Scant progress in peace talks as Ukrainian cities pounded in more Russian attacks

People gather near a blocks of flats, which was destroyed during Ukraine-Russia conflict in the besieged southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine March 17, 2022. (Reuters)
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Updated 17 March 2022

Scant progress in peace talks as Ukrainian cities pounded in more Russian attacks

  • Officials from both sides met again for peace talks, but they said their positions remained far apart
  • Mariupol city council later said more than 350,000 people were still sheltering in the city and 30,000 had left

KYIV/LVIV: Rescue workers on Thursday dug survivors out of the rubble of a theater in the besieged city of Mariupol which Ukraine said had been hit by a Russian air strike as people sheltered there from bombardments.
Russia denied striking the theater. But Ukraine’s capital Kyiv came under renewed Russian shelling on Thursday as the war entered its fourth week. Western sources and Ukrainian officials said Russia’s assault had stalled.
Officials from both sides meanwhile met again for peace talks, but they said their positions remained far apart.
Mariupol, a southern port city, has suffered the worst humanitarian catastrophe of the war, with hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in basements with no food, water or power as Russian forces pound it with artillery fire and air strikes.
City authorities said they were still not able to estimate the number of possible casualties from Wednesday’s alleged air strike on the theater.
“Yesterday and today, despite continuous shelling, rubble is being cleared as much as is possible and people are being rescued. Information about victims is still being clarified,” the city council said in a statement. It provided no figures on the numbers rescued.
Commercial satellite pictures showed the word “children” had been marked out on the ground in front of the building before it was hit.
Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the allegation that Russia had bombed the theater was a “lie.”
“Russia’s armed forces don’t bomb towns and cities,” she told a briefing.
Mariupol city council later said more than 350,000 people were still sheltering in the city and 30,000 had left.
The assault on Ukraine started with troops crossing the border or landing by sea and air on Feb. 24. But Western countries say its expectations of a swift victory and the removal of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s government have been dashed and its invasion force has got bogged down.
The Ukrainian armed forces said on Thursday Russian forces had “lost their offensive potential and were stopped in all directions.”
“The enemy has significant problems with logistics and continues to suffer losses,” it said.
Sides far apart
The war has settled into a grinding pattern of sieges of cities.
The United Nations human rights office in Geneva said it had recorded 2,032 civilian casualties so far — 780 killed and 1,252 injured. Some 3.2 million civilians, mostly women and children, have now fled Ukraine to neighboring countries, the United Nations said.
But the Russians have failed to capture a major city in the face of spirited resistance from Ukrainian forces.
A fourth straight day of talks between Russian and Ukrainian negotiators took place by videolink, but the Kremlin said an agreement had yet to be reached.
“Our delegation is putting in colossal effort,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. “Our delegation... is ready to work around the clock — but unfortunately we don’t see such zeal from the Ukrainian side.”
Moscow has previously said it was close to agreeing a formula that would keep Ukraine neutral, one of its demands.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said the negotiations were complicated.
“The positions of the parties are different. For us, fundamental issues are inviolable,” he said.
Ukraine has said it is willing to negotiate an end to the war but will not surrender or accept Russian ultimatums. It is sticking to its core position that it retain sovereignty over areas occupied since 2014 by Russian and pro-Russian forces.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has shown little sign of relenting, even though punitive Western sanctions are damaging his country’s economy.
Kyiv and its Western allies say Russia launched the war to subjugate a neighbor Putin calls an artificial state. Moscow says it is carrying out a “special operation” to disarm Ukraine.
The White House said US President Joe Biden would hold a call on Friday with Chinese leader Xi Jinping as Washington tries to persuade Beijing not to provide support to Russia.
Ukraine’s Zelenskiy addressed the German Bundestag by video link, pulling no punches in a speech that invoked the Holocaust and the Berlin Wall, and seemed intended to shame pro-Russian politicians in Germany, Moscow’s main energy buyer.
“Every year politicians repeat ‘never again’,” said Zelenskiy, who is of Jewish heritage, citing a slogan used to mark the Holocaust.
“And now we see that these words are simply worthless. In Europe a people is being destroyed, they are trying to destroy everything that is dear to us, what we live for.”

Bloody sheet
Northeastern and northwestern suburbs of Kyiv have suffered heavy damage but the capital itself has held firm, under a curfew and subjected to deadly nightly rocket attacks.
Ukrainian defense ministry spokesman Oleksandr Motuzyanyk said Russian forces had made no significant advances around Kyiv in the past 24-48 hours and had resorted to “chaotic” shelling.
“The Ukrainian armed forces are making every effort to stop the enemy attacking from that area,” he told a press briefing in Kyiv. He said several residential buildings had been damaged by downed missiles, causing civilian deaths.
“This is a war crime,” he said, but gave no exact numbers.
A building in Darnytsky district was extensively damaged. As residents cleared glass, a man knelt weeping by the body of a woman covered in a bloody sheet.
Viacheslav Chaus, governor of the region centered on the frontline northern city of Chernihiv, said 53 civilians had been killed there in the past 24 hours. The toll could not be independently verified.


At least 50 killed in twin transport mishaps in Pakistan 

Updated 29 min 22 sec ago

At least 50 killed in twin transport mishaps in Pakistan 

  • A passenger bus fell into a ravine and caught fire in Balochistan’s Bela area, killing at least 40 people 
  • In second mishap, 10 children were killed after their ferry capsized in country’s northwest on Sunday 

KARACHI: At least 50 people were killed in two separate transport tragedies in Pakistan on Sunday, officials said, renewing a debate about poor transport safety protocols in the South Asian country.  

In the first incident, a passenger bus fell into a ravine and later caught fire in the Bela area of Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan province, where road accidents claim thousands of lives annually.   

Balochistan, a mountainous, desert region bordering Afghanistan and Iran, is Pakistan’s largest but most impoverished province, with a staggering 40,000-km network of road infrastructure.   

According to the motorway police, 6,000 to 8,000 people die each year in accidents across the Balochistan province, mainly on single-lane roads that have infamously come to be known as “killer highways.”   

“A bus going from Quetta to Karachi plunged into a ravine and caught fire at around 3 a.m.,” Hamza Anjum Nadeem, the Bela assistant commissioner, told Arab News. “At least 39 bodies have been recovered and a search for others is underway.”  

Anjum later confirmed the death of another passenger, taking the count to 40. Of these, 38 dead bodies were being moved to the southern port city of Karachi, 177 km away from Bela, for medico-legal formalities, Karachi Police Surgeon Dr. Summaiya Syed told Arab News.  

Balochistan is the epicenter of the $64 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a road and infrastructure development plan, which aims to ultimately provide the shortest route for Chinese cargo headed for the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia. 

Major roads are slated for construction under the CPEC, including the road from Balochistan’s Khuzdar district to the Chinese-funded, deep-water port of Gwadar. But for now, the absence of dual carriageways, inadequate training of drivers, and a lack of highway patrols mean thousands continue to die on these roads each year.

In another incident, 10 children died when their boat capsized in Tanda Dam lake near Kohat in the country’s northwest, according to police.  

All of the dead recovered so far were aged between 7 and 14 years, local police official Mir Rauf told the AFP news agency. Rauf said 11 children had been rescued from the water, with six in critical condition. The boat was carrying between 25 and 30 students on a day trip from a local madrassa when it overturned.  

“A rescue operation is underway,” Rauf said. Mass drownings are common in Pakistan when aged and overloaded vessels lose their stability and pitch passengers into the water. In July, 18 women drowned when an overcrowded boat carrying a wedding party across the Indus river in Punjab province capsized.  

The South Asian country also has poor road safety controls, and thousands of lives are lost to road crashes each year, particularly in the southwestern Balochistan province.  

According to the National Road Safety Strategy 2018-2030, a report administered by the Asian Development Bank that cited police data, 6,548 people died at the scene of an accident on Pakistan’s roads in 2016. Of these, 355 fatalities happened on national highways and 6,003 on provincial roads.  

At least seven people were killed and 15 others were injured after a passenger bus collided with a truck in Balochistan’s Killa Saifullah district this month. In June last year, 22 people were killed when a passenger bus veered off a narrow road and fell into a ravine in the same district.


Death toll in Afghanistan cold snap rises to 166, official says

Updated 29 January 2023

Death toll in Afghanistan cold snap rises to 166, official says

  • Afghanistan has been frozen by temperatures as low as -33 degrees Celsius since Jan 10
  • Aid agencies had earlier warned more than half of 38 million Afghans were facing hunger

KABUL: At least 166 people have died in a wave of bitterly cold weather sweeping Afghanistan, an official said Saturday, as extreme conditions heaped misery on the poverty-stricken nation.

Afghanistan has been frozen by temperatures as low as -33 degrees Celsius (-27 degrees Fahrenheit) since January 10, combined with widespread snowfall, icy gales and regular electricity outages.

Aid agencies had warned before the cold snap that more than half of Afghanistan’s 38 million people were facing hunger, while nearly four million children were suffering from malnutrition.

The disaster management ministry said on Saturday the death toll had risen by 88 over the past week and now stood at 166, based on data from 24 of the nation’s 34 provinces.

The deaths were caused by floods, fires and leaks from gas heaters that Afghan families use to heat their homes, ministry official Abdul Rahman Zahid said in a video statement.

Some 100 homes were destroyed or damaged and nearly 80,000 livestock, a vital commodity for Afghanistan’s poor, also died in the cold.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said this week 17 people had died in a single village in northeastern Badakhshan province due to an outbreak of “acute respiratory infection.”

“Harsh weather prevents help from reaching the area,” the WHO said.

Afghanistan is enduring its second winter since US-backed forces withdrew and the Islamist Taliban surged back into Kabul to reclaim government.

Foreign aid has declined dramatically since then and key central bank assets were seized by the United States, compounding a humanitarian crisis considered one of the world’s worst.

The Taliban government banned Afghan women from working with humanitarian groups last month, leading many to suspend operations.

Women NGO workers in the health sector were then granted an exemption and some organizations restarted their programs.


Unified global effort to repair Earth’s ozone layer infuses new life into climate change fight

Updated 29 January 2023

Unified global effort to repair Earth’s ozone layer infuses new life into climate change fight

  • Scientists say the hole in the planet’s shield, first detected in the 1980s, will return to normal by around 2066 
  • Same cooperation seen under the 1987 Montreal Protocol needed to slow global warming, say experts

LONDON: You cannot see it with the naked eye but high over your head, just above the altitude at which the highest-flying passenger jets cruise, there is a fragile layer of naturally occurring gas that shields all life on Earth from the deadly effects of the ultraviolet radiation emitted by the sun.

This is the ozone shield, a belt of gas — specifically ozone, or O3, which is made of three oxygen atoms — formed by the natural interaction of solar ultraviolet radiation with O2, the oxygen we breathe.

Without it, we’d all be cooked. In the words of the UN Environment Program’s Ozone Secretariat, “long-term exposure to high levels of UV-B threatens human health and damages most animals, plants and microbes, so the ozone layer protects all life on Earth.”

But now, after decades of battling to save it — and us — scientists have announced that the hole in the ozone layer, which was detected in the 1980s, is healing.

The announcement this month is a victory for one of the greatest international scientific collaborations the world has ever seen. And, as the world struggles to tackle climate change, it is a timely and hugely encouraging demonstration of what the international community can achieve when it really puts its mind to something.

As the nations of the world prepare to gather at the UN Climate Change Conference, COP28, in the UAE, where in November they will be expected to account for the progress they have made toward the climate-change goals set by the 2015 Paris Agreement, the brilliant success of the ozone-saving 1987 Montreal Protocol can only be an inspiration.

A scientist launches a research balloon at Australia’s Giles Weather Station. (Shutterstock)

The ozone layer, and its role in absorbing the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, was first identified by two French physicists, Charles Fabry and Henri Buisson, in 1913, but it was not until 1974 that an article in the journal Nature warned that we were in danger of destroying it.

Chemists F. Sherwood Rowland, of the University of California Irvine, and Mario Molina, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, discovered that human-created gases, such as the chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, used in appliances and products such as fridges and aerosols, were destroying ozone.

In 1995, Rowland and Molina, together with Dutch scientist Paul Crutzen, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for their work in atmospheric chemistry, particularly concerning the formation and decomposition of ozone.”

But, the Nobel citation continued, “the real shock came” in 1985, when scientists with the British Antarctic Survey, which had been monitoring the Antarctic ozone layer since 1957, detected “a drastic depletion of the ozone layer over the Antarctic.”

The size of the hole identified over the survey’s Halley and Faraday Antarctic research stations seemed to vary, which at first was a puzzle.

It is now understood, the BAS explains, “that during the polar winter, clouds form in the Antarctic ozone layer and chemical reactions in the clouds activate ozone-destroying substances.

“When sunlight returns in the spring, these substances — mostly chlorine and bromine from compounds such as CFCs and halons — take part in efficient catalytic reactions that destroy ozone at around 1 percent per day.”

The discovery “changed the world.” NASA satellites were used to confirm that “not only was the hole over British research stations, but it covered the entire Antarctic continent.”

This was the so-called “ozone hole” and, as Crutzen noted in his 1995 Nobel lecture, “it was a close call.”

He said: “Had Joe Farman and his colleagues from the British Antarctic Survey not persevered in making their measurements in the harsh Antarctic environment … the discovery of the ozone hole may have been substantially delayed and there may have been far less urgency to reach international agreement on the phasing out of CFC production.”

It was the work of the survey that led to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, an agreement, adopted in 1987, that regulated the production and consumption of nearly 100 man-made chemicals identified as “ozone depleting substances.”

“There had been suggestions in the 1960s and 1970s that you could put gases into the atmosphere which would destroy ozone,” atmospheric scientist Professor John Pyle, former head of chemistry at the University of Cambridge and one of the four international co-chairs on the Scientific Assessment Panel for the Montreal Protocol, told Arab News.

“At the time there was also concern about the oxides of nitrogen from high-flying supersonic aircraft, such as Concorde, which could destroy ozone.

This time-lapse photo shows the path of an ozonesonde as it rises into the atmosphere in the South Pole. (Courtesy of Robert Schwarz/South Pole, 2017)

“But after Rowland and Molina published their paper, suggesting that CFC gases could get high enough up into the atmosphere to destroy ozone, there was about a decade during which this was just a theoretical idea before, thanks to the British Antarctic Survey, the ozone hole was discovered.”

The global reaction, choreographed by the UN and the World Meteorological Organization, was almost startlingly rapid.

The British Antarctic Survey paper was published in 1985, and by 1987 the Montreal Protocol had been agreed. In the words of the UN Environment Program: “The protocol is considered to be one of the most successful environmental agreements of all time.

“What the parties to the protocol have managed to accomplish since 1987 is unprecedented, and it continues to provide an inspiring example of what international cooperation at its best can achieve.”

Without doubt, millions of people have lived longer, healthier lives thanks to the Montreal Protocol. In 2019, the US Environmental Protection Agency estimated that in the US alone the protocol had prevented 280 million cases of skin cancer, 1.6 million deaths, and 45 million cases of cataracts.

Combo image released by NASA's Earth Observatory on Dec. 1, 2009, showing the size and shape of the ozone hole each year in 1979 (L) and in 2009. (AFP file)

The battle is not over, however. It will take another four decades for the ozone layer to fully recover, according to the latest four-yearly report from the UN-backed Scientific Assessment Panel to the Montreal Protocol on Ozone Depleting Substances, which was published this month.

But according the “Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion: 2022” report: “The phase out of nearly 99 percent of banned ozone-depleting substances has succeeded in safeguarding the ozone layer, leading to notable recovery of the ozone layer in the upper stratosphere and decreased human exposure to harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun.”

If current policies remain in place, it adds, “the ozone layer is expected to recover to 1980 values” — that is, before the appearance of the ozone hole — “by around 2066 over the Antarctic, by 2045 over the Arctic, and by 2040 for the rest of the world.”

Ozone timelines from the UNEP's Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion report of 2022.

This is “fantastic news,” Meg Seki, executive secretary of the UN Environment Program’s Ozone Secretariat, told Arab News. And it has had an additional benefit in the fight against global warming.

In 2016, an additional agreement, known as the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, resulted in the scaling down of production and consumption of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, the compounds that were introduced to replace banned CFCs but which were found to be powerful climate change gases. It is estimated that by 2100, the Kigali Amendment will have helped to prevent up to 0.5 degrees Celsius of global warming.

“The impact the Montreal Protocol has had on climate-change mitigation cannot be overstressed,” said Seki. “Over the past 35 years, the protocol has become a true champion for the environment.”

Delegates converse during the 28th meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol in Kigali, Rwanda, on Oct. 13, 2016. (AFP file)

It is also a shining example of what could be achieved in the battle against climate change.

Sept. 16 each year is the UN’s International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer. As Antonio Guterres, the UN’s secretary-general, said as he marked the occasion in 2021: “The Montreal Protocol … has done its job well over the past three decades. The ozone layer is on the road to recovery.”

He added: “The cooperation we have seen under the Montreal Protocol is exactly what is needed now to take on climate change, an equally existential threat to our societies.”

 


Finnish, Swedish FMs: NATO membership process hasn’t stopped

Updated 28 January 2023

Finnish, Swedish FMs: NATO membership process hasn’t stopped

  • To admit new countries, NATO requires unanimous approval from its existing members, of which Turkiye is one
  • Hungary and Turkiye are the only countries in the 30-member Western military alliance that haven't signed off on Finland’s and Sweden’s application

HELSINKI: The foreign ministers of Sweden and Finland reiterated in separate interviews published Saturday that the process for the two Nordic nations to join NATO is continuing despite Turkiye’s president saying Sweden shouldn’t expect his country to approve its membership.
Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billström acknowledged in an interview with Swedish newspaper Expressen that Turkish anger over recent demonstrations and the burning of the Qur’an in front of the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm had complicated Sweden’s NATO accession.
To admit new countries, NATO requires unanimous approval from its existing members, of which Turkiye is one. Despite this, the Swedish government is hopeful of joining NATO this summer, Billström said.
“It goes without saying that we’re looking toward the (NATO) summit in Vilnius,” Lithuania’s capital, in July, Billström told Expressen when asked of the timetable for Sweden’s possible accession.
Hungary and Turkiye are the only countries in the 30-member Western military alliance that haven’t signed off on Finland’s and Sweden’s applications.
While Hungary has pledged to do so in February, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Thursday that a planned meeting in Brussels to discuss Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership was postponed.
Such a meeting would have been “meaningless” following the events of last weekend in Stockholm, Cavusoglu said. They included protests by pro-Kurdish groups and the burning of Islam’s holy book outside the Turkish Embassy by a far right Danish politician, Rasmus Paludan.
Expressen quoted Billström on Saturday as saying that the work to get Sweden and Finland into NATO was not on hold.
“The NATO process has not paused. The (Swedish) government continues to implement the memorandum that exists between Sweden, Finland and Turkiye. But it is up to Turkiye to decide when they will ratify,” he said.
Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto echoed his Swedish counterpart and said the two countries planned to continue making a joint journey toward NATO.
“In my view, the road to NATO hasn’t closed for either country,” Haavisto said in an interview with Finnish public broadcaster YLE.
He said that Ankara’s announcement to defer trilateral talks with Finland, Sweden and Turkiye for now “represents an extension of time from the Turkish side, and that the matter can be revisited after the Turkish elections” set for May 14.
Haavisto said he was hopeful that time frame would allow for Finland and Sweden’s membership to be finalized at the July 11-12 NATO summit in Lithuania.


After 5 years in no man’s land, last group of Rohingya enters Bangladesh

Updated 28 January 2023

After 5 years in no man’s land, last group of Rohingya enters Bangladesh

  • When hundreds of thousands of refugees fled Myanmar in 2017, some remained on border with Bangladesh
  • Recent clashes in the area raised security concerns, with Bangladeshi authorities moving to register about 4,000 refugees

DHAKA: Bangladeshi authorities on Saturday began registering thousands of Rohingya refugees who entered the country after spending the past five years in no man’s land.

Although Bangladesh is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, it has hosted and provided humanitarian support to 1.2 million Rohingya Muslims, most of whom fled neighboring Myanmar during a military crackdown in 2017.

A majority of the refugees live in squalid camps in Cox’s Bazar district, a coastal region in the country’s southeast and the world’s largest refugee settlement. But one group settled in no man’s land near the hilly Bandarban district neighboring Myanmar.

After fleeing their country of origin, more than 4,000 members of the group remained in the area, hoping that they would be able to return home. But as the situation in Myanmar failed to improve and Bangladesh in 2019 decided to stop receiving more Rohingyas, they were trapped, living in makeshift tents they raised in the unowned territory.

Earlier this month, most of the shelters were burnt down during armed clashes that triggered security concerns and a decision by Bangladeshi authorities to register the group’s members.

“Our committee has started the verification process for these people who sheltered at the Naikhyangchari border area,” Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner Mizanur Rahman told Arab News.

The committee comprises representatives of the RRRC, police, intelligence and the Bandarban district administration, who are verifying the identity of the group’s members amid a rise in cross-border crime and drug trafficking.

“We have to identify if there are any criminals or people wanted by law enforcement agencies,” Rahman said.

“Nothing is decided yet about the relocation or shelter of these people. But it’s for sure, there will be no more new camps for these people at their current location. They should be relocated to some other places. But the place is yet to be decided.”

According to Asif Munir, a migration expert and former official of the International Organization for Migration, the Rohingya are most likely to be relocated to Cox’s Bazar or to Bhasan Char — an island in the Bay of Bengal, where Bangladesh has moved 30,000 refugees since December 2020 to take pressure from other, already overcrowded camps.

“It is unprecedented in the world that hundreds of people have been living in no man’s land for more than five years ... these Rohingya were the last batch when the Rohingya exodus began in 2017. They have been living close to the Myanmar border.

“Since they entered Bangladesh territory, considering humanitarian grounds, there is no other option except sheltering them here,” Munir told Arab News.

“Since we have noticed several incidents of clashes between armed groups in the border area in recent times, it would endanger the lives of these people.”

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