Finland, Sweden move closer to seeking NATO membership

Sweden's Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson (L) and Finland's PM Sanna Marin and Finland's President Sauli Niinistö hold press conferences. (Reuters/AFP)
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Updated 15 May 2022

Finland, Sweden move closer to seeking NATO membership

  • Putin has already warned his Finnish counterpart on Saturday that relations would be “negatively affected”
  • NATO Sec-Gen Jens Stoltenberg said the process for Finland and Sweden to join could be very quick

BERLIN: Finland’s government declared a “new era” is underway after announcing its intention to seek NATO membership, hours before Sweden’s governing party on Sunday backed a plan to join the trans-Atlantic alliance amid Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Russia has long bristled about NATO moving closer to its borders, so the developments will be sure to further anger Moscow. President Vladimir Putin has already warned his Finnish counterpart on Saturday that relations would be “negatively affected.”
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, speaking Sunday after top diplomats from the alliance’s 30 member states met in Berlin, said the process for Finland and Sweden to join could be very quick. He also expressed his hope that Ukraine could win the war as Russian military advances appear to be faltering.
In Finland, President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin made the announcement that their country would seek membership in NATO during a joint news conference at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki. The previously neutral Nordic country shares a long border with Russia.
“This is a historic day. A new era begins,” Niinisto said.
The Finnish Parliament is expected to endorse the decision in the coming days. A formal membership application will then be submitted to NATO headquarters in Brussels, most likely at some point next week.
Sweden also moved a step closer to applying for NATO membership after the governing Social Democratic party backed joining the trans-Atlantic alliance.
“At its meeting today, the Social Democrats’ party board has decided that the party will work for Sweden to apply for membership in NATO,” the party said in a statement.
The plan to join the alliance will be discussed in Sweden’s parliament on Monday, and Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson’s Cabinet will make an announce later that day.
“Russia’s war in Ukraine is not going as Moscow had planned,” Stoltenberg said by video link to the NATO meeting in Berlin as he recovers from a COVID-19 infection.” “They failed to take Kyiv. They are pulling back from around Kharkiv. Their major offensive in Donbas has stalled. Russia is not achieving its strategic objectives.”
“Ukraine can win this war,” he said, adding that NATO must continue to step up its military support to the country.
Sweden has also already taken steps toward joining the alliance, while Georgia’s bid is again being discussed despite dire warnings from Moscow about the consequences if its neighbor becomes part of NATO.
Nordic NATO member Norway said it strongly welcomed Finland’s decision to seek membership. Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt described Helsinki’s move as “a turning point” for the Nordic region’s defense and security policies.
“Finnish membership in NATO will be good for Finland, good for the Nordic region, and good for NATO. Finland has Norway’s full support,” Huitfeldt said in comments emailed to The Associated Press.
Huitfeldt said the Norwegian government would facilitate “a swift consent to ratification by the Norwegian Parliament” for Finland’s accession into NATO.
“We are now seeing unprecedented unity in NATO. With the Finnish membership, we will further strengthen the Nordic flank of the military alliance,” Huitfeldt said.
Stoltenberg said he was confident the accession process for Finland and Sweden could be expedited. In the meantime, the alliance would increase its presence in the Baltic region to deter Russian threats, he said.
“All allies realize the historic magnitude of the moment,” Stoltenberg added.
That sentiment was echoed by German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock.
“Sweden and Finland, if you’re ready, we’re ready,” she said.
But NATO member Turkey has raised concerns about the two countries joining, alleging they support Kurdish militants that Ankara considers terrorists.
The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, has waged an insurgency against Turkey since 1984 and the conflict has killed tens of thousands of people. Turkey has also been infuriated by US support for PKK-linked Syrian Kurdish militants to fight the Daesh group.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu told reporters in Berlin on Sunday that Finland and Sweden had also imposed restrictions on defense sales to Turkey that he called “unacceptable.”
“It’s not because we are against the expansion of NATO but because we believe countries who support terror and follow such policies against us should not be NATO allies,” Çavuşoğlu said.
However, Stoltenberg said his understanding is that Turkey aims not to keep Finland or Sweden out but rather to have its concerns addressed first.
“Turkey has made it clear that their intention is not to block membership,” he said.
Nonetheless, Turkey’s raising of its grievances has led to concerns in Washington and Brussels that other NATO members might also use the admission process as a way to wring concessions from allies, possibly complicating and delaying accession.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who spoke with Çavuşoğlu and will see him again on the margins of a special UN Security Council meeting later this week in New York, declined to comment on those concerns. But he voiced confidence that all NATO members would support the bids.
“I heard almost across the board, very strong support for Finland and Sweden joining the alliance, if that’s what they choose to do, and I’m very confident that we will reach consensus,” he said after the meeting in Berlin.
On the sidelines of the Berlin meeting, Blinken met earlier Sunday with Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba to discuss the impact of the war and how to get Ukraine’s grain to international markets.
Britain’s top diplomat said NATO members would also discuss security issues beyond Europe during their meeting Sunday — a reference to growing unease among democratic nations about the rise of China.
“As well as protecting Euro-Atlantic security, we also need to watch out for Indo-Pacific security,” Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said.
Denmark’s foreign minister, Jeppe Kofod, dismissed suggestions that objections from Putin could hinder the alliance from letting in new members.
“We see now a world where the enemy of democracy number one is Putin and the thinking that he represents,” Kofod said, adding that NATO would also stand with other countries, such as Georgia, which he said were being “instrumentalized” by Russia.


US lawmakers meet detained Philippine opposition leader

Updated 6 sec ago

US lawmakers meet detained Philippine opposition leader

  • Leila de Lima was charged with non-bailable drug cases that landed her in jail in February 2017
MANILA: US Sen. Edward Markey, who was once banned from the Philippines by former President Rodrigo Duterte, on Friday met a long-detained Filipino opposition leader, whom he says was wrongfully imprisoned under Duterte and should be freed.
Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, and a group of US legislators met former Sen. Leila de Lima for more than an hour in her high-security detention cell in the main police camp in Metropolitan Manila, according to her lawyer, Filibon Tacardon, and police.
Details of their court-authorized meeting were not immediately available.
Duterte had banned Markey and two other American legislators from traveling to the Philippines after they called for de Lima’s release and raised alarm over human rights violations under his presidency. Duterte’s turbulent six-year term ended in June.
The former president’s brutal anti-drugs crackdown, which left thousands of mostly poor suspects dead, has sparked an investigation by the International Criminal Court.
Duterte was succeeded by Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who took office on June 30 following a landslide election victory with his vice presidential running mate Sara Duterte, the former president’s daughter.
Markey and his delegation met Marcos Jr. at the Malacanang presidential palace in Manila on Thursday. After the meeting, Marcos Jr. said he looked forward “to continuing our partnership with the US in the areas of renewable energy use, agricultural development, economic reform, and mitigation of drug problems.”
A top critic of Duterte, the 62-year-old de Lima has been locked up for more than five years and has accused the former president and his then-deputies of fabricating the non-bailable drug-linked charges that landed her in jail in February 2017. Her arrest and detention effectively stopped her at the time as a senator from investigating the widespread killings under Duterte’s campaign against illegal drugs.
Duterte had insisted on her guilt, saying witnesses testified that she received payoffs from imprisoned drug lords. Several witnesses, however, have recently recanted their allegations against her, re-igniting calls for the Marcos Jr. administration to free her.
Markey, chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations East Asia and Pacific Subcommittee, renewed deep concerns over human rights conditions under then-outgoing President Duterte in a joint statement in June with two other US senators.
They said then that the incoming administration of Marcos Jr. provided an “opportunity to reject the repression of the past, release Sen. Leila de Lima and embrace policies that support the rule of law and a vibrant free press in the Philippines.”
It was not immediately clear if Markey renewed his call for de Lima’s release in Thursday’s meeting with Marcos Jr. and how the Philippine leader responded.

No Tube: London subway hit by strike, day after rail walkout

Updated 19 August 2022

No Tube: London subway hit by strike, day after rail walkout

  • No subway trains were running on most of London’s Tube lines because of the strike over jobs, pay and pensions
  • Rail unions accuse Britain’s Conservative government of preventing train companies from making a better offer

LONDON: A strike by London Underground workers brought the British capital’s transit network to a grinding halt on Friday, a day after a nationwide walkout by railway staff. Another rail strike is scheduled for Saturday as the UK endures a summer of action by workers demanding pay increases to offset soaring food and energy price hikes.
No subway trains were running on most of London’s Tube lines because of the strike over jobs, pay and pensions by members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union, operator Transport for London said.
“It is going to be a difficult day,” said Nick Dent, TFL’s director of customer operations. “We’re advising customers not to travel on the Tube at all.”
There was also continuing disruption above ground as trains started to run again following Thursday’s strike by thousands of railway cleaners, signalers, maintenance workers and other staff. Only about a fifth of trains ran during the 24-hour walkout, the latest in a series of strikes on Britain’s railways.
Rail unions accuse Britain’s Conservative government of preventing train companies — which are privately owned but heavily regulated — from making a better offer. The government denies meddling, but says rail companies need to cut costs and staffing after two years in which emergency government funding kept them afloat.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told Times Radio that “it’s a kick in the teeth” to the public for unions “to turn round after we provided 16 billion pounds of support for the railways and go ‘Right, well, the next thing we’re going to do is go on strike.’”
More public- and private-sector unions are planning strikes as Britain faces its worst cost-of-living crisis in decades. Postal workers, lawyers, British Telecom staff and port workers have all announced walkouts for later this month.
Garbage collectors and recycling workers in Edinburgh, Scotland, began an 11-day strike on Thursday, warning that trash will pile up in the streets as tourists flock to the city for the Edinburgh Fringe and other arts festivals.
UK inflation hit a new 40-year high of 10.1 percent in July, and the Bank of England says it could rise to 13 percent amid a recession later this year. The average UK household fuel bill has risen more than 50 percent so far in 2022 as Russia’s war in Ukraine squeezes global oil and natural gas supplies. Another increase is due in October, when the average bill is forecast to hit 3,500 pounds ($4,300) a year.


Australia upset at Indonesia reducing Bali bomber’s sentence

Updated 19 August 2022

Australia upset at Indonesia reducing Bali bomber’s sentence

  • Umar Patek could be released on parole ahead of the 20th anniversary of the bombings in October
  • Australian leader Anthony Albanese: ‘His actions were the actions of a terrorist’

CANBERRA: Australia’s leader said Friday that it’s upsetting Indonesia has further reduced the prison sentence of the bombmaker in the Bali terror attack that killed 202 people — which could free him within days if he’s granted parole.
The most recent reduction of Umar Patek’s sentence takes his total reductions to almost two years and means Patek could be released on parole ahead of the 20th anniversary of the bombings in October.
“This will cause further distress to Australians who were the families of victims of the Bali bombings,” Prime Minister Anthony Albanese told Channel 9. “We lost 88 Australian lives in those bombings.”
Albanese said he would continue making “diplomatic representations” to Indonesia about Patek’s sentence and a range of other issues, including Australians currently jailed in Indonesia. Albanese described Patek as “abhorrent.”
“His actions were the actions of a terrorist,” Albanese told Channel 9. ”They did have such dreadful results for Australian families that are ongoing, the trauma which is there.”
Indonesia often grants sentence reductions to prisoners on major holidays such as the nation’s Independence Day, which was Wednesday.
Patek received a 5-month reduction on Independence Day for good behavior and could walk free this month from Porong Prison in East Java province if he gets parole, said Zaeroji, who heads the provincial office for the Ministry of Law and Human Rights.
Zaeroji, who goes by a single name, said Patek had the same rights as other inmates and had fulfilled legal requirements to get sentence reductions. “While in the prison, he behaved very well and he regrets his radical past which has harmed society and the country and he has also vowed to be a good citizen,” Zaeroji said.
Patek was arrested in Pakistan in 2011 and tried in Indonesia, where he was convicted in 2012. He was originally sentenced to 20 years imprisonment.
With his time served plus sentence reductions, he became eligible for parole on Aug. 14. The decision from the Ministry of Law and Human Rights in Jakarta is still pending, Zaeroji said. If refused parole, he could remain jailed until 2029.
Patek was one of several men implicated in the attack, which was widely blamed on Jemaah Islamiyah, a Southeast Asian militant group with ties to Al-Qaeda. Most of those killed in the bombing on the resort island were foreign tourists.
Another conspirator, Ali Imron, was sentenced to life. Earlier this year, a third militant, Aris Sumarsono, whose real name is Arif Sunarso but is better known as Zulkarnaen, was sentenced to 15 years following his capture in 2020 after 18 years on the run.
Jan Laczynski, a survivor of the bombings, told Channel 9 that many Australians will be “devastated” by Patek’s potential release. “This guy should not be going out unsupervised, unmonitored,” he said.


North Korea dismisses Seoul’s aid-for-disarmament offer

Updated 19 August 2022

North Korea dismisses Seoul’s aid-for-disarmament offer

  • Kim Yo Jong: Country has no intentions to give away nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles program for economic cooperation

SEOUL: The sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said her country will never accept South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol’s “foolish” offer of economic benefits in exchange for denuclearization steps, accusing Seoul of recycling proposals Pyongyang already rejected.
In a commentary published by state media Friday, Kim Yo Jong stressed that her country has no intentions to give away its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles program for economic cooperation, saying “no one barters its destiny for corn cake.”
She questioned the sincerity of South Korea’s calls for improved bilateral relations while it continues its combined military exercises with the United States and fails to stop civilian activists from flying anti-Pyongyang propaganda leaflets and other “dirty waste” across their border.
She also ridiculed South Korea’s military capabilities, saying the South misread the launch site of the North’s latest missile tests on Wednesday, hours before Yoon used a news conference to urge Pyongyang to return to diplomacy.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, expressed “strong regret” over Kim Yo Jong’s comments that it said were disrespectful to President Yoon Suk Yeol and reaffirmed the North’s desire to continue developing nuclear weapons.
“This attitude from North Korea will not only threaten peace on the Korean Peninsula but result in further difficulties for the North by worsening its international isolation and economic situation,” said Lee Hyo-jung, a ministry spokesperson.
Kim Yo Jong last week had threatened “deadly” retaliation against the South over the COVID-19 outbreak in the North, which it dubiously claims was caused by leaflets and other objects dropped from balloons launched by southern activists.
Yoon during a nationally televised speech on Monday proposed an “audacious” economic assistance package to North Korea if it takes steps to abandon its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles program. The offers of large-scale aid in food and health care and modernizing electricity generation systems and seaports and airports weren’t meaningfully different from previous South Korean proposals rejected by the North, which is speeding the development of an arsenal Kim Jong Un sees as his strongest guarantee of survival.
Kim Yo Jong, one of the most powerful officials in her brother’s government who oversees inter-Korean affairs, said Yoon displayed the “height of absurdity” with his offer, saying it was realistic as creating “mulberry fields in the dark blue ocean.”
She said South Korea’s words and actions would only incite “surging hatred and wrath” from North Koreans and insisted Pyongyang has no immediate plans to revive long-stalled diplomacy with Seoul. “It is our earnest desire to live without awareness of each other,” she said.
Inter-Korean ties have worsened amid a stalemate in larger nuclear negotiations between North Korea and the US that derailed in 2019 because of disagreements over a relaxation of crippling US-led sanctions on the North in exchange for disarmament steps.
There are concerns that Kim Yo Jong’s threats last week over the leafletting portends a provocation, of which the possibilities may include a nuclear or missile test or even border skirmishes. The United States and South Korea kick off their biggest combined training in years next week to counter the North Korean threat. The North describes such drills as invasion rehearsals and has often responded to them with missile tests or other provocations.
During Wednesday’s news conference, Yoon expressed hope for meaningful dialogue with the North over his aid-for-disarmament proposal. Maintaining a reserved tone, Yoon said his government has no plans to pursue its own nuclear deterrent and doesn’t desire political change in Pyongyang that’s brought by force.
Yoon spoke hours after South Korea’s military detected North Korea firing two suspected cruise missiles toward the sea and identified the western coastal site of Onchon as the launch location. Kim Yo Jong in her column said the weapons were fired from a bridge in the city of Anju, north of Onchon and farther inland, and ridiculed South Korean and US capacities to monitor North Korean missile activity. The South’s military has yet to release its analyzed flight details of those missiles.
“If the data and flight trajectory (of the missiles) are known, (the South) will be so bewildered and afraid,” Kim Yo Jong said. “It will be a thing worthy of seeing how they will explain about it before their people.”
The latest launches extended a record pace in North Korean missile testing in 2022, which has involved more than 30 ballistic launches, including the country’s first demonstrations of intercontinental ballistic missiles in nearly five years.
North Korea’s heighted testing activity underscores its dual intent to advance its arsenal and force the United States to accept the idea of the North as a nuclear power so it can negotiate economic and security concessions from a position of strength, experts say.
Kim Jong Un could up the ante soon as there are indications that the North is preparing to conduct its first nuclear test since September 2017, when it claimed to have developed a thermonuclear weapon to fit on its ICBMs.


Erdogan warns of ‘another Chernobyl’ after talks in Ukraine

Updated 19 August 2022

Erdogan warns of ‘another Chernobyl’ after talks in Ukraine

  • A flare-up in fighting around Europe’s largest nuclear facility in Russian-controlled southern Ukraine has sparked urgent warnings from world leaders

LVIV, Ukraine: Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Thursday of a nuclear disaster in Ukraine during his first face-to-face talks with President Volodymyr Zelensky since Russia’s invasion began, echoing pleas from the UN’s chief.
A flare-up in fighting around Europe’s largest nuclear facility in Russian-controlled southern Ukraine has sparked urgent warnings from world leaders, and UN chief Antonio Guterres cautioned during talks with Erdogan that any damage to the plant would be akin to “suicide.”
“We are worried. We don’t want another Chernobyl,” Erdogan said during a press conference in the eastern city of Lviv, during which he also assured the Ukrainian leader that Ankara was a firm ally.
“While continuing our efforts to find a solution, we remain on the side of our Ukraine friends,” Erdogan said.
Guterres said he was “gravely concerned” about the situation at the plant and that it had to be demilitarized, adding: “We must tell it like it is — any potential damage to Zaporizhzhia is suicide.”
Erdogan, who has major geopolitical rivalries with the Kremlin but maintains a close working relationship with President Vladimir Putin, met with the Russian leader less than two weeks ago in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
The Turkish leader and Guterres were key brokers of a deal inked in Istanbul last month allowing for the resumption of grain exports from Ukraine after Russia’s invasion blocked essential global supplies.
The success of the grain deal contrasts with failed peace talks early in the war, and Zelensky on Thursday ruled out peace with Russia unless it withdrew its troops from Ukraine.
He told reporters he was “very surprised” to hear from Erdogan that Russia was “ready for some kind of peace,” adding: “First they should leave our territory and then we’ll see.”
Fighting raged along the front on Thursday and early Friday.
Bombardments across the city of Kharkiv and nearby Krasnograd left at least six dead and 25 injured on Thursday, just one day after Russian bombardments killed 13 in the country’s second-largest urban center.
Early-morning shelling on Friday also targeted the city of Nikopol, according to a local military official, while the mayor of Mykolayiv reported “massive explosions” there around the same time.
Fighting in recent weeks has focused around the southern region of Zaporizhzhia and the nuclear facility there, and Zelensky called on the UN to ensure security at the plant after direct talks with Guterres, while also blaming Russia for “deliberate” attacks on the facility.
Russian forces took the plant in March and uncertainty surrounding it has fueled fears of a nuclear incident.
Moscow dismissed Ukrainian allegations Thursday, saying its forces had not deployed heavy weapons at Zaporizhzhia and accusing Kyiv of preparing a “provocation” there that would see Russia “accused of creating a man-made disaster at the plant.”
Kyiv, however, insisted it was Moscow that was planning a “provocation” at the facility.
Ukrainian military intelligence said in a Facebook post on Thursday night that it had received reports that all but a “small part of operational personnel” at the plant had been ordered to stay home on Friday, while representatives of Russia’s state nuclear operator “actually left the territory” of the facility.
“Considering the number of weapons that are currently located on the territory of the nuclear plant, as well as repeated provocative shelling, there is a high probability of a large-scale terrorist attack at the nuclear facility,” it said.

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