Jill Biden pays surprise visit to Ukraine, meets first lady

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US first lady Jill Biden hugs Olena Zelenska outside a public school in Uzhhorod, Ukraine, May 8, 2022. (Reuters)
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US first lady Jill Biden meets with Olena Zelenska in a public school in Uzhhorod, Ukraine, May 8, 2022. (Reuters)
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First ladies Jill Biden and Olena Zelenska join a group of children at School 6 in making tissue-paper bears to give as Mother's Day gifts in Uzhhorod, Ukraine, Sunday, May 8, 2022. (AP)
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Updated 08 May 2022

Jill Biden pays surprise visit to Ukraine, meets first lady

  • Biden traveled under the cloak of secrecy, becoming the latest high-profile American to enter Ukraine
  • The school where they met has been turned into transitional housing for Ukrainian migrants from elsewhere in the country

UZHHOROD, Ukraine: Jill Biden made an unannounced visit to western Ukraine on Sunday, holding a surprise Mother’s Day meeting with first lady Olena Zelenska to show US support for the embattled nation as Russia presses its punishing war in the eastern regions.
Biden traveled under the cloak of secrecy, becoming the latest high-profile American to enter Ukraine during its 10-week-old conflict with Russia.
“I wanted to come on Mother’s Day,” the US first lady told Zelenska. “I thought it was important to show the Ukrainian people that this war has to stop and this war has been brutal and that the people of the United States stand with the people of Ukraine.”
Biden spent about two hours in Ukraine, traveling by vehicle to the town of Uzhhorod, about a 10-minute drive from a Slovakian village that she toured on the border.
Zelenska thanked Biden for her “courageous act” and said, “We understand what it takes for the US first lady to come here during a war when military actions are taking place every day, where the air sirens are happening every day — even today.”
The two first ladies came together in a small classroom, sitting across a table from one another and greeting each other in front of reporters before they met in private. Zelenska and her children have been at an undisclosed location for their safety.
The school where they met has been turned into transitional housing for Ukrainian migrants from elsewhere in the country.
The visit allowed Biden to conduct the kind of personal diplomacy that her husband would like to be doing himself.
President Joe Biden said during his visit to Poland in March that he was disappointed he could not visit Ukraine to see conditions “firsthand” but that he was not allowed, likely due to security reasons. The White House said as recently as last week that the president “would love to visit” but there were no plans for him to do so at this time.
The meeting came about after the two first ladies exchanged correspondence in recent weeks, according to US officials who declined to provide further details because they were not authorized to discuss the ladies’ private communications.
As she arrived at the school, Biden, who was wearing a Mother’s Day corsage that was a gift from her husband, embraced Zelenska and presented her with a bouquet.
After their private meeting, the two joined a group of children who live at the school in making tissue-paper bears to give as Mother’s Day gifts.
Biden’s visit follows recent stops in the war-torn country by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other members of Congress, as well as a joint trip by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to meet with President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv.
Her visit was limited to western Ukraine; Russia is concentrating its military power in eastern Ukraine, and she was not in harm’s way. On the same day as Biden’s visit, a Russian bomb flattened a school in eastern Ukraine that had been sheltering about 90 people in its basement, with dozens feared dead.
Earlier, in the Slovakian border village of Vysne Nemecke, she toured its border processing facility, surveying operations set up by the United Nations and other relief organizations to assist Ukrainians seeking refuge. Biden attended a religious service in a tent set up as a chapel, where a priest intoned, “We pray for the people of Ukraine.”
And before that, in Kosice, Biden met and offered support to Ukrainian mothers in Slovakia who have been displaced by Russia’s war. She assured them that the “hearts of the American people” are behind them.
At a bus station in the city that is now a 24-hour refugee processing center, Biden found herself in an extended conversation with a Ukrainian woman who said she struggles to explain the war to her three children because she cannot understand it herself.
“I cannot explain because I don’t know myself and I’m a teacher,” Victorie Kutocha, who had her arms around her 7-year-old daughter, Yulie, told Biden.
At one point, Kutocha asked, “Why?” seeming to seek an explanation for Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine on Feb. 24.
’It’s so hard to understand,” the first lady replied.
The 24-hour facility is one of six refugee centers in Slovakia, providing an average of 300 to 350 people daily with food, showers, clothing, emergency on-site accommodations and other services, according to information provided by the White House.
Biden also dropped in at a Slovakian public school that has taken in displaced students.
Slovakian and Ukrainian moms were brought together at the school for a Mother’s Day event while their children made crafts to give them as gifts.
Biden went from table to table meeting the mothers and kids. She told some of the women that she wanted to come and ” say the hearts of the American people are with the mothers of Ukraine.”
“I just wanted to come and show you our support,” she said before departing for Vysne Nemecke.
In recent weeks border crossings are averaging less than 2,000 per day, down from over 10,000 per day immediately after Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24, and a large portion of that flow is daily cross border traffic.
Biden is on a four-day visit to Eastern Europe to highlight US support for Ukrainian refugees and for the allied countries such as Romania and Slovakia that are providing a safe haven for them.
She spent Friday and Saturday in Romania, visiting with US troops and meeting with Ukrainian refugee mothers and children.
With her trip, the American first lady followed the path of prior sitting first ladies who also traveled to war or conflict zones.
Eleanor Roosevelt visited servicemen abroad during World War II to help boost troop morale. Pat Nixon joined President Richard Nixon on his 1969 trip to South Vietnam, becoming the first first lady to visit a combat zone, according to the National First Ladies’ Library. She flew 18 miles from Saigon in an open helicopter, accompanied by US Secret Service agents.
Hillary Clinton visited a combat zone, stopping in Bosnia in 1996. Four years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and during the US-led war in Afghanistan, Laura Bush went to Kabul in 2005 and Melania Trump accompanied President Donald Trump to Iraq in December 2018.


Germany to seek EU sanctions on Iran over protests crackdown: foreign minister

Updated 7 sec ago

Germany to seek EU sanctions on Iran over protests crackdown: foreign minister

BERLIN: German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock on Thursday said she was pushing for EU sanctions on Iran over the Islamic republic’s lethal crackdown on protests sparked by the death of a young woman in police custody.
“Within the framework of the EU, I am doing everything I can to get sanctions under way against those in Iran who are beating women to death and shooting demonstrators in the name of religion,” Baerbock wrote on Twitter.

'Stand for each other': Afghan women rally in support of antigovernment protests in Iran

Updated 29 September 2022

'Stand for each other': Afghan women rally in support of antigovernment protests in Iran

  • Protesters gathered in front of Iranian embassy in Kabul chanting, 'women, life, freedom'
  • The protest was soon dispersed by Taliban security forces who fired into the air

KABUL: Afghan women rallied in front of the Iranian embassy in Kabul on Thursday, joining global protests over the death of a young woman in the custody of Iran’s morality police.

Mahsa Amini, 22, was detained in Tehran on Sept. 12 for failing to cover her hair modestly enough. Women who were arrested along with Amini have said she was beaten inside a police van. Three days later she died in hospital after falling into a coma.

Public anger over her death has prompted days of rage and street protests across Iran, in what has been the largest manifestation of dissent against the Iranian government in over a decade.

Protests have also spilled to other countries.

A group of about 25 women who gathered in front of the Iranian embassy in Kabul carried placards that read: “Beautiful Mahsa, your blood is our way and inspiration,” as they chanted “women, life, freedom” — the phrase that has been used by demonstrators in Iran.

A 24-year-old university student who participated in the protest told Arab News she had attended the rally in solidarity with the women of Iran.

“Women in Iran and we are facing the same oppression. We wanted to show that we can amplify the voices of our sisters in Iran while highlighting our own concerns for freedom and dignity,” she said, on condition of anonymity.

“The widespread protests in Iran supported by men and women also inspired us to continue our fight for the rights of Afghan women in Afghanistan. Afghan women have been brave enough to defy the Taliban’s restrictive attitude. We will not be silenced and we will rise again.”

The rights of Afghan women have been limited since the Taliban took control of the country after US-led forces withdrew from Afghanistan in August last year.

Although they had previously promised a softer version of the harsh rule during their first stint in power from 1996 to 2001, women have already been ordered to wear face cover in public, banned from making long-distance journeys alone, and prevented from working in most sectors outside of health and education.

Since September last year, permission from the Ministry of Justice is required to organize a protest. Slogans used during rallies must also be approved by authorities.

Soon after Thursday’s rally in front of the Iranian embassy began, it was dispersed by Taliban security forces, who fired into the air.

For Afghan women’s rights activist like Muzhgan Noori, the protest was a “fine example of sisterhood and solidarity among women sharing the same pain and concerns.”

“Afghan women have protested whenever they felt the need for it, and they should be able to do so now. The government must support and protect them instead of frightening them,” she told Arab News.

“I hope women continue to stand for each other.”


Pakistani court acquits ex-PM’s daughter in corruption case

Updated 29 September 2022

Pakistani court acquits ex-PM’s daughter in corruption case

  • Maryam Nawaz is the vice president of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League
  • The court also acquitted her husband, Mohammad Sadar

ISLAMABAD: A court in Pakistan’s capital city on Thursday acquitted the daughter of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif after she was sentenced to seven years in prison over charges connected with the purchase of luxury apartments in London.
Maryam Nawaz, the vice president of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League, said outside the Islamabad High court that she is “thankful to God that justice has been done.” The luxury apartments at issue are owned by her brothers.
The court also acquitted her husband, Mohammad Sadar, who had been sentenced to one year in jail on charges of giving false information to investigators in 2018.
Sharif, who had also been sentenced to 10 years in jail in the same case, has been living in self-imposed exile in London since 2019 after authorities released him on bail so that he could travel abroad to seek medical treatment.


US vice president Kamala Harris caps Asia trip with stop at DMZ dividing Koreas

Updated 29 September 2022

US vice president Kamala Harris caps Asia trip with stop at DMZ dividing Koreas

  • The visit comes on the heels of North Korea’s latest missile launches
  • At the DMZ, Harris went to the top of a ridge, near guard towers and security cameras

PANMUNJOM, Korea: US Vice President Kamala Harris capped her four-day trip to Asia with a stop Thursday at the Demilitarized Zone dividing the Korean Peninsula as she emphasized US commitment to the security of its Asian allies in the face of an increasingly aggressive North Korea.
The visit comes on the heels of North Korea’s latest missile launches and amid fears that the country may conduct a nuclear test. Visiting the DMZ has become something of a ritual for American leaders hoping to show their resolve to stand firm against aggression.
North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles on Wednesday, while Harris was in Japan, and had fired one before she left Washington on Sunday. The launches contribute to a record level of missile testing this year that is intended to move Pyongyang closer to being acknowledged as a full-fledged nuclear power.
At the DMZ, Harris went to the top of a ridge, near guard towers and security cameras. She looked through bulky binoculars as a South Korean colonel pointed out military installations on the southern side. Then an American colonel pointed out some of the defenses along the military demarcation line, including fence topped with barbed wire and claymore mines. He said American soldiers regularly walk patrols along a path.
“It’s so close,” Harris said.
Her tour visit to the observation post came after she met US service members and some of their relatives at the Camp Bonifas Dining Facility, where she said she wanted them to know “how grateful and thankful we are.”
“I know it’s not always easy. Most of the time it’s not,” she said.
She asked a soldier from Florida on whether he checked in on his family after Hurricane Ian.
“Yeah, they’re up on a hill,” he said.
When another soldier stammered nervously while introducing himself, Harris said, “You know your name!”
“They’re going to give you such a hard time when this is over,” she joked.
Earlier, Harris met with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol at his office in Seoul where they condemned North Korea’s intensifying weapons tests and reaffirmed the US commitment to defend the South with a full range of its military capabilities in the event of war, Yoon’s office said.
They expressed concern over North Korea’s threats of nuclear conflict and pledged an unspecified stronger response to major North Korean provocations, including a nuclear test, which South Korean officials say could possibly take place in coming months.
Harris and Yoon were also expected to discuss expanding economic and technology partnerships and repairing recently strained ties between Seoul and Tokyo to strengthen their trilateral cooperation with Washington in the region.
Harris’ trip was organized so she could attend the state funeral of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but her itinerary was dominated by security concerns, a reflection of fears about China’s growing power and North Korea’s ramped-up testing activity.
In every meeting, Harris tried to lay to rest any fears that the United States was wavering in its commitment to protect its allies, describing American partnerships with South Korea and Japan as the “linchpin” and “cornerstone” of its defense strategy in Asia.
Yoon, who took office earlier this year, had anchored his election campaign with vows to deepen Seoul’s economic and security partnership with Washington to navigate challenges posed by the North Korean threat and address potential supply chain risks caused by the pandemic, the US-China rivalry and Russia’s war on Ukraine. But the alliance has been marked by tension recently.
South Koreans have expressed a sense of betrayal over a new law signed by President Joe Biden that prevents electric cars built outside of North America from being eligible for US government subsidies, undermining the competitiveness of automakers like Seoul-based Hyundai.
There are indications North Korea may up its weapons demonstrations soon as it refines its missiles and delivery systems and attempts to pressure Washington to accept the North as a nuclear power. South Korean officials said last week that they detected signs North Korea was preparing to test a ballistic missile system designed to be fired from submarines.
The US aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan was to train with South Korean and Japanese warships in waters near the Korean Peninsula on Friday in the countries’ first trilateral anti-submarine exercises since 2017 to counter North Korean submarine threats, South Korea’s navy said Thursday.
US and South Korean officials also say North Korea is possibly gearing up for its first nuclear test since 2017. That test could come after China holds its Communist Party convention the week of Oct. 16, but before the United States holds its midterm elections Nov. 8, according to South Korean lawmakers who attended a closed-door briefing from the National Intelligence Service.


Taliban fire into air to disperse women’s rally backing Iran protests

Updated 29 September 2022

Taliban fire into air to disperse women’s rally backing Iran protests

KABUL:  Taliban forces fired shots into the air on Thursday to disperse a women’s rally supporting protests in Iran over the death of a woman in the custody of morality police.
Deadly protests have erupted in neighboring Iran for the past two weeks, following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while detained by the Islamic republic’s morality police.
Chanting the same “Women, life, freedom” mantra used in Iran, about 25 Afghan women protested in front of Kabul’s Iranian embassy before being dispersed by Taliban forces firing in the air, an AFP correspondent reported.
Women protesters carried banners that read: “Iran has risen, now it’s our turn!” and “From Kabul to Iran, say no to dictatorship!“
Taliban forces swiftly snatched the banners and tore them in front of the protesters.
Defiant Afghan women’s rights activists have staged sporadic protests in Kabul and some other cities since the Taliban stormed back to power last August.
The protests, banned by the Taliban, contravene a slew of harsh restrictions imposed by the hard-line extremists on Afghan women.
The Taliban have forcefully dispersed women’s rallies in the past, warned journalists against covering them and detained activists helming organization efforts.
An organizer of Thursday’s protest, speaking anonymously, told AFP it was staged “to show our support and solidarity with the people of Iran and the women victims of the Taliban in Afghanistan.”
Since returning to power, the Taliban have banned secondary school education for girls and barred women from many government jobs.
Women have also been ordered to fully cover themselves in public, preferably with the all-encompassing burqa.
So far the Taliban have dismissed international calls to remove the curbs on women, especially the ban on secondary school education.
On Tuesday, a United Nations report denounced the “severe restrictions” and called for them to be reversed.
The international community has insisted that lifting controls on women’s rights is a key condition for recognizing the Taliban government, which no country has so far done.