News

Judge in election case warns Trump over 'inflammatory' statements

By Salim Bokhari

August 12, 2023 12:32 PM


File photo

The US judge handling the historic case against Donald Trump for allegedly conspiring to overturn the 2020 election warned him on Friday against making "inflammatory" statements and said she would not allow a "carnival atmosphere" at his eventual trial.

US District Judge Tanya Chutkan issued the stern warning at a hearing between prosecutors and defense attorneys held to decide what the former president can reveal publicly about the case as it proceeds to trial.

"I will take whatever measures are necessary to protect the integrity of these proceedings," Chutkan said during the 90-minute hearing at a federal courthouse in downtown Washington.

"Inflammatory statements about this case which could taint the jury pool," Chutkan said in comments clearly directed at Trump and his attorneys, would force her to "proceed to trial quickly."

Special counsel Jack Smith has asked for the trial of the former president to begin on January 2, 2024 -- nearly three years to the day after Trump supporters stormed Congress in a bid to halt certification of Democrat Joe Biden's election victory.

Defense attorneys for Trump -- the current frontrunner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination -- are expected to seek a later trial date.

Chutkan, who was appointed by former Democratic president Barack Obama, is to set a date for the start of the trial at a hearing to be held on August 28.

The 77-year-old Trump, who has pleaded not guilty to the charges that he plotted with aides to overturn the results of the 2020 election, was not present for Friday's hearing.

The judge said she would ensure that the former president's rights "as a criminal defendant" are respected but his First Amendment free speech rights are "not absolute."

"I also take seriously my obligation to prevent (what the US Supreme Court) has called a carnival atmosphere of unchecked publicity and trial by media," Chutkan said.

- 'I'm coming after you!' -

The hearing was called after prosecutors sought a protective order over what Trump can reveal publicly about witnesses and evidence in the case.

Prosecutors cited a post by Trump on his Truth Social platform in which he said: "If you go after me, I'm coming after you!"

Chutkan cautioned that "even arguably ambiguous statements" could be seen as a potential bid to "intimidate witnesses or prejudice potential jurors" and she would be forced to intervene.

The judge said Trump would be allowed to review sensitive materials such as witness interviews and transcripts of grand jury proceedings without his legal team present but he cannot photograph or reproduce them.

Chutkan elicited laughter in the courtroom when she said Trump has "shown a tendency to hold on to material he shouldn't have" -- an apparent reference to his pending case in Florida for allegedly mishandling top secret government documents.

Trump is facing prosecution in multiple jurisdictions over allegations of criminal conduct before, during and after his presidency.

He is to go on trial in Florida in May in the classified documents case and in New York in March for alleged election-eve hush money payments made to a porn star.

Smith, a former war crimes prosecutor at The Hague, brought the charges against Trump in the documents case and has also charged him with conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding and conspiracy against the right to vote.

Trump was impeached twice while in office -- first for trying to get Ukraine to dig up political dirt on Biden and then over allegations that he incited the 2021 assault on the US Capitol.


Live Updates

March 3, 2024 09:26 PM
'Who will call me mother?': Gazan woman mourns twin babies killed in strike

 

As men searched for survivors beneath a Gaza home pummelled by an air strike, Rania Abu Anza gazed down on Sunday at two children who did not survive: her infant twins.

The Palestinian woman said she had gone through multiple rounds of fertility treatment to achieve her dream of becoming a mother, only to have it taken away by the carnage in the Gaza Strip.

"Who will call me mother from now on? Who will call me mother?" she said through tears on Sunday as she clutched her lifeless babies, the face of one still spattered with blood.

The health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said Wissam and Naeem, not yet six months old, were among 14 people killed in the overnight strike in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, which it blamed on Israel.

All of the dead were members of the Abu Anza family.

They joined the 30,410 fatalities, most of them women and children, reported by the ministry since Israel launched military operations to eliminate Hamas last October.

The campaign came in response to the Palestinian militant group's unprecedented October 7 attack on southern Israel that resulted in the deaths of around 1,160 people, according to an AFP tally of official figures.

The Israeli military did not immediately respond to AFP's request for comment on the Rafah strike.

 

- 'All of them children' -

 

While Rania Abu Anza waited to bury her son and daughter, back at the rubble of the family home men shouted the names of those they hoped had survived: "Yasser! Ahmed! Sajjar!"

Israel says its campaign is intended to eliminate Hamas fighters, but Shehda Abu Anza, who said the home belonged to his uncle, insisted it housed only civilians.

"They were sleeping at eleven-o-clock at night. All of them children. Honestly there was no military presence in the house, only civilians," he said.

"No soldiers, only civilians."

Another relative, Arafat Abu Anza, bemoaned the lack of equipment to extract possible survivors.

"There are 15 people in the house... I'm cleaning the area. We are trying to extract people, to see where they are. Four floors fell."

Nearly 1.5 million Palestinians have sought refuge in Rafah, raising fears of mass casualties should Israel go ahead with a planned invasion of the city.

Mediators are trying to lock in a truce that would at least temporarily halt the fighting before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins on March 10 or 11, depending on the lunar calendar.

A senior Hamas official told AFP the group had sent a delegation to Cairo, and Egyptian state-linked media said envoys from the United States and Qatar had also arrived for talks on Sunday.

Any deal will come too late for Rania Abu Anza, who recounted the chaos of the strike and how she was told her children were gone.

"I started shouting, 'My children, my children,'" she said.

"I asked the rescuers to search for my kids in the rubble. They pulled them. They told me, 'Your children are dead.'"

March 3, 2024 05:29 PM
Italian warship downs drone in Red Sea

 

An Italian navy destroyer shot  down a drone that was approaching it in the Red Sea, where Yemen's Iran-backed Huthi rebels are attacking shipping, the defence ministry said.

"In accordance with the principle of legitimate defence, the ship Duilio shot down a drone in the Red Sea" on Saturday, the ministry said in a statement.

"The drone, bearing similar features to those already used in previous attacks, was located six kilometres (about four miles) from the Italian ship and was flying towards it," it added.

The Huthis say they are attacking Israeli-linked shipping in solidarity with war-torn Gaza, where Israel is battling Palestinian Hamas militants in a war that has roiled the region since erupting on October 7.

The unrest has forced several companies to reroute shipments in the commercially vital waterway, driving up delivery times and costs.

Key Israel ally the United States has led reprisal strikes on Huthi targets in Yemen in a bid to quash the attacks, creating an international force to protect shipping.

Italy has pledged to take command of a separate EU naval force in the Red Sea, but parliament must first approve the move and the formal procedures have advanced slowly.

March 3, 2024 05:27 PM
Russia says six IS fighters killed in Caucasus republic

 

Russian authorities on Sunday said they had killed six suspected Islamic State group fighters in the southern Muslim-majority Caucasus republic of Ingushetia.

Special forces from the FSB security agency cornered the six people in a building in the town of Karabulak and "neutralised" them in an operation that began on Saturday night, Russia's anti-terrorism committee said.

It said the suspects, three of whom were on the federal wanted persons list, were IS members who were "involved in a number of terrorist crimes".

These included an attack against a police station and the murder of three officers in March 2023, the committee said, adding that there were no civilian victims.

Russian authorities frequently announce the thwarting of planned attacks by suspected Islamist groups.

The influence of IS in Russia is limited, although a few attacks have occurred in recent years, particularly in the Muslim-majority Caucasus republics of Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan.

In April 2017, IS claimed an attack that killed two police officers in the city of Astrakhan, in the nearby Astrakhan Oblast.

According to official figures, almost 4,500 Russians, especially from the Caucasus, have fought with IS.

March 3, 2024 05:26 PM
'170 people executed' in attacks on Burkina villages: prosecutor

 

Around 170 people were "executed" in attacks on three villages in northern Burkina Faso a week ago, a regional prosecutor said on Sunday as jihadist violence flares in the junta-ruled country.

On that same day, February 25, separate attacks on a mosque in eastern Burkina and a Catholic church in the north left dozens more dead.

Aly Benjamin Coulibaly said he had received reports of the attacks on the villages of Komsilga, Nodin and Soroe in Yatenga province on February 25, with a provisional toll of "around 170 people executed".

The attacks left others wounded and caused material damage, the prosecutor for the northern town of Ouahigouya added in a statement, without apportioning blame to any group.

He said his office ordered an investigation and appealed to the public for information.

Survivors of the attacks told AFP that dozens of women and young children were among the victims.

Local security sources said the attacks were separate from deadly incidents that happened on the same day at a mosque in the rural community of Natiaboani and a church in the village of Essakane.

Authorities have yet to release an official death toll for those attacks but a senior church official said at the time that at least 15 civilians were killed in that attack.

Burkina Faso has been grappling with a jihadist insurgency waged by rebels affiliated with Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group that spilled over from neighbouring Mali in 2015.

The violence has killed almost 20,000 people and displaced more than two million in Burkina Faso, one of the world's poorest countries situated in the Sahel, a region wracked by instability.

Anger at the state's inability to end the insecurity played a major role in two military coups in 2022. Current strongman Ibrahim Traore has made the fight against rebel groups a priority.

 

- 'Co-ordinated' attacks -

 

There were a number of attacks on February 25, notably against a military detachment in Tankoualou in the east, a rapid response battalion in Kongoussi in the north and soldiers in the northern region of Ouahigouya.

In response, the army and members of the Volunteers for the Defence of the Fatherland (VDP), a civilian force that supports the military, launched operations that were able "to neutralise several hundred terrorists", according to security sources.

At the beginning of the week, Security Minister Mahamadou Sana described the wave of attacks as "co-ordinated".

"This change in the enemy's tactical approach is because terrorist bases have been destroyed as well as training camps and actions were carried out to dry up the enemy's source of financing, as well as its supply corridors," said Sana.

Mosques and imams have in the past been the target of attacks blamed on jihadists.

Churches in Burkina have also at times been targeted and Christians have been kidnapped.

The ACLED analysis group says that 439 people were killed in such violence in January alone.

March 3, 2024 05:15 PM
Hamas, Qatari, US envoys in Cairo for Gaza talks: state-linked media

 

Delegations from Hamas, Qatar and the United States have arrived in Egypt for "a new round of negotiations" toward a truce in the Gaza war, state-linked Al-Qahera News reported Sunday.

Cairo, Doha and Washington have mediated in weeks of talks aiming to pause the fighting in the almost five-months-old war between Israel and Hamas sparked by the October 7 attack.

Their goal has been to secure a truce by the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on March 10 or 11, but hopes have been dampened by a series of failed talks since a one-week pause in November.

A Hamas source on Sunday told AFP its delegation to Cairo is being led by senior leader Khalil al-Haya.

"The delegation will meet Egyptian mediators and deliver the group's response to the new Paris proposal," the source said, in reference to negotiations held last month in the French capital with Israel's presence.

The United States regards Hamas as a "terrorist" organisation, and in previous talks Egyptian officials have functioned as the key conduit between US envoys and Hamas, as well as between Israel and Hamas.

The negotiations have centred on a proposal to pause the fighting for six weeks and for Hamas to free hostages in return for the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, and greater aid deliveries.

The war began on October 7 with an unprecedented Hamas attack on southern Israel that resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official figures.

Gaza militants also abducted 250 hostages, of whom 130 remain in captivity according to Israel, a figure that includes 31 presumed dead.

Israel's retaliatory offensive on the besieged Palestinian territory has killed 30,410 people, mostly women and children, the Gaza health ministry reported Sunday.

March 3, 2024 05:14 PM
Belgian police arrest 4 youths over jihadist plot messages

 

Belgian police on Sunday arrested four youths over messages they exchanged allegedly plotting a jihadist attack deemed "imminent enough to intervene", a spokesman for the federal prosecutor's office told AFP.

The four -- three minors in their "late teens" and an adult man aged 18 -- were arrested when police raided home addresses in the cities of Brussels, Ninove, Charleroi and Liege, the spokesman, Eric Van Der Sypt, said.

No weapons or explosives were found. Police took away mobile phones and laptops for analysis, he said, confirming reports from Belgian media RTBF and HLN.

The messages the four exchanged on the internet about the alleged planned attack were "worrying enough to intervene, to do house searches," Van Der Sypt said.

"It's not that they were planning something tomorrow, but still imminent enough to intervene," he said.

The relative youth of the suspects heightened authorities' wariness.

"They're very flexible. If somebody gives them a weapon, for example, things can go very, very fast. So we don't want to take any risk," the spokesman said.

"From the moment that we think that we have to intervene, even if we have not too much (evidence) afterwards, we prefer intervening in time."

Police were questioning the four suspects and an investigating judge was on Sunday or Monday to determine what would ensue, he said.

Belgian authorities remain highly vigilant since the 2016 jihadist attacks by suicide bombers that killed 32 people in blasts at Brussels airport and the city's metro system.

And in October last year, a Tunisian man shot dead two Swedish football fans in Brussels before being fatally shot by police.

The arrests on Sunday stemmed from a police operation looking into people deemed potentially violent and with links to Islamic extremism.

March 3, 2024 04:02 PM
Canadian, Italian PMs' soiree scrapped amid pro-Palestinian protest

 

A soiree to be attended by the prime ministers of Canada and Italy on Saturday in Toronto was cancelled over "security concerns", the Canadian leader's office said, as pro-Palestinian protesters picketed the venue.

Hundreds of pro-Palestinian demonstrators had gathered in front of the Art Gallery of Ontario, where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was due to host his Italian counterpart Giorgia Meloni, according to Canadian media reports.

"Due to security concerns, the event was cancelled," Jenna Ghassabeh, a spokesperson for the Canadian prime minister's office, told AFP without giving further details.

Meloni, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the Group of Seven (G7) nations, is visiting Canada ahead of a leaders' summit in Italy in June.

Earlier in the day, the two leaders held talks where they discussed what Meloni described as a "very difficult Middle East crisis".

According to Canadian public broadcaster CBC, protesters opposed to Canada's response to the Israel-Hamas war blocked access to the venue.

Between 200 and 300 demonstrators took part in the protest, according to the CBC.

Videos and photos circulating on social media showed a heavy police presence near the gallery.

The unprecedented October 7 attack by Hamas on southern Israel resulted in the deaths of around 1,160 people, according to an AFP tally of official figures.

Israel responded with a relentless assault on Hamas-controlled Gaza that has taken a devastating toll on civilians trapped there, killing at least 30,320 people, according to the territory's health ministry.

March 3, 2024 03:59 PM
Trump wins party vote in 3 US states, edging toward nomination

 

Donald Trump on Saturday inched ahead in his quest to become the Republican Party's presidential nominee, winning internal party elections in the states of Missouri, Michigan and Idaho, US media reported.

The former president has now won every state nominating contest heading into next week's "Super Tuesday," when voters in 15 US states choose their preferred candidate for each party.

Trump has gained huge momentum in the race to capture the Republican nomination at the party convention in July and Tuesday is expected to all but secure the result.

He is likely to face President Joe Biden in November elections, pitting the two for the second time since 2020.

The voting Saturday in Missouri, Michigan and Idaho were hybrid internal elections with differing rules, in some cases reflecting rifts and tensions despite Trump's formidable sway.

In Missouri, Trump swamped his main opponent, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, winning every county caucus in the state, The New York Times reported.

Anyone who expressed an "allegiance to the Missouri Republican Party" could vote in the county caucuses.

In Michigan, around 2,000 party activists voted in a caucus convention, and Trump won all 39 delegates up for grabs, CNN reported.

The limited vote came in the wake of chaos within the state party, including allegations of overspending and mismanagement.

Trump had grabbed 16 Michigan delegates earlier in the week in a limited primary vote.

The former president also handily won Republican caucuses in the western state of Idaho, NBC and ABC projected.

Haley has raced around the country in the run-up to Super Tuesday, trying to make an increasingly hard case against the inevitability of Trump's nomination.

March 2, 2024 10:50 PM
Germany caught out by leak of secret Ukraine war talks

 

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz promised Saturday a full investigation after a recording of confidential army talks on the Ukraine war was circulated on Russian social media, in a huge embarrassment for Berlin.

A German defence ministry spokeswoman confirmed to AFP that the ministry believed a conversation in the air force division was "intercepted".

"We are currently unable to say for certain whether changes were made to the recorded or transcribed version that is circulating on social media," the spokeswoman said.

The head of Russia's state-backed RT channel, Margarita Simonyan, posted Friday the 38-minute audio recording of what she claimed were German army officers discussing potential strikes on Crimea in a February 19 videoconference.

In the recording, discussions can be heard on the possible use by Ukrainian forces of German-made Taurus missiles and their potential impact.

Topics included aiming the missiles at targets such as a key bridge over the Kerch strait linking the Russian mainland to Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014.

The discussions also cover the use of missiles provided to Kyiv by France and Britain.

Kyiv has long been calling on Germany to provide it with Taurus missiles, which can reach targets up to 500 kilometres (300 miles) away.

 

- 'Sworn enemies' -

 

Scholz has so far refused to send the missiles, worried that it would lead to an escalation of the conflict.

"What is being reported is a very serious matter and that is why it is now being investigated very carefully, very intensively and very quickly," Scholz said during a visit to Rome on Saturday.

Germany's ARD broadcaster described the leak as a "catastrophe" for the German secret services.

According to Der Spiegel magazine, the videoconference was held on the WebEx platform, and not on a secret internal army network.

"If this story turns out to be true, it would be a highly problematic event," Green party politician Konstantin von Notz told the RND broadcaster.

Speaking at a diplomatic forum in Turkey on Saturday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the recording indicated that Ukraine and its backers "do not want to change their course at all, and want to inflict a strategic defeat on Russia on the battlefield".

Foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova demanded that Germany "promptly" provide explanations for the discussion.

"Attempts to avoid answering the questions will be regarded as an admission of guilt," she said.

"Our age-old rivals -- the Germans -- have again turned into our sworn enemies," former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, now deputy head of the Security Council and the foreign ministry, wrote in a Telegram post.

 

- Taurus missiles -

 

The acquisition of German Taurus missiles would provide a massive boost for Ukraine as Kyiv struggles to fend off Russia's invasion.

France and Britain have supplied Kyiv with SCALP and Storm Shadow missiles, both of which have a range of about 250 kilometres.

But Scholz said last week that Germany could not justify matching British and French moves in sending long-range missiles to Ukraine and supporting the weapon system's deployment.

"This is a very long-range weapon, and what the British and French are doing in terms of targeting and supporting targeting cannot be done in Germany," Scholz said, without specifying exactly what he meant.

Britain denied that it had any direct involvement in operating the missiles.

"Ukraine's use of Storm Shadow and its targeting processes are the business of the Armed Forces of Ukraine," a Ministry of Defence spokesperson said in a statement to AFP.

Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, chair of the defence committee in Germany's parliament, said Moscow's intention was "obvious".

Scholz is being "warned against" supplying Ukraine with Taurus missiles, she said.

"We urgently need to increase our security and counterintelligence, because we are obviously vulnerable in this area," she told the Funke media group.

Roderich Kiesewetter, from Germany's opposition conservatives, warned that further recordings might also be leaked.

"A number of other conversations will certainly have been intercepted and may be leaked at a later date for Russia's benefit," he told broadcaster ZDF.

March 2, 2024 10:47 PM
Israel has 'more or less' accepted ceasefire deal: US official

 

Israel has broadly accepted a deal for a six-week Gaza ceasefire and it is now up to Hamas to agree to release hostages for the deal to take effect, a senior US official said Saturday.

"There's a framework deal. The Israelis have more or less accepted it," the official told reporters on condition of anonymity. "Right now, the ball is in the camp of Hamas."

US says truce up to Hamas as its negotiators due in Cairo

 

A Hamas delegation was expected to fly to Cairo Saturday for new talks on a Gaza ceasefire as a US official said "the ball is the camp of Hamas".

A source close to the Palestinian militant group said the delegation would deliver its "official answer" to a proposal thrashed out with Israeli negotiators in Paris late last month.

Egyptian, Qatari and US mediators have been shuttling between Israeli and Hamas negotiators, trying to secure a pause in fighting before the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan, which begins on March 10 or 11, depending on the lunar calendar.

The mediators "will resume negotiations for a Gaza truce in Cairo on Sunday," Egypt's AlQahera News reported.

Both Washington and Doha had voiced hope a ceasefire could go into effect as early as next week but US President Joe Biden said Thursday that a deal would take longer after more than 100 Palestinian civilians were killed rushing an aid convoy in the Gaza Strip.

A Hamas source told AFP earlier this week that under the proposal, a truce would last for six weeks, with Hamas releasing 42 hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners.

On Thursday, the White House said the hostage release "would result in an immediate and sustained ceasefire in Gaza over a period of at least six weeks".

A senior US official said on Saturday that Israel had broadly accepted the plan and it was now up to Hamas to agree to release hostages for the deal to take effect.

"There's a framework deal. The Israelis have more or less accepted it," the official told reporters on condition of anonymity. "Right now, the ball is in the camp of Hamas."

The war in Gaza was sparked by Hamas's unprecedented October 7 attack on southern Israel that resulted in the deaths of around 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.

Israel's retaliatory offensive against Hamas has killed at least 30,320 people, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-ruled territory.

The only previous truce in the war lasted for one week in late November. It saw the release of more than 100 hostages, the Israelis among them in exchange for Palestinians held in Israeli jails.

In addition to halting Israel's offensive, Hamas wants new truce terms to ensure immediate humanitarian relief for Gazans, an Israeli withdrawal and the return of Gazans displaced from the north, said the source close to the group.

Gaza officials say Israeli strike near Rafah hospital kills 11

The health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said an Israeli strike hit tents housing displaced civilians near a hospital in the southern city of Rafah Saturday, killing 11 and wounding dozens.

A paramedic was among those killed and children were wounded in the blast close to the Emirati Maternity Hospital, ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said in a statement.

"Eleven citizens were martyred and about 50 injured, including children, as a result of Israeli forces targeting tents of displaced people near the Emirati hospital," Qudra said.

The Israeli military said it was looking into the incident.

Footage posted on social media, which AFP could not independently verify, appeared to show bloodied bodies in the streets as crowds gathered, with men carrying away the wounded for treatment.

An AFP journalist saw wounded people being rushed on stretchers to the Kuwaiti Hospital, also in Rafah.

"Destruction is everywhere and there are many martyrs," said Rafah resident Belal Abu Jekhleh.

"Suddenly the glass shattered and a fire broke out. Everyone fled, some of whom were martyred and others injured. I was injured in my hands and head, and my brother was also injured."

Israeli troops have carried out multiple operations in and around hospitals in the Gaza Strip since they launched their offensive in the Palestinian territory.

Israel has repeatedly accused Hamas militants of using hospitals for military purposes, something the Palestinian group denies.

An estimated 1.5 million Palestinians have sought refuge in Rafah, raising fears of mass casualties if Israel goes through with a planned ground invasion of the city.

Mediators are scrambling to secure a new truce ahead of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which begins on March 10 or 11, depending on the lunar calendar.

The war in Gaza broke out with Hamas's unprecedented attack on southern Israel on October 7 that resulted in the deaths of around 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli figures.

Israel's retaliatory military campaign against Hamas has killed at least 30,320 people, mostly women and children, according to Gaza’s health ministry.

March 2, 2024 09:50 PM
Zelensky calls for Western air defence as Russian attacks kill 10

 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Saturday urged the West to deliver more air defence systems as a wave of Russian missile, drone and artillery strikes killed at least ten people.

Seven were confirmed dead, including a three-month-old baby and two-year-old child, after an overnight drone strike on the southern port city of Odesa.

Separate shelling attacks on the frontline Kharkiv, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions killed another three, Ukrainian officials said.

"Russia continues to hit civilians," Zelensky said in a post on social media.

"We need more air defences from our partners. We need to strengthen the Ukrainian air shield to add more protection for our people from Russian terror. More air defence systems and more missiles for air defence systems save lives," he said.

Ukraine is currently on the back foot in the two-year war as a crucial $60-billion aid package is held up in the United States congress.

In Odesa, "a nine-storey building was destroyed as a result of an attack by Russian terrorists," Interior Minister Igor Klymenko said on Saturday in a post on Telegram.

The attack killed at least seven people, including a three-month-old baby, Klymenko said.

Another child, aged two, was also among the dead, Odesa region Governor Oleg Kiper said on state TV.

Around 10 people were still unaccounted for, with almost 100 rescuers set to continue a search and rescue operation overnight.

Footage shared from the scene showed several floors of a residential building collapsed and its facade ripped off.

Ukraine's air force said falling debris from Russian drones it had shot down fell onto residential buildings in both Odesa and Kharkiv.

Separate shelling attacks in the frontline regions of Kharkiv in the northeast, and Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in the south killed three more, the provincial heads said.

 

- 'Difficult situation' -

 

The attacks came with Russia seeking to press its advantage on the battlefield.

Kyiv has admitted it is heavily outgunned and outnumbered, facing ammunition shortages amid aid delays.

Half of all promised Western ammunition arrives in the country late, the defence minister has said, in what he called critical delays that cost lives and territory.

Russian forces have advanced westwards following last month's capture of Avdiivka, and have seized several small villages in recent days.

Visiting frontline military posts on Saturday, Ukraine's new Commander-in-Chief Oleksandr Syrsky said "the situation at the front remains difficult, but controlled".

Kyiv also appeared to have launched its own overnight drone attack that damaged a residential building in Saint Petersburg, Russia's second city.

Videos on Russian social media showed what appeared to be a drone spiralling downwards into the building, triggering an explosion, blowing out windows and causing small fires.

The city's National Guard division said its preliminary assumption was that the damage was caused by a "falling drone".

Ukrainian media reported that the drone was shot down by Russia's air defences while targeting an oil depot around a kilometre from the crash site.

Kyiv has hit several Russian oil facilities in recent months in what it has called fair retribution for Moscow's attacks on Ukraine's power grid.

Russia's Investigative Committee said separately that four of its officials had been injured when a Ukrainian drone dropped explosives over the Bryansk border region.

Russia also expressed outrage at a leak of confidential German army talks in which officers allegedly discussed missile strikes on the annexed Crimean peninsula.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Saturday promised a full investigation after the head of Russia's state-run RT outlet posted the alleged leaked recording on social media, in a potentially huge embarrassment for Berlin.

A spokeswoman for the German defence ministry on Saturday confirmed that a secret air force conversation had been tapped, but that they could not say for certain whether any changes had been made to the conversation in the leaked audio file.

Russia's foreign ministry demanded a "prompt" explanation from Berlin, while Moscow's top diplomat Sergei Lavrov said it showed Ukraine's European backers were intent on inflicting a "strategic defeat" on Russia on the battlefield.

March 2, 2024 09:10 PM
US military begins air-dropping aid to Gaza

 

American cargo planes air-dropped 38,000 meals into the besieged Gaza Strip on Saturday, part of a series of drops planned by Washington to help curb a growing humanitarian crisis in the war-racked territory.

The United Nations has warned of famine in Gaza, and more than 100 people were left dead earlier this week in a frenzied scramble for food from a truck convoy delivering aid, with Israeli forces opening fire on the crowd.

US President Joe Biden -- under mounting political pressure over the plight of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip -- had announced the imminent air drops on Friday.

"US Central Command and the Royal Jordanian Air Force conducted a combined humanitarian assistance air drop into Gaza on March 2, 2024, between 3:00 and 5:00 pm (Gaza time) to provide essential relief to civilians affected by the ongoing conflict," the American military command said on social media.

CENTCOM said US C-130 military cargo planes "dropped over 38,000 meals along the coastline of Gaza allowing for civilian access to the critical aid."

The air drops are "part of a sustained effort to get more aid into Gaza, including by expanding the flow of aid through land corridors and routes," the command added.

A CENTCOM official told AFP that the drop was made up of US military rations that did not contain pork, the consumption of which is prohibited by Islam.

 

- Ground route still key -

 

Palestinian militant group Hamas carried out an unprecedented attack on Israel on October 7 that resulted in the deaths of around 1,160 people. Hamas also took about 250 hostages, 130 of whom still remain in Gaza.

Israel responded with a relentless assault on Hamas-controlled Gaza that has taken a devastating toll on civilians trapped there, killing more than 30,000 people, according to the territory's health ministry.

The amount of aid brought into Gaza by truck has plummeted during nearly five months of war, and Gazans are facing dire shortages of food, water and medicines.

The United Nations has accused Israeli forces of "systematically" blocking access to Gaza, which Israel denies.

Some foreign militaries have air-dropped supplies to Gaza, sending long lines of aid pallets floating down into the war-torn territory on parachutes.

Jordan has been conducting many of the operations with the support of countries including Britain, France and the Netherlands, while Egypt sent several military planes on an air drop Thursday together with the United Arab Emirates.

Biden has pushed Israel to reduce civilian casualties and allow aid in, while at the same time he has maintained military assistance for the key US ally.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Friday that the United States planned to carry out multiple air drops over a period of weeks, which will "be a supplement to, not a replacement for, moving things in by ground."

He described it as a "tough military operation" that required careful planning by the Pentagon for the safety of both Gazan civilians and US military personnel.

"It is extremely difficult to do an air drop in such a crowded environment as is Gaza," said Kirby, adding: "This is a war zone. So there's an added element of potential danger to the pilots in the aircraft."

March 2, 2024 09:06 PM
Scholz vows probe into leak of secret Ukraine war talks

 

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Saturday promised a full investigation after what appeared to be a recording of confidential army talks on the Ukraine war was posted on Russian social media, in a potentially huge embarrassment for Berlin.

The head of Russia's state-backed RT channel, Margarita Simonyan, on Friday posted the 38-minute audio recording of what she claimed were German army officers on February 19 discussing potential strikes on Crimea.

"What is being reported is a very serious matter and that is why it is now being investigated very carefully, very intensively and very quickly," Scholz said on a visit to Rome.

In the recording, discussions can be heard on the possible use by Ukrainian forces of German-made Taurus missiles and their potential impact.

Topics include aiming the missiles at targets such as a key bridge over the Kerch strait linking the Russian mainland to Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014.

The discussions also cover the use of missiles provided to Kyiv by France and Britain.

A German defence ministry spokeswoman confimed to AFP that the ministry believes a conversation in the air force division was "intercepted".

"We are currently unable to say for certain whether changes were made to the recorded or transcribed version that is circulating on social media," the spokeswoman said.

Experts consulted by Der Spiegel magazine said they believed the recording was authentic.

 

- 'Sworn enemies' -

 

Kyiv has long been clamouring for Germany to provide it with Taurus missiles, which can reach targets up to 500 kilometres (about 300 miles) away.

Scholz has so far refused to send the missiles, fearing that it would lead to an escalation of the conflict.

"If this story turns out to be true, it would be a highly problematic event," Green party politician Konstantin von Notz told the RND broadcaster.

"The question arises as to whether this is a one-off incident or a structural safety problem," he added.

Speaking at a diplomatic forum in Turkey on Saturday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the recording indicates that Ukraine and its backers "do not want to change their course at all, and want to inflict a strategic defeat on Russia on the battlefield".

Foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova demanded that Germany "promptly" provide explanations for the discussion.

"Attempts to avoid answering the questions will be regarded as an admission of guilt," she said.

"Our age-old rivals -- the Germans -- have again turned into our sworn enemies," former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, now deputy head of the Security Council and the foreign ministry, wrote in a Telegram post.

 

- Taurus missiles -

 

The acquisition of German Taurus missiles would provide a massive boost for Ukraine as Kyiv struggles to fend off Russia's invasion.

France and Britain have supplied Kyiv with SCALP or Storm Shadow missiles, both of which have a range of about 250 kilometres.

But Scholz said last week that Germany could not justify matching British and French moves in sending long-range missiles to Ukraine and supporting the weapon system's deployment.

"This is a very long-range weapon, and what the British and French are doing in terms of targeting and supporting targeting cannot be done in Germany," Scholz said, without specifying exactly what he meant.

Britain denied that it had any direct involvement in operating the missiles.

"Ukraine's use of Storm Shadow and its targeting processes are the business of the Armed Forces of Ukraine," a Ministry of Defence (MoD) spokesperson said in a statement to AFP.

Roderich Kiesewetter, from Germany's opposition conservatives, warned that further recordings may also be leaked.

"A number of other conversations will certainly have been intercepted and may be leaked at a later date for Russia's benefit," he told broadcaster ZDF.

It can be assumed "that the conversation was deliberately leaked by Russia at this point in time with a specific intention", namely "to prevent Taurus delivery by Germany", he said.

According to Der Spiegel, the videoconference was held not on a secret internal army network but on the WebEx platform.

March 2, 2024 09:02 PM
New poll flags warnings for Biden campaign

 

Days before the biggest night of the presidential primary season, a new poll published Saturday will ring alarm bells for Joe Biden, who is seen lagging behind his likely White House challenger Donald Trump.

The nationwide survey of registered voters by the New York Times and Siena College found that if the election were held today, 48 percent would choose Trump with 43 percent for Biden.

The poll comes just ahead of "Super Tuesday" -- when more than a dozen US states hold presidential nominating contests in an exercise expected to finally end the challenge of Trump's remaining Republican rival, Nikki Haley.

The survey found President Biden struggling, despite many positive economic indicators, to persuade ordinary Americans that his policies are working for them.

Only one in four said the country is moving in the right direction, and more than twice as many voters said Biden's policies had hurt rather than helped them.

Significantly, the poll found waning support for Biden among some normally reliable Democratic constituencies, including blue-collar workers and non-white voters.

And while Trump has unified his base to a remarkable extent -- 97 percent of those who voted for him in 2020 said they would do so again -- only 83 percent of Biden's 2020 voters vowed to stick with him and a full 10 percent now back Trump.

The Times/Siena poll also noted a dramatic decline in Biden's support among less educated working-class voters of color.

Four years ago, Biden won that demographic by 50 points but the poll suggested the margin over Trump had since plummeted to just six points.

Much can happen in the months before the November 5 election, and Trump is still battling four indictments and 91 felony counts, though his core supporters appear to shrug those off.

And while Super Tuesday should see the end of Haley's challenge, analysts say Trump's dominant primary showing hides stiff opposition to his candidacy among the moderate Republicans and independents he needs to defeat Biden.

Nor is it clear how many skeptical Biden voters might grit their teeth and support him again rather than see Trump return to office.

The poll of 980 registered voters had a sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 points.

March 2, 2024 07:53 PM
Socialists target far right in EU vote campaign launch

 

Europe's Socialists launched their campaign for June's European Parliament elections in Rome on Saturday with a focus on warding off "ghosts from the past" from an ascendant far right.

Left-wing MEPs, national lawmakers, party chiefs, EU commissioners and heads of government gathered at their congress before a European vote seen as the most important in decades.

Ukraine is struggling to fend off Russian troops two years after Vladimir Putin launched his invasion and surging support for "illiberal" right-wing groups is predicted.

"The very soul of Europe is at risk," Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez told the delegates.

"The ghosts of the past are again at the gates of our institutions: hate, greed, falsehood, climate denialism, authoritarianism," he added, warning of their "digital weapons" and "powerful allies" inside and outside Europe.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz hit out at "right-wing populists running election campaigns against our united Europe and its core values" who are on the rise in democracies worldwide.

Raphael Glucksmann, the head of the French Socialist list, called the vote "the most important European elections in history" as Putin's war "hammers" the continent.

The prospect of Donald Trump returning to the White House after the US presidential election in November may mean "we will have to stay alone, alone in front of war", he warned.

Sanchez met Scholz before the congress to discuss the war in Ukraine, which he said was "entering a delicate phase".

"We must show our commitment and determination. The security and freedom of Europeans are at stake," the Spanish premier wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

 

- Farmer anger -

 

The Party of European Socialists is the second-largest force in the European Parliament behind the conservative European People's Party.

Three months from the elections, the two groups are gearing up for campaigning against a surging far right that could surf on a wave of discontent, notably from the agricultural sector, and make major gains.

French Socialist Party chief Olivier Faure said he feared the far right would harvest votes from angry farmers by claiming environmental and agricultural interests were at odds.

"We must constantly remember that the enemy of agriculture is not ecology, it's liberalism," he said, calling on European Socialists to offer hope to counter the far right's message.

Veteran Dutch politician Frans Timmermans charged that the centre right "believes there is a future for them in aligning themselves with the extreme right".

The Socialists also designated Luxembourg's Nicolas Schmit as their candidate for European Commission president against incumbent Ursula von der Leyen, who is expected to run again for the job.

March 2, 2024 07:51 PM
Cargo ship damaged by Huthi strike sinks: Yemen government

 

A cargo ship loaded with fertiliser has sunk in the Gulf of Aden less than two weeks after it was damaged by missiles from Yemen's Huthi rebels, Yemen's government said Saturday.

The Huthis claimed the February 19 attack against the Rubymar, a cargo ship flying a Belizean flag and operated by a Lebanese firm, which transported combustible fertilisers.

The crew abandoned the ship and evacuated to safety after it was hit by two missiles.

The vessel had departed the United Arab Emirates and was bound for the Bulgarian port of Varna.

"The MV Rubymar sank last night, coinciding with weather factors and strong winds at sea," said a crisis cell of Yemen's internationally recognised government in charge of the case.

Roy Khoury, chief executive of the ship's operator Blue Fleet, said he was unaware of the sinking.

"We have nobody on board to check if it's true or not," he told AFP.

Fuel oil appeared to be leaking from the vessel in satellite images shared by Maxar Technologies and published by AFP.

The TankerTrackers website said the sinking would "cause an environmental catastrophe in the (Yemeni) territorial waters and in the Red Sea".

"A spill of ammonium nitrate fertiliser in the sea could have several significant impacts on marine ecosystems," said Julien Jreissati, programme director for Greenpeace in the Middle East and North Africa.

The maritime security agency UKMTO, run by the British navy, said the Rubymar had been 35 nautical miles (65 kilometres) from the Yemeni port of Mokha when its crew was forced to abandon it.

The Rubymar was identified as British-registered by the US military and security firm Ambrey, but Khoury has denied that information.

Since November, the Huthis have been carrying out attacks on ships linked to Israel in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, saying they are acting in solidarity with Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Israel has waged a war against Hamas in Gaza since the Palestinian militant group's unprecedented attack on Israel on October 7.

In response to the Huthi attacks, Israel's main ally the United States established a multinational force in December in order to protect maritime traffic in the strategic waterway.

Since January the US and its allies have launched numerous strikes against Huthi targets in Yemen, where the Iran-backed rebels have fought forces loyal to the internationally recognised government since 2014.

March 2, 2024 07:18 PM
Israeli strike in south Lebanon martyrs 3 Hezbollah fighters

 

An Israeli strike on a car in south Lebanon Saturday martyred three Hezbollah fighters, a security source said, the latest in almost five-months of escalating cross-border fire between the Iran-backed group and Israel.

Since war erupted between Israel and Gaza-based Palestinian fighter group Hamas on October 7, Hezbollah has been launching near-daily attacks from Lebanon into northern Israeli in support of its ally Hamas, while Israel has been striking south Lebanon.

Lebanon's state-run National News Agency reported that "an enemy drone targeted a car this morning on the road to Naqura", a coastal town near the Israeli border, adding that ambulances rushed to the scene.

A security source told AFP that three Hezbollah fighters were killed in the strike.

In separate statements Saturday, Hezbollah said three of its fighters were "martyred on the road to Jerusalem", the phrase the group uses to refer to members killed by Israeli fire.

Images taken by an AFP correspondent showed a burnt-out car on a seaside road.

In a statement, the Israeli army said its aircraft targeted a car in southern Lebanon transporting "a number of terrorists who launched rockets into Israeli territory".

Before the strike, Hezbollah said its fighters had launched a drone attack on an Israeli military post.

The cross-border violence has raised fears of all-out conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, which last went to war in 2006.

Hezbollah had announced the deaths of four fighters after an Israeli strike Friday night on a house in south Lebanon's Ramia area, while Israel said it struck Hezbollah "military" buildings in the region.

The fighting has displaced tens of thousands on both sides of the border and killed at least 296 people in Lebanon, most of them Hezbollah fighters but also including 46 civilians, according to an AFP tally.

In Israeli, 10 soldiers and six civilians have been killed.

Hezbollah has said it will stop fighting once Israel ends its Gaza offensive, while Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant has said there will be no let-up in Israeli action against Hezbollah even if a Gaza ceasefire and hostage deal is secured.

March 2, 2024 02:58 PM
AU chief accuses Israel of 'mass killing of Palestinians' seeking aid

African Union chief Moussa Faki Mahamat on Saturday accused Israel of "the mass killing of Palestinians" and urged an international probe after dozens died following a rush on an aid convoy in war-torn Gaza.

"Mahamat strongly condemns an attack by Israeli forces, that killed and wounded more than 100 Palestinians seeking life-saving humanitarian aid," the bloc said in a statement dated Friday but posted on X on Saturday.

"The Chairperson calls for an international investigation into the incident to bring the perpetrators to account," the statement said, urging "an immediate and unconditional ceasefire".

Israeli troops opened fire as Palestinian civilians scrambled for food supplies during a chaotic melee on Thursday that the Hamas-run territory's health ministry said killed more than 100 people in Gaza City.

The deaths came after a World Food Programme official had warned: "If nothing changes, a famine is imminent in northern Gaza."

The Israeli military said a "stampede" occurred when thousands of Gazans surrounded the convoy of 38 aid trucks, leading to dozens of deaths and injuries, including some who were run over.

An Israeli source acknowledged troops had opened fire on the crowd, believing it "posed a threat".

Gaza's health ministry called it a "massacre", and said 115 people were killed and more than 750 wounded.

World leaders have called for an investigation, with President Joe Biden saying Friday that the United States would start delivering relief supplies into Gaza via air drops -- as some of its allies have already -- in a bid to get aid into hard-to-reach areas.

The aid convoy deaths helped push the number of Palestinian war dead in Gaza to 30,228, mostly women and children, according to the latest toll from the territory's health ministry.

The war began on October 7 with an unprecedented Hamas attack on southern Israel that resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people, mostly civilians, Israeli figures show.

Militants also took about 250 hostages on October 7, 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 31 that Israel says are presumed dead.

Israel's military says 242 soldiers have died in Gaza since ground operations began in late October.

March 2, 2024 01:11 PM
US forces destroy Huthi surface-to-air missile

US forces struck and destroyed a Huthi surface-to-air missile in Yemen on Friday after deciding it posed an "imminent threat" to American aircraft, the US Central Command in the Middle East announced.

The Iran-backed Huthis, who control much of war-torn Yemen, have been attacking shipping in the Red Sea since November in a campaign they say is in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza amid the Israel-Hamas war.

The United States is spearheading a naval coalition to protect vessels in the vital waterway, and has also conducted air strikes in Huthi territory, both on its own and alongside Britain.

On Friday afternoon, US "forces conducted a self-defense strike against one Iranian-backed Houthi surface-to-air missile that was prepared to launch," CENTCOM said in a statement, adding it had "determined (the missile) presented an imminent threat to U.S. aircraft in the region."

It went on to say that the Huthis on Friday night launched an anti-ship missile into the Red Sea, but "There was no impact or damage to any vessels."

Last weekend, US and British forces carried out strikes against 18 Huthi targets across eight locations in Yemen, including weapons storage facilities, attack drones, air defense systems, radars and a helicopter, according to a joint statement.

One person was killed and eight wounded in the attacks, the Huthis' official news agency said on Sunday.

March 2, 2024 09:58 AM
Germany accused of helping 'genocide' in Gaza in ICJ case

Nicaragua on Friday accused Germany of facilitating "genocide" in Gaza in a case started in the International Court of Justice, by giving support to Israel and suspending funding of the UN Palestinian refugee agency.

Through those measures, "Germany is facilitating the commission of genocide and, in any case has failed in its obligation to do everything possible to prevent the commission of genocide," Nicaragua argued in a filing published by the Hague-based court.

Nicaragua was asking the court to take a swift interim stance against Germany before the case was given in-depth study by judges.

The lodging of the case follows the ICJ saying on January 26 that Israel must do everything to prevent genocidal acts in Gaza and take "immediate" measures for aid provisions.

That interim order was given as the court moves to weigh in full a case lodged in December by South Africa alleging that Israel was engaged in genocide in Gaza.

Israel has dismissed South Africa's case as a "grossly distorted story".

ICJ rulings are legally binding but the court has no enforcement mechanism.

Rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch this week said Israel is disregarding the ICJ's interim order by limiting humanitarian aid to Gaza.

Accusations from Israel that staff from UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, took part in the October 7 Hamas attacks against Israeli communities prompted several countries, including Germany, Britain, Japan and the United States, to suspend their funding.

On Friday, the European Commission emphasised that it was maintaining its funding of UNRWA while reviewing arrangements in light of the Israeli allegation.

The commission said it was releasing 50 million euros ($54 million) to the UN agency next week with a further 32 million euros to follow later.

Hamas's unprecedented October 7 attack on southern Israel resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

Militants also took about 250 hostages, 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 31 that Israel says are presumed dead.

The health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza on Friday gave the death toll in the strip from the unrelenting Israeli retaliation as 30,228, mostly women and children.

On Friday a spokesman for the UN humanitarian office OCHA said that "if something doesn't change, a famine is almost inevitable" in the besieged territory.

March 2, 2024 09:47 AM
Navalny buried in Moscow amid thousands of defiant mourners

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was laid to rest in Moscow on Friday, surrounded by crowds of mourners who chanted his name and blamed authorities for his death in prison.

Outside the cemetery where he was buried, some supporters shouted in grief while others yelled out slogans against the Kremlin and its offensive in Ukraine.

Despite a heavy police presence and official warnings, thousands of mourners paid their respects to the 47-year-old anti-corruption campaigner whose death in an Arctic prison was announced on February 16.

Navalny's death has been widely condemned by Western leaders and his allies have accused President Vladimir Putin of responsibility and of trying to prevent a dignified public burial.

The Kremlin, which has dismissed the accusations as "hysterical", warned against "unauthorised" protests around the funeral.

Navalny's body first lay in an open casket in a packed church in Maryino, southern Moscow, for a ceremony attended by his parents.

The coffin was closed immediately after the service, meaning many mourners who had wanted to file past were not able to pay their last respects at the Mother of God Quench My Sorrows church.

It was transported to the Borisovo cemetery, near the banks of the Moskva River, where several large wreaths were arranged around the grave.

"We won't forget you!", "Forgive us!" some mourners shouted as the coffin arrived.

- 'What are they afraid of?' -

"No to war!" some also chanted while others yelled "Down with the power of murderers!" and "We will not forgive!".

Rights monitoring group OVD-Info said police had arrested at least 128 people attending tributes to Navalny in 19 cities across Russia on Friday.

"Any unauthorised gatherings will be in violation of the law and those who participate in them will be held responsible," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, according to TASS news agency.

"What are they afraid of? Why so many cars?" one mourner, Anna Stepanova, told AFP outside the church.

"The people who came here, they are not scared. Alexei wasn't either."

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz praised the thousands who turned out as "courageous" and French President Emmanuel Macron also paid tribute to the "courage" of those who went to pay their last respects.

The French, German and US ambassadors were seen among mourners outside the church, as were some of Russia's last free independent politicians.

Music from "Terminator 2" -- Navalny's favourite film  -- was played as the coffin was lowered, his spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh said.

- 'Nothing to say' -

Navalny's daughter Dasha Navalnaya paid tribute to her "hero" father in a post on Instagram, writing that "You always have been and always will be my role model".

The dissident's widow Yulia Navalnaya, who did not attend the ceremony after saying earlier this week in France that she feared disruption and arrests of participants, also took to social media.

"I don't know how to live without you, but I will try my best to make you up there happy for me and proud of me. I don't know if I'll make it or not, but I'll try," she said.

"I love you forever. Rest in peace," she wrote.

Navalnaya has also blamed Putin for her husband's death.

Putin's spokesman Peskov has criticised the accusations made by her and some Western leaders as "vulgar".

As the funeral went ahead, Peskov said he had "nothing to say" to the family of the deceased.

Navalny shot to prominence through his anti-corruption campaigning, exposing what he said was rampant graft at the top of Putin's administration.

Some mourners mentioned the huge influence Navalny had on their own activism.

"Because of him I began to get involved in politics... He was the first public person that I listened to," said 26-year-old Denis, a volunteer at a charity.

Navalny was arrested in January 2021 when he returned to Russia after being treated in Germany for a poisoning attack.

"Alexei was tortured for three years," Navalnaya told lawmakers in Brussels.

"He was starved in a tiny stone cell, cut off from the outside world and denied visits, phone calls, and then even letters."

"And then they killed him. Even after that, they abused his body," she said.

- 'Ideas will live on' -

His body was held for eight days before being returned to the family, which Navalny's team believed to be a bid to cover up responsibility for his death.

His family and his team have also accused authorities of trying to prevent a dignified public burial, fearing it could turn into a flashpoint for dissent.

Navalny's team said local investigators had threatened to bury him on the prison grounds if his mother did not agree to a "secret" funeral.

Once the body was released, allies struggled to find a place to hold a funeral ceremony and even hearse drivers.

A civil ceremony allowing the general public to pay their respects to the body -- common in Russia -- was not allowed.

Navalnaya has vowed to continue her husband's work and urged to "fight more desperately, more fiercely than before".

In the crowd near the church, some seemed to agree.

"A person has died, but his ideas will live on thanks to those who have gathered here," said Alyona, a 22-year-old archaeologist.

There were ceremonies as well in several cities across Europe, many of them attended Russians who had left their homeland.

In Berlin several hundred people gathered in front of the Russian embassy, leaving flowers, lighting candles and placing photos of Navalny.

March 2, 2024 09:34 AM
Europe battles powder shortage to supply shells for Ukraine

Hard-to-find gunpowder is hindering Europe's scramble to provide hundreds of thousands of shells for Ukraine's defensive effort against Russian invaders, with solutions only starting to emerge.

"We have all become aware of the need to face up to the scarcity of some components, especially gunpowders," French President Emmanuel Macron said Monday after a gathering of Kyiv's allies in Paris.

"Powder is really what's lacking today," he added.

Gunpowder goes into propellant charges that hurl artillery shells -- such as the NATO-standard 155-millimetre projectiles used in many guns sent to Ukraine -- over distances of tens of kilometres.

"A simple explosive artillery shell has three parts. It has a steel casing, a high-explosive main charge and a detonator" usually set to trigger the blast on impact, said Johann Hoecherl, a munitions expert at the German armed forces university in Munich.

"Propellant charges are usually separate, because (gunners) will take one or two, up to six or even eight" depending on the desired range, he added.

While the propellant is still referred to as gunpowder "it's not powder at all these days, it's made up of rods or pellets", Hoecherl said.

In a video on its website, German arms manufacturer Rheinmetall illustrates stackable propellant cylinders filled with explosive pellets slotting in behind a shell in the breech of a cannon.

- 'Innovation at work' -

Europe counts a very small number of powder producers, said Jean-Paul Maulny, deputy director of France's Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS).

They include firms like Eurenco, with operations in France, Belgium and Sweden, and Nitrochemie, majority-owned by Rheinmetall, with sites in Germany and Switzerland.

With many countries pushing to bring production home, France "is in the process of relocating part of Eurenco's production to Bourges" around 200 kilometres (125 miles) south of Paris, Maulny said.

"This is one of the bottlenecks for munitions," he added. "The top question is the quantity of production."

EU internal market commissioner Thierry Breton told reporters in Paris Friday that the bloc also faced challenges finding the raw materials for gunpowder.

"To make powder, you need a specific kind of cotton, which mostly comes from China," he said.

Nitrocellulose, also known as guncotton, is a key ingredient in gunpowder manufacture.

"Would you know it, deliveries of this cotton from China stopped as if by chance a few months ago," Breton added.

China and Russia have in recent years ramped up economic cooperation and diplomatic contacts, and their strategic partnership has grown closer since the invasion of Ukraine.

In Russia this week, China's Vice Foreign Minister Sun Weidong declared relations "are at their best period in history".

Breton said that "Nordic countries have found a substitute for the Chinese cotton... innovation is at work, precisely to meet the need for powder, because... we have problems today with powder capacity".

Companies producing the substitute ingredients for powder would be among those selected for grants under the EU's Act In Support of Ammunition Production (ASAP) to be announced next week, Breton said.

- 'Much larger scale' -

Breton predicted that EU efforts to boost artillery shell output would bring the bloc's annual production capacity to between 1.5 million and 1.7 million by the end of this year.

He estimated that the equivalent figure for Russia was "a little below two million".

"Everyone is putting themselves in a position to manufacture on a much larger scale," said IRIS expert Maulny.

"For now, the Ukrainians are short of shells... the Russians don't have a shortage since they got stocks from the North Koreans, but it could happen in the coming months," he added.

"No-one was ready for a high-intensity conflict where there's enormous consumption of military equipment. We haven't seen a war like this since World War II," Maulny said.

March 2, 2024 08:24 AM
Calls for probe, ceasefire follow Gaza ‘flour massacre’ by Israel

 

World leaders have called for an investigation and a ceasefire nearly five months into the Gaza war after dozens of desperate Palestinians were killed rushing an aid convoy.

Vowing to "do more" to address the worsening humanitarian situation, President Joe Biden said Friday that the United States would start delivering relief supplies into Gaza via air drops -- as some of its allies have already -- in a bid to get aid into hard-to-reach areas.

Israeli troops opened fire as Palestinian civilians scrambled for food supplies during a chaotic melee on Thursday that the Hamas-run territory's health ministry said killed more than 100 people in Gaza City.

The deaths came after a World Food Programme official had warned: "If nothing changes, a famine is imminent in northern Gaza."

The Israeli military said a "stampede" occurred when thousands of Gazans surrounded the convoy of 38 aid trucks, leading to dozens of deaths and injuries, including some who were run over.

An Israeli source acknowledged troops had opened fire on the crowd, believing it "posed a threat".

Gaza's health ministry called it a "massacre", and said 115 people were killed and more than 750 wounded.

A UN team that visited some of the wounded in Gaza City's Al-Shifa Hospital on Friday saw a "large number of gunshot wounds", UN chief Antonio Guterres's spokesman said.

The hospital received 70 of the dead and treated more than 700 wounded, of whom around 200 were still there during the team's visit, spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

"I'm not aware that our team examined the bodies of people who were killed. My understanding from what they saw in terms of the patients who were alive getting treatments is that there was a large number of gunshot wounds," he said.

The aid convoy deaths helped push the number of Palestinian war dead in Gaza to 30,228, mostly women and children, according to the latest toll from the territory's health ministry.

The war began on October 7 with an unprecedented Hamas attack on southern Israel that resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people, mostly civilians, Israeli figures show.

Israel's military says 242 soldiers have died in Gaza since ground operations began in late October.

- US to 'insist' on more aid -

"The Israeli army must fully investigate how the mass panic and shooting could have happened," German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock wrote on social media platform X.

Her French counterpart Stephane Sejourne said: "There will have to be an independent probe to determine what happened".

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, meanwhile, said that "every effort must be made to investigate what happened and ensure transparency".

Aerial footage of the incident made clear "just how desperate the situation on the ground is", a US State Department spokesman said.

Despite warnings from within his administration that air drops "are a drop in the bucket" compared with what is needed, Biden said Washington would begin deliveries from the sky "in the coming days".

"We need to do more, and the United States will do more," he told reporters at the White House.

Biden said Thursday's deaths happened because Gazans were "caught in a terrible war, unable to feed their families", adding he would "insist" Israel let in more aid trucks.

Reacting to the announcement, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) said the very fact air drops were "being considered is testament to the serious access challenges in Gaza".

"Air drops are not the solution to relieve this suffering, and distract time and effort from proven solutions to help at scale," it added, calling for a "sustained ceasefire" and for land crossings into Gaza to be reopened to aid shipments.

US official Samantha Power, who oversees USAID, told reporters in Ramallah that an average of just 96 aid trucks were entering Gaza each day -- "a fraction of what is needed."

The aid convoy deaths dealt a blow to efforts to broker a new truce in Gaza to get more aid in and free the remaining Israeli hostages held by Palestinian militants.

Militants took about 250 hostages on October 7, 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 31 that Israel says are presumed dead.

Biden had previously said the convoy deaths would complicate truce talks, but told reporters Friday he was still "hoping" for a deal by the Muslim holy month of Ramadan -- starting on March 10 or 11, depending on the lunar calendar -- though he acknowledged it remained uncertain.

"We'll get there, but we're not there yet -- we may not get there," he said, without elaborating, as he headed to his helicopter.

Late on Thursday, he discussed the convoy deaths with the leaders of fellow truce mediators Egypt and Qatar, the White House said, adding the incident "underscored the urgency of bringing negotiations to a close".

US plans aid air drops in Gaza

President Joe Biden said Friday that the United States would start to deliver relief supplies from the air into Gaza, a day after the deaths of more than 100 Palestinians at an aid convoy.

"We need to do more, and the United States will do more," Biden told reporters at the White House at the start of a meeting with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.

"In the coming days we're going to join with our friends in Jordan and others in providing air drops of additional food and supplies," the 81-year-old Biden said in the Oval Office.

The announcement comes as negotiations continue for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, amid a humanitarian crisis in Gaza which has been under siege since Hamas's October 7 attacks on Israel.

Biden has pushed Israel to reduce civilian casualties and allow aid in, while at the same time he has maintained military assistance for the key US ally.

Biden said later he was "hoping" for a deal on a six-week ceasefire by the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which will start on March 10 or 11, depending on the lunar calendar.

"We'll get there but we're not there yet -- we may not get there," Biden added, without elaborating, as he headed to his helicopter to spend the weekend at the presidential Camp David retreat.

Ceasefire talks have been complicated by Thursday's incident in which dozens of desperate Palestinians were killed rushing an aid convoy in northern Gaza, where the UN has warned of famine.

An Israeli source acknowledged troops had opened fire on the crowd, believing it "posed a threat."

March 1, 2024 11:08 PM
Gaza officials report 4 more child malnutrition deaths

 

Four more children have died of "malnutrition and dehydration" in war-torn Gaza, the Hamas-ruled territory's health ministry said on Friday, the latest such reported deaths as famine warnings mount.

The deaths occurred at Kamal Adwan Hospital in northern Gaza, ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said in a statement, noting that the number of child "malnutrition and dehydration" deaths now totalled 10.

Earlier Friday, a spokesman for the UN humanitarian agency OCHA told reporters that "if something doesn't change, a famine is almost inevitable" in Gaza.

"Once a famine is declared, it is too late for too many people," said the spokesman, Jens Laerke.

Global attention turned to the dire humanitarian conditions in Gaza on Thursday, when the health ministry said more than 100 people were killed after desperate Palestinians rushed an aid convoy.

Israeli troops opened fire as Palestinian civilians scrambled for food supplies during a chaotic melee.

World leaders called on Friday for an investigation into the deaths and a ceasefire nearly five months into the war, which kicked off with Hamas's surprise attack on Israel on October 7 that resulted in the deaths of around 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.

Israel's retaliatory offensive to eliminate Hamas has now killed at least 30,228, mostly women and children, according to the ministry's latest toll.

March 1, 2024 10:10 PM
Left-wing firebrand wins UK by-election dominated by Israel-Hamas war

 

Left-wing firebrand George Galloway was elected to the UK parliament on Friday after tapping into anger over the Israel-Hamas war in a chaotic by-election marred by anti-Semitism allegations.

Galloway, 69, first became an MP in 1987 and will return to the House of Commons for the first time since 2015 after winning the seat of Rochdale, in northwest England, by nearly 6,000 votes.

The turbulent vote saw the main opposition Labour party withdraw its candidate, Azhar Ali, after he touted a conspiracy theory that Israel had allowed Hamas to carry out its deadly attack on October 7.

Galloway, long accused by critics of stoking community tensions, put the Gaza conflict front and centre of his campaign in Rochdale, which has a 30 percent Muslim population.

"Keir Starmer, this is for Gaza," Galloway, leader of the fringe Workers Party of Great Britain, said in his victory speech, referring to Labour's leader.

"You have paid, and you will pay, a high price for the role that you have played in enabling, encouraging and covering for the catastrophe presently going on in occupied Palestine in the Gaza Strip," he added.

Starmer, tipped by pollsters to become Britain's next prime minister following a general election due later this year, has been reluctant to criticise Israel and only recently backed calls for a ceasefire.

Labour's stance has caused divisions within the party and sparked several frontbench resignations, but pollsters say the centre-left outfit remains on track to oust the ruling Conservatives in the nationwide vote.

 

- 'Maverick' -

 

Galloway has been a repeated thorn in the side of Labour since he was expelled from party in the 2000s.

His anti-war rhetoric will now pose a headache for Starmer after he is sworn into parliament on Monday.

But political scientists cautioned against reading too much into the result, in which the country's traditional three main parties failed to finish in either first or second place.

"If George Galloway can all of a sudden manufacture 20-30 clones to stand in the seats with the highest Muslim populations, and generate adequate resources to run a general election campaign, then maybe he can pose Labour a serious threat," said Chris Hopkins of polling firm Savanta.

"But realistically, Galloway is a bit of a maverick, a one-off, and has taken huge advantage of a non-campaign from the established parties in Rochdale."

He grabbed nearly 40 percent of the votes cast -- on a turnout of 39.7 percent -- while a local businessman and independent candidate was the surprise runner-up.

The by-election was triggered by the death of veteran Labour MP Tony Lloyd.

A Labour spokesperson said the party "deeply" regretted that it was not able to have a candidate and apologised to Rochdale residents.

"George Galloway only won because Labour did not stand," said the spokesperson, adding that Galloway "is only interested in stoking fear and division".

"As an MP he will be a damaging force in our communities and public life."

- 'Concerned' -

 

The Scottish-born Galloway sparked controversy in the 1990s when he visited then-Iraq leader Saddam Hussein, telling him: "Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability."

He then gained international notoriety in 2005 when he was called to testify over Iraq in the US Senate. He was expelled from Labour in part for calling on British troops "to refuse to obey illegal orders" in Iraq.

Galloway, then representing the Respect Party, ousted a Labour MP for a constituency in east London at the 2005 general election. He last represented a seat in Bradford, northern England, from 2012 to 2015.

A spokesperson for the charity Campaign Against Antisemitism said Galloway has "an atrocious record of baiting the Jewish community".

"Given his historic inflammatory rhetoric and the current situation faced by the Jewish community in this country, we are extremely concerned by how he may use the platform of the House of Commons in the remaining months of this parliament."

March 1, 2024 10:07 PM
Hamas says Israeli 'bombing' kills 7 hostages in Gaza

Hamas said on Friday that seven more hostages seized during its unprecedented attack on southern Israel on October 7 had died because of Israeli military operations in Gaza.

"After examination and scrutiny during recent weeks, we have confirmed the martyrdom of a number of our mujahideen and the killing of seven enemy prisoners in the Gaza Strip as a result of the Zionist (Israeli) bombing," said a statement attributed to a spokesman for its military wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades.

Hamas seized around 250 Israelis and foreigners during the October 7 attack on southern Israel, which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.

Around 130 are still held captive.

Prior to Friday's announcement by Hamas, which AFP could not independently confirm, this included 31 that Israel said were presumed dead, among them six soldiers.

Friday's Hamas statement said the number of hostages killed as a result of Israeli military operations "may have exceeded" 70.

The reason for the discrepancy was not clear.

During a week-long truce in November a total of 105 hostages were released, the Israelis among them in exchange for Palestinians held in Israeli jails.

Egyptian, Qatari and US mediators are scrambling to lock down a new truce in Gaza, where Israel's campaign to eliminate Hamas has killed at least 30,228 people, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-ruled territory's health ministry.

In telephone talks on Thursday, the three countries' leaders set out what a ceasefire deal could look like, the White House said.

"The leaders underscored that the release of hostages would result in an immediate and sustained ceasefire in Gaza over a period of at least six weeks," the White House said.

"They exchanged views on how such a prolonged period of calm could then be built into something more enduring."

March 1, 2024 10:05 PM
'Shocked' EU demands probe into Gaza aid convoy deaths

 

The EU's two top chiefs said Friday they were "shocked" and "deeply disturbed" by the deaths of more than 100 Palestinians after Israeli troops opened fire during an aid delivery, and demanded an investigation.

"Shocked and repulsed by yesterday's killing of innocent civilians in Gaza while desperately waiting for humanitarian aid," European Council President Charles Michel posted on X, formerly Twitter.

"An independent investigation should be launched immediately and those responsible held accountable," he said.

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said she was "deeply disturbed by images from Gaza" and added that "every effort must be made to investigate what happened".

Hamas authorities in Gaza say 115 Palestinians were killed Thursday after Israeli troops opened fire during an aid delivery.

An Israeli source acknowledged the military opened fire on the crowd, adding that the soldiers believed the civilians "posed a threat".

Shortly after Michel and von der Leyen expressed their indignation, the European Commission announced it was strengthening aid funding for Palestinians.

Commission spokesman Eric Mamer said the EU "will proceed to paying 50 million euros ($54 million) to UNRWA and increase emergency support to the Palestinians by 68 million euros in 2024".

UNRWA is the UN agency for Palestinian refugees. Its funding from international partners came under threat after Israel accused some of its staff of participating in Hamas's October 7 attack on Israeli communities near Gaza.

UNRWA head Philippe Lazzarini said on Friday on X that the release of 50 million euros "comes at a critical time" and "will support the Agency's efforts to maintain lifesaving and essential services for Palestinian Refugees across the region."

The EU had said it was reviewing but not suspending its funding to UNRWA in light of the Israeli allegations.

Mamer told reporters UNRWA had agreed to a "series of conditions" including an EU-led audit, and that the next tranche of funds would be released "early next week," with a further 32 million euros to follow later.

The extra 68 million euros in humanitarian aid would go through various organisations like the Red Cross and the Red Crescent, Mamer said.

March 1, 2024 09:09 PM
Chad opposition claims soldiers 'executed' leader

 

Chad's main opposition party on Friday accused soldiers of having executed its leader "at point blank range" in an assault on its headquarters ahead of a long-promised May election.

Yaya Dillo Djerou was the leading opponent and cousin of Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno, who was proclaimed transitional president by the junta in 2021.

Dillo died on Wednesday after troops surrounded the office of his Socialist Party Without Borders in the capital N'Djamena, in what the party says was an "execution". The government denied the accusation.

The violence came a day after Chad's military rulers announced a presidential election on May 6.

The polls will end a three-year transition period and aim to return the central African country to constitutional rule.

Dillo, 49, had told AFP before his death that people wanted to "physically eliminate me" ahead of the election, which he -- and Deby Itno -- planned to contest.

Accounts of what happened during the assault, when gunfire was heard, differ widely between government officials and the party.

"It's an execution, they fired at him at point blank range to execute him for becoming a problem," his party's general secretary Robert Gamb charged Friday.

Communications Minister Abderaman Koulamallah immediately refuted the accusation.

"We didn't execute anyone," he told AFP by telephone. "He opposed his arrest, there were exchanges of bullets.

"There was no execution," Koulamallah, who is also the government spokesman, said.

The capital was calm Friday but a large excavator was demolishing the three-storey building housing the Socialist Party Without Borders on Friday afternoon, AFP journalists saw.

An army security cordon kept people well back and armoured vehicles could be seen around the property.

The government had accused Dillo of leading an attack against the offices of Chad's internal security agency the night before his death. He denied any involvement.

 

- 'No weapon' -

 

Security forces had this week sought the arrest of a member of Dillo's party over an alleged attempt to kill the supreme court president last month.

The government said the attack on the internal security offices, which killed several people, had been an act of reprisal.

Four soldiers and three supporters of Dillo died in Wednesday's fighting, according to the government.

Dillo had "retreated" to his party headquarters, Koulamallah said on Thursday, adding: "He didn't want to surrender and fired on law enforcement."

But his party and other opposition politicians have accused government forces of deliberately killing Dillo.

"You can't attack an opponent alone in an office with a whole arsenal of war" and "who had no weapon", Gamb told AFP by telephone.

Dillo was a rebel who became a minister and then an opposition chief and regularly complained that the May ballot was arranged to assure a victory for Deby Itno.

The death of Dillo removes the transitional president's top rival in the vote.

"There isn’t an opponent today who can pose a threat in the race for the presidency," noted Enrica Picco of the International Crisis Group.

The two men were from the same Zaghawa ethnic minority, which for more than three decades has dominated Chad's politics.

Deby Itno seized power after the death of his father, veteran leader Idriss Deby Itno, in 2021 while fighting rebels.

He promised a return to civilian rule and elections within 18 months, but extended the transition by two years.

March 1, 2024 09:04 PM
Four soldiers dead, 9 hurt in explosives attack on military patrol: Mexico president

Four soldiers were killed and nine injured in an attack with explosives on a military patrol tracking down a criminal group in western Mexico, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said Friday.

The ambush took place Thursday in a rural area of the municipality of Aguililla in the Michoacan province, the president said at his daily press conference.

March 1, 2024 08:52 PM
Israeli strike in Syria kills Iran Guard, two others: reports

 

An Israeli strike in Syria on Friday killed an Iranian Revolutionary Guard and two other people, reports said, in the third consecutive day of Israeli attacks on Syria.

Three violent explosions shook the centre of Banias, on Syria's Mediterranean coast, during the dawn strike on a villa that sheltered "a group affiliated with Iran", said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor.

A building was destroyed, killing the Iranian and two other non-Syrians who were with him, said the Britain-based Observatory, which relies on a network of sources inside Syria.

Iran's official news agency IRNA later said Reza Zarei, a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' navy, had been "killed at dawn today by the usurping Zionist regime".

The government-controlled city of Banias is home to an oil refinery with Iranian tankers docking at its port.

On Thursday, Israel killed a Hezbollah fighter in a strike on Syria, close to the Lebanese border, the Observatory said, hours after similar attacks.

Israel has launched hundreds of air strikes on targets in Syria since civil war broke out in 2011. The strikes have mainly targeted Iran-backed forces including militants from Lebanon's Hezbollah movement as well as Syrian army positions.

Iran is a key political, military and financial backer of the Assad government, and has sent military advisers and volunteers to bolster its forces.

Tehran says it has deployed forces in Syria at the invitation of Damascus, but only as advisers.

The strikes have increased since Israel's war with Palestinian militant group Hamas began on October 7.

Israel rarely comments on individual strikes but has repeatedly said it will not allow Iran to expand its presence in Syria. Iran backs Assad's government and Hezbollah, which supports Hamas.

Syria's war has claimed the lives of more than half a million people and displaced millions since it broke out in March 2011 with Damascus's brutal repression of anti-government protests.

March 1, 2024 06:56 PM
Navalny laid to rest in Moscow cemetery: AFP

 

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was laid to rest in a Moscow cemetery on Friday, AFP reporters saw, after thousands of mourners came to his funeral.

"Goodbye, my friend," Navalny's aide Ivan Zhdanov wrote on Telegram, adding that the coffin was lowered into the ground to the soundtrack of the film "Terminator".

Police detain dozens marking Navalny funeral across Russia: NGO

Russian police on Friday detained at least 45 people across the country at tributes to late opposition leader Alexei Navalny on the day of his funeral, according to rights monitoring group OVD-Info.

"OVD-Info is aware of more than 45 detentions. Most people -- 18 of them -- were detained in Novosibirsk," the organisation said, adding six had been detained in Moscow, where large crowds came out to pay their respects.

March 1, 2024 04:29 PM
Putin warns West of nuclear war risk

President Vladimir Putin warned Thursday of a "real" risk of nuclear war if the West escalates the conflict in Ukraine, offering a defiant and emboldened stance in his annual speech to Russians.

Speaking in Moscow, Putin said his soldiers were advancing in Ukraine and warned the West of "tragic consequences" for any country that dared to send troops to Kyiv.

"They have announced the possibility of sending Western military contingents to Ukraine.... The consequences for possible interventionists will be much more tragic," he said in his address to the nation.

"They should eventually realise that we also have weapons that can hit targets on their territory.

"Everything that the West comes up with creates the real threat of a conflict with the use of nuclear weapons, and thus the destruction of civilisation," said Putin.

Putin's comments appeared to be a response to French President Emmanuel Macron's refusal earlier this week to rule out sending troops to Ukraine -- a stance swiftly disavowed by other leaders in Europe.

The debate has struck a nerve in Moscow, which has long seen its conflict with Ukraine as part of a wider "hybrid war" being waged against it by NATO.

- 'Irresponsible rhetoric' -

But Putin's reaction also drew condemnation.

"It is not the first time we have seen irresponsible rhetoric from Vladimir Putin," US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters on Thursday.

"It is no way for the leader of a nuclear-armed state to speak."

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons also condemned Putin's remarks.

"The ratcheting up of bellicose rhetoric over Ukraine needs to stop before it leads to a nuclear catastrophe," said Melissa Parke, executive director of the Nobel prizewinning organisation.

"President Putin's return to making overt nuclear threats is unacceptable."

Both sides needed to de-escalate their rhetoric, she said.

Western leaders have repeatedly criticised Putin for what they see as his reckless use of nuclear rhetoric.

After pulling Russia out of arms control treaties with the United States and previously warning he was "not bluffing" when he said he was ready to use nuclear weapons, Putin had appeared in recent months to dial down his nuclear threats.

But the fresh warning comes with the Kremlin buoyed by recent gains on the battlefield in Ukraine and an economy that has largely defied sanctions.

It comes ahead of an election certain to extend Putin's term in the Kremlin until 2030.

- 'Advancing confidently' -

The current state of affairs marks a sharp turnaround in fortunes for Moscow over the last 12 months.

Last year at this time, Russian troops were reeling from Ukrainian counteroffensives that pushed them back in northeastern and southern Ukraine.

But after a Ukrainian campaign in the summer of 2023 failed to bring similar results, Kyiv is back on the defensive.

The initially strong Western support for Ukraine appears to be fraying, with a $60-billion US aid package stalled in Congress.

Outgunning Ukrainian forces on the battlefield, Putin's troops seized the eastern stronghold of Avdiivka and are attempting to build on their advances.

Putin on Thursday pointed to recent successes.

"The combat capacity of our armed forces has increased many times over," he said, adding without providing details that his troops were "advancing confidently in a number of areas".

Flanked by Russian tricolour flags and standing alone on stage at the Gostiny Dvor Palace near Moscow's Red Square, the Russian leader listed his country's arsenal of advanced weapons, including the Zircon and Kinzhal supersonic missiles.

But he dismissed reports Russia was preparing to deploy a nuclear weapon in space as a "ploy" by Washington to draw Moscow into arms control talks "on their terms".

- No real opposition -

Putin also touted Russia's strong economic performance at home and outlined a number of small-scale domestic reforms as part of his pitch to Russians ahead of next month's presidential election.

His speech was broadcast not only on state television but also on large digital screens and free of charge in cinemas across the country.

On the economic front, he said Russia was faring better than many expected.

Massive investment in military production, as well as high salaries and benefits for soldiers, has largely shielded the economy from the worst consequences of Western sanctions.

There is little doubt on the outcome of the March 15-17 vote, with all genuine opposition candidates barred from standing and the Kremlin's most vocal critic, Alexei Navalny, now dead.

But Putin has still been campaigning, touring the country and making media appearances since the start of the year, including recently flying a Russian bomber.

The 71-year-old former KGB officer, in power since the final day of 1999, is the longest serving Russian leader since Joseph Stalin -- a record he is set to pass during his next six-year term.

Even before Putin ordered forces into Ukraine in February 2022, he had increasingly portrayed himself as a defender of Russian values against a decadent, liberal and expansionist West.

He has used the military campaign to escalate a crackdown on domestic opponents, with hundreds prosecuted for criticising the Kremlin and its military offensive.

His speech came on the eve of a planned funeral for Putin's top opponent Navalny, who died in prison on 16 February in unclear circumstances.

Putin, who famously never referred to the opposition leader by name, has remained silent on Navalny's shock death that prompted outrage at home and abroad.

March 1, 2024 03:10 PM
11 in hospital after huge fire rips through London apartment block

A huge fire at a residential building in London's upscale South Kensington neighbourhood in the early hours of Friday has put 11 people in hospital and led to around 130 being evacuated, fire officials said.

Fifteen fire engines and around 100 firefighters were called to the fire at a terraced house converted into apartments on Emperor's Gate, in the southwest of the British capital, close to the Natural History Museum.

Half of the ground floor of the five-storey building was alight when they arrived, the London Fire Brigade said on X, formerly Twitter.

"The fire has spread from the ground floor to the top floor and roof. Crews are working hard to... stop it spreading to adjacent buildings," said Station Commander Steve Collins, who was at the scene.

Five people were rescued using ladders, with around 130 residents evacuated from the property and neighbouring buildings.

"Around 11 people have been treated for smoke inhalation and taken to hospital," the fire service added.

March 1, 2024 03:08 PM
Polls open in Iran elections as conservatives expected to dominate

Polling stations in Iran opened Friday for voting to select members of parliament and a key clerical body, amid fears of a low turnout and with conservatives expected to tighten their grip on power.

"Voting for the 12th term of the Islamic Consultative Assembly (parliament) and the 6th term of the Assembly of Leadership Experts began following an order by the interior ministry," state TV reported.

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was the first to cast his ballot on Friday at the Imam Khomeini Hussainia polling station in central Tehran, according to the same source.

Since the last elections, Iran has been badly affected by international sanctions that have led to an economic crisis. It has also been rocked by widespread protests and drawn into escalating regional tensions over the Israel-Hamas war.

More than 61 million people out of Iran's 85-million population are eligible to vote for members of parliament as well as the clerics of the Assembly of Experts, the body in charge of selecting Iran's supreme leader.

A low turnout is expected, however, after a state TV poll found more than half of respondents were indifferent about the elections.

The country's last parliamentary elections in 2020 had a voter turnout of 42.57 percent -- the lowest since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Khamenei on Friday urged people to vote, saying "onlookers from all over observe the affairs of our country; make (Iran's) friends happy and ill-wishers disappointed".

He had previously warned that Iran's "enemies want to see if the people are present", adding that otherwise "they will threaten your security in one way or another".

Those watching included the United States "most of the Europeans, evil Zionists, capitalists and big companies", he said.

Khamenei said the United States and Israel, which "carefully" follow Iran's issues, "are afraid of the people's participation in the elections".

The head of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Hossein Salami, said on Thursday that "every vote is like a missile that is fired into the heart of our strongest enemies".

"If our people want to participate in a powerful political battle like in the past and overcome the enemies, they should come to the stage and vote."

The IRGC, the ideological defenders of the Islamic republic, noted that "strong participation" would discourage "foreign interventions".

Iran considers the United States, its Western allies and Israel "enemies" of the state and accuses them of seeking to intervene in its internal affairs.

- 'Far from free' -

Candidates for parliament are vetted by the Guardian Council, whose members are either appointed or approved by the supreme leader.

They have approved a total of 15,200 candidates, out of nearly 49,000 applicants, to run for seats in the 290-member parliament.

Conservatives and ultra-conservatives, who hold 232 out 290 seats in the 2020 parliament after reformist and moderate candidates were disqualified from running, are expected by analysts to dominate once again.

A coalition of parties called the Reform Front said it would not take part in "meaningless, non-competitive and ineffective elections".

Former Iranian president, the reformist Mohammad Khatami, was quoted in February by the conservative Javan daily as saying that Iran was "very far from free and competitive elections".

Conservatives are also expected to maintain a firm grip on the Assembly of Experts, an 88-member body exclusively made up of male Islamic scholars.

A total of 144 candidates are running but many hopefuls were disqualified, including former moderate president Hassan Rouhani.

Friday's elections are the first since Iran was rocked by mass protests triggered by the September 2022 death in custody of Mahsa Amini.

Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurd, had been arrested for allegedly violating the Islamic republic's strict dress code for women.

Meanwhile, the Israel-Hamas war has sent tensions in the region soaring, with pro-Tehran groups in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen all involved in clashes with either Israel or its Western allies.

The elections also take place amid crippling international sanctions and mounting economic hardship in Iran, where inflation has hovered around 50 percent and the rial has sharply declined against the dollar.

"The prices are extremely high and continue to increase," Masoumeh, a 40-year-old housewife, told AFP in Tehran's Grand Bazaar.

"I don't think that the representatives who will be elected will be able to improve this situation."

March 1, 2024 01:20 PM
US lawmakers approve stopgap bill to avert government shutdown

The US Congress on Thursday approved a stopgap measure to avert a damaging election-year government shutdown, extending funding for several key federal agencies past a weekend deadline.

Five months into the fiscal year, Congress still has not approved the 12 annual spending bills that make up the federal budget, which were facing deadlines of midnight on Friday night and March 8 to keep the lights on.

The Republican-led House and Democratic Senate approved a short-term "continuing resolution" extending the deadline for the first six bills until March 8 and making March 22 the cut-off for the remaining six.

Money for agriculture, science, veterans' programs, transport and housing had been due to run out first, potentially hitting food safety inspections, air traffic controllers' pay and numerous other important functions.

A full shutdown would have come a week later -- a day after President Joe Biden's March 7 State of the Union address -- leaving defense, border security, Congress and many other departments and agencies unable to operate.

But the fourth stopgap funding bill approved under this Congress -- and the third under House Speaker Mike Johnson's leadership -- only gives lawmakers a few extra days to get back on track.

Johnson has been struggling to corral a razor-thin majority, walking a tightrope between the demands of his own right flank and more moderate Republicans.

- 'Working together' -

All but two Democrats in the House voted yes to the continuing resolution but 97 Republicans voted against.

It passed the upper chamber in a 77-13 evening vote and will now make its way to Biden's desk in time to keep the wheels of government turning.

"This is a short-term fix -- not a long-term solution," Biden said in a statement, calling on Republicans to pass full-year funding bills as well as new military aid for Ukraine, which has been blocked by conservative hardliners in the House.

While moderates consider shutdowns politically disastrous, and a threat to Republican chances of hanging onto the House and retaking the Senate in November, right-wingers in safe seats are more inclined to spoil for a fight.

Conservatives have been pushing to eliminate Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas's salary, block travel costs for armed forces personnel seeking abortions and defund parts of Biden's climate agenda -- all red lines for Democrats.

Biden cut a deal with Republicans last year mandating tens of billions of dollars in automatic cuts if lawmakers fail to pass full-year spending bills by April.

The hard-right, 40-member House Freedom Caucus, angered by entreaties from the leadership to accept compromise on its priorities, has made no secret of the fact that it would be happy for that ax to fall.

"We can't let the swamp dictate the terms," Texas congressman Chip Roy posted on X.

Biden called a rare Oval Office meeting for congressional leaders on Tuesday to jolt them into striking a deal on the budget, and to unblock vital aid for Ukraine that is also stalled by infighting among Republicans.

"If our House Republican colleagues of goodwill want to do the right thing, they must accept a fundamental truth about divided government: Republicans cannot pass a bill without Democratic support," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said.

"It takes both sides working together -- and ignoring the extremes of the hard right -- to get anything done."

March 1, 2024 09:08 AM
Israel condemned for unleashing terror at Gaza aid delivery site

World denounced Israel as its troops in the northern Gaza Strip opened fire on Palestinians scrambling for food aid on Thursday in a chaotic incident that the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory said killed more than 100 people.

Though there were conflicting reports on how the pre-dawn incident unfolded, the Israeli military said a "stampede" occurred when thousands of Gazans surrounded a convoy of 38 aid trucks, leading to dozens of deaths and injuries, including some people being run over.

An Israeli source said troops had opened fire on the crowd, believing it "posed a threat".

The Gaza health ministry condemned the "massacre" in Gaza City, saying 112 people were killed and more than 750 wounded.

Reactions to the deaths have poured in from around the world.

- US 'pressing for answers' -

US President Joe Biden said the incident would complicate delicate ceasefire negotiations in the almost five-month-old war, with the White House calling the deaths "tremendously alarming".

State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters the United States was "urgently seeking additional information on exactly what took place".

Washington will be monitoring an upcoming investigation closely and "pressing for answers", he said.

https://twitter.com/SuppressedNws/status/1763324020362281219

- France says fire 'unjustifiable' -

France's foreign ministry said "the fire by Israeli soldiers against civilians trying to access food is unjustifiable".

The "tragic event" came as an "increasing and unbearable number of Palestinian civilians" were suffering from hunger and disease, it added, saying Israel must abide by international law and protect aid deliveries to civilians.

Writing on the social media platform X that Palestinian "civilians have been targeted by Israeli soldiers", French President Emmanuel Macron expressed his "strongest condemnation" of the killings.

https://twitter.com/HamasAtrocities/status/1763299900324745580

- Turkey condemns 'crime against humanity' -

Turkey accused Israel of committing "another crime against humanity" and condemning Gazans to "famine" as civilians scavenge for dwindling supplies of food.

"The fact that Israel... this time targets innocent civilians in a queue for humanitarian aid, is evidence that (Israel) aims consciously and collectively to destroy the Palestinian people", the Turkish foreign ministry said.

https://twitter.com/DillyHussain88/status/1763310948897407222

- Colombia scraps Israel arms purchases -

Colombia's President Gustavo Petro denounced what he called a "genocide" of the Palestinian people and suspended purchases of weapons from Israel, a key supplier of his country's security forces.

"Asking for food, more than 100 Palestinians were killed by (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu. This is called genocide and recalls the Holocaust," Petro wrote on X.

"The world must block Netanyahu."

- Spain condemns 'unacceptable' incident -

"The unacceptable nature of what happened in Gaza, with dozens of Palestinian civilians dead as they were waiting for food, underlines the urgency of a ceasefire," Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares wrote on X.

https://twitter.com/SuppressedNws/status/1763383524046803393

- Italy demands 'immediate ceasefire' -

Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani called for an "immediate ceasefire" in Gaza and urged Israel to protect the Palestinian population after the "tragic deaths".

"We strongly urge Israel to protect the people in Gaza and to rigorously ascertain facts and responsibilities," he said on X.

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni expressed her "deep dismay and concern" over the violence.

- UN condemnation -

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned the incident and was "appalled by the tragic human toll of the conflict", his spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

"The desperate civilians in Gaza need urgent help, including those in the besieged north where the United Nations has not been able to deliver aid in more than a week," Dujarric said.

- EU decries 'carnage' -

European Union foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell denounced the deaths as "totally unacceptable".

"I am horrified by news of yet another carnage among civilians in Gaza desperate for humanitarian aid," he said on X.

- Qatar denounces 'heinous massacre' -

Qatar's foreign ministry condemned "in the strongest terms the heinous massacre committed by the Israeli occupation", calling for "urgent international action" to halt the fighting in Gaza.

It went on to warn that Israel's "disregard for Palestinian lives... will ultimately undermine international efforts aimed at implementing the two-state solution, and thus pave the way for the expansion of the cycle of violence in the region".

- Saudi Arabia calls for ceasefire -

Saudi Arabia's foreign ministry condemned the deaths and reiterated "the need to reach an immediate ceasefire".

It also renewed its "demands to the international community to take a firm position to oblige Israel to respect international humanitarian law, immediately open safe humanitarian corridors, allow the evacuation of the injured, and enable the delivery of relief aid".

UNSC asked to condemn Israel

The Palestinian ambassador to the UN on Thursday pleaded for the Security Council to condemn the episode in Gaza that saw Israeli forces open fire on Palestinians scrambling for food aid.

"The Security Council should say enough is enough," Riyad Mansour told reporters ahead of a closed-door meeting by the body, which came at the request of Algeria.

The meeting was held to discuss the morning's events in Gaza, where Israeli forces opened fire on the Palestinians in a chaotic melee that the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory said killed 112 people and injured 760.

An Israeli source acknowledged troops had opened fire on the crowd, believing it "posed a threat."

The Israeli military said a "stampede" occurred when thousands of desperate Gazans surrounded a convoy of 38 aid trucks, leading to dozens of deaths and injuries, including some who were run over by the lorries.

"This outrageous massacre is a testimony to the fact that as long as the Security Council is paralyzed and vetoes (are) casted, then it is costing the Palestinian people their lives," Mansour said.

As one of five permanent members of the 15-member council, the United States -- Israel's biggest ally -- has a veto that it has wielded three times so far to bar the body from calling for an immediate ceasefire in the Palestinian territory.

At Thursday's meeting, Algeria put forth a draft declaration expressing "deep concern," which stated that the situation was "due to opening fire by Israel forces."

Of the Council's 15 members, "14 members supported the text," Mansour said after the meeting.

According to a diplomatic source, the United States opposed Israel being named, but discussions were ongoing.

"The parties are working on some language to see if we can get to a statement," US deputy ambassador to the UN Robert Wood said.

"The problem is that we don't have all the facts here," he said, adding that he wanted the wording to reflect "the necessary due diligence with regards to culpability."

Mansour said he met earlier in the day with US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield.

"I implored her that the Security Council has to produce a product of condemning this killing and to go after those responsible for this massacre," he said.

If the Security Council has "a spine and determination to put an end to these massacres from happening all over again, what we need is a ceasefire," Mansour said.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the situation "would require an effective independent investigation," into how the deaths occurred and who was responsible, after condemning the episode earlier in the day through his spokesman.
- Truce hopes -

The war began on October 7 with a Hamas attack on southern Israel that resulted in the deaths of around 1,160 people, mostly civilians, Israeli figures show.

Militants also took about 250 hostages, 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 31 Israel says are presumed dead.

Israel's retaliatory military campaign has killed 30,035 people, according to Hamas-run Gaza's health ministry.

Israel's military says 242 soldiers have died in Gaza since ground operations began in late October.

Washington, a key ally of Israel, has been pushing for a reduction in civilian casualties and a ceasefire.

It has been working with mediators Egypt and Qatar to seek a six-week pause in the war.

Negotiators had hoped a truce could begin by the time the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins, around March 10 or 11 depending on the lunar calendar.

The proposals reportedly involve the release of some Israeli hostages held by militants in Gaza in exchange for hundreds of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.

Short of the complete Israeli withdrawal Hamas has called for, a source from the group said the deal might see troops leave "cities and populated areas", allowing the return of some displaced Palestinians and humanitarian relief.

- Fears of famine -

The World Food Programme has said Israel has blocked access for aid deliveries -- which Israeli officials have denied -- and warned that if nothing changes, "a famine is imminent in northern Gaza".

As fighting continued in Gaza, Muhammad Yassin, 35, struggled to find flour in Zeitun.

"We have not eaten a loaf of bread for two months," he said. "Our children are starving."

In the south, nearly 1.5 million people trying to flee the fighting are now packed into Rafah city, also short of food, as Israel threatens to send in troops against Hamas fighters.

https://twitter.com/elstheticsa/status/1763407718663213211

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come under increasing pressure to bring the remaining hostages home.

A group of 150 Israelis have started a four-day march from Reim, near the Gaza border, to Jerusalem, calling for the government to reach a deal.

Violence has also surged in the occupied West Bank, where two Israelis were killed on Thursday.

 

February 29, 2024 10:51 PM
UN Sec. Council to meet Thursday on deadly Gaza aid distribution incident

 

The UN Security Council will hold a closed-door meeting Thursday afternoon, an updated schedule showed, following the chaotic incident during a Gaza food aid delivery, which Hamas says resulted in over 100 deaths.

The emergency meeting at UN headquarters in New York, which will be held at 4:15 PM (2115 GMT), was requested by Algeria, a diplomatic source said.

February 29, 2024 10:50 PM
Italy foreign minister urges 'immediate ceasefire' in Gaza

 

Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani called Thursday for an "immediate ceasefire" in Gaza and called on Israel to protect the Palestinian population after troops opened fire at an aid convoy.

"The tragic deaths in Gaza demand an immediate ceasefire to facilitate more humanitarian aid, the release of hostages and the protection of civilians," he said on X, hours after the incident which the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory said killed 104 people.

"We strongly urge Israel to protect the people in Gaza and to rigorously ascertain facts and responsibilities," he said.

The Israeli military said a "stampede" occurred when thousands of Gazans surrounded a convoy of 30 aid trucks, leading to dozens of deaths and injuries, including some who were run over by the lorries.

An Israeli source acknowledged troops had opened fire on the crowd, believing it "posed a threat".

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni expressed her "deep dismay and concern" over the violence, calling on Israel to "urgently ascertain the dynamics of the incident and relative responsibilities".

She also called for negotiation efforts to be "immediately intensified to create the conditions for a ceasefire" and the freeing of the hostages.

February 29, 2024 10:09 PM
Trump demands Biden 'must take a cognitive test'

 

Donald Trump called Thursday for President Joe Biden to take a cognitive test, slamming the Democrat almost certain to be his opponent in November's US election for his "terrible decisions."

Trump regularly boasts about his performance on a simple exam meant to detect dementia, sparking ridicule from critics, but multiple missteps by both men have raised concerns over their advanced years and mental acuity.

"Crooked Joe Biden must take a Cognitive Test. Maybe that way we would be able to find out why he makes such terrible decisions," the 77-year-old posted on Truth Social.

"I took two of them, and ACED them both (no mistakes!). All Presidents, or people wanting to become President, should mandatorily take this test!"

Biden, 81, underwent an annual physical Wednesday and was declared "fit for duty" by doctors who said there were no notable changes in his health over the past year.

The White House said Biden did not undergo a cognitive test because it was not deemed necessary.

"He passes a cognitive test every day, as he moves from one topic to another topic, understanding the granular level of these topics," press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.

Polling has consistently shown that a majority of Americans do not want to see a rematch between Biden and Trump in November, deeming both too old for the White House.

Trump -- who is expected over the coming month to secure the Republican nomination to run against Biden -- often mocks Biden's verbal gaffes and impersonates his stiff gait during rallies.

The president was described in a recent report exonerating him over his retention of classified documents as "an elderly man" who frequently shows limitations with memory and recall.

Trump boasts regularly about his performance in a dementia test that required him to remember five words in the correct order but the Republican former president is also prone to regular verbal slip-ups.

In recent weeks he has mistakenly referred to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban as the leader of Turkey and on one occasion repeatedly confused former US House speaker Nancy Pelosi with his primary rival, Nikki Haley.

February 29, 2024 09:58 PM
Israel killed 25,000 Palestinian women, children since October: Pentagon

 

Israel has killed more than 25,000 Palestinian women and children since the October 7 attack by militant group Hamas, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Thursday.

"It's over 25,000," Austin told lawmakers when asked during a House Armed Services Committee hearing for the figure on women and children killed.

The United States has backed Israel since the unprecedented Hamas attack in October that resulted in the deaths of around 1,160 people.

Israel responded to the attack with a relentless assault on Gaza that the coastal territory's health ministry said has left more than 30,000 people dead.

The number provided by Austin is within the same range, and come as Washington pushes for a ceasefire and a reduction in civilian casualties in Gaza.

Biden says Gaza ceasefire unlikely Monday, shootings to complicate talks

 

US President Joe Biden said a ceasefire in war-torn Gaza was now unlikely to happen by Monday, adding that a shooting incident at an aid point would likely complicate negotiations.

Biden said Thursday that the United States was checking "competing versions" of the incident in which the health ministry in the Hamas-run Palestinian territory said Israeli troops shot dead 104 people.

Earlier this week Biden had predicted a deal was possible by Monday to implement a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza in exchange for the release of hostages held by Hamas.

"Hope springs eternal," Biden told reporters when asked about the ceasefire timing, as he left the White House for a pre-election trip to Texas to visit the US-Mexico border.

"I was on the telephone with people in the region... Probably not by Monday, but I'm hopeful."

The US president said he did not yet have clarity on what happened in Gaza City earlier Thursday, when one of the worst single incidents of the nearly five-month war occurred.

"We're checking that right now. There are two competing versions of what happened, I don't have an answer yet," Biden told reporters as he headed to his helicopter.

Asked if he was worried whether it would complicate the delicate negotiations for a ceasefire, Biden replied: "I know it will."

The health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said Israeli forces there opened fire on a crowd of Palestinians at an aid distribution point Thursday, killing at least 104 people and wounding over 700.

Israeli sources confirmed that troops shot at a crowd rushing towards aid trucks, believing they "posed a threat" to Israeli troops. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office however said many were crushed by the trucks themselves.

The United States has backed Israel since the unprecedented Hamas attack on the country on October 7, but has recently pushed for a ceasefire and a reduction in civilian casualties.

The Palestinian death toll from the war has now topped 30,000, the Gaza health ministry said earlier Thursday.

Hamas's October 7 attacks resulted in the deaths of around 1,160 people, mostly civilians, Israeli figures show.  Militants also took about 250 hostages, 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 31 presumed dead, according to Israel.

February 29, 2024 09:42 PM
Poland buys $2.5-billion US battle command system

 

Poland has signed a deal with the United States to buy a $2.5-billion integrated battle command system (IBCS), its defence minister said Thursday.

The NATO and EU member has made important military purchases in recent years -- mainly from the United States and South Korea -- amid security concerns over the war in neighbouring Ukraine.

Warsaw currently spends more than four percent of GDP on defence, the highest rate among NATO members.

"The Polish army is acquiring an operational brain for air and missile defence systems," Polish Defence Minister Wladyslaw Kosiniak-Kamysz said alongside the US ambassador to Warsaw.

"Poland will be the second country, after the United States, to have the world's most modern integrated command system," he added.

Mark Brzezinski, the US ambassador, highlighted the importance of the deal on X, formerly Twitter.

"We have seen with our own eyes in Ukraine how crucial air and missile defence is, and this order will provide Poland with the best, most modern and effective tools to defend NATO territory," he wrote in Polish.

Poland will receive the battle command system by 2031, according to the deal.

February 29, 2024 08:33 PM
'Pity us': Desperate Gazans reel from aid trucks 'massacre'

 

The crowd flocked to the aid distribution point early Thursday, desperate for food amid Gaza's looming famine, only to be met with lethal chaos including live fire by Israeli troops.

By mid-afternoon more than 100 people were reported dead in the grisly incident which underscored worsening shortages in the besieged Palestinian territory.

All told, Thursday's "massacre" at Gaza City's Nabulsi roundabout killed 104 people and wounded 760, said Ashraf al-Qudra, spokesman for Hamas-run Gaza's health ministry.

Just hours, earlier the Palestinian death toll from the nearly five-month-old war in Gaza had topped 30,000.

But there were conflicting reports on what exactly was responsible for Thursday's deaths.

Qudra blamed Israeli troops, and Israeli sources confirmed to AFP that the Israeli forces at the scene did open fire, having perceived the crowds near the trucks as a "threat".

A spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office, however, said many of the dead were crushed by the trucks themselves.

"Aid trucks were overwhelmed by people trying to loot and drivers ploughed into the crowd of people, ultimately killing tens of people," said the spokesman, Avi Hyman.

A young Palestinian man who was among the wounded spoke of chaotic scenes.

"There were crowds of people, but the occupation (forces) kept firing towards us," the man told AFP while lying on the dirty, crowded floor at Kamal Adwan Hospital waiting for treatment

Outside, four women in headscarves wailed while clutching at the lifeless body of a bearded man wrapped in white cloth, while men lined up to pray nearby.

At Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, doctors were "unable to deal" with the flood of casualties "as a result of weak medical and human capacities," Qudra said.

Hamas, whose unprecedented October 7 attack on southern Israel kicked off the war, denounced what it described as a "hideous and heinous" massacre.

 

- 'Storming' scarce trucks -

 

The Hamas attack resulted in the deaths of around 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official Israeli figures.

Israel's withering military response has now killed at least 30,035 people, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry, which does not specify how many fighters are included in the toll.

The offensive has caused widespread devastation in Gaza and severe shortages of food, water and medicine.

For months, aid workers have warned of an increasingly desperate situation for Gazan civilians, and on Monday an official from the UN humanitarian office OCHA said widespread starvation was "almost inevitable".

UN estimates show that 2.2 million people -- the vast majority of Gaza's population -- are threatened with famine, particularly in the north where destruction, fighting and looting make the delivery of food almost impossible.

According to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, just over 2,300 aid trucks have entered the Gaza Strip in February, down by around 50 percent compared to January.

That is an average of well below 100 trucks per day, down from around 500 that were entering daily before the war.

It was precisely that scarcity that drove crowds to rush the trucks at Nabulsi roundabout on Thursday, a witness told AFP.

Aerial footage distributed by the Israeli military showed large groups approaching a line of moving trucks on foot.

"Trucks full of aid came too close to some army tanks that were in the area and the crowd, thousands of people, just stormed the trucks," the witness said, declining to be named for safety reasons.

"The soldiers fired at the crowd as people came too close to the tanks."

 

- 'Under siege' -

 

Thursday's incident in Gaza City spurred a heated exchange at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, where Palestinian ambassador Ibrahim Mohammad Khraishi confronted his Israeli counterpart about the reported casualties.

"Are these human shields? Are these Hamas combatants?" Khraishi asked.

Israel says it wants to eliminate Hamas, but diplomats are scrambling to broker a truce before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which is set to begin on March 10 or March 11, depending on the lunar calendar.

At Kamal Adwan hospital, a Palestinian woman checking on relatives caught up in the chaos at Nabulsi roundabout said the world should "take pity" on Gazans.

"My nephews went there to bring flour, but they (Israeli forces) fired on them," said the woman, who did not give her name.

"We are under siege. Take pity on us. Ramadan is coming soon. People should look at us. Pity us."

February 29, 2024 08:28 PM
Israel forces shoot dead 104 at aid point in Gaza

 

Israeli forces shot dead 104 people when a crowd rushed towards aid trucks on Thursday, the health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said, in one of the worst single incidents of a nearly five-month war.

More than 750 people were also hurt in the incident, the ministry said. It came after aid agencies had intensified warnings over Gaza's humanitarian situation, with famine threatening particularly in Gaza's north.

Looting of aid trucks had previously occurred in northern Gaza, where residents have taken to eating animal fodder and even leaves to try to stave off hunger.

Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said hundreds were killed and wounded from "bullets of the occupation forces that targeted a gathering of citizens" at Gaza City's Nabulsi roundabout. He called it a "massacre".

A witness told AFP that "thousands of people" had "just stormed the trucks", which were near army tanks.

"The soldiers fired at the crowd as people came too close to the tanks," the witness said, declining to be named for safety reasons.

Israeli sources confirmed that troops opened fire at Palestinians rushing toward aid trucks in Gaza, with one saying soldiers thought they "posed a threat" to troops.

A spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office, however, said many of the dead were crushed by the trucks themselves, after "aid trucks were overwhelmed by people trying to loot".

The Gaza City shooting adds to a Palestinian death toll from the war which the health ministry earlier Thursday said had topped 30,000.

It came after mediators said a truce deal between Israel and Hamas militants could be just days away.

In a reflection of increased concern at the White House, President Joe Biden's administration is considering air-dropping aid into Gaza, US news site Axios reported early Thursday.

 

- Towards 'the finish line' -

 

The war began on October 7 with an unprecedented Hamas attack on southern Israel that resulted in the deaths of around 1,160 people, mostly civilians, Israeli figures show.

Militants also took about 250 hostages, 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 31 presumed dead, according to Israel.

Israel vowed to destroy Hamas, and its retaliatory military campaign has killed 30,035 people, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

Israel's military says 242 soldiers have died in Gaza since ground operations began in late October.

New Zealand on Thursday became one of the latest Western countries to designate Hamas as a "terrorist" entity, saying the October 7 attack shattered the notion that the movement's political and military wings are separate.

Mediators from Egypt, Qatar and the United States have been seeking a six-week pause in the war.

Negotiators hope a truce can begin by around March 10 or 11 when the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins, depending on the lunar calendar.

The proposals reportedly include the release of some Israeli hostages held in Gaza by militants in exchange for hundreds of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.

Short of the complete withdrawal Hamas has called for, a source from the group said the deal might see Israeli forces leave "cities and populated areas", allowing the return of some displaced Palestinians and humanitarian relief.

Biden is "pushing all of us to try to get this agreement over the finish line", Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.

 

- Famine 'imminent' -

 

The United Nations humanitarian agency OCHA described the food security situation as "extremely critical across Gaza, particularly in northern Gaza."

According to the World Food Programme (WFP), no humanitarian group had been able to deliver aid to the north for more than a month. The agency accused Israel of blocking access.

"If nothing changes, a famine is imminent in northern Gaza," WFP's deputy executive director Carl Skau said.

Israeli officials have denied blocking supplies.

With aid flows on the ground limited, more is coming in by parachute.

Neighbouring Jordan said it had on Thursday again air-dropped food and other relief. Jordan's army said the drop over northern Gaza came in collaboration with Bahrain and Oman.

The United Arab Emirates' official news agency WAM said the Gulf country had begun a joint operation with Egypt to drop food and medical aid.

The operation would last several weeks, it said.

In the south, nearly 1.5 million people trying to flee the fighting are now packed into Rafah city, also short of food, as Israel threatens to send in troops against Hamas fighters there.

"They are 30,000 martyrs. I don't know what (Israel) want from us, and why they killed this number. It is a genocide," said Jihad Salha, one of the displaced in Rafah.

Intense fighting has taken place in Khan Yunis city a few kilometres (miles) from Rafah.

On Thursday Israel's military said it had also killed militants in central Gaza as well as in Gaza City's Zeitun area.

"Three terrorists that used drones were identified entering a compound in the area, where they were eliminated" by an air strike, the military said.

While fighting continued, Muhammad Yassin, 35, battled to find flour in Zeitun.

"I found thousands of people waiting for long hours just to get a kilo or two kilos of flour," he said.

"We have not eaten a loaf of bread for two months. Our children are starving."

UN aid chief condemns Gaza shootings

"Life is draining out of Gaza at terrifying speed," the UN humanitarian chief said following multiple deaths Thursday during an attempt to distribute aid supplies in the Palestinian territory.

"Even after close to five months of brutal hostilities, Gaza still has the ability to shock us," UN aid chief Martin Griffiths said on X, formerly Twitter.

Israeli forces in war-torn Gaza opened fire on a crowd of Palestinians at an aid distribution point Thursday, killing at least 104 people and wounding over 700, say Palestinian health officials.

Israeli sources confirmed that troops shot at the crowd, believing they "posed a threat", in a pre-dawn incident in Gaza City in the north of the besieged territory.

"I'm appalled at the reported killing and injury of hundreds of people during a transfer of aid supplies west of Gaza City," Griffiths wrote.

"This comes as the death toll across Gaza since October 7 hits the 30,000 mark.

"Life is draining out of Gaza at terrifying speed."

 

- Meeting in Moscow -

 

Talk about Gaza's post-war future has intensified even as combat continues.

On Thursday, Palestinian factions -- including Hamas and rival Fatah -- were expected in Moscow for a meeting at Russia's invitation.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- who leads a coalition which includes religious and ultra-nationalist parties -- has come under increasing pressure to bring the remaining hostages home.

A group of 150 Israelis have started a four-day march from Reim, near the Gaza border, to Jerusalem, calling for the government to reach a deal.

In another reflection of political tensions within Israel, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant called for members of the ultra-Orthodox community to be enrolled in military service.

February 29, 2024 08:18 PM
Two PKK-linked fighters killed in Iraq strike blamed on Turkey

 

A Turkish drone strike in northwestern Iraq killed two members of a group affiliated to Turkey's outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) Thursday, said Kurdish authorities.

The fighters were members of the Sinjar Resistance Units, a group founded among the district's Yazidi community in response to a brutal occupation by the Islamic State group nearly a decade ago.

There was no immediate word from the Turkish military, which has conducted deadly strikes against PKK targets in Iraq and neighbouring Syria but rarely comments on individual strikes.

"A Turkish army drone targeted a vehicle of the Sinjar Resistance Units in the region of Wardiya in southern Sinjar, killing an official and a fighter who was escorting him," the counterterrorism services of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region said in a statement.

Another fighter was injured.

Sinjar and its adjacent mountains are one of the heartlands of Iraq's Yazidi community, a non-Muslim Kurdish speaking minority that was savagely oppressed by IS jihadists when they overran the district in 2014.

The Sinjar Resistance Units were formed in 2014 with help from fellow Kurds of the PKK, which Ankara and its Western allies consider a "terrorist" organisation.

The Sinjar force is also affiliated to the Hashed al-Shaabi, an alliance of mainly Shiite armed groups formed to fight IS and now integrated in the regular Iraqi armed forces.

Turkey frequently carries out ground and air offensives on positions of the PKK -- which has waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state -- in northern Iraq.

It also has over the past 25 years operated several dozen military bases in northern Iraq in its war against the PKK.

On February 20, two civilians were killed in a strike in northern Iraq that was blamed on Turkey, security and health officials said.

February 29, 2024 08:12 PM
Hearses refuse to take Navalny's body after threats: team

 

Hearse drivers are refusing to take Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny's body from the morgue to his funeral on Friday after receiving threats, his allies said.

Since the Kremlin critic's death in prison almost two weeks ago, his team have accused authorities of trying to prevent him from having a dignified public burial.

"What a disgrace. Now the hearse drivers refuse to take Alexei from the morgue," said Ivan Zhdanov, an exiled ally who managed Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, on Thursday.

Navalny's spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh said funeral directors had received threatening calls from "unknown people" warning them not to transport Navalny's body anywhere.

Navalny died on February 16 in one of Russia's toughest prisons in northern Siberia, where he was serving a 19-year sentence on charges widely seen as political retribution for his opposition.

Authorities resisted handing the politician's body to his family for eight days, in what his team said was an attempt to "cover up" official involvement in his death.

Russian authorities said Navalny died of "natural causes" but his team and some Western leaders have accused Putin of being directly responsible.

Details of the funeral and how many mourners will be allowed to attend are still unclear, and there has been no comment from authorities on how it will be managed.

February 29, 2024 07:01 PM
Chad opposition leader killed in army assault on party HQ: minister

 

A leading opponent of Chad's ruling junta Yaya Dillo Djerou has been killed in an army assault on his party headquarters, a government spokesman told AFP Thursday.

Dillo died on Wednesday "where he had retreated, at the headquarters of his party. He didn't want to surrender and fired on law enforcement," Abderaman Koulamallah, who is also communications minister, said.

The prosecutor general earlier spoke of "dead including Yaya Dillo" without  detailing the circumstances.

Dillo, who led the opposition Socialist Party Without Borders (PSF), was accused of having led an attack against the offices of the internal security agency overnight on Tuesday to Wednesday.

It came after the arrest of a PSF member accused of an "assassination attempt against the president of the supreme court".

Speaking to AFP on Wednesday, Dillo denied any involvement in the incident, denouncing the claim as a "lie" and politically motivated.

"I wasn't present," he said.

Dillo also condemned an attempted attack against the supreme court president as  "staged".

On Tuesday, Chad announced it would hold a presidential election on May 6, which both transitional president Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno and Dillo -- who were cousins -- planned to contest.

February 29, 2024 06:59 PM
Spain opens 'terror' probe into Catalan separatist leader

 

Spain's top court said Thursday it was opening an investigation into Catalan separatist leader Carles Puigdemont on "terrorism" charges over protests linked to the failed 2017 Catalan independence bid.

In a statement, the Supreme Court said it had decided "to investigate and, where appropriate, prosecute" Puigdemont "for terrorism offences in relation to the Democratic Tsunami case".

Democratic Tsunami is a secretive Catalan protest group behind a string of protests after Spain jailed 13 pro-independence leaders, two years after their botched bid to break away from Spain.

The independence bid had sparked the country's worst political crisis in decades.

On the day the sentence was handed down in October 2019, thousands of activists blocked access to Barcelona airport for several hours, prompting the cancellation of over 100 flights.

During clashes between police and protesters, 115 were injured.

In its decision, the court referred to the crime of "street terrorism".

The aim, it said, was to "undermine law and order, to seriously breach the peace, to cause causing serious harm to the functioning of an international organisation or to cause a sense of terror within the population or part of it".

There was "evidence pointing to Carles Puigdemont's participation in the events under investigation", the ruling added, referring to his involvement in the creation of the group whose aim was "to subvert law and order and to seriously destabilise democratic institutions".

February 29, 2024 05:14 PM
Health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza says death toll at aid trucks shooting hits 104

 

The health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said Thursday 104 people were killed and more than 750 injured after Israeli soldiers opened fire on civilians gathered at an aid distribution point in the Palestinian territory.

The death toll from the "massacre" in Gaza City "rose to 104 martyrs and 760 injuries due to the bullets of the occupation forces that targeted a gathering of citizens" at the Nabulsi roundabout, said ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra.

February 29, 2024 03:49 PM
50 killed as Israel fires on Gazans rushing to aid trucks

A Gaza emergency doctor said Thursday that Israeli forces shot dead at least 50 people who rushed towards trucks loaded with humanitarian aid for Gaza City residents.

"The number of martyrs rose to at least 50... and more than 120 were injured, including women and children, as a result of the occupation's shooting" on the crowd in Gaza City, Amjad Aliwa, director of the emergency department of Al-Shifa hospital, said in a statement.

The Israeli army said it was "checking" reports on the incident, while the United Nations' humanitarian office OCHA said it was "familiar with the reports".

The health ministry in Gaza meanwhile said at least 70 people had been killed and another 280 injured in the same incident.

A witness told AFP the incident occurred at the Nabulsi roundabout in the western part of Gaza City, when thousands of people rushed towards the trucks.

"Trucks full of aid came too close to some army tanks that were in the area and the crowd, thousands of people, just stormed the trucks," the witness said, declining to be named for safety reasons.

"The soldiers fired at the crowd as people came too close to the tanks."

The UN estimates that 2.2 million people, the vast majority of Gaza's population, are threatened with famine, particularly in the north where destruction, fighting and looting make the delivery of food almost impossible.

According to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, just over 2,300 aid trucks have entered the Gaza Strip in February, down by around 50 per cent compared to January.

 

February 29, 2024 03:15 PM
US judge kicks Trump off primary ballot over Capitol riot

A judge in the US state of Illinois on Wednesday ordered former President Donald Trump stricken off the state's primary ballot over his role in the January 6 Capitol riot.

The decision by Cook County Circuit Judge Tracie Porter comes as similar anti-Trump ballot measures have cropped up in several states, including a Colorado ruling now before the US Supreme Court.

The question before the nine US justices is whether Trump, the presumed Republican presidential candidate, is ineligible to appear on the Republican presidential primary ballot in Colorado because he engaged in an insurrection -- the January 6, 2021 assault on the US Capitol by his supporters.

Earlier this month, the high Court signaled it was skeptical of the Colorado ruling.

Trump blasted the Illinois decision as politically motivated and unjust.

"Democrat front-groups continue to attempt to interfere in the election and deny President Trump his rightful place on the ballot," Trump's campaign said, vowing to appeal the decision.

Anticipating pushback, the judge in Illinois put her decision on pause until Friday to allow an appeal.

"In the meantime, President Trump remains on the Illinois ballot, is dominating the polls, and will Make America Great Again!" Trump's campaign said.

Colorado and more than a dozen other states are to hold their presidential nominating contests on March 5 -- also known as "Super Tuesday" -- and the Supreme Court is expected to issue its ruling before then.

February 29, 2024 02:42 PM
Global freedom drops sharply in 2023, study says

Democracy faced sharp, widespread setbacks worldwide in 2023 with violence and manipulation marring a series of elections, Freedom House said Thursday.

In its annual report, the US-funded pro-democracy advocacy and research group switched classifications for two countries, downgrading Ecuador from free to partly free and upgrading Thailand from not free to partly free.

Overall, political rights and civil liberties declined in 52 countries and only 21 countries saw improvements, the 18th straight year that global freedom has declined and a much more lopsided trend than a year earlier.

"Even if you look at it region by region, usually we are able to say that one is an outlier, but every single region registered a decline," said report co-author Yana Gorokhovskaia.

"The deterioration is pretty widespread," she said.

The report spoke of efforts by incumbents "to control electoral competition, hinder their political opponents or prevent them from taking power" in Cambodia, Turkey and Zimbabwe and -- unsuccessfully -- in Guatemala and Poland.

Ecuador was downgraded due to election disruption by violent criminal gangs, including the assassination of anti-corruption presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio following a campaign speech.

Thailand was upgraded due to competitive elections even though establishment forces prevented young progressive Pita Limjaroenrat, whose Move Forward Party won the most seats, from becoming prime minister.

"This isn't, I would say, a full-scale victory for democracy or freedom and Thailand," Gorokhovskaia said.

But she saw as progress that the second-place Pheu Thai party of former prime minister and tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra was allowed to take over after years of efforts by the military-backed establishment to suppress it.

The biggest improvement on Freedom House's 100-point scale was posted by Fiji, which gained seven points.

Fiji, listed as partly free, held a tense election in December 2022 in which voters ousted Frank Bainimarama, who had led the Pacific archipelago since staging a bloodless coup in 2006.

Since the election, Fiji has made important progress including by reducing censorship and amending voter registration laws to improve women's participation, Gorokhovskaia said.

February 29, 2024 12:42 PM
US Congress punts again to avert impending government shutdown

Democrats and Republicans in the US Congress reached an agreement in principle on Wednesday to extend the federal budget by a few days and defer the threat of a government shutdown.

The agreement by Republican and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate would push back the start of a shutdown from Friday until March 8, giving policymakers some breathing room to try to reach a deal to fund the government.

"We are in agreement that Congress must work in a bipartisan manner to fund our government," they said in a statement.

They added that "a short-term continuing resolution to fund agencies through March 8 and the 22 will be necessary, and voted on by the House and Senate this week."

For several months, the United States has been deadlocked over the adoption of a finance bill for 2024.

The two parties have been entangled in partisan wrangling, and have only been able to pass a series of mini-bills to extend the US federal budget by a few days or months at a time.

The consequences of a government shutdown would be significant, and would include air traffic controllers going unpaid, some government agencies grinding to a halt, and the closure of America's much-beloved National Parks.

It must now be passed by the House of Representatives, the Senate, and then signed into law by President Joe Biden to postpone this threat.

February 29, 2024 08:42 AM
Death toll in Israeli aggression on Gaza nears 30,000

Children have died of malnutrition in a Gaza hospital, the Hamas-ruled territory's health ministry said Wednesday as its overall toll for Palestinians killed in the almost five-month war neared 30,000.

As mediators insisted a truce deal between Israel and Hamas could be just days away, UN agencies sounded the alarm about the dire humanitarian conditions and warned of a looming famine in Gaza's north.

Two children died of "dehydration and malnutrition" at Gaza City's Al-Shifa hospital, health ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said, calling for "immediate action" from international institutions to prevent more such deaths.

"The famine death toll among children rose to six martyrs," at least five of them in the besieged territory's north in recent days, he said. AFP was unable to independently verify the deaths.

Mediators from Egypt, Qatar and the United States have been seeking a six-week pause in the war sparked by Hamas's October 7 attack on Israel, which in response vowed to eliminate the Palestinian Islamist group that rules in Gaza.

After a flurry of diplomacy, the mediators said a deal could finally be within reach, eyeing a truce before the beginning of Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month which starts on March 10 or 11, depending on the lunar calendar.

The proposals reportedly include the release of some Israeli hostages held in Gaza in exchange for several hundred Palestinian detainees held by Israel.

Short of the complete withdrawal Hamas has called for, a source from the group said the deal might see Israeli forces leave "cities and populated areas", allowing the return of some displaced Palestinians and humanitarian relief.

The Israeli military campaign in Gaza has killed at least 29,954 people, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry, which does not specify how may fighters have been killed.

It was launched in response to Hamas's October 7 attack on southern Israel which resulted in the deaths of around 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official Israeli figures.

- Famine 'imminent' -

In a sign of growing desperation among Gazans over living conditions, a rare protest was held Wednesday in the far-southern city of Rafah, packed with nearly 1.5 million Palestinians -- many of them displaced by the fighting.

"The situation is very difficult in Gaza. We can't afford things," said Rafah resident Abdulrahman Abu Khuder at the rally over soaring prices of basic commodities.

Khamis Shallah, displaced from Gaza City, said one kilo of sugar now costs "between 80 and 100 shekel ($22-28), and the price of yeast in 100 shekel".

The Hamas government should "interfere" to ensure ordinary Palestinians have basic supplies, he said, but "they don't care".

While hundreds of thousands of Gazans have fled south since the start of the war, those who remain in the territory's north have faced an increasingly desperate situation, aid groups have warned.

"If nothing changes, a famine is imminent in northern Gaza," the World Food Programme's deputy executive director Carl Skau told the UN Security Council Tuesday.

The WFP said no humanitarian group had been able to deliver aid to the north for more than a month, accusing Israel of blocking access.

Most aid trucks have been halted, but foreign militaries have air dropped supplies over southern Gaza.

What aid does enter Gaza passes through the Rafah, where Israel has warned it plans to launch a ground offensive, potentially only after a truce.

Israel has insisted it would move civilians to safety before sending troops into the area on Gaza's border with Egypt, which has warned an assault on Rafah would have "catastrophic repercussions".

- 'No one should be left behind' -

While Israel's plans for post-war Gaza exclude any mention of the Palestinian Authority, its top ally the United States and other powers have called for a revitalised PA to take charge of the territory as well as occupied the West Bank.

Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Maliki said a "technocratic" Palestinian government without Gaza's rulers Hamas was needed to "stop this insane war" and facilitate relief operations and reconstruction.

His government, based in the West Bank, resigned this week, with prime minister Mohammad Shtayyeh citing the need for change after the war ends.

A government that includes Hamas -- longtime rivals of president Mahmud Abbas's Fatah party, which controls the PA -- would "be boycotted by a number of countries," Maliki told a news conference in Geneva.

"Hamas should understand this, and I do believe that they are in support of the idea to establish, today, a technocratic government" for a period of "transition", he said.

In Israel, Netanyahu has come under increasing pressure to bring the hostages home.

Gaza militants on October 7 took about 250 captives, 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 31 presumed dead, according to Israel.

Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said "military pressure will bring back additional hostages", insisting the government was "making every effort" to free all of them.

A group of 150 Israelis started a four-day march from Reim, near the Gaza border, to Jerusalem, calling for the government to reach a deal.

"The war cabinet is responsible for ensuring that... all the hostages will be included" in the deal currently being negotiated, said Ronen Neutra, father of captive Omer Neutra, an Israeli soldier who is also a US citizen.

"No one should be left behind," he said.

NZ designates Hamas a 'terrorist entity'

New Zealand on Thursday became one of the last Western countries to designate all of Hamas as a "terrorist entity", saying the attacks of October 7 had shattered the notion its political and military wings could be separated.

"The organisation as a whole bears responsibility for these horrific terrorist attacks," the government said, announcing a move that spells a freeze on Hamas assets in New Zealand and a ban on providing it with "material support".

"The terrorist attacks by Hamas in October 2023 were brutal and we have unequivocally condemned them," New Zealand Prime Minister Christopher Luxon said in a statement.

Luxon stressed the designation was about Hamas "and is not a reflection on the Palestinian people in Gaza and around the world" while indicating humanitarian support would continue.

"The designation does not stop New Zealand providing humanitarian and future development assistance to benefit civilians in Gaza."

New Zealand had designated the Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas as a terrorist entity since 2010.

But it has been reluctant to follow other Western nations in designating the entire group -- which is also a political party and has enjoyed widespread Palestinian support.

Hamas won elections in Gaza in 2006 and has ruled without fresh polls ever since.

Some New Zealand political figures have argued that Hamas' "terrorist" designation should be matched by a similar designation of the Israel Defense Forces over its months-long Gaza bombing campaign that has killed almost 30,000 people, according to Hamas-controlled authorities in the territory.

Such a move is highly unlikely, but New Zealand on Thursday also announced sanctions on about a dozen "extremist Israeli settlers" accused of violence against Palestinians.

"We are imposing travel bans on a number of people known to have committed violent acts. These individuals will not be able to travel to New Zealand," said Foreign Minister Winston Peters.

The individuals were not named publicly.

February 28, 2024 11:49 PM
Navalny's funeral set for Friday in Moscow

 

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny's funeral will be held on Friday in a Moscow church, two weeks after his sudden death in an Arctic prison, his allies announced Wednesday.

Authorities resisted handing Navalny's body to his family for eight days, in what his team said was an attempt to "cover up" official involvement in his death and prevent a public burial.

His widow Yulia Navalnaya said she feared her husband's funeral could be disrupted by arrests.

"I'm not sure yet whether it will be peaceful or whether the police will arrest those who have come to say goodbye to my husband," Navalnaya told the European Parliament.

Navalny's team said in a social media post that a funeral service would be held at the Mother of God Quench My Sorrows church in Maryino on March 1 at 2.00pm (1100 GMT). "Come in advance," the post said.

The burial of the opposition leader, who had embraced Christianity, is set to take place at the Borisov cemetery, a short walk from the banks of the river Moskva.

Finding a church willing to host the service was difficult, the team said, as the Kremlin was afraid a public funeral could turn into a show of support for Navalny.

- 'A chance to say goodbye' -

 

"We started to look for a church and a hall for March 1. Everywhere they refused to give us anything. In some places we were told it was forbidden," said exiled ally Ivan Zhdanov.

Other allies said places refused after hearing Navalny's name.

"Alexei needs to be buried... To have a chance to say goodbye, better to come in advance," he added.

But a civil ceremony allowing the general public to pay their respects to the body -- common in Russia -- has not been allowed.

"Two people are to blame for the fact that we have no place for a civil memorial service and farewell to Alexei: (Russian President) Vladimir Putin and (Moscow Mayor) Sergei Sobyanin," Navalnaya said on X.

She added the family "did not want a special treatment -- just to give people the chance to say goodbye."

Navalny died on February 16 in one of Russia's toughest prisons in northern Siberia, where he was serving a 19-year sentence on charges widely seen as political retribution for his opposition.

Russian authorities said Navalny died of "natural causes" but his team and some Western leaders have accused Putin of being directly responsible for his death.

 

- Threats to family -

 

Details of the funeral and how many mourners will be allowed to attend are unclear, and there was no immediate response from Russian officials.

Authorities had threatened to bury him on the prison grounds where he died unless his family agreed to a private ceremony, his team previously said.

Putin, who famously never referred to the opposition leader by name, has so far remained silent on Navalny's death.

Authorities have however cracked down on public gatherings in memory of Navalny, detaining hundreds for laying flowers at memorials and other acts of protest.

Dozens have already been handed prison sentences, including 154 in Saint Petersburg alone.

The opposition leader shot to prominence through his anti-corruption campaigning, exposing what he said was rampant corruption at the top of Putin's administration.

He was arrested in January 2021 when he returned to Russia after being treated in Germany for a poisoning attack he suffered while campaigning against Putin in Siberia months earlier.

February 28, 2024 11:47 PM
German navy almost shot down US drone in Red Sea: reports

 

A German naval frigate sent to protect commercial ships in the Red Sea nearly shot down a US drone by mistake, German media reported Wednesday.

The German defence ministry confirmed a drone incident involving an allied nation occurred on Monday, without naming the country.

The "Hesse" frigate opened fire after efforts to identify an unknown drone "were unsuccessful", Defence Minister Boris Pistorius said during a visit to the German town of Oberviechtach, adding however that the target was "not hit".

The drone later turned out to be a "reconnaissance drone", he said.

According to Der Spiegel weekly, the frigate fired two missiles at the drone but both crashed into the sea because of "a technical defect".

Spiegel, without citing its sources, said the drone that was nearly downed was a US Reaper.

It might have been operating in the region "as part of an American anti-terror mission" unrelated to the Red Sea mission, Spiegel added.

The Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper said it was "common knowledge that American combat drones are used in the region that have nothing to do with the operation in the Red Sea".

The German defence ministry said the frigate only launched an attack after none of its allies reported a drone in the area.

Spiegel said military officials believed the friendly fire incident showed that coordination between allies involved in various missions in the region around Yemen "needs to be improved".

The "Hesse" arrived in the region at the weekend as part of an EU mission to help secure international shipping in the Red Sea from attacks by Yemen's Iran-backed Huthis.

The German army earlier on Wednesday said the frigate had successfully thwarted an attack on Tuesday evening by shooting down two drones launched by the rebels.

The Huthis, who control much of war-torn Yemen, have been attacking the vital shipping lane since November in a campaign they say is in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza amid the Israel-Hamas war.

The United States is spearheading its own naval coalition in the Red Sea and has conducted strikes on the Huthis in Yemen along with Britain.

February 28, 2024 11:46 PM
US says backs Moldova sovereignty after rebels appeal to Moscow

 

The United States said Wednesday that it stood by Moldova's sovereignty after rebel officials in the breakaway Transnistria region appealed to Russia for protection.

"The United States firmly supports Moldova's sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders," State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters.

February 28, 2024 11:38 PM
Hunter Biden testifies in impeachment probe targeting his father

 

President Joe Biden's son Hunter testified Wednesday behind closed doors before Republican lawmakers carrying out an impeachment inquiry against his father, who stands accused of lying about his family's business dealings.

Republicans are racing to inflict damage on the Democratic president ahead of November's election, in which their nominee is likely to be the scandal-plagued Donald Trump.

They have accused Biden -- without offering any conclusive evidence -- of using his influence during his time as Barack Obama's vice president (2009-2017) to help Hunter in his business dealings in China and Ukraine.

The impeachment inquiry -- dismissed by Democrats as a political ploy to hurt Biden in the run-up to the election -- is very unlikely to produce actual criminal charges against the president.

When asked Wednesday about a series of financial transactions which Republicans say directly implicate his father in wrongdoing, the 54-year-old Hunter Biden categorically denied any malfeasance.

"I did not involve my father in my business," Biden said in his appearance before the House judiciary and oversight committees, according to his prepared remarks.

"Not while I was a practicing lawyer, not in my investments or transactions domestic or international, not as a board member, and not as an artist. Never."

Republicans have long targeted the troubled younger Biden, a recovering crack cocaine addict, over his alleged shady business dealings -- and attempted to connect those allegations to the sitting president.

But the impeachment probe hit a snag earlier this month when a former FBI informant, Alexander Smirnov, was arrested and charged with lying and making up false corruption allegations against Hunter.

Smirnov alleged that each of the Bidens received a $5 million bribe from the Ukrainian energy firm Burisma -- on whose board Hunter was serving at the time -- to protect it from an investigation when Biden was vice president.

Federal prosecutors now say Smirnov's claim was fabricated.

The probe of the younger Biden so far has turned up nothing to substantiate the Republican allegations against his family.

It has however resulted in criminal charges against Hunter Biden for tax evasion and for lying about his drug use when he applied for a gun permit.

February 28, 2024 11:34 PM
US urges Israel to let Muslims worship at Al-Aqsa during Ramadan

 

The United States on Wednesday urged Israel to allow Muslims to worship at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem during Ramadan, after a far-right minister proposed barring Palestinians from the occupied West Bank from praying there.

"As it pertains to Al-Aqsa, we continue to urge Israel to facilitate access to Temple Mount for peaceful worshippers during Ramadan consistent with past practice," State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters, using the Jewish term for the site, the holiest in Judaism.

February 28, 2024 10:32 PM
With 100,000 protest votes, Michigan sends message to Biden

 

Just over 100,000 people in Michigan voted "uncommitted" in the swing state's Democratic primary, provisional results showed Wednesday, after a protest movement urged voters to punish President Joe Biden over his support for Israel's war in Gaza.

Though Biden handily won the vote, the uncommitted ballots, representing 13 percent of votes cast Tuesday, sent a "clear and resounding message that we demand a permanent ceasefire now," Layla Elabed, an organizer of the Listen to Michigan campaign, told a press conference.

The midwestern state is home to a large number of Arab and Muslim Americans, previously firmly part of the Democratic fold that helped elect Biden in 2020.

Whether Biden could change tack -- and also whether voters who protested in the primary will continue to do so in November -- could be key as the United States heads toward a likely rematch Biden and former president Donald Trump.

Though the percentage of uncommitted votes was similar to that seen in 2012 during Democrat Barack Obama's reelection campaign, where it hit 11 percent, that only represented some 20,000 votes.

Joining in the pressure campaign against Biden were elected officials, with local mayors as well as Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian American representative in Congress, casting uncommitted ballots.

Previous victories in Michigan -- seen as crucial to winning the country as a whole -- have been narrow: Donald Trump won by about 10,000 votes in 2016; Biden won by some 150,000 in 2020.

"It is my hope, Mr. President, that you listen to us," said Abdullah Hammoud, the mayor of Dearborn, a Detroit suburb home to a large number of Arab Americans.

"That you choose democracy over tyranny. That you choose the people of America over (Israeli Prime Minister) Benjamin Netanyahu."

Asked about the risk of electing Trump in November, Hammoud said that was a question should be posed to Biden.

"President Biden is the one seeking the highest of office and he is the candidate who's facing off against Donald Trump," he said. "He has to earn the votes of the constituency that he's trying to serve."

In a statement Tuesday night after his victory was declared, Biden thanked "every Michigander who made their voice heard today."

It did not mention the protest vote.

"Quite frankly, his statement last night did not unite," said Abbas Alawieh, a Listen to Michigan spokesman, adding the president "ignored" the 100,000 uncommitted voters.

"This community here in Michigan needs him to change his policies before he comes back and asks for our votes."

February 28, 2024 08:12 PM
Italian general suspended for book slammed as racist

 

Italy's defence ministry has suspended a general and cut his pay for breaching army neutrality with a book that critics said insulted sexual and ethnic minorities, his lawyer said Wednesday.

Roberto Vannacci, 55, had already been ousted last year from the management of the Military Geographical Institute, and moved to an essentially administrative role as chief of staff of the operational land forces command.

He has now been suspended from that position for 11 months, with the resulting "halving of his salary", his lawyer Giorgio Carta said.

The announcement comes as Vannacci is mulling standing for European Parliament elections in June under the banner of the far-right League party of Italy's deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini.

Salvini has defended the general, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, saying the investigations and actions against him were "ridiculous".

"How scared are they of the general? Long live freedom of thought and speech, long live the armed forces and the police," he wrote on X on Wednesday.

The defence ministry accuses Vannacci of "a lack of a sense of responsibility" and of neutrality, "compromising the prestige and the reputation of the administration to which he belongs", his lawyer told AFP.

He said Vannacci would contest the sanction in an administrative court, arguing for "the right to free expression guaranteed to all citizens, including the military".

Vannacci's book released in August, "The World Backwards", contained passages in which he denounced the "dictatorship of minorities".

He wrote that gay people were not "normal", while also saying of a well-known Italian black volleyball player, Paola Egonu, that while she had Italian citizenship, "her features do not represent Italian-ness."

He was criticised by those on the left and the right, including those surrounding Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, leader of the post-Fascist Brothers of Italy party.

Vannacci is the subject of three separate investigations, including one for allegedly inciting racial hatred and another for defamation against the athlete Egonu.

A third investigation is unrelated to his book, relating to alleged financial irregularities during his posting as military attache to the Italian embassy in Moscow in 2021-22.

February 28, 2024 07:45 PM
Prince Harry loses case against UK govt over security

 

Prince Harry lost a court challenge against the UK government on Wednesday over a decision to change the level of his personal security when he visits the country.

The youngest son of King Charles III launched legal action against the government after being told in February 2020 that he would no longer be given the "same degree" of publicly-funded protection when in Britain.

"The 'bespoke' process devised for the claimant in the decision of 28 February 2020 was, and is, legally sound," High Court judge Peter Lane said in his 52-page judgment.

Harry sensationally left Britain in 2020 with his wife Meghan, eventually settling in California in the United States.

The prince told a hearing at London's High Court in December that security concerns were preventing visits back to the United Kingdom.

"The UK is my home. The UK is central to the heritage of my children," he told court in a written statement read out by his lawyers.

"That cannot happen if it's not possible to keep them safe.

"I cannot put my wife in danger like that and, given my experiences in life, I am reluctant to unnecessarily put myself in harm's way too," he added.

The UK Home Office said it was "pleased" with the judgment and was "carefully considering" its next steps.

"The UK Government's protective security system is rigorous and proportionate," a spokesperson for the Home Office said.

"It is our long-standing policy not to provide detailed information on those arrangements, as doing so could compromise their integrity and affect individuals' security."

Harry's mother Princess Diana was killed in a high-speed car crash in Paris in 1997 as she tried to escape paparazzi photographers.

Lawyers for the government rejected claims that Harry was "singled out" and treated "less favourably" or that a proper risk analysis was not carried out.

 

- Non-working royal -

 

James Eadie, for the interior ministry, told the court that it was decided Harry would not be provided the same level of protection as before because he had left life as a working royal and mostly lived abroad.

In May 2023, Harry lost a bid for a legal review of another government decision refusing him permission to pay for specialist UK police protection himself.

The interior ministry argued then that it was "not appropriate" for wealthy people to "buy" protective security when it had decided that it was not in the public interest for such taxpayer-funded protection.

London's Metropolitan Police also opposed Harry's offer on the grounds that it would be wrong to "place officers in harm's way upon payment of a fee by a private individual".

It is one of many legal cases launched by Harry.

Earlier this month, he settled a long-running lawsuit against Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN), whose journalists he accused of being linked to deceptive and unlawful methods, but vowed to continue his legal battles with several other UK media outlets.

Harry is one of seven high-profile people, including Elton John, bringing legal action against the publisher of the Daily Mail over allegations of unlawful information gathering.

He and actor Hugh Grant are also suing News Group Newspapers (NGN), part of Rupert Murdoch's global media empire and publisher of The Sun and the now-defunct News Of The World tabloids, over similar claims.

However, Harry last month dropped his libel case against UK newspaper the Mail on Sunday over an article on his legal battles with the UK government.

February 28, 2024 07:42 PM
UK broadcast journalists demand open access to Gaza

 

More than 50 UK-based broadcast journalists have sent an open letter to the Israeli and Egyptian embassies calling for "free and unfettered access" to Gaza for foreign media, British media reported Wednesday.

The letter, from 55 correspondents and presenters from the main broadcasting outlets based in the UK, appealed for better protection for journalists already reporting in the territory.

"Almost five months into the war in Gaza, foreign reporters are still being denied access to the territory, outside of the rare and escorted trips with the Israeli military," said the letter, quoted by multiple local media outlets.

"We urge the Governments of Israel and Egypt to allow free and unfettered access to Gaza for all foreign media."

It called on Israel to openly state its permission for international journalists to operate in Gaza and for the Egyptian authorities to allow international journalists access to the Rafah Crossing between Egypt and Gaza.

Journalists who signed the letter include Alex Crawford from Sky News, Jeremy Bowen from the BBC and Christiane Amanpour from CNN.

Although some journalists have been invited to briefly "embed" with the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) for escorted tours inside Gaza, they have been prohibited from talking to any of the Palestinians there.

"There is intense global interest in the events in Gaza and for now the only reporting has come from journalists who were already based there," said the letter.

"It's vital that local journalists' safety is respected and that their efforts are bolstered by the journalism of members of the international media.

"The need for comprehensive on the ground reporting of the conflict is imperative."

United Nations reports indicate that at least 122 journalists and other media workers have been killed and many others wounded in the Gaza Strip since war erupted there following Hamas's deadly attacks inside Israel on October 7.

The Palestinian militants also killed four Israeli journalists on October 7, while three journalists have been killed by Israeli shelling on the Lebanese side of their border.

Israel's supreme court on January 9 rejected a request from international media for free access to Gaza.

The fighting in Gaza was triggered by Hamas militants' assault on southern Israel, the worst since the country's 1948 founding. Around 1,140 people died in the attack, most of them civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.

The health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said on Wednesday that at least 29,954 people have been killed in the Palestinian territory during the war between militants and Israel.

The toll includes at least 76 deaths in the past 24 hours, while 70,325 people have been wounded since the conflict began on October 7, a ministry statement said.

February 28, 2024 07:34 PM
Breakaway Moldovan region asks Russia for 'protection'

 

Pro-Russian rebel officials in Moldova's breakaway region of Transnistria appealed to Russia for "protection" on Wednesday, amid fears the territory could become a new flashpoint in Moscow's conflict with neighbouring Ukraine.

The thin sliver of land has been de facto controlled by pro-Russian forces since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but is internationally recognised as part of Moldova.

At a special congress in the region -- only the seventh in its history -- lawmakers passed a resolution asking Russia's parliament to "protect" Transnistria from mounting Moldovan pressure.

They said the Moldovan government in Chisinau had unleashed an "economic war" against Transnistria, blocking vital imports in the aim of turning it into a "ghetto".

"The decisions of the current congress cannot be ignored by the international community," the breakaway republic's foreign policy chief Vitaly Ignatiev told the meeting.

The resolution comes just a day before President Vladimir Putin was set to make an annual address before Russian lawmakers and as Ukraine suffers setbacks on the battlefield.

The separatist territory last held a congress in 2006, when deputies announced a referendum on integrating with Russia. The vote resulted in an overwhelming majority in favour.

The call for help from Moscow has fuelled comparisons with February 2022, when Russian-backed militants in eastern Ukraine called for protection against what they said was relentless attacks and shelling by Kyiv's forces.

Delegates at the conference on Wednesday made little mention of Ukraine, according to accounts of the session in state-run media, instead aiming their ire against Moldova, who they blamed for the territory's economic woes.

A Moldovan government spokesman downplayed concerns ahead of the rare meeting.

"From Chisinau, things look calm... There is no danger of escalation and destabilisation of the situation in the Transnistrian region. This is another campaign to create hysteria," they said in a post on Telegram.

 

- Tensions -

 

Moldova has accused the Kremlin of stoking tensions in Transnistria, a primarily Russian-speaking region that depends heavily on Moscow for support.

Since Moscow began its full-scale assault on Ukraine, Chisinau has been concerned the Kremlin could use Transnistria to open a new front in the southwest, in the direction of Odesa.

The tiny region was rocked by unexplained blasts in 2022 that military analysts believe may have been a Russian attempt to drag the region into the conflict.

Then, in March 2023, Transnistria's pro-Russian leadership accused Kyiv of an assassination attempt on their leader, an accusation that Ukraine rejected.

The Kremlin has around 1,500 soldiers permanently stationed in the region, and has warned Ukraine and Moldova that attacking them would incur serious consequences.

Russia still props up Transnistria's economy with supplies of free gas, but the breakaway republic has found itself increasingly isolated from Moscow since the conflict in Ukraine.

The gathering of Transnistrian officials comes as Ukraine faces intense pressure on the frontlines, where it has recently lost ground to Russia amid mounting ammunition shortages.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited Albania on Wednesday for a summit of southeastern European nations, where he was expected to renew his calls for more aid.

Moscow says 'protecting' Transnistria residents a priority

Russia said Wednesday that protecting the residents of Transnistria was a priority after politicians in the Moscow-backed separatist region called for help from Russia against pressure from Moldova.

"Protecting the interests of the residents of Transnistria, our compatriots, is one of our priorities," Russian state news agencies cited the foreign ministry as saying.

February 28, 2024 07:21 PM
Azerbaijan leader says EU, France 'demonising' his country

 

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev on Wednesday accused EU and French leaders of demonising his country and insisted Baku has no plans to attack arch-foe Armenia.

The remarks came as Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers met for peace talks in Berlin, in a new push to resolve a decades-long conflict between the neighbouring Caucasus countries.

The EU's top diplomat Josep Borrel said last month that "any violation of Armenia's territorial integrity will be unacceptable and will have severe consequences for our relations with Azerbaijan."

During a meeting with a German economic delegation on Wednesday, Aliyev denounced Borrel's comments as a "covert threat towards Azerbaijan."

He said Azerbaijan has no plans to attack Armenia and is committed to peace talks.

The Azerbaijani leader also blasted French President Emmanuel Macron.

"This is Macron's insinuation," he said. "This is part of the policy of Azerbaijan's demonisation."

Armenia has said it fears a further Azerbaijani assault after Baku seized control of Nagorno-Karabakh in a lighting offensive last September.

That campaign saw the enclave's entire Armenian population -- more than 100,000 people -- flee to Armenia.

Since then, Baku has repeatedly accused Paris, and Macron personally, of being biased towards Yerevan and of trying to incite conflicts in the Caucasus by arming Armenian military.

In December, Azerbaijan's foreign ministry said it has expelled two French diplomats over actions it said were "incompatible with their diplomatic status".

February 28, 2024 07:02 PM
Gaza death toll nears 30,000 as UN warns of 'imminent' famine

 

Fighting raged Wednesday in the besieged Gaza Strip, where the reported death toll neared 30,000 as mediators insisted a truce in the Israel-Hamas war could be just days away.

The Hamas-ruled territory's health ministry reported another 91 deaths in overnight Israeli bombardment in Gaza, while UN agencies sounded the alarm on dire humanitarian conditions and food shortages.

Mediators from Egypt, Qatar and the United States have been trying to find a path to a ceasefire amid the bitter fighting, seeking a six-week pause in the nearly five-month war.

After a flurry of diplomacy, mediators said a deal could finally be within reach -- reportedly including the release of some Israeli hostages held in Gaza since Hamas's October 7 attack in exchange for several hundred Palestinian detainees held by Israel.

Qatar was "hopeful, not necessarily optimistic, that we can announce something" before Thursday, foreign ministry spokesman Majed al-Ansari said Tuesday.

US President Joe Biden said a day earlier that "my hope is by next Monday we'll have a ceasefire", but "we're not done yet".

Ansari also cautioned that "the situation is still fluid on the ground".

Doha has suggested the pause in fighting would come before the beginning of Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month which starts on March 10 or 11, depending on the lunar calendar.

Hamas had been pushing for the complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza -- a demand rejected outright by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But a Hamas source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the deal might see the Israeli military leave "cities and populated areas", allowing the return of some displaced Palestinians and humanitarian relief.

Israel's military campaign following the October 7 attack has killed at least 29,954 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the latest health ministry figures.

 

- 'Almost inevitable' starvation -

 

The war was triggered by the unprecedented Hamas attack on southern Israel that resulted in the deaths of around 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official figures.

Militants also took about 250 hostages, 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 31 presumed dead, according to Israel.

Since the war began, hundreds of thousands of Gazans have been displaced within the narrow coastal territory.

Nearly 1.5 million people now packed into the far-southern city of Rafah, where Israel has warned it plans to launch a ground offensive.

Those who remain in northern Gaza have been facing an increasingly desperate situation, aid groups have warned.

"If nothing changes, a famine is imminent in northern Gaza," the World Food Programme's deputy executive director Carl Skau told the UN Security Council Tuesday.

His colleague from the UN humanitarian office OCHA, Ramesh Rajasingham, warned of "almost inevitable" widespread starvation.

The WFP said no humanitarian group had been able to deliver aid to the north for more than a month, accusing Israel of blocking access.

"I have not eaten for two days," said Mahmud Khodr, a resident of Jabalia refugee camp in the north, where children roamed with empty pots.

"There is nothing to eat or drink."

 

- Ongoing strikes -

 

Most aid trucks have been halted, but foreign militaries have air dropped supplies over southern Gaza.

What aid does enter Gaza passes through the Rafah border crossing from Egypt, fuelling a warning from UN chief Antonio Guterres that any assault on the city would "put the final nail in the coffin" of relief operations.

Israel has insisted it would move civilians to safety before sending troops into Rafah but it has not released any details.

Egypt has warned that an assault on the city would have "catastrophic repercussions across the region", with Cairo concerned about an influx of refugees.

Israeli military spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said Tuesday that Israel will "listen to the Egyptians and their interests", adding that Israel "cannot conduct an operation" with the current large population in Rafah.

An AFP correspondent reported that overnight several air strikes hit the Rafah area as well as southern Gaza's main city Khan Yunis and Zeitun further north.

The army said it had "killed a number of terrorists and located weapons" in Gaza City's Zeitun neighbourhood.

With domestic pressure high on Netanyahu to bring the hostages home, a group of 150 Israelis started a four-day march from Reim, near the Gaza border, to Jerusalem, calling for the government to reach a deal.

Israel said two more soldiers had died in the fighting in Gaza, taking the military's overall toll to 242 since the start of the ground offensive on October 27.

More than 50 UK-based journalists signed an open letter to Israel and Egypt calling for foreign press to be allowed free access to Gaza, plus better protection for reporters already inside the territory.

UN reports indicate that at least 122 media workers have been killed in the Gaza Strip since the war began.

UN urged to probe deadly Israel strikes against journalists in Lebanon

More than 120 individuals and groups on Wednesday called for a United Nations probe into Israeli attacks on journalists in south Lebanon, where three were killed last year.

An appeal addressed to UN rights chief Volker Turk expressed concern over "the Israeli forces' apparent deliberate targeting of journalists and media workers in Lebanon".

An AFP investigation into strikes on October 13 that killed Reuters journalist Issam Abdallah and wounded six others, including AFP photographer Christina Assi critically and AFP video journalist Dylan Collins, pointed to a tank shell only used by the Israeli army in the border region.

On November 21, Farah Omar and Rabih Maamari from the pro-Iranian channel Al Mayadeen were killed in Israeli strikes on southern Lebanon, the broadcaster and official media said.

The letter to Turk urged "an investigation to establish the facts and circumstances" around the attacks and for the findings to be published "with a view to holding those responsible accountable".

Signatories included the Committee to Protect Journalists, local and regional rights groups, Lebanese lawmakers and media outlets including Al Jazeera, as well as AFP's Collins and Assi.

A separate letter, sent to UNESCO chief Audrey Azoulay, urged her office to "advocate for accountability for the apparent war crimes committed by Israel in south Lebanon".

In December, Israel's army said the October strikes occurred in an "active combat zone" and were under review.

Following the November strike, the Israeli military said it was "aware of a claim regarding journalists in the area who were killed as a result of IDF (army) fire".

It added that there were "active hostilities" in the area and that the incident was under review.

The AFP investigation into the October strikes, jointly conducted with Airwars, an NGO that investigates attacks on civilians in conflict situations, found the attack involved a 120-mm tank shell only used by the Israeli army in this region.

A Reuters investigation found that two Israeli tank rounds fired from the same position across the border were used in the attack.

Human Rights Watch concluded that the October strikes were "apparently deliberate attacks on civilians, which is a war crime" and which "should be prosecuted or may be prosecuted for war crimes".

France's foreign ministry in December said "all light" must be shed on the October 13 strikes, while US top diplomat Antony Blinken welcomed an Israeli investigation into the strike as "important and appropriate".

February 28, 2024 08:57 AM
Famine 'imminent' in northern Gaza, warns WFP

Famine is "imminent" in northern Gaza, where no humanitarian group has been able to provide aid since January 23, the World Food Programme warned Tuesday, as Israel wages war on Palestinian militant group Hamas.

With a dire humanitarian emergency unfolding in the Gaza Strip and the main UN aid agency there struggling to cope, other bodies have called for help in reaching the thousands of Palestinians in desperate need.

"If nothing changes, a famine is imminent in northern Gaza," WFP's deputy executive director Carl Skau told the UN Security Council, while his colleague from the UN humanitarian office OCHA, Ramesh Rajasingham, warned of "almost inevitable" widespread starvation.

As aid remains blocked from entering northern Gaza by Israeli forces, and only enters the rest of the territory in dribs and drabs, UN aid chief Martin Griffiths last week wrote to the Security Council calling on members to act to prohibit "the use of starvation of civilian population as a method of warfare."

"Here we are, at the end of February, with at least 576,000 people in Gaza -- one-quarter of the population -- one step away from famine, with one in six children under two years of age in northern Gaza suffering from acute malnutrition and wasting," OCHA's Rajasingham said.

Some 97 percent of groundwater in Gaza is "reportedly unfit for human consumption" and agricultural production is beginning to collapse, warned Maurizio Martina, deputy director general of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Aid is ready and waiting at the border, a spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also said Tuesday.

"WFP colleagues also tell us that they have food supplies at the border with Gaza, and with certain conditions they would be able to scale up feeding up to 2.2 million people" across the Strip, Stephane Dujarric told reporters.

"Almost 1,000 trucks carrying 15,000 metric tons of food are in Egypt ready to move," he said.

- Aid blocked by Israel -

But Israeli forces are "systematically" blocking access to Gaza, said Jens Laerke, spokesman for OCHA, in Geneva earlier Tuesday.

All planned aid convoys into the north have been denied by Israeli authorities in recent weeks.

The last allowed in was on January 23, according to the World Health Organization.

But Israeli deputy ambassador to the UN Jonathan Miller countered that "it is not Israel who is holding up these trucks," instead placing the blame on the UN, which he said must distribute aid "more effectively."

"There is no limit to the amount of humanitarian aid that can be sent to the civilian population of Gaza," he said, adding that since the beginning of 2024 Israel had only denied 16 percent of requests to deliver aid, and those were due to risks the shipments could end up in Hamas' hands.

The main UN aid agency in Gaza, UNRWA, meanwhile, is "at breaking point," its head said last week. As donors freeze funding, Israel exerts pressure to dismantle the body and humanitarian needs soar.

"Israel must do more," US deputy ambassador to the UN Robert Wood said Tuesday, calling on the country to "facilitate the opening of additional crossings" for aid.

"We should all have been convinced by now that our action is needed, indeed was needed a long time ago," said Slovenian ambassador Samuel Zbogar.

The Hamas attack on October 7 that triggered the war resulted in the deaths of around 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.

Militants also took about 250 hostages, 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 31 presumed dead, according to Israel.

Israel's military campaign has killed at least 29,878 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the territory's health ministry.

US, Qatar hope for truce within days

Mediator Qatar expressed hopes Tuesday that a new truce between Israel and Hamas could be secured within days, after US President Joe Biden said a ceasefire could start next week and last through Ramadan.

As a dire humanitarian crisis unfolds in Gaza, the UN humanitarian agency OCHA and the United States appealed for aid to be allowed into the war-battered Palestinian territory.

Egyptian, Qatari and US mediators have been in a protracted bid to broker a ceasefire nearly five months into the devastating war.

Negotiators are seeking a six-week pause and the release of Israeli hostages held in Gaza since Hamas's October 7 attack.

Several hundred Palestinian detainees held by Israel may also be released under the deal, media reports suggest.

"My hope is by next Monday we'll have a ceasefire" but "we're not done yet", Biden said.

State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said it was possible a deal could be reached by the weekend.

"We're closer today than we were yesterday," he said, adding details were still being ironed out.

Qatar's emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani -- whose country hosts Hamas's political leadership and helped broker a one-week truce in November -- met in Paris with French President Emmanuel Macron.

Qatari foreign ministry spokesman Majed al-Ansari said Doha was "hopeful, not necessarily optimistic, that we can announce something" before Thursday.

"We are going to push for a pause before the beginning of Ramadan", the Muslim fasting month which starts on March 10 or 11, depending on the lunar calendar, Ansari said.

"But the situation is still fluid on the ground."

- 'Nothing but dust' -

There has been huge international pressure for Israel to hold off on sending troops into Rafah, where nearly 1.5 million Palestinian civilians have sought refuge.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stressed that any truce would delay, not prevent, a ground invasion of Rafah in Gaza's far south, which he said was necessary to achieve "total victory" over Hamas.

Israel's military campaign has killed at least 29,878 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the territory's health ministry.

The Hamas attack that triggered the war resulted in the deaths of around 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.

Militants also took about 250 hostages, 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 31 presumed dead, according to Israel.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry warned any assault on Rafah "would have catastrophic repercussions" across the region.

Ahead of the threatened ground incursion, the area has been hit repeatedly by Israeli air strikes.

Abu Khaled Zatmeh, whose nephews were killed in bombardment in Rafah, said the family had been "getting ready to eat when the strike occurred, and three floors collapsed suddenly".

"People began pulling out the martyrs, all of whom were my nephews," he told AFP.

He said there were "no more" basic supplies in the besieged territory, adding that "even if they allow people to return to the north, there are no houses left -- nothing but dust".

Gaza's health ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said two babies had died of "dehydration and malnutrition" at Kamal Adwan hospital in the north.

- 'War must continue' -

Netanyahu has faced increasing public pressure over the fate of the remaining hostages.

Itamar Ben Gvir, Israel's far-right national security minister, said Netanyahu should not accept Hamas's "delusional requests" in negotiations, adding that "the war must continue", according to news website Ynet.

A small crowd gathered in Tel Aviv for an anti-war rally urging a ceasefire.

"I feel that there's nothing that justifies this vast killing of innocent people," said protester Michal Sapir, 58.

A Hamas source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the proposed 42-day truce could potentially be "renewed" and would see one Israeli hostage released every day, each in return for 10 Palestinian prisoners.

Instead of a complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza -- a demand rejected by Netanyahu -- the source said the military may leave "cities and populated areas", allowing the return of some displaced Palestinians.

In northern Gaza, desperate Palestinians searched for food, with many people eating animal fodder and even leaves.

"I have not eaten for two days," said Mahmud Khodr, a resident of Jabalia refugee camp in the north, where children roamed with empty pots. "There is nothing to eat or drink."

February 27, 2024 07:00 PM
Zelensky says arrived in S. Arabia to discuss POW swaps

 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Tuesday he had arrived in Saudi Arabia for talks, including about prisoners of war, following previous Saudi mediation in POW swaps with Russia.

"The kingdom's leadership has already contributed to the release of our people. I am confident this meeting will also yield results," Zelensky said on X, formerly Twitter.

February 27, 2024 06:52 PM
Russia says destroyed American Abrams tank in Ukraine

 

Russia's defence ministry said Tuesday it had destroyed an American Abrams battle tank, the first such claim since Washington delivered the heavy vehicles to Kyiv.

"The enemy lost... two tanks, including a US-made Abrams," the defence ministry said, after reports from Russian military bloggers showed unverified images purporting to show the vehicles on fire.

Russia says captured Ukrainian village near Avdiivka

Russian forces on Tuesday said they had captured another Ukrainian village as they seek to press their advantage following the capture of the town of Avdiivka this month.

The defence ministry also said Russian forces had destroyed an American Abrams battle tank, the first such claim since Washington delivered the vehicles to Kyiv.

In its daily update, the ministry said the village of Sieverne had been "liberated".

The ministry statement used a Russian name for the captured village -- "Severnoye".

Russian forces "have occupied more favourable lines and positions," it added.

AFP could not independently verify the Russian claim and there was no immediate response from the Ukrainian army.

The Ukrainian army said on Monday it had withdrawn from the nearby village of Lastochkyne "to organise defences" further back after Russia claimed its capture.

The battle for Avdiivka was one of the bloodiest of the two-year war, drawing comparisons with Russia's assault on Bakhmut, which it captured last May.

Facing manpower and ammunition shortages, Ukraine was forced to withdraw from the industrial hub in the eastern Donetsk region, handing Moscow its first major territorial gain since Bakhmut.

In its statement on Tuesday, the Russian defence ministry also said it had destroyed "two tanks, including a US-made Abrams".

Reports from Russian military bloggers showed unverified images purporting to show the vehicles on fire.

Ukraine said the US tanks arrived in September.

Asked on Monday about reports that an Abrams tank had been destroyed, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: "Our fighters have been saying from the beginning that these tanks will burn like the others."

February 27, 2024 06:45 PM
Hezbollah and Israel exchange fire as peacekeepers issue warning

 

Hezbollah and Israel exchanged fire on Tuesday following deadly Israeli strikes on east Lebanon a day earlier, while United Nations peacekeepers warned the intensifying attacks could jeopardise a political solution to the hostilities.

Lebanon's Hezbollah, a Hamas ally, has exchanged near-daily fire with the Israeli army since war erupted between Israel and the Gaza-based Palestinian militant group on October 7.

Israeli raids near east Lebanon's Baalbek on Monday were the first in the area since hostilities began, and hit far beyond the usual border regions.

The Israeli army said the strikes targeted Hezbollah air defences after the group downed an Israeli drone.

The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) warned Tuesday of a "concerning shift in the exchanges of fire" in recent days and "an expansion and intensification of strikes".

"Recent events have the potential to put at risk a political solution to this conflict," the force said in a statement, urging "all parties involved to halt hostilities... and leave space to a political and diplomatic solution".

Hezbollah said it targeted the "Meron air control base... with a large salvo of rockets from several launchers" on Tuesday, in response to the Baalbek strikes.

Israeli military spokesman Avichay Adraee said the rockets caused no casualties or damage to the base, while Israeli fighter jets raided and destroyed "a military site" and "military infrastructure" belonging to Hezbollah in retaliation.

One of the strikes targeted Baisariyeh, almost 30 kilometres (18 miles) from the nearest Israeli boundary.

Two Hezbollah fighters were killed in the east Lebanon strikes on Monday. Later that day, the Iran-backed group fired 60 rockets at an Israeli base in the annexed Golan Heights.

Cross-border exchanges since October have killed at least 284 people on the Lebanese side, most of them Hezbollah fighters but also including 44 civilians, according to an AFP tally.

On the Israeli side, 10 soldiers and six civilians have been killed, according to the Israeli army.

February 27, 2024 06:43 PM
Scholz rejects talk of sending troops to Ukraine from Europe, NATO

 

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Tuesday rejected the idea of European or NATO countries sending troops to Ukraine after French President Emmanuel Macron said the idea could not be ruled out.

"What was agreed from the beginning among ourselves and with each other also applies to the future, namely that there will be no soldiers on Ukrainian soil sent there by European states or NATO states," Scholz told journalists.

Neither should soldiers based in those countries "actively participate in war events", he said.

The discussion on this issue at a meeting of Ukraine's backers hosted by Macron on Monday in Paris was "unanimous", Scholz said. "It is important to regularly reassure each other over this."

"The fact there was an understanding on this is, in my view, a very good and very important step forward."

Keeping German soldiers from directly participating in the war between Russia and Ukraine was a "fundamental principle", Scholz had said on Monday, before the meeting in Paris.

"No German soldiers on Ukrainian land and no participation of German soldiers," he said, stressing that "this explicitly includes preventing an escalation into a war between NATO and Russia."

Scholz's position justified a decision not to send long-range Taurus missiles to Ukraine, despite urgent requests from Kyiv for German rockets.

Germany could not copy French and British moves to send such long-range missiles to Ukraine and support the systems' deployment, Scholz said.

"German soldiers must not be linked at any point or place to the targets that this system reaches," he said.

"This is a very long-range weapon, and what the British and French are doing in terms of targeting and supporting targeting cannot be done in Germany," Scholz said.

"In my view, it would be unjustifiable if we were to participate in targeting in the same way," he added.

February 27, 2024 06:41 PM
Italian family kidnapped in 2022 in Mali freed: Rome

 

An Italian couple and their son, who were kidnapped in Mali in May 2022, have been freed and were due to return to Rome on Tuesday, the Italian government said.

Rocco Langone, Maria Donata Caivano and their son, Giovanni Langone, had been seized from their home outside the southeastern Malian city of Koutiala by a "jihadist faction", it said in a statement.

Tuesday's statement did not address the fate of a Togolese citizen seized along with the family.

The couple, in their 60s, and son in his 40s had lived outside Koutiala for several years in a Jehovah's Witness community.

"I would like to express my heartfelt congratulations on the release of our three compatriots kidnapped in Mali in 2022," Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said in a statement.

Her office said that despite the long captivity the family was "in good health".

It provided no details of their release.

The area where the family lived was "particularly infiltrated by jihadist militiamen", the government said.

Meloni's office blamed the kidnapping on a faction linked to the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (JNIM), which is affiliated to Al-Qaeda.

The Sahel has been ravaged by a jihadist campaign that began in northern Mali in 2012, sweeping over into neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger in 2015.

Mali has been ravaged by different groups affiliated to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, as well as by self-declared self-defence forces and bandits.

February 27, 2024 06:26 PM
Israelis vote for municipal councils in test of of public mood

 

Israelis voted Tuesday in twice postponed municipal elections that could offer a gauge of the public mood nearly five months into the war against Hamas in Gaza.

Soldiers had already cast their ballots over the past week at special polling stations set up in army encampments in Gaza as fighting rages.

Polls were due to close at 10:00 pm (2000 GMT).

More than seven million people are eligible to vote in the elections for local councils across most of Israel, in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, in Jerusalem and in parts of the annexed Golan Heights.

The vote, first scheduled for October 31, has been pushed back to November 2024 in towns and villages bordering the besieged Gaza Strip or Lebanon, where Hamas ally Hezbollah has fired rockets at Israel almost daily since the start of the Gaza war.

Nearly 150,000 Israelis have been displaced by hostilities in those areas.

Amit Peretz, 32, a Jerusalem city council candidate, said Jerusalem's diverse make-up demands that "all voices are heard in the city in order to make everything work, because it's very complex".

Gita Koppel, an 87-year-old resident of Jerusalem, said she turned out because voting was "the only way you can have your voice heard".

"I hope the right people come in and do the right thing for Jerusalem," she said.

The elections were delayed after Hamas's unprecedented October 7 attack on southern Israel resulted in the deaths of at least 1,160 people, most of them civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.

Israel's retaliatory offensive against Hamas has killed at least 29,878 people in Gaza, most of them women and minors, according to the Hamas-run territory's health ministry.

Two candidates for council chief in Gaza border areas were killed in the October 7 attack: Ofir Libstein in Kfar Aza and Tamar Kedem Siman Tov, who was shot dead at her home in Nir Oz with her husband and three young children.

In Jerusalem and other major cities, far-right and ultra-Orthodox Jewish candidates aligned with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's political allies are running against government critics and more moderate candidates.

Netanyahu has faced increasing public pressure over the fate of hostages still held in Gaza, and from a resurgent anti-government protest movement.

 

- National springboard -

 

Tel Aviv's mayor of 25 years, Ron Huldai, is seeking re-election in a race against former economy minister Orna Barbivai and lawyer Amir Badran, who hopes to become the Israeli commercial hub's first Arab mayor but faces long odds.

If elected, Barbivai would be the first woman in the job.

In Jerusalem, an Arab candidate, Sondos Alhoot, was running at the head of a joint Jewish-Arab party. If elected, she would be the first Arab woman on the city council since 1967.

The elections for municipal and regional councils are largely seen as local affairs, though some races can become springboards for politicians with national ambitions.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid, who had a brief stint as prime minister before Netanyahu returned to power in late 2022, said Tuesday's vote shows "there is no problem" holding elections even during the war.

In a post on social media platform X, Lapid called for a snap parliamentary election "as soon as possible" to replace Netanyahu.

Voter turnout in the last local elections, in 2018, stood at 59.5 percent, lower than any of Israel's five parliamentary elections since 2019.

Most Palestinians in east Jerusalem, seized by Israel in 1967 and later annexed, have the right to vote in municipal elections but not for parliament.

Palestinian residents make up around 40 percent of the city's population, but many of them have boycotted past elections.

The first results are expected later Tuesday. Second round run-offs will be held where necessary on March 10.

February 27, 2024 06:22 PM
EU parliament approves ban on foreign funding of political ads

 

EU lawmakers on Tuesday adopted new rules on political advertising that seek to bolster protection from foreign interference in European elections.

The European Union believes the law will make it easier for citizens to recognise political ads, who made them and whether they are targeted advertisements.

Countries outside the EU will be banned from paying for political advertising in the bloc in the three months before an election or referendum.

The rules also ban the use of personal data, like ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation for political advertising as well as minors' data.

The lawmaker who spearheaded the text through parliament, Sandro Gozi, said the EU was "taking action to strengthen the defence of our freedoms and personal data, to increase the transparency of electoral campaigns, particularly online".

The rules would also "strengthen actions against those who want to manipulate democratic processes", Gozi said during a debate on Monday.

The law will apply 18 months after it is formally adopted by both the parliament and EU states but some elements will come into force in time for the June 6-9 EU elections.

In the lead up to the polls, individuals and groups will be allowed to advertise across the bloc's borders, meaning they are not limited to just one country as before.

A majority of lawmakers backed the law after negotiators from the parliament and the EU's 27 member states hammered out an agreement in November last year.

The changes are part of an update of regulations proposed in 2021 after Facebook's Cambridge Analytica scandal, which saw millions of users' data harvested for political research without their consent.

The law demands that online platforms flag content as political advertising.

It also says personal data explicitly given for online political advertising and collected from the individual can be used by providers to target users.

The European Commission will also set up a publicly accessible database listing all online political advertisements for a maximum of seven years.

Since the rules will not apply right away, the commission has produced a series of guidelines for the world's biggest online platforms, as part of its landmark Digital Services Act, to try to encourage voluntary compliance ahead of the June polls.

The commission recommends platforms "clearly" label content "in an efficient and visible way" to make sure users know it contains political advertising.

February 27, 2024 11:17 AM
Sweden set to join NATO after Hungary approves bid

Sweden on Monday cleared its final obstacle to joining NATO after Hungary's parliament ratified the bid in what Sweden's prime minister called a "historic day", while other alliance members expressed relief at the move spurred by Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said Sweden would make the alliance "stronger and safer" while the United States, the main alliance power, as well as Britain and Germany welcomed Sweden's now imminent accession.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said that having Sweden in NATO "strengthens our defence alliance and with it the security of Europe and the world".

Russia's invasion two years ago prompted Sweden and neighbouring Finland to apply to join the trans-Atlantic bloc, ending their longstanding stance of non-alignment.

Every NATO member has to approve a new country however, and Hungary's vote ended more than a year of delays that frustrated the other 31 nations as Ukraine battled Russian troops.

Finland joined in April last year, but Sweden's bid was stalled by both Hungary and Turkey, with Ankara approving Stockholm's candidacy only last month.

Hungary then followed, with 188 parliament members voting in favour and six far-right deputies against.

"Today is a historic day... Sweden stands ready to shoulder its responsibility for Euro-Atlantic security," Sweden's Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said on X.

Speaking about Russia's potential reaction, Kristersson told a press conference: "The only thing we can expect with any certainty is that they don't like Sweden becoming a member of NATO, nor Finland".

Going forward, "Nordic countries will have a common defence for the first time in 500 years... we remain friends, and we become allies," he said.

- 'Mutual good intentions' -

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban had long stalled Sweden's membership but told parliament that it would "strengthen Hungary's security".

Though repeatedly saying it supported Swedish membership in principle, Hungary kept prolonging the process, asking Stockholm to stop "vilifying" the Hungarian government.

After a meeting on Friday between the nationalist Orban and Kristersson in Budapest, the Hungarian leader announced that the two had clarified "our mutual good intentions".

Hungary also signed a deal to acquire four Swedish-made fighter jets, expanding its fleet of 14 Jas-39 Gripen fighters.

Hungary's president is expected to sign the law within days. Sweden, which has been militarily neutral for two centuries, will then be invited to accede to the Washington Treaty and officially become NATO's 32nd member.

All Baltic nations except Russia will now be part of the alliance.

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni of Italy, which currently presides the G7 group of industrialised democracies, said Sweden's entry "reinforced NATO for the defence of peace and freedom on the European continent".

Alongside its move into NATO, Sweden signed an accord in December that gives the United States access to 17 Swedish military bases.

The looming membership has been accompanied by a toughening of declarations by its leaders. General Per Micael Buden, commander-in-chief of the Swedish military, said in January that Swedish people "must mentally prepare for war".

"It is the last piece of the puzzle in the NATO map for northern Europe," said Robert Dalsjo, an analyst for the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI).

People in Sweden mainly cheered the approval.

Jimmy Dahllof, 35, said Sweden would be "safer... bringing us closer to our European neighbours".

"I am very relieved because we have been waiting so long," said Ingrid Lindskrog, a 73-year-old pensioner.

In Hungary's delay, some experts saw a strategy to wring concessions from the European Union, which has frozen billions of euros in funds because of the nationalist government's policies.

Others argued it underlined Orban's closeness to the presidents of Russia and Turkey.

For Mate Szalai, an analyst at Venice's Ca' Foscari University, Orban was simply playing to his domestic audience.

"Orban wanted to go as far as he could without causing serious problems to the trans-Atlantic community while proving that Hungary is a power to be reckoned with," he told AFP.

Many of his acts are intended to provoke Europe, Szalai added.

February 27, 2024 11:13 AM
US strikes Huthi unmanned vessels, anti-ship missiles, drone

US forces struck three unmanned vessels and two cruise missiles inside Yemen and an attack drone over the Red Sea on Monday that posed an "imminent threat" to ships in the area, the military said.

Yemen's Iran-backed Huthis have been targeting shipping for months and their attacks have persisted despite repeated US and British strikes aimed at degrading their ability to threaten a vital global trade route.

In Monday's attack, US Central Command (CENTCOM) destroyed "three unmanned surface vessels, two mobile anti-ship cruise missiles, and a one-way attack unmanned aerial vehicle," it said on social media.

"The (vessels) and (missile) weapons were prepared to launch towards... the Red Sea," CENTCOM said, adding that the drone was already airborne.

Those strikes, made between the hours of 4:45 pm and 11:45 pm Sanaa time (1345 GMT to 2045 GMT), were done "in self-defense", it said.

"CENTCOM forces... determined that they presented an imminent threat to merchant vessels and to the US Navy ships in the region."

Over the weekend, US and British forces carried out strikes against 18 Huthi targets across eight locations in Yemen, including weapons storage facilities, attack drones, air defense systems, radars and a helicopter, according to a joint statement.

One person was killed and eight wounded in the attacks, the Huthis' official news agency said late on Sunday.

Co-signed by countries including Australia, Denmark, Bahrain and Canada, the joint statement said that "more than 45 attacks on commercial and naval vessels since mid-November constitute a threat to the global economy, as well as regional security and stability."

The Huthis began attacking Red Sea shipping in November, saying they were hitting Israel-linked vessels in support of Palestinians ravaged by the war in Gaza.

Huthis have declared American and British interests to be legitimate targets as well since those countries began responding militarily to the attacks on shipping.

Anger over Israel's devastating campaign in Gaza -- which began after an unprecedented Hamas attack on October 7 -- has grown across the Middle East, stoking violence involving Iran-backed groups in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

February 27, 2024 08:39 AM
US eyes new Gaza ceasefire by next week

A new ceasefire between Israel and Hamas could start as soon as Monday, US President Joe Biden said, in a deal that could include the exchange of dozens of hostages held in Gaza for several hundred Palestinian detainees.

In a protracted bid to bring about a truce, Egypt, Qatar, the United States, France and others have acted as go-betweens for Israel and Hamas, with negotiations ongoing.

They are seeking a six-week halt to the fighting and the release of Israeli hostages held in Gaza since Hamas's October 7 attack on southern Israel sparked the war.

A deal could include the release of several hundred Palestinian detainees held by Israel, media reports suggest.

"My hope is by next Monday we'll have a ceasefire," said Biden on Monday, when asked when an agreement could start, adding that "we're close, we're not done yet".

An unnamed Israeli official told news site Ynet the "direction is positive".

Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani -- whose country hosts Hamas leaders and helped broker a one-week truce in November -- is due in Paris this week, according to the French presidency.

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stressed any truce deal would delay, not prevent, a ground invasion of Rafah in the far south of the Gaza Strip, which he said was necessary to achieve "total victory" over Hamas.

With Israeli ground troops operating in every other major urban area of the Gaza Strip nearly five months into the war, an estimated 1.4 million Palestinian civilians have sought shelter in Rafah.

Netanyahu's office on Monday said the military had shown Israel's war cabinet its plan for evacuating civilians from Rafah, but no details have been released on where those displaced people could go.

- 'Final nail in coffin' -

The United Nations has repeatedly warned against any ground assault of Rafah, and on Monday Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that an assault would "put the final nail in the coffin" of aid operations.

Rafah serves as a crucial entry point for desperately needed aid via neighbouring Egypt, which Guterres said makes it "the core of the humanitarian aid operation" for the Gaza Strip where Israel has been fighting Hamas militants for nearly five months.

Guterres said "nothing can justify Hamas's deliberate killing, injuring, torturing and kidnapping of civilians" and "nothing justifies the collective punishment of the Palestinian people".

Ahead of any ground assault, Rafah has not been spared from Israel's campaign of strikes.

Displaced Gazan Sharif Muammar told AFP his son's body had been pulled from the rubble after a strike on the city.

"There was no one here -- only children," he said, in tears.

Israel's military campaign has killed at least 29,782 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-ruled territory's health ministry.

The Hamas attack that triggered the war resulted in the deaths of around 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.

Militants also took about 250 Israeli and foreign hostages, 130 of whom remain in Gaza including 31 presumed dead, according to Israel.

Netanyahu has faced increasing public pressure over the fate of hostages still held in Gaza, and from a resurgent anti-government protest movement.

In Israel, municipal elections twice delayed by the fighting will be held Tuesday in a poll which could gauge the public mood nearly five months into Israel's war against Hamas.

- Starving Gazans -

In Gaza's north, desperate Palestinians have scavenged for food as most aid trucks have been halted, with many people eating animal fodder and even leaves.

"We have no flour or anything. We are experiencing famine," lamented Umm Tahseini al-Masry, who was displaced and now in Jabalia refugee camp, north of Gaza City.

"This is not a life."

The Jordanian army said it carried out a series of humanitarian aid drops, while Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused Israel of further limiting aid.

The main UN aid agency for Palestinians, UNRWA, said humanitarian assistance entering Gaza has halved in February from the previous month.

"The Israeli government is starving" Gaza's 2.4 million Palestinians, said Omar Shakir, HRW's Israel and Palestine director.

And in a political shock Monday, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas accepted the resignation of prime minister Mohammad Shtayyeh's government in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

A presidential decree said the government will stay on in an interim capacity until a new one is formed.

Israel's top ally Washington and other powers discussing a post-war Gaza have called for a reformed Palestinian Authority to take charge of both the West Bank and Gaza, which has been ruled by Hamas since 2007.

 

February 26, 2024 10:21 PM
EU top diplomat repeats claim Israel helped create Hamas

 

EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell on Monday repeated his claim that Israel helped create the Palestinian militant group Hamas which it is battling to crush in a deadly offensive.

Borrell spoke in response to questions about his assertion in January that Israel had "created" and "financed" the Islamist group -- a claim made amid the country's war against Hamas in Gaza.

"I do not say that (Israel) financed it by sending a cheque, but it has enabled the development of Hamas" as a rival to leading Palestinian party Fatah, he said in a forum at a business school in Madrid.

"It is an unquestionable reality that Israel has bet on dividing the Palestinians, creating a force to oppose Fatah," he said.

The Gaza war broke out after Hamas militants attacked southern Israel on October 7. The attack resulted in the deaths of around 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.

The retaliatory Israeli military offensive in Gaza has killed at least 29,782 people, most of them women and children, according to the territory's health ministry.

In recent years, the Gaza Strip, controlled by Hamas and under Israeli blockade, has received millions of dollars in aid from Qatar.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been accused of having favoured such financing of the movement. The prime minister denies the accusation.

Borrell reiterated his stance that a two-state solution must be imposed to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- a demand Netanyahu rejects.

February 26, 2024 09:20 PM
What does NATO entry mean for Sweden?

 

Sweden's NATO membership bid, submitted in the wake of Russia's 2022 invasion of Ukraine, cleared its final hurdle as Hungary's parliament voted to ratify it on Monday.

Accession to the US-led alliance means stark changes for both Sweden's defence and the geopolitical balance in the region.

 

- Why did Sweden decide to join NATO? -

 

At the end of the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century, Sweden adopted an official policy of neutrality.

Following the end of the Cold War, the neutrality policy was amended to one of military non-alignment.

While Sweden has sent forces to international peacekeeping missions, it has not gone to war for more than 200 years.

The last conflict it fought was the Swedish–Norwegian War of 1814.

Despite its neutrality it pursued an active foreign policy, championing human rights and being a top aid donor per capita, sometimes being a labelled a "humanitarian superpower".

But while remaining outside NATO, Sweden has formed ever-closer ties to the alliance, joining the Partnership for Peace programme in 1994 and then the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council in 1997.

However, a majority of Swedes were long opposed to full membership and it was considered a taboo among the Social Democrats -- Sweden's largest political party.

Former Social Democrat defence minister Peter Hultqvist even declared in the fall of 2021 that he could "guarantee" that he would never participate in a process to join NATO.

Only months later, Russia's 2022 invasion of Ukraine led to a dramatic shift in both public opinion and among political parties.

A broad majority of the Swedish parliament voted to apply for membership, which the country did -- along with Finland -- in May 2022.

 

- What does Sweden bring to NATO? -

 

For a long time, Swedish policy dictated that the country needed a strong military to protect its neutrality.

But after the end of the Cold War, it drastically slashed its defence spending, turning its military focus toward peacekeeping operations around the world.

In 1990, defence spending accounted for 2.6 percent of gross domestic product, shrinking to 1.2 percent by 2020, according to the government.

Spending started to increase again following Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea.

In March 2022, after Russia's full invasion of Ukraine, Sweden announced it would increase spending again, targeting two percent of GDP "as soon as possible".

In late 2023, Sweden's government said military spending would exceed the two percent goal in 2024.

Combining its different branches, the Swedish military can field some 50,000 soldiers, about half of whom are reservists.

Its air force includes more than 90 of its domestically developed fighter jet JAS 19 Gripen, and it has a Baltic Sea navy that includes several corvettes and submarines.

Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson also said in January that his country was ready to contribute troops to NATO's forces in Latvia.

After Hungary's parliament ratified the bid Monday, Kristersson said Sweden stood "ready to shoulder its responsibility for Euro-Atlantic security."

Sweden and Finland joining NATO also means that the Baltic Sea becomes surrounded by alliance members, with some analysts dubbing it a NATO lake.

"It's the final piece of the puzzle on NATO's map in Northern Europe that is now falling into place," Robert Dalsjo, an analyst at the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI), told AFP.

 

- What are the implications for Sweden's defence? -

 

As a member of NATO, the country's military calculations change in several key aspects.

"Sweden has for a long time worked from the presumption: 'We'll solve the task alone'," Jan Henningson, a researcher at the FOI, told AFP.

"That changes now," he added, explaining that defence will now need to be conducted within the alliance.

"Now we'll have to learn to be a team player. And we'll have to adjust to the fact that we are not preparing to defend just Swedish territory, but allied territory," Dalsjo noted.

For Sweden, joining the alliance also upends its traditional thinking of power relations in a potential conflict.

"Traditionally, we have thought that we are a small state and whoever attacks us is much bigger," Henningson said.

But when it comes to the economy and demographics, "NATO is much larger than Russia," according to Henningson.

"We are no longer David in all aspects, so to speak," Henningson said -- a change that is not lost on Sweden's military.

"It'll be a quite impressive force with hopefully the combined might of 32 countries from Turkey in the south all the way up to Svalbard" in the Arctic, Swedish army chief Jonny Lindfors told newspaper Dagens Nyheter in December.

He added that he thinks the extra strength would make the risk of a conflict breaking out less likely.

Last holdout Hungary ratifies Swedish NATO bid

 

Hungary's parliament on Monday ratified Sweden's NATO bid, clearing the final obstacle for an enlargement of the military alliance spurred by Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The vote ends more than a year of delays that left fellow NATO partners furious as Ukraine battled Russian troops.

Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said it was a "historic day".

Russia's February 2022 invasion prompted Sweden and neighbouring Finland to apply to join the bloc, ending a long-standing stance of non-alignment in both countries.

But while Finland became the 31st member of the US-led defence alliance in April last year, Sweden's bid was held up. Turkey only ratified it last month.

On Monday, Hungary finally followed, with 188 members of parliament voting in favour and six against Sweden's accession.

"Today is a historic day... Sweden stands ready to shoulder its responsibility for Euro-Atlantic security," Kristersson said in a statement to X.

Earlier Monday, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor had asked fellow lawmakers to approve Sweden's bid.

"The Swedish-Hungarian military cooperation and Sweden's accession to NATO will strengthen Hungary's security," Orban told parliament.

Ahead of the vote, Orban's nationalist Fidesz party -- whose ruling coalition with the Christian Democratic KDNP holds a two-thirds majority in parliament -- had indicated it would support Sweden's bid.

All opposition parties except the far-right Our Homeland movement were in favour of ratification.

 

- NATO's 32nd member -

 

Though repeatedly saying it supported Swedish membership in principle, Hungary kept prolonging the process by asking Stockholm to stop "vilifying" the Hungarian government.

Budapest accused Swedish officials of being "keen to bash Hungary" on rule-of-law issues.

After a meeting on Friday between Orban and Kristersson in Budapest, the nationalist Hungarian leader announced that the two had clarified "our mutual good intentions".

Hungary also signed a deal to acquire four Swedish-made fighter jets, expanding its existing fleet of 14 Jas-39 Gripen fighters.

Now that parliament has approved the Nordic nation's bid, the president is expected to sign it in the coming days.

Sweden will then be invited to accede to the Washington Treaty and officially become NATO's 32d member.

In the case of Finland, Turkey was the last to give the green light on March 30, 2023, and Finland became a NATO member on April 4.

 

- 'Confrontational behaviour' -

 

After Russia's invasion of Ukraine, most NATO members were keen to quickly approve the membership bids of both Finland and Sweden.

For Sweden, Ankara cited security concerns, before moving ahead with the ratification.

In Hungary's delay, some experts saw a strategy to wring concessions from Brussels to unlock billions of euros in frozen funds.

Others argued it underlined Orban's closeness to the presidents of Russia and Turkey.

For analyst Mate Szalai of Venice's Ca' Foscari University, Orban was simply playing to his domestic audience.

"Orban wanted to go as far as he could without causing serious problems to the Transatlantic community while proving that Hungary is a power to be reckoned with," he told AFP.

While Hungary's "confrontational behaviour" did not reap any tangible results, it might have "been beneficial domestically for the ruling Fidesz party", he added.

"Many initiatives of the Hungarian government are designed to provoke a backlash in Europe," said Szalai.

"And most criticism expressed towards the Orban government (from outside Hungary) actually helps Fidesz to maintain its popularity in the country."

 

 

February 26, 2024 09:10 PM
No grounds 2017 Syria attack involved chemicals: watchdog

 

The global chemical watchdog said Monday there were "no reasonable grounds" to conclude that a 2017 "attack" in Syria blamed on the IS group contained chemical weapons.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said Damascus in November 2017 reported "use of toxic chemicals in an attack by the terrorist organisation ISIS against another terrorist group called Aknaf Beit Almaqdis."

The alleged attack took place at the sprawling Yarmouk district in Damascus in October that year.

It resulted in several cases of breathing difficulties "and loss of consciousness in the ranks of Aknaf terrorist group," Damascus told the OPCW.

But the Hague-based body said after investigating, its Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) concluded that "there are no reasonable grounds to determine that toxic chemicals were used as a weapon in the reported incident."

Set up in 2014 the FFM investigates the use of chemical weapons in Syria, but it cannot identify the perpetrators behind the attacks.

The OPCW's investigators based their findings on chemical sample analyses, interviews with witnesses, video and photo evidence and documents and correspondence with the Syrian government.

"The samples analysis results provided no indication that chemicals were used as a weapon," the OPCW said in a statement.

"There was no detection of the presence of scheduled chemicals, their precursors and, or their degradation products, nor of riot control agents, chlorinated organic chemicals or compounds containing chemically reactive chlorine," it said.

The FFM also tried to interview witnesses who were present "in areas of interest at the time of the reported incident."

This was unsuccessful because several witnesses had died, or were missing, while others who had initially agreed to provide testimony "ultimately declined to provide their account of the events to the FFM," the OPCW said.

The war in Syria has killed more than half a million people since it erupted in March 2011.

Syria agreed in 2013 to join the OPCW, shortly after an alleged chemical gas attack killed more than 1,400 people near Damascus.

But the global watchdog had since accused President Bashar al-Assad's regime of continuing to attack civilians with chemical weapons in the Middle East country's brutal civil war.

Damascus denies the charges.

February 26, 2024 08:09 PM
Hezbollah says fired 60 rockets at Israeli base after east Lebanon strikes

 

Lebanon's Iran-backed Hezbollah movement said it fired a volley of rockets at an Israeli military base on Monday in retaliation for deadly Israeli strikes on Lebanon's east.

"In response to the Zionist aggression near the city of Baalbek," Hezbollah fighters targeted the base in the occupied Golan Heights "with 60 Katyusha rockets", the group said in a statement.

February 26, 2024 08:03 PM
Arab states tell UN court Israeli occupation is 'affront to justice'

 

The League of Arab States on Monday called Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories an "affront to international justice", saying failure to end it amounted to "genocide".

The International Court of Justice entered its last day of week-long hearings after a request from the United Nations, with an unprecedented 52 countries giving their views on Israel's occupation.

"This prolonged occupation is an affront to international justice," the 22 Arab-country bloc's representative told judges in The Hague.

"The failure to bring it to an end has led to the current horrors perpetrated against the Palestinian people, amounting to genocide," Abdel Hakim El-Rifai said, reading a written statement.

Most speakers during the hearings have demanded that Israel end its occupation, which came after a six-day Arab-Israeli war in 1967.

But last week the United States said Israel should not be legally obliged to withdraw without taking its "very real security needs" into account.

Speakers on Monday warned a prolonged occupation posed an "extreme danger" to stability in the Middle East and beyond.

"If left unchecked, it runs the risk of not only threatening regional, but also global peace and security," Turkey's representative Ahmet Yildiz said.

Zambia's representative however told judges that both sides had a duty to negotiate a peaceful settlement.

"Both Israel and Palestine have a duty to respect international human rights law and international humanitarian law," Marshal Mubambe Muchende said.

He said any settlement of the conflict should not be "one that puts the blame squarely on one party, but rather one that advances a negotiated solution which culminates in a two-state solution".

 

- 'Prejudicial' -

 

The UN has asked the ICJ to hand down an "advisory opinion" on the "legal consequences arising from the policies and practices of Israel in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem".

The court will probably deliver its opinion before the end of the year but it is not binding on anyone.

Israel is not taking part in the oral hearings. It submitted a written contribution, in which it described the questions the court had been asked as "prejudicial" and "tendentious".

The hearings began a week ago with three hours of testimony from Palestinian officials, who accused the Israeli occupiers of running a system of "colonialism and apartheid".

The case before the court is separate from one brought by South Africa against Israel for alleged genocide during its current offensive in Gaza.

In that case, the ICJ ruled that Israel should do everything in its power to prevent genocidal acts in Gaza and allow in humanitarian aid.

The war in Gaza began after Hamas militants attacked southern Israel on October 7, which resulted in the deaths of around 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.

Israeli's retaliatory military offensive in Gaza has so far killed at least 29,782 people, most of them women and children, according to the territory's Hamas-run health ministry

February 26, 2024 08:00 PM
Palestinian PM resigns citing 'new reality' of Gaza war

 

Palestinian prime minister Mohammad Shtayyeh announced Monday the resignation of his government, which rules parts of the occupied West Bank, citing the need for change after the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza ends.

Shtayyeh submitted the resignation to the leader of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority, president Mahmud Abbas, 88.

The United States and other powers have called for a reformed Palestinian Authority to take charge of all Palestinian territories after the end of the war sparked by Hamas's October 7 attack.

Shtayyeh cited "developments related to the aggression against the Gaza Strip and the escalation in the West Bank and Jerusalem", which have also been torn by deadly violence amid the war.

He said he had first offered Abbas the resignation last Tuesday, but was formally submitting it "in writing" on Monday. Abbas had yet to formally accept it.

The 66-year-old premier said in brief comments that "the next stage and its challenges require new governmental and political measures that take into account the new reality in the Gaza Strip".

He called for inter-Palestinian consensus and the "extension of the Authority's rule over the entire land of Palestine".

Israel has ruled out any future political role for the Islamist movement Hamas in Gaza, but has suggested that local Palestinian officials could play a role.

Abbas has faced mounting anger since the Gaza war erupted on October 7, with many criticising him for failing to more severely condemn the Israeli offensive there as well as the rising violence in the West Bank.

Since 2007, the Palestinian leadership has been divided between the Palestinian Authority of Abbas, which exercises limited power in the West Bank, and Hamas which rules the coastal Gaza Strip.

The Gaza war broke out after Hamas militants attacked southern Israel on October 7, which resulted in the deaths of around 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.

The retaliatory Israeli military offensive in Gaza has so far killed at least 29,782 people, most of them women and children, according to the territory's health ministry.

 

- 'New political scene' -

 

Violence in the West Bank has also flared since the war in Gaza erupted to levels unseen in nearly two decades.

Israeli troops and settlers have killed at least 400 Palestinians in the West Bank since the Gaza war began, according to the health ministry in Ramallah.

It was still unclear whether Abbas would accept the resignation immediately or wait until a new prime minister had been appointed.

Palestinian media reports suggested Abbas might appoint Mohammed Mustafa, an executive committee member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation -- dominated by the ruling Fatah movement -- to head the new cabinet.

Mustafa has previously served as deputy prime minister and as a senior adviser to Abbas on economic affairs.

International mediators are in talks to reach a ceasefire in Gaza, with Israel's top ally Washington also discussing how a post-war Gaza could be ruled.

Palestinian analyst Ghassan Khatib said the premier's resignation was Abbas's way of showing he is flexible and ready to have a government of technocrats "functioning in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip after the war".

"If Abbas and Hamas are able to reach an agreement, it would be a new phase in our internal political scene and a significant one," Khatib told AFP, adding that previous attempts between the two had failed.

Shtayyeh meanwhile defended his record and said his government had managed to do its work despite major challenges.

"The government was able to achieve a balance between meeting the needs of our people and providing services like infrastructure," said Shtayyeh, whose cabinet took office in 2019.

"We will remain in confrontation with the occupation ... and will continue to struggle to establish a state on the lands of Palestine," he said.

February 26, 2024 07:58 PM
US airman dead after self-immolating outside Israeli embassy

 

A US airman has died after setting himself on fire outside the Israeli embassy in Washington at the weekend in protest over the war in Gaza, the Air Force said Monday.

The shocking act was an escalation of recent protests across the United States against Israel's actions in Gaza, where with US support it is waging a retaliatory war for an attack on October 7 by Hamas militants.

Emergency responders on Sunday had rushed to the scene in response to a "call for person on fire outside the Israeli Embassy," the capital city's fire department.

The unnamed man had filmed himself shouting "Free Palestine" as he lit himself on fire, according to footage shared on social media.

He was transported to hospital with "critical life-threatening injuries," the fire department said, and an Air Force spokeswoman said Monday morning he had died Sunday night.

A spokesperson for the Israeli embassy said no staff were injured.

In the video, the man wearing military fatigues and declaring he will "not be complicit in genocide" before dousing himself in liquid, lighting himself on fire and yelling "Free Palestine!" until he collapses.

The video was reportedly first shared in a livestream on the social platform Twitch.

 

- Domestic and international pressure -

 

With the death toll in Gaza nearing 30,000, according to the Hamas-run health ministry there, international pressure has been increasing on the United States to rein in ally Israel and call for a ceasefire.

The war broke out after Hamas launched an unprecedented October 7 attack which killed 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official figures.

Militants also took about 250 hostages, 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 31 presumed dead, according to Israel.

Washington last week blocked a UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, its third such use of its veto on the matter.

Some voters in Joe Biden's Democratic Party are attempting to press the president on the issue, with groups of Arab American voters in Michigan pledging to vote "uncommitted" or write in "Free Palestine" on their ballots in the state's primary Tuesday.

The White House has tried to assuage Arab and Muslim voters' concerns in part by portraying the president as frustrated with Benjamin Netanyahu's government.

But US weapons have flowed to Israel since October 7, while Washington's efforts to broker a second pause in fighting have so far failed.

In an update on ongoing multinational talks Sunday, the United States said an "understanding" had emerged on a possible deal for Hamas to release hostages and for a new ceasefire in the Gaza war.

Domestic demonstrations have typically involved peaceful street protests, though in December a person outside the Israeli consulate in Atlanta also set themself on fire.

February 26, 2024 07:55 PM
Burundi says main rebel group killed 9 in 'cowardly attack'

 

Burundi on Monday accused the country's main rebel group of attacking a bereaved family and killing nine people including a soldier, while the RED-Tabara insurgents said they had killed six troops.

The attack late on Sunday in the western region of Buringa, just north of the economic capital Bujumbura, borders the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the RED-Tabara group has rear bases.

"Terrorists from the RED-Tabara group, armed with guns, attacked a family in mourning," a statement from the presidency said.

It said nine people, including six women and a soldier, were killed in the "cowardly attack" and five people were wounded.

The presidency said the rebels also ransacked an office of the ruling CNDD-FDD party and accused Rwanda of backing the rebels.

The group is the most active of all the rebel outfits in Burundi and is estimated to have between 500 and 800 fighters.

RED-Tabara claimed the attack on X, formerly Twitter, and said its forces had "killed six soldiers, destroyed the CNDD-FDD office and seized arms and ammunition".

It also posted a photograph of a destroyed building painted in the colours of the ruling party.

A security source told AFP, on condition of anonymity, that the rebels had killed 10 civilians, five soldiers and flattened the ruling party office using rocket launchers.

Burundi had accused the RED-Tabara group of carrying out an attack on December 22 near the border with DRC and killing 20 people, including women and children.

RED-Tabara claimed responsibility in a message on X, saying it targeted a border post and killed nine military personnel and a policeman.

In another post on X, it denied it killed any civilians and said the group "is not supported by any country. It only has the support of the Burundian people".

RED-Tabara is accused of waging deadly violence in the East African country since 2015 but had not been active there since September 2021, when it carried out several attacks, including on the airport in the main city of Bujumbura.

Burundi has closed its border with Rwanda and President Evariste Ndayishimiye has accused Rwanda of backing the rebels -- a claim denied by Kigali.

February 26, 2024 07:52 PM
Egypt accused of threatening group that reported on enclosure near Gaza

 

Human rights groups Monday accused Egypt of a "smear campaign and threats" against an activist group that reported the construction of a walled enclosure in the Sinai bordering the Gaza Strip.

The group had said in mid-February that the enclosure, visible on satellite images, is meant to receive refugees in case of "a mass exodus" from Gaza which Israel has bombed since the Hamas attack on October 7.

Since then the Sinai Foundation for Human Rights (SFHR) had been targeted by "government and pro-government figures and entities", 18 rights groups charged in a joint statement.

Among the signatories were Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

They said the group's director, Ahmed Salem, had been targeted on social media, in newspapers and on television.

He had been "linked to terrorist groups and the Israeli Mossad among other allegations presented without evidence", they said.

Salem, who lives in Britain with his wife and children, had received "threats that he 'would be brought back to Egypt' if he did not drop his work".

The SFHR released its report on February 14 on what it described as a "closed, high security" zone to potentially receive Palestinian refugees.

Cairo has officially denied the claims, but the group reported that two local developers had told it they had obtained contracts to build a closed area "surrounded by seven-metre-high walls".

AFP reviewed satellite pictures taken on Thursday of the area in northern Sinai, showing construction of a wall along the Egypt-Gaza border, an area off-limits to journalists.

A comparison of satellite photos taken on February 10 and 15 shows land having been graded.

Human rights groups regularly accuse Egypt of attacking activists and journalists, sometimes even in exile, including by going after their families remaining in the country.

Mary Lawlor, the UN's Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, on Thursday urged "Egyptian authorities to ensure the safety of Ahmed Salem and his family".

The 18 rights groups demanded that Egypt "immediately allow independent journalists and independent civil society to work freely in Sinai".

They said the media should be able to "report on the grievances of its residents following a decade of military operations hidden from public scrutiny as well as any impact of cross-border developments on the ongoing armed conflict in Gaza".

February 26, 2024 05:01 PM
Ukrainian army says withdrew from eastern village near Avdiivka

 

Ukraine said Monday it had withdrawn from the settlement of Lastochkyne in eastern Ukraine, which Russia said it had captured, the latest in a string of Russian advances after the fall of Avdiivka.

As the war enters its third year, Moscow's troops have mounted heavy attacks and taken Avdiivka -- a key eastern town -- while Ukrainian troops are struggling with a lack of ammunition.

"Ukrainian Armed Forces units withdrew from the village of Lastochkyne to organise defences along the line of Orlivka, Tonenke, Berdychi," Ukrainian military spokesman Dmytro Lykhoviy said.

After a year of static frontlines, Russia has in recent weeks been seeking to press its advantage on the battlefield and trying to advance beyond Avdiivka.

"In the area of Avdiivka, units... liberated the village of Lastochkino and continued to improve the situation along the front line," the Russian defence ministry said in its daily update, referring to the village by its Russian name.

The small village is about five kilometres (three miles) west of Avdiivka, which Russian forces seized over a week ago.

The battle for Avdiivka was one of the bloodiest of the two-year war, drawing comparisons with Russia's assault on Bakhmut, which it captured last May.

Facing manpower and ammunition shortages, Ukraine was forced to withdraw from the industrial hub in the eastern Donetsk region, handing Moscow its first major territorial gain since Bakhmut.

February 26, 2024 04:56 PM
Attacks on mosque, church kill dozens in Burkina Faso

 

An attack on a mosque in eastern Burkina Faso has killed dozens of Muslims on the same day as another deadly attack on Catholics attending mass, local and security sources told AFP on Monday.

The two attacks struck on Sunday in different regions of the junta-ruled country caught for several years in a spiral of jihadist violence.

"Armed individuals attacked a mosque in Natiaboani on Sunday around 5:00 am, resulting in several dozen being killed," a security source said.

"The victims were all Muslims, most of them men" who had come for morning prayers, a local resident said by telephone.

Another local source said "the terrorists entered the town early morning. They surrounded the mosque and shot at the faithful, who were gathered there for the first prayer of the day."

"Several of them were shot, including an important religious leader," the source added.

Soldiers and members of the Volunteers for the Defence of the Fatherland (VDP), a civilian force that supports the military, were also targeted "by these hordes who came in large numbers", the same source said.

The source described it as a "large-scale attack" in terms of the number of assailants, who also wreaked substantial damage.

Natiaboani is a rural community about 60 kilometres (37 miles) south of Fada N'Gourma, the main town in Burkina's eastern region, which has seen regular attacks by armed groups since 2018.

On the same day as the attack on the mosque, at least 15 civilians were killed and two others wounded in an attack on a Catholic church during Sunday mass in northern Burkina Faso, a senior church official said.

Jean-Pierre Sawadogo, vicar of the Dori diocese, said in a statement that the "terrorist attack" occurred in the village of Essakane while people were gathered for Sunday prayer.

Essakane village is in what is known as the "three borders" zone in the northeast of the country, near the common borders of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.

 

- Catholics, Muslims, Military targeted -

 

Burkina Faso is ruled by a military junta led by Captain Ibrahim Traore, who seized power in 2022.

It was the country's second coup in less than a year -- both were triggered in part by discontent at the government's failures to quell jihadist violence.

Burkina Faso is part of the vast Sahel region, which has been locked in a battle against rising violent extremism since Libya's civil war in 2011, followed by an Islamist takeover of northern Mali in 2012.

The jihadist insurgency spilled over into Burkina Faso and Niger from 2015.

Several military detachments also came under attack on Sunday in different parts of the east and north of Burkina Faso.

According to security sources, several hundred "terrorists" were "neutralised" in operations responding to the attacks.

Mosques and imams have in the past been the target of attacks blamed on jihadists.

In August 2021, the grand imam of the northern town of Djibo was found dead three days after gunmen stopped the bus he was travelling on and kidnapped him.

Churches in Burkina have also at times been targeted in the attacks and Christians have been kidnapped.

In January 2021, the body of priest Abbot Rodrigue Sanon from the Notre Dame de Soubaganyedougou parish was found two days after his disappearance in a forest in southwestern Burkina Faso.

And in March 2019, a priest in Djibo was kidnapped and is still missing. A year earlier, in February 2018, a Catholic missionary, Cesar Fernandez, was murdered in the centre of the country.

NGOs including the ACLED analysis group say around 20,000 people in Burkina Faso have been killed in the jihadist violence. The UN says over two million have been displaced.

February 26, 2024 04:54 PM
Israel occupation 'affront to justice', UN court told

 

The League of Arab States on Monday called Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories an "affront to international justice", saying failure to end it amounted to "genocide".

The International Court of Justice entered its last day of week-long hearings after a request from the United Nations, with an unprecedented 52 countries giving their views on Israel's occupation.

"This prolonged occupation is an affront to international justice," the 22 Arab-country bloc's representative told judges in The Hague.

"The failure to bring it to an end has led to the current horrors perpetrated against the Palestinian people, amounting to genocide," Abdel Hakim El-Rifai said.

Most speakers during the hearings have demanded that Israel end its occupation, which came after a six-day Arab-Israeli war in 1967.

But last week the United States said Israel should not be legally obliged to withdraw without taking its "very real security needs" into account.

Speakers on Monday warned a prolonged occupation posed an "extreme danger" to stability in the Middle East and beyond.

"If left unchecked, it runs the risk of not only threatening regional, but also global peace and security," Turkey's representative Ahmet Yildiz said.

The UN has asked the ICJ to hand down an "advisory opinion" on the "legal consequences arising from the policies and practices of Israel in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem".

The court will probably deliver its opinion before the end of the year but it is not binding on anyone.

Israel is not taking part in the oral hearings. It submitted a written contribution, in which it described the questions the court had been asked as "prejudicial" and "tendentious".

The hearings began a week ago with three hours of testimony from Palestinian officials, who accused the Israeli occupiers of running a system of "colonialism and apartheid".

The hearing before the court is separate from a case brought by South Africa against Israel for alleged genocide during its current offensive in Gaza.

In that case, the ICJ ruled that Israel should do everything in its power to prevent genocidal acts in Gaza and allow in humanitarian aid.

The war in Gaza began after Hamas militants attacked southern Israel on October 7, which resulted in the deaths of around 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.

Israeli's retaliatory military offensive in Gaza has so far killed at least 29,782 people, most of them women and children, according to the territory's Hamas-run health ministry.

February 26, 2024 04:52 PM
Hungary gets new president following scandal

 

Hungary's parliament on Monday is expected to elect Constitutional Court head Tamas Sulyok as new president following the resignation of Katalin Novak, who caused outrage by pardoning a man convicted in a child abuse case.

The affair has turned into the biggest political crisis that nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban has faced since his return to power in 2010.

Orban ally Novak resigned as president earlier this month after it was revealed she had pardoned a convicted child abuser's accomplice.

Last week, ruling party Fidesz named Sulyok, 67, to replace Novak.

Sulyok is expected to be approved by parliament, where Fidesz' ruling coalition with the Christian Democratic KDNP holds a two-thirds majority.

The vote is scheduled to take place at 4:40 pm local time (1540 GMT) with the result expected to be announced later Monday, just after the votes are counted.

Little known to the broader public, Sulyok became a constitutional court judge in 2014 and, two years later, the court's head.

Around 3,000 people attended a Sunday protest by four opposition parties, calling for direct presidential elections.

The Novak scandal broke early this month when news site 444 revealed that she had pardoned the former deputy director of a children's home last year, on the eve of Pope Francis' visit.

The man was sentenced in 2022 to three years and four months in prison for helping to cover up his boss sexually abusing kids and adolescents there.

Tens of thousands of people have protested against the presidential pardon in Hungary, whose government has long campaigned on a pledge to protect children.

Orban likened the resignation of Novak, Hungary's first woman president, to a "nightmare", but stressed it was the right decision.

February 26, 2024 04:50 PM
First Israeli strikes on east Lebanon kill two Hezbollah members: security sources

 

Israeli strikes near the Hezbollah-dominated city of Baalbek killed two group members Monday, two security sources told AFP, in the first strikes on Lebanon's east since clashes began after the Gaza war.

"Two Hezbollah members were killed in the Israeli strikes near Baalbek," a security official told AFP, with another security source also confirming the toll.

Earlier Monday, one of the sources had told AFP that "an Israeli strike hit a building housing a Hezbollah civilian institution" in a Baalbek suburb.

A second Israeli strike hit a warehouse near Baalbek belonging to the Iran-backed group, the source added.

Both sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorised to speak to the press.

The Israeli army said it is "currently striking Hezbollah terror targets deep inside Lebanon".

Monday's strikes marked the first attack on Hezbollah outside Lebanon's south since the start of hostilities in the wake of the October 7 Gaza war between Israel and Palestinian militant group Hamas.

The city of Baalbek in the Bekaa valley is a Hezbollah bastion bordering Syria.

Earlier on Monday, the group said it had shot down a "large" Israeli drone in southern Lebanon.

Since October 8, Hezbollah and its arch-foe Israel have exchanged near-daily fire, but strikes have been largely contained to the border between the two countries -- although Israel has on occasion launched strikes elsewhere in Lebanon, including in Beirut.

In January, a strike widely attributed to Israel killed Hamas's deputy leader Saleh al-Aruri and six militants in Hezbollah's south Beirut stronghold -- the most high-profile Hamas figure to be killed during the war.

On Sunday, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said there would be no let up in Israeli action against Hezbollah, even if a ceasefire and hostage deal is secured in Gaza.

At least 280 people have been killed on the Lebanese side since fighting erupted, most of them Hezbollah fighters but also including 44 civilians, according to an AFP tally.

On the Israeli side, 10 soldiers and six civilians have been killed, according to the Israeli army.

Israeli army confirms strike on east Lebanon

Israel's army on Monday confirmed its fighter jets struck Hezbollah targets in the Bekaa valley, the first such strike on Lebanon's east since fighting erupted in October.

The strikes targeted sites used by Hezbollah for its aerial defence system, the army said, adding that they came "in response to the launch of a surface-to-air missile" that downed an Israeli drone earlier on Monday in southern Lebanon.

 

February 26, 2024 12:17 PM
US airman sets himself on fire outside Israeli embassy in Washington

An active member of the US Air Force set himself on fire outside the Israeli embassy in Washington on Sunday, officials said, as media reported he was protesting the war in Gaza.

Emergency responders rushed to the scene just before 1:00 pm (1800 GMT) in response to a "call for person on fire outside the Israeli Embassy," according to a message on X, formerly Twitter, by the capital's fire department.

They arrived to find that officers from the Secret Service -- the US law enforcement agency tasked with protecting US political leaders, visiting heads of state and others -- had already extinguished the fire.

The man was transported to hospital with "critical life threatening injuries," the fire department said.

An Air Force spokesperson confirmed to AFP that he was an active member of the Air Force, but gave no further details.

A spokesperson for the Israeli embassy said no staff were injured in the incident, and that the man was "unknown" to them.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=toCRc7GaQBU

US media reported that the man apparently livestreamed himself on Twitch, wearing fatigues and declaring he will "not be complicit in genocide" before dousing himself in liquid.

He then lit himself on fire while yelling "Free Palestine!" until he fell on the ground.

AFP has been unable to immediately verify the footage, with the New York Times reporting that it was removed from Twitch.

The shocking act came as protests are increasing across the United States against Israel's actions in Gaza, where it is waging a retaliatory war for an attack on October 7 by Hamas militants.

With the death toll in Gaza nearing 30,000, according to the Hamas-run health ministry there, international pressure has been increasing on the United States to rein its ally Israel in and call for a ceasefire.

February 26, 2024 09:22 AM
Potential Gaza ceasefire in sight amid UN famine warning

Israel's prime minister said Sunday a potential ceasefire in its war against Hamas militants would only delay a ground invasion of Gaza's southern city Rafah that shelters more than half of the conflict-battered territory's population.

Israel's ally the United States said ongoing mediation efforts produced "an understanding" towards a ceasefire and hostage release, while a Hamas source said the group insisted on the withdrawal of Israeli forces.

Amid a spiralling humanitarian crisis, the main UN aid agency for Palestinians urged political action to avert famine in Gaza.

Egyptian, Qatari and US "experts" met in Doha for talks also attended by Israeli and Hamas representatives, state-linked Egyptian media said, in the latest effort to secure a truce before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that a military operation into Rafah, on Gaza's southern border with Egypt, would put Israel within weeks of "total victory" over Hamas whose October 7 attack triggered the war.

"If we have a deal, it will be delayed somewhat, but it will happen," he told CBS of the looming ground invasion.

Such an operation is widely feared to bring more mass civilian casualties in Rafah, where around 1.4 million Palestinians -- most of them displaced from other areas -- have converged.

"If we don't have a deal, we'll do it anyway," Netanyahu said.

"It has to be done because total victory is our goal and total victory is within reach -- not months away, weeks away, once we begin the operation."

Dire food shortages in northern Gaza which have sent Palestinians fleeing south were "a man-made disaster" that can be mitigated, said Philippe Lazzarini, head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA.

"Famine can still be avoided through genuine political will to grant access and protection to meaningful assistance."

The UN has said it faces restrictions, particularly on aid deliveries to northern Gaza.

The Doha talks follow a weekend meeting in Paris, without Gaza rulers Hamas, where representatives "came to an understanding among the four of them about what the basic contours of a hostage deal for temporary ceasefire would look like", White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told CNN.

A Hamas source told AFP that "some new amendments" were proposed on contentious issues, but "Israel did not present any substantive position on the terms of the ceasefire and the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip".

Netanyahu has dismissed the troop withdrawal demand as "delusional".

- 'Uninhabitable' -

More than four months into the war, desperate families in Gaza's north have been forced to scavenge for food as fighting and looting have stopped humanitarian deliveries.

Hundreds of Palestinians headed south whichever way they could, walking down garbage-strewn roads between the blackened shells of bombed-out buildings, said an AFP correspondent.

In northern Gaza's Jabalia, displaced man Marwan Awadieh said the area "has become completely uninhabitable" and food was desperately scarce.

"Even the animal fodder that we had resorted to is now unavailable," he said, and wild herbs have "been depleted".

Red Crescent volunteer Ezzedin Halaweh said food shortages in the north were "leading to severe health issues, especially among children".

Israeli forces continued striking targets across the Palestinian territory and battling militants in heavy urban combat centred on the southern city of Khan Yunis, near Rafah.

The Israeli military campaign has killed at least 29,692 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory's health ministry.

The war broke out after Hamas's unprecedented attack which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official figures.

- 'Expanding the conflict' -

Militants also took about 250 Israeli and foreign hostages, 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 31 presumed dead, according to Israel.

Israel's army confirmed Sunday the death of soldier Oz Daniel, 19, whose "body is still held captive by Hamas" according to the Hostages and Missing Families Forum which said he was killed on the day of the attack.

Mediators have voiced hope a temporary truce and a hostage-prisoner exchange can be secured before the start of Ramadan on March 10 or 11, depending on the lunar calendar.

Jordan's King Abdullah II warned fighting during the holy month "will increase the threat of expanding the conflict", according to a royal statement.

Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, whose country hosts Hamas leaders and had helped broker a one-week truce in November, is due in Paris this week for talks on the Gaza conflict, the French presidency said.

Media reports suggest the warring parties are weighing a six-week halt to fighting and the initial exchange of dozens of female, underage and ill hostages for several hundred Palestinian detainees held by Israel.

- Hezbollah threat -

Across from overcrowded Rafah, neighbouring Egypt has kept its border closed to a mass refugee flight, saying it will not help facilitate any operation to push Palestinians out of Gaza.

But satellite images show it has also built a walled enclosure next to Gaza, in an apparent effort to brace for the possible arrival of large numbers of refugees.

Inside Israel, public pressure has grown on Netanyahu from the families of hostages demanding swifter action, and from a resurgent anti-government protest movement.

Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said there would be no let-up in action against Lebanon's powerful Hamas ally Hezbollah, whose militants have traded near-daily fire with Israeli forces since early October.

Both Hamas and Hezbollah are backed by Israel's enemy Iran.

If diplomatic efforts fail to end the deadly cross-border hostilities, "we will do it by force", Gallant warned in a video message from a northern army base near Lebanon.

"If anyone thinks that when we reach a deal (with Hamas)... it will ease what is happening here -- they are wrong."

February 25, 2024 09:56 PM
At least 15 civilians killed in Burkina church attack: diocese

 

At least 15 civilians were killed and two others injured during a "terrorist" attack on a Catholic church during Sunday mass in northern Burkina Faso, a senior church official said.

"We bring to your attention a terrorist attack which the Catholic community of Essakane village was the victim of today, February 25, while they were gathered for Sunday prayer," the vicar of the Dori diocese, Jean-Pierre Sawadogo, said in a statement sent to AFP. The provisional toll was 15 killed, two wounded, he added.

February 25, 2024 09:54 PM
Netanyahu: Rafah operation will put Israel weeks away from 'total victory'

 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that the military operation into Gaza's Rafah, where 1.4 million Palestinians are sheltering in tent cities, would put Israel within weeks of "total victory" over Hamas.

Negotiations for a ceasefire in Gaza have resumed in Doha, state-linked Egyptian media reported, but Netanyahu said any deal would not prevent the Rafah offensive.

"If we have a (ceasefire) deal, it will be delayed somewhat, but it will happen," he told CBS.

"If we don't have a deal, we'll do it anyway. It has to be done, because total victory is our goal, and total victory is within reach -- not months away, weeks away, once we begin the operation."

An Israeli delegation was in Paris on Friday to discuss a deal on a fresh ceasefire and the release of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza in exchange for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

The talks then restarted in Doha, including Hamas representatives.

"We're all working on it. We want it. I want it. Because we want to liberate the remaining hostages," Netanyahu said.

"I can't tell you if we'll have it, but if Hamas goes down from its delusional claims and brings them down to Earth, we'll have the progress that we all want."

During the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, Palestinian militants took some 250 hostages, 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 31 presumed dead, according to Israel.

As with a previous week-long truce in November that saw more than 100 hostages and 240 Palestinian prisoners freed, Qatar, Egypt and the United States have been spearheading efforts to secure a new deal.

International pressure for a ceasefire has mounted in recent weeks, as the death toll from Israel's military offensive on the Palestinian territory nears 30,000, mostly women and children, according to the Gaza health ministry.

Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas -- which rules Gaza -- in response to its October attack that resulted in the deaths of 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official Israeli figures.

Asked about US demands for Israel to protect civilians in Rafah, Netanyahu said his military chiefs would on Sunday show him "a dual plan -- a plan to evacuate and a plan to dismantle those remaining (Hamas) battalions."

February 25, 2024 08:54 PM
Zelensky says 31,000 Ukrainian soldiers killed in war with Russia

 

President Volodymyr Zelensky said 31,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed in the war with Russia, in a rare official statement on military losses sustained during the two-year war.

At a press conference in Kyiv, Zelensky said: "31,000 Ukrainian soldiers have died in this war. Not 300,000 or 150,000, or whatever Putin and his lying circle are saying. But each of these losses is a great loss for us."

February 25, 2024 07:55 PM
Body of Israeli soldier killed in Hamas attack held in Gaza: campaigners

 

An Israeli soldier seized by Hamas militants during their October 7 attack was killed the same day and his body is being held in Gaza, the army and a campaign group said Sunday.

The Israeli army confirmed the death of Sergeant Oz Daniel, 19, while the Hostages and Missing Families Forum said his remains are held in the Palestinian territory.

"Oz's body is still held captive by Hamas," the forum said in a statement.

Daniel was a guitar player who "believed in the power of music to change the world," the forum said.

During the October 7 attack, Palestinian militants abducted around 250 Israelis and foreigners to the Gaza Strip. Around 130 are still held captive there, including 31 who are believed dead.

More than 100 of those captured have been freed, many exchanged for Palestinian prisoners during a week-long truce that ended on December 1.

Israeli soldiers killed three hostages mistakenly, while three others have been rescued in military operations carried out in the Gaza Strip.

The unprecedented October 7 Hamas attack resulted in the deaths of around 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.

Israel's relentless offensive on Gaza has since killed 29,692 people, mostly women, children and adolescents, according to the latest toll from the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.

February 25, 2024 07:44 PM
US says Paris talks came to 'understanding' on possible Hamas hostage deal

 

The United States said Sunday that multinational talks in Paris came to an "understanding" on a possible deal for Hamas to release hostages and for a new ceasefire in the Middle East.

"Representatives of Israel, the United States, Egypt, and Qatar met in Paris and came to an understanding among the four of them about what the basic contours of a hostage deal for temporary ceasefire would look like," White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told CNN.

February 25, 2024 07:09 PM
Gaza truce talks resume in Doha: Egypt state-linked media

 

Negotiations for a ceasefire in Gaza have resumed in Doha between "experts from Egypt, Qatar, the United States and Israel", as well as Hamas representatives, state-linked Egyptian media reported Sunday.

An Israeli delegation led by Mossad chief David Barnea was in Paris on Friday discussing possibilities of a deal to ensure a fresh ceasefire and the release of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza in exchange for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

Israel's war cabinet agreed on Saturday to send a delegation to Qatar to continue the talks, according to Israeli media reports.

The talks are a "continuation of what was discussed in Paris" and "will be followed by meetings in Cairo," reported Al-Qahera News, which is linked to Egyptian state intelligence services.

During the unprecedented Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, Palestinian militants took some 250 hostages, 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 30 presumed dead, according to Israel.

As with a previous week-long truce in November that saw more than 100 hostages and 240 Palestinian prisoners freed, Qatar, Egypt and the United States have been spearheading efforts to secure a new deal.

International pressure for a ceasefire has mounted in recent weeks, as the death toll from Israel's military offensive on the Palestinian territory nears 30,000, mostly women and children, according to the Gaza health ministry.

Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas -- which rules Gaza -- in response to its unprecedented October 7 attack that resulted in the deaths of 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official Israeli figures.

In negotiations, Hamas has demanded a ceasefire and Israel's withdrawal from Gaza, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has dismissed as "delusional" as he vows to press further into the territory.

Fears have surged over Israeli plans for a ground invasion of Rafah, Gaza's southernmost city where 1.4 million Palestinians have been pushed into sprawling tent cities right against the Egyptian border.

US, Arab and other mediators have voiced hope a deal can be reached before the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on March 10 or 11, depending on the lunar calendar.

February 25, 2024 07:04 PM
IS landmine kills 13 truffle hunters in Syria desert: monitor

 

A blast from a landmine left by the Islamic State group killed at least 13 civilians foraging for truffles in the Syrian desert, a war monitor said.

"Thirteen civilians, including women... were killed when a landmine left by the IS group exploded while they were searching for truffles" in the desert in Raqa province, said the Syria Observatory for Human Rights.

The Syrian desert is renowned for producing some of the best quality truffles in the world, which fetch high prices in a country battered by 13 years of war and a crushing economic crisis.

Authorities frequently warn against the high-risk practice.

But every year between February and April, foragers risk their lives to collect the delicacies in the vast Syrian desert, or Badia -- a known hideout for jihadists that is also littered with landmines.

In March 2019, IS lost its last scraps of territory in Syria following a military campaign backed by a US-led coalition, but jihadist remnants continue to hide in the desert and launch deadly attacks.

They have used such hideouts to ambush civilians, Kurdish-led forces, Syrian government troops and pro-Iran fighters, while also mounting attacks in neighbouring Iraq.

Syria's war has claimed the lives of more than half a million people and displaced millions since it erupted in March 2011 with Damascus's brutal repression of anti-government protests.

February 25, 2024 05:21 PM
Trump coasts to another victory in race for Republican nomination

 

Donald Trump cruised to a lightning victory Saturday in South Carolina's Republican primary, blitzing rival Nikki Haley in her home state and continuing his march to the nomination and a White House rematch with Joe Biden in November.

Trump completed a sweep of the first four major nominating contests, converting a year of blockbuster polls into a likely insurmountable lead going into the "Super Tuesday" 15-state voting bonanza in 10 days.

Haley had vowed to fight on regardless of the outcome but Trump, seeking to move quickly from the primary to the general election, didn't mention her once during a victory speech in which he turned his fire on Biden.

"We're going to be up here on November 5 and we're going to look at Joe Biden -- we're going to look him right in the eye, he's destroying our country -- and we're going to say, Joe, you're fired. Get out," Trump said to cheers at his victory party in state capital Columbia.

Haley has repeatedly questioned the 77-year-old former president's mental fitness and warned another Trump presidency would bring "chaos," but her efforts appeared to do little to damage his standing among Republicans.

By about 7 am (1200 GMT) Sunday, major national news outlets had Trump just shy of 60 percent of the vote, with almost all votes counted.

US networks had felt able to call the race for Trump within seconds of the polls closing, suggesting little doubt over the outcome.

David Darmofal, a politics professor at the University of South Carolina, said the speed of Trump's projected victory confirmed him as "effectively the presumptive Republican nominee for president."

"This quick call is a bad result for former governor Haley in her home state. The quickness of the call will likely lead to additional pressure for her to drop out of the race," he told AFP.

Haley, a popular governor of South Carolina in the 2010s and the only woman to have entered the Republican contest, was looking to outperform expectations in her own backyard and ride into Super Tuesday with wind in her sails.

But she was never able to compete in a battleground that preferred Trump's brand of right-wing "America first" populism and personal grievance over the four criminal indictments and multiple civil lawsuits he faces.

Trump had already won Iowa by 30 points and New Hampshire by 10, while a dispute in Nevada led to the real estate tycoon running unopposed in the first official contest in the western United States.

 

- 'Not giving up' -

 

Biden reacted to the South Carolina result with a brief written statement warning Americans of "the threat Donald Trump poses to our future as Americans grapple with the damage he left behind."

Meanwhile Haley reminded supporters as she congratulated Trump in her concession speech that she had already vowed to fight on, regardless of the outcome.

"I'm a woman of my word. I'm not giving up this fight when a majority of Americans disapprove of both Donald Trump and Joe Biden," she said.

Trump aides have been clear that they want to see off Haley long before the Republican National Convention in July -- and are expecting the party to coalesce around the front-runner ahead of the first of his criminal trials on March 25.

A traditional conservative who espouses limited government and a muscular foreign policy, Haley has argued that a Trump presidency would be mired in scandal from day one.

Her central argument -- that polling shows her performing better than Trump in hypothetical matchups with Biden -- may have fallen on deaf ears but she has vowed to stay in the race at least through Super Tuesday.

Analysts say she is building her profile for a potential 2028 run -- and is poised to step in should legal or health problems knock Trump out of the race.

"Nikki Haley's an incredible role model," said one Republican voter, Julie Taylor. "She's not giving up, she's showing strength and grace and courage."

February 25, 2024 05:12 PM
Iran says US-British strikes on Yemen 'escalate tensions'

 

Iran condemned on Sunday the latest strikes by the United States and Britain on Yemen, saying they were seeking to "escalate tensions and crises" in the region.

On Saturday, American and British forces carried out fresh strikes against 18 Huthi targets in Yemen, in response to a wave of attacks by the Iran-backed group on Red Sea shipping.

"With such attacks, America and Britain seek to escalate tensions and crises in the region, and expand the scope of war and instability," Iran's foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani said in a statement.

"Certainly, this kind of arbitrary and aggressive military operation, aside from aggravating insecurity and instability in the region, will not achieve anything for these aggressor countries," Kanani added.

He further condemned the United States and Britain for failing to "take immediate and effective action" to stop Israel's deadly campaign in Gaza.

The Huthis say their attacks on shipping around the Red Sea are in support of Palestinians in war-ravaged Gaza.

Israel's withering military campaign in Gaza began following the unprecedented October 7 attack on southern Israel by the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

Iran backs Hamas but has denied any involvement in the October 7 attack.

Regional tensions have soared since the war erupted, stoking violence involving Iran-backed groups in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

Following the Saturday attacks, Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin said the US "will not hesitate to take action, as needed, to defend lives and the free flow of commerce in one of the world's most critical waterways".

The Huthis' military spokesman Yahya Saree said the attacks would continue until "the aggression stops" in Gaza.

The Islamic republic has previously said it sees a "duty" to support what it calls "resistance groups" in the region, but insists they are "independent" in decision and action.

February 25, 2024 04:10 PM
UK Tories suspend MP from parliamentary party over 'Islamophobic' comments

 

Britain's ruling Conservatives on Saturday suspended their former deputy chairman from the parliamentary party, after he refused to apologise for saying London's Labour mayor Sadiq Khan was controlled by Islamists.

Pressure had been growing on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's Tories to act following lawmaker Lee Anderson's contentious remarks Friday, which have been widely condemned as racist and Islamophobic.

It comes as incidents of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism have spiked dramatically across the UK amid increased polarisation since the outbreak of the war in Gaza last October.

"Following his refusal to apologise for comments made yesterday, the chief whip has suspended the Conservative whip from Lee Anderson MP," a spokesperson for Tory lawmaker Simon Hart said.

Hart's chief whip position makes him responsible for internal Conservative Party discipline.

On the right-wing GB News channel, Anderson claimed "Islamists" had "got control" of Khan, who was the first Muslim mayor of a Western capital when first elected in London in 2016.

"He's actually given our capital city away to his mates," added Anderson, the Tory MP for a seat in central England.

His remarks prompted criticism from across the political spectrum.

Conservative business minister Nus Ghani, senior backbencher Sajid Javid and Tory peer Gavin Barwell were among Tories to condemn the comments, with Barwell calling them a "despicable slur".

The Muslim Council of Britain said they were "disgusting" and extremist.

Anderson, who will now sit as an independent lawmaker in parliament, said late Saturday that he understood his comments had put Hart and Sunak in a "difficult position" but stopped short of apologising.

- Sunak criticised -

"I fully accept that they had no option but to suspend the whip in these circumstances," he added.

"However, I will continue to support the government's efforts to call out extremism in all its forms -- be that anti-Semitism or Islamophobia."

Khan and Labour leader Keir Starmer, who both branded Anderson's outburst "racist" and "Islamophobic", also directed their criticism at Sunak, who has not commented on the scandal.

Khan hit out at the "deafening silence" from the Conservative leader and his senior ministers, arguing that amounted to condoning racism.

Starmer questioned the wisdom of appointing Anderson as deputy Tory chairman last year. The firebrand MP quit the role last month so that he could rebel against Sunak's government over immigration.

"What does it say about the prime minister's judgement that he made Lee Anderson deputy chairman of his party," the Labour leader said.

"This isn't just embarrassing for the Conservative Party, it emboldens the worst forces in our politics. Rishi Sunak needs to get a grip and take on the extremists in his party."

Anderson's comments followed ex-interior minister Suella Braverman also claiming in a newspaper article that "the Islamists, the extremists and the anti-Semites are in charge now".

She was responding in part to chaotic scenes in the House of Commons earlier this week over rival motions calling for a ceasefire in the Gaza conflict.

Speaker Lindsay Hoyle faced a furious backlash for going against usual practice on that day and allowing a vote on a Labour amendment to a motion.

Hoyle said he wanted the widest possible debate on the issue, but also noted that he was eager to defuse threats of violence against MPs who had so far not voted for a ceasefire in Gaza.

February 25, 2024 04:00 PM
Israeli delegation headed to Qatar for more Hamas hostage talks

 

Israel's war cabinet approved on Saturday sending negotiators to Qatar to continue talks aimed at securing a ceasefire in the war against Hamas and the return of hostages being held in Gaza, officials and local media said.

The talks began in Paris, where the head of Israel's overseas intelligence service Mossad and his counterpart at the domestic Shin Bet security service met with mediators from the United States, Egypt and Qatar.

National security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi said in a televised interview Saturday evening that the "delegation has returned from Paris -- there is probably room to move towards an agreement".

The negotiators had asked to speak to the cabinet "to bring us up to speed on the results of the Paris summit", he added shortly before the meeting.

Israeli media later reported that the meeting had concluded, with the cabinet agreeing to send a delegation to Qatar in the coming days to continue negotiations on a weeks-long truce involving the release of hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners held in Israel.

Pressure has steadily mounted on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to strike a deal to free the hostages, with thousands gathering in Tel Aviv Saturday at what has come to be known as "Hostages Square" to demand swifter action.

"We think about them (the hostages) all the time and want them back alive as soon as possible," said Orna Tal, whose close friend Tsachi Idan was kidnapped from the Nahal Oz kibbutz.

"We'll protest again and again until they're back," she told AFP.

- 'Leverage' -

In his interview Saturday, Hanegbi said Israel wanted the release of all hostages seized in the October 7 attacks, starting with the women, but added: "Such an agreement does not mean the end of the war."

He also indicated that Israel would not accept any deal between the United States and Saudi Arabia for a Palestinian state.

Netanyahu said in a statement that Saturday's cabinet meeting would discuss "next steps in the negotiations".

He also reaffirmed his aim for troops to go into Rafah in southern Gaza, despite widespread concern about the impact on hundreds of thousands of civilians who have fled there to avoid bombardments.

An AFP reporter in Rafah said there had been at least six air strikes on the city on Saturday evening.

Israel's air, land and sea war against Hamas in retaliation for its deadly October 7 attacks on southern Israel has killed at least 29,606 people, the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza says.

Hamas attacked rural communities and military posts bordering the Gaza Strip, leaving at least 1,160 people dead, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

Some 250 hostages were taken, of whom 130 are still in Gaza, although about 30 are thought to be dead, Israel says.

A one-week pause in fighting in November saw more than 100 hostages released, including 80 Israelis who were freed in exchange for some 240 Palestinians jailed in Israel.

Netanyahu has characterised Hamas's demands for a ceasefire in Gaza as "bizarre" and vowed to press on with the military campaign until "total victory" over the group is achieved.

The head of Israel's military, Herzi Halevi, visited the Gaza Strip and also said military action was the most effective way of getting back the hostages.

Combat was "leverage", he told troops. "We need to continue and apply it strongly... to use it to release the hostages," he added.

February 25, 2024 03:35 PM
Supporters hail Trump nomination as 'definitive' after latest win

 

When Donald Trump's picture appeared on screen Saturday, his supporters at an election-night watch party in South Carolina burst into cheers -- convinced that his victory in yet another state primary had cemented his status as the "definitive" Republican presidential nominee.

Holding slices of pizza and glasses of wine, those gathered at an upscale apartment complex outside Charleston hugged and congratulated each other, with the 77-year-old former president projected to win just moments after polls closed.

"I'm thrilled!" Amber Sparks told AFP.

"Because it's definitive, and at this point we can move on... we can move forward. We don't have to sit on the fence and wonder 'what if' and ride between two candidates -- now it's definitive," the 55-year-old legal assistant said.

The party had yet to hear from Nikki Haley, South Carolina's former governor and Trump's last remaining opponent, who would later confirm that she would not drop out of the race despite losing her home state.

"It was already over for her," Tom Robertson, 61, told AFP.

"Trump will rule the world if he gets back in there and he'll help us out."

Another attendee, Jordan Bryngelson, said Haley "did a good job with the UN" -- when she was an ambassador under Trump -- but that "it's just not her time."

Sparks had reservations about the controversy Trump perennially courts with his remarks, but "I do love his policies," she said.

"You know, you're gonna be policy-driven or you're gonna be personality-driven. But for me, it's really going to come down to policy."

For another Republican, who wished to remain anonymous, voting for Trump also meant voting for their Christian values.

The former president, when in office, notably appointed conservative justices to the Supreme Court, paving the way for the overturning of the federal right to abortion in 2022.

"I feel God allowed Biden in to wake people up," she said, clutching the cross she wears around her neck.

Trump "needs to have a chance to finish what he was accomplishing," she said.

Haley lashes out at Trump

US Republican presidential hopeful Nikki Haley on Saturday lashed out at rival Donald Trump for making what she called "disgusting" comments about Black Americans.

Trump, who defeated Haley in Saturday's nominating contest in South Carolina, suggested that Black voters favor him because they can relate to his troubles with the law.

"It's disgusting. But that's what happens when he goes off the teleprompter. That's the chaos that comes with Donald Trump," Haley said at a polling station in her home state.

"That's the offensiveness that's going to happen every day between now and the general election, which is why I continue to say Donald Trump cannot win a general election," she added.

Trump made the comments Friday evening in a speech to Black conservatives.

The 77-year-old, who faces four criminal indictments, including on charges of conspiracy and vote rigging, suggested that "Black people like me because they have been hurt so badly and discriminated against, and they actually viewed me as I'm being discriminated against."

He also claimed that Black voters appreciate his police photo, taken at a Georgia jail, more than anybody else.

"The mug shot, we've all seen the mug shot, and you know who embraced it more than anybody else? The Black population. It's incredible," he said.

The remarks drew criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike.

"Last night in South Carolina, Donald Trump stood on stage to make shameful, racist comments that tap into a hatred and divisiveness that is the very worst of us," said President Joe Biden in a campaign email.

Earlier in the week, Trump compared his legal troubles to the persecution of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny, whose recent sudden death in an Arctic prison has been linked by Biden and other Western leaders to the Kremlin.

February 25, 2024 10:15 AM
US, UK launch new wave of strikes against Yemen's Huthis

American and British forces carried out a fresh wave of strikes late Saturday against 18 Huthi targets in Yemen, following weeks of unrelenting attacks on Red Sea shipping by the Iran-backed rebels.

The strikes "specifically targeted 18 Huthi targets across eight locations in Yemen" including weapons storage facilities, attack drones, air defense systems, radars and a helicopter, a joint statement said.

It was co-signed by Australia, Bahrain, Denmark, Canada, the Netherlands and New Zealand, who gave unspecified "support" to the new round of strikes, the second this month and fourth since the rebels began their attacks on ships in the region.

"The Huthis' now more than 45 attacks on commercial and naval vessels since mid-November constitute a threat to the global economy, as well as regional security and stability, and demand an international response," the statement said.

Huthi-run Al-Masirah television reported "a series of raids on the capital Sanaa," while AFP correspondents in the rebel-controlled city in western Yemen said they heard several loud bangs. "The United States will not hesitate to take action, as needed, to defend lives and the free flow of commerce in one of the world's most critical waterways," Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin said in a separate statement after the strikes.

"We will continue to make clear to the Huthis that they will bear the consequences if they do not stop their illegal attacks, which harm Middle Eastern economies, cause environmental damage, and disrupt the delivery of humanitarian aid to Yemen and other countries."

Huthi military spokesman Yahya Saree was defiant, vowing in a social media statement that the rebels would "confront the American-British escalation with more qualitative military operations against all hostile targets in the Red and Arab Seas."

The UK Ministry of Defence said four Royal Air Force Typhoon FGR4s targeted "several very long-range drones, used by the Houthis for both reconnaissance and attack missions," on Saturday, at a site northeast of Sanaa.

Saturday's operation comes after several merchant vessels were struck this week in the region, including the fertilizer-filled Rubymar, whose crew had to abandon ship after it was hit several days ago and began taking on water.

British maritime security agency UKMTO reported another attack on an unspecified ship near the port of Djibouti on Saturday night, saying there had been an "explosion in close proximity to the vessel, no damage is reported to the vessel and there are no injuries to the crew."

"Vessel is proceeding to next port of call," it added in a bulletin. - Anti-ship missile downed -Apart from the joint operations with Britain, the United States has also carried out unilateral strikes against Huthi positions and weaponry in Yemen, and has downed dozens of missiles and drones in the Red Sea.

Earlier on Saturday, US Central Command (CENTCOM) announced that an American Navy vessel had shot down an anti-ship ballistic missile "launched into the Gulf of Aden from Iranian-backed Huthi controlled areas of Yemen."

The missile "was likely targeting MV Torm Thor, a US-Flagged, owned, and operated chemical/oil tanker," CENTCOM said on X, formerly Twitter.

US forces on Friday also shot down three attack drones near commercial ships in the Red Sea and destroyed seven anti-ship cruise missiles on land, CENTCOM said.

The Huthis say they are targeting Israel-linked vessels in support of Palestinians in Gaza, which has been ravaged by the Israel-Hamas war.

Following previous US and UK strikes, the Huthis declared American and British interests to be legitimate targets as well.

The Huthis will "persist in upholding their religious, moral and humanitarian duties towards the Palestinian people, and their military operations will not stop unless the aggression stops and the siege on the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip is lifted," military spokesman Saree said.

Anger over Israel's devastating campaign in Gaza -- which began after an unprecedented Hamas attack on October 7 -- has grown across the Middle East, stoking violence involving Iran-backed groups in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen.  AFP

February 24, 2024 11:05 PM
Pro-Ukraine rallies across Europe on war anniversary

 

Protesters rallied across Europe Saturday in support of Ukraine on the second anniversary of Moscow's invasion, urging greater Western backing as fears mount about Kyiv's ability to fend off an emboldened Russia.

Crowds gathered in Berlin, London, Paris and other European cities, waving the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag and demanding that Russian President Vladimir Putin put an end to the war.

When Putin sent his forces into Ukraine on February 24, 2022, it brought conflict back to Europe for the first time in decades, a geopolitical earthquake that sent shockwaves across the world.

With concerns growing about waning support from Ukraine's allies as an emboldened Moscow makes battlefield gains, there were calls at a protest at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate for accelerated arms deliveries.

Addressing thousands of supporters, some waving banners that read "arm Ukraine now", Berlin mayor Kai Wegner decried Putin's "brutal war of aggression".

"He wants to wipe out Ukraine, he wants to wipe out the identities of Ukrainians," he told the crowd, which organisers estimated at 10,000-strong while police gave a figure of 5,000.

"But we won't let that happen."

He called on Berlin to deliver long-range Taurus missiles long sought by Kyiv, a demand the German government has so far refused for fears they could also strike inside Russia.

Valeria Zhylenko, a 32-year-old Ukrainian at the rally, recognised it was "more difficult now to support only Ukraine" due to other crises happening around the world.

But she added: "I want to remind the world that we are still here, we are resisting... we still need this support."

In London, thousands of protesters marched to Trafalgar Square, waving banners that read "world support Ukraine", and "Russia is a terrorist state".

"Every single day people are dying, and the West is not supplying enough... weaponry, unfortunately," said Tania Zubashenko, a 54-year-old Ukrainian.

"They promise, but sometimes it's only words. We need real actions."

 

- 'Ukraine defending values' -

 

Protests took place across France, with several thousand joining a march in central Paris, with shouts of "Putin murderer" and "Russia out of Ukraine" ringing out from the crowd.

In the city of Rouen, mayor Nicolas Mayer-Rossignol told a crowd of several hundred that "Ukraine is defending its sovereignty but also its values and ideals, which are those of Europe.

"Europe is at war -- we cannot remain on the sidelines of this battle."

More than 1,000 protesters gathered in Warsaw -- the capital of Poland, Ukraine's neighbour and a key ally -- in front of the Russian embassy, waving Ukrainian flags.

The demonstrators put up crosses with the names of victims of Russia's war, as well as models of buildings destroyed in Russian bombings.

Demonstrations took place in numerous other cities across Europe, including Dublin, Athens, Stockholm and Milan.

At the Stockholm rally, Maryana Kostiv, a 22-year-old Ukrainian from Lviv, told AFP that she hoped for Ukraine to "win the war".

"Everything will end and all the Ukrainians can go back to Ukraine and start to live their normal lives again. That's all that I hope for," she told AFP.

Despite the show of support across the continent on Saturday, Europeans are becoming increasingly worried about Ukraine's faltering efforts to fend off Moscow.

According to a survey released last week, only 10 percent of Europeans believe Ukraine can defeat Russia on the battlefield.

The survey conducted last month across 12 EU countries showed that on average 20 percent of those asked believed Russia could win, and 37 percent thought the conflict would end in a compromise settlement.

February 24, 2024 09:43 PM
Evacuations, retreat in east Ukraine on war anniversary

 

Explosions echoed over the train station in east Ukraine on Saturday -- the two-year anniversary of Russia's invasion -- where children and a wheelchair-bound woman were loaded onto carriages heading for safety.

Russia's forces are gaining ground towards cities like the rail hub of Pokrovsk, throwing the future into doubt for Ukrainians already exhausted after two devastating years of war.

Tetiana, a 56-year-old schoolteacher from the nearby war-battered town of Selydove, who was chaperoning a group of students, put into stark terms the need for them to leave now.

"To save the children's lives -- that's why it's important. And to support their emotional state, to preserve their mental well-being," she told AFP before bustling more than a dozen primary school pupils with backpacks onto the train.

Some of the children had already been evacuated at the beginning of the war launched by the Kremlin on February 24, 2022, but cautiously returned as the front line stabilised, she said.

"And now, since the situation has become worse again, their parents decided to send them to safety."

 

- 'Give us artillery' -

 

In Pokrovsk, one of the mining towns that dot the Donetsk region, which the Kremlin has claimed is part of Russia, Ukrainian troops had a clear message for the foreign leaders convening in Kyiv to show their support on the war's anniversary.

"Give us artillery, drones, counter-battery, shells," said a 31-year-old soldier, who identified himself as Woodie.

He was part of a detachment of troops sent to reinforce the nearby industrial city of Avdiivka, which fell this month to Russian forces that had overwhelming superiority in firepower from artillery and warplanes.

President Volodymyr Zelensky vowed victory in Kyiv on Thursday and EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen hailed Ukraine's resistance, but the troops that retreated from Avdiivka painted a perilous picture of battles with determined Russian forces.

"Our infantry with assault rifles and grenades were facing artillery, aircraft, and tanks," said a 39-year-old serviceman, who has been fighting for two years and goes by Sportsman.

"We were holding on, inflicting damage, but it is really hard when people with assault rifles are fighting against artillery and aviation," said Sportsman, noting he had sent his daughter abroad several months after the war began.

 

- 'End in peace' -

 

AFP journalists in Pokrovsk, which was once home to around 60,000 people, heard blasts sounding over the town now tarnished with damaged and abandoned buildings with boarded up windows.

Russia's capture this month of Avdiivka, which had held out against Moscow and its proxies for nearly a decade, has changed the calculus for many civilians living in its outskirts.

The head of the regional police force earlier told AFP that its fall had brought about an uptick in evacuations from places like Pokrovsk and Selydove, where a hospital was struck this month, killing three, including a pregnant woman.

At the train station, Ekaterina, a 39-year-old housewife said she was en route to visit her son who left for the central Khmelnytskyi region last month. She is remaining in the Donetsk region with her daughter.

How close would the fighting need to come before she flees with the rest of her family?

"Honestly, we don't even want to think about it," she said.

"I wish it would end in peace as soon as possible."

February 24, 2024 09:41 PM
6 Catholic missionaries, teacher kidnapped in Haiti

 

Six Catholic missionaries and a teacher have been kidnapped in the Haitian capital, their parish said Saturday, amid an ongoing upswing in abductions in the gang-plagued Caribbean nation.

The Brothers of the Sacred Heart parish in Haiti announced "with pain the villainous kidnapping of six... members and a teacher working in the mission" at a school in the gang-controlled Bicentenaire neighborhood Friday morning.

A ransom demand was made, a source in the congregation told AFP.

"For several years, absurd and unjustified violence has befallen the peaceful Haitian people, and even people who devote their lives to the cause of the most vulnerable are not spared," the parish said, adding that it was closing the Jean XXIII school, where the victims worked, "until further notice."

Facing deep insecurity and spiraling political and health crises, Haiti has seen a soaring number of kidnappings in recent months, especially in its densely populated capital.

January became the most violent month in Haiti in two years, according to the United Nations, with over 800 people killed, injured or kidnapped and some 300 gang members also killed or injured.

The rampant gang violence has prompted the UN Security Council to approve a multinational mission to support Haiti's police force, though it has been delayed by legal proceedings in Kenya, which has agreed to lead the project.

At the Group of 20 summit in Brazil on Friday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken pushed for progress on the Haiti mission, calling it one "of the most urgent challenges we face as an international community."

February 24, 2024 09:25 PM
UK Tories suspend MP from parliamentary party over 'Islamophobic' comments

 

Britain's ruling Conservatives on Saturday suspended their former deputy chairman from the parliamentary party, after he refused to apologise for saying London's Labour mayor Sadiq Khan was controlled by Islamists.

Pressure had been growing on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's Tories to act following lawmaker Lee Anderson's contentious remarks Friday, which have been widely condemned as racist and Islamophobic.

It comes as incidents of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism have spiked dramatically across the UK amid increased polarisation since the outbreak of the war in Gaza last October.

"Following his refusal to apologise for comments made yesterday, the chief whip has suspended the Conservative whip from Lee Anderson MP," a spokesperson for Tory lawmaker Simon Hart said on Saturday.

Hart's chief whip position makes him responsible for internal Conservative Party discipline.

On the right-wing GB News channel Friday, Anderson claimed Islamists had "got control" of Khan, who was the first Muslim mayor of a Western capital when first elected in London in 2016.

"He's actually given our capital city away to his mates," added Anderson, the Tory MP for a seat in northern England.

His remarks prompted a flood of criticism from across the political spectrum, with Labour Party chairwoman Anneliese Dodds calling them "unambiguously racist and Islamophobic".

Conservative business minister Nus Ghani, senior backbencher Sajid Javid and Tory peer Gavin Barwell were among senior Tory figures to join the complaints, with Barwell calling the comments a "despicable slur".

The Muslim Council of Britain said they were "disgusting" and extremist.

Khan, who labelled the comments "anti-Muslim" and "racist", had earlier Saturday complained about "deafening silence" from Sunak and his senior ministers in response, arguing that amounted to condoning racism.

Within hours, Hart's office had issued its statement announcing Anderson's suspension. The MP was yet to comment on the decision.

Anderson will now sit as an independent lawmaker in parliament.

February 24, 2024 08:58 PM
Navalny's body given to his mother: Navalny spokesperson

The body of late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has been handed to his mother, more than a week after he died in an Arctic prison colony, his spokesperson said on Saturday.

Navalny, President Vladimir Putin's most vocal critic, died on February 16 in one of Russia's toughest prisons in northern Siberia, where he was serving a 19-year sentence on charges widely seen as political retribution for his opposition.

"Alexei's body was handed over to his mother. Many thanks to all those who demanded this with us," Navalny spokesperson Kira Yarmysh said on X, formerly known as Twitter.

For the past week, Russian authorities had refused to give Lyudmila Navalnaya custody of her son's body, after she travelled to the town of Salekhard in the Yamalo-Nenets region, the nearest settlement to the prison colony where Navalny died.

Navalny's team on Friday said they had filed a lawsuit to obtain the body, alleging that local investigators had threatened to bury him on the prison grounds if his mother did not agree to a "secret" funeral.

Yarmysh said plans for the funeral were still unclear.

"Lyudmila Ivanovna is still in Salekhard. The funeral is still pending. We do not know if the authorities will interfere to carry it out as the family wants and as Alexei deserves," she said.

His team said previously the Kremlin was trying to block a public funeral, which could turn into a show of support for Navalny's movement and his opposition to Putin.

The Russian leader, who famously never said Navalny's name in public, has not commented on the death of his most vocal critic.

February 24, 2024 08:36 PM
Polish archbishop resigns after sex abuse coverup

 

Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of a Polish archbishop accused of covering up the sexual abuse of minors, a Vatican statement said on Saturday.

Andrzej Dziega, the 71-year-old archbishop of Szczecin, in northwest Poland, will "take his retirement", said the statement from the apostolic nuncio or diplomatic envoy representing the Holy See.

Polish media have lng reported allegations of negligence and cover ups for paedophiles in the Catholic Church.

The Gazeta Wyborcza website said the results of two internal ecclesiastic court trials had already been sent to Rome, marking a new stage in the paedophile cases that have rocked Poland.

Francis has made combatting sexual assault in the Church one of the main missions of his papacy, and insisted on a "zero tolerance" policy following multiple wide-reaching scandals.

Clergy and staff are required to report abuse, but anything revealed in confession is still considered private. Victims' rights activists demand better accountability.

February 24, 2024 08:32 PM
Ukraine and Italy sign bilateral security agreement

 

Ukraine and Italy on Saturday signed a bilateral security agreement, President Volodymyr Zelensky said on the second anniversary of the Russian invasion.

In a post on social media, Zelensky said the document, signed with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni in Kyiv, "lays a strong foundation for a long-term security partnership between Ukraine and Italy."

February 24, 2024 06:38 PM
Strikes kill dozens in Gaza as Israel, Hamas seek ceasefire deal

 

Dozens of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have been killed in the latest Israeli strikes, the Hamas-run territory's health ministry said Saturday, after Israel's spy chief joined talks in Paris seeking to unblock negotiations on a truce.

The talks come after a plan for a post-war Gaza unveiled by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drew criticism from key ally the United States, and was rejected by Hamas and the Palestinian Authority in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

The talks also come alongside deepening fears for Gaza's civilians desperate for food. The United Nations' main aid body for Palestinians, UNRWA, said Gazans were "in extreme peril while the world watches".

Hamas said on Saturday that Israeli forces had launched more than 70 strikes on civilian homes in Gazan cities including Deir al-Balah, Khan Yunis and Rafah over the previous 24 hours. The health ministry said at least 92 people were killed.

Israel's military said it was "intensifying the operations" in western Khan Yunis using tanks, close-range fire and aircraft.

"The soldiers raided the residence of a senior military intelligence operative" in the area and destroyed a tunnel shaft, a military statement said.

Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement that has ruled Gaza since 2007, said fighting was raging in the northern Gaza district of Zeitun.

In nearby Jabalia refugee camp, tempers are rising and on Friday dozens of people held an impromptu protest.

"We didn't die from air strikes but we are dying from hunger," said a sign held by one child.

In the camp, bedraggled children waited expectantly, holding plastic containers and battered cooking pots for what little food is available. Residents have taken to eating scavenged scraps of rotten corn, animal fodder unfit for human consumption and even leaves.

Gaza's health ministry said a two-month-old baby identified as Mahmud Fatuh had died of "malnutrition".

"The risk of famine is projected to increase as long as the government of Israel continues to impede the entry of aid into Gaza," as well as access to water, health and other services, the charity Save the Children said.

Israel has defended its efforts to deliver aid into Gaza, saying that 13,000 trucks carrying aid have entered Gaza since the start of the war.

The UN humanitarian agency OCHA said in a report on Friday that in Rafah, near the Egyptian border, people are reportedly stopping aid trucks to take food, a measure of their desperation.

 

- Controversial post-war plan -

 

The war began after Hamas's unprecedented October 7 attack, which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official figures.

Hamas militants also took hostages, 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 30 presumed dead, according to Israel.

Israel's retaliatory offensive has killed at least 29,606 people, mostly women and children, according to the latest tally released on Saturday by Gaza's health ministry.

With war still raging after more than four months, Netanyahu on Thursday unveiled a plan for post-war Gaza that sees civil affairs being run by Palestinian officials without links to Hamas.

The plan says that, even after the conflict, Israel's army would have "indefinite freedom" to operate throughout Gaza to prevent any resurgence of terror activity, according to the proposals.

It also says Israel will move ahead with a plan, already underway, to establish a security buffer zone inside Gaza along the territory's border.

A senior Hamas official, Osama Hamdan, said Netanyahu "is presenting ideas which he knows fully well will never succeed".

The plan also drew criticism from the United States.

"The Palestinian people should have a voice and a vote... through a revitalised Palestinian Authority," which currently has partial administrative control in the West Bank, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.

He added that the United States did not "believe in a reduction of the size of Gaza".

 

- 'Bring them back' -

 

An Israeli delegation led by Mossad intelligence agency chief David Barnea travelled to Paris for a fresh push towards a deal to return the remaining hostages.

The United States, Egypt and Qatar have all been deeply involved in past negotiations aimed at securing a truce and prisoner-hostage exchanges.

Pressure has mounted on Netanyahu's government to negotiate a ceasefire and secure the release of the hostages. A group representing their families planned what it billed as a "huge rally" to demand swifter action, coinciding with the Paris talks on Saturday night.

"We keep telling you: bring them back to us! And no matter how," Avivit Yablonka, 45, whose sister Hanan Yablonka was captured on October 7, said at a traditional Shabbat dinner for hostage families in Tel Aviv.

White House envoy Brett McGurk held talks this week with Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant in Tel Aviv, after speaking to other mediators in Cairo who had met Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh.

A Hamas source said the new plan proposes a six-week pause in the conflict and the release of between 200 and 300 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for 35 to 40 hostages being held by Hamas.

Barnea and his US counterpart from the CIA helped broker a week-long truce in November that saw the release of 80 Israeli hostages in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.

The war has led to repeated attacks on shipping in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden by Iran-backed Huthi rebels in Yemen who say they are acting in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza.

Rubymar, a British-registered cargo ship abandoned in the Gulf of Aden after one such attack, is taking on water and has left a huge oil slick.

February 24, 2024 05:28 PM
Dead horses, scraps, leaves: Gaza's hungry get desperate

 

At the Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza, Abu Gibril was so desperate for food to feed his family that he slaughtered two of his horses.

"We had no other choice but to slaughter the horses to feed the children. Hunger is killing us," he told AFP.

Jabalia was the biggest camp in the Palestinian territories before the war, which began after Hamas fighters attacked southern Israel on October 7, leaving some 1,160 dead, based on Israeli figures.

Gibril, 60, fled there from nearby Beit Hanun when the conflict erupted. Home for him and his family is now a tent near what was a UN-run school.

Contaminated water, power cuts and overcrowding were already a problem in the densely populated camp, which was set up in 1948 and covers just 1.4 square kilometres (half a square mile).

Poverty, from high unemployment, was also an issue among its more than 100,000 people.

Now food is running out, with aid agencies unable to get in to the area because of the bombing -- and the frenzied looting of the few trucks that try to get through.

The World Food Programme this week said its teams reported "unprecedented levels of desperation" while the United Nations warned that 2.2 million people were on the brink of famine.

On Friday, the health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said a two-month-old baby died of malnutrition in hospital in Gaza City, seven kilometres (just over four miles) away from Jabalia.

Overall, at least 29,606 people have been killed in Gaza in the war, the ministry said Saturday.

 

- Scavenging and begging -

 

In the camp, bedraggled children wait expectantly, holding plastic containers and battered cooking pots for what little food is available.

With supplies dwindling, costs are rising. A kilo of rice, for example, has shot up from seven shekels ($1.90) to 55 shekels, complains one man.

"We the grown-ups can still make it but these children who are four and five years old, what did they do wrong to sleep hungry and wake up hungry?" he said angrily.

The UN children's agency UNICEF has warned that the alarming lack of food, surging malnutrition and disease could lead to an "explosion" in child deaths in Gaza.

One in six children aged under two in Gaza was acutely malnourished, it estimated on February 19.

Residents have taken to eating scavenged scraps of rotten corn, animal fodder unfit for human consumption and even leaves to try to stave off the growing hunger pangs.

"There is no food, no wheat, no drinking water," said one woman.

"We have started begging neighbours for money. We don't have one shekel at home. We knock on doors and no one is giving us money".

 

- 'Dying from hunger' -

 

Tempers are rising in Jabalia about the lack of food and the consequences. On Friday, an impromptu protest was held involving dozens of people.

One child held up a sign reading: "We didn't die from air strikes but we are dying from hunger."

Another held aloft a placard warning "Famine eats away at our flesh", while protesters chanted "No to starvation. No to genocide. No to blockade."

In Beit Hanun, Gibril used two horses to harvest a parcel of land. But the conflict destroyed that, along with his house, leaving him with nothing.

Over the weeks and months, Israel's relentless bombardment has left Gaza largely a place of shattered concrete and lives.

Gibril kept the radical decision to slaughter his horses to himself, boiling the meat with rice, and giving it to his unwitting family and neighbours.

Despite the necessity, he said he was still wary of their reaction. "No one knows they were in fact eating a horse."

February 24, 2024 11:42 AM
UK pledges £245 million to boost Ukraine artillery reserves

The UK announced on Saturday a new £245 million ($311 million) defence package to help boost the production of "urgently needed artillery ammunition" for Ukraine, two years after war broke out with Russia.

Defence Secretary Grant Shapps said Ukraine's armed forces "against all odds" had recaptured large parts of the land seized by Russia in its 2022 invasion.

"But they cannot win this fight without the support of the international community -– and that's why we continue to do what it takes to ensure Ukraine can continue to fight towards victory," he added.

The new funding will be used to "procure and invigorate supply chains to produce urgently needed artillery ammunition to boost Ukraine's reserves," said the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

Ukraine has been "particularly noted for its highly effective use of its artillery", which has "proved critical to Ukraine's battlefield successes, continuously degrading Russia's forces and preventing them from making significant breakthroughs," the MoD added.

In an update to parliament on Thursday, Shapps confirmed the delivery of an additional 200 Brimstone anti-tank missiles, bringing the total number to more than 1,300.

He also announced the UK will co-lead an international coalition that will supply thousands of drones to Ukraine.

While the total of Ukraine's military losses remains undisclosed by Kyiv, US officials reportedly estimate that about 70,000 soldiers have been killed and 120,000 others injured.

Losses are also heavy on the Russian side, but Moscow appears to be able to fill its ranks through coercion and financial incentives -- on top of having a bigger population.

Saturday is the second anniversary of Russia's full-scale invasion of its neighbour.

February 24, 2024 11:23 AM
US downs three Huthi drones, strikes anti-ship missiles

American forces shot down three attack drones near commercial ships in the Red Sea Friday and destroyed seven anti-ship cruise missiles positioned on land, the US military said.

Yemen's Iran-backed Huthis have been targeting shipping for months and their attacks have persisted despite repeated American and British strikes aimed at degrading the rebels' ability to threaten a vital global trade route.

Early on Friday, US forces "shot down three Huthi one-way attack (drones) near several commercial ships operating in the Red Sea. There was no damage to any ships," the Central Command (CENTCOM) said on social media.

In a statement later in the day, CENTCOM said US forces destroyed "seven Iranian-backed Huthi mobile anti-ship cruise missiles that were prepared to launch towards the Red Sea."

It said those strikes , carried out between 12:30 p.m. and 7:15 p.m. Sanaa time, were made in self-defense.

"CENTCOM forces identified these missiles in Huthi-controlled areas of Yemen and determined that they presented an imminent threat to merchant vessels and to the US Navy ships in the region," it said in a statement.

The day prior, American forces struck four Huthi drones as well as two anti-ship cruise missiles, CENTCOM said, adding that the weapons "were prepared to launch from Huthi-controlled areas of Yemen towards the Red Sea."

The Huthis began attacking Red Sea shipping in November, saying they were hitting Israel-linked vessels in support of Palestinians in Gaza, which has been ravaged by the Israel-Hamas war.

US and UK forces responded with strikes against the Huthis, who have since declared American and British interests to be legitimate targets as well.

Anger over Israel's devastating campaign in Gaza -- which began after an unprecedented Hamas attack on October 7 -- has grown across the Middle East, stoking violence involving Iran-backed groups in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

February 24, 2024 11:16 AM
Trump vows to crush Haley as Republican race heads south

Donald Trump and Nikki Haley go head-to-head Saturday in South Carolina's Republican primary, with the ex-president expected to trounce his former charge in her home state as he closes in on the nomination.

Haley was a popular governor of the Palmetto State for six years before becoming Trump's UN ambassador in 2017, but her old boss is backed by the party establishment and nearly two-thirds of voters in opinion polling.

The candidates largely swapped only glancing blows in the early nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire in January, but the rhetorical artillery fire has intensified since the primary narrowed into a two-horse race.

"Tomorrow you will cast one of the most important votes of your entire life and -- honestly -- we're not very worried about tomorrow," a nonchalant Trump told an election-eve rally in the city of Rock Hill.

Seeking to demonstrate that he was already looking beyond Haley, he vowed to show President Joe Biden and the Democrats "that we are coming like a freight train in November," when the general election will be held.

South Carolinians do not have to indicate party allegiance when they register to vote, and are allowed to have their say in either the Democratic or the Republican primary.

Haley -- a more traditional conservative who espouses limited government and a muscular foreign policy -- will rely on votes from moderates, although the tactic did little for her as she lost to Trump in each of the first four nominating contests.

- Legal fees -

Voters interviewed by AFP in South Carolina capital Columbia on Thursday were complimentary about both candidates, although one voter felt Haley wasn't ready for the highest office and another criticized Trump for being "divisive."

"He'll go after people that don't agree with him. Being a Christian, I don't feel good about that," said financial advisor and Haley voter David Gilliam, 55.

The primary comes amid signs that the frontrunner -- who faces four criminal indictments -- is tightening his hold over the party as he pushes for a reshuffle to install family members and allies at the top of the Republican National Committee .

His daughter-in-law Lara Trump has promised to spend "every single penny" of party funds on his presidential campaign should she become an RNC cochair, and has argued that paying his legal bills is of "big interest" to Republican voters.

Haley has sought to focus on the "chaos" that she says follows Trump, pointing to $8 million in campaign donations he spent on legal fees in January and predicting that his total outlay on court cases this year could top $100 million.

- IVF ruling -

"He has turned his presidential campaign into a legal defense slush fund and will not have the resources or focus to go up against Joe Biden and the Democrats," said Haley national spokeswoman Olivia Perez-Cubas.

In common with Democrats, Haley has also been hitting Trump over his outlook on the international stage and oft-voiced admiration for the leaders of the world's most authoritarian regimes.

She has blasted Trump's reaction to the death of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny -- in which he avoided criticism of President Vladimir Putin -- and his threat to encourage Moscow to attack NATO nations that had not met their financial obligations.

But Haley's central argument for months has been that polling shows her performing better than Trump in hypothetical matchups with Biden.

She has vowed to compete in the Republican primary through "Super Tuesday" -- when multiple states vote on March 5 -- regardless of what happens in South Carolina on Saturday.

Reproductive rights are likely to figure prominently in the election, with Trump avoiding taking a clear position on proposals for a nationwide abortion ban after appointing three Supreme Court justices who helped gut federal protections.

A wrinkle was added when Alabama's supreme court ruled last week that frozen embryos can be considered children, signaling a new front in the debate and posing questions for in vitro fertilization (IVF) clinics.

Trump -- keenly aware the Alabama decision risks alienating moderate and women voters -- voiced support Friday for preserving access to IVF programs, calling on the state's legislature to "act quickly to find an immediate solution" to ensure it remained available.

February 24, 2024 08:42 AM Israeli strike kills 23 at family home of Gaza comedian
Strikes on Gaza kill scores as Paris hosts new truce talks

Overnight strikes on Gaza killed dozens, the Hamas-run territory's health ministry said Saturday, as Israel's spy chief joined talks in Paris seeking to unblock negotiations on a truce.

The negotiations come after a plan for a post-war Gaza unveiled by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drew criticism from key ally the United States, and was rejected by Hamas and the Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank.

They also come alongside deepening fears for Gaza's civilians. The United Nations' main aid body for Palestinians, UNWRA, said Gazans were "in extreme peril while the world watches".

Hamas said on Saturday morning that Israeli forces had launched more than 70 strikes on civilian homes in Deir al-Balah, Khan Yunis and Rafah among other locations over the previous 24 hours. The health ministry said at least 92 people were killed.

The Palestinian Islamist movement that has ruled Gaza since 2007 also said fighting was raging in the northern district of Zeitun.

AFPTV footage showed distraught Gazans queueing on Friday for food in Jabalia, also in the besieged Palestinian territory's devastated north, and protesting over dire living conditions.

"We have no water, no flour and we are very tired because of hunger. Our backs and eyes hurt because of fire and smoke," said one of them, Oum Wajdi Salha.

Gaza's health ministry said a two-month-old baby identified as Mahmud Fatuh had died of "malnutrition".

The UN humanitarian agency OCHA warned that "the elevated risk of famine in Gaza is projected to increase" without enough food and water, as well as health services.

- Post-war plan -

The war began after Hamas's unprecedented October 7 attack, which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official figures.

Hamas militants also took hostages, 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 30 presumed dead, according to Israel.

Israel's retaliatory offensive has killed at least 29,606 people, mostly women and children, according to the latest count by Gaza's health ministry.

An Israeli air strike Friday destroyed the Gaza home of well-known Palestinian comedian Mahmoud Zuaiter, killing at least 23 people and wounding dozens more, the health ministry said.

Netanyahu this week unveiled a plan for post-war Gaza that envisages civil affairs being run by Palestinian officials without links to Hamas.

The plan says that, even after the conflict, Israel's army would have "indefinite freedom" to operate throughout Gaza to prevent any resurgence of terror activity, according to the proposals.

It also says Israel will move ahead with a plan, already underway, to establish a security buffer zone inside Gaza along the territory's border.

A senior Hamas official dismissed the plan as unworkable.

"When it comes to the day after in the Gaza Strip, Netanyahu is presenting ideas which he knows fully well will never succeed," Osama Hamdan told reporters in Beirut.

The plan also drew criticism from the United States. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Washington had been "consistently clear with our Israeli counterparts" about what was needed in post-war Gaza.

"The Palestinian people should have a voice and a vote... through a revitalised Palestinian Authority," he said, adding the United States also did not "believe in a reduction of the size of Gaza".

- Paris delegation -

An Israeli delegation led by Mossad intelligence agency chief David Barnea was in Paris on Saturday for a fresh push towards a deal to return the remaining hostages.

Barnea would be joined by his counterpart at the domestic Shin Bet security agency, Ronen Bar, Israeli media reported.

The United States, Egypt and Qatar have all been deeply involved in past negotiations aimed at securing a truce and prisoner-hostage exchanges.

Pressure has been mounting on Netanyahu's government to negotiate a ceasefire and secure the hostages' release after more than four months of war. A group representing the captives' families planned what it billed as a "huge rally" to demand swifter action, coinciding with the Paris talks on Saturday night.

White House envoy Brett McGurk held talks this week with Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant in Tel Aviv, after speaking to other mediators in Cairo who had met Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh.

A Hamas source said the new plan proposes a six-week pause in the conflict and the release of between 200 and 300 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for 35 to 40 hostages being held by Hamas.

Barnea and his US counterpart from the CIA helped broker a week-long truce in November that saw the release of 80 Israeli hostages in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.

US National Security Council spokesman Kirby had said earlier that the discussions were "going well", while Israeli war cabinet member Benny Gantz spoke of "the first signs that indicate the possibility of progress".

February 23, 2024 10:35 PM
Russia threatening to bury Navalny on prison grounds, team says

 

Russian authorities are threatening to bury Alexei Navalny on the grounds of the Arctic prison colony where he died unless his family agrees to a closed funeral, the opposition leader's team said Friday.

The 47-year-old Kremlin critic died last week after spending more than three years behind bars, prompting outrage and condemnation from Western leaders and his supporters.

Several leading Russian cultural figures and activists have called on authorities to release the body to his mother, who arrived at the prison colony in northern Siberia last Saturday.

"An hour ago, an investigator called Alexei's mother and gave her an ultimatum," Navalny's spokesperson Kira Yarmysh wrote in a post on X, formerly Twitter.

"She has three hours to agree to a secret funeral without a public farewell, or Alexei will be buried in the colony."

His mother, Lyudmila Navalnaya, "refused to negotiate ... because they have no authority to decide how and where to bury her son", Yarmysh added.

She has now filed a lawsuit alleging the "desecration" of his body, said Ivan Zhdanov, an exiled ally of the late leader.

Navalny's team have said the Kremlin is "scared" of the opposition leader even after his death.

They believe the authorities do not want a public funeral as it would represent a show of support for Navalny's movement against Putin.

They previously called Putin a "killer" who was trying to cover his tracks by not allowing independent forensic analysis of Navalny's body.

 

- 'Putin is scared' -

 

After days of being denied access, Navalny's mother Lyudmila said Thursday she had finally been allowed to see her dead son's body.

But she said the authorities were not willing to give her custody and wanted to bury him secretly.

More than 25 film makers, artists, Nobel Prize winners and opponents of President Vladimir Putin have so far called for his body to be released, in videos published by his team on social media.

They include Nobel Prize winning editor Dmitry Muratov, protest rock band Pussy Riot member and activist Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, writer Victor Shenderovich and movie director Andrey Zvyagintsev.

"It's awkward to talk about this in a country that considers itself to still be Christian. Just give Lyudmila Ivanovna her son... without any conditions," Muratov said.

The authorities were trying to keep Navalny in solitary confinement even in death, he added -- just as they had done for long stints of his three years in prison.

"Putin was scared of Navalny for many years during his life," writer and long-time Putin critic Shenderovich said.

"Putin is scared of Navalny after his death -- after he killed Navalny he's still scared of him," he added.

February 23, 2024 10:28 PM
US unveils fresh sanctions as Putin hails Russian 'heroes'

 

The United States announced a fresh wave of sanctions against Russia on Friday a day ahead of the second anniversary of Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, as President Vladimir Putin hailed Russian "heroes" fighting there.

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky renewed his appeal for swift delivery of air-defence systems and fighter jets, while European Union leaders pledged continued backing for Kyiv.

US President Joe Biden announced sanctions on more than 500 targets to "ensure Putin pays an even steeper price for his aggression abroad and repression at home".

And he renewed his appeal to the US Congress to fund more military aid to Ukraine.

"History is watching," he said. "The failure to support Ukraine at this critical moment will not be forgotten."

Ukraine has been weakened by the blocking of US aid and worsening ammunition shortages.

Putin's message came on Russia's "Defender of the Fatherland Day", a holiday that is an occasion for military pomp and Kremlin-sponsored patriotism.

This year he was able to celebrate Russia's capture of the Ukrainian city of Avdiivka last week and claim further advances along the frontline with Ukraine's troops.

"You are our true national heroes," Putin said in a video message addressed to troops and veterans.

 

 

 

Russia calls new US sanctions 'cynical' interference

"The new illegitimate restrictions are yet another brazen and cynical attempt to interfere in the internal affairs of the Russian Federation," Russia's envoy to the US Anatoly Antonov told state news agencies.

Russia said Friday that new US sanctions were a "cynical" attempt to interfere in its affairs ahead of elections set to extend President Vladimir Putin's term in office next month.

February 23, 2024 08:54 PM
Spanish politician shot in Madrid points finger at Iran

 

A right-wing Spanish politician who was shot in November in Madrid on Friday accused Iran of being behind his attempted murder during his first public appearance since the attack.

Alejo Vidal-Quadras, a founder of Spain's far-right Vox party and former head of its centre-right People's Party in Catalonia who has long supported Iran's opposition movement, was shot in the face in broad daylight near his home in the upscale Salamanca neighbourhood on November 9 by a motorcycle passenger.

"I have no doubt that it was the Iranian regime," the 78-year-old, who was European Parliament vice-president between 2009 and 2014, told a news conference in the Spanish capital.

Tehran has "a long tradition, a track record, of extraterritorial terrorist activities" against "dissidents and against foreigners who support then," he added, without offering any proof to back up his claim.

Four people have been arrested as part of the investigation into the shooting, but the suspected gunman -- a French national of Tunisian origin with several previous convictions in France, remains at large.

Police have not commented on a possible motive for the shooting.

Vidal-Quadras, who already pointed the finger at Iran when he was questioned by police after the shooting, said it was a "miracle" that he survived.

"I made a movement of my head that meant that the shot, which was supposed to be fatal, was not," he said.

The bullet entered one side of his jaw and exited the other, and Vidal-Quadras spent time in hospital recovering from a jaw fracture.

"The detonation sounded like a thunderclap in my head, in fact I have a perforated eardrum, and I started bleeding, it caused a puddle on the floor," he said.

Vidal-Quadras said he believes the quick intervention of a passer-by, who stopped the bleeding with a piece of clothing, saved his life.

He said he has suffered from after-effects since the shooting, including "some paralysis of the facial muscles".

Vidal-Quadras, a top member of the International Committee in Search of Justice which supports the "Iranian resistance", has long called for the international community to harden its position towards Iran.

February 23, 2024 07:19 PM
Armed men kill four Niger soldiers near Nigeria border

 

Four Nigerien soldiers died during a dawn raid by dozens of armed assailants near the border with Nigeria, state television announced Friday.

"Armed men came in large numbers riding about 100 motorbikes and attacked the gendarme," outpost at Bassira, a border village, in the Maradi region, a local elected official told AFP.

The attack left four dead and two wounded among Niger's Defence and Security Forces (FDS), the state broadcaster reported, while a woman was injured by a stray bullet.

After a shootout that lasted an hour, the FDS pushed back the attackers who carried off their dead and wounded but abandoned three motorbikes, communications equipment and ammunition, according to the report.

"It's an unprecedented attack for the area," the elected official said, where gunmen dubbed "bandits" often kill, loot and terrorise the population.

"We are no longer dealing with cattle rustlers...," Maradi regional governor Issoufou Mamane told state television after visiting the scene of the raid. "This cowardly and barbaric attack cannot go unpunished."

The region shelters more than 46,000 Nigerian refugees who have fled the violence by armed gangs which have plagued the border for years, according to official figures.

The "bandits", hiding out in dense forests, strike along the 1,000-mile (1,600-kilometre) frontier the two nations share.

Their armies have led joint operations to try to halt the attacks, but they also have to deal with Boko Haram jihadists and the rival Islamic State West Africa Province group.

February 23, 2024 07:07 PM
Ten dead, many missing after fire guts Spanish apartment block

 

Fire crews on Friday picked through a still-smouldering 14-storey apartment block in Valencia, eastern Spain, a day after a blaze ripped through the building killing ten people and leaving many missing.

Experts said the building was covered with highly flammable cladding, which could account for the rapid spread of the blaze after it broke out on the fourth floor at around 5:30 pm (1630 GMT) on Thursday.

Dramatic images showed clouds of black smoke as the flames consumed the high rise of 138 flats in the Campanar district of the Mediterranean port city.

"Four people have died," Jorge Suarez Torres, deputy director of emergency services for the Valencia region, told reporters overnight.

"As of now, we have 14 people who remain untraced," regional administrator Pilar Bernabe said on Friday, noting that the number could change.

Fifteen people were treated for injuries of varying degrees, including a seven-year-old child and seven firemen, but their lives were not in danger.

Fire crews on Friday entered the blackened ruin of the residential block, which stood dark against the crisp blue sky, its windows blown out and its once-white facade charred with the residue of smoke and flames, an AFP reporter at the scene saw.

Visiting the scene on Friday, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said the "priority now" is to search for the victims.

He encouraged people to "show empathy, affection and solidarity with the victims, with their families, with those who still do not know exactly what has happened" to their loved ones.

Smoke still wafted from the building though it was quickly blown away by strong gusts of chilly wind, which had fuelled the flames and complicated efforts to quench the blaze.

- 'A catastrophe' -

 

Slava Honcharenko, a 31-year-old Ukrainian, said he knew several families of compatriots who lived in the building who had been relocated to a hotel since Thursday night.

"We feel very bad. We know what it is when you lose your house because we experienced this two years ago in Ukraine," he told AFP.

Spanish media said rescue workers had used drones to locate the bodies of those who perished.

Esther Puchades, deputy head of Valencia's Industrial Engineers Association (COGITI), told local media the fire had spread so rapidly because the building was covered with highly combustible polyurethane cladding.

The fire, which started in an intermediate floor, spread within minutes to the entire building, according to residents.

Sergio Perez, a 49-year-old driver who lives nearby, said the building burned as if someone had "poured gasoline" on it.

"It's a catastrophe. Unimaginable. It's devastating," he said.

- Dramatic rescue -

 

As the fire raged, residents could be seen waiting to be rescued on balconies.

Firefighters used a crane to pluck a father and his daughter from a balcony where they were trapped in an operation broadcast live on national TV.

Onlookers cheered and applauded as they were brought to the ground.

Other dramatic footage showed a man jumping several floors onto an inflatable mat to escape the flames.

Valencia has announced three days of mourning and suspended the start of a month-long annual festival.

Fuastino Yanguas of the Valencia fire brigade said the material used on the facade of the building must be investigated as it "was a factor that contributed a lot" to the lightning spread of the flames, as were the strong winds, with gusts of up to 60 kilometres (40 miles) per hour at the time the blaze broke out.

The fears of polyurethane cladding exacerbating the Valencia fire recalled the 2017 tragedy at London's Grenfell Tower, when a fire killed 72 people in the 24-storey high rise.

The blaze spread rapidly because of the highly combustible cladding on the block's outside walls. A public inquiry into the disaster has yet to publish its final report.

February 23, 2024 07:00 PM
Israeli spy chief in Paris for Gaza ceasefire talks

 

An Israeli delegation led by the head of the country's overseas intelligence agency arrived in Paris on Friday to "unblock" talks for a ceasefire in Gaza, an Israeli official said.

Mossad director David Barnea will be joined in the French capital by his counterpart at the domestic Shin Bet security agency, Ronen Bar, Israeli media reported.

A week-long ceasefire at the end of November saw the release of more than 100 hostages taken by Hamas militants and 240 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

At the end of January, Barnea was in Paris with his US and Egyptian counterparts as well as the prime minister of Qatar to discuss a new pause in fighting.

A Hamas source confirmed the plan proposed a six-week pause in the conflict and the release of between 200 and 300 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for 35 to 40 hostages still held by Hamas.

Since then, talks have also taken place in Egypt involving Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh. He left Cairo on Thursday evening, the Palestinian militants said.

The talks focused in particular on an end to Israeli "aggression", the return of displaced people and a prisoner exchange.

Hamas wants a complete ceasefire and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has dismissed the demands as "bizarre".

He has said his government is open to a pause in the fighting but has vowed to press on until "total victory" and the complete destruction of Hamas.

Netanyahu is also against the release of Palestinian prisoners who took part in Hamas attacks against Israel.

While Haniyeh was in Cairo, US Middle East envoy Brett McGurk was in Israel where he discussed an "extended pause" in the conflict "to get all of those hostages home", the White House said.

On the eve of the Paris talks, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant indicated that Israel would "extend the authority given to our hostage negotiators". He did not elaborate.

The conflict began when Hamas attacked southern Israel on October 7, leaving more than 1,160 people dead, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally from official figures.

Israel in response vowed to destroy Hamas and launched a military offensive that has left at least 29,514 people dead in the Gaza Strip ruled by the militants since 2007.

Most of them are women and children, according to the health ministry in Gaza.

UN denounces 'gross human rights violations' in Israel, Palestinian territories

An annual United Nations report published Friday identified gross human rights violations committed by all parties in Israel and the Palestinian territories, and demanded accountability and justice to foster peace.

"The entrenched impunity... cannot be permitted to continue. There must be accountability on all sides for violations seen over 56 years of occupation and the 16 years of blockade of Gaza, and up to today," UN human rights chief Volker Turk said in an accompanying statement.

February 23, 2024 06:56 PM
Southern Gaza hit as Israeli spy chief reportedly heads to new talks

 

Israeli air strikes targeted homes in southern Gaza, witnesses said on Friday, adding to what aid groups describe as an increasingly hopeless humanitarian situation despite efforts towards new truce talks.

Israeli media reported a delegation led by David Barnea, head of the Mossad intelligence agency, was heading to Paris for new truce discussions in the war with Hamas militants.

His trip follows what the health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said was the death of more than 100 people over the previous day.

Israeli bombardment destroyed one house and left a gaping hole in the earth east of Rafah, on the border with Egypt, where about 1.4 million Gazans have converged in a futile search to escape the fighting.

"We were sleeping in our house when we heard the sound of a missile," said Abdul Hamid Abu el-Enein. "We rushed to the site and found people martyred and injured" in the strike which "completely erased" the two-storey home.

Witnesses reported several other houses targeted during the night, and an AFP reporter described heavy strikes in the city of Khan Yunis several kilometres (miles) to the north, as well as in Rafah itself.

Israel's military said fighting, including with drone strikes and sniper fire, continued in the western Khan Yunis area.

More than four months of fighting and bombardment have flattened much of Gaza and pushed its population of around 2.4 million to the brink of famine as disease spreads, according to the United Nations.

The UN humanitarian agency OCHA has blamed "limitations on the entry of aid" as well as the combat and growing insecurity for severely hampering assistance.

The war started after Hamas's unprecedented October 7 attack which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official figures.

Hamas militants also took hostages, 130 of whom remain in Gaza including 30 presumed dead, according to Israel.

 

Hezbollah says 2 paramedics, fighter dead in Israeli strike on Lebanon

 

Two paramedics affiliated with Hezbollah and one of the group's fighters were killed in an Israeli strike on a south Lebanon border village, the group and a security source said Friday.

The Israeli army said late Thursday it had struck a Hezbollah "military compound" in south Lebanon's Blida village, amid near-daily cross-border fire between the arch foes since the Israel-Hamas war broke out on October 7.

The Hezbollah-affiliated Islamic Health Committee said two of its paramedics were killed in a "direct" Israeli attack on a civil defence centre in Blida, while Hezbollah also announced the death of one of its fighters.

The Islamic Health Committee said the attack caused "the destruction of the health centre as well as a number of ambulances".

The Lebanese security source, requesting anonymity as they were not authorised to speak to the media, said a strike on Thursday in Blida "targeted the Islamic Health Committee centre", adding that three people were killed.

The violence on Israel's northern border has sparked fears of another full-blown war between Israel and Hezbollah like that of 2006.

The Israeli army said it had identified fighters "entering a Hezbollah military compound in the area of Blida", adding that "fighter jets were scrambled and struck the compound".

In retaliation, Hezbollah said it launched a drone attack on northern Israel on Friday, after also announcing rocket fire the night before.

Lebanon's health ministry condemned the "direct" attack on a civilian health centre, and called on the international community to hold Israel to account for its "dangerous violations".

Since October, at least 276 people have been killed on the Lebanese side, most of them Hezbollah fighters but also including 44 civilians, according to an AFP tally.

On the Israeli side, 10 soldiers and six civilians have been killed, according to the Israeli army.

Last month, Hezbollah said an Israeli strike killed two affiliated medics in south Lebanon's Hanin, calling it a "blatant attack".

Hezbollah, which says it is acting in support of its ally Hamas, on Thursday fired rockets at Israel after two of its fighters were killed, later identifying one of them as a "commander".

The security source said one of the two killed in the Israeli strike in south Lebanon's Kfar Rumman was involved in the movement's "rocket capabilities".

- 'Appalled' -

 

Israel's retaliatory campaign, aiming to destroy Hamas, has killed at least 29,514 people, mostly women and children, according to the latest count by Gaza's health ministry.

The toll has seen pressure grow on the administration of US President Joe Biden to rein in its ally Israel -- which it provides with billions of dollars in military aid.

On Tuesday, Washington for a third time vetoed a UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

The vote came as Israel threatens to move troops into Rafah, a plan which has sparked widespread international alarm.

The head of the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) charity, Christopher Lockyear, told the Council he was "appalled" by Washington's willingness "to obstruct efforts to adopt the most evident of resolutions. One demanding an immediate and sustained ceasefire."

The United States ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield said she could not support a resolution that "put sensitive negotiations" in jeopardy.

Brett McGurk, White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, held talks this week with Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant in Tel Aviv, after meeting with other mediators in Cairo.

Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh was in the Egyptian capital for truce talks earlier in the week, the group said.

Washington's National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told journalists that so far the discussions were "going well".

Israeli media reported on Friday that Barnea would be joined by Ronen Bar, chief of the Shin Bet domestic security agency, for the talks in Paris.

Barnea and his US counterpart from the CIA helped broker a week-long truce in November that saw the release of 80 Israeli hostages in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.

Benny Gantz, a member of Israel's war cabinet, this week spoke of "the first signs that indicate the possibility of progress" toward a new hostage release deal.

 

- 'Die hungry' -

 

At Rafah's Najjar hospital on Friday, mourners grieved over two dead children whose faces poked through white shrouds.

Mahmud Jarghun said he had no hope in the negotiations because "the intention is to annihilate the Palestinian people".

"I want to die hungry," he said, so "God will hold them accountable for what we are suffering from."

Fierce gun battles occurred in the neighbouring Zeitun district, where tanks were deployed, according to witnesses.

The army said helicopters were in action to support "targeted raids" in the area.

"I fear we are on the edge of a monumental disaster with grave implications for regional peace, security and human rights," said Philippe Lazzarini, head of the main aid agency in Gaza, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA).

In a letter to the United Nations General Assembly, he said UNRWA "has reached a breaking point", as donors freeze funding, Israel exerts pressure to dismantle the agency and humanitarian needs soar.

UNRWA employs around 30,000 people in the occupied territories, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.

Several leading donors have suspended funding to UNRWA in response to Israeli allegations that some of its staff participated in the October 7 attack on Israel.

The UN fired the employees accused by Israel and has begun an internal probe of UNRWA, but Lazzarini said Israel has provided no evidence against the 12 it accuses.

The head of OCHA, Martin Griffiths, joined the chiefs of almost 20 other UN and external aid groups in an appeal Wednesday for "an immediate ceasefire," restoration of UNRWA funding, and other measures "so that we can provide, at the very least, the bare essentials" including drinking water and food.

Under a post-war plan for Gaza proposed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, UNRWA would be dismantled, according to The Times of Israel newspaper.

The plan envisages Gaza's civil affairs being run by local Palestinian officials without links to Hamas or its foreign backers. It also rejects "unilateral recognition" of a Palestinian state, the report said.

With Arab support, the United States has called for a pathway to a Palestinian state in an effort to ensure peace.

February 23, 2024 06:54 PM
Hungary strikes fighter jet deal with Sweden ahead of NATO vote

 

Hungary deepened military cooperation with Sweden on Friday, with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban announcing the acquisition of four Swedish-made fighter jets ahead of a vote on Stockholm's NATO bid.

The announcement was a crucial step towards unblocking Sweden's bid to join the alliance, after resistance from Orban's nationalist government which accused Swedish officials of being hostile to it over rule-of-law issues.

Budapest has a fleet of 14 Jas-39 Gripen fighter jets it operates under a leasing contract signed in 2001, which has since been extended twice.

"Today, we have reached an agreement to add four aircraft to the Hungarian Defence Forces' Gripen fleet," Orban said after talks with Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson.

"On Monday, the Hungarian parliament will meet and take the necessary decisions, and with this we have closed one phase and opened a new one," he added.

Kristersson arrived in the Hungarian capital earlier on Friday, just three days ahead of a vote by Hungary's parliament on the Nordic country's bid to join NATO.

Hungary remains the last obstacle to Stockholm's NATO membership after Turkey's ratification last month.

Following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Sweden alongside neighbouring Finland applied to join NATO in May 2022.

"The conversation has been constructive and we have agreed to move forward in fields of common interests," Kristersson said at a press conference after talks with Orban.

"We do not agree on everything, but we do agree that we should work more actively together when we have common ground," he added.

Earlier on Friday, Orban told state radio that "some pending (bilateral) military and arms issues" had to be worked out before the Hungarian parliament on Monday "can put the final seal" on ratification.

"We are pro-peace, and the Swedes are pro-war in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict," Orban said, but added that the "clear differences in values" could be bridged.

 

- 'On course' -

 

Faced with increasing pressure from the United States and fellow EU member states to greenlight Sweden's NATO bid, Orban announced last week that Budapest was "on course" to ratify it.

His nationalist Fidesz party -- whose ruling coalition with the Christian democratic KDNP holds a majority in parliament -- indicated it would support Sweden's bid on Monday.

All opposition parties except the far-right Our Homeland movement are in favour of ratification.

Although Hungary repeatedly said it supports Stockholm in principle, it prolonged the process by asking Sweden to stop "vilifying" Orban's government.

It has often denounced what it called Sweden's "openly hostile attitude", accusing Swedish representatives of being "keen to bash Hungary" on rule-of-law issues.

In January, Orban invited the Swedish prime minister to Hungary, citing the need to "build strong mutual trust" through "more intense political dialogue".

Finland became the 31st member of NATO in April 2023.

February 23, 2024 06:48 PM
Senegal civil society collective rejects president's dialogue to set vote date

 

A collective of some 40 Senegalese civil society groups on Friday rejected President Macky Sall's proposed dialogue to set a date for the presidential election he postponed earlier this month.

The Aar Sunu Election (Protect Our Election) collective described the dialogue as "unacceptable" and an "attempt at diversion" in a statement, demanding the vote be held before April 2.

16 Senegal candidates say will not take part in president's election dialogue

A group of 16 candidates in Senegal's delayed presidential election said Friday they would not take part in a dialogue proposed by President Macky Sall to decide a date for the vote he postponed earlier this month.

"We oppose all proposals for dialogue and demand that a date be set before April 2," one of the candidates, Boubacar Camara told a press conference.

February 23, 2024 06:44 PM
Emboldened in Ukraine, Russia marks patriotic holiday

 

President Vladimir Putin on Friday hailed Russia's "heroes" fighting in Ukraine on the eve of the second anniversary of the Kremlin's offensive, with Moscow bolstered by gains against ammunition-starved Ukrainian troops.

Putin's message came on Russia's "Defender of the Fatherland Day" patriotic holiday, which has always been an occasion for military pomp and Kremlin-sponsored patriotism.

This year the holiday comes with Putin inspired by the capture of the Ukrainian city of Avdiivka and revelling in the US Congress blocking vital military aid to Kyiv.

"You are our true national heroes," Putin said in a video message addressed to troops and veterans.

"We know that it is hard for you, and we will do everything possible for you to fulfil the tasks ahead of you," Putin said, adding that Moscow's weapons production has "multiplied."

Putin has spent recent days flying in bomber planes, handing out medals to troops and touting a "turning point" in Ukraine.

He has mocked Ukraine's "chaotic flight" from Avdiivka, which fell to Moscow last week after months of bloody battles.

Putin has also been bolstered at home, ahead of an election certain to extend his long rule: a massive crackdown has all but crushed dissent and the Russian leader's main opponent -- Alexei Navalny -- is dead.

Ukraine, meanwhile, has been weakened by the blocking of US aid, its failed counter-offensive and worsening ammunition shortages.

President Volodymyr Zelensky has acknowledged an "extremely difficult" situation on the front.

Two years fighting a bigger and richer army has taken its toll on Ukraine's stretched forces.

"It's extremely hard," Ukrainian infantryman Oleksiy told AFP in eastern Ukraine, caked in mud after returning from the trenches.

"We don't have weapons like they have. You know, they have factories for production, and us? We beg for weapons. That's the way it is," the 32-year-old said.

 

- Church sanctifies offensive -

 

In Moscow, Putin laid flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier outside the Kremlin walls in a ceremony attended by veterans and Russia's Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.

The head of Russia's Orthodox Church, a key Putin ally and supporter of the offensive, yet again sanctified it.

In a letter to Putin, Patriarch Kirill said: "We glorify today the feat of soldiers who are heroically fighting on the borders of Russia, defending its sovereignty and independence."

Russia has banned all criticism of its campaign, punishing thousands for denouncing the offensive, with repression comparable to late Soviet levels.

The United States is on Friday to announce new sanctions on Moscow over the death last week of Putin's opponent Navalny in an Arctic prison. His body has not yet been returned to his family.

The UN Security Council will also convene Friday, marking two years of the conflict that has cost tens of thousands of lives.

 

- 'Upset' but not 'discouraged' -

 

In Ukraine, foreign dignitaries began to arrive to mark the anniversary of Moscow's assault, which has killed thousands of civilians, on top of a huge number of military deaths.

Denmark's Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen arrived in the western city of Lviv on Friday, Zelensky said.

US senator Chuck Schumer also arrived in the city, close to the Polish border.

The Democrat said on social media that he wanted to "show the Ukrainian people that America stands with them" and to "learn about the arms Ukraine vitally needs."

Despite recent setbacks, Zelensky has remained defiant.

Kyiv has taken confidence from continued successes on the Black Sea, where it says it has destroyed a third -- 25 vessels -- of Russia's Black Sea fleet.

But its land campaign has stalled, and it is there that Moscow is seeking to press its advantage and drive further into Ukraine following the capture of Avdiivka.

Kyiv warned Friday that Russia is intensifying attacks around the new "hot spot" of Maryinka, a town to the west of the Moscow-controlled stronghold of Donetsk city.

Ukrainian troops, however, remained determined.

Ukrainian soldier Oleksiy who was holding the fallback lines outside Avdiivka, said that while the fall of the industrial hub affected morale, troops were ready to fight on.

"Absolutely, of course we were upset. But nevertheless, nobody's discouraged," he said, with an AK-47 assault rifle tattooed on his neck.

"If we retreat, they will move all along the front line."

February 23, 2024 06:39 PM
Ghost town in Israel's far north as spectre of war looms

 

Kiryat Shmona, in the hills of Israel's far north, is virtually empty, with few shops open and mostly military traffic on the roads to and from bases up the valley near the Lebanese border.

On the streets, cats seem to outnumber pedestrians but down a deserted lane a handful of call centre workers at a telecoms firm are gathered at the open windows of their office kitchen.

Coffees and mobile telephones in hand, they peer out, as if looking for signs of life.

"I've never seen Kiryat Shmona like this," said Hosam Willie, a technical support team leader at the firm. "It's like a ghost town," he told AFP.

"It reminds me of Covid times. But at least then you saw people walking outside or on their balconies. Now there's nobody."

Since Hamas's deadly attack on southern Israel on October 7, the country's focus has firmly been on its war with the Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

The Hamas attack resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

At least 29,514 people, mostly women and children, have been killed in Israel's retaliatory military offensive on Gaza, aimed at destroying Hamas, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.

But more than 200 kilometres (130 miles) to the north, the Israeli military is steadily preparing itself in case of war with Hamas's Iran-backed ally Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Cross-border rocket attacks and retaliatory air strikes have become an almost daily occurrence for more than four months.

Six civilians have been killed on the Israeli side of the border, according to the military. In Lebanon, 44 civilians have been killed, according to an AFP tally.

The deadly exchanges have prompted most people in communities on both sides of the heavily fortified border to leave.

For Willie and his colleagues, the fear of a second front opening in the north meant working from home for two months -- until they were given the option to come back to the office in December.

Some have decided to stay away, doing their jobs from behind a computer in Tiberias, down the valley on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, or in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and even as far away as Eilat in the far south.

 

- Uncertainty -

 

Willie decided to come in to the office, and makes his way past military checkpoints from his village in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights away to the east, to break the monotony and isolation of remote-working.

Yet even though there is work to do, assisting customers with troublesome internet connections or phone issues, the threat of war weighs heavily on everyone's minds.

"We don't know if they will go to war. Nobody knows... The waiting is really hard," said Willie, a father of two young boys.

"It's constantly on our minds," agreed Miliah Hasbani, a 27-year-old call centre technician who has been making the 100-kilometre round trip from Tiberias to Kiryat Shmona for the past four months.

"At least when I'm here in the office it's more normal."

For the employees, the decision to stay in the area is often a practical one such as responsibilities towards elderly parents and wider family.

Others say they simply do not want to be stuck in a hotel room with their families elsewhere in the country while the uncertainty persists.

"It's a much better atmosphere at work," said Hasbani. "We need to see people."

On Thursday, Kiryat Shmona was hit again by several rockets fired from Lebanon, the Israeli army said.

No injuries were reported but it was an explosive reminder of the threat from across the hills, despite the deceptive calm.

At the office, the hope is that the threat will pass, the uncertainty will lift and life will return to normal.

"The only good thing is the parking is free at the moment," said Willie. "We can park wherever we want."

February 23, 2024 04:16 PM
Huthi missile attack damages British-owned ship off Yemen

Yemen's Iran-backed Huthi rebels fired two missiles at a British-owned cargo ship passing through the Gulf of Aden on Thursday, causing one minor injury and damage to the vessel.

The rebels, who control much of Yemen, have carried out months of attacks on merchant vessels in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, disrupting the key shipping route and prompting a military response from the United States, Britain and recently France.

"A vessel was attacked by two missiles, resulting in a fire onboard," United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations said, adding that "coalition forces are responding".

Security firm Ambrey said the ship appeared to be headed towards the Red Sea from its port of origin in Thailand.

US Central Command (CENTCOM) identified the vessel as the British-owned, Palau-flagged cargo ship MV Islander.

The attack caused "one minor injury and damage. The ship is continuing its voyage", CENTCOM said.

The Huthis said their "naval forces conducted a targeted operation against a British ship in the Gulf of Aden, using a number of suitable naval missiles that directly hit it, causing a fire to break out".

They said they had also targeted a US destroyer in the Red Sea with a number of drones.

CENTCOM said that US aircraft and an allied warship separately shot down six drones launched by the Huthis. France said one of its frigates shot down two drones.

- Israel intercepts Huthi missile -

The Huthis said they had also "fired a number of ballistic missiles and drones at various targets of the Zionist enemy" in the Israeli Red Sea resort of Eilat.

The missile launch set off air raid sirens in Eilat but air defences intercepted it, the Israeli military said.

The Huthis say their attacks -- which they began carrying out in November -- are in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza amid the Israel-Hamas war.

They have triggered reprisal strikes on Yemen by the United States and Britain, with the Huthis responding by targeting US and British ships.

The rebels vowed that their fighters would "persist in upholding their religious, moral and humanitarian duties towards the Palestinian people... in the face of American-British aggression".

The Huthi attacks have prompted some shipping firms to take the much longer route around the southern tip of Africa to avoid the Red Sea, which normally carries about 12 percent of global maritime trade.

The UN Conference on Trade and Development said late last month that the volume of commercial traffic passing through the Suez Canal between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean had fallen more than 40 percent in the previous two months.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said Monday that revenues from the Suez Canal had "decreased by 40 to 50 percent" so far this year due to attacks on shipping.

The US State Department said Wednesday that the Huthi strikes are "driving up prices and causing delivery delays in critical humanitarian items, such as food and medicine".

"This is adversely affecting those in need of assistance around the world, including in Sudan, Ethiopia and in Yemen itself," it said.

In a bid to deter more Red Sea attacks, the European Union launched a naval mission on Monday, complementing an existing one spearheaded by the United States.

The mission -- called Aspides, Greek for "shield" -- should be up and running in a "few weeks" with at least four vessels, an EU official said last week.

February 23, 2024 03:42 PM
US charges four crew members of vessel carrying Iranian arms

Four men were charged on Thursday in connection with the seizure by the US Navy of a vessel carrying Iranian weapons bound for Yemen's Huthi rebels, an operation which left two Navy SEALs dead.

The four crew members were taken into custody during a January 11 operation in which elite US special operations personnel boarded a dhow off the coast of Somalia and seized missile components made in Iran, the Justice Department said in a statement.

The weaponry found aboard the boat "is allegedly consistent with the weaponry used by the Huthi rebel forces in recent attacks on merchant ships and US military ships in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden," it said.

The four men -- Muhammad Pahlawan, Mohammad Mazhar, Ghufran Ullah and Izhar Muhammad -- made an initial appearance on Thursday before a magistrate judge in Richmond, Virginia.

Pahlawan is charged with unlawfully transporting a warhead and making false statements.

The other three are charged with providing false information to US Coast Guard officers regarding the vessel's crew and cargo.

The Justice Department said all four men were carrying Pakistani identification papers.

Pahlawan faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted of unlawfully transporting a warhead and all four face up to five years in prison if convicted of making false statements.

"The Justice Department will use every legal authority to hold accountable those who facilitate the flow of weapons from Iran to Huthi rebel forces, Hamas, and other groups that endanger the security of the United States and our allies," Attorney General Merrick Garland said.

Two Navy SEALs went missing during the January 11 operation and were declared dead after a 10-day search failed to locate them.

The Huthis have been targeting ships in the Red Sea they claim are linked to Israel in attacks they say are in support of Palestinians in Gaza, where Israeli forces are battling Hamas.

February 23, 2024 03:07 PM
Biden holds poignant meeting with Navalny's daughter, widow

President Joe Biden had a private, emotional meeting with the widow and daughter of Alexei Navalny in California on Thursday, as his administration announced fresh sanctions against Russia over the death of the Kremlin opposition leader.

The visit at a hotel in San Francisco came as the White House backed Navalny's mother in her fight to retrieve her son's body, which Russian authorities have refused to release days after he died in an Arctic prison.

Navalny's team says the 47-year-old, President Vladimir Putin's most outspoken critic, was murdered.

Biden could be seen hugging Yulia Navalnaya, Navalny's widow, and leaning forward as he spoke with her and daughter Dasha, a student at Stanford University, in images released by the White House.

The president's own history of loss -- his first wife and his infant daughter were killed in a car crash in 1972, while his son Beau died of cancer in 2015 -- has seen him often referred to as America's Consoler-in-Chief.

After the meeting, he said the two women were emulating Navalny's "incredible courage."

Yulia Navalnaya, who has vowed to continue her late husband's opposition to Putin, is "not giving up," he said.

- 'Polar Wolf' -

The Biden administration announced Thursday that it would sanction more than 500 targets in Russia's "war machine" to mark the second anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine and in response to Navalny's death, for which the president stressed Putin was "responsible."

The US and its allies have imposed a slew of sanctions on Russia since it invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

Navalny, who died on February 16, galvanized mass protests against Putin, winning popularity with a series of investigations into state corruption.

He was poisoned with a Soviet-era nerve agent in 2020, then jailed in 2021 after returning to Russia following a period of treatment in Germany.

He was sentenced to 19 years in prison on extremism charges and sent to IK-3, a harsh penal colony beyond the Arctic Circle known as "Polar Wolf."

Western governments and Russian opposition figures have accused the Kremlin of being responsible for his death, with an outraged Biden previously blaming Putin and his "thugs."

- Mother's plea -

Hundreds of people have been detained in Russia in recent days at events to pay tribute to Navalny.

His mother, Lyudmila Navalnaya, travelled to Russia's Far North the morning after her son's death was announced, hoping to retrieve his body.

For days officials refused her access, prompting her to make a video appeal directly to Putin himself.

On Thursday she said she had been shown Navalny's body in a morgue in Salekhard, the nearest town to the remote prison.

But, in a video released on social media by Navalny's team, she said investigators wanted her son to be buried "secretly, without a chance to say goodbye.

"They are blackmailing me, they put conditions for where, when and how Alexei should be buried. This is illegal," she said.

"They want to take me to the edge of a cemetery to a fresh grave and say: Here is where your son lies. I am against that.

"I want that for those of you for whom Alexei is dear, for everyone for whom his death became a personal tragedy, to have the possibility to say goodbye to him."

She said she recorded the video because investigators were "threatening" her.

"Looking me in the eye, they said that if I do not agree to a secret funeral they'll do something with my son's body... I ask for my son's body to be given to me immediately," she said.

Navalny's mother also said that investigators told her they knew the cause of death but did not say what it was.

The Kremlin has refused to say when the body will be handed over and has branded Western accusations as "hysterical."

"The Russians need to give her back her son," US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters Thursday.

Putin has remained silent on the death of his main political opponent.

Navalny's spokesman Kira Yarmysh said a medical report on the death shown to Lyudmila Navalnaya "stated that the cause of death was natural."

February 23, 2024 03:06 PM
Israeli PM proposes plan for post-war Gaza

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has proposed a plan for post-war Gaza that envisions local Palestinian officials without links to Hamas or its foreign backers governing the territory, Israeli media reported Friday.

The proposal, which Netanyahu submitted to his security cabinet late Thursday, would also see the Israeli army persisting in its war on Hamas until it achieves key goals.

Those include dismantling Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and securing the release of all hostages still held captive in Gaza.

After the war ends, Gaza's civil affairs would be run by "local officials with administrative experience" and who are "not linked to countries or entities that support terrorism", the Times of Israel newspaper reported quoting key elements of Netanyahu's plan.

Even after the war, the Israeli army would have "indefinite freedom" to operate throughout Gaza to prevent any resurgence of terror activity, according to the plan.

"The plan states that Israel will move forward with its already-in-motion project to establish a security buffer zone on the Palestinian side of the strip's border," the report said, adding the zone would remain "as long as there is a security need for it".

It also envisages Israeli security control "over the entire area west of Jordan" from the land, sea and air "to prevent the strengthening of terrorist elements in the (occupied West Bank) and the Gaza Strip and to thwart threats from them towards Israel," the report said.

The plan envisages Gaza's "complete demilitarisation... beyond what is required for the needs of maintaining public order".

It aims to promote "de-radicalisation in all religious, educational and welfare institutions in Gaza".

A key element of the plan was the dismantling of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, the report said.

Israel has alleged that several employees of UNRWA took part in the October 7 attack on Israel that resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

The United Nations sacked the employees accused by Israel and has begun an internal probe of the agency. Since the Israeli allegations emerged several countries have suspended their funding to the agency.

The plan also has elements concerning the Egypt-Gaza border, which has been plagued by smuggling, the newspaper reported.

It said a "southern closure" on the frontier would be enforced to prevent a revival of any terror or smuggling activity.

Some elements of the reported Netanyahu plan conflict with Washington's vision for post-war Gaza.

The United States has backed Netanyahu's call to eradicate Hamas, which controls Gaza, but has called for the Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmud Abbas in the occupied West Bank, gradually to take over control in Gaza.

Netanyahu has long denounced the Palestinian Authority, and on Wednesday Israel's parliament also backed his another proposal opposing any unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state.

February 23, 2024 10:42 AM
Former 'IS bride' loses appeal against removal of UK citizenship

A woman stripped of her British citizenship after leaving the country as a teenager to marry an Islamic State group fighter lost her appeal against the decision on Friday.

London's Court of Appeal rejected all five arguments presented by Shamima Begum, 24, although she can still take the case to the supreme court.

"It could be argued that the decision in Miss Begum's case was harsh, it could also be argued that Miss Begum is the author of her own misfortune," said judge Sue Carr as she delivered the decision.

"But it is not for this court to agree or disagree with either point of view, our only task is to assess whether the deprivation decision was unlawful. We have concluded it was not and the appeal is dismissed," she added.

Begum, whose family is of Bangladeshi origin, was 15 years old when she left her east London home for Syria with two school friends in 2015.

While there, she married an IS fighter and had three children, none of whom survived.

Begum took her case against the revocation of her citizenship to the appeal court in October last year.

Her legal team argued that the government had failed to consider its legal duties to Begum as a potential victim of trafficking.

But the court ruled on Friday that the risk to national security took precedence over whether she had been a potential victim of trafficking.

In February 2019, Begum said she was left stateless when Britain's interior minister at the time, Sajid Javid, revoked her citizenship on national security grounds after she was found in a Syrian refugee camp.

However, the appeal court said that Begum had not been left stateless as she retained Bangladeshi citizenship through her mother, and that the government did not need to consider whether Bangladeshi authorities would allow her to enter the country.

- Begum to fight decision -

Her lawyers also said the government should have informed her of the decision to revoke her citizenship beforehand.

The appeal court rejected the argument, saying it could allow the "person to make a pre-emptive return to the United Kingdom".

The appeal was against the Special Immigration Appeals Commission's (SIAC) decision in February 2023 to uphold the removal of her citizenship.

Friday's ruling means that Begum cannot return to the UK from her current home, a refugee camp in northern Syria.

After the hearing, her solicitor Daniel Furner vowed that "we are not going to stop fighting until she does get justice and until she is safely back home," suggesting they will make a final appeal to the country's top court.

Begum is one of hundreds of Europeans whose fate has challenged governments following the 2019 collapse of the Islamist extremists' self-styled caliphate.

Begum's lawyer told the SIAC hearing that her client had been "influenced" along with her friends by a "determined and effective" IS group "propaganda machine".

The appeal court accepted that Begum "may well have been influenced and manipulated by others", but added she could "still have made a calculated decision to travel to Syria".

Around 900 people are estimated to have travelled from Britain to Syria and Iraq to join the IS group. Of those, around 150 are believed to have been stripped of their citizenship, according to government figures.

February 23, 2024 10:01 AM 4 dead as fire ravages residential block in Spain's Valencia
4 dead as fire ravages residential block in Spain's Valencia

At least four people have died in a huge fire that gutted a multi-storey apartment block in Spain's eastern port city of Valencia, with another 14 people injured.

The toll could rise, with 19 people missing, a source on the city council who asked not to be named told AFP.

The fire began around 5:30 pm on Thursday on the fourth floor and spread rapidly, witnesses and the emergency services said, with images showing flames and vast clouds of black smoke engulfing the building in the Campanar neighbourhood in western Valencia.

"It can be confirmed that four people have died," Jorge Suarez Torres, deputy director of emergency services for the Valencia region, told reporters.

Fourteen people had been treated for injuries of varying degrees, including a seven-year-old child, and 12 of them were transferred to hospitals, according to emergency services.

Spain's TVE public television said there were more than 130 flats in the 14-storey building which was rapidly "reduced to a skeleton", with 22 teams of firefighters battling the blaze.

Speaking to regional television station A Punt, Esther Puchades, deputy head of Valencia's Industrial Engineers Association (COGITI) said the fire had spread so rapidly because the building was covered with highly flammable polyurethane cladding.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dpj19a8LoLM

Luis Ibanez, who lives nearby, told TVE he had looked out of a window and saw the flames engulfing the block "within a matter of minutes", saying it was "as if it was made of cork".

"I couldn't believe what I was seeing. The whole side of the building directly opposite was on fire, from the first floor to the sixth and seventh floor," he said.

"There was a really strong wind and the fire was spreading to the left at a huge speed."

- Scenes of chaos -

One resident, Vicente, came home to find the building in flames, telling TVE he thought everyone had been safely evacuated.

"I think they all got out," he said.

Footage on social media that was reposted by Spanish media outlets showed a father and daughter being rescued from a balcony where they were trapped.

"Please stay away from the area of the fire to let the emergency services do their work," Valencia's Mayor Maria Jose Catala urged on social media platform X.

A woman who runs a nearby flower shop told public television the building was no more than 14 years old and had more than 100 flats, all of which were occupied.

"What caused the fire to spread was mostly the wind," she said, describing scenes of "chaos" as the blaze took hold, snarling traffic and sending clouds of smoke everywhere.

Writing on X, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said he was "shocked by the terrible fire" and was in contact with the mayor and the region's leader "to offer whatever help needed" and extending his condolences to everyone affected by the blaze.

In October, a fire gutted a nightclub in the neighbouring region of Murcia, claiming 13 lives in what was Spain's deadliest nightclub fire in three decades.

Six people have been charged as part of a manslaughter probe and could face up to nine years behind bars if the deaths were found to be the result of negligence.

The fears of polyurethane cladding exacerbating the Valencia fire recalled the 2017 tragedy at London's Grenfell Tower.

In that incident, a fire at a 24-storey high-rise in west London killed 72 people, with the blaze spreading rapidly due to the highly combustible cladding on the block's outside walls. A public inquiry into the disaster is still ongoing.

February 23, 2024 09:57 AM
Trump seeks dismissal of classified documents case

Lawyers for Donald Trump asked a federal court Thursday to dismiss charges that he illegally removed classified documents from the White House upon leaving office, arguing he is protected by presidential immunity.

This case involving Trump taking documents with him to his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida and thwarting investigators' attempts to recover them is one of four criminal indictments Trump faces as he runs for a second presidential term.

Trump has pleaded not guilty to the 40-count indictment brought in Florida by special counsel Jack Smith.

In a 20-page motion, lawyers for Trump argued that when he removed the documents from the White House, it was an official act.

"President Trump made this decision while he was still in office. The alleged decision was an official act, and as such is subject to presidential immunity," the motion states.

Trump has used the same argument against a federal indictment charging him with conspiring to cling to power after his 2020 election loss to Joe Biden in a scheme that culminated in the January 6, 2021 assault on the US Capitol by a mob of Trump supporters.

Earlier this month, a federal appeals court ruled his immunity claim is "unsupported" by the US Constitution. Trump then filed to the Supreme Court in a bid to have the ruling suspended.

The question of whether a former US president is immune from prosecution is an untested one in American jurisprudence because until Trump, a former president had never been charged with a crime.

February 22, 2024 11:21 PM
Israel strikes Gaza's Rafah as truce talks under way

 

Israel launched deadly air strikes on Rafah on Thursday, after threatening to send troops in to hunt for Hamas militants in the southern Gaza city where around 1.4 million Palestinians have sought refuge.

Another 97 people were killed over the past 24 hours in Hamas-run Gaza, the health ministry said, as a US envoy was in Israel for fresh efforts to secure a truce.

International concern has spiralled over the territory's escalating civilian death toll and the desperate humanitarian crisis sparked by the war that followed Hamas's October 7 attack against Israel.

Brett McGurk, White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, held talks with Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant in Tel Aviv, after meeting with other mediators in Cairo.

Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh was in the Egyptian capital for truce talks earlier this week, the group said.

Mediators including the United States, Qatar and Egypt have tried and so far failed to broker a ceasefire and hostage release deal, but this week have been making a new push to break the deadlock.

The Israeli defence ministry said the discussion with McGurk covered returning hostages, "operational developments in Hamas strongholds in central and southern Gaza, and humanitarian aid efforts".

Gallant stressed the "importance of dismantling remaining Hamas battalions", the ministry said.

War cabinet member Benny Gantz sounded an optimistic note ahead of McGurk's arrival, saying efforts to "promote a new plan for the return of the hostages" were showing "the first signs that indicate the possibility of progress".

More than four months of relentless fighting and bombardment have flattened much of Gaza and pushed its population of around 2.4 million to the brink of famine, according to the United Nations.

 

- West Bank attack -

 

The war has also triggered mounting violence in the occupied West Bank, where three Palestinian gunmen opened fire on cars in a traffic jam on Thursday, killing one person and wounding eight, including a pregnant woman.

The attackers were shot dead at the scene, near a Jewish settlement east of Jerusalem.

Israeli far-right politicians quickly called for more citizens to carry weapons and for even greater restrictions on Palestinians in the West Bank.

Hamas urged an escalation in attacks.

Concern has centred on Gaza's southernmost city of Rafah, where hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians are living in crowded shelters and makeshift camps where disease threatens.

Israel has warned that, if Hamas does not free the remaining hostages held in Gaza by the start of Ramadan on March 10 or 11, it will keep fighting during the Muslim holy month, including in Rafah.

Israel has already been bombing the city, which was again hit overnight.

"I woke up to the sound of a huge explosion like an earthquake -- fire, smoke, blasts and dust everywhere," said Rami al-Shaer, 21, who told AFP he and others pulled wounded family members from the rubble.

 

- 'Like an earthquake' -

 

Gaza's civil defence agency reported "a number" of people were killed, while elsewhere in Rafah residents walked amid the rubble of the city's al-Faruq mosque, after strikes.

The war started after Hamas's unprecedented October 7 attack which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

Hamas militants also took about 250 hostages -- 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 30 presumed dead, according to Israel.

Israel's retaliatory campaign has killed at least 29,410 people, mostly women and children, according to the latest count by Gaza's health ministry.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted the army will fight on until it has destroyed Hamas -- but his failure so far to bring home all the captives has led to mounting protests and calls for an early election.

Gantz said Israel's operation in Rafah would begin "after the evacuation of the population", although Gazans have said nowhere in the territory is safe.

With Arab support, the United States has called for a pathway to a Palestinian state -- something Israel's parliament has overwhelmingly rejected.

 

- Aid efforts -

 

The UN's humanitarian agency said aid to Gaza was being gravely hampered by "intense hostilities, limitations on the entry and delivery of aid, and growing insecurity".

The war has also decimated Gaza's economy, according to the World Bank, which said Thursday that GDP plummeted more than 80 percent in the last three months of 2023.

"Almost all economic activity in Gaza has ground to a halt," it said.

In the southern Gaza city of Khan Yunis, medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said an Israeli tank had fired on a house sheltering their employees and families, killing two relatives of MSF staff.

MSF condemned the strike in the "strongest possible terms".

The Israeli army said forces "fired at a building" identified as a place where "terror activity is occurring", adding that it "regrets" harm to civilians.

The military said troops killed more than 15 militants in Khan Yunis, which has seen weeks of fierce fighting.

Elsewhere in the region, the war has led to attacks by Yemen's Iran-backed Huthi rebels in Red Sea shipping lanes vital for global trade. The Huthis say they are acting in solidarity with Palestinians.

A missile attack caused a fire on board the British-owned cargo vessel MV Islander as it passed through the Gulf of Aden on Thursday, two maritime security agencies and the US military said.

At least two Hezbollah fighters were killed and three others wounded in an Israeli drone strike in south Lebanon, a security source said. The Iran-backed militant group has been exchanging near-daily fire with the Israeli army since the Israel-Hamas war started.

February 22, 2024 10:50 PM
Missile attack damages British-owned vessel off Yemen

 

A missile attack damaged a vessel passing through the Gulf of Aden off Yemen on Thursday, two maritime agencies and the US military said.

The Iran-backed Huthi rebels, who control much of Yemen, have carried out months of attacks on merchant vessels in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, disrupting the key shipping route and prompting a military response from the United States, Britain and recently France.

"A vessel was attacked by two missiles, resulting in a fire onboard," United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations said, adding that "coalition forces are responding".

Security firm Ambrey also reported a fire aboard a Palau-flagged, British-owned general cargo ship following two missile strikes southeast of Aden.

The ship "appeared to be headed from Map Ta Phut, Thailand, and headed in the direction of the Red Sea", Ambrey said.

"Merchant shipping is advised to stay clear of the vessel and proceed with caution," it added.

While there was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, US Central Command (CENTCOM) said the Huthis targeted the vessel, which it identified as the MV Islander.

The attack caused "one minor injury and damage. The ship is continuing its voyage", CENTCOM said.

It added that US aircraft and an allied warship separately shot down six drones launched by the Huthis on Thursday. France said one of its frigates shot down two drones.

 

- 'Driving up prices' -

 

The Huthis say their attacks -- which they began carrying out in November -- are in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza during the Israel-Hamas war.

They have triggered reprisal strikes on Yemen by the United States and Britain, with the Huthis responding by targeting US and British ships.

The Huthi attacks have prompted some shipping firms to take the much longer route around the southern tip of Africa to avoid the Red Sea, which normally carries about 12 percent of global maritime trade.

The UN Conference on Trade and Development said late last month that the volume of commercial traffic passing through the Suez Canal between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean had fallen more than 40 percent in the previous two months.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said Monday that revenues from the Suez Canal had "decreased by 40 to 50 percent" so far this year due to attacks on shipping.

The US State Department said Wednesday that the Huthi strikes are "driving up prices and causing delivery delays in critical humanitarian items, such as food and medicine".

"This is adversely affecting those in need of assistance around the world, including in Sudan, Ethiopia and in Yemen itself," it said.

In a bid to deter more Red Sea attacks, the European Union launched a naval mission on Monday, complementing an existing one spearheaded by the United States.

The mission -- called Aspides, Greek for "shield" -- should be up and running in a "few weeks" with at least four vessels, an EU official said last week.

On Monday, the Huthis said they had targeted three vessels, including the British-registered Rubymar, the US-owned Sea Champion and the Navis Fortuna which they described as "American."

February 22, 2024 10:20 PM
Putin reacts with sarcasm to Biden's 'SOB' remark

 

Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a sarcastic response on Thursday when asked to comment on US counterpart Joe Biden calling him a "crazy SOB".

The Kremlin leader, who endorsed Biden over rival Donald Trump in the upcoming US elections, joked: "He can't of course say to me: Volodya, well done, thank you (for the endorsement), you've helped me a lot?"

Biden calls Putin a 'crazy SOB'

 

US President Joe Biden called his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin a "crazy SOB" at a reelection fundraising event, earning a sarcastic response Thursday from the Kremlin leader.

Biden, 81, has regularly had harsh words for Putin since Moscow's invasion of neighboring Ukraine two years ago, including calling him a "butcher" and a "war criminal."

And late Wednesday he was no less direct -- although more personal.

"We have a crazy SOB like that guy Putin, and others, and we always have to worry about nuclear conflict, but the existential threat to humanity is climate," Biden said in remarks to a group of supporters in San Francisco.

Biden has said the United States will announce a package of additional sanctions Friday against Russia over the death in prison of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Putin responded with his trademark sarcasm, referring to his recent remark that he would prefer the more "predictable" Biden over Donald Trump in the White House.

"He can't of course say to me: Volodya, well done, thank you (for the endorsement), you've helped me a lot?" Putin said

Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Biden's invective was "a huge shame for the country itself... for the US."

"If a president uses that kind of language, it's shameful," he said. "It is clear that Mr Biden is demonstrating Hollywood cowboy-style behavior to serve domestic political interests."

In a hot-mic slip in January 2022, Biden similarly called a Fox News journalist a "son of a bitch," the longer form of the insult he aimed at Putin. He later called the reporter to apologize.

In an interview with ABC News in March 2021, Biden was asked if he thought Putin was "a killer". He replied: "I do."

Moscow recalled its ambassador to Washington for consultations, and Putin retorted that it "takes one to know one."

In a speech from the Oval Office on October 20, 2023, Biden compared Palestinian militant group Hamas and Putin, saying they "both want to completely annihilate a neighboring democracy."

"We cannot and will not let terrorists like Hamas and tyrants like Putin win. I refuse to let that happen," he said.

The Kremlin denounced the remarks as "unacceptable."

At the San Francisco fundraising event, Biden also attacked his presumed November election rival Trump for comparing his legal woes to the fate of Navalny.

"If I stood here 10 to 15 years ago and said all this, you'd all think I should be committed," Biden said.

February 22, 2024 09:34 PM
Israel strike kills 2 fighters in Lebanon: security source

 

At least two Hezbollah fighters were killed and three others wounded in an Israeli drone strike on a residential building in south Lebanon on Thursday, a security source said.

Lebanon's Iran-backed Hezbollah movement and its arch-foe Israel have been exchanging near-daily fire across the border since the Israel-Hamas war broke out on October 7.

An Israeli drone shot two guided missiles at the building in Kfar Rumman, near south Lebanon's Nabatiyeh, the security source said, declining to be identified as they were not authorised to brief the media.

Kfar Rumman lies around 12 kilometres (seven miles) from the Israeli border.

Hamas ally Hezbollah had claimed a series of attacks on Israeli troops and positions on Thursday, including one which it said was in response to "Israeli attacks on villages and civilian houses".

The violence on Israel's northern border has sparked fears of another full-blown war between Israel and Hezbollah like that of 2006.

Since October, at least 273 people have been killed on the Lebanese side, most of them Hezbollah fighters but also including 42 civilians, according to an AFP tally.

On the Israeli side, 10 soldiers and six civilians have been killed, according to the Israeli army.

Last week, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah vowed that Israel would pay "with blood", after 10 civilians, including seven members of one family, were killed in Lebanon's largest single-day death toll so far. Five Hezbollah fighters were also killed.

On Wednesday, an Israeli strike killed a woman and a girl, prompting retaliatory fire from Hezbollah.

February 22, 2024 09:31 PM
Navalny's mother says she saw his body

 

The late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny's mother Lyudmila said on Thursday that she had been taken to see his body by investigators, after days of being barred from the morgue.

"Yesterday evening they secretly took me to the morgue where they showed me Alexei," she said in a video released on social media from Salekhard, the nearest town to the Arctic prison where he died last week.

Says officials pressuring her into 'secret' burial

The mother of Alexei Navalny, Russian President Vladimir Putin's main opponent who died in an Arctic prison last week, said Thursday officials are pressuring her into a "secret" burial for her son.

"They are blackmailing me, they put conditions for where, when and how Alexei should be buried. This is illegal," Lyudmila Navalnaya said in a video published by his team. "They want it to be done in secret."

February 22, 2024 07:18 PM
Czech farmers rally at borders to protest EU policy

 

Several thousand Czech farmers rallied at border checkpoints and converged on major cities on Thursday to demand changes to the European Union's common agricultural policy.

They joined farmers from other European countries -- including Poland, France, Spain and Greece -- who have been dumping produce and blocking roads in pursuit of their demands over the past weeks.

"Around 3,000 tractors took to the streets," Czech Chamber of Agriculture said in a statement on the nationwide protests.

The farmers gathered at the border crossings with Slovakia and Poland, using tractors and agricultural machinery to clog roads and snarl traffic.

Their demands included an end to restrictions on agricultural production, cutting red tape for farming and introducing changes to the EU-Ukraine arrangements on farming imports.

Across Europe, farmers claim competition from Ukrainian products has battered their earnings because Ukrainian farmers are not bound by EU rules on issues such as animal welfare.

Czech Agriculture Minister Marek Vyborny said he "understands" the protesting farmers.

"I, too, am bothered by the unnecessary bureaucracy and some of the unrealistic demands that the EU places on our farmers," Vyborny said on X (formerly Twitter).

The European Commission -- the EU's executive arm -- made several concessions in recent weeks after farmers across Europe blamed the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the EU's upcoming "Green Deal" for their problems.

February 22, 2024 07:08 PM
UK announces new sanctions against Russia over Ukraine war

 

The UK announced more than 50 new sanctions against Russia on Thursday to mark the second anniversary of Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, which falls this weekend.

The sanctions target munitions manufacturers, electronics companies, and diamond and oil traders and aim to "diminish" Russian President Vladimir Putin's weapons arsenal, the foreign office said.

They also seek to cut off funding for Russia's war by clamping down on metals, diamonds, and energy trade -- key sources of Russian revenue, the ministry added.

"Our international economic pressure means Russia cannot afford this illegal invasion," British foreign minister David Cameron said in a statement.

"Our sanctions are starving Putin of the resources he desperately needs to fund his struggling war."

Saturday marks the second anniversary of Russia's full-scale invasion of its neighbour.

More than 10,000 civilians have died in the conflict and almost 20,000 more have been wounded, according to the United Nations.

"Two years on, we stand united in support for Ukraine," added Cameron.

"Together, we will not let up in the face of tyranny. We will continue to support Ukraine as it fights for democracy -- for as long as it takes."

Thursday's sanctions target 14 individuals and entities linked to manufacturing munitions such as rocket launch systems, missiles, and explosives, the foreign office said.

They include Sverdlov State Owned Enterprise, the largest enterprise in the Russian ammunition industry.

A Turkish company that has been supplying electronics to the Russian military, three Chinese firms and two entities in Belarus were also sanctioned.

Sanctions were also imposed against oil trader Niels Troost, two Russian diamond companies and five senior executives of owners of Russia's top producers of copper, zinc and steel, among others.

The UK has sanctioned a total of 2,000 individuals, companies and groups under its Russia sanctions regime.

On Wednesday, London announced it had imposed sanctions on six officials at the head of the Siberian penal colony where Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny died last week.

February 22, 2024 07:02 PM
One killed, eight wounded in shooting near West Bank settlement

 

Three Palestinian gunmen killed one person and wounded eight, including a young pregnant woman, in a "terror attack" Thursday near a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank, Israeli police said.

The shooters were "neutralised", police said, and an AFP photographer later saw two bodies at the scene of the attack on a highway east of Jerusalem, where five cars were riddled with bullets.

"The three terrorists... got out of their vehicle and started shooting automatic weapons at vehicles that were in a traffic jam on the road towards Jerusalem," police said in a statement about the attack near the Maale Adumim settlement.

"Two terrorists were neutralised on the spot," police said. "In the searches conducted at the scene, another terrorist was located who tried to escape and he was also neutralised."

Israel's internal security service Shin Bet identified the gunmen as Mohammed Zawahrah, 26, his brother Kathim Zawahrah, 31, and Ahmed al-Wahsh, also 31.

Among those wounded was a 23-year-old pregnant woman who was in critical condition, said the Magen David Adom emergency response service and Shaare Zedek Medical Center.

Violence was already on the rise across the West Bank prior to the Gaza war sparked by Hamas's October 7 attack, but has escalated since then to levels unseen in nearly two decades, with hundreds killed in recent months.

 

- Movement restrictions -

 

Israel's far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir visited the site of Thursday's attack where he told journalists: "The enemies... want to hurt us. They hate us."

He argued that "we need to distribute more weapons" and that "our right to life is superior to the freedom of movement" of residents governed by the Palestinian Authority under president Mahmud Abbas.

"There should be more restrictions and we should put barriers around villages and limit the freedom of movement" of people from the West Bank, Ben Gvir added.

Palestinians have complained of worsening Israeli-imposed restrictions in the West Bank since the outbreak of the war in the Gaza Strip.

Israel's far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich called for a "firm security response... and colonisation" by building thousands of new housing units in settlements like Maale Adumim and across the West Bank.

"Our enemies must know that any harm done to us would result in more construction, more development and even more control over the entire country," he said on X, formerly Twitter.

Palestinian militant group Hamas called for an escalation in such attacks.

"Our people will continue to resist the occupation throughout our country, Palestine, until the occupation is defeated," Hamas said in a statement.

"We call on our revolutionary youth and the free, committed Palestinian people to escalate the confrontation with the occupation and its settlers."

The attack near Maale Adumim came after two people were shot dead last Friday at a bus stop in southern Israel near the town of Kiryat Malakhi.

 

- Escalating violence -

 

The West Bank has seen frequent Palestinian attacks on Israelis and near-daily raids by the Israeli military that often turn deadly.

Israeli troops and settlers have killed at least 400 Palestinians in the West Bank since the Gaza war broke out, according to the Palestinian health ministry in Ramallah.

Israel captured the West Bank -- including east Jerusalem, which it later annexed -- in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967.

Around 475,000 Jewish settlers currently live in the occupied West Bank, in settlements considered illegal by the United Nations and most of the international community.

The West Bank's Palestinian population is about 2.9 million.

The Palestinians claim the territory as the heartland of a future independent state, a goal being discussed by the international community as the Hamas-Israel war rages into a fifth month.

Israel's parliament Wednesday overwhelmingly backed a proposal by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposing any unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state.

The Gaza war erupted after Hamas militants attacked Israel on October 7, resulting in the deaths of around 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

At least 29,410 people, mostly women and children, have been killed in Israel's retaliatory military offensive on Gaza, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.

February 22, 2024 07:00 PM
Russia sent hitmen to kill deserter in Spain: report

 

Moscow sent hitmen who gunned down a Russian deserter in Spain last week, six months after fleeing to Ukraine in his helicopter, El Pais newspaper reported Thursday, citing Spanish intelligence sources.

"The Spanish intelligence services have no doubt that the long arm of the Kremlin was behind this unprecedented crime in Spain: the murder in Alicante of Maxim Kuzminov," the paper said.

The victim's body, which was riddled with six bullets, was found on February 13 in Villajoyosa, 12 kilometres (seven miles) from the coastal resort of Benidorm, and Spanish media on Monday said his fingerprints identified him as Kuzminov.

Kuzminov, 33, flew his Mi-8 helicopter into Ukraine in August saying he opposed Russia's military offensive, with Kiev's GUR military intelligence confirming his death.

Although Russia's SVR foreign intelligence service hailed news of Kuzminov's death, it did not confirm or deny Moscow's involvement.

Spanish intelligence sources quoted by El Pais said the only question was whether the operation was carried out by the SVR, the FSB security service or Russia's GRU intelligence agency.

But they admitted it would be "very difficult" to obtain incriminating evidence.

The paper, which is known for its connections to circles of power, also quoted diplomatic sources as saying that the incident was "very serious" and that Spain would "respond forcefully" if Moscow's involvement was confirmed.

 

- Russian glee over pilot's murder -

 

Spanish officials have until now refused to confirm the victim was Kuzminov.

A spokesman for the Guardia Civil police, which is running the investigation, told AFP on Thursday that there was no new information on the case, and the interior ministry refused to comment.

Contacted by AFP, the defence ministry, which is responsible for Spain's intelligence services, said: "Let the police do their work and carry out the investigation", parroting the government's official line.

Spanish intelligence officials believe the shooting, which occurred in an area with a big Russian population and was initially thought to be a "settling of scores", was carried out by hitmen who have already left Spain.

After shooting Kuzminov six times, they ran him over with his own car and then fled, they said.

The car was later found completely burnt out in a nearby town.

When Kuzminov deserted, there were two other Russian servicemen on board his helicopter who were unaware of his plans.

They were killed when they tried to flee after the chopper landed in Ukraine, according to Kiev's military intelligence services, which said it had spent six months planning Kuzminov's defection.

Russia's SVR chief Sergei Naryshkin on Tuesday hailed news of the pilot's death.

"This traitor and criminal became a moral corpse at the very moment when he planned his dirty and terrible crime," he said in remarks reported by Russian state news agencies.

February 22, 2024 06:54 PM
'Dad, come back': Palestinians send radio messages to loved ones in Israeli jails

 

Palestinians with relatives in Israeli prisons have been deprived of visiting rights during the Israel-Hamas war, opting instead to send messages to loved ones on a radio programme.

"Hello, this message is for my brother Islam. How are you, my brother?" said one greeting sent via a Palestinian radio show called Messages for the Prisoners.

"Your house is ready. When you get out, you will be all set to find someone to marry!"

The show on popular Palestinian station Radio Ajyal, based in the city of Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, features personal messages from families that often end with the sentence: "We hope you will hear these words."

Campaigners say the number of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails has swelled to around 9,000, from about 5,200 before Hamas's October 7 attack on Israel that triggered the war.

After waves of arrests and tough restrictions on detainees followed the attack, the radio station has been inundated with messages from relatives. In response, it has extended the show by more than an hour.

"We get messages from everywhere" as many families "no longer have any news of their loved ones in prison," said Walid Nasser, Radio Ajyal's editor-in-chief.

"Dear dad, I can't wait for you to come back to take me to school," said one of the messages, which are often read by children and sometimes marked by a suppressed sob.

"Everything is fine at home, everything is fine at university, don't worry," said another message.

The show's host, Maysam Barghouti, who reads out some of the messages herself, said many families "are looking for hope to hold on to".

"The show is really the only means to communicate with a loved one or to get information."

 

- 'No news' -

 

Israeli prison authorities announced a "state of emergency" after October 7 to prevent potential involvement of inmates in any further unrest, cutting off visiting rights and barring phone calls.

The October 7 attack resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official Israeli figures.

Hamas militants also took about 250 Israeli and foreign hostages -- 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 30 presumed dead, according to Israel.

Israel's retaliatory campaign has killed at least 29,410 people, mostly women and children, according to the latest count by Gaza's health ministry.

Amid the war, radios have also been banned in prisons, but the families, as well as Radio Ajyal staff, hope that inmates are still somehow able to tune in.

The Palestinian Prisoners Club advocacy group said visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross have also stopped. Both the ICRC and Israel declined to comment.

While some Palestinians are detained without known charges, the most common grounds for arrest range from online calls for violence to alleged militant activity.

Prison conditions have deteriorated since the start of the war, several rights groups have said based on official Israeli data and accounts from former inmates.

"My brother has been in prison for 22 years, and the last three months have been the most difficult for all of us," said Ihsan Kamal, whose brother Saed was sentenced to 38 years for attacking Israelis.

"My parents used to visit him once a month," Kamal said. "Now, we have absolutely no news, and we hear that the situation is terrible in the prisons."

Rights groups say at least nine Palestinians have died behind Israeli bars since October 7.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel has called on judges to visit prisons where Palestinians are held to inspect their conditions.

The Supreme Court has announced that judges would go to jails, but no visits have yet been reported.

 

- 'I miss him' -

 

Ola Zaghloul is used to being away from her husband Mohammed, now in his 60s, who has spent more than two decades in Israeli prisons.

"My daughters grew up without a father," she said.

One of their daughters, Aqsa, an 18-year-old student, said "we just need to hear his voice".

"Just by his tone of voice, we would know if he is okay or not."

Mohammed, who was released in July and arrested again on January 10, is ill and was due to undergo neurological examination in Germany, the family said.

He was arrested again just a few days before the planned departure.

"We know he's not doing well," said the Zaghlouls' youngest daughter, Dana.

Her father had been sentenced over his involvement in the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the armed wing of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas's Fatah party.

Mohammed has a "strong mind" but his health is worrying, said his brother, Youssef.

"I miss him," he said.

"We went to school together" before the war, Youssef added. "I think of him every time I head to the university."

February 22, 2024 03:12 PM
In Michigan, Arab American voters vow to 'punish' Biden

It's common to hear residents chatting in Arabic just as often as English in this Detroit suburb's stores or mosques, those buildings themselves often sporting bilingual signage out front.

But no matter the language, residents in this Arab American and Muslim stronghold in the Midwestern state of Michigan are convinced President Joe Biden, as he steadfastly stands by Israel in its war in Gaza, is not listening to them.

"Vote for Palestine. No Biden," political organizer Samra'a Luqman says in English, passing out fliers outside a mosque after prayers.

"Don't vote for Biden," the activist with Yemeni origins adds in Arabic.

"Of course," respond many passersby.

As the Gaza Strip death toll climbs, residents here -- once firmly in the Democratic fold -- are turning against the president in a crucial swing state he won by just 150,000 votes in 2020.

Some are hoping to pressure Biden to back off from his Israel support and call for a ceasefire. Others, like Luqman, say they would never vote for him.

"He's committing the genocide. He's funding it," Luqman, a campaign leader with a group called Abandon Biden, tells AFP.

A campaign is underway by Luqman and others urging voters to vote "uncommitted," or write in "Free Palestine" on their ballots in the state's primary next week -- a symbolic gesture, since Biden faces no serious challengers for the Democratic nomination.

"This is a campaign about pressuring our current president who can do something about the mass killing of children," says Abbas Alawieh, a former Democratic chief of staff on Capitol Hill and member of the Listen to Michigan campaign group.

"In this community there are a lot of people who are directly harmed by war," the Lebanese-born Alawieh tells AFP.

Biden, he says, "is threatening to lose this community. Not just in November, but perhaps for a generation to come."

- If not Biden... Trump? -

The war started when Hamas launched its attack on October 7, resulting in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official Israeli figures.

But concern has mounted amid the high civilian toll in Israel's retaliatory campaign, now at 29,313 people dead, according to the health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza.

Listen to Michigan began as a pressure campaign, but some voters say their frustration with the president is permanent.

Voting for Biden was the "worst mistake of my life," says Mohamed Alemara, a 23-year-old medical student of Iraqi descent.

"You don't kill 30,000 of our people and expect us to vote for you."

Arab Americans' vows to ditch Biden often baffle liberal political pundits.

What will Muslims and Arabs do, the thinking goes -- vote for Donald Trump, the Republican behind the "Muslim ban" immigration policy, whose supporters flirt with ideas like "Christian nationalism"?

"We're not a stupid community," says Luqman. "I've survived a Muslim ban, but those kids in Gaza have not survived Joe Biden."

"My intention is not to vote in an Islamophobe, another genocidal maniac," she adds. Yet she tells AFP, "the only way I would vote for Biden is if he resurrected" the Gaza dead.

In America's two-party system, where voters often hold their nose to pick candidates they don't back 100 percent, 27-year-old nurse Fatima Elzaghir says that "at this point, the lesser evil is Trump."

Others, like Alawieh, reject the premise of the question.

"How dare you come to me and say, 'Oh, but later, Trump will be your fault,'" he says.

"Call your representative. Tell them you want a ceasefire.... Once we stop the bloodshed, then we can talk about the political consequences."

- Union split -

Biden will also have to deal with Michigan's unions -- where some are defecting from the labor-friendly president's camp.

Many union and workingclass voters already support Republicans, drawn in by their conservative social policies.

But for Merwan Beydoun, a steel mill worker and member of the United Autoworkers Union, Gaza was the breaking point.

"Furious" at Biden, whom the UAW endorsed, Beydoun stopped his contributions to the union's political arm.

Beydoun says he still believes "in a lot of Democratic policies" and would rather not say how he'll vote in November. But to earn Beydoun's vote, the president "needs to wake up" and "change his ways."

The Biden administration has tried to assuage Arab and Muslim voters' concerns in part by portraying the president as frustrated with Benjamin Netanyahu's government.

But US weapons have flowed to Israel since October 7, while Washington's efforts to broker a second pause in fighting have failed, and on Tuesday the US blocked a UN Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire.

"My intention is to punish Biden for what he's doing now," says Luqman. "For the betrayal that he's done to me and all the community members that have voted for him."

February 22, 2024 01:14 PM
Biden calls Putin a 'crazy SOB

President Joe Biden called his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin a "crazy SOB" at a public fundraising event Wednesday in California.

"We have a crazy SOB like that guy Putin, and others, and we always have to worry about nuclear conflict, but the existential threat to humanity is climate," Biden said in a brief speech at the event in San Francisco that was attended by a small group of reporters.

In a hot mic slip in January 2022, Biden similarly called a Fox News journalist a "son of a bitch."

Biden's burst of strong language follows other occasions in which he has called the Russian president, who ordered the invasion of Ukraine in 2022, a "butcher" and a "war criminal."

Biden has said the United States will announce a package of tough new sanctions Friday against Russia over the death in prison of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

At the fundraising event, Biden also attacked his presumed November election rival Donald Trump for comparing his legal woes to the fate of Navalny.

"If I stood here 10 to 15 years ago and said all this, you'd all think I should be committed," Biden said.

February 22, 2024 12:25 PM
Missile attack causes fire aboard vessel off Yemen

A missile attack Thursday targeted a vessel transiting the Gulf of Aden, causing a fire on board, two maritime agencies said, the latest in a flurry of strikes disrupting global shipping.

"A vessel was attacked by two missiles, resulting in a fire onboard," the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations said, adding that "coalition forces are responding".

Security firm Ambrey also reported a fire aboard a Palau-flagged, British-owned general cargo ship following two missile strikes southeast of Yemen's Aden.

The ship "appeared to be headed from Map Ta Phut, Thailand, and headed in the direction of the Red Sea", Ambrey said.

"Merchant shipping is advised to stay clear of the vessel and proceed with caution," it added.

There was no immediate claim for the attack but it follows a series of strikes on commercial vessels by Yemen's Iran-backed Huthi rebels.

The Huthis say the attacks are in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza during the Israel-Hamas war.

The strikes have prompted some shipping companies to detour around southern Africa to avoid the Red Sea, which normally carries about 12 percent of global maritime trade.

The UN Conference on Trade and Development warned late last month that the volume of commercial traffic passing through the Suez Canal had fallen more than 40 percent in the previous two months.

Earlier, American forces launched "self-defence strikes" Wednesday against Huthi missiles and launch positions in rebel-controlled Yemen that posed threats to commercial shipping and naval forces in the Red Sea, the US military said.

The Iran-backed Huthis, who control much of war-torn Yemen, have been harassing the vital shipping lane since November in a campaign they say is in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza during the Israel-Hamas war.

Before dawn Wednesday Sanaa time, "US Central Command forces conducted four self-defense strikes against seven mobile Huthi anti-ship cruise missiles and one mobile anti-ship ballistic missile launcher that were prepared to launch towards the Red Sea," CENTCOM said in a statement on social media platform X.

The military said it also shot down a "one-way attack unmanned aircraft system."

"CENTCOM forces identified the missiles, launchers and UAS originating from Huthi-controlled areas of Yemen and determined that they presented an imminent threat to merchant vessels and to the US Navy ships in the region," CENTCOM said.

On Tuesday the Pentagon said a US drone crashed off the coast of Yemen after apparently being struck by a missile fired by Huthi rebels.

The Red Sea attacks have raised insurance premiums for shipping companies, forcing many to avoid the Red Sea, a vital route that normally carries about 12 percent of global maritime trade.

February 22, 2024 12:19 PM
Chaos erupts in British Commons over Gaza motion

Britain's House of Commons descended into chaos on Wednesday over a motion calling for a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip.

The chamber was due to debate and vote on a motion for an "immediate ceasefire" in Gaza by the Scottish National Party (SNP).

Instead, in an unusual move, speaker Lindsay Hoyle allowed a vote on a motion for an "immediate humanitarian ceasefire" in Gaza by the main opposition Labour Party.

This sparked fury and shouts from the ruling Conservatives and the SNP.

SNP head in the Commons, Stephen Flynn, branded the move as "complete and utter contempt" of his party.

Faced with the outrage, Hoyle apologised, saying he had only intended to allow a wider debate on the issue.

The motion was not officially voted on, after the government said it would not participate in protest.

Political passions are running high in Britain ahead of a general election due this year.

The Conservatives, in power since 2010, are widely tipped by pollsters to lose.

Labour has been buoyed after having wrestled away several seats in by-elections from the Conservatives.

February 22, 2024 10:19 AM
Israel strikes Gaza's Rafah as truce talks under way

Israel launched air strikes Thursday on southern Gaza's Rafah after threatening to send troops into the city, where around 1.4 million Palestinians have sought shelter from around the territory.

Global powers trying to navigate a way to end the Israel-Hamas war have so far come up short, but a US envoy was expected in Israel on Thursday to try to secure a truce deal.

International concern has spiralled over the high civilian death toll and dire humanitarian crisis in the war sparked by Hamas's October 7 attack against Israel.

More than four months of relentless fighting and air strikes have flattened much of the Hamas-run coastal territory, pushing its population of around 2.4 million to the brink of famine, according to the UN.

International concern has in recent weeks centred on Gaza's southernmost city of Rafah, where more than 1.4 million people forced to flee their homes elsewhere in the territory are now living in crowded shelters and makeshift tents.

The last city untouched by Israeli ground troops, Rafah also serves as the main entry point via neighbouring Egypt for desperately needed relief supplies.

Israel has warned it will expand its ground operations into Rafah if Hamas does not free the remaining hostages held in Gaza by next month's start of the Muslim holy month Ramadan.

- 'My daughter' -

The war started when Hamas launched its attack on October 7, which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official Israeli figures.

Hamas militants also took about 250 hostages -- 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 30 presumed dead, according to Israel.

Israel's retaliatory campaign has killed at least 29,313 people, mostly women and children, according to the latest count by the Hamas-run health ministry in the territory.

War cabinet member Benny Gantz said Israel's operation in Rafah would begin "after the evacuation of the population", although his government has not offered any details on where civilians would be evacuated to.

In the early hours of Thursday, AFP reporters heard multiple air strikes on Rafah, particularly in the Al-Shaboura neighbourhood.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza said early Thursday that 99 people had been killed around Gaza during the night, most of them women, children and elderly people.

Abdel Rahman Mohamed Jumaa said he lost his family in recent strikes on Rafah.

"I found my wife lying in the street," he told AFP. "Then I saw a man carrying a girl and I ran towards him and.... picked her up, realising she was really my daughter."

He was holding a small shrouded corpse in his arms.

- 'Possibility of progress' -

Brett McGurk, the White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, was expected to arrive in Israel Thursday -- his second stop in the region after Egypt as part of US efforts to advance a hostage deal and broker a truce.

Hamas's chief Ismail Haniyeh was in Cairo for talks as well, according to the group.

Israel's Gantz said there were efforts to "promote a new plan for the return of the hostages".

"We are seeing the first signs that indicate the possibility of progress in this direction."

Matthew Miller, US State Department spokesman, said Washington was hoping for an "agreement that secures a temporary ceasefire where we can get the hostages out and get humanitarian assistance", but declined to give details on ongoing negotiations.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted the army will keep fighting until it has destroyed Hamas and freed the remaining hostages.

Israel's parliament on Wednesday overwhelmingly backed a proposal by Netanyahu to oppose any unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state.

The vote came days after the Washington Post reported that US President Joe Biden's administration and a small group of Arab nations were working out a comprehensive plan for long-term peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

It included a firm timeline for the establishment of a Palestinian state, the report said.

Separately, a report by an Israeli group that fights sexual violence said Hamas's October 7 attack also involved systematic sexual assaults on civilians, based on witness testimonies, public and classified information, and interviews.

The report came the same week UN rights experts called for an independent probe into alleged Israeli abuses against Palestinian women and girls -- which Israel rejected as "despicable and unfounded claims".

Israeli officials have repeatedly alleged the militants committed violent sexual assaults during the attack -- something Hamas has denied.

- 'Waiting for death' -

Combat and chaos have stalled sporadic aid deliveries for civilians in Gaza, while in Khan Yunis -- a city just north of Rafah -- medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said an Israeli tank had fired on a house sheltering their employees and families.

Two relatives of MSF staff were killed and six others injured, it said, condemning the strike in the "strongest possible terms".

When contacted by AFP about the incident, the Israeli army said its forces had "fired at a building that was identified as a building where terror activity is occurring", adding that it "regrets" harm to civilians.

In the same town, the Palestinian Red Crescent said another hospital was also hit by "artillery shelling".

Israel has repeatedly said Hamas militants use civilian infrastructure including hospitals as operational bases -- claims that Hamas has denied.

February 21, 2024 11:22 PM
UN Sec Council 'paralysis' on Gaza, Ukraine 'unacceptable,' Brazil tells G20

 

Brazil's foreign minister criticized the "paralysis" of the UN Security Council on the wars in Gaza and Ukraine as he opened a G20 meeting Wednesday where the international community's deep divisions are on display.

"Multilateral institutions are not properly equipped to deal with the current challenges, as has been demonstrated by the Security Council's unacceptable paralysis on the ongoing conflicts," Foreign Minister Mauro Vieira told the opening session of a two-day meeting of top diplomats from the world's 20 biggest economies.

February 21, 2024 11:08 PM
Biden's brother questioned in Republican impeachment probe

 

Joe Biden's brother arrived at Congress on Wednesday where Republican lawmakers were expected to question him behind closed doors as part of their impeachment inquiry against the US president.

Republicans in the US House of Representatives have accused Biden of engaging in corrupt business dealings during his time as vice president with his brother James and son Hunter -- who is also embroiled in his own, separate legal troubles.

The investigation has dragged on into the election year despite it failing to produce any clear evidence of wrongdoing by the president.

James Biden, 74, was expected to be questioned Wednesday about previous financial transactions and loan repayments.

Republicans have focused on the president's son Hunter Biden, saying he leveraged his father's name while he was vice president under Barack Obama to enrich himself with foreign business deals in Ukraine and China.

The 54-year-old has also drawn scrutiny for his personal legal issues -- including federal gun and tax charges -- as well as problems with drug addiction.

The Republicans' case against the president took another hit on Tuesday when court filings revealed that a key FBI informant -- who was arrested last week on charges of lying to federal investigators -- said he received false information about Hunter Biden from Russian intelligence associates.

Alexander Smirnov, 43, a dual US and Israeli national, was arrested last week and indicted for fabricating claims that Hunter Biden demanded multimillion-dollar bribes from Ukrainian firm Burisma -- on whose board he was serving at the time -- to protect it from an investigation when Biden was vice president.

Republicans in the House of Representatives are facing the prospect that they might not be able to muster their slim majority for an eventual impeachment vote.

Regardless, the subsequent trial would take place in the Democratic-led Senate, where it stands almost no chance of leading to a conviction.

Democrats have accused the Republicans of trying to whip up the impeachment process as a political play ahead of the November presidential election.

February 21, 2024 11:03 PM
Hezbollah hits back after Israel strike kills woman, girl in Lebanon

 

An Israeli air strike on south Lebanon killed a woman and a girl on Wednesday, prompting Lebanon's powerful Hezbollah movement to retaliate with rocket fire.

The Iran-backed Hezbollah movement and its arch-foe Israel have been exchanging near-daily fire across the border since the Israel-Hamas war broke out on October 7.

Lebanon's state-run National News Agency said that Khadija Salman was killed and her daughter seriously wounded in the "enemy" strike on the southern village of Majdal Zun.

Requesting anonymity, a hospital source confirmed the woman had died and her daughter remained in serious condition, adding that a young girl was also killed.

Rescue workers said several other people were wounded and rushed to hospital.

In the evening, Hezbollah said it fired several rockets at the Matzuva kibbutz across the border in Israel "in response to Israeli attacks on villages and civilian homes" including Majdal Zun.

The Shiite movement also claimed responsibility for 11 other operations against Israeli military positions on the border.

The cross-border exchanges since October have killed at least 271 people on the Lebanese side, most of them Hezbollah fighters but also including 42 civilians, according to an AFP tally.

On the Israeli side, 10 soldiers and six civilians have been killed, according to the Israeli army.

Last week, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah vowed that Israel would pay "with blood", after 10 civilians, including seven members of one family, were killed in Lebanon's largest single-day death toll so far. Five Hezbollah fighters were also killed.

February 21, 2024 10:24 PM
Blinken told Lula US 'disagrees' with Brazil calling Gaza war genocide: US official

 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken told President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva that the United States disagrees with controversial remarks by the Brazilian leader comparing Israel's actions in Gaza to the Holocaust, a US official said Wednesday.

Blinken "made clear we disagree with those comments" in a more than 90-minute meeting with Lula, a senior State Department official told journalists, saying the pair had a "frank exchange" during the sit-down at the presidential palace in Brasilia.

February 21, 2024 09:42 PM
Lula, Blinken meet amid Israel row

 

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on Wednesday amid a diplomatic crisis between the South American nation and Israel over the war in Gaza.

Blinken said it had been a "very, very good meeting," in brief comments to journalists as he left the sit-down with veteran leftist Lula at the presidential palace in Brasilia.

"The United States and Brazil are doing so many important things together," Blinken said after the more than 90-minute meeting. "It is a very important partnership."

It had threatened to be a tense encounter, after Lula controversially compared US ally Israel's military offensive in the Gaza Strip to the Holocaust.

Speaking Sunday, Lula, 78, called Israel's campaign a "genocide" and compared it to "when Hitler decided to kill the Jews."

Israel reacted furiously, declaring Lula "persona non grata."

The row escalated Tuesday, as Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz called Lula's remarks "delusional" and Brazilian counterpart Mauro Vieira fired back that Katz was "lying."

The United States, which also on Tuesday vetoed a UN Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza for the third time, rejects accusations Israel is guilty of genocide.

The United States and Brazil are also split over Russia's war in Ukraine, and on relations with Venezuela.

No press conference was held after Lula and Blinken's meeting.

The pair were seated around a table chatting about the US presidential election when journalists were briefly allowed in the room.

Blinken remarked how "polarized" the United States is politically, with primary season under way for the November polls.

It is Blinken's first trip to Brazil since his nomination three years ago.

US relations with Latin America's biggest economy warmed when Lula returned to power in January 2023, replacing Donald Trump ally Jair Bolsonaro.

Lula visited Washington a month after taking office to meet with President Joe Biden.

But independent-minded Lula, a leading voice for the Global South, has pushed back against the US on issues including in Gaza and Ukraine.

Blinken is due later Wednesday at a G20 foreign ministers meeting in Rio de Janeiro, where his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, will also be present.

February 21, 2024 09:41 PM
Gaza humanitarian situation 'inhumane': WHO

 

The humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip is inhumane, the head of the World Health Organization said Wednesday, calling the Palestinian territory a "death zone".

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas and demanded unhindered access for international aid.

"The health and humanitarian situation in Gaza is inhumane and continues to deteriorate," Tedros told a media briefing.

"Gaza has become a death zone. Much of the territory has been destroyed," he added.

"What type of world do we live in when people cannot get food and water, or where people who cannot even walk are not able to receive care?

"What type of world do we live in when health workers are at risk of being bombed as they carry out their life-saving work?

"What type of world do we live in when hospitals must close because there is no more power or medicines to help save patients, and they are being targeted by military forces?"

The war started when the Hamas militant group that controls Gaza launched an unprecedented attack on October 7 that resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli figures.

Hamas also took about 250 hostages, many of whom were released during a week-long truce in late November.

Israel's retaliatory campaign in Gaza has killed at least 29,313 people, mostly women and children, according to the latest count by the territory's Hamas-run health ministry.

"We need a ceasefire now. We need hostages to be released. We need the bombs to stop dropping and we need unfettered humanitarian access. Humanity must prevail," Tedros said.

Heavy fighting again rocked Gaza on Wednesday as aid agencies warned of looming famine and new talks were held in Cairo aimed at obtaining an Israel-Hamas ceasefire and hostage release deal.

"Severe malnutrition has shot up dramatically since the war started, from under one percent to more than 15 percent in some areas, putting more lives at risk," Tedros said.

"This figure will rise the longer the war goes on and supplies are interrupted. We note with apprehension that the World Food Programme cannot get into northern Gaza with supplies."

February 21, 2024 08:44 PM
Baghdad to pay Iraqi Kurdistan public servants, court rules

 

Iraq's top court on Wednesday ordered the federal government to cover public sector salaries in the autonomous Kurdistan region, where some workers have gone for months without pay.

Civil servants have taken the regional and national authorities to court and demonstrated over unpaid salaries in Kurdistan, where officials have long accused Baghdad of not sending the necessary funds.

In a ruling aired on state television, the Supreme Court said the central administration would pay government workers, employees at public institutions, social benefit recipients and pensioners directly, instead of through the regional administration.

Court chief Jassem al-Omeiri said public entities "should coordinate directly with the federal government's finance ministry to implement" the change.

The case was brought by civil servants in Sulaimaniyah, the autonomous region's second city, where hundreds of teachers have also taken to the streets in recent weeks to demand compensation for unpaid salaries from last year.

In September, Baghdad had agreed to increase funds allocated to Iraqi Kurdistan, saying it would provide the northern region with three annual payments of 700 billion dinars (about $535 million).

Thanks to oil exports, the region previously had independent funding that partly covered salaries.

But a dispute involving the federal government and Turkey, through which the oil had been exported, has blocked that source of income for the regional administration since late March.

Iraqi Kurdistan and Baghdad later agreed in principle that sales of Kurdish oil would pass through the federal government. In exchange, 12.6 percent of Iraq's public spending will go to the autonomous region.

The court in its ruling also ordered the Kurdish administration to hand over "all its oil and non-oil revenues" to the federal government, and an audit of relevant accounts.

With oil revenues gone, Kurdistan's current main source of revenue is taxes collected at border crossings with neighbouring countries including Iran and Turkey, two of Iraq's main regional trade partners.

February 21, 2024 08:33 PM
Media investigation identifies 45,000 Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine

 

The BBC Russian Service and news outlet Mediazona have confirmed the identity of around 45,000 Russian soldiers who died in Ukraine since the invasion began in February 2022.

The issue of military casualties is extremely sensitive in both countries. Russia has banned criticism of the conflict and no official figures have been released since 2022.

"The BBC, together with Mediazona... and a team of volunteers managed to establish the names of 45,123 Russian militaries who died in the war in Ukraine since February 2022," the report said.

It only included the names of soldiers publicly identified in open-source data -- mainly obituaries -- and warned the real toll may be twice as high.

"Two-thirds of the dead we have identified had no links to the army prior to the invasion: volunteers, mobilised, prisoners and private company recruits," the BBC's Russian language service said.

After over a year of grinding trench warfare that failed to yield territorial gains for either Moscow or Kyiv, the Kremlin is ramping up deployments to the front.

President Vladimir Putin rarely acknowledges setbacks on the battlefield, framing the almost two-year war as a battle for Russia's survival in a bid to rally patriotism.

Ukraine also keeps its military losses and casualties secret, although analysts believe they number in the tens of thousands after two years of fighting.

February 21, 2024 07:14 PM
Poll finds most Israelis say 'absolute victory' not possible in Gaza

 

Despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's insistence the Gaza war will end with Israel achieving "absolute victory", a majority of Israelis do not think this is a likely outcome, a poll published Wednesday found.

Netanyahu has repeatedly stated that Israel will continue its offensive in the Gaza Strip until Hamas is ousted from ruling Gaza and rendered incapable of posing a military threat to Israel, and the hostages taken in the October 7 attack freed.

His insistence on the war continuing until these goals are achieved has come up against mounting international pressure for Israel to refrain from launching a ground operation in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where around 1.4 million Palestinians are now sheltering.

The Israel Democracy Institute think tank has meanwhile said only 38.3 percent of Israelis polled believed there was a "very high" or "fairly high" likelihood of an "absolute victory" at the end of the war.

Some 55.3 percent of respondents conversely said there was a "fairly low" or "very low likelihood" of such an outcome. Just over six percent of the 612 respondents were undecided, the poll found.

On Wednesday, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant told North American Jewish leaders visiting Israel: "Our goal is simple -- victory."

"Only victory against Hamas will allow us to achieve normalisation and regional integration," he said.

As the war drags into its fifth month and American, Qatari and Egyptian negotiators try to hammer out a truce deal, regional and Western governments are discussing possible plans for a post-war Gaza that could include an independent Palestinian state and Saudi Arabia normalising relations with Israel.

Asked whether they support Israel agreeing "in principle to the establishment of an independent and demilitarised Palestinian state", a majority of respondents -- 55.4 percent -- said they either somewhat or strongly opposed it, while 37.4 percent strongly or somewhat supported it.

February 21, 2024 06:26 PM
Detained Saudi activist 'cut off' from family contact: Amnesty

 

A Saudi women's rights activist detained over social media posts has been out of contact with the outside world since November, Amnesty International said Wednesday, accusing Saudi authorities of "enforced disappearance".

Manahel al-Otaibi was arrested in November 2022 for social media posts challenging the country's male guardianship laws and requirements for women to wear the customary body-shrouding abaya.

The 29-year-old has not yet been convicted or sentenced but public prosecutors accuse her of leading a "campaign to incite Saudi girls to denounce religious principles and rebel against the customs and traditions of Saudi society", according to court documents seen by AFP.

Since November 2023, "prison and other officials have cut off all of her contact with her family and the outside world", Amnesty said in a statement.

Saudi authorities have "refused to provide her family with information about her whereabouts and wellbeing despite their repeated enquiries", the rights group said.

Amnesty's campaigner for Saudi Arabia, Bissan Fakih, said Otaibi "should never have been arrested in the first place, let alone subjected to enforced disappearance".

Otaibi appeared in front of judges in January last year and was then referred to the Specialised Criminal Court which was established in 2008 to handle terrorism-related cases but has been widely used to try political dissidents and human rights activists.

"Shortly before we lost contact with her, Manahel told us that she had been beaten violently by a fellow prisoner," Otaibi's sister, Fawzia, told Amnesty.

"I am worried about my sister's fate facing such an unjust court," Fawzia was quoted as saying.

Saudi Arabia is often criticised for not tolerating dissent. In 2022, decades-long prison sentences were handed down to two women who tweeted and retweeted posts critical of the government.

February 21, 2024 06:22 PM
UK sanctions six officials at Russian prison where Navalny died

 

UK Foreign Minister David Cameron said Wednesday that London had imposed sanctions on six officials at the head of the Siberian penal colony where Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny died.

"Those responsible for Navalny's brutal treatment should be under no illusion -- we will hold them accountable," Cameron said.

The sanctioned individuals will be subject to freezes of any UK assets and travel bans.

They include Vadim Konstantinovich Kalinin, who oversaw the IK-3 Arctic Penal Colony "Polar Wolf", and five of his deputies.

The UK, which is the first nation to issue sanctions related to Navalny's death on Friday, also called for his body to be released to his family immediately.

"It's clear that the Russian authorities saw Navalny as a threat and they tried repeatedly to silence him," Cameron said.

Russian authorities "poisoned him with Novichok in 2020, they imprisoned him for peaceful political activities, and they sent him to an Arctic penal colony. No one should doubt the oppressive nature of the Russian system," he added.

"That's why we're today sanctioning the most senior prison officials responsible for his custody in the penal colony where he spent his final months."

February 21, 2024 06:15 PM
Two dead, two hurt, in Dutch bridge collapse: officials

 

At least two people died and two more were injured when a bridge under construction collapsed in the Netherlands on Wednesday, Dutch officials said.

"An industrial accident occurred while building a bridge. Unfortunately, this resulted in two fatalities. Two people are injured," the regional safety authority wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Earlier, the authority had said that part of the bridge, under construction in Lochem, in the east of the country, had collapsed.

They had initially given a toll of four injured, three of them seriously. It is not clear whether the two dead were part of that original toll.

A reporter at the scene, from local newspaper De Stentor, said workmen had been hoisting bridge arches when the accident occurred.

"Suddenly there was a huge bang," the reporter said.

"The entire arch started to swing. Then the whole thing fell down. We saw two construction workers fall down."

February 21, 2024 06:09 PM
US urges UN court not to order Israel out of Palestinian lands

 

The United States told the UN's top court on Wednesday that Israel should not be legally forced to withdraw from occupied Palestinian territory without security guarantees.

The International Court of Justice is holding a week of hearings after a request from the UN, with an unprecedented 52 countries giving their views on Israel's occupation.

Most speakers have demanded that Israel end its occupation, which came after a six-day Arab-Israeli war in 1967, but Washington came to its ally's defence at the court.

"The court should not find that Israel is legally obligated to immediately and unconditionally withdraw from occupied territory," said Richard Visek, legal advisor at the US State Department.

"Any movement towards Israel withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza requires consideration of Israel's very real security needs," he argued.

"We were all reminded of those security needs on October 7," he said, referring to the Hamas attacks that sparked the current conflict.

The UN has asked the ICJ to hand down an "advisory opinion" on the "legal consequences arising from the policies and practices of Israel in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem".

The court will probably deliver its opinion before the end of the year, but it is not binding on anyone.

 

- 'No peace' -

 

Israel is not taking part in the oral hearings, but submitted a written contribution in which it described the questions the court had been asked as "prejudicial" and "tendentious".

The October 7 attacks and the ongoing violence in the Gaza Strip "reinforce the United States' resolve to urgently achieve a final peace", said Visek.

Also speaking Wednesday, the representative from Egypt, which has played a key role in talks between Israel and the Palestinians, said the occupation was "a continued violation of international law".

"The consequences of Israel's prolonged occupation are clear and there can be no peace, no stability, no prosperity without upholding the rule of law," said foreign ministry legal advisor Jasmine Moussa.

The hearings kicked off Monday with three hours of testimony from Palestinian officials, who accused the Israeli occupiers of running a system of "colonialism and apartheid".

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Maliki urged the judges to call for an end to the occupation "immediately, totally and unconditionally".

South Africa's ambassador to the Netherlands told the court that Israel's policies were "more extreme" than the apartheid black South Africans suffered before 1994.

The case is separate from a high-profile case brought by Pretoria against Israel for alleged genocide during its current offensive in Gaza.

In that case, the ICJ ruled that Israel should do everything in its power to prevent genocidal acts in Gaza and allow in humanitarian aid.

February 21, 2024 06:01 PM
Three freedom fighters martyred by Israeli troops in West Bank

 

Israeli troops martyred three Palestinian freedom fighters during an overnight raid in the northern West Bank city of Jenin, the military said on Wednesday.

The Palestinian health ministry confirmed at least one death in the Israeli operation, the latest in a months-long military crackdown across the occupied West Bank since Hamas's October 7 attack on Israel.

"In a joint counterterrorism activity in the city of Jenin, IDF soldiers apprehended 14 suspects, martyred three freedom fighters and struck additional freedom fighters," the army said in a statement.

"During the activity, the soldiers located weapons and exposed explosive devices planted under routes in order to attack IDF soldiers."

It said soldiers came under fire during the operation and an Israeli aircraft struck freedom fighters.

The official Palestinian news agency Wafa said Israeli troops stormed the city during the night.

"An undercover Israeli force besieged two houses in the camp sparking violent confrontations during which three Palestinians were also injured," Wafa said, adding that troops also struck "a house with a missile" in the adjacent refugee camp.

Marwan Aref Ali, father of one of the men martyred in the raid, said his son had been arrested and wounded several times before.

Ali came to know about his son's death from an Israeli army officer.

"The officer switched on his mobile phone and said to me 'Is this a picture of Arif?' I said yes," Ali told AFP, tears welling in his eyes.

 

Woman, girl killed in Israel Lebanon strike: medical source

An Israeli air strike on south Lebanon killed a woman and wounded her daughter on Wednesday, state media said, while a hospital source told AFP a young girl had also died.

Lebanon's Iran-backed Hezbollah movement and its arch-foe Israel have been exchanging near-daily fire across the border since the Israel-Hamas war broke out on October 7.

Lebanon's state-run National News Agency said that Khadija Salman was killed and her daughter seriously wounded in the "enemy" strike on the southern village of Majdal Zun.

Requesting anonymity, a hospital source confirmed the woman had died and her daughter remained in serious condition, adding that a young girl was also killed.

The cross-border exchanges since October have killed at least 271 people on the Lebanese side, most of them Hezbollah fighters but also including 42 civilians, according to an AFP tally.

On the Israeli side, 10 soldiers and six civilians have been killed, according to the Israeli army.

Hezbollah said Wednesday it had carried out several attacks on Israeli troops and positions.

Last week, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah vowed that Israel would pay "with blood" for civilians it killed, after 10 civilians, including seven members of one family, were killed in Lebanon's largest single-day death toll so far. Five Hezbollah fighters were also killed.

February 21, 2024 12:51 PM
Iran says Israel behind gas pipeline sabotage

 

Iran said Wednesday that Israel was behind twin sabotage attacks against gas pipelines that disrupted supplies in at least three provinces last week.

The February 14 explosions hit pipelines in the cities of Safashahr in the southern province of Fars and Borujen in the southwestern province of Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari.

Officials said at the time it was an act of "sabotage and terrorism."

There were no reported casualties but state media said supplies were disrupted in the provinces of North Khorasan in the northeast, Lorestan in the west and Zanjan in the northwest.

"The explosion of the country's gas lines was the work of Israel," Oil Minister Javad Owji told reporters after a cabinet meeting.

"The plot was foiled," he added.

Since the Islamic revolution of 1979, Iran has made the Palestinian cause a centrepiece of its foreign policy.

The Islamic republic does not recognise Israel and the two countries have engaged in a shadow war for years.

Iran accuses Israel of having carried out a wave of sabotage attacks and assassinations targeting its nuclear programme.

The United States and Israel accuse Iran of supporting militant groups around the Middle East to carry out attacks on US and Israeli targets.

February 21, 2024 12:07 PM
US drone shot down off Yemen by Huthi missile

An American MQ-9 Reaper drone crashed off the coast of Yemen after apparently being struck by a missile fired by Iran-backed Huthi rebels, the Pentagon said Tuesday.

It is the second time an MQ-9 -- which can be used for both surveillance and strikes -- was lost near Yemen in recent months, with US officials confirming last year that another was downed by the Huthis.

The apparent shoot-down came the same day that the rebels targeted two US-owned merchant vessels as they continue their multi-month campaign of attacks on shipping in the area.

"On February 19, a US MQ-9 was downed or went down off the coast of Huthi-controlled areas in Yemen, in the Red Sea," Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh told journalists.

"Initial indications are that it was shot down by a Huthi surface-to-air missile," Singh said.

The Huthis -- who are opposed to government forces in Yemen and are also part of the "axis of resistance" of groups arrayed against Israel -- said they shot down an MQ-9 in November 2023, while the United States assessed that another was downed by the rebels in 2019.

Earlier on Tuesday, the military's Central Command said US and coalition aircraft and warships shot down 10 one-way attack drones in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden between 8:00 pm on Monday and 12:30 am the following day.

- US-owned ships targeted -

The French defense ministry said Tuesday that the country's navy had destroyed two drones over the Red Sea during the night, but it was not immediately clear if they were included in the CENTCOM figures.

The US military command also said an American destroyer shot down an anti-ship cruise missile that was "headed in its direction" early on Tuesday, while US forces destroyed a drone and a missile launcher in Yemen the day before.

On Monday, two anti-ship ballistic missiles caused minor damage to the M/V Sea Champion -- a US-owned, Greek-flagged grain ship -- while a drone hit the M/V Navis Fortuna, a US-owned, Marshall Islands-flagged bulk carrier, CENTCOM said.

The Huthis had said in a statement Monday that they had targeted "two American ships in the Gulf of Aden. The first was 'Sea Champion' and the other was 'Navis Fortuna.'"

The Huthis began attacking Red Sea shipping in November, saying they were hitting Israel-linked vessels in support of Palestinians in Gaza, which has been ravaged by the Israel-Hamas war.

US and UK forces responded with strikes against the Huthis, who have since declared American and British interests to be legitimate targets as well.

Anger over Israel's devastating campaign in Gaza -- which began after an unprecedented Hamas attack on Israel on October 7 -- has grown across the Middle East, stoking violence involving Iran-backed groups in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

February 21, 2024 10:17 AM
Brazil foreign minister says Israeli counterpart 'lying' in Gaza spat

Brazil's foreign minister on Tuesday accused his Israeli counterpart of lying as a diplomatic spat escalated over President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's comparison of Israel's military campaign in Gaza to the Holocaust.

Mauro Vieira, whose country is hosting a G20 foreign ministers meeting this week, said statements by Israel Katz were "unacceptable in their nature and lying in their content" as well as "outrageous."

Israel has reacted furiously after Lula said the conflict in the Gaza Strip "isn't a war, it's a genocide," and compared it to "when Hitler decided to kill the Jews."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Lula had "crossed a red line," and Katz declared the Brazilian leader "persona non grata in the state of Israel so long as he doesn't retract his remarks and apologize."

Katz summoned Brazil's ambassador Frederico Meyer for a meeting Monday at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center in Jerusalem.

In a tit-for-tat move, the Brazilian foreign ministry then summoned the Israeli ambassador to Brazil, Daniel Zonshinem, and recalled Meyer from Tel Aviv for consultations.

On Tuesday, Katz took to X to describe Lula's comparison as "delusional."

- 'Genocide' -

Veteran leftist Lula, 78, is a prominent voice for the Global South and his country holds the rotating presidency of the G20.

His comments came as Brazil prepared to host a G20 foreign ministers' meeting Wednesday and Thursday, with top diplomats including US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov gathering in Rio de Janeiro.

The war started on October 7, when Hamas launched an unprecedented attack that left about 1,160 people dead in southern Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official Israeli figures.

Hamas militants also took about 250 hostages -- 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 30 presumed dead, according to Israel.

Israel's retaliatory campaign has killed more than 29,195 people, mostly women and children, according to the latest count by the Hamas-run territory's health ministry.

Lula had described the Hamas attack as a "terrorist" act but has since grown vocally critical of Israel's response.

He received backing Tuesday from the presidents of Colombia and Bolivia, two fellow South American countries to have criticized Israel.

"In Gaza there is a genocide and thousands of children, women and elderly civilians are cowardly murdered. Lula has only spoken the truth and truth must be defended or barbarism will annihilate us," Colombia's Gustavo Petro said on X.

Bolivia's Luis Arce, on the same forum, expressed solidarity with Lula who he said was merely "telling the truth about the genocide that is committed against the brave Palestinian people."

He added: "History will not forgive those who are indifferent to this barbarity."

The United States has said it disagreed with Lula's comments. Blinken is to meet Lula on Wednesday.

Brazil, Colombia and Bolivia supported South Africa's complaint against Israel to the International Court of Justice in the Hague, alleging the Gaza assault amounted to a breach of the Genocide Convention.

February 21, 2024 10:15 AM US, European parts found in North Korean missile in Ukraine: report
US, European parts found in North Korean missile in Ukraine: report

The remains of a North Korean ballistic missile recovered in Ukraine contained components with the marks of companies headquartered in the United States and Europe, a weapons tracking organization said Tuesday.

The Conflict Armament Research (CAR) report indicates that North Korea is able to obtain Western components for its weapons despite heavy sanctions, and that those weapons are being used by Moscow in its war against Ukraine.

CAR investigators "determined that a ballistic missile produced by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) and recovered in Ukraine includes more than 290 non-domestic electronic components," CAR said.

Seventy-five percent of the parts were linked to companies incorporated in the United States, while 16 percent were tied to firms in Europe, it said.

"Half the components documented bore identifiable date codes, and more than 75 per cent of those codes indicated production between 2021 and 2023. Based on those production dates, CAR concludes that the missile recovered in Kharkiv could not have been assembled before March 2023," CAR said.

The White House said in early January that North Korea had provided Russia with ballistic missiles and missile launchers that were used in attacks on Ukraine.

CAR said the missile its investigators analyzed was recovered in Kharkiv on January 2, 2024.

February 21, 2024 09:40 AM
Trump compares own legal troubles with Navalny persecution

Donald Trump on Tuesday compared his own legal troubles with the persecution of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny, who died in prison last week.

The former US president and current frontrunner for the 2024 nomination again refused to criticize Russian leader Vladimir Putin over Navalny's unexplained death, despite being offered the chance during a town hall meeting in South Carolina.

Navalny died suddenly at age 47 in an Arctic prison, shocking Russia's exiled opposition as well as the West, where leaders, including US President Joe Biden, have blamed the Kremlin.

In the hour-long appearance broadcast on Fox News, Trump railed against the $355 million fine meted out to him in a New York fraud trial, saying "it's a form of Navalny."

"It is a form of communism or fascism," he added.

Despite prodding from host Laura Ingraham, Trump did not mention Putin when asked about Navalny, though he lamented "a very sad situation."

"He was a very brave guy because he went back. He could have stayed away, and frankly, probably would have been a lot better off staying away and talking from outside of the country."

But, Trump added: "It's happening in our country, too. We are turning into a communist country in many ways.

"I have eight or nine trials all because of the fact that... I'm in politics," he said

"If I were losing in the polls, they wouldn't even be talking about me and I wouldn't have had any legal fees," he alleged.

In addition to the civil fraud case in New York, Trump faces 91 criminal counts, including charges related to alleged electoral interference in the 2020 election, which he lost to Joe Biden.

He has seized on his legal woes as a way to fire up supporters, claiming court cases are "just a way of hurting me in the election."

Trump has long soft-pedaled on Russia, at times expressing open admiration for Putin, whom he has called a "genius."

Earlier this month he effectively killed a bipartisan bill that would have sent billions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine after telling congressional Republicans to vote the legislation down.

He also recently stunned Western allies after saying he would "encourage" Russia to attack members of the NATO military alliance who had not met their financial obligations.

February 20, 2024 11:29 PM
Israeli offensive would turn Rafah into a 'graveyard': MSF US

 

An Israeli ground offensive in Rafah would turn the southern Gaza city into a "graveyard" and heighten the looming risk of famine, leaders of global humanitarian groups warned on Tuesday.

"The consequences of a full scale assault on Rafah are truly unimaginable," Avril Benoit, executive director of Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres) in the United States, told reporters.

"Carrying out a military offensive there would turn it into a graveyard," Benoit said at a press briefing by MSF, Refugees International, Oxfam, Amnesty International and other groups.

Benoit said Rafah, where 1.4 million Palestinians live in crowded shelters and tent camps, is the "end of the line."

"It's the last hub of healthcare services and humanitarian assistance for the people in Gaza," she said. "Attacking Rafah effectively means cutting off the lifelines of people who have already lost everything except their lives."

Jeremy Konyndyk, president of Refugees International, said Israeli strikes have made it "virtually impossible" for humanitarian groups to safely operate inside Gaza and there was a growing risk of famine.

"People, mostly at this point in the north, are already right on the brink of famine," Konyndyk said.

"The risk here, if there is not a meaningful humanitarian operation allowed to operate in an unfettered way at scale throughout Gaza, is famine," he said.

"And that famine will occur not because of any natural phenomenon but simply because of the manner in which this war is being conducted and the persistent and intentional denials of humanitarian access principally by the Israeli government."

Konyndyk also said it was a "mirage" to believe that the population of Rafah can be safely evacuated, because there is nowhere else safe for them to go.

MSF's Benoit urged the United States and other nations to call for a ceasefire.

"A ceasefire is the only way to prevent more deaths and suffering in Gaza," she said. "Our teams on the ground continue to witness patients unable to access the medical care they need due to repeated and persistent attacks on healthcare facilities and their surroundings.

"One of our doctors in Rafah recently told us that she's writing the names of her children on their arms and legs so that they can be identified easily if killed in a bombing," she said.

Israel launched an assault on Gaza after an attack by Hamas on October 7 which left about 1,160 people dead in southern Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official Israeli figures.

Israel's retaliatory campaign has killed more than 29,000 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the latest count by the Hamas-run territory's health ministry.

February 20, 2024 11:27 PM
South Africa sets general election for May 29

 

South Africa will go to the polls on May 29 to choose a parliament, which will in turn pick a president, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced Tuesday.

The vote may prove historic, with opinion polls showing Ramaphosa's ANC party on less than 50 percent in nationwide elections for the first time in South Africa's three decades of democracy.

If the African National Congress (ANC), which has led South Africa since its first free elections in 1994 after the end of apartheid rule, does not win a majority it will need coalition allies to form a government.

Complaints have been mounting about South Africa's soaring violent crime rate, lacklustre economy, power cuts and unemployment -- and Ramaphosa faces challenges from right and left.

But the ANC party remains a formidable machine, with supporters at all levels of government, and many South Africans retain proud memories of its lead role in the anti-apartheid struggle.

Ramaphosa is due to launch his party's manifesto on Saturday at a large rally at a soccer stadium in Durban in the key electoral battleground of KwaZulu-Natal.

"Beyond the fulfilment of our constitutional obligation, these upcoming elections are also a celebration of our democratic journey and a determination of the future that we all desire," he said.

"I call on all South Africans to exercise their democratic right to vote and for those who will be campaigning to do so peacefully, within the full observance of the law."

The announcement of the date has been long-anticipated, and many of the ANC's rival parties have already launched their manifestos for change, sensing a moment of weakness.

From the right, the liberal Democratic Alliance (DA) is trying to weld together a group of smaller parties to whittle down the ANC majority and shake off its image as representing the white minority.

On the left, the ANC will have to contend with both Julius Malema's radical EFF and a new group led by former president Jacob Zuma, tainted by corruption charges but still popular in KwaZulu-Natal.

February 20, 2024 11:25 PM
Hamas says US Gaza veto 'green light' to Israel for 'more massacres'

 

Hamas condemned a US decision to veto a UN Security Council push for a Gaza ceasefire, saying it amounted to giving Israel the "green light" to carry out "more massacres".

"This veto serves the agenda of the Israeli occupation, obstructs international efforts to stop the aggression, and increases the suffering of our people," Hamas said in a statement. "The American position is a green light for the occupation to commit more massacres."

February 20, 2024 11:22 PM
US envoy to raise Hamas hostage deal, Rafah on Mideast trip

 

A US envoy will seek to advance a hostage deal and press for assurances from Israel on a Rafah offensive in a trip this week, the White House said Tuesday.

Brett McGurk, the White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, will hold talks Wednesday in Egypt and Thursday in Israel, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.

The trip comes after Qatar and Egypt mediated a proposal to free hostages seized during the October 7 attack by Hamas on Israel in return for a pause in Israel's military campaign in the Gaza Strip, ruled by the Palestinian militant group.

McGurk will hold talks "to see if we can't get this hostage deal in place," Kirby told reporters.

Israel has rebuffed repeated calls to spare Rafah, Gaza's southernmost city where some 1.4 million Palestinians are sheltering, many in makeshift tents.

McGurk will reiterate President Joe Biden's concern about an operation in Rafah without protections for civilians, Kirby said.

"Under the current circumstances, without properly accounting for the safety and security of those refugees, we continue to believe that an operation in Rafah would be a disaster," Kirby said.

Kirby cited McGurk's travel as he defended the latest US veto of a UN Security Council resolution that would have called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza -- a stance rejected by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"I think most of the people around the world would love to see those hostages home with their families. And if we just voted, went along, with this resolution, the chances of doing that would be greatly reduced," Kirby said.

The war started when Hamas launched its unprecedented attack on October 7 that resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli figures.

Hamas militants also took about 250 hostages -- 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 30 presumed dead, according to Israel.

Israel's retaliatory campaign has killed more than 29,195 people, mostly women and children, according to the latest count by the Hamas-run territory's health ministry.

February 20, 2024 10:28 PM
Tensions over Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa compound as Ramadan nears

 

As the Gaza war rages and the Muslim holy month of Ramadan nears, concern has grown over potential tensions at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque compound, a past flashpoint for violence.

The site in the Israeli-annexed Old City of Jerusalem is Islam's third-holiest and Judaism's most sacred, known to Jews as the Temple Mount.

Israel is yet to officially decide on restrictions for Muslim worshippers during Ramadan, expected to start around March 10, but proposals to limit numbers have already sparked angry backlash.

Last week, Israel's hard-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir argued that Palestinian residents of the occupied West Bank "should not be allowed" entry to Jerusalem to pray during Ramadan.

Usually, Muslims in their tens and even hundreds of thousands pray and break their fast at the compound, seized by Israel in 1967 and later annexed alongside the rest of east Jerusalem.

In 2000, a visit there by Israel's then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon sparked Palestinian riots which precipitated the bloody, years-long second intifada, or uprising.

Violent clashes also broke out during Ramadan last year and in 2022, after in May 2021 the storming of the mosque by Israeli police spiralled into a brief but deadly war in Gaza.

Here is a look at recent developments around Al-Aqsa as Israel is fighting in the bloodiest ever Gaza war, sparked by Hamas's October 7 attack.

 

- Why does Ramadan cause tension in Jerusalem? -

 

Violence during Ramadan has often revolved around Israel's policing of the compound, including restrictions on Palestinian access, as well as any moves that appear to challenge the historical status quo.

Under an agreement with Jordan, the custodian of the mosque, Jews can access the compound but not pray there, something which infuriates hard-right Israelis.

For the past three years, clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces have rocked the Al-Aqsa mosque compound during Ramadan, with the Israelis storming the mosque each time.

In 2021, clashes and the demolition of Palestinian homes in east Jerusalem set off Jewish-Arab violence across the country.

Following several days of clashes in Jerusalem, Hamas launched hundreds of rockets into Israel, triggering an 11-day war.

Last week, Ben Gvir, who leads a hard-right party advocating Jewish control of the compound, said Palestinian residents of the West Bank "should not be allowed" entry to Jerusalem to pray during Ramadan.

"We cannot take risks," he said, adding: "We cannot have women and children hostage in Gaza and allow celebrations for Hamas on the Temple Mount."

Israeli media have reported discussions of a cap on the number of worshippers, but no official decision has yet been announced.

 

- What reactions has Ben Gvir triggered? -

 

Yair Lapid, a former prime minister and centrist opposition leader who rejected an offer to join the war cabinet, accused Ben Gvir of being a political arsonist.

Ahmad Tibi, leader of one of the Israeli parliament's Arab-majority parties, called the minister's proposal a "blatant infringement on the freedom of worship".

Efraim Inbar, president of Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, said he expected Israel's security establishment to make its own decision.

"Ben Gvir wants to make some gains domestically," he told AFP, adding he expected the police, army and Shin Bet internal security agency would not enforce a "closure".

"Otherwise, we will also lose our point of being the only one in the region to guarantee the freedom of religion."

Meanwhile, the Israel Hayom newspaper said Ben Gvir was proposing a "cynical political gesture based on an extremely dangerous and volatile ideology" that would backfire.

Since the start of the Gaza war on October 7, the Israeli army has tried to keep Gaza separate from other Palestinian areas to avoid a flare-up in Jerusalem, the West Bank or Arab cities and towns inside Israel.

The Al-Aqsa mosque compound is a powerful symbol for religious and secular Palestinians alike, and defending it is something with the potential to stir up widespread unrest.

Closing the compound, said Israel Hayom, would be an "unnecessary provocation that would ultimately serve the interests of Hamas".

Hamas denounced Ben Gvir's remarks as "a violation of freedom of worship" and an "intensification" of what the militant group called "religious wars" waged against Palestinians.

The Islamist group called its surprise October 7 attack on Israel which sparked the war "Al-Aqsa Flood", and has said that the fighting is, in part, about defending the mosque.

 

- Will there be a Gaza truce before Ramadan? -

 

International mediators -- Qatar, Egypt and the United States -- have been trying to secure a ceasefire agreement before the start of Ramadan to halt the fighting for several weeks and win the release of at least some of the 130 hostages Israel says remain in Gaza.

Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the army would carry out a "powerful" operation in Rafah, Gaza's southernmost city and last major population centre spared by Israel's ground invasion, where more than half of the territory's population have taken shelter.

Israeli war cabinet member Benny Gantz warned this week that "if by Ramadan the hostages are not home, the fighting will continue everywhere to include the Rafah area".

Gantz was defence minister in 2014, when Israel launched its last ground incursion in Gaza, which also took place during Ramadan.

February 20, 2024 10:22 PM
Palestinian envoy to UN condemns 'reckless' US veto of ceasefire push

 

The Palestinian envoy to the United Nations Riyad Mansour called Washington's veto of a Security Council push for a ceasefire "absolutely reckless and dangerous" on Tuesday.

"The message given today to Israel with this veto is that it can continue to get away with murder," Mansour said in an emotional statement to the Security Council.

February 20, 2024 09:23 PM
US to announce new Russia sanctions after Navalny death

 

The United States will announce new sanctions on Russia on Friday over the death in prison of opposition leader Alexei Navlany, coinciding with the two-year anniversary of Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, the White House said.

"At President Biden's direction, we will be announcing a major sanctions package on Friday of this week to hold Russia accountable for what happened to Mr Navalny," National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters Tuesday.

EU summons Russian diplomat in Brussels over Navalny death

The European Union summoned the Russian charge d'affaires, Kirill Logvinov, in Brussels following the death in prison of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the EU diplomatic service said Tuesday.

The EU's managing director for Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia, Michael Siebert "called upon Russia to allow an independent and transparent international investigation into circumstances of Alexei Navalny’s sudden death " and "urged Russia to release his body to his family without further delay".

February 20, 2024 09:13 PM
Russia bans US-funded broadcaster RFE/RL as 'undesirable'

 

Russia on Tuesday banned the US-funded Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) as an "undesirable organisation" in a move which puts its staff and contributors at risk of prosecution.

The media's name was listed on the Ministry of Justice database. It is the latest to receive the label, used by the Kremlin as part of a crackdown that has intensified since the Ukraine offensive and saw one of RFE/RL's editors jailed.

February 20, 2024 06:53 PM
UN food agency suspends aid to north Gaza after gunfire, looting

 

The UN's food agency said Tuesday it has suspended aid deliveries to northern Gaza despite widespread hunger, after a convoy of trucks faced gunfire and looting.

The World Food Programme (WFP) resumed deliveries on Sunday after a three-week halt but its convoy "faced complete chaos and violence due to the collapse of civil order", it said.

Twenty weeks into Israel's war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, UN agencies have warned that food and safe water are very scarce and WFP said its teams had reported "unprecedented levels of desperation".

The Rome-based agency said it had planned to send trucks of food each day for seven days.

But on Sunday the convoy had to fend off "multiple attempts by people trying to climb aboard our trucks, then facing gunfire once we entered Gaza City", it said.

"On Monday, the second convoy's journey north faced complete chaos and violence due to the collapse of civil order.

"Several trucks were looted... and a truck driver was beaten. The remaining flour was spontaneously distributed off the trucks in Gaza City, amidst high tension and explosive anger," it added.

WFP said it was forced to pause the deliveries "until conditions are in place that allow for safe distributions".

It added that it was not a decision taken lightly because it "means the situation there will deteriorate further and more people risk dying of hunger".

Since the start of the war, Gaza has been plunged into a food crisis, with outside aid severely restricted.

The war started after Hamas's October 7 attack on southern Israel, which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

Israel's assault on Gaza has killed more than 29,000 people, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory's health ministry.

February 20, 2024 06:47 PM
Prince William concerned at 'terrible human cost' of Middle East conflict

 

Heir to the British throne Prince William on Tuesday released a rare statement on the Israel-Hamas conflict, underlining his concern at the "terrible human cost".

William made the comments ahead of visits in London this week to recognise the human suffering caused by the war and the global rise in antisemitism.

He is to meet humanitarian aid workers and separately join a synagogue discussion with young people from different communities about antisemitism.

The royal family does not usually comment on international conflicts.

William's father King Charles III is the head of state of the United Kingdom as well as 14 other Commonwealth countries, from Canada to Australia and Jamaica.

His functions are essentially ceremonial and he is not supposed to intervene in political debate.

"I, like so many others, want to see an end to the fighting as soon as possible," said William, also known as the Prince of Wales.

"There is a desperate need for increased humanitarian support to Gaza. It’s critical that aid gets in and the hostages are released," he added.

More than four months of relentless fighting in Gaza have flattened much of the coastal territory, pushed 2.2 million people to the brink of famine and displaced three-quarters of the population, according to UN estimates.

The war started when Hamas launched its unprecedented attack on October 7 that resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli figures.

Hamas militants also took about 250 hostages -- 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 30 presumed dead, according to Israel.

Israel's assault on Gaza has killed more than 29,000 people, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory's health ministry.

"Sometimes it is only when faced with the sheer scale of human suffering that the importance of permanent peace is brought home," William added.

"Even in the darkest hour, we must not succumb to the counsel of despair. I continue to cling to the hope that a brighter future can be found and I refuse to give up on that," he said.

February 20, 2024 06:38 PM
Israel pounds Gaza ahead of UN truce vote

 

Israel hit Gaza with air strikes on Tuesday as world powers grappled with how to broker a ceasefire ahead of a UN Security Council vote that was expected to be blocked by a US veto.

A total of 103 Palestinians were killed in the past 24 hours of Israeli strikes and ground combat in the besieged Hamas-ruled territory, its health ministry said.

The United Nations has sounded the alarm over the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza, warning that food shortages could lead to an "explosion" of preventable child deaths.

More than four months of relentless fighting have flattened much of the coastal territory, pushed 2.2 million people to the brink of famine and displaced three-quarters of the population, according to UN estimates.

"How many of us have to die... to stop these crimes?" said Ahmad Moghrabi, a Palestinian doctor in southern Gaza's main city, Khan Yunis. "Where is the humanity?"

Global powers trying to navigate a way out of the spiralling crisis have so far come up short, with a push later Tuesday for a UN ceasefire resolution facing an expected US veto.

After months of struggling for a united response, all EU members except Hungary called Monday for an "immediate humanitarian pause".

They also urged Israel not to invade Gaza's southernmost city of Rafah, where nearly 1.5 million Palestinians are sheltering, many in makeshift tents.

The city, the last untouched by Israeli ground troops, is also the main entry point for desperately needed relief supplies via neighbouring Egypt.

Israel's strikes on the city are hampering humanitarian operations, while the food supply is disrupted by regular border closures, says the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA.

The scarcity of food and safe water has triggered a steep rise in malnutrition, the UN children's fund warned Monday.

One in six children in northern Gaza are now acutely malnourished, UNICEF said, a situation poised to "compound the already unbearable level of child deaths".

 

- 'Dying of hunger or bombing' -

 

The war started when Hamas launched its unprecedented attack on October 7 that resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli figures.

Hamas militants also took about 250 hostages -- 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 30 presumed dead, according to Israel.

Israel's retaliatory campaign has killed at least 29,195 people, mostly women and children, according to the latest count by the territory's health ministry.

For weeks, Israel has concentrated its military operations in Khan Yunis, the hometown of Hamas's leader in the territory Yahya Sinwar, the alleged architect of the October 7 attack.

"Troops are continuing intensive operations in western Khan Yunis and killed dozens of terrorists over the past day," the army said on Tuesday, adding that it had also struck a Hamas arms depot in the city triggering secondary explosions.

The Hamas government said dozens of air strikes had hit the city accompanied by tank fire.

Witnesses said Gaza City's southern Zeitoun neighbourhood had also come under heavy bombardment.

"We don't know where to go -- every place is being bombed," said Zeitoun resident Abdullah Al-Qadi, 67.

Farther south in Al-Zawayda, Ayman Abu Shammali said his wife and daughter had been killed in an Israeli missile strike.

"People in the north are dying from hunger, while here we are dying from bombing," he said.

 

- Veto threats -

 

Israel has rebuffed repeated calls to spare Rafah, including from its closest ally the United States.

It has warned that, unless all Israeli hostages still held in Gaza are freed by the start of Ramadan on March 10 or 11, it will push on with its offensive during the Muslim holy month, including in the city.

"If by Ramadan the hostages are not home, the fighting will continue everywhere to include the Rafah area," said war cabinet member Benny Gantz.

Palestinian prime minister Mohammad Shtayyeh warned of "thousands" of dead if Israeli troops enter the city. "Israel must be prevented from this aggression," he said.

International mediators have been scrambling to avert the assault.

At the UN Security Council, two rival ceasefire proposals have been put forward.

The first, drafted by Algeria, demands an immediate humanitarian ceasefire and "unconditional release of all hostages".

It met swift opposition from the United States, which put forward an alternative draft.

That text, seen by AFP on Monday, emphasises "support for a temporary ceasefire in Gaza as soon as practicable". It also expresses concern for Rafah.

According to a diplomatic source, the draft stands little chance of being adopted in its current form and risks a Russian veto.

Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh meanwhile arrived in Cairo for talks with Egyptian officials, the militant group said, days after mediators said prospects for a new truce with Israel had dimmed.

The delegation will discuss "efforts to stop the aggression, provide relief to citizens and achieve the goals of our Palestinian people," a statement said.

Despite a flurry of meetings with both Israeli and Hamas negotiators last week, Egyptian, Qatari and US mediators made no headway on halting the fighting.

The lack of progress in securing the release of more Israeli hostages has fuelled protests in Israel against the government's handling of the war.

"We desperately call on all decision makers in Israel and worldwide to be involved in negotiations and bring them home immediately," said Ofri Bibas, whose sister-in law Shiri is still held in Gaza with her two young children.

February 20, 2024 03:29 PM
UN Security Council vote on Gaza faces threat of US veto

The UN Security Council will vote on a new draft resolution Tuesday calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, despite threat of a third US veto on such a text.

The document, prepared by Algeria, "demands an immediate humanitarian ceasefire that must be respected by all parties."

The vote comes as Israel prepares to move into the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah, where some 1.4 million people have fled, as part of its mission to destroy Hamas.

However it is facing increased pressure to hold off, including from its closest ally the United States.

The draft resolution opposes the "forced displacement of the Palestinian civilian population."

It additionally demands the release of all Hamas hostages.

Similarly to other previous drafts spurned by the United States and Israel, the new text does not condemn Hamas's October 7 assault.

That attack left about 1,160 people dead in southern Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official Israeli figures.

Israel's retaliatory campaign has killed more than 29,000 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the latest count by the Hamas-run territory's health ministry.

The United States warned over the weekend that Algeria's text was not acceptable, threatening to veto it.

"We don't believe that this Council product will help the situation on the ground," US deputy ambassador to the UN Robert Wood said Monday.

"If this resolution does come to a vote, it will not go forward."

According to Wood, the passage of such a ceasefire resolution would endanger ongoing delicate diplomatic negotiations which could see the release of hostages from Gaza.

The United States instead began circulating an alternate draft, seen by AFP Monday.

While that text does include the word "ceasefire" -- which the United States has previously avoided, vetoing two drafts in October and December which used the term -- it does not call for the end of hostilities to happen immediately.

- 'Moral obligation' -

Echoing recent comments by President Joe Biden, the US draft supports a "temporary ceasefire in Gaza as soon as practicable, based on the formula of all hostages being released."

It also mentions concern for Rafah, stating that "a major ground offensive should not proceed under current circumstances."

There is no "deadline" for a vote on the American draft, a senior US official said Monday, adding there would be no "rush."

But even if there is no hurry, the US text "as it is... cannot pass," one diplomatic source said, citing several issues around the phrasing of "ceasefire" and the risk that any text introduced to the 15-member body by the United States might face a veto from Russia.

In any case, the mere fact the United States has introduced a counter-resolution is likely to "make Israel nervous," Richard Gowan, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, told AFP.

"The US is finally using the Security Council as a platform to signal the limits of its patience with the Israeli campaign," Gowan said.

Despite the specter of a US veto, Palestinian Ambassador to the UN Riyad Mansour had insisted on a vote days ago, saying that the Arab Group had been "more than generous to give our colleagues additional time."

According to Gowan, "We are now grinding towards a US veto that nobody really wants, but nobody can avoid," noting that the vote will fall within a few days of the second anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

"I am sure that Russia will use the opportunity (of a US veto) to accuse the US of having double standards when it comes to dealing with civilian suffering in Ukraine and the Middle East," Gowan said.

Russian UN Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya said it is "sad that we cannot come (up) with a ceasefire... and that only one delegation is preventing that."

Chinese representative Jun Zhang said the Security Council has a "moral obligation" to take action "to stop the killings," pointing out that the United States may veto such a move but meanwhile they are "always calling for protection of human rights."

February 20, 2024 03:19 PM
Assange in last ditch legal bid against extradition to US

Supporters of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange rallied Tuesday outside the London court hearing his final appeal against extradition to the United States to face trial over publishing secret military and diplomatic files.

Arriving ahead of the two-day case, Assange's wife Stella thanked a crowd of protesters, saying: "Please keep on showing up, be there for Julian and for us, until Julian is free."

The crowd outside London's High Court chanted "Free Julian Assange".

Washington wants the 52-year-old Australian extradited after he was charged there multiple times between 2018 and 2020 over WikiLeaks' 2010 publication of files relating to the US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We have two big days ahead, We don’t know what to expect, but you’re here because the world is watching," Stella Assange added.

"They just cannot get away with this. Julian needs his freedom and we all need the truth," she said.

The long-running legal saga in Britain's courts is now nearing a conclusion, after Assange lost successive rulings in recent years.

If this week's bid to appeal -- set to begin at 10:30 am (1030 GMT) Tuesday -- is successful, he will have another chance to argue his case in a London court, with a date set for a full hearing.

If he loses, Assange will have exhausted all UK appeals and will enter the extradition process, although his team have indicated they will appeal to European courts.

Stella Assange has said he will ask the European Court of Human Rights to temporarily halt the extradition if needed, warning he would die if sent to the United States.

"Tomorrow and the day after will determine whether he lives or dies essentially, and he's physically and mentally obviously in a very difficult place," she told BBC radio on Monday.

US President Joe Biden has faced sustained pressure, both domestically and internationally, to drop the 18-count indictment Assange faces in federal court in Virginia, which was filed under his predecessor Donald Trump.

Major media organisations, press freedom advocates and the Australian parliament are among those decrying the prosecution under the 1917 Espionage Act, which has never been used before over publishing classified information.

- 'Enough is enough' -

But Washington has maintained the case, which alleges Assange and others at WikiLeaks recruited and agreed with hackers to conduct "one of the largest compromises of classified information" in US history.

Detained in the high-security Belmarsh Prison in southeast London since April 2019, Assange was arrested after spending seven years holed up in Ecuador's London embassy.

He fled there to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he faced accusations of sexual assault which were later dropped.

The High Court had blocked his extradition, but then reversed the decision on appeal in 2021 after the United States vowed to not imprison him in its most extreme prison, "ADX Florence".

It also pledged not to subject him to the harsh regime known as "Special Administrative Measures".

In March 2022, the UK's Supreme Court refused permission to appeal, arguing Assange failed to "raise an arguable point of law".

Months later, ex-interior minister Priti Patel formally signed off on his extradition, but Assange is now seeking permission to review that decision and the 2021 appeal ruling.

If convicted in the United States, he faces a maximum sentence of 175 years in jail.

Kristinn Hrafnsson, WikiLeaks' editor-in-chief, told reporters last week that caveats included within the US promises meant they were "not worth the paper they are written on".

On the same day, Australia's Prime Minister Anthony Albanese denounced the years-long legal pursuit of Assange, saying "enough is enough".

It followed the country's parliament passing a motion calling for an end to his prosecution.

Assange and his wife, a lawyer who he met when she worked on his case, have two children together.

February 20, 2024 10:39 AM
Australia to build biggest navy since World War II

Australia on Tuesday outlined a decade-long plan to double its fleet of major warships and boost defence spending by an additional US$7 billion, in the face of a quickening Asia-Pacific arms race.

Under the plan, Australia will get a navy of 26 major surface combatant ships, up from 11 today.

"It is the largest fleet that we will have since the end of the Second World War," said Defence Minister Richard Marles.

The announcement comes after a massive build-up of firepower by rivals China and Russia, and amid growing confrontation between nervous US-led allies and increasingly bellicose authoritarian governments.

Australia will get six Hunter class frigates, 11 general-purpose frigates, three air warfare destroyers and six state-of-the-art surface warships that do not need to be crewed.

At least some of the fleet will be armed with Tomahawk missiles capable of long-range strikes on targets deep inside enemy territory -- a major deterrent capability.

The plan would see Australia increase its defence spending to 2.4 percent of gross domestic product, above the two percent target set by its NATO allies.

Some of the ships will be built in Adelaide, ensuring more than 3,000 jobs, but others will be sourced from US designs and a still undecided design to come from Spain, Germany, South Korea or Japan.

- Change, or more of the same? -

In 2021, Australia announced plans to buy at least three US-designed nuclear-powered submarines, scrapping a years-long plan to develop non-nuclear subs from France that had already cost billions of dollars.

While the Virginia-class submarines will be nuclear-powered, they will not be armed with atomic weapons and are instead expected to carry long-range cruise missiles. They represent a step-shift for the country's open water capabilities.

Experts say that taken together, Australia is poised to develop significant naval capability.

But the country's major defence projects have long been beset by cost overruns, government U-turns, policy changes and project plans that make more sense for local job creation than defence.

Michael Shoebridge, a former senior security official and now independent analyst, said the government must overcome past errors and had "no more time to waste" as competition in the region heats up.

Shoebridge said there must be a trimmed-down procurement process, otherwise, it will be a "familiar path that leads to delays, construction troubles, cost blowouts -- and at the end, ships that get into service too late with systems that are overtaken by events and technological change".

Wooing specific electorates with the promise of "continuous naval shipbuilding" cannot be the priority, he said.

"This will just get in the way of the actual priority: reversing the collapse of our Navy's fleet."

February 20, 2024 10:36 AM
Navalny widow vows to take up the fight for Russia's 'freedom'

Yulia Navalnaya on Monday vowed to continue her husband Alexei Navalny's fight after his death in a Russian prison last week, for which she blamed the Kremlin.

She spoke as the Kremlin said it had no details about his death, while his mother Lyudmila was denied access to his body for a third day.

Navalnaya's address came shortly before she met EU foreign ministers in Brussels, where she had been invited after the death of her husband triggered Western outrage.

"I will continue the work of Alexei Navalny. I will continue to fight for the freedom of our country," Navalnaya said. "And I call on you to stand by me."

Navalnaya, an economist, stood by her husband as he galvanised mass protests in Russia, flying him out of the country when he was poisoned before defiantly returning to Moscow with him in 2021, knowing he would be jailed.

The announcement she will replace Navalny is a momentous and unpredictable turn for Russia's exiled and beleaguered opposition, left leaderless after Navalny's death.

Russia will hold a presidential election on March 15-17 in which Putin has no real challengers, with most the opposition exiled, behind bars or dead.

"Vladimir Putin killed my husband Alexei Navalny," Navalnaya said on his Youtube channel, adding he died "after three years of torment and torture."

"Putin took from me the most valuable thing that I had, the closest and most loved person. But Putin also took Navalny from you," the 47-year-old said.

- 'Outright lie and mockery' -

Russia's prison service said on Friday that Navalny had died "after a walk" in the IK-3 prison colony in the Arctic Yamal region.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to say how Putin -- who has not commented on the death -- reacted to his main opponent dying.

He also said the Kremlin had no results from an investigation into the death.

"At the moment, the results of the investigation have not been released, they are unknown," Peskov said.

He decried Western statements blaming the Kremlin for Navalny's end as "absolutely unacceptable."

Navalny's team however accused Russian authorities of trying to cover up "murder".

"Investigators told Alexei's mother and lawyers that they are not handing over the body and in the next 14 days they will conduct a chemical analysis, an investigation," Navalny spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh said in a YouTube broadcast.

"I'll say it again: Navalny's body is being hidden to hide the traces of the murder. This 14-day 'chemical analysis' is an outright lie and mockery," she said in a subsequent statement on social media site X, the former Twitter.

Navalny's allies said his mother Lyudmila was on Monday again denied access to a morgue in the Russian Far North for a third day in a row.

- 'One for all' -

Navalny had continued even from behind bars to call on Russians to fight the government, calling on them "not to be afraid."

Across Russia, mourners have laid flowers in memory of Navalny at monuments to victims of Soviet-era repression and hundreds of people have been detained.

In Moscow, AFP reporters saw a steady stream of people bring flowers to two monuments on Monday.

At one known as the "Wall of Grief", a woman stood and cried, with a heavy police presence nearby.

"One for all," read a note left by mourners, quoting a slogan Navalny often used at protests.

Another monument close to the headquarters of Russia's security service was visited by French ambassador to Moscow Pierre Levy.

Outside Russia, Russian emigres held vigils in European cities.

In Kazakhstan -- another country where many Russians fled -- Russian rock legend Yuri Shevchuk performed a song in honour of Navalny on Sunday.

"Alexei Navalny who spoke to us, Russians, about freedom and who reminded us all that we could be free in the best sense of the word," Shevchuk told a crowd, according to Russian independent media.

- Additional sanctions -

In Washington, US President Joe Biden said he was studying more sanctions against Moscow.

"We already have sanctions, but we are considering additional sanctions, yes," said Biden, who has already directly blamed Putin and his "thugs" for Navalny's death.

Several European countries including Spain and Germany have summoned Russian diplomats, and the EU called for an independent "international investigation" into the Kremlin foe's death.

Earlier, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell pledged to hold Putin to account for Navalny's death after meeting his widow.

The EU has already imposed heavy sanctions on Moscow, including on Putin, over the invasion of Ukraine. Officials concede it will be difficult to take significant further action.

The EU in a statement called for an independent "international investigation" into the Kremlin foe's death and threatened sanctions.

February 20, 2024 10:33 AM
Russia's Lavrov lashes out at US on Latin America visit

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov railed Monday at Western "blackmail, ultimatums, threats" against countries like his own and ally Cuba, where he kicked off a Latin American tour.

Lavrov, who will also visit Venezuela and Brazil -- hosting a G20 foreign ministers meeting -- told Cuban counterpart Bruno Rodriguez in Havana that both nations were victims of "illegal pressure" from the US and its allies.

"The realities of a multi-polar world... are provoking an aggressive reaction from the United States and other countries of the world minority which by all means want to preserve their domination, hegemony and diktat," he said.

"The means used by representatives of the United States and other Western countries for this purpose do not include diplomacy, but blackmail, ultimatums, threats, the use of brute military force and sanctions."

The US has maintained a trade embargo against Cuba since after the revolution led by Fidel Castro six decades ago, and instituted strict sanctions against Russia after its invasion of Ukraine.

"Cuba knows first-hand what illegal pressure is: a total embargo which the United States alone defends as a legitimate course of action," said Lavrov, on his ninth visit to Cuba -- the second in a year.

"It is unacceptable to all other members of the world community. But that does not stop Washington," he added.

Russia and Cuba have strengthened ties since 2022, with an increasingly isolated Moscow seeking new diplomatic and trading partners.

In November 2022, Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel traveled to Moscow to meet his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

And in April 2023, Diaz-Canel assured Moscow of "Cuba's unconditional support" in its "clash with the West." Cuba has never criticized Russia's assault on its neighbor.

Cuba, under US embargo since 1962, is facing its worst economic crisis in three decades, and has received Russian oil to help ease a crushing shortage of fuel.

Cuba and the USSR were close allies during the Cold War, but that cooperation ended abruptly in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet bloc.

As they work on repairing ties, the allies have signed cooperation agreements in the areas of construction, information technology, banking, sugar, transport and tourism.

According to Russian figures, commercial exchanges with Cuba reached $450 million in 2022, with 90 percent of that in sales of oil and soybean oil to Havana.

Last September, Cuba announced it had made arrests over the alleged trafficking of its citizens to fight for Russia in Ukraine.

No information on the investigation has been forthcoming ever since.

Lavrov will meet Diaz-Canel before traveling to Venezuela on Tuesday and then Brazil for the G20 summit.

February 20, 2024 08:46 AM
UN warns of 'explosion' in Gaza child deaths

An alarming lack of food, surging malnutrition and the rampant spread of disease could spark an explosion in child deaths in Gaza, the United Nations warned Monday.

Twenty weeks into Israel's war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, UN agencies warned that food and safe water had become "incredibly scarce" in the Palestinian territory, adding that virtually all young children had infectious illnesses.

"The Gaza Strip is poised to witness an explosion in preventable child deaths which would compound the already unbearable level of child deaths in Gaza," said Ted Chaiban, deputy head of humanitarian action at the UN children's agency UNICEF.

At least 90 percent of children under five in Gaza are affected by one or more infectious diseases, according to a joint assessment by the UN agencies for children, food and health.

https://twitter.com/CensoredNws/status/1759715150028800276

Seventy percent had had diarrhoea in the two weeks prior to the assessment, marking a 23-fold increase compared to the 2022 baseline.

"Hunger and disease are a deadly combination," World Health Organization emergencies director Mike Ryan said in a statement.

"Hungry, weakened and deeply traumatised children are more likely to get sick, and children who are sick, especially with diarrhoea, cannot absorb nutrients well," he said.

"It's dangerous, and tragic, and happening before our eyes."

Hamas's October 7 attack on southern Israel resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

https://twitter.com/CensoredNws/status/1759702202753401164

Israel's assault on Gaza has killed more than 29,000 people, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory's health ministry.

Since the start of the war, Gaza has been plunged into a nutrition crisis, with outside aid severely restricted.

The UN assessment indicated that more than 15 percent of children under the age of two in northern Gaza -- one in six -- were acutely malnourished, while three percent were suffering from life-threatening severe wasting.

"As the data were collected in January, the situation is likely to be even graver today," the UN agencies warned.

In southern Gaza, five percent of children under two were acutely malnourished, according to the assessment.

Before the war, only 0.8 percent of children under five in Gaza were considered acutely malnourished, the UN agencies pointed out.

"Such a decline in a population’s nutritional status in three months is unprecedented globally," they said.

https://twitter.com/CensoredNws/status/1759758077555806477

Israel says will fight during Ramadan

Deadly fighting raged on in Gaza on Monday after Israel warned that, unless Hamas frees all hostages, it will push on with its offensive during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, including in the far-southern Rafah area.

Global concern has mounted over the fate of 1.4 million Palestinians who fighting has forced into Rafah near the Egyptian border, where they endure bombardment and dire food shortages in crowded makeshift shelters and tents.

Over the last day, strikes and battles in Gaza killed more than 100 Palestinians, mostly women and children, pushing the death toll past 29,000, said the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory, with fighting heaviest in Khan Yunis, just north of Rafah.

War cabinet member Benny Gantz warned that the Israeli army is ready to push deeper into Rafah during Ramadan which, based on the lunar calendar, starts around March 10.

"If by Ramadan the hostages are not home, the fighting will continue everywhere to include the Rafah area," said Gantz Sunday.

He added: "Hamas has a choice. They can surrender, release the hostages, and the civilians of Gaza can celebrate the feast of Ramadan."

Gantz said Israel would allow the evacuation of civilians from Rafah -- but has not specified where Palestinians could go, with vast swathes of the territory flattened after more than four months of devastating war.

Egypt has argued that allowing Gazans to flee over the border would facilitate an effort to empty Gaza of its Palestinian population, an objective Israel denies.

https://twitter.com/Partisangirl/status/1759768273430946224

- 'My children are starving' -

The war started when Hamas launched its unprecedented attack of October 7 that left about 1,160 people dead in southern Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official Israeli figures.

Hamas militants also took about 250 hostages -- 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 30 presumed dead, according to Israel.

Israel's retaliatory campaign has killed at least 29,092 people, mostly women and children, according to the latest count by the territory's health ministry.

The spiralling humanitarian crisis has forced some Palestinians to grind animal feed into flour.

"My children are starving, they wake up crying from hunger," a northern Gaza woman told AFP. "Where do I get food for them?"

United Nations agencies warned Monday that food and safe water have become "incredibly scarce" in Gaza, finding that one in six children in northern Gaza under the age of two are acutely malnourished.

https://twitter.com/umyaznemo/status/1759776684050677986

The UN has previously cited "significant restrictions" on aid deliveries in the north.

At least 90 percent of children under five are affected by one or more infectious diseases, the UN agencies said.

Nearly every household was limiting meals and portions, and 95 percent of pregnant and breastfeeding women faced severe food poverty, accessing food with only low nutritional value.

The Gaza Strip is "poised to witness an explosion in preventable child deaths", the UN warned.

Weeks of truce talks involving US, Egyptian and Qatari mediators have failed to bring a deal to pause the fighting, and Israel has rejected Hamas's demands, which include a total withdrawal of its forces.

https://twitter.com/angeloinchina/status/1759744465424863247

- Besieged hospital -

Heavy fighting has raged in and around the besieged Nasser Hospital in Khan Yunis.

On Monday the WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that after two days of being denied, the UN agency had finally been allowed inside the hospital to assess patients.

Fourteen critical patients were moved to other hospitals, he said, warning there are still more than 180 patients and 15 medical staff inside the hospital, which is "experiencing an acute shortage of food, basic medical supplies and oxygen".

There is no tap water and no electricity except for a backup generator maintaining some lifesaving machines, Tedros added.

Israel's army said Saturday it had detained about 100 suspects at the hospital, and also that it found medicines there that had been sent for hostages but were never delivered to them.

The Gaza health ministry said seven patients, including a child, had died in the hospital since Friday due to power cuts, and "70 staff including intensive care doctors" had been arrested.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly insisted the army will continue until it achieves "total victory", despite facing domestic and international pressure.

After struggling for a united response, all EU member states except Hungary on Monday agreed on a statement calling for "an immediate humanitarian pause that would lead to a sustainable ceasefire".

https://twitter.com/aselmousa/status/1759735820905251226

- 'Genocide' claim -

In an escalating diplomatic row, the Brazilian foreign ministry said it had recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv for "consultations", after Israel summoned the Brazilian envoy and declared President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva "persona non grata" over his remarks on the war in Gaza.

The row started Sunday, when Lula said the conflict "isn't a war, it's a genocide" and compared it to "when Hitler decided to kill the Jews."

Netanyahu labelled the comments "shameful".

A group of UN rights experts also called Monday for an independent investigation into alleged Israeli abuses against Palestinian women and girls, including killings, rapes and sexual assault.

Israel said the claims were "despicable and unfounded".

In a sign of the war's economic impact, Israel's GDP slumped by 19.4 percent in the last three months of 2023 from the previous quarter, the central statistics office said Monday.

The central bank has estimated Israeli spending on the war will reach more than $50 billion.

The Israeli military also voiced fresh fears about three of the hostages -- a mother and her two boys, one of whom was just nine months old when he was kidnapped.

Army spokesman Daniel Hagari said they were "concerned for the welfare" of Shiri Bibas, who was seen on a street camera in Khan Yunis surrounded by seven armed men.

Hamas said in November that all three had been killed in an Israeli bombardment, but Israeli authorities have not confirmed the claim.

https://twitter.com/valbistan/status/1759752645495898180 

Israeli fears for kidnapped family

Israel's military on Monday published new images and voiced concern about a mother and her two boys -- including a baby who is the youngest hostage held by Palestinian militants in Gaza.

Hamas announced in November that all three had been killed in an Israeli bombardment but the Israeli authorities have not confirmed the claim.

Army spokesman Daniel Hagari said they were "concerned for the welfare" of Shiri Bibas, who was seen on a street camera in the southern Gaza city of Khan Yunis surrounded by seven armed men.

Kfir Bibas is the youngest Israeli hostage and was "stolen from his crib" in the community of Nir Oz when he was barely nine months old while his brother, Ariel, was just four, Hagari told a televised briefing.

If still alive, Kfir Bibas would have turned one year old on January 18.

In a statement on Monday, other members of the Bibas family described the images as "unbearable and inhumane" and called the kidnapping of children "a crime against humanity and a war crime".

"Ariel and Kfir are victims of monstrous evil. Our whole family has become hostages along with all the hostages," they added.

https://twitter.com/angeloinchina/status/1759744670949904422

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed that "these kidnappers of babies and mothers" will be brought to justice.

Militant allies of Hamas involved in the kidnapping said in response that the trio were kept safe and treated well, and were held for more than 20 days but were killed in an Israeli air strike.

Netanyahu and his government were responsible and were "deliberately" targeting hostages, they added in a statement in response to the army.

The boys' father, Yarden Bibas, who was also seized in the October 7 attacks by Hamas militants which triggered the war with Israel, has also appeared in a video.

Nir Oz in southern Israel was the scene of some of the bloodiest attacks on October 7, which led to the deaths of 1,160 people, most of them civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.

Israel vowed to "destroy" Hamas in response and has carried out a relentless bombardment and ground invasion that has killed more than 29,000 people, most of them women and children, according to the health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza.

More than 250 people were taken hostage, including more than 75 from Nir Oz. According to Israel, 130 hostages are still in Gaza but 30 are thought to be dead.

Images filmed by Hamas on October 7 of a terrified Shiri Bibas with her two children in her arms have become the defining images of the hostage crisis for Israelis.

https://twitter.com/Kahlissee/status/1759710426873368905

February 19, 2024 11:18 PM
Israeli army fears for kidnapped family with baby

 

Israel's military on Monday published new images and voiced concern about a mother and her two boys -- including a baby who is the youngest hostage seized by Hamas militants.

Hamas announced in November that all three had been killed in an Israeli bombardment but the Israeli authorities have not confirmed the claim.

Army spokesman Daniel Hagari said they were "concerned for the welfare" of Shiri Bibas, who was seen on a street camera in the southern Gaza city of Khan Yunis surrounded by seven armed men.

Kfir Bibas is the youngest Israeli hostage and was "stolen from his crib" in the community of Nir Oz when he was barely nine months old while his brother, Ariel, was just four, Hagari told a televised briefing.

If still alive, Kfir Bibas would have turned one year old on January 18.

In a statement on Monday, other members of the Bibas family described the images as "unbearable and inhumane" and called the kidnapping of children "a crime against humanity and a war crime".

"Ariel and Kfir are victims of monstrous evil. Our whole family has become hostages along with all the hostages," they added.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed that "these kidnappers of babies and mothers" will be brought to justice.

Hamas has previously broadcast a video of the boys' father, Yarden Bibas, who was also seized in the October 7 attacks by Hamas militants which triggered the war with Israel.

Nir Oz in southern Israel was the scene of some of the bloodiest attacks on October 7, which led to the deaths of 1,160 people, most of them civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.

Israel vowed to "destroy" Hamas in response and has carried out a relentless bombardment and ground invasion that has killed more than 29,000 people, most of them women and children, according to the health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza.

More than 250 people were taken hostage, including more than 75 from Nir Oz. According to Israel, 130 hostages are still in Gaza but 30 are thought to be dead.

Images filmed by Hamas on October 7 of a terrified Shiri Bibas with her two children in her arms have become the defining images of the hostage crisis for Israelis.

February 19, 2024 09:50 PM
Biden says 'considering' more Russia sanctions after Navalny death

 

US President Joe Biden is "considering additional sanctions" on Moscow after the death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in an Arctic prison, he said Monday.

"We already have sanctions, but we are considering additional sanctions, yes," said Biden, who has already directly blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin and his "thugs" for Navalny's death last week, speaking to journalists in Washington.

Biden and other Western allies have already used unprecedented sanctions as a way of throttling support for Moscow's war in Ukraine, while at the same time supplying Kyiv with both weapons and aid.

But Russia has withstood the initial shock and put its economy on a war footing, ramping up production and recruitment and jailing critics of the invasion.

Meanwhile doubts have been growing over Washington's future commitment to Ukraine. With existing US funding already dried up, former president Donald Trump's allies in the House of Representatives have been stalling $60 billion in new military aid.

Trump, the likely Republican nominee in the November presidential election, opposes helping Kyiv and recently used his sway to kill a US border reform bill that would have also authorized additional aid to Ukraine.

Ukraine's troops are outnumbered and exhausted, while Europe cannot ramp up weapons supplies fast enough without the United States, underscoring the urgency of getting more funding to Kyiv.

Biden slammed Republicans again Monday over the failure to pass the aid package.

"The way they're walking away from the threat of Russia, the way they're walking away from NATO, the way they're walking away from meeting our obligations, it's just shocking," he said.

But he said he would be happy to meet with Mike Johnson, Speaker of the Republican-led House of Representatives, who has told reporters he has no intention of even allowing a vote on the package.

"Sure, I'd be happy to meet with him, if he has anything to say," Biden said.

He added that he hoped that Navalny's death would make a difference when it came to passing the aid, but "I'm not sure."

Analysts have warned Putin may be biding his time, waiting -- and hoping -- for Trump to be reelected, which could reduce support for Kyiv.

Trump had stayed silent for days over the death of Navalny, in the face of growing criticism.

Then on Monday he posted on his Truth Social website that the "sudden death" of the opposition leader had made him "more and more aware of what is happening" -- in the United States.

"It is a slow, steady progression, with crooked, radical left politicians, prosecutors and judges leading us down a path to destruction," he wrote.

The post did not mention the Russian government or Putin.

 

Sweden summons Russia ambassador, calls for 'sanctions' after Navalny death

Sweden's Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom said he summoned Russia's ambassador on Monday to hand over a protest over the death of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Billstrom also called, in a statement, for the European Union to consider "a new sanctions regime targeting the internal repression in Russia."

 

Navalny team says investigators to hold his body for 'at least two weeks'

Russian investigators will keep Alexei Navalny's body for "at least two weeks" to examine the corpse, his spokesperson said Monday, describing it as a ploy by the authorities.

Russia reported Navalny's death on Friday and his mother has been denied access to the body, enraging supporters who have accused authorities of trying to cover up Navalny's "murder".

"Investigators told Alexei's mother and lawyers that they are not handing over the body and in the next 14 days they will conduct a chemical analysis, an investigation," Navalny spokesperson Kira Yarymsh said in a YouTube broadcast.

"For at least two weeks they will do some kind of inspection," she said.

"I'll say it again: Navalny's body is being hidden to hide the traces of the murder. This 14-day 'chemical analysis' is an outright lie and mockery," she said in a subsequent statement on social media site X, the former Twitter.

Navalny's mother, Lyudmila, flew to the Arctic prison colony where her son was being held on Saturday, but has been blocked from accessing the morgue where she was told his body was.

Earlier Monday, the Kremlin said an investigation into Navalny's death was ongoing and that there were "no results" as of yet.

President Vladimir Putin's spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said the Kremlin would not decide what happens to the body or when it is released.

Navalny's wife, Yulia Navalnaya, said on Monday: "Putin killed my husband."

The opposition leader's spokesperson said she expected authorities to hold Navalny's body beyond the 14-day period.

Yarymsh and Navalnaya drew comparisons with what happened in 2020, when Navalny fell seriously ill while on a flight to Moscow, and doctors tried to block him being evacuated to Europe for specialist treatment.

Navalnaya eventually secured his release, taking her husband on a medical plane to Germany where tests revealed he had been poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent.

February 19, 2024 09:48 PM
Israeli strikes hit near south Lebanon city of Sidon

 

At least two Israeli air strikes hit southern Lebanon on Monday near the coastal city of Sidon, state media and an AFP photographer said.

Hamas ally Hezbollah and its arch-foe Israel have been exchanging near-daily fire across the border since the Israel-Hamas war broke out on October 7.

"Israeli warplanes carried out... strikes on the town of Ghaziyeh," the state-run National News Agency (NNA) said Monday, adding that a vehicle was targeted and ambulances rushed to the scene, without providing further details.

While most the exchanges in recent months have been limited to areas near the frontier, Ghaziyeh is some 30 kilometres (around 20 miles) from the nearest Israeli frontier and less than five kilometres from the city of Sidon.

The AFP photographer reported the sound of at least two successive strikes in Ghaziyeh, with dark smoke billowing across the area.

One of the strikes appeared to have targeted a hangar close to the main coastal highway, the photographer added.

The NNA had earlier in the afternoon reported an "enemy drone" at low altitude over the Sidon area.

Video circulating on social media showed large plumes of smoke arising from at least two strikes.

The Israeli military last week said it killed a Hezbollah commander, his deputy and another fighter in a strike in the south Lebanon city of Nabatiyeh.

The strike on a residential building also killed seven members of the same family, according to a security source, while another strike elsewhere killed a woman, her child and stepchild.

On Friday, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah vowed that Israel would pay "with blood" for civilians it killed in Lebanon in recent days, warning the group had missiles that could reach anywhere in Israel.

He warned that his Iran-backed movement has "precision-guided missiles that can reach... Eilat", on Israel's Red Sea coast, well beyond the northern towns it usually targets.

The latest uptick in violence has caused international alarm, with fears growing of another full-blown war between Israel and Hezbollah like that of 2006.

Since October, cross-border exchanges have killed at least 269 people on the Lebanese side, most of them Hezbollah fighters but also including 40 civilians, according to an AFP tally.

On the Israeli side, 10 soldiers and six civilians have been killed, according to the Israeli army.

February 19, 2024 08:56 PM
Trump breaks silence on Navalny death, says US 'in decline'

 

Donald Trump on Monday ended his lengthy silence on the death of Alexei Navalny, in a statement that avoided criticism of the Kremlin and instead portrayed the Russian opposition leader's sudden passing as a sign of a collapsing United States.

Navalny died in unexplained circumstances at age 47 in an Arctic prison last week, shocking Russia's exiled opposition as well as the West, where leaders have blamed President Vladimir Putin and authorities in Moscow.

But former US president Trump, who is leading in Republican Party primary polls ahead of the United States' November elections, had been mum on the issue -- in the face of growing criticism -- until a Monday social media post which focused on what he called a "failing" America.

"The sudden death of Alexei Navalny has made me more and more aware of what is happening in our country," Trump said on his Truth Social website.

"It is a slow, steady progression, with crooked, radical left politicians, prosecutors and judges leading us down a path to destruction."

Trump decried "open borders, rigged elections and grossly unfair courtroom decisions" in the United States, which he called "a nation in decline."

The post did not mention the Russian government or Putin.

Trump's initial silence on the matter had the day before drawn criticism from his main challenger for the Republican nomination.

"The fact that he won't acknowledge anything with Navalny -- either he sides with (Russian President Vladimir) Putin and thinks it's cool that Putin killed one of his political opponents, or he just doesn't think it's that big of a deal," Nikki Haley said on ABC's "This Week."

"Either one of those is concerning. Either one of those is a problem," added Haley, who is trailing far behind Trump in the Republican primary.

Trump recently stunned Western allies after saying he would "encourage" Russia to attack members of the NATO military alliance who had not met their financial obligations.

Putin has long been admired by certain strains in the US hard-right, including by Trump, who has a history of praising the Kremlin leader, for example calling him a "genius" and more credible than US intelligence.

February 19, 2024 08:40 PM
At least 10 killed in Libya attack, UN demands investigation

 

At least 10 people were shot dead in Libya's capital, reports said as the UN mission in the war-scarred country on Monday called for a "prompt and thorough" investigation.

Some Libyan media reported that more than a dozen people died in the shootings on Saturday in a villa in Tripoli's Abu Salim district, without pointing to who was behind the killings.

The incident happened on the 13th anniversary of the popular revolt that ended Moamer Kadhafi's 42-year dictatorship, which sparked years of war and turmoil in the north African country.

The UN Support Mission in Libya said on social media platform X that it "condemns the violent incident in Abu Salim area, Tripoli on 17 February during which at least 10 people were reported killed," and that it continued to monitor the situation.

Abu Salim is under the control of strongman Abdel Ghani al-Kikli, head of the Stability Support Authority (SSA) created in January 2021.

The SSA said on Sunday on Facebook that two of its members were among those killed.

UNSMIL said the incident "highlights concerns repeatedly raised" by its head Abdoulaye Bathily "about the serious risks posed by rivalries between security actors that continue to threaten the fragile security in Tripoli".

It said it "urges relevant Libyan authorities to ensure an independent, prompt and thorough investigation into the incident and prevent any actions that could lead to escalation and further violence."

The director of security in Tripoli announced on Sunday the opening of a criminal investigation into the deaths.

Libya has been gripped by political chaos and insecurity since the fall of Kadhafi in 2011 in a revolution backed by NATO.

February 19, 2024 07:19 PM
Abraham Lincoln pardoned Biden's great-great-grandfather: report

 

Abraham Lincoln pardoned Joe Biden's great-great-grandfather after a late-night Civil War-era brawl, documents reportedly show, linking the two US presidents across the centuries.

The court martial records in the US National Archives, reported on by the Washington Post Monday, detail the trial of Moses J. Robinette after a fight with fellow Union Army civilian employee John J. Alexander on March 21, 1864.

Robinette was charged with attempted murder after the tussle in the Army of the Potomac's winter camp in Virginia, when Alexander overheard him saying something about him to a cook, and rushed at him.

The two men scuffled, and Robinette drew his pocketknife, leaving Alexander with several cuts before others intervened, according to the documents.

The 42-year-old, who had been hired by the army as a veterinary surgeon, insisted that Alexander "possibly might have injured me seriously had I not resorted to the means I did."

But military judges convicted him and sentenced him to two years' hard labor.

Three army officers petitioned Lincoln to overturn his conviction, claiming the sentence was unduly harsh and that Robinette had been defending himself against someone "much his superior in strength and size."

Lincoln agreed, and signed the pardon on September 1 that same year.

The story "has waited 160 years to be told," according to the Washington Post article, written by historian David J. Gerleman.

The "slender sheaf of 22 well-preserved pages of his trial transcript, unobtrusively squeezed among many hundreds of other routine court-martial cases in the National Archives, reveals the hidden link between the two men -- and between two presidents across the centuries," Gerleman wrote.

"Those few pages not only fill in an unknown piece of Biden family history, but also serve as a reminder of just how many Civil War stories have yet to be told."

February 19, 2024 07:01 PM
Israeli protesters block aid convoys bound for Gaza

 

Even as the threat of famine stalks the war-ravaged Gaza Strip, Israeli protesters have gathered repeatedly to stop desperately needed aid from getting into the Palestinian territory.

"You might say it's not acceptable to block food and water going in," said one protester, David Rudman, at the Nitzana border post between Israel and Egypt.

"But, given the situation we're in, it's acceptable," he argued as the Gaza war, siege and hostage crisis have continued into a fifth month.

The latest protest on Sunday came as Hamas threatened to suspend talks to free hostages unless more aid gets in.

Despite those threats, just over 100 people gathered at Nitzana, where the Egyptian Sinai meets Israel's Negev desert, with some saying they were hoping to pile pressure on in a bid to free the captives.

Rudman, 35, drove three hours from Jerusalem to prevent food, fuel and medicine from getting into Gaza, which Israel has been shelling since Hamas's October 7 attack.

Undeterred by concrete blocks across the road and armed soldiers on patrol, the protesters reached the terminal where aid from Egypt is checked before the trucks continue towards Gaza.

As a result, trucks waiting on the Egyptian side were unable to cross into Israel.

"Our aim is to get the hostages back," said Rudman.

"There hasn't been any progress for weeks, and you're going to see more and more people coming here," he predicted.

 

- Despair -

 

The war began with Hamas's attack that resulted in about 1,160 deaths in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official Israeli figures.

Israel's retaliatory campaign in Gaza has killed more than 29,000 people, mostly women and children, according to the territory's health ministry.

Some 300,000 people remain in northern Gaza, where increasingly desperate conditions have forced some to grind bird feed for flour.

A first truce at the end of November saw the release of 108 hostages out of the more than 250 kidnapped by Hamas on October 7. Israel says 130 captives are still in Gaza but 30 may be dead.

"One of my best friends is a hostage in Gaza," said Rudman, without naming the captive. "We hope he's still alive in Gaza but we don't know for sure.

"It makes no sense at all. On the one hand we give them water, medicine and food but on the other we don't even have a list" of who is being held and their condition.

Families of the hostages have taken to the streets every week to push the Israeli government to accept a deal for their release.

This weekend said they would block the terminal at Nitzana or one further north at Kerem Shalom.

But at Nitzana on Sunday only one member of the hostages' families turned up and refused to talk, out of fear of reprisals for those being held.

 

- 'Unhumanitarian' aid -

 

A survey for Israel's Channel 12 television at the end of January suggested 72 percent of Israelis believed Gaza should not receive any aid while hostages are still being held.

The UN says the protests at Nitzana and Kerem Shalom are blocking trucks from going into Gaza, hitting dwindling stocks.

The Palestinian Red Crescent Society on Sunday evening said 123 trucks made it into Gaza via Kerem Shalom, but none had passed through Nitzana because of the protest.

Nili Naouri, head of the far-right group "Israel is Forever", said that "it's completely immoral to force Israel to send humanitarian convoys of trucks to people that support Hamas, who are holding our people hostage, and are collaborating with the enemy".

On Sunday, members of the organisation turned up to block aid, calling it "unhumanitarian".

"Hamas aren't going to gladly free our hostages if we allow aid trucks in for the civilian population of Gaza," said Naouri.

Her solution is simple: "Let Gazans leave Gaza" if they want help from the international community.

Hamas, she charged, diverts aid for its own ends.

Some 1.4 million Palestinians have been sheltering in Rafah in the far south of Gaza, many having been displaced several times in a bid to find safety since the start of the war.

With neighbouring Egypt repeatedly rejecting the mass displacement of Palestinians, they have nowhere to go as Israel's planned ground offensive of Rafah looms.

But David Ickowicz, 39, a regular at the aid blockades, is convinced that his "civil disobedience" serves a purpose.

"Hamas's leaders live in the tunnels. But to live underground and breathe oxygen you need electricity produced by fuel," he reasoned.

"Cut off fuel supplies and we'll get them out of the tunnels."

February 19, 2024 06:57 PM
EU vows Putin will be 'held accountable' for Navalny's death

 

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell pledged after meeting the widow of Alexei Navalny Monday that Russian President Vladimir Putin will be held to account for the opposition leader's death.

"We expressed the EU's deepest condolences to Yulia Navalnaya. Vladimir Putin and his regime will be held accountable for the death of Alexei Navalny," Josep Borrell wrote on X.

February 19, 2024 05:18 PM
US-owned cargo ship reports 'missile attack' off Yemen: security firm

 

A US-owned cargo ship has reported a "missile attack" off Yemen and called for military assistance, maritime security firm Ambrey said on Monday.

"A Greece-flagged, US-owned bulk carrier called for military assistance stating a 'missile attack'," Ambrey said, adding that radio communications had stated that "the crew was unharmed".

February 19, 2024 05:15 PM
EU launches mission to protect Red Sea shipping

 

The European Union on Monday officially launched a mission to help protect international shipping in the Red Sea from attacks by Yemen's Huthis, EU chief Ursula von der Leyen said.

"Europe will ensure freedom of navigation in the Red Sea, working alongside our international partners," the European Commission president wrote on X.

The Huthis, who control much of war-torn Yemen, have been attacking the vital shipping lane since November in a campaign they say is in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza amid the Israel-Hamas war.

An EU official said Friday that the bloc aims to have the mission -- called Aspides, Greek for shield -- up and running in a "few weeks" with at least four vessels.

The overall commander will be Greek, while the lead officer in operational control at sea will be Italian, the EU official said.

Italian top diplomat Antonio Tajani confirmed the launch during a meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels, calling it "an important step towards common European defense."

So far France, Germany, Italy and Belgium have said they plan to contribute ships.

The EU says the mission's mandate -- set initially for one year -- is limited to protecting civilian shipping in the Red Sea and that no attacks will be carried out "on Yemeni soil".

The United States is already spearheading its own naval coalition in the area and has conducted strikes on the Huthis in Yemen along with Britain.

An EU official said that there would be "continuous military to military contact" to coordinate actions with the US and other forces in the region.

The EU's 27 countries managed to agree the Red Sea mission in a matter of weeks as concerns mount that the Huthi attacks could damage their economies and push up inflation.

February 19, 2024 05:12 PM
Israel says will fight during Ramadan unless Hamas frees hostages

 

Deadly fighting raged on in Gaza on Monday after Israel warned that, unless Hamas frees all hostages, it will push on with its offensive during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, including in the far-southern Rafah area.

Global concern has mounted over the fate of 1.4 million Palestinians who have been forced into Rafah near the Egyptian border, enduring bombardment and dire food shortages as they live in crowded makeshift shelters and tents.

Overnight strikes and battles in Gaza killed more than 100 Palestinians, mostly women and children, pushing the death toll past 29,000, said the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory, with fighting heaviest in Khan Yunis, just north of Rafah.

War cabinet member Benny Gantz warned on Sunday that the Israeli army is ready to push deeper into Rafah during Ramadan which, based on the lunar calendar, starts around March 10.

"The world must know, and Hamas leaders must know: if by Ramadan the hostages are not home, the fighting will continue everywhere to include the Rafah area," said Gantz, a former military chief of staff.

"We will do so in a coordinated manner, facilitating the evacuation of civilians in dialogue with American and Egyptian partners and to minimise the civilian casualties as much as possible."

He added: "Hamas has a choice. They can surrender, release the hostages, and the civilians of Gaza can celebrate the feast of Ramadan."

Israel has so far failed to specify where Palestinians could flee after more than four months of devastating war have flattened vast swathes of the Gaza Strip.

Egypt has stressed it does not want Gazans to flee into its Sinai territory, arguing that this would facilitate an effort to empty Gaza of its Palestinian population, an objective Israel denies.

Satellite images show that Egypt has started erecting a walled enclosure parallel to the Gaza border, in an apparent precautionary move in case of a mass refugee flight.

 

- 'Total victory' -

 

International pressure has grown on Israel to halt the war in the besieged coastal territory, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted the army will destroy Hamas and bring home the remaining captives.

Speaking on Sunday, the right-wing premier again vowed "total victory" over Hamas, even as he has faced increasing pressure inside Israel from resurgent anti-government protests and desperate relatives of hostages.

The war started when Hamas launched its unprecedented attack of October 7 that left about 1,160 people dead in southern Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official Israeli figures.

The militants of Hamas, considered a "terrorist" group by the United States, EU and other governments, also took about 250 hostages, 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 30 presumed dead, according to Israel.

Israel's massive retaliatory campaign has killed at least 29,092 people, mostly women and children, according to the latest count by the territory's health ministry.

The army released footage on Monday from inside war-torn Gaza of Israeli combat troops with canine units engaged in fierce house-to-house battles and tanks churning through the sand amid charred remains of bombed-out buildings.

The spiralling humanitarian crisis in Gaza has forced some Palestinians to grind animal feed into flour.

"My children are starving, they wake up crying from hunger," a northern Gaza woman told AFP. "Where do I get food for them?"

The UN agency for Palestinian refugees, which has been bitterly at odds with Israel, said nearly three quarters of Gazans are drinking contaminated water and warned that "the speed of deterioration in Gaza is unprecedented".

 

- Besieged hospital -

 

Weeks of truce talks involving US, Egyptian and Qatari mediators have failed to bring a deal to pause the fighting, and Israel has rejected Hamas's demands, which include a total withdrawal of its forces.

Heavy fighting has raged in and around Nasser Hospital in Khan Yunis, which has been besieged for more than a week and which the World Health Organization said is no longer operational.

Israel's army said Saturday it had detained about 100 suspects at the hospital and that it had found medicines there that had been sent for hostages but were never delivered to them.

The Gaza health ministry said seven patients, including a child, had died there since Friday due to power cuts, and "70 staff including intensive care doctors" had been arrested.

At least 20 of the 200 patients still there urgently require relocation to other facilities, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, adding that his organisation "was not permitted to enter" the site.

Israeli military spokesman Richard Hecht said diesel and oxygen supplies had been delivered to the hospital and a temporary generator was running.

Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said that in Khan Yunis's Nasser and Al-Amal hospitals, "troops have operated with great precision to apprehend terrorists, with no resulting civilian casualties".

 

- 'Genocide' claim -

 

With international pressure piling on Israel, the UN's top court opened a week of hearings from Monday examining the legal consequences of the country's 57-year occupation of Palestinian territories.

Palestinian foreign minister Riyad Al-Maliki told the court his people were suffering "colonialism and apartheid" under the Israelis.

The hearings, requested by the UN General Assembly, are separate from South Africa's high-profile case alleging Israel is committing genocide in its current Gaza offensive.

Western governments have increasingly pushed for unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state to be part of a wider peace process.

But Israel's government on Sunday adopted a declaration that said "Israel utterly rejects international diktats regarding a permanent settlement with the Palestinians".

It argued any settlement, "if it is to be reached, will come about solely through direct negotiations between the parties, without preconditions".

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on Sunday accused Israel of committing "genocide" and compared its actions to Adolf Hitler's campaign to exterminate Jews.

Netanyahu labelled the comments "shameful" as well as a "Holocaust trivialisation and an attempt to harm the Jewish people and the right of Israel to defend itself".

February 19, 2024 05:09 PM
Palestinians accuse Israel of 'apartheid' at UN top court

 

Palestinian foreign minister Riyad Al-Maliki told the UN's top court Monday his people were suffering "colonialism and apartheid" under the Israelis, urging judges to order an immediate and unconditional end to the occupation.

"The Palestinians have endured colonialism and apartheid... There are those who are enraged by these words. They should be enraged by the reality we are suffering," Al-Maliki told the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

The ICJ is holding hearings all week on the legal implications of Israel's occupation since 1967, with an unprecedented 52 countries, including the United States and Russia, expected to give evidence.

Speaking in the Peace Palace in The Hague, where the ICJ sits, the minister urged judges to declare the occupation illegal and order it to stop "immediately, totally and unconditionally."

"Justice delayed is justice denied and the Palestinian people have been denied justice for far too long," he said.

"It is time to put an end to the double standards that have kept our people captive for far too long."

 

- 'Impunity and inaction' -

 

In December 2022, the UN General Assembly asked the ICJ for a non-binding "advisory opinion" on the "legal consequences arising from the policies and practices of Israel in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem."

While any ICJ opinion would be non-binding, it comes amid mounting international legal pressure on Israel over the war in Gaza sparked by the brutal October 7 Hamas attacks.

The hearings are separate from a high-profile case brought by South Africa alleging that Israel is committing genocidal acts during the current Gaza offensive.

Al-Maliki charged however that "the Genocide underway in Gaza is a result of decades of impunity and inaction."

"Ending Israel's impunity is a moral, political and legal imperative," he said.

In January, the ICJ ruled in that case that Israel must do everything in its power to prevent genocide and allow humanitarian aid into Gaza, stopping short of ordering a ceasefire.

On Friday, it rejected South Africa's bid to impose additional measures on Israel, but reiterated the need to carry out the ruling in full.

 

- 'Prolonged occupation' -

 

The UN General Assembly asked the ICJ to consider two questions.

Firstly, the court should examine the legal consequences of what the UN called "the ongoing violation by Israel of the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination".

This relates to the "prolonged occupation, settlement and annexation of the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967" and "measures aimed at altering the demographic composition, character and status of the Holy City of Jerusalem".

In June 1967, Israel crushed some of its Arab neighbours in a six-day war, seizing the West Bank including east Jerusalem from Jordan, the Golan Heights from Syria, and the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula from Egypt.

Israel then began to settle the 70,000 square kilometres (27,000 square miles) of seized Arab territory. The UN later declared the occupation of Palestinian territory illegal. Cairo regained Sinai under its 1979 peace deal with Israel.

The ICJ has also been asked to look into the consequences of what it described as Israel's "adoption of related discriminatory legislation and measures."

Secondly, the ICJ should advise on how Israel's actions "affect the legal status of the occupation" and what are the consequences for the UN and other countries.

The court will rule "urgently" on the affair, probably by the end of the year.

Dozens of pro-Palestinian protesters demonstrated outside the court, waving flags and brandishing banners.

"I really hope justice will prevail," organiser Nadia Slimi told AFP.

"I really hope all the combined efforts to pressure Israel, to demand a more humane policy, will finally lead to some steps to liberate the Palestinian people," said the 27-year-old.

 

- 'Despicable' -

 

The ICJ rules in disputes between states and its judgements are binding although it has little means to enforce them.

However, in this case, the opinion it issues will be non-binding although most advisory opinions are in fact acted upon.

Israel is not participating in the hearings and reacted angrily to the 2022 UN request, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling it "despicable" and "disgraceful".

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that while advisory opinions are non-binding, "they can carry great moral and legal authority" and can eventually be inscribed in international law.

February 19, 2024 05:06 PM
Israel says Brazil's Lula is 'persona non grata' for Holocaust remarks

 

Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva is not welcome in Israel until he apologises for comparing its ongoing war against Hamas to the Holocaust, the country's foreign minister said Monday.

Lula's remarks on Sunday sparked outcry in Israel after the Brazilian leader said the ongoing conflict in the Gaza Strip "isn't a war, it's a genocide" and compared it to "when Hitler decided to kill the Jews".

Israel summoned Brazil's ambassador for a meeting with Foreign Minister Israel Katz at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial centre in Jerusalem.

"He's persona non grata in the state of Israel so long as he doesn't retract his remarks and apologise," Katz said of the Brazilian leader.

Nazi Germany systematically exterminated six million Jews during the Holocaust -- an estimated one-third of world Jewry.

After the war, the newfound state of Israel took in hundreds of thousands of survivors.

On Sunday, the head of Yad Vashem, Dani Dayan, said that Lula's remarks "exhibit clear anti-Semitism" and called his comparison of the war in Gaza to the Holocaust "unacceptable".

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Lula had "crossed a red line" with his comments.

Israel launched its war against Hamas on October 7, after the Palestinian militant group carried out a devastating attack on southern Israel that resulted in the deaths of at least 1,160 people, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.

Palestinian militants also took about 250 people hostage, 130 of whom are still in Gaza, including 30 who are presumed dead, according to Israeli figures.

Israel's retaliation against Hamas has killed over 29,000 Palestinians in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run health ministry in the territory.

February 19, 2024 04:03 PM
12 gunmen killed in clashes with military in Mexico

Mexican troops on patrol killed 12 gunmen in a clash in Tamaulipas, according to the government of the northeastern state, which has been rocked by violence linked to organized crime.

The shootout occurred when soldiers were patrolling Miguel Aleman municipality on the border with the United States, the office of Tamaulipas's spokesperson for security said on social media.

It said members of the Secretariat of National Defense (Sedena) "were attacked by armed civilians who were hiding in the bush" at around 2 pm (2000 GMT).

The clash left "12 assailants dead", and soldiers seized 12 guns and an array of ammunition, it added.

State government sources confirmed to AFP that the 12 attackers, alleged members of a drug cartel, were killed in the incident, during which the military also used drones and a helicopter.

Situated on the US border, Tamaulipas is one of the states hardest hit by violence linked to organised crime.

It is the site of constant clashes between gangs fighting over lucrative drug trafficking routes.

Four US citizens, two of whom later died, were snatched at gunpoint after crossing the border into Tamaulipas state in a minivan in March last year.

Mexico has registered more than 420,000 murders and 110,000 disappearances -- most attributed to criminal groups -- since the launch of a controversial military anti-drug offensive in 2006.

February 19, 2024 10:49 AM
Russian courts hand jail terms to dozens of Navalny mourners

 

Russian courts have sentenced dozens of people detained at events commemorating Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny to short prison sentences, official court announcements showed, with 154 sentenced in Saint Petersburg alone.

Details of rulings published by the city's court service on Saturday and Sunday showed 154 people had been given jail time of up to 14 days for violating Russia's strict anti-protest laws.

Rights groups and independent media outlets reported a handful of similar sentences in other cities across the country.

The 47-year-old Kremlin critic died on Friday at the Arctic prison colony where he was being held on charges widely seen as retribution for his campaigning against President Vladimir Putin.

Police over the weekend arrested hundreds of Russians in dozens of cities who came to lay flowers and light candles in his honour at memorials to victims of Stalin-era repressions.

Anti-Kremlin demonstrations or public shows of opposition to the regime are effectively illegal in Russia under strict military censorship rules and laws against unapproved rallies.

Police and men in plain clothes patrolled sites in dozens of Russian cities where people had gathered to commemorate Navalny over the weekend.

There were several reports of them removing the pop-up memorials overnight, and footage showed hooded men scooping up flowers into bin bags on a bridge next to the Kremlin where another leading Putin critic, Boris Nemtsov, was killed in 2015.

- Putin silent -

The news of Navalny's death, which came just a month before Putin is set to secure another six-year term in the Kremlin, triggered an outpouring of grief and anger among his supporters at home and abroad.

Russian authorities had still not given Navalny's mother or lawyers access to his body on Sunday, enraging his backers who had earlier called the Russian state "killers" trying to "cover their tracks."

Putin has not commented on the death of his most vocal critic and the Kremlin has not said anything since Friday evening when it criticised Western leaders for saying they held Putin responsible.

Tributes to Navalny, who narrowly survived a poisoning attack in 2020 only to fly back to Russia months later knowing he would be jailed, continued to pour in Sunday.

"Alexei Navalny wanted one very simple thing: for his beloved Russia to be just a normal country," Leonid Volkov, his chief of staff and one of his closest aides wrote on the X social media site.

"And for this Vladimir Putin killed him. Poisoned, imprisoned, tortured and killed him."

Navalny's widow to meet EU ministers

Alexei Navalny's widow will meet European foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday, EU officials announced.

The 47-year-old opposition leader died in an Arctic prison on Friday after spending more than three years behind bars, prompting outrage and condemnation from Western leaders and his supporters.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said he would welcome Yulia Navalnaya to the bloc's Foreign Affairs Council on Monday.

"EU Ministers will send a strong message of support to freedom fighters in Russia" and "honour" Navalny's memory, he added on X, formerly Twitter, on Sunday.

Navalny was Russia's most prominent opposition leader and garnered a huge following as he campaigned against corruption under President Vladimir Putin.

In the hours following the announcement that her husband had died, Navalnaya, who had not seen him in two years, said she held Putin personally responsible.

She called on the international community to "unite and defeat this evil, terrifying regime".

Italy's Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said Navalnaya's words "will make us feel the threat that weighs on Russian citizens and on every region of our Europe", where "violence, brutality, and war have been shamefully and irresponsibly returned".

- Lula urges caution -

While many Western European leaders have directly or indirectly blamed Putin for Navalny's death, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva cautioned against rushing to judgement.

Speaking to reporters in Addis Ababa, where he was attending an African Union summit, Lula said it was important to avoid "speculation" and await the results of an autopsy.

"If you judge now and say I-don't-know-who ordered the killing and it wasn't them, afterwards you have to apologise. Why the rush to accuse?"

Navalny could have been sick or had a health problem, said Lula, warning against "trivialising" accusations of murder.

Lula has faced criticism for being soft on Putin, his fellow leader in the BRICS group -- which stands for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa but was recently expanded to include several other emerging powers.

The Brazilian president has been critical of the US and European responses to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, saying Kyiv shares the blame for the conflict and refusing to join international sanctions on Moscow.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused Western leaders on Friday of "absolutely unacceptable" and "hysterical" reactions to Navalny's death.

In several cities around Europe, Navalny supporters continued to pay tribute to him Sunday.

In Germany, people laid flowers and candles at a memorial in front of the Russian embassy in Berlin.

In Romania, a similar tribute appeared outside the Russian embassy in Bucharest.

February 19, 2024 10:45 AM
Ukraine PM seeks reconstruction help in Japan

 

Ukraine's prime minister urged Japan's government and private sector on Monday to step up support for the country's reconstruction, promising an "economic miracle" once the almost two-year-old war with Russia ends.

"Since the full-scale invasion started Japan has provided Ukraine with over $10 billion of various support," making it the fourth-biggest donor, Denys Shmygal told a conference of around 300 government and business leaders from Japan and Ukraine.

"Thanks to this funding during this terrible war caused by Russia, millions of Ukrainian people have been able to survive," Shmygal said through an interpreter.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had also been due to address the gathering in Tokyo by video link but this was cancelled, organisers said without elaborating.

"The private sector is the main engine for reconstruction efforts in Ukraine... We would like to work together with Japan on the modernisation and reconstructing of Ukraine. We want you all to be part of the economic miracle for Ukraine," Shmygal said.

"Companies that invest in the Ukrainian economy now will be able to gain benefits and opportunities in the next few years that you would not believe. Ukraine's success is not just our success, it is your success as well."

Japan last year relaxed export controls on finished goods, allowing it to help fill gaps in defence equipment among Ukraine's main suppliers of weapons such as the United States.

Tokyo has also provided to Ukraine what it calls "non-lethal support" such as aircraft detecting systems and mobile power generators.

Last week the World Bank, European Union, United Nations in a joint report estimated Ukraine's reconstruction costs at $486 billion over the next decade, including $15 billion in 2024 alone.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Monday "reaffirmed Japan's commitment to supporting Ukraine and its people in defending its freedom and independence and restoring territorial integrity," according to a joint statement.

He also reiterated a commitment to provide "the necessary long-term assistance to ensure the stability of Ukraine's economy", the statement said.

The two sides signed a number of agreements including on infrastructure rebuilding, demining, agriculture, and governance enhancement.

Japan also agreed to relax visa rules for visiting Ukrainian businesspeople.

The conference comes after Russian forces recaptured the eastern Ukrainian stronghold of Avdiivka and as $60 billion in US military aid remains stalled in Congress.

February 19, 2024 10:40 AM
Wildcard candidates threaten to tip scales in US election

Americans haven't elected an independent president since George Washington, but a public turned off by two historically unpopular frontrunners appears more open than ever to the rich crop of wildcards who could tilt the election in 2024.

Voters have made clear in multiple polls that they don't want a rematch between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, and are willing to take a serious look at the growing number of politicians mulling independent or third-party campaigns.

None has much of a chance of winning the White House in November but several so-called "spoilers" could sway a close election in either direction, say analysts.

Democrats in particular fear a wildcard candidate harming their prospects, recalling how Green Party standard-bearer Jill Stein threw a spanner in the works for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Stein is running again alongside several hopefuls seeking to upend the two-party system, such as racial justice activist Cornel West and Robert F. Kennedy Jr, a candidate with a famous name who poses the biggest threat to the status quo.

Political consultant Douglas MacKinnon, a White House aide in the Reagan years, believes John F Kennedy's nephew is shaping 2024 into a genuine three-person race, and points doubters to the multitude of pundits who gave Republican Trump no hope in 2016.

"Kennedy's words and warnings are now resonating with young voters here in the US," MacKinnon wrote in an op-ed for politics newspaper The Hill.

"So much so that he now leads both Biden and Trump with that demographic."

- Biden hurt more than Trump -

In the absence of a genuinely competitive nomination processes for either of the major parties, this year's campaign is set to be one of the longest in history.

Biden and Trump are already drawing battle lines, even as recent polls by the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the University of Massachusetts Amherst showed more than half of voters were unhappy about a re-run of 2020.

Opinions still differ on which candidate is more threatened by the scion of America's most storied Democratic dynasty, who shares conspiratorial views on vaccines and an enmity for Ukraine aid that delights Trumpists.

Biden and Trump are virtually tied in the RealClearPolitics polling averages, but throw Kennedy into the mix and he takes 17 percent -- while Trump opens a lead of five percentage points.

Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia, cautioned that polls often overstate support for independents, who tend to start with lofty ambitions before flaming out.

But he added: "Polls that include all of the potential third-party candidates usually show Biden hurt a bit more by them than Trump."

Conservatives tend to agree.

"Kennedy poses a legitimate threat to Biden because he's focusing on issues that matter to millennial voters and Gen Z voters," said Charlie Kolean, a right-leaning political operative and chief strategist at RED PAC.

"We've seen focusing on issues like government transparency, fiscal responsibility and increasing economic opportunity win elections across the country."

- 'Incredibly arrogant' -

Kennedy, Stein and West are likely to be joined by a host of other hopefuls, potentially including anti-Trump conservative Liz Cheney.

Meanwhile self-styled centrist group No Labels is creating a "unity ticket" to unleash in the event that the two parties select "unreasonably divisive presidential nominees" -- a move criticized by Democrats as a boost to Trump.

The difficulty for candidates operating outside of the two-party system, says Kondik, is finding the money and resources to even get on the ballot, let alone win.

But a respectable tally for a wildcard candidate in just a few closely fought battlegrounds can swing an election.

Stein won just one percent of the vote in 2016 but her share in several swing states was bigger than Trump's victory margin over Clinton.

A Senate report found that Moscow pushed social media campaigns boosting Stein, leading Clinton to call her a "Russian asset."

"Voters do have a right to choose who to vote for," Stein told cable network NewsNation last month, angrily rejecting the charge that she tipped 2016 in Trump's favor.

"And to try to shove down the throats of voters two candidates -- two zombie candidates from two zombie parties -- that really have been serving the economic elites... I think it's incredibly arrogant."

February 19, 2024 08:38 AM
Israel sets Ramadan deadline for offensive on Gazan city of Rafah

Israel will launch its long-threatened offensive against Rafah next month if Hamas has not freed the remaining hostages held in Gaza by the start of Ramadan, Israeli war cabinet member Benny Gantz said.

"The world must know, and Hamas leaders must know —- if by Ramadan our hostages are not home, the fighting will continue everywhere, including the Rafah area," Gantz, a retired military chief of staff, told a conference of American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem Sunday.

Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, is expected to begin on March 10.

The Israeli government has not previously specified a deadline for its planned assault on the city where the majority of the 1.7 million displaced Palestinians have sought refuge.

Fearing the potential for mass casualties, foreign governments and aid organisations have repeatedly urged Israel to spare Rafah, the last major Gazan city not invaded by ground troops during the four-month-old war.

Despite the mounting international pressure, including a direct appeal from US President Joe Biden, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists the war cannot be completed without pressing into Rafah.

Speaking at the same Jerusalem conference on Sunday, Netanyahu renewed his vow "to finish the job to get total victory" over Hamas, with or without a hostage deal.

Gantz added that an offensive would be carried out in a coordinated manner and in conversation with Americans and Egyptians to facilitate an evacuation and "minimise the civilian casualties as much as possible".

But where civilians can safely relocate to on the besieged Gaza Strip remains unclear.

The comments come after weeks of ceasefire talks have failed to produce a deal, with key mediator Qatar acknowledging over the weekend that the prospects are dimming.

Washington, Israel's key ally and military backer, has been pushing for a six-week truce in exchange for the release of the 130 hostages still estimated by Israel to be held in Gaza, including around 30 presumed dead.

Israel has said it believes many of those hostages, as well as the Hamas leadership, are holed up in Rafah.

The militants took about 250 people hostage during the October 7 attacks that triggered the war and resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, according to an AFP tally of Israeli figures.

Israel's retaliatory campaign has killed at least 28,858 people, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory's health ministry.

Israeli forces martyr 3 Palestinians in West Bank

Two Palestinian men, including a member of an armed group, were killed Sunday in an Israeli raid, while a third was shot at a checkpoint, in the latest violence in the occupied West Bank.

The Palestinian health ministry said the two, aged 19 and 36, were pronounced dead from gunshot wounds after the raid in the Tulkarm refugee camp, which the United Nations says houses over 27,000 Palestinian refugees.

The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the armed wing of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas's Fatah party, identified the elder of the pair as a local commander.

His brother also called him "a member of the resistance".

The deaths came with international concern mounting about unrest in the West Bank since Hamas's October 7 attack on southern Israel sparked the Gaza war.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on Sunday described the situation as being at boiling point and warned that "we could be on the eve of a greater explosion".

At least five other people were wounded in the Israeli military operation, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent.

The Israeli military said its forces were there to apprehend "a senior wanted suspect" believed to have been involved in attacks on its forces and the "killing of individuals in Tulkarm suspected of cooperating with Israeli security forces".

The suspect was killed by Israeli troops in an exchange of fire, then "armed terrorists opened fire and hurled explosive devices at Israeli security forces, who responded with live fire", the army said in a statement.

"During the exchange of fire, an Israel Border Police officer was severely injured" and hospitalised, it added.

The military said later it had shot a suspect outside the city of Nablus who approached soldiers after getting out of a vehicle.

"Despite the soldiers calling out to the suspect and receiving no response, the suspect persisted in advancing towards them, prompting the soldiers to take action and neutralise him," a statement read.

Fatah said the man, a security officer, was "assassinated in cold blood" at the Beit Furik checkpoint outside Nablus, which is some 35 kilometres (22 miles) east of Tulkarm.

The Israeli military has stepped up its near daily raids across the West Bank in the aftermath of Hamas's October 7 attack.

It says the raids are aimed at dismantling Palestinian militant groups such as Hamas.

At least 399 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces or settlers in the West Bank since October 7, according to the Palestinian health ministry.

The Israeli military said on Friday that since the start of the Gaza war, its troops had arrested more than 3,100 Palestinians in the West Bank, including 1,350 Hamas members.

Israel captured the West Bank and east Jerusalem -- which it later annexed -- as well as the Gaza Strip in 1967 during the Six-Day War.

Around three million Palestinians live in the territory alongside roughly 490,000 Israelis in settlements deemed illegal under international law.

UN court to weigh consequences of Israel occupation

The UN's top court will from Monday hold hearings on the legal consequences of Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories since 1967, with an unprecedented 52 countries expected to give evidence.

Nations including the United States, Russia, and China will address judges in a week-long session at the Peace Palace in The Hague, seat of the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

In December 2022, the UN General Assembly asked the ICJ for a non-binding "advisory opinion" on the "legal consequences arising from the policies and practices of Israel in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem."

While any ICJ opinion would be non-binding, it comes amid mounting international legal pressure on Israel over the war in Gaza sparked by the brutal October 7 Hamas attacks.

The hearings are separate from a high-profile case brought by South Africa alleging that Israel is committing genocidal acts during the current Gaza offensive.

The ICJ ruled in that case in January that Israel must do everything in its power to prevent genocide and allow humanitarian aid into Gaza, but stopped short of ordering a ceasefire.

On Friday, it rejected South Africa's bid to impose additional measures on Israel, but reiterated the need to carry out the ruling in full.

- 'Prolonged occupation' -

The General Assembly has asked the ICJ to consider two questions.

Firstly, the court should examine the legal consequences of what the UN called "the ongoing violation by Israel of the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination".

This relates to the "prolonged occupation, settlement and annexation of the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967" and "measures aimed at altering the demographic composition, character and status of the Holy City of Jerusalem".

In June 1967, Israel crushed some of its Arab neighbours in a six-day war, seizing the West Bank including east Jerusalem from Jordan, the Golan Heights from Syria, and the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula from Egypt.

Israel then began to settle the 70,000 square kilometres (27,000 square miles) of seized Arab territory. The UN later declared the occupation of Palestinian territory illegal. Cairo regained Sinai under its 1979 peace deal with Israel.

The ICJ has also been asked to look into the consequences of what it described as Israel's "adoption of related discriminatory legislation and measures."

Secondly, the ICJ should advise on how Israel's actions "affect the legal status of the occupation" and what are the consequences for the UN and other countries.

The court will rule "urgently" on the affair, probably by the end of the year.

- 'Despicable' -

The ICJ rules in disputes between states and its judgements are binding although it has little means to enforce them.

However, in this case, the opinion it issues will be non-binding.

In the court's own words: "The requesting organ, agency or organisation remains free to give effect to the opinion by any means open to it, or not to do so."

But most advisory opinions are in fact acted upon.

The ICJ has previously issued advisory opinions on the legality of Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia and apartheid South Africa's occupation of Namibia.

It also handed down an opinion in 2004 declaring that parts of the wall erected by Israel in the occupied Palestinian territory were illegal and should be torn down.

Israel is not participating in the hearings and reacted angrily to the 2022 UN request, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling it "despicable" and "disgraceful".

The week after the UN resolution, Israel announced a series of sanctions against the Palestinian Authority to make it "pay the price" for pushing for it.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that while advisory opinions are non-binding, "they can carry great moral and legal authority" and can eventually be inscribed in international law.

The hearings should "highlight the grave abuses Israeli authorities are committing against Palestinians, including the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution," said Clive Baldwin, HRW senior legal adviser.

February 18, 2024 10:15 PM
US launches five new strikes on Huthi weapons systems: Pentagon

 

US forces in the Red Sea have "successfully conducted five self-defense strikes" to foil attacks by land and sea from Huthi-controlled areas of Yemen, the Pentagon said Sunday.

The strikes occurred on 3 pm and 8 pm Sanaa time (1200 and 1700 GMT), the US military said, and are part of a series of actions taken by the United States and its allies against the Huthis, aimed at halting the Iran-backed rebels' repeated attacks on Red Sea shipping lanes.

The five strikes included targeting "the first observed Huthi employment of a UUV (unmanned underwater vessel) since attacks began" in October, according to a statement from the US Central Command.

Another of the five involved an unmanned surface vessel, or USV, essentially a floating drone. The use of such vessels has been comparatively rare.

The other three involved anti-ship cruise missiles, the statement said.

"CENTCOM identified the anti-ship cruise missiles, unmanned underwater vessel, and the unmanned surface vessel in Huthi-controlled areas of Yemen and determined they presented an imminent threat to US Navy ships and merchant vessels in the region," it said, adding that it struck the five to "make international waters safer."

The Huthis, who control much of war-torn Yemen including the port of Hodeida, began their attacks in November, saying they were hitting Israel-linked vessels in support of Palestinians in Gaza, which has been ravaged by the Israel-Hamas war.

US and British forces have responded with strikes against the Huthis, who have since declared the two countries' interests to be legitimate targets as well.

The Red Sea attacks have raised insurance premiums for shipping companies, forcing many to avoid the Red Sea, a vital route that normally carries about 12 percent of global maritime trade.

February 18, 2024 10:11 PM
Militia kills 15 in eastern DR Congo: local sources

 

Militia fighters killed 15 people in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo's troubled Ituri province, local sources said on Sunday, in the second such attack in less than a week.

The sources said the CODECO (Cooperative for the Development of the Congo) militia, which claims to defend the interests of the Lendu group, again targeted victims from the rival Hema tribe.

CODECO fighters ambushed users of a road near the village of Tali where they stopped 15 people including one woman on Saturday afternoon, said Jules Tsuba, leader of Djugu territory's civil society.

The militiamen tied them up and undressed them before killing them, some victims "had their throats cut, others were shot dead", he said.

According to a humanitarian source, "the bodies of the victims bear the marks of torture."

Ruphin Mapela, the territory's administrator, confirmed the toll of 15 dead and said the attack came after months of peace.

CODECO was among several Congolese armed groups that signed a peace deal last year after negotiations in Nairobi.

Tsuba said he wanted the government to "accelerate the peace process" through a programme of disarmament and reintegration of militia fighters into their communities.

On Tuesday, a suspected CODECO attack left seven panners dead on mining sites in Djugu territory.

Gold-rich Ituri suffered a conflict between ethnic-based militias from 1999 to 2003 that left thousands dead before the intervention of a European force.

Fighting flared again in 2017, killing thousands of civilians and triggering mass displacement.

February 18, 2024 09:02 PM
Six police hurt in riots between Eritreans in The Hague

 

At least six police officers were injured and 13 suspects arrest after rival groups of Eritreans fought running battles in The Hague in the early hours of Sunday, torching police cars and hurling rocks.

Special police units fired tear gas at the rioters, who police said were pro- and anti-Eritrean government groups attending a meeting in The Hague.

"During the riots, stones, fireworks, and other items were thrown at police officers and the fire brigade. Several rioters had weapons to hit people with," police said.

The rioters set two police cars and a tour bus ablaze.

During the disturbances, two officers sustained injuries to their hands and another to her teeth. A fourth was hit by a police car in the chaos.

Police in a later statement said another agent became unwell because of the tear gas, while a sixth officer was wounded in the knee.

"Out of nowhere, our colleagues were confronted with very intense and serious violence," said police commander Marielle van Vulpen.

Police made 13 arrests and have called for witnesses and video footage, as they investigate the riots.

The suspects were men between 19 and 36 years old, a statement said.

"The violence used against police officers and equipment is appalling and unacceptable," said the city's mayor Jan van Zanen.

Anti-immigration far-right leader Geert Wilders posted social media images of the riots with a caption in capital letters: "Arrest and Deport".

He then wrote on X, formerly Twitter: "The Netherlands has really had it up to here with this."

"Why is half the world allowed to come here to tear down our country, fight amongst themselves, throw stones at the police and set their cars on fire?"

"I want to become the prime minister who finally brings some order to this," added Wilders, who won elections in November but is struggling to form a coalition government.

There are some 25,000 Eritreans living in the Netherlands, according to official government figures.

Pro- and anti-government groups have previously clashed, including last year when several people were stabbed ahead of an event to celebrate Eritrean independence from Ethiopia.

February 18, 2024 09:01 PM
Fire at Spain retirement home kills two women

 

A fire that broke out in a Madrid nursing home early Sunday killed two women and injured 18 others, Spanish emergency services said.

The blaze broke out at around 7 am (0600 GMT) in a room on the first floor of the residence which is home to 39 people, authorities said.

"We found the second floor flooded with smoke and we had to evacuate the residents who were there to a secure place," firefighter Jose Luis Castillo said in a video posted by Madrid's emergency services on X, formerly Twitter.

One of the injured, a woman, was in critical condition due to burns while the rest were taken to hospital with moderate or light injuries, mostly due to smoke inhalation.

"The problem was the evacuation and presence of smoke. Once again, smoke is what ends up causing harm. One of the deaths was due to smoke inhalation," firefighter Roberto Moreira told reporters at the scene.

Spanish media said the women who died, as well as the one in critical condition, were in their 80s.

The cause of the blaze is still being investigated.

"Our deepest condolences for the two who died after the fire in a residence," Madrid mayor Jose Luis Martinez-Almeida wrote on X.

February 18, 2024 08:44 PM
Israeli forces kill 2 Palestinians in West Bank raid

 

Israeli forces killed two Palestinian men during a raid in a refugee camp in the occupied West Bank on Sunday, the Palestinian health ministry said.

The deaths were the latest in a surge of violence in the Palestinian territory that has prompted growing international concern since Hamas's October 7 attack on southern Israel sparked the Gaza war.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on Sunday described the situation in the West Bank as being at boiling point and warned that "we could be on the eve of a greater explosion".

The Palestinian health ministry said two men, aged 19 and 36, were pronounced dead from gunshot wounds following an army raid in the Tulkarm refugee camp, in the north of the West Bank, which the UN says houses over 27,000 Palestinian refugees.

At least five other people were wounded in the Israeli military operation, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent.

The Israeli military said its forces were there to apprehend "a senior wanted suspect" believed to have been involved in attacks on its forces and the "killing of individuals in Tulkarm suspected of cooperating with Israeli security forces".

The suspect was killed by Israeli troops in an exchange of fire, then "armed terrorists opened fire and hurled explosive devices at Israeli security forces, who responded with live fire", the army said in a statement.

"During the exchange of fire, an Israel Border Police officer was severely injured" and hospitalised, it added.

The Israeli military has stepped up its near daily raids across the West Bank in the aftermath of the deadly attack on southern Israel in October, which it says are aimed at dismantling Palestinian militant groups such as Hamas.

At least 398 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces or settlers in the West Bank since October 7, according to the Palestinian health ministry.

The Israeli military said on Friday that since the start of the Gaza war, its troops had arrested more than 3,100 Palestinians in the West Bank, including 1,350 Hamas members.

Israel captured the West Bank, including east Jerusalem -- which it later annexed -- and the Gaza Strip in 1967 during the Six-Day War.

Around three million Palestinians live in the territory alongside roughly 490,000 Israelis in settlements deemed illegal under international law.

The Palestinians seek the territory as the heartland of a future independent state.

February 18, 2024 08:41 PM
Thai ex-PM Thaksin returns home after release on parole

 

Former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was released on parole Sunday, just six months after he was arrested following a dramatic return to the kingdom from 15 years of self-imposed exile.

The controversial billionaire, twice elected premier and ousted in a 2006 military coup, was jailed for eight years on graft and abuse-of-power charges upon his return in August.

But his sentence was cut to one year by King Maha Vajiralongkorn within days of his return and the government said last week the 74-year-old was eligible for early release because of his age and health.

Thaksin -- wearing a neck brace and sitting next to his daughters Paetongtarn and Pintongta -- was driven away Sunday from the police hospital in central Bangkok where he had spent the past six months.

A handful of people protesting against his release had gathered in front of the hospital.

The car then drove to Thaksin's home, where a welcome banner was tied across the gates.

One woman wearing a T-shirt with a picture of Thaksin emblazoned across the front said she had stood outside his house for two days.

"I want to tell him to fight," she told local media. "If he is (here), the country will develop."

The department of corrections confirmed his release on parole Sunday but the exact details of his freedom are unclear.

Thaksin may be subject to monitoring -- possibly with an ankle tag -- and restrictions on his right to travel.

 

- 'No fresh air' -

 

Thailand's Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin suggested Sunday that Thaksin would not involve himself in politics but said, if and when he is ready to give advice, "everyone in the government is ready to listen".

Thaksin's daughter Paetongtarn posted a picture on Instagram Sunday of him sitting in front of a swimming pool at his home, his arm in a sling.

"After no fresh air and sunlight for 180 days and 17 years away from home, Dad sits outside for a long time," she wrote.

The former Manchester City owner's arrival back in Thailand came on the same day his Pheu Thai party returned to government in alliance with pro-military parties, leading many to conclude that a backroom deal had been struck to cut his jail time.

The rumours grew stronger when he was transferred to a police hospital within hours of being sentenced because of his poor health.

He was reportedly suffering from chest tightness and high blood pressure when he was admitted to hospital and his family has said he underwent two operations in the following months.

The government has denied any deal and Srettha, of the Pheu Thai party, has insisted "he already served his jail time" -- although it is not clear that Thaksin has spent any time in a prison cell.

Thailand's progressive Move Forward Party (MFP), which won most seats at the last election but was stopped from forming a government, said Thaksin's release raised questions about whether he had received special treatment.

"Thailand needs a democratic system where the rule of law and justice system is applied in the same way for everyone, without double standards... for privileged people," the party said in a statement Sunday.

 

- Power struggle -

 

The former telecoms tycoon is one of the most influential but divisive figures in modern Thai history.

Thaksin is loved by millions of rural Thais for his populist policies in the early 2000s but has long been opposed by the country's royalist and pro-military establishment.

The tussle for dominance between the establishment and Thaksin and his allies has largely defined Thai politics over the past two decades.

Police laid lese-majeste charges against Thaksin last week over comments he made in South Korea almost a decade ago, although it is not clear whether prosecutors will take the case to court.

His critics suspected him of pulling strings in the kingdom even from exile, which he spent mostly in Dubai before his return.

Thaksin's sister Yingluck Shinawatra was elected prime minister for Pheu Thai in 2011, only to be ousted in a coup herself in 2014.

His daughter Paetongtarn Shinawatra, now the party's chief, was one of the leading faces in its campaign for last year's general election and has been tipped as a possible future prime minister.

The election last May marked the first time in more than 20 years that a Thaksin-linked party failed to win the most seats in parliament.

Pheu Thai was beaten into second place by the upstart progressive MFP.

But pro-establishment forces in the senate blocked MFP's leader Pita Limjaroenrat from becoming prime minister and Pheu Thai's deal with military-linked parties then shut the newcomers out of government.

February 18, 2024 08:36 PM
Brazil's Lula accuses Israel of 'genocide' in Gaza

 

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva accused Israel Sunday of committing "genocide" against Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip and compared its actions to Adolf Hitler's campaign to exterminate Jews.

In response, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the 78-year-old president's comments "shameful and grave" and said his government had called in Brazil's ambassador in protest.

Lula told reporters in Addis Ababa, where he was attending an African Union summit, that what was happening in the Gaza Strip "isn't a war, it's a genocide".

"It's not a war of soldiers against soldiers. It's a war between a highly prepared army and women and children," added the veteran leftist.

"What's happening in the Gaza Strip with the Palestinian people hasn't happened at any other moment in history. Actually, it has happened: when Hitler decided to kill the Jews."

Lula, a prominent voice for the global south whose country currently holds the rotating presidency of the G20, previously condemned Hamas's October 7 attack on Israel as a "terrorist" act.

But he has since grown vocally critical of Israel's retaliatory military campaign.

Netanyahu called Lula's remarks "Holocaust trivialisation and an attempt to harm the Jewish people and the right of Israel to defend itself".

"The comparison between Israel to the Holocaust of the Nazis and Hitler is crossing a red line," he said in a statement.

"Israel is fighting to defend itself and ensure its future until total victory and it is doing that while upholding international law."

"I have decided with Foreign Minister (Israel) Katz to summon the Brazilian ambassador in Israel for an immediate reproach."

Katz wrote on the X social media platform that the meeting would take place on Monday.

Hamas's attack resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

Militants also took about 250 people hostage, 130 of whom are still in Gaza, including 30 who are presumed dead, according to Israeli figures.

Israel's assault on Gaza has killed at least 28,858 people, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory's health ministry.

Lula criticised Western countries' recent decisions to halt aid to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, after Israel accused some of its employees of involvement in the October 7 attack.

Lula, who met with Palestinian prime minister Mohammad Shtayyeh Saturday on the sidelines of the summit, has said Brazil will increase its own contribution to the agency, and urged other countries to do the same.

He reiterated his call for a two-state solution to the conflict, with Palestine "definitively recognised as a full and sovereign state."

Lula urges against 'speculation' on Navalny death

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva cautioned Sunday against rushing to conclusions on how Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny died, in a break with Western leaders who have been quick to blame the Kremlin.

In some of the first comments on Navalny's death from a fellow member of the BRICS group of emerging nations, Lula said it was important to avoid "speculation" and await the results of an autopsy.

"I think it's a matter of good sense... If the death was suspicious, we have to first investigate to find out what the citizen died of," Lula told reporters in Addis Ababa, where he was attending an African Union summit.

"The medical examiners are going to say the guy died of this or that. Then you can judge. Otherwise, if you judge now and say I-don't-know-who ordered the killing and it wasn't them, afterward you have to apologise. Why the rush to accuse?"

Lula has faced criticism in the West as overly soft on Russian President Vladimir Putin, his fellow leader in the BRICS group -- which stands for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa but was recently expanded to include several other emerging powers.

Lula, 78, has been critical of the US and European responses to Russia's invasion of Ukraine and said Kyiv shares the blame for the conflict and refused to join Western sanctions on Moscow.

Navalny, Putin's leading critic, died Friday in a remote Siberian prison after more than three years behind bars. He was 47.

Lula said Navalny could have been sick or had a health problem, and warned against "trivialising" accusations of murder.

"I don't want speculation," he said.

"I understand the interests of those who immediately accuse, (saying) 'It was so-and-so.' But that's not my motto. I'd rather wait... for the exam."

Navalny's supporters on Saturday accused Russian authorities of being "killers" who were "covering their tracks" by refusing to hand over his body.

February 18, 2024 08:34 PM
Ukraine army accuses Russia of shooting two POWs

 

Ukraine's army on Sunday accused Russian forces of shooting two prisoners of war and posted a grainy video shot from the air that they said showed the incident.

In the video, two soldiers labelled as Ukrainians run towards another labelled as Russian in a trench.

The Russian soldier then grabs them and shoots numerous times until they stop moving, before turning back. The two men do not appear to have resisted capture.

AFP could not verify the authenticity of the video or the location.

"This morning... the Russians once again showed their attitude to international humanitarian law by shooting two Ukrainian prisoners of war," the ground forces wrote on Telegram.

They said the incident happened in the area of responsibility of the Khortytsia group of troops, which operates on the eastern front, without giving a more precise location.

Ukrainian media reported it happened northeast of the village of Vesele in the Donetsk region, citing the Khortytsia group's press service.

Khortytsia's troops were not involved in the withdrawal from the town of Avdiivka in the region, which Russia claimed Saturday to fully control.

Russia and Ukraine have several times accused each other of violating international humanitarian law by killing prisoners-of-war since Russia invaded.

The United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner has documented cases of summary executions of Ukrainian prisoners of war as well as torture.

Earlier Sunday, the DeepState Telegram channel seen as close to the Ukrainian army reported that Russian forces had shot six injured Ukrainian soldiers left behind during the withdrawal from Avdiivka, most likely on Thursday.

It said the men had been too badly wounded to leave the Zenit position near the town of Avdiivka with other troops during Ukraine's withdrawal and comrades had recognised their bodies on a video posted on social media by Russians.

Ukrainian authorities have not commented on this report.

February 18, 2024 04:02 PM
Gaza toll nears 29,000 as Israel rejects calls to spare Rafah

The health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza on Sunday said that at least 28,985 people have been killed in the Palestinian territory during the war between militants and Israel.

A total of 127 people died in the last 24 hours, and 68,883 people have been injured since war erupted on October 7, it added in a statement.

Meanwhile, Prospects for an Israel-Hamas ceasefire dimmed Sunday after the United States signalled it would veto the latest push for a UN Security Council resolution and mediator Qatar acknowledged that truce talks on the other diplomatic front have hit an impasse.

The languishing efforts to pause the four-month-old war come as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed on Saturday to reject international appeals to spare Gaza's southernmost city Rafah, where an estimated 1.5 million people have sought refuge.

Israel's relentless campaign to root out every Hamas battalion has edged closer to the city, with overnight attacks killing at least 10 Gazans there and in central Gaza's Deir al-Balah, according to a tally by official Palestinian news agency Wafa.

The Gaza war began with Hamas's October 7 attack which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

Militants also took about 250 people hostage, 130 of whom are still in Gaza, including 30 who are presumed dead, according to Israeli figures.

Israel's retaliatory assault on Gaza has killed at least 28,858 people, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory's health ministry.

Neighbouring Egypt has grown increasingly wary that an Israeli invasion of Rafah could force the Gazans trapped there across the border.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Saturday reiterated Egypt's opposition to any forced displacement into the Sinai desert.

In a phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron, both leaders agreed instead on the "necessity of the swift advancement of a ceasefire," according to a summary.

Even if a temporary truce deal is struck at the talks in Cairo, Netanyahu said his troops' ground invasion of Rafah will go ahead.

"Even if we achieve it, we will enter Rafah," he said at a televised news conference Saturday.

Countries urging Israel otherwise are effectively saying "lose the war", he said.

Netanyahu spoke as thousands of Israelis protested in Tel Aviv, the latest public call for an immediate election by demonstrators who also accuse the government of abandoning hostages.

"Take politics out of decisions about our loved ones' lives," said Nissan Calderon, brother of hostage Ofer Calderon. "This is the moment of truth, there won't be many more like it if the Cairo initiative collapses."

- 'Not very promising' -

Next week's possible United Nations Security Council vote appears unlikely to advance the ceasefire effort with Washington already voicing opposition.

"The United States does not support action on this draft resolution," US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield said in a statement. "Should it come up for a vote as drafted, it will not be adopted."

Algeria's draft resolution seeks an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, but Thomas-Greenfield said the United States instead supports a truce-for-hostages deal that would pause fighting for six weeks.

US President Joe Biden had "multiple calls" with Netanyahu as well as Egyptian and Qatari leaders this week "to push this deal forward", she said.

Speaking at the Munich Security Conference, Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani called those talks "not very promising".

He said the efforts had been complicated by the insistence of "a lot of countries" that any new truce involve further releases of hostages.

His assessment came as Hamas threatened to suspend its involvement in the talks unless relief supplies reach the north, where aid agencies have warned of looming famine.

"Negotiations cannot be held while hunger is ravaging the Palestinian people," a senior source in the Palestinian militant group told AFP, asking not to be identified as he is not authorised to speak on the issue.

- Fears for patients after raid -

Earlier, Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh reiterated the group's demands, which Netanyahu called "ludicrous".

They include a complete pause in fighting, the release of Hamas prisoners and the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza.

Netanyahu has also rejected pressure from some Western governments for unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state.

"After the terrible massacre of October 7, there can be no greater reward for terrorism than that and it will prevent any future peace settlement," he said.

Israel said Saturday it has detained 100 people from one of Gaza's few operating hospitals after troops raided the complex.

At least 120 patients and five medical teams are stuck without water, food and electricity in Nasser Hospital in Gaza's main southern city of Khan Yunis, according to Gaza's health ministry.

Israel has for weeks concentrated its military operations in Khan Yunis, the hometown of Hamas's Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar, whom Israel accuses of masterminding the October 7 attack.

Intense fighting has raged around Nasser Hospital.

The Israeli military said troops entered the hospital on Thursday, acting on what it said was "credible intelligence" that hostages had been held there. It later acknowledged it found no firm evidence that they had.

- 'We need food now' -

The power was cut and the generators stopped after the raid, leading to the deaths of six patients due to a lack of oxygen, according to Gaza's health ministry.

A witness, who declined to be named for safety reasons, told AFP the Israeli forces had shot "at anyone who moved inside the hospital".

In northern Gaza, many are so desperate for food they are grinding up animal feed.

"We're going to die from hunger, not by bombs or missiles," said Mohammed Nassar, 50, from Jabalia in the territory's north.

As a much-needed delivery of supplies arrived in southern Gaza Saturday, the UN again warned that Gazans are close to famine.

The deliveries are also complicated by Palestinians in Rafah so hungry that they are stopping aid trucks to take whatever they can manage, according to the UN.

February 18, 2024 03:59 PM
China to step up patrols near Taiwan after deadly boat incident

China on Sunday said it would step up law enforcement patrols in waters near Taiwan, after two Chinese nationals died in a boat incident involving Taiwan's coast guard.

A Chinese boat was carrying four people when it capsized on Wednesday near the Kinmen islands while pursued by the Taiwanese coast guard.

All four on board were thrown into the water and two of the crew later died.

The Chinese coast guard said it would "carry out regular law enforcement patrol operations" in the area.

The patrols are intended to "further maintain the order of operations in relevant waters and protect the safety of fishermen's lives," Gan Yu, a spokesperson for the Chinese coast guard, said in a statement.

China has condemned democratic Taiwan for the incident and urged the island to release the two surviving members of the boat crew, who were detained.

Taipei in turn blamed Beijing, saying the boat was "within prohibited waters" around the Kinmen islands -- a territory administered by Taiwan but located just five kilometres (three miles) from China's city of Xiamen.

Wednesday's incident comes against a backdrop of heightened tensions across the Taiwan Strait.

Beijing claims Taiwan as part of its territory and has vowed to one day bring the self-ruled island under its control.

Taiwan's presidential election, held in January, was won by the Democratic Progressive Party's Lai Ching-te, whom Beijing considers a "separatist".

Chinese President Xi Jinping has in recent years ramped up rhetoric for the "unification" of Taiwan with China.

And Beijing has stepped up its military presence near Taiwan, deploying warplanes and naval vessels around the island on a nearly daily basis.

February 18, 2024 03:55 PM
US threatens to block new UN Security Council vote on Gaza

 

The UN Security Council could hold a vote next week, sought by Algeria, on a resolution seeking an "immediate" ceasefire in Gaza, diplomatic sources told AFP Saturday, although Washington again appeared set to block it.

Algeria launched discussions on a new draft after the International Court of Justice ruled in late January that Israel must do all it can to prevent genocidal acts in its war in Gaza, which it says is targeting Hamas militants.

The latest version of the text, seen by AFP Saturday, "demands an immediate humanitarian ceasefire that must be respected by all parties."

It also "rejects forced displacement of the Palestinian civilian population," and it "demands the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages."

The Gaza war began with Hamas's October 7 attack which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

Israel responded by launching a relentless assault on Gaza that has killed at least 28,858 people, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory's health ministry.

Algeria has requested a UN Security Council vote on Tuesday, but Washington signalled it is likely to veto the measure.

US President Joe Biden is working with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the leaders of Egypt and Qatar on a hostage deal that would bring about six weeks of a "prolonged pause in fighting," US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield said in a statement on Algeria's proposed draft.

"The resolution put forward in the Security Council, in contrast, would not achieve these outcomes, and indeed, may run counter to them," Thomas-Greenfield said.

"The United States does not support action on this draft resolution," she added. "Should it come up for a vote as drafted, it will not be adopted."

Like previous texts opposed by Israel and the United States, the new text does not condemn the unprecedented attack by Hamas.

Earlier this month, Thomas-Greenfield said that Algeria's latest initiative risked derailing the negotiations.

"We believe that it is high time now for the Security Council to decide on a humanitarian ceasefire resolution," Palestinian UN envoy Riyad Mansour said recently, adding there is "massive support" for the text's elements among council members.

In October and December, despite international pressure over Gaza's growing humanitarian crisis, Washington vetoed texts calling for a ceasefire.

The Security Council has adopted just two resolutions on Gaza since October 7, including one calling for large-scale delivery of humanitarian aid to the Palestinian territory.

February 18, 2024 10:15 AM
112 more Palestinians martyred, US vows to veto new UNSC truce resolution on Gaza

 

 

The United States is pledging to veto a new UN Security Council resolution put forth by Algeria that demands an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza.

Meanwhile, bloody operations of the Israeli army continue in Gaza, 112 more Palestinians were martyred in 24 hours.

According to foreign media, 20 Palestinians were martyred in the fresh attacks of the Israeli army in the northeastern areas of Gaza. Five incurable patients died, in the ongoing Israeli attacks on Gaza since October 7, at least 28,858 Palestinians have been martyred, while 68,666 have been injured.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calls Hamas’s demands for a ceasefire and prisoner release “delusional” after the group blamed Israel for a lack of progress in achieving a ceasefire deal.

In Gaza, at least 10 Palestinians were killed overnight after Israeli forces launched attacks on Deir al-Balah and farmland on the edges of Rafah, according to the Wafa news agency. The Health Ministry in Gaza also says Israeli forces have arrested a “large number” of workers at the Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis.

Israel’s attacks on Gaza have killed at least 28,858 Palestinians and wounded 68,667 since October 7. The death toll in Israel from the October 7 Hamas-led attacks stands at 1,139.

 

February 17, 2024 10:45 PM
Hostage accord shouldn't be condition for Israel-Hamas truce: Qatar PM

 

Qatar's prime minister said Saturday that a ceasefire deal between Israel and Hamas "should not be conditioned" by an agreement on hostage release.

"This is the dilemma that we've been in and unfortunately that's been misused by a lot of countries, that in order to get a ceasefire, it's conditional to have the hostage deal. It shouldn't be conditioned," Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani told the Munich Security Conference.

February 17, 2024 10:05 PM
Hamas warns of talks pullout unless Gaza aid increased

 

Hamas threatened Saturday to suspend ceasefire talks unless urgent aid was brought into the north of the Gaza Strip, where aid agencies have warned of a looming famine.

"The movement intends to suspend negotiations until aid is brought into northern Gaza," a senior source in the Palestinian militant group told AFP.

"Negotiations cannot be held while hunger is ravaging the Palestinian people," he said, asking not to be identified as he is not authorised to speak on the issue.

Talks have been held in the Egyptian capital Cairo this week to bring about a pause in fighting in Israel's four-month-old war with Hamas in Gaza.

The outcome of the negotiations is still unclear and Israel is preparing to move into the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah as part of its mission to destroy Hamas for carrying out the October 7 attack.

But there have been mounting calls, including from Israel's closest international allies, not to go into the city, because 1.4 million displaced Gazans sheltering there have nowhere else to go.

The UN's World Food Programme has warned that Gazans are inching closer towards famine, with concern highest about the north of the coastal territory because aid agencies are unable to get in.

The head of the UN humanitarian agency OCHA in the Palestinian territories, Andrea De Domenico, said he had "no idea" how an estimated 300,000 people still in the north had survived.

"What we managed to bring up there is absolutely not enough. It is pure misery," he told AFP this week.

Calls have increased for more trucks carrying aid to be allowed into Gaza, but Israel has tightened checks it says are necessary to prevent Hamas leaders from escaping and arms being smuggled in.

February 17, 2024 10:03 PM
Beirut judge charges Nissan employees for 'stealing' Ghosn documents

 

A Lebanese judge has charged four Nissan employees with the theft of documents and devices from the Beirut home and office of the company's former boss Carlos Ghosn, a judicial source said Saturday.

A lawyer for the company told AFP the legal action was "unlawful" and that the company would seek to have the charges thrown out.

The Beirut judge has decided to prosecute "four senior Nissan officials" of Japanese, Spanish, French and British nationalities, accusing them of "committing a number of crimes", the judicial source said, requesting anonymity as they were not authorised to speak to the media.

The "most important" allegation is entering Ghosn's Beirut office and house "against his will and stealing documents, files, electronic devices and accessing his private information system, tampering with its contents and copying data", the source added.

The charges follow a lawsuit filed by Ghosn alleging the "fabrication of evidence that led to his arrest in Japan, and tarnishing his reputation", the source added.

The defendants had been summoned as part of preliminary investigations but failed to appear before the court, the source said.

The case was referred to the first investigating judge in Beirut, requesting "the necessary investigations and the issue of arrest warrants in absentia".

A lawyer for Nissan, Sakher al-Hashem, said the legal action against the four was "unlawful" and predicted the charges would be dropped.

When the investigating judge sets a date for questioning "we will present formal defences demonstrating the legal action is unlawful", he told AFP.

Ghosn, the former chairman and chief executive of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance, was arrested in Japan in November 2018 on suspicion of financial misconduct, before being sacked by Nissan's board in a unanimous decision.

He jumped bail late the following year and made a dramatic escape from Japan hidden in an audio-equipment box, landing in Beirut, where he remains an international fugitive.

Ghosn has always denied the charges against him, arguing they were cooked up by Nissan executives who opposed his attempts to more closely integrate the firm with French partner Renault.

Japan and France have sought his arrest, but Lebanon does not extradite its citizens, and judicial authorities have slapped a travel ban on Ghosn, who holds Lebanese, French and Brazilian nationality.

Ghosn last year filed a lawsuit with Lebanon's top prosecutor claiming Nissan fabricated the charges against him in Japan and demanding more than $1 billion in financial compensation, a judicial official said at the time.

February 17, 2024 10:01 PM
Azerbaijani, Armenian leaders agree peace talks push

 

Armenia and Azerbaijan's leaders held direct talks in Munich on Saturday and agreed to push on with peace negotiations, Baku and Yerevan said, after a new spate of tension between the two Caucasus neighbours.

The bilateral between Armenia's Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev came after a three-way meeting along with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who said both sides pledged to resolve differences through peaceful means.

"The chancellor praised pledges from both sides today, to resolve differences in opinion and open questions exclusively through peaceful means and without the use of force," according to a statement issued by the German chancellery.

The promises to avoid conflict appeared to be a marked change in tone from Pashinyan's warning on Thursday that Azerbaijan was planning a "full-scale war".

On Tuesday, both sides accused the other of opening fire on their volatile border, in a skirmish Armenia said left four of its soldiers dead.

Tensions between the two countries have remained high since Baku re-captured the Armenian-populated region of Nagorno-Karabakh last September in a lightning military offensive.

Confirming Saturday's bilateral, the Azerbaijani presidency said the leaders "discussed negotiations on a peace treaty between the two countries, the normalisation of relations, and the issue of border delimitation".

The ministries of foreign affairs had been tasked with organising followup meetings, it added in a statement.

Separately, the Armenian government said both sides "agreed to continue work on the peace treaty."

"The process of regulating Armenia-Azerbaijan relations and steps aimed at ensuring peace and stability in the region were discussed."

Yerevan is concerned that Azerbaijan, emboldened by its success in Karabakh, could invade Armenian territory in order to create a land bridge to its Nakhchivan enclave.

Aliyev, who won re-election this month, said in an inauguration speech Wednesday it was Armenia, not Azerbaijan, that had outstanding territorial claims.

Pashinyan and Aliyev previously said a peace agreement could have been signed by the end of last year, but internationally mediated peace talks have failed to yield a breakthrough.

In another bilateral meeting in Munich, Pashinyan told US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Saturday morning that there had been a "new escalation" with Azerbaijan, in reference to the latest skirmish.

In separate talks on the same day, Blinken and Aliyev "discussed efforts to achieve a durable peace agreement" between the Caucasus neighbours, said US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller.

Blinken reiterated US support for "a successful conclusion of those efforts, building on previous negotiations," he added.

February 17, 2024 09:31 PM
PBC says electoral process with its outcomes has lost credibility

Pakistan Bar Council (PBC) declared on Saturday that the electoral process 2024 with its outcomes has lost credibility.
In a press release issued by the PBC on Saturday said Riazat All Sahar, Vice Chairman and Farooq Hamid Naek, Chairman Executive Committee, Pakistan Bar Council (PBC) along with Muhammad Ahsan Bhoon, Hafeez-ur-Rehman Chaudhry, Pir Muhammad Masood Chishti, Haroon-ur-Rashid, Hassan Raza Pasha, Tahir Nasrullah Warraich, Mirza Azle Akbar Baig, Syed Amjad Shah, Khush Dil Khan, (Members PBC) are deeply troubled by the ongoing political turmoil in the country, particularly concerning allegations of pre and post-poll rigging.
They said that the integrity and transparency of the electoral process, along with its outcomes, have lost credibility.
They call upon all political parties and stakeholders aggrieved by the electoral process and allegations of rigging to work towards establishing an independent commission, acceptable to all political parties. Such a commission, free from bias and influence, is crucial to ensuring a fair and transparent electoral process that commands the trust of all citizens.
They said that recent allegations and disclosures by Commissioner Rawalpindi have added to the concerns surrounding the electoral process. The PBC underscores the urgent need for a thorough investigation into these allegations.
Furthermore, they reiterated their previous concerns expressed before the election, regarding the performance and credibility of the Chief Election Commissioner of Pakistan. Regrettably, these concerns were disregarded, by the political parties, which resulted in contributing to the current political turmoil.
Addressing such concerns in a timely manner (including the resignation of the chairman ECP) could have averted the present crisis, they said.
The PBC also condemns the coercion faced by independent candidates to align with specific political parties against their will. Every independent candidate must have the freedom to choose their affiliation without undue pressure or interference.
In the end, the PBC urges all stakeholders to prioritize the restoration of trust in the electoral process and commit to upholding democratic principles for the stability and progress of Pakistan.
They also condemned the arrest of Fawad Ch. ASC and Salman Akram Raja ASC. They regretted that when the Chief Election Commissioner played havoc with the whole election process, then demanding Justice from some institution by the Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan through a press statement seems to be a mockery of Justice.

February 17, 2024 08:31 PM
'Extraordinary opportunity' for Israel to normalise ties with Arab states: Blinken

 

Israel has an "extraordinary opportunity" to end a cycle of violence in the coming months as almost every Arab nation is in favour of normalising relations with it, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Saturday.

Efforts underway to reform the Palestinian Authority would also help it become a better partner for Israel, assessed Blinken.

As Israel pushes on with its war against Hamas, triggered by the Gazan rulers' attack on Israeli soil, negotiators have been scrambling to find ways to end the conflict and build long-term peace.

Blinken, who has travelled several times to the Middle East since the war erupted, has been in talks with key figures in the region to seek a truce deal and "an enduring end" to the Israel-Hamas war.

But the efforts risk being torpedoed as Israel readies an incursion into Rafah, the southern Gaza border city where around 1.5 million people have sought shelter.

In a message that appeared aimed at Israel, Blinken said he thought that "there is an extraordinary opportunity for Israel in the months ahead to once and for all end that cycle" of violence.

"There are new facts that didn't exist before," he told the Munich Security Conference.

"Starting with the fact that virtually every Arab country now generally wants to integrate Israel into the region, to normalise relations if they haven't already done so, to provide security assurances and commitments, so that Israel can feel more safe and more secure."

Genuine efforts were also underway to reform the Palestinian Authority, which holds power in the West Bank, but not Hamas-ruled Gaza, Blinken said.

The aim is to make it "more effective in representing the interests of the Palestinian people and would be a better partner for Israel in that future," he said.

Nevertheless, there is also an "imperative to proceed to a Palestinian state -- one that also ensures the security of Israel."

At a meeting with Israel's President Isaac Herzog in Munich, Blinken also alluded to the "genuine opportunities" for a more secure future for both Israelis and Palestinians.

Herzog agreed that there are opportunities but that "they need to be studied in depth".

He stressed however that Israel must "complete the work of undermining and eradicating the basic infrastructure of Hamas."

February 17, 2024 08:29 PM
Thousands of pro-Palestinian protesters march in Madrid

 

Waving pro-Palestinian flags and banners, thousands marched through the streets of Madrid on Saturday to demand an immediate ceasefire in the deadly war between Israel and Hamas.

The crowd snaked under bright sunshine through closed-off streets in the Spanish capital from Atocha train station to the central Plaza del Sol square behind a large banner that read "Freedom for Palestine".

Many waved Palestinian flags or carried signs that read "Peace for Palestine" and "Don't ignore Palestinian suffering".

Six ministers from Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's cabinet took part -- all five from hard-left party Sumar, his junior coalition partners, as well as Transport Minister Oscar Puente of the premier's Socialist party.

"We need an immediate ceasefire, an end to the killing and attacks against innocents, we must achieve the release of all hostages," Puente told reporters at the start of the march.

Around 3,000 people took part in the demonstration, according to the central government's delegation to Madrid, a much smaller turnout than the last protest in the Spanish capital on January 27, when some 20,000 participated.

Some chanted: "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free" - a slogan that critics interpret as a call for the elimination of Israel. Chants of "It's not a war, it's genocide" were also heard.

The Gaza war began with Hamas' October 7 attack which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

Militants also took about 250 people hostage, around 130 of whom are still in Gaza, including 30 who are presumed dead, according to Israeli figures.

Israel's subsequent assault on Gaza has since killed at least 28,775 people, mostly women and children, according to the territory's health ministry.

Spain, Ireland and Belgium have been among the most critical in Europe of the way Israel has conducted its Gaza campaign.

February 17, 2024 08:28 PM
Kurds march in German city of Cologne to demand Ocalan's freedom

 

About 15,000 Kurds marched in the German city of Cologne Saturday to demand the liberation of Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan, who has spent the past 25 years in a Turkish jail.

Police intervened to remove some symbols that are banned in Germany, but made no arrests.

Ocalan's Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) is considered a terrorist group by most Western countries, and public displays of some of its symbols is illegal in Germany.

The Cologne protesters marched calmly, with thousands of flags showing Ocalan's mustachioed image, which is legal.

The marchers demanded the release of the 74-year-old former guerrilla, who has been held in an island prison near Istanbul ever since Turkish security agents seized him in Kenya in 1999 and has spent much of that time in isolation.

"He is the greatest revolutionary of the 21st century because with his philosophy and his ideology he provides the opportunity to change our societies, and not just in Kurdistan," said Virginia, a 25-year-old teacher.

"We are here for the freedom of Ocalan, and freedom for Kurdistan's people," said Sakir, a 50-year-old entrepreneur.

Ocalan's entourage has had no contact with him since March 2021 and his last meeting with his lawyers was in 2019.

Despite his isolation, he continues to personify the Kurdish national movement for many of his followers, including in the diaspora, who refer to him simply as "Apo", or "uncle" in Kurdish.

The conflict between the PKK and the Turkish state has left 40,000 dead since 1984.

February 17, 2024 08:24 PM
Israel out to destroy UNRWA, says agency chief

 

Israel is waging a concerted campaign aimed at destroying UNRWA, the head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees said in an interview published Saturday.

Philippe Lazzarini said calls for his resignation were part of the Israeli government's push.

"Right now we are dealing with an expanded, concerted campaign by Israel aimed at destroying UNRWA," he told the Swiss newspaper group Tamedia.

"It is a long-term political goal because it is believed that if the aid agency is abolished, the status of the Palestinian refugees will be resolved once and for all -- and with it, the right of return. There is a much larger political goal behind this.

"Just look at the number of actions Israel is taking against UNRWA," the main aid body in the Gaza Strip, he said.

He cited measures in the Israeli parliament, moves to remove the agency's VAT exemption and orders for contractors at Israel's port of Ashdod to "stop handling certain food deliveries for UNRWA".

"And all these demands come from the government."

Furthermore, Lazzarini says more than 150 UNRWA installations have been hit since the Gaza war began.

Israel has called for Lazzarini to step down following claims that a Hamas tunnel had been discovered under its evacuated Gaza City headquarters.

Lazzarini said the tunnel was 20 metres below ground and UNRWA as a humanitarian organisation did not have the capabilities to be examining what was underground in Gaza.

He also said there was "no reason" to comply with Israel's lone call for him to quit, "especially since my resignation would not improve the situation at UNRWA".

"The criticisms are not concerned with me personally, but with the organisation as a whole. The calls for resignation are part of the campaign to destroy UNRWA", he said.

 

- Money running out -

 

The Gaza war began with Hamas' October 7 attack which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

Israel's subsequent assault on Gaza has since killed at least 28,858 people, mostly women and children, according to the Palestinian territory's health ministry.

Several countries -- including the United States, Britain, Germany and Japan -- have suspended funding to UNRWA in response to Israeli allegations that some of its staff participated in the October 7 attack.

Lazzarini said $438 million has been frozen -- the equivalent of more than half of expected income for 2024.

"If all countries continue to withhold their payments, UNRWA's funding will very quickly be at risk," he said.

"From March onwards, expenses exceed income. And without new donors, UNRWA will have to cease operations in April."

He said this applied not only to  the Gaza Strip but also to work in the West Bank, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.

Lazzarini said he was holding meetings with donors and some were "willing to reconsider their decision".

He said the European Commission would pay its contribution of around 82 million euros ($88 million) again from March.

February 17, 2024 08:20 PM
New York ruling deals Trump business a major blow

 

The sweeping punishment meted out Friday by a New York judge on Donald Trump and his family business deals a serious blow to the former president in his longtime home market.

The ruling includes some $355 million in fines, as well as a three-year ban on Trump's service as a corporate officer and his ability to seek loans from New York banks.

The judgment maintains the independent monitor that has frustrated the Trump family, and adds an independent director of compliance.

"The business in many respects is still owned by the family, but it is out of the family's control," said Will Thomas, a business law professor at the University of Michigan.

Although Trump is expected to appeal the ruling, legal experts do not see a viable path for avoiding the $355 million in penalties, which is essentially due immediately.

Rather than the paying the entire sum, Trump could obtain a bond. But garnering a bond requires an upfront payment of usually around 10 percent, or $35 million, which Trump would not get back even in a successful appeal, said Brian Quinn, a professor at Boston College Law School.

While Trump is known for pushing legal challenges to their limit -- or past them -- government authorities in New York state have leverage over the company.

The company's properties in the state include the Trump Tower, 40 Wall Street and the Trump Park Avenue hotel, which is known partly as the venue where Bob Dylan met the Beatles for the first time.

Those assets could be seized if Trump doesn't honor the agreement, Thomas said.

 

 

- Independent monitor in control -

 

The estimated worth of Trump's New York real estate assets is some $690 million, according to Forbes.

Forbes estimates the ex-president's fortune at $2.6 billion, a sum that includes $870 million in golf clubs and resorts, $190 million in real estate outside York City and $640 million in "cash and personal assets."

New York Attorney General Letitia James has emphasized the chicanery exercised by Trump and his sons in the business, saying Friday that Trump was "finally facing accountability for his lying, cheating and staggering fraud."

The ex-president remains resolutely unpopular in his hometown, as he seeks a third White House run after losing New York state decisively in both 2016 and 2020.

Trump is better liked in Florida, where his assets include the Mar-a-Lago club, the Trump National Doral resort in Miami and three homes.

But even if he might like to shift the Trump headquarters to Florida, he would need to be qualified to do business in New York, said Quinn.

Further, Trump's three-year ban on serving as an officer -- and the two-year bans on sons Eric and Donald Jr. -- means they won't be able to do acquisitions, take loans or refinance.

"There's nothing that would prevent him from owning, owning shares or having ownership," Quinn said, adding, "it just becomes very difficult to do business."

Thomas said relocating a business to a new state becomes much more difficult once there is a legal judgement against it in a jurisdiction.

In the coming period, the court will determine exactly how the business is run with the independent monitor, not the Trumps, Thomas said.

"The New York properties are the most under the thumb of the court," Thomas said. "But the rest of the Trump organization is going to be difficult to get out from under the restrictions of this judgement."

February 17, 2024 08:11 PM
Yemen rebels claim latest Red Sea vessel strike

 

Yemen's Iran-backed Huthi rebels on Saturday claimed an attack a day earlier on an oil tanker in the Red Sea, the latest in a series of strikes which have led to retaliation by Britain and the United States.

The Huthis said the vessel was British, although the US military later said it was Danish.

Huthi naval forces "carried out an operation targeting the British oil tanker Pollux in the Red Sea" with missiles, rebel spokesman Yahya Saree said in a statement.

He did not say how the rebels had determined a "British" connection to the ship.

The US Central Command (CENTCOM) confirmed that four anti-ship ballistic missiles were launched from Huthi-controlled areas of Yemen, between Friday afternoon and 1:00 am (2200 GMT) on Saturday.

"At least three of the missiles were launched towards... MT Pollux, a Panamanian-flagged, Denmark-owned, Panamanian-registered vessel," CENTCOM said in a statement on social media.

It added that it had "successfully conducted two self-defence strikes against one mobile anti-ship cruise missile and one mobile unmanned surface vessel" in Yemen, which it said "presented an imminent threat to US Navy ships and merchant vessels in the region".

The strike came on the same day that Washington's redesignation of the Huthis as a terrorist group and accompanying sanctions came into force.

A US State Department spokesperson said on Friday the vessel was able to continue on its voyage.

The tanker "sustained minor damage" in the missile strike northwest of Yemen's port of Mokha, security firm Ambrey said.

The latest attack came after the US military said earlier on Friday it conducted strikes "against three mobile anti-ship cruise missiles in Huthi-controlled areas of Yemen that were prepared to launch against ships in the Red Sea".

In December the United States announced a maritime security initiative, Operation Prosperity Guardian, to protect shipping in the area.

Repeated strikes on Huthi targets by the United States and Britain have failed to halt the rebel attacks.

The group says it is targeting vessels linked to Israel, in solidarity with the Palestinians in Gaza, where Israel is fighting a bloody war against Hamas in retaliation for its October 7 attack.

The attacks have caused significant disruption to international shipping, with many companies choosing to divert their vessels thousands of kilometres (miles) around the southern tip of Africa to avoid the Red Sea.

At war with Yemen's internationally recognised government since 2014, the Huthis control the capital Sanaa and large parts of the north, including most large population centres.

European Union foreign ministers will meet on Monday in Brussels to formally launch a naval mission of their own to help protect international shipping in the Red Sea against Huthi attacks, officials said on Friday.

February 17, 2024 11:18 AM
Britain summons Russian diplomats after death of Navalny

The British government said late Friday it had summoned diplomats from the Russian embassy "to make clear that we hold the Russian authorities fully responsible" for the death of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.

Russian officials said Navalny, 47, had died on Friday in an Arctic prison, a month before an election poised to extend President Vladimir Putin's hold on power.

"In recent years, the authorities imprisoned him on fabricated charges, poisoned him with a banned nerve agent, and sent him to an Arctic penal colony.

"No one should doubt the brutal nature of the Russian system," a Foreign Office spokesperson said.

The Foreign Office "summoned the Russian embassy to make clear that we hold the Russian authorities fully responsible".

"Alexei Navalny dedicated his life to exposing the corruption of the Russian system, calling for free and open politics, and holding the Kremlin to account," the spokesperson said.

Earlier Friday, British Foreign Secretary David Cameron said Putin "should be accountable for what has happened" and paid tribute to Navalny's courage.

Supporters of Navalny turned out across Europe and in the United States on Friday evening to pay tribute to the man widely acknowledged as Russia's main opposition figure, even when he was behind bars.

In London, dozens of people gathered in front of the Russian embassy carrying signs in English and Russian saying: "Stop Putin", "Assassins" and "We are Navalny".

Mourners in Europe, US pay tribute to Navalny

Supporters of Alexei Navalny turned out across Europe and in the United States on Friday to pay tribute to the man widely acknowledged as Russia's main opposition figure, even when he was behind bars.

Navalny's death was announced earlier in the day by officials in the Arctic prison where he was serving a 19-year sentence.

From New York and Washington to cities in western Europe to capitals of former Soviet bloc states, mourners showed their respect for Navalny, a charismatic lawyer who rallied domestic opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Many were quick to blame Navalny's death on Putin.

"Putin murderer! Putin to the Hague," cried a crowd massed before Russia's imposing embassy in Berlin -- a reference to the Dutch city that hosts the International Criminal Court.

Most of the several hundred people gathered there were Russian speakers, many holding up posters of members of the opposition or slogans criticising Putin.

"It's a hard hit emotionally," said Evgueni Syrokin, who coordinates the "FreeNavalny" movement in Germany.

"It pushes us to continue to work, to struggle against Putin," added the 43-year-old, bearing a black and white photo of the opposition figure.

Behind him, flowers, candles and photos of Navalny were laid on the pavement.

- Candles and flowers -

In Warsaw, about 100 people demonstrated outside the Russian embassy. Most were young and visibly upset.

One 29-year-old Russian who only wanted to be identified as Denislan said he saw Navalny as a symbol of Russian civil society.

"I am here because Russia should and can become a democratic country," he said.

Candles and flowers were spread out in front of the gates of the well-guarded embassy.

In Switzerland, around 300 people attended an impromptu gathering outside Zurich's train station, while more than 100 gathered in front of the United Nations in Geneva, carrying portraits of Navalny and white flowers.

And in Moscow too, small groups of Russians laid flowers at makeshift memorials.

Images on social media showed dozens queueing to place flowers at monuments to victims of political repression in the cities of Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

The shock announcement of Navalny's death came a day before official campaigning starts in what critics say will be a stage-managed presidential election in March that will extend 71-year-old Putin's  two-decade hold on power.

In the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, crowds gathered at a memorial to victims of the Soviet occupation.

"Even in prison he managed to find the force and give it to those who resist," said one Russian resident of Vilnius who did not want to give his name.

In London, a few dozen gathered outside the Russian embassy with signs in English and Russian saying "Putin assassin", "Navalny is our hero", and "Putin go to hell".

Hundreds also gathered in the capitals of Armenia, France, Georgia, and the Netherlands.

Across the ocean in New York, people laid flowers outside Russia's consulate and hung photos of Navalny on the gates. Several people held signs saying "Putin-Killer."

Several hundred people, some bearing posters and candles, also gathered in front of the Russian embassy in the US capital Washington, chanting "We are Navalny" and "Shame on Putin".

The words "Putin murderer" were projected on to the embassy building.

"I expected it, but it's still so painful that he left us so early," Maryam Henry, a 44-year-old teacher, told AFP outside the embassy.

"It's such a tragic day. He was a symbol of freedom, bravery and resistance," said a 29-year-old gymnastics coach who gave her name as Polina.

Navalny barely survived a poisoning with the Soviet-designed nerve agent Novichok in 2020. Following treatment in Germany, he returned to Russia in 2021 and was immediately arrested and subsequently jailed.

February 17, 2024 11:07 AM
Zelensky to rally leaders for support at Munich conference

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky on Saturday will seek to rouse allies from war fatigue and step up their financial and military backing at a critical juncture in his country's battle against Russia.

His speech at the Munich Security Conference seeking immediate aid for his soldiers will take on greater urgency following the Ukrainian withdrawal from the frontline city of Avdiivka under pressure from Russian attacks.

It also comes a day after winning pacts with France and Germany that maintain long-term defence support for Kyiv.

Zelensky last attended the Munich meeting two years ago, days before Russia invaded his country.

Then and now, his rallying call for help remains the same -- although the circumstances have dramatically changed.

The war is about to enter its third year, but Russian troops appear far from done with their attacks.

Ukrainian military chief Oleksandr Syrsky said Saturday he had ordered troops to withdraw from Avdiivka to preserve lives and avoid being encircled.

The largely destroyed industrial city had become a main Russian target ahead of the February 24 invasion anniversary.

Zelensky's European tour comes at a vital point with Ukraine facing mounting pressure, not only from Russian attacks but also because of ammunition shortages.

The long-term future of billions of dollars of Western aid is meanwhile in doubt, with the biggest contributor, the United States, in the throes of an election year.

A possible $60-billion package of military aid has been held up in Washington since last year because of wrangling in Congress.

The European Union has also admitted that it will only be able to make good on half of the one million artillery shells it promised to send by March.

Zelensky, who will meet US Vice President Kamala Harris on Saturday, said he hoped that the security deals with Berlin and Paris would give "an impulse to the US" efforts for his country.

Zelensky's call to defeat Russia was also echoed by the wife of Alexei Navalny, who according to Russian authorities suddenly died in prison.

Yulia Navalnaya, who was in Munich for the conference, called "upon all the international community, all the people in the world to come together (to) fight against this evil, we should fight this horrific regime in Russia today".

- Israel-Hamas war in focus -

But while Ukraine was once the main conflict on the minds of world leaders, Israel's war with Hamas and the ensuing escalating crisis in the Middle East have also sent diplomats scrambling for answers.

Both conflicts are dominating talks among the 180 leaders and security chiefs gathered in Munich, on stage and on the sidelines.

G7 foreign ministers huddling on Saturday are expected to seek ways to alleviate civilian suffering in Gaza, and use the occasion to consult with key players in the Middle East crisis.

In separate sessions, Israel's President Isaac Herzog and Qatar's Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani will lay out their visions for establishing peace in the region.

Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry will also be closely watched for any hints on negotiations with Israel ahead of its planned incursion on the overcrowded Gazan border city Rafah.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said Friday his country would coordinate with Egypt before launching any military offensive in Rafah.

Fears had been growing for the hundreds of thousands of people who have fled the north of Gaza to Rafah as Israeli troops advanced into the territory to wage war on Hamas.

But Israel is now planning a major operation in the city. With the border to Egypt closed, nearly 1.5 million Palestinians are essentially trapped there.

Katz said US President Joe Biden would also be briefed on any military offensive, as he stressed his country's determination to push ahead with the operation to root out Hamas fighters.

"If Sinwar and the Hamas murderers think that they can find protection in Rafah, it will not happen," he said, referring to Hamas chief Yahya Sinwar.

February 17, 2024 11:04 AM
Blinken, China's Wang discuss Russia, US sanctions

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised concerns over Beijing's backing for Russia's war against Ukraine on Friday in talks with China's top diplomat Wang Yi, who called for Washington to lift sanctions on Chinese entities.

Blinken and Wang's meeting on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference follows an extremely fraught period between the two giants over issues including Taiwan, trade and human rights.

Washington and Beijing have also been at odds over China's detente with Russia as Moscow wages war in Ukraine.

But tensions have eased markedly over the past year as Washington pursued dialogue with Beijing.

Blinken underlined the "importance of continuing to implement the progress made" at a November summit between US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, said State Department spokesman Matthew Miller.

He also raised the importance of maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and in the South China Sea, the spokesman added.

Wang echoed Blinken's sentiments about the Biden-Xi summit, saying both sides needed to work to "promote a sound, steady and sustainable development of bilateral relations", according to a readout from China's foreign ministry.

The ministry said the two held "candid, substantive and constructive discussions", with Wang calling on the United States to "lift illegal unilateral sanctions against Chinese companies and individuals".

Wang also urged the US to "stop unwarranted harassment and interrogation of Chinese citizens and to promote activities that enhance mutual understanding between the two peoples," the ministry said.

- Russia fears -

On Russia, Blinken raised US concerns that Moscow was developing a space-based anti-satellite weapon -- an issue he also brought up at a separate meeting with Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.

Washington publicly addressed the "space-based" weapon on Thursday, with Moscow denying the assertions as "malicious" and "unfounded".

At meetings with Wang and Jaishankar, Blinken "emphasised that the pursuit of this capability should be a matter of concern", said the US official, adding he planned to raise the issue at Munich Security Conference meetings.

While Beijing still resents US measures such as the banning of exports of advanced semiconductors, relations between the two giants have stabilised somewhat since Biden met Xi in San Francisco in November.

Making good on a commitment made during the summit, a US delegation held an inaugural meeting in February in China on the flow of fentanyl, the powerful painkiller behind an addiction epidemic in the United States.

US officials believe China wants to focus on economic headwinds at home and that it acted with relative moderation during last month's elections in Taiwan.

February 17, 2024 11:01 AM
Top UN court rejects South Africa request for more Gaza measures

The UN's top court Friday rejected South Africa's request to put more legal pressure on Israel to halt a threatened offensive against the Gaza city of Rafah, saying it was "bound to comply with existing measures".

Pretoria has already filed a complaint against Israel in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, alleging that its assault on Gaza amounts to a breach of the Genocide Convention.

The court has yet to rule on the underlying issue, but on January 26 it ordered Israel to ensure it took action to protect Palestinian civilians from further harm and to allow in humanitarian aid.

South African officials on Tuesday filed a further request to the court, asking it to order new measures in the light of Israel's preparation of a new operation against Rafah.

More than half of Gaza's 2.4 million population have sought shelter there from Israel's offensive on the Gaza Strip.

The ICJ's judges acknowledged that the recent developments "'would exponentially increase what is already a humanitarian nightmare with untold regional consequences'" -- citing remarks by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

But although Israel needed to act immediately to ensure the safety and security of Palestinians, that did not require "the indication of additional provisional measures", they added.

Israel remained "bound to fully comply with its obligations under the Genocide Convention and with the said Order", the ICJ ruling said, referring to its January 26 ruling.

Despite the rejection of its latest request, South Africa welcomed the ICJ's latest decision.

It affirmed its view that the "perilous situation" in Gaza demanded the "immediate and effective implementation" of the emergency measures the court ordered in its January 26 decision, it said in a statement late Friday.

"The court has unequivocally explained that compliance with the existing provisional measures requires Israel to ensure the safety and security of all Palestinians in the Gaza Strip," said President Cyril Ramaphosa's spokesman, Vincent Magwenya.

- Israel's assurances -

Hamas's October 7 attack resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

Militants also took about 250 people hostage, around 130 of whom are still in Gaza, including 30 who are presumed dead, according to Israeli figures.

Israel's assault on Gaza has since killed at least 28,775 people, mostly women and children, according to the territory's health ministry.

Israel's foreign minister on Friday pledged the country would coordinate with Egypt before launching any military offensive in the southern border city of Rafah.

"We will operate in Rafah after we coordinate with Egypt," Israel Katz told journalists on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, where 180 dignitaries have gathered to discuss conflicts around the globe.

Fears had been growing for the hundreds of thousands of people who have fled the north of Gaza to Rafah as Israeli troops advanced into the territory to wage war on Hamas.

But Israel is now planning a major operation in the overcrowded city. With the border to Egypt closed, nearly 1.5 million Palestinians are essentially trapped there.

February 17, 2024 09:27 AM
Trump fined $355 million, banned from NY business in fraud trial

A New York judge ordered Donald Trump to pay $355 million over fraud allegations and banned him from running companies in the state for three years Friday in a major blow to his business empire and financial standing.

Trump -- almost certain to be the Republican presidential nominee this November -- was found liable for unlawfully inflating his wealth and manipulating the value of properties to obtain favorable bank loans or insurance terms.

Trump accused President Joe Biden of driving the case, calling it "weaponization against a political opponent who's up a lot in the polls", and vowed to appeal.

As the case was civil, not criminal, there was no threat of imprisonment. But Trump said ahead of the ruling that a ban on conducting business in New York state would be akin to a "corporate death penalty."

Trump, facing 91 criminal counts in other cases, has seized on his legal woes to fire up supporters and denounce his likely opponent Biden, claiming that court cases are "just a way of hurting me in the election."

However, Judge Arthur Engoron said the financially shattering penalties are justified by Trump's behavior.

"Their complete lack of contrition and remorse borders on pathological," Engoron said of Trump and his two sons, who were also defendants, in his scathing ruling.

"They are accused only of inflating asset values to make more money... Donald Trump is not Bernard Madoff. Yet, defendants are incapable of admitting the error of their ways," he added, referring to the perpetrator of a massive Ponzi scheme.

Trump's sons Eric and Donald Trump Jr. were also found liable in the case and ordered to pay more than $4 million each, prompting Don Jr. to claim on social media that "political beliefs" had determined the outcome.

The Trump Organization, an avowedly family business, will also be forced by the ruling to allow in an independent compliance director answerable to the court.

- 'Tremendous victory' -

It was as a property developer and businessman in New York that Trump built his public profile which he used as a springboard into the entertainment industry and ultimately the presidency.

The judge's order was a victory for New York state Attorney General Letitia James. She had sought $370 million from Trump to remedy the advantage he is alleged to have wrongfully obtained, as well as having him barred from conducting business in the state.

"This is a tremendous victory for this state, this nation, and for everyone who believes that we all must play by the same rules -- even former presidents," James said.

Trump has repeatedly attacked James, calling her a "lunatic," as well as smearing Engoron, who decided the case without a jury, calling him "out of control."

During highly technical testimony, the court heard that in one case Trump valued Mar-a-Lago, his exclusive Florida club, by using "asking prices," rather than actual sales prices, for a comparison.

"From 2011-2015 defendants added a 30 percent premium because the property was a 'completed (commercial) facility,'" the prosecution said, arguing it unlawfully distorted its true value.

Trump's lawyer Chris Kise said "there is no clear and present evidence establishing intent by Donald Trump."

Kise acknowledged there could be errors in Trump's corporate financial statements but none "lead to the conclusion there was fraud."

- Legal whirlwind -

The ruling caps a whirlwind legal week for Trump.

Trump appeared in a New York court Thursday ahead of a criminal trial, where he faces charges of illegally covering up hush money payments. It will be the first criminal trial of a former US president.

Trump's lawyers were also representing him in Atlanta, Georgia, where he is accused of conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election, which he lost to Biden.

A separate trial on Trump's attempts to overturn the 2020 election is on hold in Washington, DC, while Trump attempts to assert presidential immunity.

The twice-impeached former president is due to go on trial in Florida in May on charges of taking troves of highly secret documents when he left the presidency and thwarting officials trying to recover them.

February 17, 2024 08:50 AM
Fears grow for crucial Gaza hospital after Israeli raid

Fears mounted Saturday for people trapped in one of Gaza's main hospitals after Israeli troops raided the facility and the Hamas-run territory's health ministry said several patients had died there from a lack of oxygen.

The ministry said late Friday that at least 120 patients and five medical teams were stuck without water, food and electricity in the Nasser Hospital in Gaza's main southern city of Khan Yunis.

In recent days, intense fighting has raged around the hospital -- one of the Palestinian territory's last remaining major medical facilities that remains operational.

Troops entered the hospital on Thursday, acting on what the military said was "credible intelligence" that hostages seized in Hamas' unprecedented October 7 attack had been held there and that the bodies of some may still be inside.

The army said it had arrested 20 people, seized weapons and retrieved "medications with the names of Israeli hostages" in the hospital.

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A witness, who declined to be named for safety reasons, told AFP the Israeli forces had shot "at anyone who moved inside the hospital".

Gaza's health ministry also said power was cut off and the generators had stopped after the raid, leading to the deaths of five patients.

It said it held Israel "responsible... considering that the complex is now under its full control".

The Israeli army insisted it had made every effort to keep the hospital supplied with power. "Troops worked to repair the generator while... special forces brought in an alternative generator," it said.

But the World Health Organization on Friday slammed the Israeli operation, with spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic telling reporters that "more degradation to the hospital means more lives being lost".

"Patients, health workers, and civilians who are seeking refuge in hospitals deserve safety and not a burial in those places of healing."

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- 'Pattern of attacks' -

Doctors Without Borders said its medics had been forced to flee and leave patients behind, with one employee unaccounted for and another detained by Israeli forces.

Roughly 130 hostages are still believed to be in Gaza after Hamas' October attack on Israel, which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

Dozens of the estimated 250 hostages seized during the attack were freed in exchange for Palestinian prisoners during a week-long truce in November. Israel says 30 of those still in Gaza are presumed dead.

At least 28,775 people, mostly women and children, have been killed in Israel's subsequent assault on Gaza, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.

Israel has repeatedly accused Hamas militants of using hospitals for military purposes, which Hamas has denied.

The UN Human Rights Office said Israel's raid on the Nasser Hospital appeared to be "part of a pattern of attacks by Israeli forces striking essential life-saving civilian infrastructure in Gaza, especially hospitals".

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- 'Dying slowly' -

Around 1.4 million displaced civilians are trapped in the town of Rafah, after taking refuge in a makeshift encampment hard by the Egyptian border with dwindling supplies.

"They are killing us slowly," said displaced Palestinian Mohammad Yaghi.

"We are dying slowly due to the scarcity of resources and the lack of medications and treatments."

US President Joe Biden urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu late Thursday not to carry out an offensive on Rafah without a plan to keep civilians safe, the White House said.

But Netanyahu has insisted he will push ahead with a "powerful" operation in Rafah to achieve "complete victory" over Hamas.

Foreign Minister Israel Katz said Friday that Israel would coordinate with Egypt before launching its operation.

"Egypt is our ally, we have peace agreements with Egypt and we will operate in a way that does not hurt the Egyptian interests," Katz told reporters in Munich.

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Biden said he had also held "extensive" conversations with Netanyahu about the need for a new truce in Gaza to bring the remaining hostages home.

"I feel very strongly about it -- that there has to be a temporary ceasefire to get the prisoners out, to get the hostages out," he said.

Hamas's armed wing said that hostages in Gaza were "struggling to stay alive" as conditions deteriorate due to relentless Israeli bombardments.

The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that Egypt was building a walled camp near the border to accommodate any Palestinians displaced from Gaza, citing Egyptian officials and security analysts.

Egypt has repeatedly opposed any "forced displacement" from Gaza, warning it could jeopardise its 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said any mass exodus of refugees would be "catastrophic" for both Egypt and the Palestinians.

"More important than anything else, a further refugee crisis would be almost the nail in the coffin of a future peace process," Grandi told the BBC.

https://twitter.com/MordechaiKlompa/status/1758584917980545202

- Israel shooting -

In the southern Israeli town of Kiryat Malakhi, about 25 kilometres (15 miles) north of Gaza, a gunman killed two people at a crowded bus stop on Friday and wounded four others.

Netanyahu warned that the entire country had become a front line, saying that "the murderers, who come not only from Gaza, want to kill us all".

With the war now in its fifth month, tensions remain high across the region.

Hamas ally Hezbollah and its arch-foe Israel have been exchanging near-daily fire across the border since the Israel-Hamas war broke out on October 7.

The leader of the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement, Hassan Nasrallah, vowed that Israel would pay "with blood" for civilians it has killed in Lebanon, warning his group had missiles that can reach anywhere in Israel.

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February 16, 2024 11:46 PM
Zelensky set for French security deal after 'historic' German pact

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky arrived in Paris on Friday to sign a security pact with France, having earlier secured a deal with Germany hailed by Chancellor Olaf Scholz as a "historic step" anchoring support for Kyiv in its raging battle against Russia.

Both deals are part of Zelensky's drive to shore up help for his forces who are struggling to hold off Russian attacks on the frontline city of Avdiivka.

After touching down at Orly airport south of the French capital, Zelensky travelled on to the Elysee palace where he met with President Emmanuel Macron to sign the accord.

The French presidency said ahead of the meeting that the pact would run for 10 years, and include precise commitments from the French side, including financial pledges.

It would strengthen cooperation in the area of artillery, the presidency said, without providing details.

The deal is also to help pave the way towards Ukraine's future integration into the European Union and NATO, officials said.

With the Ukraine war about to enter its third year, Zelensky was to make further pleas for sustained help with financing and armaments at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday, where leaders like US Vice President Kamala Harris have gathered.

Zelensky's European tour comes at a critical time with Ukraine facing mounting pressure on the eastern front because of ammunition shortages and fresh Russian attacks.

Fierce fighting raged around the beleaguered frontline town of Avdiivka, which has become a main Russian target ahead of the February 24 invasion anniversary.

The long-term future of billions of dollars of Western aid is meanwhile in doubt, with the biggest contributor, the United States, in the throes of an election year.

A possible $60-billion package of military aid has been held up in Washington since last year because of wrangling in Congress.

The EU has also admitted that it will only be able to make good on half of the one million artillery shells it promised to send by March.

But Scholz underlined that the security pact inked in Berlin on Friday illustrates that Germany will "not let up" in supporting Ukraine. He also announced a new package of immediate military support worth 1.1 billion euros ($1.2 billion). 

'For as long as it takes' 

"This document ... shows that Germany will continue to help Ukraine with its defence against Russia's attacks. I have often said: for as long as it takes," said Scholz, who also called the signing of the deal "a historic step".

The agreement lays out support for a post-war Ukraine to build up a modern army that can repel further attacks from Russia in the future.

"Our security agreement is a truly unprecedented bilateral document," said Zelensky.

G7 nations flagged plans to provide Ukraine with long-term defence support on the sidelines of the NATO summit last July. Alliance leaders failed, however, to set a timetable for Ukraine to join the bloc.

A first agreement had been signed with Britain in January, during Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's visit to Kyiv.

Zelensky is seeking to shake off any war fatigue besetting his allies.

Addressing the conference in Munich, Harris said President Joe Biden's administration "will work to secure critical weapons and resources that Ukraine so badly needs".

Abandoning Kyiv would be a "gift to (Russian President) Vladimir Putin," she said, on the eve of bilateral talks with Zelensky.

Ukraine was once the main conflict on the minds of world leaders but Israel's war with Hamas and the ensuing escalating crisis in the Middle East now also require urgent attention.

Zelensky's European tour was meanwhile overshadowed by the announcement Friday of the death in a Russian prison of opposition figure Alexei Navalny that sparked worldwide reactions.

"Obviously he was killed by Putin," Zelensky said in Berlin. "Like thousands of others who have been tortured."

He said this demonstrated why Putin must be made to "lose everything and held accountable for his actions".

February 16, 2024 11:42 PM
Top Kremlin critic Navalny dies in prison

The Kremlin's most prominent critic Alexei Navalny died on Friday in an Arctic prison, Russian officials said, a month before an election poised to extend Vladimir Putin's hold on power.

Navalny's death after three years in detention and a poisoning that he blamed on the Kremlin deprives Russia's opposition of its figurehead at a time of intense repression and Moscow's campaign in Ukraine.

Dissidents and Western officials blamed Putin and his government for the 47-year-old's death, which followed months of deteriorating health in harsh detention conditions.

"Alexei Navalny was tortured and tormented for three years... Murder was added to Alexei Navalny's sentence," Russian Nobel Peace Prize winner Dmitry Muratov was quoted as saying by the Novaya Gazeta newspaper.

"Make no mistake, Putin is responsible for Navalny's death," US President Joe Biden said in remarks from the White House. "Even in prison he was a powerful voice for the truth."

The death was announced by Russia's federal penitentiary service, which said Navalny "felt bad after a walk, almost immediately losing conciousness".

Russian news agencies reported that medics from a local hospital arrived within minutes and spent more than "half an hour" trying to resuscitate him.

Navalny's wife, Yulia, said she held Putin personally responsible for her husband's death and called on the international community to "unite and defeat this evil, terrifying regime".

Navalny was Russia's most prominent opposition leader and won a huge following with his campaigning against corruption under Putin.

The Russian leader -- who famously never referred to Navalny by name -- was on a visit to the Urals on Friday and made no mention of the death in his public appearance.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused Western leaders of "absolutely unacceptable" and "hysterical" reactions to Navalny's death.

Moscow authorities also warned the public against taking part in any protests as videos shared online showed dozens of Russians laying flowers at monuments to victims of political repression in different Russian cities.

At least one person was detained for holding up a placard that appeared to say "murderers" on it, according to a video posted by the independent Sota Telegram channel.

"They won't let anyone go out in the streets. The government is terribly afraid" of a "wave" of protests, Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of the R. Politik consultancy, told AFP.

 'Brutally murdered' 

One of Navalny's lawyers, Leonid Solovyov, told the independent Novaya Gazeta paper that the Kremlin critic was "normal" when a lawyer saw him on Wednesday.

In footage of a court hearing from his prison colony on Thursday, Navalny was seen smiling and joking as he addressed the judge by video link. State media reported he raised no health complaints during the session.

Speaking at the Munich Security Conference hours after news of her husband's death, Yulia Navalnaya said Putin and his entourage "will be punished for everything they have done to our country, to my family and to my husband".

Western governments and Russian opposition figures immediately blamed the Kremlin.

US Vice President Kamala Harris said his death was "a sign of Putin's brutality".

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Navalny had "paid for his courage with his life", while Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said his death was a "huge tragedy" for the Russian people.

The president of Latvia, Edgars Rinkevics said he had been "brutally murdered by the Kremlin" while French Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne said his death "reminds us of the reality of Putin's regime".

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky, battling Russian forces for the past two years, said the Kremlin critic had been "killed by Putin".

 'I'm not afraid' 

 Navalny, who led street protests for more than a decade, became a household name through his anti-corruption campaigning.

His exposes of official corruption, posted on his YouTube channel, racked up millions of views and brought tens of thousands of Russians to the streets, despite harsh anti-protest laws.

He was jailed in early 2021 after returning to Russia from Germany, where he was recuperating from a near-fatal poisoning attack with Novichok, a Soviet-era nerve agent.

In a string of cases he was sentenced to 19 years in prison on charges widely condemned by independent rights groups and in the West as retribution for his opposition to the Kremlin.

His return to Russia despite knowing he would face jail brought him admiration.

"I'm not afraid and I call on you not to be afraid," he said in an appeal to supporters as he landed in Moscow, moments before being detained on charges linked to an old fraud conviction.

His 2021 arrest spurred some of the largest demonstrations Russia had seen in decades, and thousands were detained at rallies nationwide calling for his release.

From behind bars he was a staunch opponent of Moscow's full-scale military offensive against Ukraine, and watched on, helplessly, as the Kremlin dismantled his organisation and locked up his allies.

Dozens of his top supporters fled into exile and continued to campaign against the offensive on Ukraine and growing repression inside Russia.

  'Don't do nothing'

Late last year, Navalny was moved to a remote Arctic prison colony in Russia's Yamalo-Nenets region in northern Siberia.

Navalny said in January that his daily routine included prison walks in freezing temperatures, and that he had to use an open-air concrete yard measuring just 11 by three steps wide.

Since being jailed in 2021, he spent more than 300 days in solitary confinement, where prison authorities kept him over alleged minor infringements of prison rules.

The last post on Navalny's Telegram channel, which he managed through his lawyers and team in exile, was a tribute to his wife posted on Valentine's Day.

In a documentary filmed before he returned to Russia, Navalny was asked what message he wanted to leave to the Russian people should he die or be killed.

"Don't give up. You mustn't, you can't give up," he said.

"All it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. Therefore, don't do nothing."

February 16, 2024 11:12 PM
French journalist says leaving India after expulsion threat

A French journalist said Friday she was leaving India, where she had worked for more than two decades, after authorities threatened to expel her for what they termed "malicious and critical" reporting.

Critics say that media freedom in the world's most populous democracy is increasingly under attack, with journalists who touch on sensitive topics often subjected to government rebuke.

Vanessa Dougnac, a contributor to several French-language publications including the weekly magazine Le Point, had worked in India for 23 years.

The home ministry sent her a notice last month saying that her work was "inimical" to national interests and said it had provisionally decided to cancel her permanent residency.

"Leaving is not my choice," Dougnac said in a statement announcing her departure.

"I am unable to work and have been unfairly accused of prejudicing the interests of the state. It has become clear that I cannot keep living in India."

Dougnac had reported on a number of flashpoint topics, including the ongoing Maoist Naxalite insurgency in parts of rural India.

The home ministry notice accused her of journalism that was "malicious and critical in manner" and created a "biased perception about India".

She denied "all the allegations and imputations" made against her in the notice when it became public last month.

The notice was issued to her a week before the arrival of French President Emmanuel Macron, who was guest of honour at India's annual Republic Day military parade.

India's foreign ministry told reporters during Macron's visit that Dougnac's case had been raised by France before and during the visit.

"It's deeply disheartening to witness the harassment that Vanessa Dougnac... has endured at the hands of Indian authorities in the last 17 months," said Carlos Martinez de la Serna, program director for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

"The Indian government must promptly establish a transparent mechanism that enables foreign journalists to seek redressal."

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government has been accused of stifling independent media, with India falling 21 places to 161 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index since he took office in 2014.

Indian offices of the BBC were raided by the tax department last year, weeks after the British broadcaster was hit with a barrage of government criticism for airing a documentary questioning Modi's role in 2002 religious riots.

February 16, 2024 11:07 PM
Senegal president pledges to hold election 'as soon as possible'

Senegalese President Macky Sall, who faces mounting pressure at home and abroad, vowed on Friday to organise presidential elections "as soon as possible" after the top constitutional body overruled his decision to delay this month's vote.

Sall's last-minute move to postpone the February 25 poll until December triggered Senegal's worst crisis in decades.

The decision sparked a widespread outcry and deadly protests in what is often seen as a bastion of stability in coup-hit West Africa.

The Constitutional Council's ruling late on Thursday to annul the vote delay plunged the country into further uncertainty.

"The president of the republic intends to fully implement the decision of the Constitutional Council," the presidency said in a statement.

"To this end, the head of state will without delay carry out the consultations necessary to organise the presidential election as soon as possible."

Sall, who has been in power since 2012, said he called off the vote over disputes about the disqualification of potential candidates and concern about a return to unrest seen in 2021 and 2023.

Parliament later approved the delay until December 15, but only after security forces entered the building and removed some opposition lawmakers who opposed the bill.

The vote paved the way for Sall -- whose second term is due to expire in April -- to remain in office until a successor was installed.

Three people have been killed during demonstrations against the vote delay, with security forces repressing attempts to mobilise.

The ruling by the Constitutional Council was widely welcomed for easing tensions.

By mid-afternoon on Friday, there was virtually no response to calls for protests in the capital Dakar, where police and journalists outnumbered demonstrators, an AFP journalist saw.

The opposition had decried Sall's move as a "constitutional coup", saying his party feared defeat at the ballot box for its candidate Prime Minister Amadou Ba.

Sall's term in office officially expires on April 2 and the head of state has repeatedly said he will not stand for a third term.

The Constitutional Council reiterated the fixed nature of the five-year presidential term.

  'Historic' 

 Senegal had faced growing calls from major international partners to swiftly organise the vote.

The West African regional bloc, ECOWAS, the European Union, France and Britain all called on the authorities to comply with the Council's ruling.

People interviewed by AFP in the streets of Dakar expressed relief at the move.

"It's good that the Constitutional Council is taking the decision it has, at least we're halfway to the right solution," said 55-year-old Mamadou Caba.

Babacar Gueye, a constitutional expert and coordinator of a civil society collective which opposed the vote delay, described the Council's decision as "historic".

"The Council did not set a deadline, it simply said 'as soon as possible'. This means both quickly and under the right conditions," said Gueye, one of the organisers of the Aar Sunu Election (Let's protect our election) collective.

The Constitutional Council in January approved 20 candidates to run in the presidential election.

It remains to be seen whether the same list of candidates will be put forward again and when the vote will take place.

  Discussions

 Government spokesman Abdou Karim Fofana said the Council had not imposed a date, adding that he foresaw discussions between the president and political players "which will enable things to be organised".

The president "must make arrangements for us to discuss and see how to implement the Council's decision," Khalifa Sall, one of the principal presidential candidates, told journalists.

He did not say whether the election should take place before or after President Sall's departure.

But he added that when the president's mandate ends on April 2, Sall "must go".

Amadou Ba, the representative of detained opposition figure Bassirou Diomaye Faye, said that "Macky (Sall) must organise the presidential election before the end of his mandate," the Walf daily reported.

Faye is the second-in-command of the dissolved PASTEF party, which has been involved in a bitter stand-off with the state since 2021, sparking sometimes deadly unrest.

Hundreds of party supporters and civil society members have been arrested.

More than 130 of them have been released from prison since Thursday and around 90 more are due to be freed on Friday, according to the justice ministry.

February 16, 2024 10:26 PM
UK bank NatWest shakes off CEO turmoil as profits jump

British bank NatWest on Friday said net profit jumped nearly a third in 2023 on higher interest rates, adding that Paul Thwaite would become permanent chief executive following boardroom turmoil.

Profit after tax increased 32 percent to £4.4 billion ($5.5 billion), NatWest said it a statement. Revenue climbed 12 percent to around £14.8 billion.

Thwaite takes over from Alison Rose, who resigned as CEO in July after admitting a "serious error of judgment" in speaking to a reporter about the banking affairs of arch-Brexiteer Nigel Farage.

Thwaite had filled the role on an interim basis after an internal promotion.

He said Friday that it was "an honour to lead" a bank "which plays a vital role in the lives of the 19 million customers".

"With that, comes a great sense of responsibility to succeed for our customers, colleagues, and shareholders.

"Our customers' needs and expectations are changing at pace, as they engage with emerging technology, adapt to new social trends, and build ever more resilience to a fast-evolving world," the new CEO added in a statement.

An independent probe in October found that NatWest displayed "serious failings" in its treatment of the banking affairs of Farage -- ex-leader of the Brexit Party and the anti-immigration party UKIP.

Farage had complained about the closure of his account with upmarket NatWest division Coutts, claiming he was removed for his political views.

NatWest remains 38-percent owned by the government after a state bailout of the lender in the wake of the global financial crisis in 2008. As the bank slowly returned to health, the government sold off chunks of its majority stake.

  Shares surge 

 The bank on Friday added that operating pre-tax profit came in at £6.2 billion, the highest since 2007, or eve of the crisis.

The bank revealed also lower-than-expected impairment charges linked to defaults on mortgages as borrowers struggle with high interest rates.

Following the earnings update, NatWest's share price soared 6.5 percent, topping London's benchmark FTSE 100 index, which was up 1.4 percent overall.

"In all, these are a robust set of results," noted Richard Hunter, head of markets at trading group Interactive Investor.

Despite Friday's strong investor reaction, "the share price has tended to be dogged by the general outlook for the UK economy" in recent months, he added.

Official data Thursday showed the British economy in recession, although economists expect it to be short-lived.

Figures Friday showed a sharp rebound in UK retail sales.

February 16, 2024 10:23 PM
Ship reports missile attack off Yemen: security agencies

A vessel reported a missile attack off the Red Sea coast of Yemen on Friday, security agencies said, the second such incident in under 24 hours.

The ship transitting northwest of the Yemeni port city of Mokha "was attacked by a missile and reports an explosion in close proximity", the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations agency said.

UKMTO said military authorities were responding, but noted "the crew and the vessel are reported safe."

Security firm Ambrey said a Panama-flagged tanker northwest of Mokha "experienced an explosion in the vicinity of the vessel and reportedly sustained minor damage".

"Another vessel... to the northeast of the tanker was observed altering course to port, away from the tanker," Ambrey said.

Yemen's Iran-backed Huthi rebels, who did not immediately claim Friday's strike, have been attacking shipping since November in a campaign they say is in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza amid the Israel-Hamas war.

On Thursday, a missile was fired from Huthi-controlled areas towards "a Barbados-flagged, UK-owned and operated bulk carrier", US Central Command said on social media.

That attack was later claimed by the rebels.

The ship reported no injuries but very minor damage and continued its voyage, CENTCOM said on social media on Friday .

The Huthi attacks on the key shipping route through the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea have triggered reprisals by US and British forces, including a fresh wave of American strikes this week.

On Friday, the US military said it conducted two strikes "against three mobile anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM) in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen that were prepared to launch against ships in the Red Sea".

The raids occurred on Thursday between 3:10 pm and 8 pm (12:10 GMT and 1700 GMT), CENTCOM said.

The Huthi attacks have prompted some shipping companies to detour around southern Africa to avoid the Red Sea, which normally carries about 12 percent of global maritime trade.

The UN Conference on Trade and Development warned late last month that the volume of commercial traffic passing through the Suez Canal had fallen more than 40 percent in the previous two months.

February 16, 2024 09:53 PM
Navalny death: What we know

Russia's top opposition politician Alexei Navalny died on Friday at the Arctic prison colony where he was serving a 19-year-term.

Here is what we know so far about the death of the 47-year-old head of the Anti-Corruption Foundation and outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin:

  Died 'after a walk' 

 Russia's federal penitentiary service said Navalny, already the target of a poisoning attack before he went to jail, fell ill after going for a walk.

"Navalny felt bad after a walk, almost immediately losing consciousness. Medical staff arrived immediately and an ambulance team was called," the prison service said in a statement.

"Resuscitation measures were carried out that did not yield positive results. Paramedics confirmed the death of the convict. The causes of death are being established," it added.

Russian news agencies reported that medics from a nearby hospital were called seven minutes later and spent half an hour trying to resuscitate Navalny.

Russia's Investigative Committee said it had opened an investigation into the death.

A lawyer for Navalny and a regional court said he had actively participated in a video legal hearing on Thursday, the day before he died, when he did not appear to have any health complaints.

Russian state television briefly reported Navalny's death.

  Lawyers not told 

 Navalny's defence team said they had not been informed of his death but that a lawyer was going to the remote Kharp prison in the Arctic region to find out what happened.

Western governments have been quick to blame the Kremlin, however.

"The Russian government bears a heavy responsibility," Norway's Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said that Navalny's death was a "warning" to the world and called for a clarification of what happened.

  Prison colony 

 Navalny had been detained in Russia since January 2021 when he was sentenced to a prison colony for "extremism". That term was extended to 19 years in August last year. That was just the latest in a string of jail terms for charges that included embezzlement.

He had spent most of his detention at the IK-6 penal colony in the Vladimir region, some 250 kilometres (155 miles) east of Moscow.

In December he disappeared for more than two weeks. At the end of that month it was revealed that he had been moved to the notorious IK-3 colony at Kharp in the Arctic.

Navalny said on social media on December 26 that he was "fine" after a "pretty exhausting" 20-day transfer to the remote prison inside the Arctic Circle.

IK-3 is more than 1,900 kilometres (1,200 miles) northeast of Moscow. Its name means Northern Lights, but its nickname is "Polar Wolf".

It was built in the 1960s on the site of a camp that was part of the Stalin-era labour camp network, known as the Gulag. It can house up to 1,020 prisoners. Inmates are put to work treating reindeer skins.

  Poison before prison 

 Navalny mobilised huge anti-government protests before being jailed in 2021, after surviving an attempt to assassinate him by poisoning.

Starting out as an anti-corruption campaigner in 2007, Navalny led huge protests in 2011-12 and received his first conviction in 2013 for embezzlement. He denied the charges.

After being barred from the 2018 presidential election, Navalny was admitted to hospital in Siberia in August 2020 after losing consciousness during a flight.

He was transferred to a Berlin hospital where tests showed he was poisoned with Novichok, a Soviet-era nerve agent. Navalny blamed Putin for the poisoning. The Kremlin denied the accusation.

February 16, 2024 09:47 PM
France, Germany block EU deal on scaled-back app worker law

France and Germany on Friday refused to back a watered-down agreement on controversial EU rules covering app workers in the gig economy, European diplomats said.

The European Union's objective was to bring in bloc-wide rules that supporters hoped would improve conditions for app workers in the gig economy by reclassifying some as employed.

But the latest text scaled back those efforts, by scrapping any formal list of criteria and letting states decide how to classify workers.

For any approval, there needed to be a qualified majority of 15 out of 27 EU nations, representing at least 65 percent of the bloc's population.

During a meeting of member states' ambassadors in Brussels, the EU's two most populous countries, France and Germany, blocked the text with the support of Estonia and Greece, the diplomats told AFP.

They said they could not support the text, therefore denying the qualified majority, the diplomats added.

"Unfortunately, the necessary qualified majority voting wasn't found," Belgium, which holds the rotating EU presidency, said on social media.

"We'll now consider the next steps," it added.

EU diplomats said the presidency would not give up. "Why would they? There are 23 countries supporting this deal," one said.

Others were sceptical, arguing that this would not be possible and the issue would be kicked into the long grass until after June elections across Europe.

The draft rules have been a source of controversy since the European Commission first proposed the text in 2021.

Member states and the European Parliament struck a first agreement on the draft text in December 2023 but days later, a France-led blockade stopped the deal in its tracks.

February 16, 2024 09:26 PM
Three killed, two missing on Florence building site

Three construction workers were killed and two remained missing in Florence on Friday after the collapse of part of a supermarket under construction, an official said.

"Three workers died because of their jobs, in the heart of Florence," said Monia Monni, civil protection officer for Italy's central Tuscany region, calling it an "immense tragedy".

In a statement posted on Facebook, she said three people were in hospital, two of them in a serious but not life-threatening condition, while "firefighters are still searching for two people missing under the rubble".

The accident took place on a site northwest of Florence's main train station, where workers were putting together prefabricated concrete structures for a new Esselunga supermarket.

The company, which owns a chain of supermarkets across Italy, announced it was closing its Florence stores on Monday afternoon as a mark of respect.

Speaking earlier before the confirmation of the deaths, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni offered her condolences to those affected and prayers for those injured and missing.

"It is another story... of people who go out to work, who simply go out to do their job, and do not come home," she said during a visit to Calabria.

Italy's newspapers regularly carry stories of workers killed on the job, and Friday's incident sparked outrage among trade unions, who called a demonstration in Florence.

"Safety at work must be considered a priority, it is unacceptable that every day we talk about deaths and injuries as if we are at war," said the CGIL union in a statement.

Almost 800 deaths at work were recorded in Italy last year, according to official statistics -- almost 90 percent of them men, and half aged over 50.

According to European Union statistics, Italy recorded 3.17 workplace deaths per 100,000 employed people, above the bloc-wide average of 2.23 but behind France (4.47) and Austria (3.44).

Across the EU, 22.5 percent of all fatal workplace accidents took place within the construction sector.

February 16, 2024 09:18 PM
'Paid with his life': World reacts to Navalny's death

Russia said the Kremlin's most prominent critic, Alexei Navalny died on Friday in an Arctic prison, drawing intense criticism from opposition and Western officials.

 

Here are some of the key reactions:

 'Murder'

"Alexei's death is a murder. Organised by (Vladimir) Putin," Exiled Russian opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov said. "Even if Alexei died of 'natural' causes, they were caused by his poisoning and further torture in prison."

 'Putin responsible'

"He was convicted in a trial on false charges, with false evidence. He was put in prison, where he lived in terrible conditions. Vladimir Putin is responsible for all this," said Poland's foreign affairs minister Radoslaw Sikorski.

'Dreadful nature of regime'

"Putin's Russia fabricated charges against him, poisoned him, sent him to an arctic penal colony and now he has tragically died," said British Foreign Secretary David Cameron. "No one should doubt the dreadful nature of his regime."

 'Sweeping accusations'

"The death of a person is always a tragedy," Russia's foreign ministry said. "Instead of sweeping accusations, one ought to show restraint and wait for the official results of the forensic medical examination."

 'Navalny was tortured'

"Alexei Navalny was tortured and tormented for three years. As Navalny's doctor told me: the body cannot endure such things. Murder was added to Alexei Navalny's sentence," said Russian Nobel Peace Prize winner Dmitry Muratov.

 'Killed by Putin'

"Obviously he was killed by Putin. Like thousands of others who have been tortured," said Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky, adding that this demonstrates why Putin must be made to "lose everything and held accountable for his actions".

 'Questions to answer'

"I am deeply saddened and concerned about reports coming from Russia that Alexei Navalny is dead, all the facts have to be established and Russia has serious questions to answer," NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg told journalists.

 'Unjust imprisonment'

"Deeply shocked by the death of Alexei Navalny. We demand clarification of the circumstances of his death, which occurred during his unjust imprisonment for political reasons," said Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares.

 'Paid with his life'

Germany's Chancellor Olaf Scholz recalled occasions when he had spoken with Navalny about the "great courage" that prompted him to return to Russia after recovering in Berlin from a poisoning attack.

"He has now paid for this courage with his life," said Scholz.

 Punish Putin for 'atrocities'

"I'd like Putin and all his staff... to know that they will be punished for what they have done with our country, with my family and with my husband," Alexei Navalny's wife Yulia Navalnaya said.

 "We should fight this horrific regime in Russia today. Vladimir Putin should be personally held for all the atrocities they have committed in our country in the last years."

 'Murdered him slowly'

"Putin tried and failed to murder Navalny quickly and secretly with poison, and now he has murdered him slowly and publicly in prison," chess legend Garry Kasparov wrote on social media.

February 16, 2024 09:06 PM
Swift gives $100k to family of Super Bowl parade shooting victim

Taylor Swift donated $100,000 on Friday to a fundraiser supporting the family of the woman killed in a mass shooting at Kansas City Chiefs' Super Bowl victory parade.

The GoFundMe page was set up one day prior, aiming to raise $75,000 for the family of Elizabeth Lopez-Galvan, who died in the shooting that also left 22 people injured, including several children.

"Sending my deepest sympathies and condolences in the wake of your devastating loss. With love, Taylor Swift, read a message next to a $50,000 donation to the cause. A second donation in the same amount was deposited minutes later.

A Swift's aide confirmed to Variety magazine that the donations on the page were in fact the singer's.

Along with Swift, more than 2,000 people have donated to the page, which has raised more than $200,000.

Police said the shooting on Wednesday was the result of a "dispute" and two juveniles were among those detained.

Up to a million jubilant fans had gathered for the parade of NFL champions Wednesday afternoon when shots rang out.

Mass shootings are common in the United States, where there are more guns than people, and about a third of adults own a firearm.

The Chiefs were celebrating their third Super Bowl title in five seasons after beating the San Francisco 49ers in Las Vegas on Sunday.

Swift is dating the tight end of the Chiefs, Travis Kelce, and was a regular presence at games throughout the season including the championship Sunday.

The megastar is currently in Australia as part of her blockbuster Eras world tour.

February 16, 2024 08:48 PM
Dozens of migrants accuse Serbian police of violence, beatings

Several dozen migrants accused Serbian police of beating and stripping them while violently pushing them back to North Macedonia, a non-governmental organisation said on Friday.

More than 70 people who arrived at the North Macedonia border last weekend claimed to have been violently pushed back by Serbian police, according to the Skopje-based Legis NGO.

It posted a video on X, formerly Twitter, showing barefoot men walking in underwear alongside a road at night.

The video was filmed by locals on the road between the village of Lojane and the border with Serbia, head of Legis Jasmin Redzepi said.

The first group of migrants, who claimed they were beaten, robbed and stripped to their underwear by Serbian police, started to arrive at Lojane on February 9 at night, Redzepi told AFP.

The migrants are from different countries, Redzepi said without elaborating on their particular countries of origin.

Contacted by AFP, neither Serbia's nor North Macedonia's police commented.

Some of the migrants pushed back from Serbia headed to Greece, some were sheltered at a border transit centre while others remained in the area with the goal of again trying to enter Serbia.

Redzepi said that the Serbian police actions were the "most inhuman and most humiliating treatment" of migrants he had witnessed in the decade that Legis has been working in the field.

"That is not the way to treat people," he added.

The migrants' final destination is neither Serbia nor North Macedonia and they committed no crime, he stressed.

And he accused the European Union of "silently" approving the police actions through its calls to strengthen border controls.

Serbia and North Macedonia lie on the so-called Balkans route, used by migrants heading towards Western Europe.

During the first 10 months of last year, nearly 100,000 migrants used the route, according to the EU's border surveillance agency Frontex.

February 16, 2024 08:44 PM
Hezbollah chief says Israel to pay 'with blood' for Lebanon civilians killed

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah vowed Friday that Israel will pay "with blood" for civilians killed this week in Lebanon, warning his group has missiles that can reach Israel's far south.

"The enemy will pay with blood" for every woman and child killed in Lebanon by cross-border fire, Nasrallah said in a televised address.

He warned that his Iran-backed movement has "precision-guided missiles that can reach... Eilat", on Israel's Red Sea coast, well beyond the northern towns it usually targets in retaliatory strikes.

Hamas ally Hezbollah and its arch-foe Israel have been exchanging near-daily fire across the border since the Israel-Hamas war broke out on October 7.

In the bloodiest day for Lebanon since then, the Israeli military said it had killed Hezbollah commander Ali al-Debs, his deputy and another fighter in Nabatiyeh on Wednesday.

A security source in Lebanon said that along with Debs and two other Hezbollah members, the strike had killed seven civilians from the same family. The source requested anonymity, not being authorised to speak to the media.

Nasrallah said the killing of civilians was aimed at "putting pressure" on Hezbollah "to stop" firing rockets into Israel, but stressed that instead the group will intensify its cross-border attacks.

The Israeli army said it carried out Wednesday's strikes after a soldier was killed by rocket fire from Lebanon.

Hezbollah retaliated with a barrage of rocket fire at the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona.

It said the rocket fire was "a first response" to the deadly Israeli strikes.

Israel hit back with new strikes on south Lebanon on Friday that killed five fighters from Hezbollah and the allied Amal movement, the groups said.

Lebanon's state-run National News Agency (NNA) said Israeli warplanes hit five southern village overnight.

The latest uptick in violence between the two neighbours has caused international alarm, with fears growing of another full-blown war between Israel and Hezbollah like that of 2006.

The UN peacekeeping mission in Lebanon (UNIFIL) urged "intensified" diplomatic efforts "to restore stability and safeguard the safety of civilians" following Wednesday's bloodshed.

"The devastation, loss of life and injuries witnessed are deeply concerning," said UNIFIL spokesman Andrea Tenenti, urging "all parties involved to halt hostilities immediately to prevent further escalation".

UN humanitarian coordinator for Lebanon Imran Riza said "the rules of war are clear: parties must protect civilians".

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who condemned the latest deadly Israeli strikes, has said Beirut will lodge a complaint with the UN Security Council.

Since October, cross-border exchanges have killed at least 268 people on the Lebanese side, most of them Hezbollah fighters but also including 40 civilians, according to an AFP tally.

On the Israeli side, 10 soldiers and six civilians have been killed, according to the Israeli army.

February 16, 2024 08:27 PM
Philippines awards San Miguel $3 bln airport revamp deal

The Philippine government said Friday it had awarded a multi-billion dollar contract to top Filipino conglomerate San Miguel Corp to upgrade Manila international airport - ranked among some of the world's worst airports.

Estimated to cost 170.6 billion pesos ($2.87 billion), the 15-year project will also see San Miguel operate the airport.

"The project is expected to improve passenger experience at the airport, achieve more efficient operations, and expand airport capacity," the transport department said in a statement.

In 2022 and 2023 the oldest of the country's three international passenger terminals was named the world's worst airport by online travel website "The Guide to Sleeping in Airports" based on comfort, convenience, cleanliness and customer service.

A former US air force base until 1948, the airport which was named after opposition leader Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino who was assassinated at the tarmac in 1983, served more than 45 million passengers last year.

San Miguel is also building a 735 billion-peso New Manila International Airport on the north coast of Manila Bay, which will have a capacity to handle 100 million passengers per year.

San Miguel began life more than 130 years ago as a brewery but has since branched out into such areas as petroleum, infrastructure, liquor and food.

February 16, 2024 08:24 PM
Prince Harry says family could reunite over king's illness

Prince Harry has suggested that King Charles's illness could help reunite the British royal family, and described how he immediately "jumped on a plane" to London after his father's cancer diagnosis.

In an interview with ABC's Good Morning America show on Friday, the prince made his first public comments on the king's health.

He said he heard the news directly from Charles "and went to go and see him as soon as I could."

"I love my family," Harry said, adding he was "grateful" to spend a brief amount of time with his father last week.

Harry spoke in Canada where he and his wife Meghan are attending training a year ahead of the Invictus Games for injured military veterans, an event that he organizes.

Asked if the illness could bring his family back together, Harry said "Yeah, I'm sure."

Referencing the games, he added that "throughout all the families that I see on a day-to-day basis (it is) the strength of the family unit coming together."

Harry declined to give details on his father's health, saying "that stays between me and h