Black Sea drills showcase strong NATO-Ukraine defense ties

Ukrainian helicopters fly over a Russian warship  during Sea Breeze 2021 maneuvers, in the Black Sea, Friday, July 9, 2021. (AP)
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Updated 10 July 2021

Black Sea drills showcase strong NATO-Ukraine defense ties

  • The Sea Breeze 2021 maneuvers set to wrap up Saturday involved about 30 warships and 40 aircraft from NATO members and Ukraine

ABOARD USS ROSS: Ukraine and NATO have conducted Black Sea drills involving dozens of warships in a two-week show of their strong defense ties and capability following a confrontation between Russia's military forces and a British destroyer off Crimea last month.
The Sea Breeze 2021 maneuvers set to wrap up Saturday involved about 30 warships and 40 aircraft from NATO members and Ukraine. The captain of the USS Ross, a U.S. Navy destroyer that took part in the drills, said the exercise was designed to improve how the equipment and personnel of the participating nations operate together.
“We’d like to demonstrate to everybody, the international community, that no one nation can claim the Black Sea or any international body of water,” Cmdr. John D. John said aboard the guided missile destroyer previously deployed to the area for drills. "Those bodies of water belong to the international community, and we’re committed to ensure that all nations have access to international waterways.”
The Russian Defense Ministry said it was closely monitoring Sea Breeze. The Russian military also conducted a series of parallel drills in the Black Sea and southwestern Russia, with warplanes practicing bombing runs and long-range air defense missiles' deploying to protect the coast.
Last month, Russia said one of its warships in the Black Sea fired warning shots and a warplane dropped bombs in the path of the HMS Defender, a British Royal Navy destroyer, to chase it away from an area near Crimea that Moscow claims as its territorial waters.
Russia denounced the Defender’s presence as a provocation and warned that next time it might fire to hit intruding warships.
Britain, which like most other nations didn’t recognize Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, insisted the Defender wasn’t fired upon on June 23 and said it was sailing in Ukrainian waters when Russia sent its planes into the air and shots were heard during the showdown.
The incident added to the tensions between Russia and the NATO allies. Relations between Russia and the West have sunk to post-Cold War lows over Moscow's 2014 annexation of Crimea, its support for a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine, accusations of Russian hacking attacks, election interference and other irritants.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said last week that the incident with the Defender wouldn’t have triggered a global conflict even if Russia had sunk the British vessel because the West knows it can’t win such a war. The statement appeared to indicate Putin's resolve to raise the stakes should a similar incident happen again.
Aboard the Ross, John said the Sea Breeze participants were exercising their right to operate in international waters. He described the drills as “a tangible demonstration of our commitment to each other for a safe and stable Black Sea region.”


Caught on camera: Kremlin releases photos of Putin’s Siberian fishing trip

Updated 32 sec ago

Caught on camera: Kremlin releases photos of Putin’s Siberian fishing trip

  • Vladimir Putin has cultivated a macho image, appealing to many Russians
MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin spent several days hiking and fishing in Siberia in early September, the Kremlin said on Sunday as it published pictures of the president on the holiday.
A caption under one of the 20 pictures published on the Kremlin web site said the president stopped for a few days in Siberia after a working trip to Russia’s Far East in early September.
Several days later, in the middle of September Putin said he would have to spend “a few days” in self-isolation after dozens of people in his entourage fell ill with COVID-19. He had to cancel his trip to Tajikistan for a security summit.
Putin has cultivated a macho image, appealing to many Russians, and has previously been pictured riding a horse barechested and in sun glasses, as well as carrying a hunting rifle and piloting a fighter jet.
This time, his outings were more mundane.
The Kremlin published photos of Putin standing in a river and catching a fish, walking through lush meadows and talking to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, his usual holiday companion.
Putin, 68, has had two shots of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine. The Kremlin has said he was feeling healthy.

Behave normally, UK transport minister tells Britons queuing for fuel

Updated 26 September 2021

Behave normally, UK transport minister tells Britons queuing for fuel

  • Long lines of vehicles formed at petrol stations in recent days as motorists waited in line to fill up with fuel

BRIGHTON, England: Transport Minister Grant Shapps on Sunday called on Britons to behave normally when buying petrol, saying there was no shortage of fuel and the government was stepping in to ease a shortage of drivers bringing it to petrol stations.
In recent days long lines of vehicles formed at petrol stations as motorists waited in line, some for hours, to fill up with fuel after oil firms reported a lack of drivers was causing transport problems from refineries to forecourts, leading some operators to ration supplies and others to close gas stations.
“There’s plenty of fuel, there’s no shortage of the fuel within the country,” he told Sky News.
“So the most important thing is actually that people carry on as they normally would and fill up their cars when they normally would, then you won’t have queues and you won’t have shortages at the pump either.”
The government on Sunday announced a plan to issue temporary visas for 5,000 foreign truck drivers.
But business leaders have warned it is a short-term fix that will not solve an acute labor shortage that risks major disruption beyond fuel deliveries, including for retailers in the run-up to Christmas.
Shapps called the panic over fuel a ‘manufactured situation’ and blamed it on a hauliers’ association.
“They’re desperate to have more European drivers undercutting British salaries,” he said.


Top Russian diplomat defends mercenaries’ presence in Mali

Updated 26 September 2021

Top Russian diplomat defends mercenaries’ presence in Mali

  • France has announced it is reducing its force fighting extremists in Mali and the region
  • Mali has been trying to contain an Islamic extremist insurgency since 2012.

UNITED NATIONS: Russia’s top diplomat on Saturday defended the Mali government’s right to hire a private Russian military company to help fight terrorists, accusing French troops in the country of failing to get rid of them and scolding the European Union for demanding that the Russian mercenaries leave.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the company has a “legitimate” right to be in the West African nation because it was invited by the transitional government, and insisted Russian government is not involved.
France and Germany have both objected to the presence of mercenaries from the Wagner Group, which reportedly is linked to the Kremlin, in Mali, which also hosts a more than 18,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission. Wagner has been accused of human rights abuses in the Central African Republic and involvement in the conflict in Libya.
Lavrov said France has announced it is reducing its force fighting extremists in Mali and the region. And in a stinging rebuke of their performance, he said, the French forces “should have been combating terrorists who have established a presence in Kidal (in northern Mali), but they didn’t manage to do that.”
“Terrorists continue to reign in that area,” he told a news conference on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly’s annual meeting of world leaders.
Mali has been trying to contain an Islamic extremist insurgency since 2012. Extremist rebels were forced from power in Mali’s northern cities with the help of a 2013 French-led military operation. However, the insurgents quickly regrouped in the desert and began launching frequent attacks on the Malian army and its allies fighting the insurgency.
The extremists have expanded their reach well into central Mali, where their presence has inflamed tensions between ethnic groups in the area.
Lavrov said the European Union has been announcing that Russia will be “pushed away, deterred and engaged with.”
So, he said, he asked EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell at a meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly’s high-level gathering: “What will you engage in with us?”
In June, Col. Assimi Goita was sworn in as president of a transitional government in Mali after carrying out his second coup in nine months. Mali faces increasing isolation from the international community over the junta’s power grab.


US agency to probe Amtrak derailment that killed 3 in Montana

Updated 26 September 2021

US agency to probe Amtrak derailment that killed 3 in Montana

  • People trapped aboard soon after the derailment have all been taken off the train

At least three people died on Saturday and some passengers were injured after an Amtrak train derailed in north-central Montana, an official at the local sheriff’s office said.

The National Transportation Safety Board said late on Saturday it will investigate the incident.

The Seattle-bound Empire Builder train had about 141 passengers and 16 crew aboard when eight cars derailed near the town of Joplin, Amtrak said in a statement.

People trapped aboard soon after the derailment have all been taken off the train, said the official at the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

There were multiple injuries but no final count, the official added. A social media user posted photos of train cars on their side after the incident and other damaged train cars.

The cause of the incident was not immediately clear.

The 10-car train with two locomotives had departed from Chicago.

Amtrak said Empire Builder trains originating on Saturday are canceled between Minot, North Dakota, and Shelby, Montana, while on Sunday the westbound Empire Builder train will terminate in Minneapolis and an eastbound Empire Builder train will originate in Minneapolis.


Dhaka airport opens COVID-19 test labs for UAE-bound foreign workers

Updated 26 September 2021

Dhaka airport opens COVID-19 test labs for UAE-bound foreign workers

  • The privately run PCR labs at the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport are aimed at outbound travelers who require proof that they are virus-free on arrival at their destinations

DHAKA: Bangladesh on Saturday opened six COVID-19 testing facilities at its largest airport in the capital Dhaka to facilitate international travel, mainly for its UAE-bound migrant workers impacted by flight restrictions in the wake of the pandemic, a government official said.

The privately run PCR labs at the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport are aimed at outbound travelers who require proof that they are virus-free on arrival at their destinations.

They are the first at an airport in Bangladesh, one of three international hubs in the country, with a capacity to carry out more than 5,000 tests a day.

“We have set up all necessary facilities and equipment. We will conduct a test-run tonight and hand over the facilities to the civil aviation authorities,” Dr. Shariar Sazzad, the health officer in charge at the airport, told Arab News.

The tests are not covered by insurance, with each international traveler required to pay for COVID-19 screening.

“Each of the tests will cost around $20 at all six facilities at the airport,” Sazzad said.

Instalment of the testing facilities comes after the UAE in August lifted flight curbs for travelers from a list of previously suspended countries, including Bangladesh, provided they were fully vaccinated with a jab approved by the World Health Organization and tested negative for COVID-19 six hours before departure.

Since then, thousands of Bangladeshi migrant workers had been rallying for authorities to install PCR labs at the airport. On Sept. 6, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina directed authorities to establish PCR testing facilities at all three international airports in Dhaka, Chattogram and Sylhet.

With nearly 1,250 cases a day, Bangladesh has struggled to combat a surge in COVID-19 infections driven by the highly contagious Delta variant. As of this week, only 9.3 percent of its population of 170 million people had received both doses of the COVID-19 jabs.

The South Asian nation’s economy has taken a beating from a lack of foreign remittances after thousands of migrant workers were unable to return to work due to travel curbs imposed by host nations.

The UAE is the second-largest destination for Bangladeshi migrant workers in the Gulf and the Middle East, with more than 1 million employed in the country.

However, tens of thousands of workers were impacted by flight curbs imposed by the Gulf state, with several left stranded in Bangladesh after returning home for a break.

Mohammad Abul Bashar, a 38-year-old construction worker in Dubai, is one example. He traveled to Bangladesh six months ago and is “desperately waiting” to return to the UAE.

“I was supposed to resume duty in the first week of September but couldn’t take the flight since there were no COVID-19 testing facilities at the airport,” he told Arab News.

“Now I am waiting to renew my visa and hope to travel within the next two weeks,” Bashar said, adding he was “so relieved” that PCR labs had finally been launched at the airport.

Salahuddin Chowdhury, another migrant worker, said that the delay in setting up the PCR labs had “caused huge losses for many.”

“I have been working as a salesperson at a shop in the UAE for six years and was supposed to return by mid-August. The delay has cost me around $300, which is a month’s salary,” Chowdhury, 27, told Arab News.

“I’m hoping to fly by the end of this week,” he added.

While workforce recruiting agencies welcomed the move to set up PCR labs at Dhaka airport, they urged authorities to launch more flights “to help as many workers as possible.”

“Every day, around 1,000-1,500 migrant workers would travel to the UAE (before the outbreak). Since more than 35,000 workers are now waiting to return to their workplaces, I think aviation authorities should introduce extra flights from Dhaka for the next few weeks,” Tipu Sultan, president of the Recruiting Agencies Unity Forum, told Arab News.

He also urged authorities to shoulder the costs of the tests.

“A majority of these migrant workers are extremely poor and spend a lot of money to secure a job in the overseas market, incurring huge debts for the visa and tickets. The $20 COVID-19 tests will be an extra burden on them,” he said.

Instead, Sultan suggests that the government either subsidise the cost or pay for it through “the expatriates’ welfare fund, which is also funded by the migrant workers.”

Shariful Hasan, migration program head for BRAC, a Bangladeshi-origin international NGO, agrees and said it was imperative for government ministries to make a “coordinated effort” and ease travel for migrant workers.

“Our migrant workers are desperate to return to work at any cost. Authorities should remain vigilant and ensure the smooth functioning of PCR labs installed at the airport,” Hasan told Arab News.

“These facilities will serve the migrant workers a lot, especially if other host countries also introduce the same travel rules as the UAE.”