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.


Gunmen fire on targets in Russia’s North Caucasus region, three killed, regional government says

Screen capture of a video allegedly taken at a shooting at a synagogue in Derbent, in Russia’s Dagestan region, June 23, 2024.
Updated 24 min 58 sec ago
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Gunmen fire on targets in Russia’s North Caucasus region, three killed, regional government says

  • Thirteen people were wounded in the attacks, the interior ministry was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies

MOSCOW: Gunmen opened fire at a synagogue, an Orthodox church and a police post in Russia’s North Caucasus region of Dagestan on Sunday and at least three people, including two police officers were killed, the region’s interior ministry said.
Thirteen people were wounded in the attacks, the interior ministry was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies.
The reports said one officer and a priest were killed when shots were fired at a synagogue and a church in Derbent, home to an ancient Jewish community in the South Caucasus and a UNESCO world heritage site.
“Unidentified people fired at a synagogue and a church with automatic weapons,” the interior ministry said. “One police officer was killed and one injured.”
The synagogue was on fire after the attack, Russian news agencies said.
The attackers then fled in a car.
Another police officer was killed in an exchange of shots at a police post in Makhachkala, about 125 km (75 miles) to the north along the Caspian Sea coast and the main city in Dagestan, a mainly Muslim region in southern Russia.
Fighting was later reported in the streets of Makhachkala. 


UK election betting scandal widens as a fourth Conservative Party official reportedly investigated

Updated 23 June 2024
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UK election betting scandal widens as a fourth Conservative Party official reportedly investigated

  • The Times alleged that dozens of bets had been placed with potential winnings worth thousands of pounds

LONDON: The chief data officer of Britain’s Conservative Party has taken a leave of absence, British media reported Sunday, following growing allegations that the governing party’s members used inside information to bet on the date of Britain’s July 4 national election before it was announced.
The Sunday Times and others reported that Nick Mason is the fourth Conservative official to be investigated by the UK’s Gambling Commission for allegedly betting on the timing of the election.
The Times alleged that dozens of bets had been placed with potential winnings worth thousands of pounds.
The reports came after revelations in recent days that two Conservative election candidates, Laura Saunders and Craig Williams, are under investigation by the gambling watchdog. Saunders’ husband Tony Lee, the Conservative director of campaigning, has also taken a leave of absence following allegations he was also investigated over alleged betting.
Police said one of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak ‘s police bodyguards was arrested Monday on suspicion of misconduct in public office. The arrest came after the gambling regulator confirmed it was investigating “the possibility of offenses concerning the date of the election.”
The growing scandal, just two weeks ahead of the national election, has dealt a fresh blow to Sunak’s Conservative Party, which is widely expected to lose to the opposition Labour Party after 14 years in power.
Sunak said this week that he was “incredibly angry” to learn of the allegations and said that anyone found to have broken the law should be expelled from his party.
Sunak announced on May 22 that parliamentary elections would be held on July 4. The date had been a closely guarded secret and many were taken by surprise because a vote had been expected in the fall.
Saunders, a candidate standing in Bristol, southwest England, has said she will cooperate fully with the investigation.
Williams was Sunak’s parliamentary private secretary as well as a member of Parliament running for reelection on July 4. He has acknowledged that he was being investigated by the Gambling Commission for placing a 100-pound ($128) bet on a July election before the date had been announced.
Senior Conservative minister Michael Gove condemned the alleged betting and likened it to ” Partygate,” the ethics scandal that contributed to former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s ouster in 2022.
That controversy saw public trust in the Conservatives plummet after revelations that politicians and officials held lockdown-flouting parties and gatherings in government buildings during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021.
“It looks like one rule for them and one rule for us,” Gove told the Sunday Times. “That’s the most potentially damaging thing.”
Daisy Cooper, the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, said “people are sick and tired of this sleaze” and that Sunak must intervene and order an official inquiry.
The Conservative Party said it cannot comment because investigations are ongoing.


Energy professor traverses India to spur climate movement

Updated 23 June 2024
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Energy professor traverses India to spur climate movement

  • Chetan Singh Solanki wants to inspire energy independence across the world
  • He takes inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of India’s freedom movement

NEW DELHI: Four years ago, at the height of his restlessness over the growing threat of climate change on the planet, Chetan Singh Solanki decided to embark on a journey to spark a change for the environment.

Solanki launched the energy swaraj journey in 2020 to inspire energy independence across the world, campaigning with the motto “Energy by Locals for Locals.”

He told Arab News: “I want to restore the environmental balance that we are already losing, and I want to do it at a global level because it is not a problem of one state or one country — it is a problem of the entire world.”

A professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay’s department of energy science and engineering, Solanki takes inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of India’s freedom movement who used nonviolent resistance as a tool for mass action.

Solanki believes in replicating a similar strategy to boost energy literacy among the people and inspire them to use cleaner energy as an alternative power source.

“It is the wrong energy that has created the problem (and) it is the right energy that will solve the problem. Clean energy and solar energy and to bring everybody on board is why I started this journey,” Solanki said. “My vision is aligned with Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of gram swaraj (village self-rule). I emphasize responsible energy consumption and localized production.”

The campaign was designed to be impactful and adopted by the masses.

“This is designed to trigger the mind that we all can be part of the climate solution. It is not rocket science — rich and poor, young and old, everybody can be part of it,” he added.

Chetan Singh Solanki talks to students as part of his nationwide journey to spur climate movement in this photo shared on June 8, 2024. (Energy Swaraj)

Through his journey, Solanki has earned the nickname “Solar Gandhi,” having covered 56,000 km on his solar-powered bus, which is equipped with essential amenities including an air-conditioned bedroom, office space, refrigerator and a working kitchen.

The vehicle is an “innovative mobile abode” that symbolizes his aspiration “for a forthcoming world driven by sustainable energy sources,” he said, adding that he plans to continue the nationwide journey until December 2030.

To him, it was clear that world governments “have not done enough,” despite annual climate conferences that are purported to address critical environmental issues.

“The business-as-usual approaches are not working nationally and internationally, and therefore the solution lies in becoming sensitive to planet Earth and its capacity to generate or regenerate,” he said.

Since his journey started in late 2020, Solanki said the campaign has been well received.

“I think there are good things happening and response has been good,” he said. “Energy literacy is the first step towards climate correction.”


Aide to UK minister calls Rwanda migrant plan ‘crap’ in leaked audio

Updated 23 June 2024
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Aide to UK minister calls Rwanda migrant plan ‘crap’ in leaked audio

LONDON: The UK interior minister has defended a parliamentary aide who called the government plan to deport illegal migrants to Rwanda “crap,” in a leaked audio revealed by the BBC Sunday.
A controversial law by the Conservative government allowing irregular migrants arriving in the UK to be deported to Rwanda was finally passed in April, after months of parliamentary wrangling.
But in the recording James Sunderland, a parliamentary aide and Conservative party candidate, was heard saying: “the policy is crap, ok? It’s crap.”
“But it’s not about the policy. It’s about the effect of the policy,” he went on to say, speaking at a Youth Conservatives conference in April.
“There is no doubt at all that when those first flights take off it will send such a shockwave across the Channel,” Sunderland clarified.
Home Secretary James Cleverly said he was “surprised,” when asked about the audio, before saying Sunderland was making a “counterintuitive statement to grab the attention.”
Cleverly told Sky News on Sunday that his aide Sunderland “is completely supportive of the deterrent effect.”
Sunderland told the BBC he was “disappointed” to have been recorded at a private event, and said although the policy is “not the be all and end all,” it is “part of a wider response.”
No flights deporting asylum seekers have actually taken off yet for the African country, due to lengthy legal challenges and with parliament dissolved ahead of a looming general election on July 4.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has said the policy would only come into effect after the election, if he was re-elected.
The opposition Labour party — which looks poised to replace the Conservatives — has promised to scrap the Rwanda plan.
The government cleared a law allowing some asylum seekers to be deported in April, circumventing a Supreme Court ruling that said sending migrants to Rwanda in this way would be illegal because it “would expose them to a real risk of ill-treatment.”
Supporters of the Rwanda policy say it will deter tens of thousands of annual cross-Channel arrivals by small boats, and insist the policy is already having an impact.
More than 12,000 irregular migrants have crossed the Channel to Britain on small boats this year, according to government data.


Ukraine missile attack on Crimea kills 2, wounds 22: Moscow-appointed governor

Updated 23 June 2024
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Ukraine missile attack on Crimea kills 2, wounds 22: Moscow-appointed governor

  • Sevastopol regularly comes under fire from Ukraine but the toll from Sunday’s attack was unusually high

MOSCOW: A Ukrainian missile attack Sunday on Sevastopol on the Russian-annexed Crimea peninsula killed two people including a two-year-old child and wounded 22, the city’s Moscow-appointed governor said.
Sevastopol, a Black Sea port city and naval base on the Crimean peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014, regularly comes under fire from Ukraine but the toll from Sunday’s attack was unusually high.
“According to provisional information, today’s attack by Ukraine’s armed forces on Sevastopol killed 2 peaceful residents, one of them a 2-year-old child,” Sevastopol governor Mikhail Razvozhayev wrote on Telegram.
The governor said Ukraine had launched five missiles which Russian air defenses intercepted over the sea but fragments fell onto the shore area and pieces of shrapnel wounded people.
Razvozhayev said the missile fragments hit shore areas in the north of the city and set fire to a house and woodland.
Earlier Sunday, a drone launched by Ukraine on Russia’s southern Belgorod region killed a man, the governor said.
Three Ukrainian attack drones struck the town of Graivoron a few kilometers from the border with Ukraine, said Belgorod governor Vyacheslav Gladkov, with one hitting a car park near a multi-story block of flats.
“A peaceful civilian was killed. The man died from his wounds at the spot,” Gladkov wrote on Telegram, while three were wounded.