Eyeing Russia, US defense chief heads to Black Sea region

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin
Short Url
Updated 18 October 2021

Eyeing Russia, US defense chief heads to Black Sea region

  • Russia has occupied Ukraine’s Crimea and has troops stationed in Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia

WASHINGTON: US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin headed to the Black Sea region Sunday aiming to shore up alliances with countries pressured by Russia and show gratitude for their contributions to the two-decade war in Afghanistan.

Austin will visit Georgia, Romania and Ukraine before taking part in the in-person defense ministers summit at NATO in Brussels on Oct. 21-22.

“We are reassuring and reinforcing the sovereignty of countries that are on the front lines of Russian aggression,” a senior US defense official told reporters ahead of the trip.

All three countries are in the NATO orbit — Romania a full member and Georgia and Ukraine partner states.

All three also sit on the rim of the Black Sea, where Russia has sought to expand its own influence and prevent expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the US-European alliance.

Russia has occupied Ukraine’s Crimea and has troops stationed in Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And Kiev is battling pro-Russian separatists in the country’s east, in a conflict that has cost 13,000 lives.

In June, Russian forces menaced Dutch and British warships as they sailed near Crimea.

Austin will also extend thanks to its partners for their contributions, and significant losses, as part of coalition forces in Afghanistan over two decades, before the hasty US exit this year that ceded the country to the Taliban.

“We are going to be showing recognition and appreciation for the sacrifices and the commitments of our partners and allies,” the official said. In Georgia, Austin will meet with Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and Minister of Defense Juansher Burchuladze, with a key aim to keep up defense cooperation as a three-year US Army training program expires this year.

Georgia hopes Austin’s visit will help advance its case for becoming a full NATO member.

It will be “another clear message from the US in support of Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, its stable and democratic development, and for the country’s Euro-Atlantic goals” Foreign Minister David Zalkaliani said Wednesday.

“We expect that meetings will be focused on further deepening our cooperation, regional security issues, and the process of Georgia’s NATO integration,” he said.

In Ukraine, Austin will have talks with President Volodymyr Zelensky and Minister of Defense Andriy Taran, both of whom visited Washington at the beginning of September to press their case for NATO membership with President Joe Biden.

And in Romania, he will see President Klaus Iohannis and Minister of National Defense Nicolae-Ionel Ciuca, amid a fresh political crisis in the country.

In all three, the US wants to expand defense support but also sees problems of democratic development and corruption.

In Georgia, tens of thousands of protesters were out in the streets this week over the arrest of ex-president and opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili and over allegations of fraud in recent elections.

Ukraine is under heavy pressure from the West, which provides the country extensive aid, to halt rampant graft.

“It is our belief that strengthening democratic institutions creates greater resilience against Russian influence and external manipulation,” the US official said.

“Our bilateral assistance is actually very much focused on the specific aspects of institutional reform that are necessary for NATO. And that applies to both Georgia and to Ukraine.”

Austin will end the week at NATO headquarters in Brussels, where ties with the US, frayed by the previous administration of Donald Trump, took a fresh hit last month when Washington unexpectedly announced a new pact with Australia and Britain focused on China in the Indo-Pacific region.

The US official said Austin would reinforce US commitment to the pact and press for military adaptation to address future threats.

“NATO needs to keep building its credible deterrence capabilities for its deterrence and defense mission,” the official said.


France gets help from EU neighbors as wildfires rage

Updated 15 sec ago

France gets help from EU neighbors as wildfires rage

HOSTENS, France: Firefighting teams and equipment from six EU nations started to arrive in France on Thursday to help battle a spate of wildfires, including a fierce blaze in the parched southwest that has forced thousands to evacuate.
Most of the country is sweltering under a summer heatwave compounded by a record drought — conditions most experts say will occur more often as a result of rapid climate change.
“We must continue, more than ever, our fight against climate disruption and... adapt to this climate disruption,” Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said after arriving at a fire command post in the village of Hostens, south of Bordeaux.
The European Commission said four firefighting planes would be sent to France from Greece and Sweden, as well as teams from Austria, Germany, Poland and Romania.
“Our partners are coming to France’s aid against the fires. Thank you to them. European solidarity is at work!” President Emmanuel Macron tweeted.
“Across the country over 10,000 firefighters and security forces are mobilized against the flames... These soldiers of fire are our heroes,” he said.
In total, 361 foreign firefighters were dispatched to assist their 1,100 French colleagues deployed in the worst-hit part of the French southwest.
A first contingent of 65 German firefighters, followed by their 24 vehicles, arrived Thursday afternoon and were to go into action at dawn Friday, officials said.
Among eight major fires currently raging, the biggest is the Landiras fire in the southwest Gironde department, whose forests and beaches draw huge tourist crowds each summer.
It had already burned 14,000 hectares (35,000 acres) in July — the driest month seen in France since 1961 — before being contained, but it continued to smolder in the region’s tinder-dry pine forests and peat-rich soil.
Since flaring up again Tuesday, which officials suspect may have been caused by arson, it has burned 7,400 hectares, destroyed or damaged 17 homes, and forced 10,000 people to quit their homes, said Lt. Col. Arnaud Mendousse of the Gironde fire and rescue service.
Borne said nine firefighting planes are already dumping water on the blaze, with two more to be in service by the weekend.
“We battled all night to stop the fire from spreading, notably to defend the village of Belin-Beliet,” Mendousse told journalists in Hostens.
On several houses nearby, people hung out white sheets saying: “Thank you for saving our homes” and other messages of support for the weary fire battalions.
“You’d think we’re in California, it’s gigantic... And they’re used to forest fires here but we’re being overwhelmed on all sides — nobody could have expected this,” Remy Lahlay, a firefighter deployed near Hostens in the Landes de Gascogne natural park, told AFP.
With temperatures in the region hitting nearly 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) Thursday and forecast to stay high until at least Sunday, “there is a very serious risk of new outbreaks” for the Landiras fire, the prefecture of the Gironde department said.
Acrid smoke has spread across much of the southwestern Atlantic coast and its beaches that draw huge crowds of tourists each summer, with the regional ARS health agency “strongly” urging people to wear protective face masks.
The smoke also forced the closing of the A63 motorway, a major artery toward Spain, between Bordeaux and Bayonne.
The government has urged employers to allow leaves of absence for volunteer firefighters to help fight the fires.
In Portugal Thursday, more than 1,500 firefighters were also battling a fire that has raged for days in the mountainous Serra da Estrela natural park in the center of the country.
It has already burned 10,000 hectares, according to the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS).

British Daesh ‘Beatle’ Aine Davis deported from Turkey; arrested at Luton airport

Updated 11 August 2022

British Daesh ‘Beatle’ Aine Davis deported from Turkey; arrested at Luton airport

  • Davis faces three counts under UK terrorism laws, two related to terrorism fundraising in 2014 and one related to possessing a firearm
  • CPS prosecutor Kashif Malik: ‘It is plain from images that Davis sent to El-Wahabi, Davis’ wife, that he has been with fighters in Syria and was not in Syria for lawful purposes’

LONDON: A British man accused of being part of a Daesh kidnap-and-murder cell known as the “Beatles” was remanded in custody Thursday on terrorism charges after Turkey deported him to the UK.

Aine Davis, 38, was an alleged member of the Daesh cell that held dozens of foreign hostages in Syria between 2012 and 2015 and was known to their captives as the “Beatles” because of their British accents.

Two of the four have already been brought to justice in the United States for the gruesome beheadings and killings of several American captives, while another of the quartet died in Syria.

British police arrested Davis after he was deported by Turkish authorities and landed at Luton airport near London late Wednesday.

He faces three counts under UK terrorism laws, two related to terrorism fundraising in 2014 and one related to possessing a firearm.

Appearing at a London magistrates’ court flanked by two suited police officers Thursday morning, Davis — sporting a short beard and grey T-shirt — spoke only to confirm his name and that he was of no fixed abode.

His lawyer confirmed he would not be entering a plea or seeking bail at this stage.

Chief magistrate Paul Goldspring said bail would in any case be refused partly due to Davis’ “propensity to travel on forged documents” and ordered him held in prison.

He referred the case to the crown court, which deals with serious criminal offenses, with a pre-trial hearing set for September 2 at the central criminal court, known as the Old Bailey.

Goldspring noted that if convicted, Davis will face “years, not months” in jail.

The four members of the “Beatles” are accused of abducting at least 27 journalists and relief workers from the United States, Britain, Europe, New Zealand, Russia and Japan.

They were allegedly involved in the murders of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, as well as aid workers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller.

The accused cell members, who all grew up in west London, allegedly tortured and killed the four American victims, including by beheading, and Daesh released videos of the murders for propaganda purposes.

Alexanda Kotey, a 38-year-old former British national extradited from the UK to the US in 2020 to face charges there, pleaded guilty to his role in the deaths last September and was sentenced to life in prison in April.

El Shafee Elsheikh, 34, another former British national also extradited to the US at the same time, was found guilty of all charges in April, and will be sentenced next week.

They were captured in January 2018 by a Kurdish militia in Syria and turned over to US forces in Iraq before being sent to Britain and then the US.

There they faced federal court charges of hostage-taking, conspiracy to murder US citizens and supporting a foreign terrorist organization.

The other “Beatles” executioner, Mohamed Emwazi, was killed by a US drone in Syria in 2015.

Davis was arrested in Istanbul in 2015 by Turkish authorities on suspicion of being a member of Daesh, and was using a forged travel document, the magistrates’ court heard Thursday.

He was convicted in Turkey 18 months later, sentenced to seven-and-a-half years imprisonment, and released in July into an immigration detention center where he remained until he was deported this week.

In 2014, his wife Amal El-Wahabi became the first person in Britain to be convicted of funding Daesh after trying to send 20,000 euros — worth $25,000 at the time — to him in Syria.

She was jailed for 28 months and seven days following a trial in which Davis was described as a drug dealer before going to fight with Daesh in 2013.

“It’s believed that this (money) was to be collected by Mr. Davis or an associate,” CPS prosecutor Kashif Malik told the court Thursday, noting it had been raised in the UK “to support terrorism.”

He said Davis had sent messages and photos to his wife from Syria.

“It is plain from images that Davis sent to El-Wahabi that he has been with fighters in Syria and was not in Syria for lawful purposes,” he added. “On occasions he was in possession of a firearm.”

A 2014 search of the couple’s London property found speeches by Osama bin Laden and prominent Al-Qaeda preacher Anwar Al-Awlaki, Malik said.

“We believe this was material left behind by Mr. Davis,” he added.


Delhi to enforce mask mandate again after spurt in COVID cases

Updated 11 August 2022

Delhi to enforce mask mandate again after spurt in COVID cases

  • People caught without masks in public in the Indian capital will have to pay a fine of $6

NEW DELHI: New Delhi will enforce a mask mandate again after COVID-19 infections rose in the past fortnight, a government order showed on Thursday, though a similar order in April failed to improve compliance.
People caught without masks in public in the Indian capital will have to pay a fine of 500 rupees ($6), the order dated Aug. 8 and shared with reporters on Thursday, said. Presently, mask-wearing is uncommon even in shopping malls and crowded markets.
New Delhi reported 2,146 new infections in the past 24 hours and eight deaths, the worst figures among Indian states and federal territories.
The country reported 16,299 new infections during the period, taking the cumulative total to 44.2 million, while deaths rose by 53 to 526,879. The actual numbers are believed to be multiple times higher.


Philippine leader threatens to fire officials in sugar mess

Updated 11 August 2022

Philippine leader threatens to fire officials in sugar mess

  • Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has temporarily taken the helm of the Department of Agriculture due to a looming food crisis
  • The president never approved or was aware of the resolution to import sugar, which was signed by an agriculture undersecretary and other officials

MANILA: The Philippine president has threatened to fire top agricultural officials if an investigation shows they improperly announced a decision to import sugar amid a shortage without his approval, his press secretary said Thursday.
It’s the stiffest punitive step newly elected President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. could take against officials over an apparent irregularity early in his six-year term. He took office on June 30 after a landslide election victory and inherited daunting problems.
Press Secretary Trixie Cruz-Angeles said a resolution authorizing the importation of 300,000 metric tons of sugar by the Sugar Regulatory Board, which Marcos Jr. heads, was posted on the website of the Sugar Regulatory Administration under the Department of Agriculture on Wednesday.
Marcos Jr. has temporarily taken the helm of the Department of Agriculture due to a looming food crisis and skyrocketing commodity prices sparked in part by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Cruz-Angeles said the president never approved or was aware of the resolution to import sugar, which was signed by an agriculture undersecretary and other officials. The document was taken down from the website by Thursday.
“This resolution is illegal,” she told a news conference. “An investigation is ongoing to determine whether any acts that will cause the president to lose trust and confidence in his officials can be found or if there is malice or negligence involved.”
“If such findings are made, then the only determination left will be how many heads are going to roll,” she said.
Officials dealing with sugar shortages and fast-rising prices, caused largely by the devastation of sugarcane fields, milling factories and refineries by a powerful typhoon in December, have opted to secure additional sugar imports to ease the crisis.
But Marcos Jr. rejected the proposal, saying it needed to be studied to protect consumers from rising prices while making sure “that we do not destroy the local industry,” Cruz-Angeles said.
Marcos Jr. also inherited a pandemic-battered economy, lingering coronavirus threats, deep poverty, decades-long Muslim and communist insurgencies, law and order problems and political divisions inflamed by the recent elections.


Britain, Denmark contribute more money and weapons to Ukraine

Updated 11 August 2022

Britain, Denmark contribute more money and weapons to Ukraine

  • Britain to send more multiple-launch rocket systems and precision guided M31A1 missiles
  • Denmark will increase its financial aid to Ukraine by $114 million

COPENHAGEN: Britain and Denmark will provide more financial and military aid to Ukraine, they said on Thursday as European defense ministers met in Copenhagen to discuss long-term support for the country’s defense against Russia’s invasion.
Britain, which has already donated advanced weapons systems to Ukraine and given thousands of its troops military training, said it would send more multiple-launch rocket systems.
It would also donate a “significant number” of precision guided M31A1 missiles that can strike targets up to 80km away.
“This latest tranche of military support will enable the armed forces of Ukraine to continue to defend against Russian aggression and the indiscriminate use of long-range artillery,” UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said in a statement.
“Our continued support sends a very clear message, Britain and the international community remain opposed to this illegal war and will stand shoulder-to-shoulder, providing defensive military aid to Ukraine to help them defend against Putin’s invasion.”
Denmark will increase its financial aid to Ukraine by 110 million euros ($114 million), Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said at a conference in Copenhagen hosted by Ukraine, Denmark and Britain.
“This is a war on the values that Europe and the free world are built upon ... Today we reaffirm our commitment to support of Ukraine,” she said.
The new measures will take Denmark’s total aid to Ukraine since the start of the war to more than $417 million (3 billion Danish crowns).
Just over half of the financial aid announced on Thursday will be spent on weapons procurement and support of weapons production. The rest will be spent on supplies of Danish weapons and military equipment, as well as military training.
The announcements come after the government in Kyiv repeatedly pleaded with the West to send more weapons, including long-range artillery, as it tries to turn the tide on Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion.
Earlier this month, Ukraine said it had received another delivery of high-precision heavy weapons from Germany and the United States.
Moscow, which has accused the West of dragging out the conflict by giving Ukraine more arms, says it is conducting a “special military operation” in Ukraine aimed at safeguarding Russia’s security against NATO expansion.