Putin defends ‘noble’ war amid allegations of chemical weapons use

Residents stand outside their apartments as shops burn after a Russian attack in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Monday, April 11, 2022. (AP)
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Updated 12 April 2022

Putin defends ‘noble’ war amid allegations of chemical weapons use

  • Ukrainian officials urged civilians to flee eastern areas ahead of the anticipated offensive
  • Should the Russians seize Azovstal, they would be in full control of Mariupol, the lynchpin between Russian-held areas to the west and east

LVIV: Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday defended the war in Ukraine as a “noble” mission that would achieve its goals as his troops massed for a new offensive amid allegations of rape, brutality against civilians and possible use of chemical weapons.
Ukrainian officials urged civilians to flee eastern areas ahead of the anticipated offensive, while the battle for the southern port city of Mariupol was reaching a decisive phase, with Ukrainian marines holed up in the Azovstal industrial district.
Should the Russians seize Azovstal, they would be in full control of Mariupol, the lynchpin between Russian-held areas to the west and east. The city has already been laid waste by weeks of Russian bombardments and officials say about 20,000 people or more may have been killed.
Putin, speaking in Russia’s Far East at a ceremony marking the 61st anniversary of the Soviet Union putting the first man into space, spoke defiantly despite Western abhorrence at his actions and the imposition of wide-ranging international sanctions on his country.
Asked by space agency workers if the operation in Ukraine would achieve its goals, Putin said: “Absolutely. I don’t have any doubt at all.
“Its goals are absolutely clear and noble,” Putin said. “We didn’t have a choice. It was the right decision.”
He was due to meet his ally, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, to discuss Ukraine and Western sanctions while there.
Putin has cast what he calls a “special military operation” as a confrontation with the United States which he says is threatening Russia by meddling in its backyard. The West says it is a brutal land grab of a sovereign country.
Since he sent his troops over the border on Feb. 24, about a quarter of Ukraine’s 44 million population have been forced from their homes, cities turned into rubble, and thousands of people have been killed or injured — many of them civilians.

Phosphorus
Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said the government was checking unverified information that Russia may have used chemical weapons while besieging Mariupol.
“There is a theory that these could be phosphorous munitions,” Malyar said in televised comments.
The governor of the eastern Donetsk region, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said he had seen incident reports on possible chemical weapons use in Mariupol but could not confirm them.
“We know that last night around midnight a drone dropped some so-far unknown explosive device, and the people that were in and around the Mariupol metal plant, there were three people, they began to feel unwell,” he told CNN.
They were taken to hospital and their lives were not in danger, he said.
President Volodymyr Zelensky had said on Monday night that Russia could resort to chemical weapons as it massed troops in Donbas for a new assault. He did not say if they actually had been used. The United States and Britain said they were trying to verify the reports.
Chemical weapons production, use and stockpiling is banned under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention. Although condemned by human rights groups, white phosphorous is not banned under the convention.
Russia’s defense ministry has not responded to a Reuters request for comment. Russian-backed separatist forces in the east denied using chemical weapons in Mariupol, the Interfax news agency reported.

Redoubling efforts 
After their troops got bogged down in the face of Ukrainian resistance, the Russians abandoned their bid to capture the capital Kyiv. But they are redoubling their efforts in the east.
The governor of Luhansk region, Serhiy Gaidai, urged residents to evacuate using agreed humanitarian corridors.
“It’s far more scary to remain and burn in your sleep from a Russian shell,” he wrote on social media. “Evacuate, with every day the situation is getting worse. Take your essential items and head to the pickup point.”
A humanitarian corridor had also been agreed from Mariupol, Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said.
Zelensky pleaded overnight for more weapons from the West to help it end the siege of Mariupol and fend off the expected eastern offensive.
“Unfortunately we are not getting as much as we need to end this war faster...in particular, to lift the blockade of Mariupol,” he said.
In an address to the Lithuanian parliament, Zelensky urged the European Union to impose sanctions on all Russian banks and Russian oil and to set a deadline for ending imports of Russian gas.
“We cannot wait,” he said.
The withdrawal of Russian forces from the outskirts of Kyiv brought more allegations of war crimes, including executions and rape of women.
United Nations official Sima Bahous told the Security Council on Monday: “We are increasingly hearing of rape and sexual violence.”
Kateryna Cherepakha, president of rights group La Strada-Ukraine, told the council via video: “Violence and rape is used now as a weapon of war by Russian invaders in Ukraine.”
Russia’s deputy UN ambassador denied the allegations. The Russian defense ministry said Ukraine’s government was being directed by the United States to sow false evidence of Russian violence against civilians despite what it said was Moscow’s “unprecedented measures to save civilians.”


British workers stage largest strike in history of health service

Updated 5 sec ago

British workers stage largest strike in history of health service

  • Biggest strike in 75-year history of National Health Service
  • Government urges workers to call off walkouts
LONDON: Health workers in Britain began their largest strike on Monday, as tens of thousands of nurses and ambulance workers walk out in an escalating pay dispute, putting further strain on the state-run National Health Service (NHS).
Nurses and ambulance workers have been striking separately on and off since late last year but Monday’s walkout involving both, largely in England, is the biggest in the 75-year history of the NHS.
Nurses will also strike on Tuesday, while ambulance staff will walk out on Friday and physiotherapists on Thursday, making the week probably the most disruptive in NHS history, its Medical Director Stephen Powis said.
Health workers are demanding a pay rise that reflects the worst inflation in Britain in four decades, while the government says that would be unaffordable and cause more price rises, and in turn, make interest rates and mortgage payments rise.
Around 500,000 workers, many from the public sector, have been staging strikes since last summer, adding to pressure on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to resolve the disputes and limit disruption to public services such as railways and schools.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) trade union wrote to Sunak over the weekend asking him to bring the nursing strike “to a swift close” by making “meaningful” pay offers.
“We’ve got one of the busiest winters we have ever had with record levels of funding going into the NHS to try and manage services,” Maria Caulfield, the minister for mental health and women’s health strategy, told Sky News on Monday.
“So every percent of a pay increase takes money away.”
The government has urged people to continue to access emergency services and attend appointments during the strikes unless they had been canceled but said patients would face disruption and delays.
NURSES LEAVING
The NHS, a source of pride for most Britons, is under extreme pressure with millions of patients on waiting lists for operations and thousands each month failing to receive prompt emergency care.
The RCN says a decade of poor pay has contributed to tens of thousands of nurses leaving the profession — 25,000 over just the last year — with the severe staffing shortages impacting patient care.
The RCN initially asked for a pay rise of 5 percent above inflation and has since said it could meet the government “half way,” but both sides have failed to reach agreement despite weeks of talks.
Meanwhile, thousands of ambulance workers represented by the GMB and Unite trade unions are set to strike on Monday in their own pay dispute. Both unions have announced several more days of industrial action.
Not all ambulance workers will strike at once and emergency calls will be attended to.
In Wales, nurses and some ambulance workers have called off strikes planned for Monday as they review pay offers from the Welsh government.
Sunak said in a TalkTV interview last week he would “love to give the nurses a massive pay rise” but said the government faced tough choices and that it was funding the NHS in other areas such as by providing medical equipment and ambulances.

Hong Kong’s largest national security trial opens

Updated 13 min 42 sec ago

Hong Kong’s largest national security trial opens

  • Rights groups and observers say the trial illustrates how the legal system is being used to crush what remains of the opposition
  • The trial is being heard in an open court but without a jury, a departure from the city’s common law tradition
HONGKONG: Hong Kong’s largest national security trial opened Monday with dozens of pro-democracy figures accused of trying to topple the government in a case critics say reflects the criminalization of dissent in the Chinese territory.
The 47 defendants, who include some of the city’s most prominent activists, face up to life in prison if convicted.
Sixteen have pleaded not guilty to charges of “conspiracy to commit subversion” over an unofficial primary election.
The other 31 have pleaded guilty and will be sentenced after the trial.
A rare, small protest erupted before the court convened, despite the large police presence.
One man was seen raising his fist in solidarity.
The defendants maintain they are being persecuted for routine politics, while rights groups and observers say the trial illustrates how the legal system is being used to crush what remains of the opposition.
Most of the group have already spent nearly two years behind bars.
They now face proceedings expected to last more than four months, overseen by judges handpicked by the government.
The case is the largest to date under the national security law, which China imposed on Hong Kong after huge democracy protests in 2019 brought tear gas and police brawls onto the streets of the Asian financial hub.
Wielded against students, unionists and journalists, the law has transformed the once-outspoken city.
More than 100 people had queued outside the court, some overnight, hoping to see the trial begin on Monday.
Chan Po-ying, a veteran campaigner and wife of defendant “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung, joined supporters carrying a banner that read “Crackdown is shameless” and “Immediately release all political prisoners.”
“This is political persecution,” she said outside the court.
Inside, Leung repeated his not-guilty plea, adding: “Resisting tyranny is not a crime.”
Those on trial represent a cross-section of Hong Kong’s opposition — including activists Joshua Wong and Lester Shum, professor Benny Tai and former lawmakers Claudia Mo and Au Nok-hin.
Most — 34 out of 47 — have been denied bail, while the few released from custody must abide by strict conditions, including speech restrictions.
Families of the accused have called these measures “social death.”
The group was jointly charged in March 2021 after organizing an unofficial primary a year earlier.
Their stated aim was to win a majority in the city’s legislature, which would allow them to push the protesters’ demands and potentially force the resignation of Hong Kong’s leader.
According to prosecutors, this was tantamount to trying to bring down the government.
“This case involves a group of activists who conspired together and with others to plan, organize and participate in seriously interfering in, disrupting or undermining (the government)... with a view to subverting the State power,” the prosecution said in its opening statement.
More than 610,000 people — about one-seventh of the city’s voting population — cast ballots in the primary. Shortly afterwards, Beijing brought in a new political system that strictly vetted who could stand for office.
The case has attracted international criticism, and diplomats from 12 countries including the United States, Britain, Australia and France were seen at the court Monday.
“This is a retaliation against all the Hong Kongers who supported the pro-democratic camp,” Eric Lai, a fellow of Georgetown University’s Center for Asian Law, told AFP of the trial.
“Beijing will go all out — even weaponizing the laws and court — to make sure democratic politics in Hong Kong cannot go beyond the lines it drew.”
The trial is being heard in an open court but without a jury, a departure from the city’s common law tradition.
“It is as if the national security law is now the new constitution for Hong Kong and the judges are playing their role in making sure that happens,” said Dennis Kwok, Hong Kong’s former legal sector legislator.
Weeks before the hearing began, Hong Kong’s Chief Justice Andrew Cheung defended the courts against accusations of politicization.
“Whilst inevitably the court’s decision may sometimes have a political impact, this does not mean the court has made a political decision,” Cheung said.

China accuses US of indiscriminate use of force over balloon

Updated 06 February 2023

China accuses US of indiscriminate use of force over balloon

BEIJING: China on Monday accused the United States of indiscriminate use of force when the American military shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon Saturday, saying that had “seriously impacted and damaged both sides’ efforts and progress in stabilizing Sino-US relations.”
The US shot down a balloon off the Carolina coast after it traversed sensitive military sites across North America. China insisted the flyover was an accident involving a civilian aircraft.
Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng said he lodged a formal complaint with the US Embassy on Sunday over the “US attack on a Chinese civilian unmanned airship by military force.”
“However, the United States turned a deaf ear and insisted on indiscriminate use of force against the civilian airship that was about to leave the United States airspace, which obviously overreacted and seriously violated the spirit of international law and international practice,” Xie said.
The presence of the balloon in the skies above the US dealt a severe blow to already strained US-Chinese relations that have been in a downward spiral for years. It prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken to abruptly cancel a high-stakes Beijing trip aimed at easing tensions.
Xie repeated China’s insistence that the balloon was a Chinese civil unmanned airship that blew into US mistake, calling it “an accidental incident caused by force majeure.”
China would “resolutely safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese companies, resolutely safeguard China’s interests and dignity and reserve the right to make further necessary responses,” he said.
US President Joe Biden issued the shootdown order after he was advised that the best times for the operation would be when it was over water, US officials said. Military officials determined that bringing down the balloon over land from an altitude of 60,000 feet (18,000 meters) would pose an undue risk to people on the ground.
“What the US has done has seriously impacted and damaged both sides’ efforts and progress in stabilizing Sino-US relations since the Bali meeting,” Xie said, referring to the recent meeting between Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Indonesia that many hoped would create positive momentum for improving ties that have spiraled to their lowest level in years.
The sides are at odds over a range of issues from trade to human rights, but Beijing is most sensitive over alleged violations by the US and others of its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Beijing strongly protests military sales to Taiwan and visits by foreign politicians to the island, which it claims as Chinese territory to be recovered by force if necessary.
It reacted to a 2022 visit by then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi by firing missiles over the island and staging threatening military drills seen as a rehearsal for an invasion or blockade. Beijing also cut off discussion with the US on issues including climate change that are unrelated to military tensions.
Last week, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson warned Pelosi’s successor, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, not to travel Taiwan, implying China’s response would be equally vociferous.
“China will firmly defend its sovereignty, security and development interests,” Mao Ning said. McCarthy said China had no right to dictate where and when he could travel.
China also objects when foreign military surveillance planes fly off its coast in international airspace and when US and other foreign warships pass through the Taiwan Strait, accusing them of being actively provocative.
In 2001, a US Navy plane conducting routine surveillance near the Chinese coast collided with a Chinese fighter plane, killing the Chinese fighter pilot and damaging the American plane, which was forced to make an emergency landing at a China naval air base on the southern Chinese island province of Hainan.
China detained the 24-member US Navy aircrew for 10 days until the US expressed regret over the Chinese pilot’s death and for landing at the base without permission.
The South China Sea is another major source of tension. China claims the strategically key sea virtually in its entirety and protests when US Navy ships sail past Chinese military features there.
At a news conference Friday with his South Korean counterpart, Blinken said “the presence of this surveillance balloon over the United States in our skies is a clear violation of our sovereignty, a clear violation of international law, and clearly unacceptable. And we’ve made that clear to China.”
“Any country that has its airspace violated in this way I think would respond similarly, and I can only imagine what the reaction would be in China if they were on the other end,” Blinken said.
China’s weather balloon excuse should be dismissed outright, said Oriana Skylar Mastro, an expert on Chinese military affairs and foreign policy at Stanford University.
“This is like a standard thing that countries often say about surveillance assets,” Mastro said.
China may have made a mistake and lost control of the balloon, but is was unlikely to have been a deliberate attempt to disrupt Blinken’s visit, Mastro said.
For the US administration, the decision to go public and then shoot down the balloon marks a break from its usual approach of dealing with Beijing on such matters privately, possibly in hopes of changing China’s future behavior.
However, Mastro said, it was unlikely that Beijing would respond positively.
“They’re probably going to dismiss that and continue on as things have been. So I don’t see a really clear pathway to improved relations in the foreseeable future.”


7.8-magnitude quake destroys buildings in Turkiye and Syria, at least 10 confirmed dead

Updated 06 February 2023

7.8-magnitude quake destroys buildings in Turkiye and Syria, at least 10 confirmed dead

  • The quake came as the Middle East is experiencing snowstorm expected to last till Thursday
  • Netizens from as far as Jerusalem and Beirut talked of being awakened by the strong shaking

RIYADH/ANKARA: A 7.8 magnitude quake knocked down multiple buildings in Turkiye and Syria early Monday and officials warned of many casualties.

At least 10 deaths have been confirmed in the southeastern province of Sanliurfa, according to Gov. Salih Ayhan.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Twitter that “search and rescue teams were immediately dispatched” to the areas hit by the quake.

“We hope that we will get through this disaster together as soon as possible and with the least damage,” he wrote.

There were at least 6 aftershocks and he urged people not to enter damaged buildings due to the risks, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said.

“Our priority is to bring out people trapped under ruined buildings and to transfer them to hospitals,” he said.

In northwest Syria, the opposition’s Syrian Civil Defense described the situation in the rebel-held region as “disastrous” adding that entire buildings have collapsed and people are trapped under the rubble. The civil defense urged people to evacuate buildings to gather in open areas.

The US Geological Survey (USGS) said the quake was centered about 33 kilometers (20 miles) from Gaziantep, a major city and provincial capital. It was centered 18 kilometers (11 miles) deep, and a strong 6.7 aftershock rumbled about 10 minutes later.

Turkiye’s Disaster and Emergency Management agency, AFAD, said the quake measured 7.4 and was centered in the town of Pazarcik, in Kahramanmaras province.

The German Research Center for Geosciences (GFZ) measured the quake at Magnitude 7.7, with a shallow depth of 10 kilometers.

Several buildings tumbled down in the neighboring provinces of Malatya, Diyarbakir and Malatya, HaberTurk television reported. 

Syria’s state media reported that some buildings collapsed in the northern city of Aleppo and the central city of Hama.

In this handout photo taken by Sana news aganecy in Hama, Syria on February 6, 2023, rescuers evacuate a victim from an eight-storey building that collapsed after an 7.8-magnitude earthquake in southern Turkey. (Photo courtesy: SANA/AFP)

In Damascus, buildings shook and many people went down to the streets in fear.

The quake jolted residents in Lebanon from beds, shaking buildings for about 40 seconds. Many residents of Beirut left their homes and took to the streets or drove in their cars away from buildings.

The earthquake came as the Middle East is experiencing a snowstorm that is expected to continue until Thursday.

Netizens from as far as Jerusalem and Beirut talked of being awakened by the strong shaking.

"I live in Gaziantep, Türkiye.  Was sleeping when it started. Absolutely terrifying," Nasip (@iam_nasib) commented on a video posted on Twitter.

"Felt it in Jerusalem," said Amy di Nardò (@amybellabella).

Sagittarius (@JRsagittarius) said he was in Beirut and the experienced "was terrifying."

Karolingston (@karolingston) of Cyprus said he was awakened because "My bed was shaking."

"Felt it in Lebanon. It was a hell of a feeling!" chimed in CharbelRahmé (@charbelrahm_e)

Turkiye is in one of the world’s most active earthquake zones.

Duzce was one of the regions hit by a 7.4-magnitude earthquake in 1999 — the worst to hit Turkiye in decades.

That quake killed more than 17,000 people, including about 1,000 in Istanbul.

Experts have long warned a large quake could devastate Istanbul, which has allowed widespread building without safety precautions.

A magnitude-6.8 quake hit Elazig in January 2020, killing more than 40 people.

And in October that year, a magnitude-7.0 quake hit the Aegean Sea, killing 114 people and wounding more than 1,000.

(With agencies)


Ukraine to replace defense minister after corruption scandals: MP

Updated 05 February 2023

Ukraine to replace defense minister after corruption scandals: MP

  • "Time and circumstances require reinforcement and regrouping", Ukranian lawmaker says

KYIV: Ukraine’s defense minister will be preplaced by the chief of the military intelligence ahead of an expected Russian offensive and following corruption scandals, a senior lawmaker said on Sunday.
“Kyrylo Budanov will head the defense ministry, which is absolutely logical in wartime,” said senior lawmaker David Arakhamia, referring to the 37-year-old chief of the military intelligence.
Reznikov, 56, will be appointed minister for strategic industries, the lawmaker said without specifying a timeline for the planned re-shuffle.
“War dictates personnel policies,” added Arakhamia.
“Time and circumstances require reinforcement and regrouping. This is happening now and will continue to happen in the future,” he added.
“The enemy is preparing to advance. We are preparing to defend ourselves.”
One of the best-known faces of Ukraine’s war effort, Reznikov was appointed defense minister in November 2021 and has helped secure Western weapons to buttress Ukrainian forces.
But his ministry has been beset by corruption scandals.
Reznikov’s deputy was forced to resign in late January after the ministry was accused of signing food contracts at prices two to three times higher than current rates for basic foodstuffs.
Speaking to reporters earlier Sunday, Reznikov did not say if he planned to stay on at the ministry.
But he added that only President Volodymyr Zelensky, who last week stepped up efforts to clamp down on corruption, could decide his fate.
“The stress that I have endured this year is hard to measure precisely. I am not ashamed of anything,” Reznikov said. “My conscience is absolutely clear.”