UN council to meet on Russian claim of US labs in Ukraine

Martin Griffiths, UN under-secretary-general, speaks at a news conference following a UN Security Council meeting on the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine on March 7. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images/AFP)
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Updated 11 March 2022
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UN council to meet on Russian claim of US labs in Ukraine

  • Washington warns that Russia's claims of US military biological activities in Ukraine is meant to justify a biological or chemical weapons attack

UNITED NATIONS: The UN Security Council scheduled a meeting Friday at Russia’s request to discuss what Moscow claims are “the military biological activities of the US on the territory of Ukraine,” allegations vehemently denied by the Biden administration.
“This is exactly the kind of false flag effort we have warned Russia might initiate to justify a biological or chemical weapons attack,” Olivia Dalton, spokesperson for the US Mission to the United Nations said late Thursday. “We’re not going to let Russia gaslight the world or use the UN Security Council as a venue for promoting their disinformation.”
The Russian request, announced in a tweet Thursday afternoon from its first deputy UN ambassador, Dmitry Polyansky, follows the US rejection of Russian accusations that Ukraine is running chemical and biological labs with US support.
In response to this week’s accusations by Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova — without evidence — White House press secretary Jen Psaki issued a public warning Wednesday that Russia might use chemical or biological weapons against Ukraine, the neighbor it has invaded.
Psaki called Russia’s claim “preposterous” and tweeted: “This is all an obvious ploy by Russia to try to justify its further premeditated, unprovoked, and unjustified attack on Ukraine.”
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby on Wednesday called the Russian claim “a bunch of malarkey.”
Dalton said “Russia has a well-documented history of using chemical weapons and has long maintained a biological weapons program in violation of international law” as well as “a track record of falsely accusing the West of the very violations that Russia itself is perpetrating.”
Dmitry Chumakov, another Russian deputy UN ambassador, repeated the accusation Wednesday, urging Western media to cover “the news about secret biological laboratories in Ukraine.”
A tweet from Russia’s Ministry of Defense, after Polyansky’s tweet calling for a council meeting, referred to a “briefing on the results of the analysis of documents related to the military biological activities of the United States on the territory of Ukraine.”
The UN announced Thursday evening that the meeting will take place at 10am EST but then pushed it back to 11am EST. UN disarmament chief Izumi Nakamitsu and UN political chief Rosemary DiCarlo are scheduled to brief the council.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric reiterated Thursday what he said Wednesday — that the World Health Organization, which has been working with the Ukrainian government, “said they are unaware of any activity on the part of the Ukrainian government which is inconsistent with its international treaty obligations, including on chemical weapons or biological weapons.”
The United States for months has warned about Russian “false flag” operations to create a pretext for the invasion.
The White House warning, and Dalton’s statement Thursday, suggested Russia might seek to create a pretense for further escalating the two-week-old conflict that has seen the Russian offensive slowed by stronger than expected Ukrainian defenders, but not stopped.
The international community for years has assessed that Russia used chemical weapons in carrying out assassination attempts against Putin enemies like Alexey Navalny, now in a Russian prison, and former spy Sergei Skripal, who lives in the United Kingdom. Russia also supports the Assad government in Syria, which has used chemical weapons against its people in an 11-year-long civil war.
The Security Council held its monthly meeting Thursday on Syria’s chemical weapons with disarmament chief Nakamitsu criticizing the Syrian government for repeatedly refusing to answer questions about its chemical weapons program and urging the Assad government to do so.

Last June, the head of the international chemical weapons watchdog, Fernando Arias, said its experts investigated 77 allegations against Syria and concluded that in 17 cases chemical weapons were likely or definitely used.
Nakamitsu ended her statement on Thursday by saying: “The use of chemical weapons is a grave violation of international law and an affront to our shared humanity.”
“We need to remain vigilant to ensure that those awful weapons are never used again, and are eliminated, not only in Syria, but everywhere,” she said.
US deputy ambassador Richard Mills said that unfortunately Syria has help on the council from its ally Russia, which he said “has repeatedly spread disinformation regarding Syria’s repeated use of chemical weapons.”
“The recent web of lies that Russia has cast in an attempt to justify the premeditated and unjustified war it has undertaken against Ukraine, should make clear, once and for all, that Russia also cannot be trusted when it talks about chemical weapon use in Syria,” Mills said.
Britain’s deputy ambassador, James Kariuki, told the council that “the parallels” between Russia’s action in Ukraine — “besieging cities, killing civilians indiscriminately, forcing millions to flee in search of safety” — and its actions in Syria “are clear.”
“Regrettably, the comparison also extends to chemical weapons, as we see the familiar specter of Russian chemical weapons disinformation raising its head in Ukraine,” he said.


Heavy rains kill at least 12 before storm Michaung makes landfall on India's southeast coast

Updated 05 December 2023
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Heavy rains kill at least 12 before storm Michaung makes landfall on India's southeast coast

  • India’s coasts are no stranger to cyclones, but changing climate patterns have caused them to become more intense
  • In June, Cyclone Biparjoy forced both India and Pakistan to move thousands living in coastal areas to temporary shelters

HYDERABAD: Twelve people died in the downpour before Tropical Storm Michaung made landfall along India's southeast coast Tuesday, bringing further torrential rains and strong winds, officials said. 

The storm entered Andhra Pradesh state with maximum sustained winds of 90-100 kph (56-62 mph) and gusts up to 110 kph (68 mph), the Indian Meteorological Department said, adding that the storm would weaken over the next few hours. 

Authorities were on high alert for heavy showers over the next 24 hours. 

Another state in the south, Tamil Nadu, experienced days of heavy rains ahead of the storm. Downpours triggered accidents that led to at least 12 deaths across vulnerable districts, officials told the Press Trust of India news agency. 

In Tamil Nadu's capital city of Chennai, rain from the storm's outer reaches caused walls to collapse, uprooted trees and submerged roads and cars in knee-deep waters. 

Videos on Monday showed water streaming onto the city’s airport tarmac, forcing authorities to temporarily shut it down and cancel flights. The downpours have since begun to recede, and the airport has reopened, but many parts of the city remained flooded Tuesday. 

Rains also pounded parts of Odisha state in the east, but there were no immediate reports of deaths or severe damage. 

In Andhra Pradesh, where the storm made landfall near Ongole district, officials shut down schools and evacuated more than 9,000 people from coastal and low-lying areas. 

Parts of the state saw as much as 390 millimeters (15.4 inches) of rain Tuesday morning before the storm closed in, putting officials on high alert as winds uprooted trees and damaged crops. 

India's Meteorological Department said rains could continue over the next few days. Michaung is listed as a Severe Cyclonic Storm in the department's cyclone classification system due to its wind speed. 

In Tamil Nadu, authorities set up thousands of relief camps in coastal areas. Teams of the National Disaster Response Force and other agencies sent rescuers with boats to evacuate hundreds of people stranded on roads and inside flooded homes. Officials, who declared a public holiday in districts affected by the storm, urged residents to stay indoors. 

In June, rain pelted the shores of western India and southern Pakistan as Cyclone Biparjoy pushed into the coast, prompting both countries to move more than 100,000 people to shelters. 

India’s coasts are no stranger to cyclones, but changing climate patterns have caused them to become more intense, making preparations for natural disasters more urgent. 


Bangladesh eyes halal exports boost to Gulf countries with new policy 

Updated 05 December 2023
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Bangladesh eyes halal exports boost to Gulf countries with new policy 

  • Government launched inaugural policy on halal certification in November  
  • New policy serves as formal guideline for companies to align with international halal standards  

DHAKA: Bangladesh is working on tapping into the global halal market and increasing exports to Gulf countries, the Bangladesh Islamic Foundation said on Tuesday following the government’s inaugural policy on halal certification.  

Bangladesh’s Ministry of Religious Affairs approved last month a halal certification policy, which serves as a formal guideline and incentive for companies to align with international halal standards, paving the way for the South Asian nation to harness the potential of the global halal market, which is worth over $2 trillion.  

“This halal certification is very important for us since we are a Muslim country and 92 percent of our consumers are Muslim … Now, we will be able to explore the export potential of our halal goods,” Abu Saleh Patwary, deputy director of the halal certification department at the Bangladesh Islamic Foundation, told Arab News on Tuesday.  

The BIF is a body under the Ministry of Religious Affairs, which has worked on halal certification matters since 2007 and is now in charge of issuing halal certificates in Bangladesh.  

“Saudi Arabia and the UAE can be the major destination for our halal goods … We will be aiming to increase exports to Muslim countries, especially in the Gulf region,” he said.  

“If we can grab 2 to 3 percent of global halal markets, it will boost our economy a lot … Now, a new horizon of halal goods has opened up for our local entrepreneurs.” 

The policy comes at a time when Bangladeshi businesses are also exploring new opportunities with Gulf nations, such as Saudi Arabia, which a delegation comprising the country’s top business leaders visited earlier in October.  

Jahangir Alam, director at the Dhaka School of Economics, said halal certification was imperative to enter the Middle Eastern market.  

“Most Muslim countries want halal certification to import consumer goods. It’s particularly hard to sell goods in Middle Eastern countries without halal certification. For this reason, we need the halal certification very much,” Alam told Arab News, adding that it will help boost the presence of Bangladeshi products internationally.  

The process to obtain those certifications should be “easy and hassle-free,” Alam added, to ensure that Bangladeshis can reap the benefits of such a policy.  

“The introduction of halal certification will boost sales of goods both locally and globally. Eventually, it will increase the earnings of our foreign currency. It’s a great initiative.”  


Saudi Arabia to open new visa centers, introduce flights for Indian pilgrims

Updated 05 December 2023
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Saudi Arabia to open new visa centers, introduce flights for Indian pilgrims

  • More than 1.2m Indian pilgrims visited Saudi Arabia for Umrah in 2023
  • Hajj ‘important aspect’ of Saudi-India bilateral relations: Indian minister

NEW DELHI: Saudi Arabia will open new visa centers in India and introduce budget flights to facilitate the increasing number of Indian pilgrims in their Umrah journeys, Saudi Minister of Hajj and Umrah Tawfiq Al-Rabiah said on Tuesday.

Al-Rabiah is in New Delhi as part of an official trip aimed at strengthening collaboration with Indian officials and partners and streamlining Umrah pilgrimage for international pilgrims.

As part of its Vision 2030 reform plan, the Kingdom has utilized technological advancements, enhanced measures, and upgraded infrastructure to “transform Umrah into a rewarding religious expedition” for Muslims worldwide, Al-Rabiah pointed out during a joint press conference in the Indian capital.

With more than 200 million people professing Islam in India, the Hindu-majority country has the world’s largest Muslim-minority population.

In 2023, the number of Umrah pilgrims from India increased by around 74 percent compared to last year, surpassing 1.2 million people.

That increase was the result of Saudi-India collaborative efforts, Al-Rabiah noted, adding that the two countries had initiated discussions to increase direct flights between them “to accommodate an increasing number of Indians looking to perform Umrah.”

“We’re also focused on enhancing capacity to meet the anticipated increase by introducing new scheduled flights through Saudi low-cost airlines, flynas and flyadeal,” he said.

“These efforts are complemented by initiatives to streamline visa issuance procedures and establish three new visa centers in India.”

Indian minority affairs minister, Smriti Irani, who held talks with Al-Rabiah on Tuesday, said they had “productive discussions on how to further deepen engagements,” particularly on their cooperation for Hajj pilgrimage.

“Both nations have agreed to continue to work together to make the Hajj process as convenient and as seamless as possible with best provision of services for all Hajj pilgrims,” Irani told reporters at the press conference.

Under the 2023 Hajj quota, around 175,000 Indians – nearly 47 percent of whom were women – traveled to Saudi Arabia for the spiritual journey that is one of the five pillars of Islam.

India’s Minister of State for External Affairs Vellamvelly Muraleedharan, said Al-Rabiah’s visit would “bolster the overall bilateral partnership” between the two countries, adding that Hajj was an “important aspect” of that relationship.

“There is a mutual recognition that our partnership will not only be beneficial to our countries and communities … but will be valuable to the region and the world,” Muraleedharan added.


US returns $1 million in stolen antiquities to Nepal

Updated 05 December 2023
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US returns $1 million in stolen antiquities to Nepal

  • One of the items was seized as part of a probe into Subhash Kapoor who helped traffic items from Asian countries
  • In recent years, New York museums have returned over 1,000 pieces worth $190mln to 19 states, including Pakistan

NEW YORK: The United States has returned four antiquities worth $1 million to Nepal, including a pair of gilt copper masks representing a Hindu deity, following anti-trafficking operations, New York authorities said on Monday. 

One of the items was seized as part of a probe into Subhash Kapoor, whom Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg described as an “allegedly prolific looter who helped traffic items” from several Asian countries. 

Between 2011 and 2023, officials claim to have recovered more than 2,500 items trafficked by Kapoor and his network, Bragg’s office said in a statement. 

“The total value of the pieces recovered exceeds $143 million,” it added. 

“We will continue to target antiquities trafficking networks no matter how complex. I thank our outstanding team of analysts and attorneys... for recovering and returning these beautiful pieces,” Bragg said. 

The four items given back to Nepalese authorities were handed over at a ceremony in New York. 

“The return of these illegally exported four masterpieces is a significant step in reclaiming Nepal’s cultural heritage and preserving its historical treasures,” said Nepal’s acting consul general in New York Bishnu Prasad Gautam. 

The masks, from the 16th century and collectively valued at $900,000, depict Shiva, part of the Hindu trinity. 

“Both masks were stolen in the mid-1990s as part of a series of break-in robberies from the home of the family” whose relatives made them, Bragg’s office said. 

In recent years, the New York’s Met and other prestigious museums have agreed to return trafficked works, in particular pieces from countries riddled by conflict from 1970 to 1990. 

Under Bragg, who has been in office since 2022, more than 1,000 pieces worth $190 million have been returned to 19 countries, including Cambodia, China, India and Pakistan.


China says Afghan Taliban must reform before full diplomatic ties

Updated 05 December 2023
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China says Afghan Taliban must reform before full diplomatic ties

  • Beijing does not formally recognize Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers, although both countries host ambassadors
  • Taliban government has not been officially recognized by any country since seizing power in August 2021

Beijing: China said on Tuesday Afghanistan’s Taliban government will need to introduce political reforms, improve security and mend relations with its neighbors before receiving full diplomatic recognition.

Beijing does not formally recognize Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers, although both countries host each others’ ambassadors and have maintained diplomatic engagement.

“China has always believed that Afghanistan should not be excluded from the international community,” foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said on Tuesday when asked if China would now recognize the Taliban government.

“We hope that Afghanistan will further respond to the expectations of the international community, build an open and inclusive political structure (and) implement moderate and stable domestic and foreign policies,” he said.

Wang also said China urged Kabul to “resolutely combat all types of terrorist forces, live in harmony with all countries around the world, especially neighboring countries, and integrate with the international community at an early date.”

“As the concerns of all parties receive stronger responses, diplomatic recognition of the Afghan government will naturally follow,” he said.

The Taliban government has not been officially recognized by any country since seizing power after the chaotic withdrawal of US troops in August 2021.

However, Kabul and Beijing have maintained some ties.

Afghanistan’s new rulers have promised the country would not be used as a base for militants and, in exchange, China has offered economic support and investment for reconstruction.

China’s foreign ministry said in a position paper on Afghanistan released this year that it “respects the independent choices made by the Afghan people, and respects the religious beliefs and national customs.”