UN races to rescue civilians from Mariupol plant

Civilians evacuated from Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol walk accompanied by a member of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and service members of pro-Russian troops. (Reuters)
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Updated 06 May 2022

UN races to rescue civilians from Mariupol plant

  • It could takes days to know whether the latest UN effort succeeded
  • Fighters defending the plant said Friday on Telegram that Russian troops fired on an evacuation vehicle on the plant’s grounds

ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine: The United Nations raced Friday to rescue more civilians from the tunnels under a besieged steel plant in Mariupol and the city at large, even as fighters holed up at the sprawling complex made their last stand to prevent Moscow’s complete takeover of the strategic port.
The fight for the last Ukrainian stronghold in a city reduced to ruins by the Russian onslaught appeared increasingly desperate amid growing speculation that President Vladimir Putin wants to finish the battle for Mariupol so he can present a triumph to the Russian people in time for Monday’s Victory Day, the biggest patriotic holiday on the Russian calendar.
Some 2,000 Ukrainian fighters, by Russia’s most recent estimate, are holed up in the vast maze of tunnels and bunkers beneath the Azovstal steelworks, and they have repeatedly refused to surrender. Ukraine has said a few hundred civilians were also trapped there, and fears for their safety has grown as the battle has grown fiercer in recent days.
Officials said Thursday that the UN was launching a third effort to evacuate citizens from the plant and the city. But on Friday, the organization did not divulge any new details of the operation; it has been similarly quiet about previous ones while they were ongoing.
Kateryna Prokopenko, whose husband Denys Prokopenko commands the Azov Regiment troops inside the plant, issued a desperate plea to save the regiment, saying they’d be willing to go to a third country to wait out the war but would never surrender to Russia because that would mean “filtration camps, prison, torture, and death.”
If nothing is done to save them, her husband and his men will “stand to the end without surrender,” she told The Associated Press by phone Friday as she and relatives of some of the other members of the regiment drove from Italy to Poland.
“We just need to save everyone’s life,” she said.
It could takes days to know whether the latest UN effort succeeded, since people escaping Mariupol typically have to pass through contested areas and many checkpoints before reaching relative safety in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia, about 140 miles (230 kilometers) to the northwest, where many have gathered.
Andriy Yermak, head of Ukraine’s presidential office, said Friday on the Telegram messaging app that another “complex operation to evacuate people from Mariupol and Azovstal” was conducted and that nearly 500 civilians were rescued. Two previous evacuations negotiated by the UN and the Red Cross brought roughly 500 people from the steel plant and elsewhere in Mariupol. It was not clear if Yermak was saying more people had since been rescued.
Some of the plant’s evacuees spoke to the AP about the horrors of being surrounded by death in the moldy, underground bunker with little food and water and diminishing hope. Some said they felt guilty for leaving others behind.
“People literally rot like our jackets did,” said 31-year-old Serhii Kuzmenko, who fled along with his wife, 8-year-old daughter and four others from their bunker, where 30 others were left behind. “They need our help badly. We need to get them out.”
Fighters defending the plant said Friday on Telegram that Russian troops fired on an evacuation vehicle on the plant’s grounds. They said the car was moving toward civilians when it was hit by shelling, and that one soldier was killed and six were wounded.
Moscow didn’t immediately acknowledge renewed fighting there Friday.
Ahead of Victory Day — which marks the Soviet Union’s triumph over Nazi Germany — municipal workers and volunteers cleaned up what remains of Mariupol, a city that is now under Russia’s control apart from the steel plant. Bulldozers scooped up debris and and people swept streets — with a backdrop of buildings hollowed out by shelling. Workers repaired a model of a warship, and Russian flags were hoisted on utility poles.
The fall of Mariupol would deprive Ukraine of a vital port, allow Russia to establish a land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014, and free up troops to fight elsewhere in the Donbas, the eastern industrial region that the Kremlin says is now its chief objective. Its capture also holds symbolic value since the city has been the scene of some of the worst suffering of the war and a surprisingly fierce resistance.
While they pounded away at the plant, Russian forces struggled to make significant gains elsewhere, 10 weeks into a devastating war that has killed thousands of people, forced millions to flee the country and flattened large swaths of cities.
The Ukrainian military’s general staff said Friday that its forces repelled 11 attacks in the Donbas and destroyed tanks and armored vehicles, further frustrating Putin’s ambitions after his abortive attempt to seize Kyiv. Russia gave no immediate acknowledgement of those losses.
Ukraine’s chief of defense Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi, meanwhile, said Thursday that a counteroffensive could begin to push Russian forces away from Kharkiv and Izyum — two cities key to the Russian campaign in the Donbas, where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian troops for eight years. Already, Ukrainian fighters have driven Russian troops some 40 kilometers (25 miles) east of Kharkiv in recent days.
The goal could be to push Russian forces out of artillery range of the city, which has been pummeled by strikes, as well as forcing Moscow to divert troops from other areas of the front line, according to an assessment from the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War on Thursday.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Russian forces are making only “plodding” progress in the Donbas.
The British Defense Ministry said Russia may be struggling to execute its plan in the Donbas partly because it’s bogged down at the plant in Mariupol. The fighting at the plant “has come at personnel, equipment and munitions cost to Russia,” it said. “Whilst Ukrainian resistance continues in Avozstal, Russian losses will continue to build and frustrate their operational plans in southern Donbas.”
The Russians have pulverized much of Mariupol, which had a prewar population of over 400,000, and a two-month siege that has trapped perhaps 100,000 civilians with little food, water, electricity or heat. Civilians sheltering inside the plant have perhaps suffered even more — hunkering underground without seeing daylight in months.
Asked whether Russia would soon take full control of Mariupol, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said: “Mariupol will never fall. I’m not talking about heroism or anything.”
“It is already devastated,” he told a meeting at London’s Chatham House think tank. He also said he remains open to negotiations with Russia, but repeated that Moscow must withdraw its forces.
The Russians managed to get inside the plant Wednesday with the help of an electrician who knew the plant’s layout and showed them the underground tunnels, said Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s Internal Affairs Ministry.
The Kremlin has denied its troops were storming the plant, and Russia has also accused the fighters of preventing the civilians from leaving.


Scholar Ramadan to face Geneva rape trial: prosecutors

Updated 05 December 2022

Scholar Ramadan to face Geneva rape trial: prosecutors

  • A Swiss national and former professor at Oxford University, Ramadan has faced a string of rape and sexual assault allegations in France and Switzerland since 2017
  • The Swiss investigation has moved slowly, since Ramadan was initially in pre-trial detention in Paris over other rape allegations and could not be questioned

GENEVA: Embattled Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan will go on trial for rape in Geneva next year, over a case dating back more than 14 years, the prosecution said on Monday.
A Swiss national and former professor at Oxford University, Ramadan has faced a string of rape and sexual assault allegations in France and Switzerland since 2017.
The Geneva judiciary said in the current case Ramadan had been charged with rape and sexual coercion, and would be tried before the Geneva criminal court, confirming information first published by Swiss broadcaster RTS.
The accuser in this case, named simply “Brigitte” by Swiss media, has accused the now 60-year-old scholar of brutally attacking her on the evening of October 28, 2008.
The Muslim convert, who had met Ramadan a month earlier during a book signing, accuses him of subjecting her to sexual attacks, beatings and insults in a Geneva hotel room.
She waited a decade before coming forward, filing her complaint in April 2018.
Her lawyer, Francois Zimeray, told AFP his client was fearful as she brought the case.
“She feels no desire for revenge but is relieved and is putting her faith in the institutions,” he said, adding that he expected the trial to take place during the first half of 2023.
Ramadan’s lawyer, Guerric Canonica, meanwhile alleged on Monday that the prosecution had simply “copied the complaint without considering disqualifying elements.”
“It is now up to the judges to re-establish Mr. Ramadan’s complete innocence and we are serenely waiting for our day in court,” he told AFP.
Ramadan, who has previously filed a complaint against Brigitte for slander, is a father of four whose grandfather founded Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.
He was a professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University until he was forced to take leave when rape allegations surfaced at the height of the “Me Too” movement in 2017.
The Swiss investigation has moved slowly, since Ramadan was initially in pre-trial detention in Paris over other rape allegations and could not be questioned.
After he was released in November 2018, he was put on probation and barred from leaving France.
Swiss prosecutors went to Paris to question him, and once the probation was partially lifted, Ramadan traveled to Geneva for witness hearings in 2020.


Seoul: North Korea fires over 100 artillery rounds in military drill

Updated 05 December 2022

Seoul: North Korea fires over 100 artillery rounds in military drill

  • Some of the shells landed in a buffer zone near the sea border
  • South Korea and the United States have also stepped up military drills this year

SEOUL: North Korea fired around 130 artillery shells into the sea off its east and west coasts on Monday, South Korea’s military said, in the latest apparent military drill near their shared border.
Some of the shells landed in a buffer zone near the sea border in what Seoul said was a violation of a 2018 inter-Korean agreement designed to reduce tensions.
The South Korean military sent several warning communications to the North over the firing, the ministry of defense said in a statement.
North Korea did not immediately report on the artillery fire, but it has been carrying out an increasing number of military activities, including missile launches and drills by warplanes and artillery units.
South Korea and the United States have also stepped up military drills this year, saying they are necessary to deter the nuclear-armed North.
The 2018 Comprehensive Military Agreement (CMA) was the most substantive deal to come from the months of meetings between leader Kim Jong Un and then-South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
With those talks long stalled, however, recent drills and shows of force along the fortified border between the Koreas have cast doubts on the future of the measures. South Korea has accused the North of repeatedly violating the agreement with artillery drills this year.
This year North Korea resumed testing of its long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) for the first time since 2017, and South Korea and the United States say it has made preparations to resume nuclear testing as well.


Chinese cities relax testing rules as zero COVID-19 policy eases

Updated 05 December 2022

Chinese cities relax testing rules as zero COVID-19 policy eases

  • Local authorities have begun a slow rollback of the restrictions that have governed daily life for years
  • Chinese authorities on Monday reported 29,724 new domestic COVID-19 cases

BEIJING: Businesses reopened and testing requirements were relaxed in Beijing and other Chinese cities on Monday as the country tentatively eases out of a strict zero COVID-19 policy that sparked nationwide protests.
Local authorities across China have begun a slow rollback of the restrictions that have governed daily life for years, encouraged by the central government’s orders for a new approach to fighting the coronavirus.
In the capital Beijing, where many businesses have fully reopened, commuters from Monday were no longer required to show a negative virus test taken within 48 hours to use public transport.
Financial hub Shanghai — which underwent a brutal two-month lockdown this year — was under the same rules, with residents able to enter outdoor venues such as parks and tourist attractions without a recent test.
Neighboring Hangzhou went a step further, ending regular mass testing for its 10 million people, except for those living in or visiting nursing homes, schools and kindergartens.
In the northwestern city of Urumqi, where a fire that killed 10 people became the catalyst for the recent anti-lockdown protests, supermarkets, hotels, restaurants and ski resorts reopened on Monday.
The city of more than four million in the far-western Xinjiang region endured one of China’s longest lockdowns, with some areas shut from August until November.
Authorities in Wuhan, where the coronavirus was first detected in late 2019, and Shandong scrapped the testing requirement for public transport on Sunday.
And Zhengzhou — home to the world’s largest iPhone factory — on Sunday said people will be allowed to enter public places, take public transport and enter their residential compounds without a 48-hour negative test result.
The World Health Organization has cheered China’s loosening of its zero COVID-19 policy, which came after hundreds took to the streets across the country to call for greater political freedoms and an end to lockdowns.
While some COVID-19 rules have been relaxed, China’s vast security apparatus has moved swiftly to smother further rallies, boosting online censorship and surveillance of the population.
And as officials have dismantled testing facilities, long queues have appeared around those that remain, forcing residents to wait in cold temperatures to get tests that remain obligatory across much of China.
“Students can’t go to school without a 24-hour negative test,” wrote a user on China’s Twitter-like Weibo.
“What’s the point in closing testing booths before dropping the need to show test results completely?” another asked.
Chinese authorities on Monday reported 29,724 new domestic COVID-19 cases.


Growth in arms trade stunted by supply issues: report

Updated 05 December 2022

Growth in arms trade stunted by supply issues: report

  • The growth was severely impacted by widespread supply chain issues
  • Companies in the US continue to dominate global arms production

STOCKHOLM: Sales of arms and military services grew in 2021, researchers said Monday, but were limited by worldwide supply issues related to the pandemic, with the war in Ukraine increasing demand while worsening supply difficulties.
The top 100 arms companies sold weapons and related services totalling $592 billion in 2021, 1.9-percent more than the year before, said the latest report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
However the growth was severely impacted by widespread supply chain issues.
“The lasting impact of the pandemic is really starting to show in arms companies,” Nan Tian, a senior researcher at SIPRI, told AFP.
Disruptions from both labor shortages and difficulties in sourcing raw materials were “slowing down the companies’ ability to produce weapons systems and deliver them on time.
“So what we see really is a potentially slower increase to what many would have expected in arms sales in 2021,” Tian said.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is also expected to worsen supply chain issues, in part “because Russia is a major supplier of raw materials used in arms production,” said the report’s authors.
But the war has at the same time increased demand.
“Definitely demand will increase in the coming years,” Tian said.
By how much was at the same time harder to gauge, Tian said pointing to two factors that would impact demand.
Firstly, countries that have sent weapons to Ukraine to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars will be looking to replenish stockpiles.
Secondly, the worsening security environment means “countries are looking to procure more weapons.”
With the supply crunch expected to worsen, it could hamper these efforts, the authors noted.
Companies in the US continue to dominate global arms production, accounting for over half, $299 billion, of global sales and 40 of the top companies.
At the same time, the region was the only one to see a drop in sales: 0.9 percent down on the 2020 figures.
Among the top five companies — Lockheed Martin, Raytheon Technologies, Boeing, Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics — only Raytheon recorded an increase in sales.
Meanwhile, sales from the eight largest Chinese arms companies rose 6.3 percent to $109 billion in 2021.
European companies took 27 of the spots on the top 100, with combined sales of $123 billion, up 4.2 percent compared to 2020.
The report also noted a trend of private equity firms buying up arms companies, something the authors said had become increasingly apparent over the last three or four years.
This trend threatens to make the arms industry more opaque and therefore harder to track, Tian said, “because private equity firms will buy these companies and then essentially not produce any more financial records.”


US intel chief thinking ‘optimistically’ for Ukraine forces

Updated 04 December 2022

US intel chief thinking ‘optimistically’ for Ukraine forces

  • Russia’s military focus has been on striking Ukrainian infrastructure and pressing an offensive in the east

KYIV: The head of US intelligence says fighting in Russia’s war in Ukraine is running at a “reduced tempo” and suggests Ukrainian forces could have brighter prospects in coming months.
Avril Haines alluded to past allegations by some that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s advisers could be shielding him from bad news — for Russia — about war developments, and said he “is becoming more informed of the challenges that the military faces in Russia.”
“But it’s still not clear to us that he has a full picture of at this stage of just how challenged they are,” the US director of national intelligence said late Saturday at the Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley, California.
Looking ahead, Haines said, “honestly we’re seeing a kind of a reduced tempo already of the conflict” and her team expects that both sides will look to refit, resupply, and reconstitute for a possible Ukrainian counter-offensive in the spring.
“But we actually have a fair amount of skepticism as to whether or not the Russians will be in fact prepared to do that,” she said. “And I think more optimistically for the Ukrainians in that timeframe.”
In recent weeks, Russia’s military focus has been on striking Ukrainian infrastructure and pressing an offensive in the east, near the town of Bakhmut, while shelling sites in the city of Kherson, which Ukrainian forces liberated last month after an 8-month Russian occupation.
In his nightly address on Saturday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky lashed out at Western efforts to crimp Russia’s crucial oil industry, a key source of funds for Putin’s war machine, saying their $60-per-barrel price cap on imports of Russian oil was insufficient.
“It is not a serious decision to set such a limit for Russian prices, which is quite comfortable for the budget of the terrorist state,” Zelensky said, referring to Russia. He said the $60-per-barrel level would still allow Russia to bring in $100 billion in revenues per year.
“This money will go not only to the war and not only to further sponsorship by Russia of other terrorist regimes and organizations. This money will be used for further destabilization of those countries that are now trying to avoid serious decisions,” Zelensky said.
Australia, Britain, Canada, Japan, the United States and the 27-nation European Union agreed Friday to cap what they would pay for Russian oil at $60 per barrel. The limit is set to take effect Monday, along with an EU embargo on Russian oil shipped by sea.
Russian authorities have rejected the price cap and threatened Saturday to stop supplying the nations that endorsed it.
In yet another show of Western support for Ukraine’s efforts to battle back Russian forces and cope with fallout from the war, US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland on Saturday visited the operations of a Ukrainian aid group that provides support for internally displaced people in Ukraine, among her other visits with top Ukrainian officials.
Nuland assembled dolls out of yarn in the blue-and-yellow colors of Ukraine’s flag with youngsters from regions including northeastern Kharkiv, southern Kherson, and eastern Donetsk.
“This is psychological support for them at an absolutely crucial time,” Nuland said.
“As President Putin knows best, this war could stop today, if he chose to stop it and withdrew his forces — and then negotiations can begin,” she added.