Russia extends troop drills; Ukraine appeals for cease-fire

This video grab shows helicopters during joint exercises of the armed forces of Russia and Belarus as part of an inspection of the Union State's Response Force, at a firing range near Brest. (File/AFP)
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Updated 20 February 2022
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Russia extends troop drills; Ukraine appeals for cease-fire

  • Western leaders warned that Russia was poised to attack Ukraine
  • The US and many European countries have threatened massive, immediate sanctions if Russia invades Ukraine

KYIV: Russia extended military drills near Ukraine’s northern borders Sunday amid increased fears that two days of sustained shelling along the contact line between soldiers and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine could spark an invasion. Ukraine’s president appealed for a cease-fire.
The exercises were originally set to end Sunday and brought a sizable contingent of Russian forces to Belarus. The presence of the Russian troops raised concern that they could be used to sweep down on the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, a city of about 3 million people less than a three-hour drive away.
Western leaders warned that Russia was poised to attack its neighbor, which is surrounded on three sides by about 150,000 Russian soldiers, warplanes and equipment. Russia held nuclear drills Saturday as well as the conventional exercises in Belarus, and has ongoing naval drills off the coast in the Black Sea.
The United States and many European countries have alleged for months that Russia is trying to create pretexts to invade. They have threatened massive, immediate sanctions if it does.
“We’re talking about the potential for war in Europe,” US Vice President Kamala Harris said Sunday at a security conference in Munich, Germany. “It’s been over 70 years, and through those 70 years ... there has been peace and security.”
A top European Union official, Charles Michel, said: “The big question remains: does the Kremlin want dialogue?”
“We cannot forever offer an olive branch while Russia conducts missile tests and continues to amass troops,” said Michel, the president of the European Council.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called Saturday on Russian President Vladimir Putin to choose a place where the two leaders could meet to try to resolve the crisis and on Sunday appealed for a cease-fire on Twitter. Russia has denied plans to invade, but the Kremlin had not responded to his offer by Sunday, and it was Belarus — not Russia — that announced the extension of the drills.
NATO has estimated there are 30,000 Russian troops in Belarus.
In Kyiv, life continued seemingly as usual on Sunday, with brunches and church services in full swing. Katerina Spanchak, who fled the separatist-occupied Lugansk region years ago, said she prayed for peace.
“We are people, we all love life, and we are all united by our love of life. We should appreciate it every day. That’s why I think everything will be fine,” Spanchak said outside services at St. Michael’s monastery.
But in Lugansk, the area of eastern Ukraine where her parents still live, and neighboring Donetsk, separatist leaders ordered a full military mobilization and sent more civilians to Russia, which has issued about 700,000 passports to residents of the rebel-held territories. Claims that Russian citizens are being endangered might be used as justification for military action.
Officials in the separatist territories claimed Ukrainian forces launched several artillery attacks over the past day and that two civilians were killed during an unsuccessful assault on a village near the Russian border. Ukraine’s military said two soldiers died in firing from the separatist side on Saturday.
Ukraine’s leader criticized the US and other Western nations for holding back on new sanctions for Russia. Zelenskyy, in comments before the conference, also questioned the West’s refusal to allow Ukraine to join NATO immediately. Putin has demanded that NATO reject Ukraine as a member.
In new signs of fears of imminent war, Germany and Austria told their citizens to leave Ukraine, and NATO’s liaison office in Kyiv pulled staff to Brussels and to the western Ukraine city of Lviv.
US President Joe Biden said late Friday that based on the latest American intelligence, he was now “convinced” that Putin has decided to invade Ukraine in coming days and assault the capital.
A US military official said an estimated 40 percent to 50 percent of the ground forces surrounding Ukraine had moved into attack positions closer to the border. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal US assessments, said the change had been underway for about a week and did not necessarily mean Putin was committed to an invasion.
Lines of communication between Moscow and the West remain open: French President Emmanuel Macron spoke with Putin on Sunday for nearly two hours before a 30-minute call with the Ukrainian president. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov agreed to meet next week.
Blinken said Sunday the US was still working every lever possible to try to dissuade Putin from invading Ukraine but said recent events, including the extension of the troops in Belarus and the increase in shelling along the contact line, showed Putin well underway in laying the pretexts and groundwork for invasion, in line with findings of US intelligence and previous Russian territorial grabs. “He is following the script almost to the letter,” Blinken told CNN.
“Up to the last minute, there is still an option for him to pull back,” Blinken told NBC’s Meet the Press. He said his offer to meet Lavrov in Europe in the coming days was conditioned on Russia not rolling into Ukraine beforehand.
Macron’s office said both the Ukrainian and Russian leaders had agreed to work toward a diplomatic solution “in coming days and coming weeks.”
Immediate worries focused on eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces have been fighting the pro-Russia rebels since 2014 in a conflict that has killed some 14,000 people.
Ukraine and the separatist leaders traded accusations of escalation. Russia on Saturday said at least two shells fired from a government-held part of eastern Ukraine landed across the border, but Ukraine’s foreign minister dismissed that claim as “a fake statement.”
“When tension is escalated to the maximum, as it is now, for example, on the line of contact, then any spark, any unplanned incident or any minor planned provocation can lead to irreparable consequences,” Putin’ spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in an interview that aired Sunday on Russian state television.
On the front lines, Ukrainian soldiers said they were under orders not to return fire. Zahar Leshushun, peering into the distance with a periscope, had followed the news all day from a trench where he is posted near the town of Zolote.
“Right now, we don’t respond to their fire because ...” the soldier said before being interrupted by the sound of an incoming shell. “Oh! They are shooting at us now. They are aiming at the command post.”
Sporadic violence has broken out for years along the line separating Ukrainian forces from the Russia-backed separatists, but the spike in recent days is orders of magnitude higher than anything recently recorded by international monitors: nearly 1,500 explosions in 24 hours.
Denis Pushilin, the head of the pro-Russia separatist government in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, cited an “immediate threat of aggression” from Ukrainian forces in his announcement of a call to arms. Ukrainian officials vehemently denied having plans to take rebel-controlled areas by force.
A similar statement followed from his counterpart in the Luhansk region. On Friday, the rebels began evacuating civilians to Russia with an announcement that appeared to be part of their and Moscow’s efforts to paint Ukraine as the aggressor.
Metadata from two videos posted by the separatists announcing the evacuation of civilians to Russia show that the files were created two days ago, the AP confirmed. US authorities have alleged that the Kremlin’s effort to come up with an invasion pretext could include staged, prerecorded videos.


Kuwait fire leaves 24 families in India’s Kerala state bereft

Updated 2 sec ago
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Kuwait fire leaves 24 families in India’s Kerala state bereft

  • Two dozen Indians from the southern state of Kerala died in a fire that ripped through a labor-housing facility in Kuwait
THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: From a father-of-two who planned to leave his job to a 29-year-old due to visit his family in August, two dozen Indians from the southern state of Kerala died in a fire that ripped through a labor-housing facility in Kuwait on Wednesday, leaving their families bereft.
Around 40 Indians died in the blaze, which also killed at least 9 other people in Mangaf city, while more than 50 were injured, according to India’s foreign ministry. Most of the Indian victims came from Kerala.
Norka Roots, a government agency for Keralites living outside the state, put the number of the state’s dead at 24 with seven others injured and their condition serious. The federal government had arranged a special flight to bring the bodies, Norka Secretary K Vasuki said.
Among the Keralite victims was Muralidharan Nair, who had been working in Kuwait for 32 years, including 10 as a senior supervisor in the company that owned the housing facility where the fire broke out.
“He came on leave in December for two months with a plan to end his career in Kuwait. The company called him back,” his brother, Vinu V Nair, told Reuters, adding that the family identified the 61-year-old from a list published by India’s embassy. His two roommates also died in the blaze.
For decades, a disproportionately large share of Indian workers in the Gulf have been drawn from Kerala, a densely packed state along southern India’s Arabian Sea coast.
News of the disaster spread quickly in Kerala. The family of Saju Varghese, 56, found out about the fire from television and social media, and confirmed his death from friends and relatives in Kuwait.
Working in the Gulf nation for the last 21 years, Varghese planned to visit Kerala later this month to arrange his daughter’s higher education.
“The family is in a state of shock,” their neighbor, George Samuel, said.
Another victim, Stephin Abraham Sabu, 29, was an engineer in Kuwait since 2019 and called home almost daily.
He had visited his hometown Kottayam “two or three times” since he left, and had booked air tickets to return in August for the housewarming of his family’s new home and to help them buy a new car, his friends said.
Sabu’s father has a small shop in Kottayam while his mother is a housewife. His brother, Febin, also works in Kuwait but lived separately.
Authorities in Kuwait said Kuwaiti military aircrafts will transport the bodies back to India, while the . The other dead included three Filipino workers, the Philippine migrant workers ministry said on Thursday, adding that two others were hospitalized and in critical condition.

UK’s Labour pledges to recognize Palestinian state as part of peace process

Updated 45 min 8 sec ago
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UK’s Labour pledges to recognize Palestinian state as part of peace process

  • “Palestinian statehood is the inalienable right of the Palestinian people,” said Labour’s election manifesto

MANCHESTER: Britain’s opposition Labour Party, which is far ahead in polls before a July 4 election, pledged on Thursday to recognize a Palestinian state as a contribution to a renewed peace process.
“Palestinian statehood is the inalienable right of the Palestinian people,” said Labour’s election manifesto — the collection of policies it would enact if it forms the next government.
“We are committed to recognizing a Palestinian state as a contribution to a renewed peace process which results in a two-state solution with a safe and secure Israel alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state.”
The current Conservative-led government has previously said Britain could formally recognize a Palestinian state before the end of a peace process, and that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip must be given “the political perspective of a credible route to a Palestinian state and a new future.”
In May, Spain, Ireland and Norway officially recognized a Palestinian state, prompting an angry reaction from Israel, which has found itself increasingly isolated after more than seven months of conflict in Gaza.


NATO defense ministers thrash out new security aid and training support plan for Ukraine

Updated 13 June 2024
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NATO defense ministers thrash out new security aid and training support plan for Ukraine

  • NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says Ukraine’s beleaguered armed forces need longer-term predictability about the kinds of weapons

BRUSSELS: NATO defense ministers gathered Thursday hoping to agree on a new plan to provide long-term security assistance and military training to Ukraine, after Hungary promised not to veto the scheme as long as it’s not forced to take part.
The ministers are meeting over two days at NATO headquarters in Brussels in the last high-level talks before a summit hosted by US President Joe Biden in Washington on July 9-11, where the military organization’s leaders are expected to announce financial support for Ukraine.
Ukraine’s Western allies are trying to bolster their military support as Russian troops launch attacks along the more than 1,000-kilometer (620-mile) front line, taking advantage of a lengthy delay in US military aid. European Union money was also held up by political infighting.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who is chairing Thursday’s meeting, said that Ukraine’s beleaguered armed forces need longer-term predictability about the kinds of weapons, ammunition and funds they can expect to receive.
“The whole idea is to minimize the risk for gaps and delays as we saw earlier this year,” Stoltenberg told reporters. The hold-up, he said, “is one of the reasons why the Russians are now able to push and to actually occupy more land in Ukraine.”
Since Russia’s full-fledged invasion in February 2022, Ukraine’s Western backers have routinely met as part of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, run by the Pentagon, to drum up weapons and ammunition for Kyiv. A fresh meeting was held at NATO headquarters on Thursday.
While those meetings have resulted in significant battlefield support, they have been of an ad-hoc and unpredictable nature. Stoltenberg has spearheaded an effort to have NATO take up some of the slack.
The idea is for the 32-nation military alliance to coordinate the security assistance and training process, partly by using NATO’s command structure and drawing on funds from its common budget.
Stoltenberg said he hopes Biden and his counterparts will agree in Washington to maintain the funding level for military support they have provided Ukraine since Russia launched its full-fledged invasion in February 2022.
He estimates this at around 40 billion euros ($43 billion) worth of equipment each year.
On Wednesday, Hungary announced that it would not veto the plan as long as it’s not forced to take part.
“I asked the Secretary-General to make it clear that all military action outside NATO territory can only be voluntary in nature, according to NATO rules and our traditions,” Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said. “Hungary has received the guarantees we need.”
The world’s biggest security alliance does not send weapons or ammunition to Ukraine as an organization, and has no plans to put troops on the ground. But many of its members give help on a bilateral basis, and jointly provide more than 90 percent of the country’s military support.
The other 31 allies see Russia’s war on Ukraine as an existential security threat to Europe, but most of them, including Biden, have been extremely cautious to ensure that NATO is not drawn into a wider conflict with Russia.
NATO operates on the basis that an attack on any single ally will be met with a response from them all.


G7 leaders seek deal to use interest from Russian assets for Ukraine

Updated 13 June 2024
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G7 leaders seek deal to use interest from Russian assets for Ukraine

  • The Middle East, migration and artificial intelligence are also on the packed agenda
  • For a second year running, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will attend the summit, taking part in talks on Thursday

BARI: Group of Seven leaders will aim to boost funding for Ukraine in its war with Russia and offer a united face in confronting China’s political and economic ambitions at their annual summit in southern Italy on Thursday.
For a second year running, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will attend the summit, taking part in talks on Thursday, and he is due to sign a new, long-term security accord with US President Joe Biden.
The G7 leaders look likely to announce they have agreed at least in principle on plans to issue $50 billion of loans for Ukraine using interest from Russian sovereign assets frozen after its invasion of Ukraine to back the multi-year debt package.
“I think we will have the major tentpoles of this decided, but some of the specifics left to be worked through by experts on a defined timetable,” White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said of the discussions.
“I think we are on the verge of a good outcome here,” he added.
Officials acknowledge the plan is complex, with legal experts still having to thrash out the details that will need the backing of European nations, particularly Belgium, which is not in the G7.

Packed Agenda
With the Middle East, migration and artificial intelligence also on a packed agenda, the June 13-15 summit in the southern Italian region of Puglia would be taxing for leaders at the best of times, but most of them are also bowed down by their own domestic woes.
Only the host, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, is riding high after triumphing in Italy’s European election last weekend, but achieving meaningful results in the luxury Borgo Egnazia hotel resort will be a tall order.
Biden’s goal at the G7 was to reinforce the idea that the United States is best served if it is closely aligned with its democratic allies and partners, Sullivan said, when asked about the prospects of it being the president’s last summit given he faces a re-election battle in November.
Underscoring US determination to punish Moscow for its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Washington on Wednesday dramatically broadened sanctions on Moscow, including by targeting China-based companies selling semiconductors to Moscow.
By announcing new restrictions on Chinese firms on the eve of the G7 meeting, Biden is no doubt hoping to persuade Western allies to show greater resolve in confronting Beijing over its support for Russia and its industrial over-capacity.
Speaking ahead of the start of the summit, Sullivan said that China was a significant creditor to many heavily indebted countries.
“The G7 communique is not singling out or focusing on a single country,” he said, but added that China needed to play a constructive role in dealing with the debt burden.


Eight EU countries call for restricting Russian diplomats’ movement

Updated 13 June 2024
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Eight EU countries call for restricting Russian diplomats’ movement

PRAGUE: Eight European Union foreign ministers called on the EU to ban Russian diplomats from moving freely around the bloc and restrict them to countries where they are accredited, in a letter to EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.
“Free movement of holders of Russian diplomatic and service passports, accredited in one host state, across the whole Schengen area is easing malign activities,” according to the letter, dated June 11, seen by Reuters.
The ministers said that intelligence, propaganda “or even preparation of sabotage acts are the main workload for a large number of Russian ‘diplomats’ in the EU,” and while expulsions were important, the threat remained.
“We believe the EU should strictly follow the reciprocity principle and restrict the movement of members of Russian diplomatic missions and their family members to territory of a state of their accreditation only,” they said.
“This measure will significantly narrow operational space for Russian agents,” added the letter, which was signed by ministers from the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland and Romania.