire-fighting capabilities are being sorely tested.

A brief summary of his agenda released by the State Department, points to the complex web of inter-connected issues he’s grappling with.

Hostages and humanitarian assistance in Gaza, freedom of navigation in the Red Sea, US personnel in the region and “lasting security for Israelis and Palestinians alike”.

It’s a daunting list, but one which suggests that this is also a moment of opportunity.

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Last week, as trouble loomed at Tower 22 – the US base in Jordan where the three US soldiers were killed – reports from Paris suggested that a meeting of senior US, Egyptian, Israeli and Qatari officials had made progress towards arranging a ceasefire in Gaza and the release of Israeli and other hostages.

The office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said there were still “significant gaps.”

Neyanhau himself seemed to pour cold water on the idea of a deal that could involve the release of thousands of Palestinians held in Israeli jails and the redeployment of Israeli forces outside the Gaza Strip.

Most observers agree that such a deal – vehemently opposed by some of the prime minister’s hard-line cabinet ministers – could bring down the Netanyahu government.

Hamas officials are also thought to be divided. The Wall St Journal reports that the group’s leaders inside Gaza are willing to accept an initial six-week pause in the fighting, but that leaders outside are pushing for a permanent ceasefire.

As things stand, there is no deal, but negotiations haven’t broken down either. Blinken may be hoping for signs of progress as he shuttles across the region.

For a ceasefire in Gaza would almost certainly starve the region’s brush fires of the gale force wind that’s currently fuelling them.

In Yemen, the Houthis have said that they will cease their attacks on maritime traffic if the war in Gaza comes to an end.

In Lebanon, the Shiite militia Hezbollah would have little reason to keep up cross-border attacks into Israel in the event of a ceasefire in Gaza.

There are hundreds of thousands of civilians, on both sides of the border, who would dearly like to return to homes in areas affected by the tit-for-tat exchanges of gunfire since October.

And while attacks on US forces in Iraq and Syria long predate the conflict in Gaza, the Gaza war has hugely inflamed tensions in both countries.

On the face of it, a ceasefire in Gaza would appear to be in everyone’s interest.

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Who wouldn’t want to see Israeli hostages released, relief for the devastated Palestinian population in Gaza, a lengthy (and perhaps permanent) end to fighting there, as well as a significant reduction in regional tensions?

If only it were that simple.

Hamas and Israel both want to emerge from the Gaza war with something they can call a victory.

Benjamin Netanyahu wants to stay in office.

Iran and America have competing regional agendas.

Hezbollah, the Houthis and the various pro-Iranian militias in Iraq and Syria all have their own local concerns.

Blinken’s shopping list may include the ambitious goal of achieving “lasting security for Israel and the Palestinians”, but right now that feels like a remote prospect, tantalisingly visible through the smoke but impossibly distant.

It all has to start with a ceasefire in Gaza. The US has done what it said it would do and warned that there may be more to come.

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Chile wildfires leave 46 dead and scores missing

Chile wildfires: 46 people killed as homes destroyed

At least 46 people have been killed by forest fires in Chile, the country’s president has said.

The mayor of Viña del Mar, a coastal tourist city, also said that more than two hundred residents have been reported missing.

Throughout the country more than 43,000 hectares have been affected by the fires, according to the interior ministry.

The fires have been driven higher-than-usual temperatures and strong winds.

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    Latin America & Caribbean
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Scotland survive stunning Wales comeback

Guinness Six Nations: Wales v Scotland
Wales (0) 26
Tries: Botham, Dyer, Wainwright, Mann Cons: Lloyd 3
Scotland (20) 27
Tries: Schoeman, Van der Merwe 2 Cons: Russell 3 Pens: Russell 2

Scotland withheld a stunning Wales comeback to hang on for a nail-biting first victory in Cardiff in 22 years.

Gregor Townsend’s side raced into a 27-0 lead in 43 minutes with two Duhan van der Merwe tries, a Pierre Schoeman score and 12 Finn Russell points.

Wales responded with tries from James Botham, Rio Dyer, Aaron Wainwright and Alex Mann in a stunning second-half performance.

But Scotland held out the final 12 minutes to wrap up the one-point win.

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It was a Six Nations spectacular that was transformed after Wales made a number of changes at half-time.

Head coach Warren Gatland turned to youth with their barnstorming performance in the second half, as the hosts were unrecognisable to the timid first-half display when Scotland were in total control.

Player-of-the-match Aaron Wainwright was outstanding, while replacement scrum-half Tomos Williams inspired his side and flanker Tommy Reffell was outstanding throughout.

Scotland’s discipline disintegrated as they conceded 14 successive penalties and yellow cards for George Turner and Sione Tuipulotu.

Wales fell just short of completing the biggest comeback in Six Nations history, having to be content with two losing bonus points, but the changing of the guard was in evidence.

The reality is Scotland have halted the 11-game losing sequence in Cardiff since the 2002 triumph, which head coach Gregor Townsend played in at a time when new Wales captain Dafydd Jenkins was not born.

In that time, Scotland have won at Twickenham, in Dublin, Paris, Rome and Sydney and this win in the Welsh capital has consigned the previous losing streak to history.

Scotland have won their opening Six Nations match for a fourth successive year, while in contrast, this was an eighth defeat in the last nine games in the tournament for Wales.

It also represents a fifth successive loss at home in the competition, which is Wales’ worst run since the tournament expanded in 2000.

These statistics do not mirror the positivity of the second-half display but they will rue the first-half performance.

Wales in transition

An inexperienced Welsh side was selected, with a major turnover from the squad that reached the World Cup quarter-finals in the autumn.

This time last year, eight of the Wales Six Nations starters were aged over 30, in a team boasting more than 950 caps and led by the country’s oldest ever captain, Ken Owens.

In 2024, there were just over 400 caps with 21-year-old Jenkins Wales’ second youngest skipper after Sir Gareth Edwards.

Dan Biggar and Leigh Halfpenny have followed Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric into international retirement while Taulupe Faletau, Jac Morgan, Owens, Dewi Lake, Liam Williams, Gareth Anscombe, Tomas Francis and Louis Rees-Zammit are unavailable for different reasons.

This turnover meant Cardiff full-back Cameron Winnett, 21, won his first cap, while fly-half Sam Costelow made his Six Nations debut.

Scotland have been more settled post-World Cup, where they bowed out at the pool stages.

With Stuart Hogg having retired and Blair Kinghorn absent with a knee injury, Glasgow’s Kyle Rowe slotted in at full-back in his Six Nations debut.

Russell inspires Scotland

The usual pre-match Principality Stadium roof row emerged with Scotland originally saying they wanted it open before opting to have it closed.

Townsend’s side started strongly with a Russell penalty before a try for prop Schoeman.

Russell slotted over another penalty after a needless transgression conceded by Adams, with the visitors indebted to their captain’s excellent kicking game.

In a first-half masterclass, the fly-half glided through the defence to hand Van der Merwe his first try against Wales.

Costelow was forced off the field with a head injury and replaced by Ioan Lloyd, who was making his first international appearance for three years.

Wales’ display was beset by line-out woes, a poor kicking game and handling errors, and could only rely on turnover penalties from Leicester flanker Reffell as Scotland scored 20 unanswered points in the first 40 minutes.

Wales fightback begins

Wales made a raft of changes with scrum-half Williams, hooker Elliot Dee and prop Kieron Assiratti coming on.

It initially mattered little after a poor Wales kick-chase allowed Russell to set up the rampaging Van der Merwe to sprint away and score a fine individual effort, which the Scotland captain converted.

Dee’s introduction improved the line-out and Botham burrowed before making way for Mann.

Scotland hooker Turner was shown a yellow card for deliberately pulling down a maul and Wales had hope as they made more alterations.

The momentum continued with a well-worked try as the hosts capitalised on the extra man as Dyer dived over in the corner.

Scotland were in disarray and just after Turner returned, centre Tuipulotu was sent to the sin-bin after twice being caught offside.

Wales again capitalised when number eight Wainwright crashed over under the posts with Lloyd converting.

Dyer made a searing break to set up the attacking line-out which saw Mann score on debut, with Lloyd again converting.

The deficit was reduced to a point and set up a rousing finale before Wales ran out of steam. Scotland clung on for victory and it was Russell who lifted the Doddie Weir Cup on a nerve-wracking evening for all involved.

Line-ups

Wales: Winnett; Dyer, Watkin, Tompkins, Adams; Costelow, G Davies; Domachowski, Elias, Brown, D Jenkins (capt), Beard, Botham, Reffell, Wainwright.

Replacements: Dee, Mathias, Assiratti, Teddy Williams, Mann, Tomos Williams, I Lloyd, Grady

Scotland: Rowe; Steyn, H Jones, Tuipulotu, Van der Merwe; Russell (capt), White; Schoeman, Turner, Z Fagerson, R Gray, Cummings, Crosbie, Ritchie, M Fagerson.

Replacements: Ashman, Hepburn, Millar-Mills, Skinner, Dempsey, G Horne, Healy, Redpath.

Referee: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand)

Touch judges: James Doleman (New Zealand) & Angus Mabey (New Zealand)

TMO: Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand).

Sin-bin: Turner, Tuipulotu

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Michelle O’Neill makes history as NI first minister

Finn Purdy

BBC News NI

After an eventful day at Stormont that saw the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly and executive, we are now bringing our live page coverage to a close.

Michelle O’Neill is now Northern Ireland’s first minister and Emma Little-Pengelly the deputy first minister.

You can read a full round up of today’s events here.

You can also find analysis and explainers on what happened today, as well as all the rest of the day’s news on the BBC News NI website.

This live page was edited by Peter Coulter and Judith Cummings, the writers were Mike McBride, Ross McKee, Ross McCrea, Lesley-Anne McKeown, Emma Canavan, and Finn Purdy.

Thanks for reading.