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French-Lebanese billionaire in $2 billion debt scandal in Mozambique

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French-Lebanese billionaire sued in $2 billion debt scandal in Mozambique
The Lebanese Iskandar Safa, French businessman and CEO of the Privinvest Group. Photo credit: AFP

Mozambique has started legal action against a French-Lebanese billionaire, Iskandar Safa, whose shipbuilding company is at the heart of a $2 billion debt scandal, officials said Friday.

A source at the attorney general’s office, in an emailed reply to AFP, confirmed “a case is ongoing” without giving details.

In London, an official at the High Court commercial division told AFP the Mozambican government had filed proceedings there against Safa.

The papers were submitted on July 31 and no date has been set yet for the hearing, the source said.

Safa is CEO of a giant Abu-Dhabi based shipbuilding company, Privinvest, which signed contracts with Mozambique state companies to supply ships and national maritime security. 

The government’s legal moves came after testimony in a New York court last month by a former Credit Suisse banker, Andrew Pearse.

Safa, he said, had wired him “millions of dollars in unlawful kickbacks from loan proceeds and illegal payments” for help in securing loans from the bank.

Safa has denied any wrongdoing and according to his lawyer Jacqueline Laffont, he “strongly” disputes Pearse’s “baseless statements, obtained after several months of pressure from the US Department of Justice”.

The scandal is rooted in loans of $2 billion (1.8 billion euros), undertaken by the government between 2013 and 2015, to buy a tuna-fishing fleet and surveillance ships.

The government admitted it borrowed the money secretly, forcing international donors to suspend aid.

An independent audit found that a quarter of the loans had been unaccounted for, and another $750 million, used to buy equipment, had been over-invoiced.

‘Denies any wrongdoing’

The United States alleges at least $200 million was spent on bribes and kickbacks.

Several people have been arrested both in Mozambique and abroad.

They include Mozambique’s ex-finance minister, Manuel Chang, who is said to have received $12 million for allegedly signing off on debt guarantees.

Chang was arrested in South Africa last year on a US extradition request.

In an ongoing tussle over where he could stand trial, the Mozambican government this week said it would fight attempts to extradite him to the US after the South African government halted plans to send the minister to his home country.

When the hidden debt was revealed, Mozambique in the middle of a serious financial crisis.

The US Department of Justice has accused three former Credit Suisse workers of helping to create $2 billion in maritime projects as a front for the scam.

They were arrested in London in early January. In May one of them pleaded guilty to conspiracy to launder funds over the case.

In emailed response for comment, Privinvest spokesman on the Mozambique case, Jeffrey Birnbaum, said the businessman did nothing wrong.

“Mr. Safa cannot comment on why the Mozambique government has sought to institute proceedings against him personally” until he has seen details of the claim. 

“He does not accept that the English Court has jurisdiction over him, and in any event, denies any wrongdoing,” Birnbaum said. 

Birnbaum said Privinvest delivered on its contractual commitments and took “extraordinary steps to help make the Mozambique projects succeed”, but the Mozambican entities “failed to hold up their end of the agreements”.

Privinvest had earlier this year instituted proceedings against the Mozambique government, which included “arbitration to recover losses and damages arising from breach of contract,” the spokesman said. 

Safa’s lawyer Laffont told AFP in France that the jurisdiction of the London court is contested, adding neither him nor his company is facing criminal prosecution either in the US or in Mozambique.  

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Egypt’s renovation of Baron Palace sparks online outcry

Mnay have faulted repair works as being misrepresentative of the building’s history and materials to be of poor quality

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Egypt's renovation of Baron Palace sparks online outcry
Ongoing restoration works at the historic "Le Palais Hindou" (also known as the "Baron Empain Palace") built by in the early 20th century by Belgian industrialist Edouard Louis Joseph, Baron Empain, in the classical Khmer architectural style of Cambodia's Angkor Wat, in the Egyptian capital Cairo's northeastern Heliopolis district. (Photo by Khaled DESOUKI / AFP)

Egyptian authorities have defended renovation works at a historic Cairo palace after the site’s new look sparked mockery on social media.

The site, dubbed the Baron Palace, was built between 1907 and 1911 by wealthy Belgian industrialist Edouard Empain. 

The baron also spearheaded the development of the surrounding upmarket neighbourhood of Heliopolis.

Built in a style reminiscent of the Cambodian Hindu temple of Angkor Wat, the striking building set amid lush gardens has long since fallen into disrepair.

READ: Biblio-art: How Polish artist adorns Egyptian monastery with Christian designs

But work to restore the building has sparked outcry.

Many have taken issue with white marble additions to the building’s rosy pink stone exterior, saying the materials are of poor quality and not in keeping with the original style.

One Twitter user asked:

“Who is the fool behind the restoration of Egypt’s palaces? Our heritage is being systematically destroyed.”

A Facebook page called Egyptian Historians chided officials for the “warped” restoration.

Egypt's renovation of Baron Palace sparks online outcry
Ongoing restoration works at the historic “Le Palais Hindou” (also known as the “Baron Empain Palace”) built by in the early 20th century by Belgian industrialist Edouard Louis Joseph, Baron Empain, in the classical Khmer architectural style of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, in the Egyptian capital Cairo’s northeastern Heliopolis district. (Photo by Khaled DESOUKI / AFP)

“Be honest with yourselves and admit that you ruined it… you are literally demolishing our monument”, a post on the group’s page said.

READ: Tutankhamun gilded coffin receives restoration in Egypt

Antiquities Minister, Khaled El-Enany dismissed online criticisms as “fake news”.

“I didn’t hear one word of truth in all these social media comments,” he said in a statement.

His ministry said the colours of the palace had faded from weather damage over many years.

“The restoration is a real dream and we will breathe life into this abandoned landmark,” Enany added.

WATCH: Egypt begins restoration of Tutankhamun’s coffin

General Hisham Samir, who heads up the ministry’s engineering branch, said the colours were “correct and are backed up by historical sources.”

The works began in July 2017 in co-operation with the Belgian government and will cost 100 million Egyptian pounds (over $6 million), the statement added.

Samir told reporters that the work is expected to be completed by year’s end with plans to open the building to the public by early 2020.

Egypt’s multitude of historical monuments and buildings are a major draw for tourists, though the country has often faced accusations of neglecting these sites.

READ: Contents of two ancient pyramids unveiled in Egypt

The government has recently launched various restoration projects to stimulate tourism, a key sector that has suffered in recent years due to political insecurity and sporadic jihadist attacks.

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Measles is a bigger threat in DR Congo than Ebola – NGO

Last year, cases more than doubled to almost 350,000 from 2017, according to the World Health Organization

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Measles has killed 2,758 people in DR Congo since January, more than the Ebola epidemic in a year, medical NGO Doctors Without Borders said, and called Saturday for a “massive mobilisation of funds.”

The disease, preventable with a vaccine, has infected over 145,000 people in the Democratic Republic of Congo between January and early August, it said in a statement.

“Since July, the epidemic has worsened, with a rise in new cases reported in several provinces,” said the NGO that goes by its French acronym MSF.

“Only $2.5 million has been raised out of the $8.9 million required for the Health Cluster response plan  — in stark contrast with the Ebola epidemic in the east of the country, which attracts multiple organisations and hundreds of millions of dollars in funding,” it added.

MSF tweeted that without a “massive mobilisation of funds and response organisations, the current measles outbreak in #DRCongo could get even worse.”

The NGO said it has vaccinated 474,860 children between the ages of six months and five years since the beginning of the year and provided care to more than 27,000 measles patients.

In the country’s east, Ebola has claimed more than 1,900 lives since erupting last August.

Measles is a highly-contagious diseased caused by a virus that attacks mainly children. The most serious complications include blindness, brain swelling, diarrhoea, and severe respiratory infections.

Last year, cases more than doubled to almost 350,000 from 2017, according to the World Health Organization, amid a rise in “anti-vaxxer” sentiment in some countries that can afford the vaccine, and lagging resources for the preventative measure in poor nations.

DR Congo declared a measles epidemic in June.

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Two UN personnel killed in Benghazi by car bomb

Two members of the UN mission were killed and at least eight others wounded including a child, by a car bomb.

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Two UN personnel killed in Benghazi by car bomb
Libyan firefighters extinguish a fire at the site of a car bomb attack in Libya's eastern city of Benghazi on August 10, 2019. - "Two members of the UN mission, one them a foreigner, were killed and at least eight others wounded including a child, by a car bomb" in a shopping area of the Al-Hawari district, the official said. (Photo by - / AFP)

A car bombing in Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi killed two United Nations staff on Saturday, a security official said.

“Two members of the UN mission were killed and at least eight others wounded including a child, by a car bomb” in a shopping area of the Al-Hawari district, the official said.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blast, which happened as a UN convoy was passing through the area.

Benghazi, Libya’s second city and the cradle of the 2011 uprising that overthrew dictator Muammar Gaddafi, was hit by years of violence targeting diplomatic offices and security forces after his fall.

An attack on the US consulate on September 11, 2012, killed US ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

In 2017, military strongman Khalifa Haftar drove hardline Islamists and jihadists out of Benghazi after a three-year battle.

Haftar, who backs an eastern-based administration that opposes the Tripoli-based unity government, went on to seize Derna, the last city in eastern Libya outside his control.

But bombings and kidnappings have continued.

A May 2018 attack left seven people dead and last month, a car bombing at the funeral of an ex-army commander killed at least four people and wounded more than 30 others.

A Libyan lawmaker is also feared to have been abducted by an armed group in the eastern city, the UN and lawmakers said in July.

Haftar controls most of eastern Libya, and early this year he ordered his self-styled Libyan National Army to purge the south of what he called “terrorist groups and criminals”. 

On the heels of that campaign, his LNA launched in April an offensive to take the Libyan capital from the UN-recognised Government of National Accord. 

The LNA on Saturday announced a truce around Tripoli for the three-day Muslim festival of Eid Al-Adha, after the unity government conditionally accepted a ceasefire called for by the UN.

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