Biden, Xi clash on Taiwan but try to ‘manage’ differences

It is Joe Biden and Xi Jinping’s first in-person talks since the US leader became president. (AFP)
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Updated 14 November 2022

Biden, Xi clash on Taiwan but try to ‘manage’ differences

  • Both leaders stress the need to manage differences and avoid conflict

NUSA DUA, Indonesia: President Joe Biden objected directly to China’s “coercive and increasingly aggressive actions” toward Taiwan during the first in-person meeting of his presidency with Xi Jinping, as the two superpower leaders aimed on Monday to “manage” their differences in the competition for global influence.
The nearly three-hour meeting was the highlight of Biden’s weeklong, round-the-world trip to the Middle East and Asia, and came at a critical juncture for the two countries amid increasing economic and security tensions. Speaking at a news conference afterward, Biden said that when it comes to China, the US would “compete vigorously, but I’m not looking for conflict.”
He added: “I absolutely believe there need not be a new Cold War” between America and the rising Asian power.
Biden reiterated US support for its longstanding “One China” policy, which recognizes the government in Beijing — while allowing for informal American relations and defense ties with Taipei, and “strategic ambiguity” over whether the US would respond militarily if the island were attacked. He also said that despite China’s recent saber rattling, he does not believe “there’s any imminent attempt on the part of China to invade Taiwan.”
Xi, according to the Chinese government’s account of the meeting, “stressed that the Taiwan question is at the very core of China’s core interests, the bedrock of the political foundation of China-US relations, and the first red line that must not be crossed in China-US relations.”
Biden said he and Xi also discussed Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and “reaffirmed our shared belief” that the use or even the threat of nuclear weapons is “totally unacceptable.” That was a reference to Moscow’s thinly veiled threats to use atomic weapons as its nearly nine-month invasion of Ukraine has faltered.
Chinese officials have largely refrained from public criticism of Russia’s war, although Beijing has avoided direct support of the Russians, such as supplying arms.
While there were no watershed breakthroughs, the Biden-Xi meeting brought each side long-sought, if modest, gains. In addition to the shared condemnation of Russian nuclear threats, Biden appeared to secure from Xi the resumption of lower-level cooperation from China on a range of shared global challenges. Meanwhile, Xi, who has aimed to establish China as a geopolitical peer of the US, got symbolic home turf for the meeting as well as Biden’s forceful One China policy commitment.
The White House said Biden and Xi agreed to “empower key senior officials” to work on areas of potential cooperation, including tackling climate change and maintaining global financial, health and food stability. Beijing had cut off such contacts with the US in protest of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan in August.
China and the US are the world’s worst climate polluters, and their one-on-one climate contacts are seen as vital to staving off some of the most dire scenarios of climate change. Biden’s first stop on his long overseas trip was in Egypt for a major climate conference.
The two leaders agreed to have US Secretary of State Antony Blinken travel to Beijing to continue discussions.
Xi and Biden warmly greeted each other with a handshake at a luxury resort hotel in Indonesia, where they are attending the Group of 20 summit of large economies.
“As the leaders of our two nations, we share responsibility, in my view, to show that China and the United States can manage our differences, prevent competition from becoming anything ever near conflict, and to find ways to work together on urgent global issues that require our mutual cooperation,” Biden said to open the meeting.
Xi called on Biden to “chart the right course” and “elevate the relationship” between China and the US He said he wanted a “candid and in-depth exchange of views.”
Both men entered the highly anticipated meeting with bolstered political standing at home. Democrats triumphantly held onto control of the US Senate, with a chance to boost their ranks by one in a runoff election in Georgia next month, while Xi was awarded a third five-year term in October by the Communist Party’s national congress, a break with tradition.
But relations between the two powers have grown more strained under successive American administrations, with economic, trade, human rights and security differences at the fore.
As president, Biden has repeatedly taken China to task for human rights abuses against the Uyghur people and other ethnic minorities, crackdowns on democracy activists in Hong Kong, coercive trade practices, military provocations against self-ruled Taiwan and differences over Russia and Ukraine.
The White House said Biden specifically mentioned US concerns about China’s actions in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong, and the plight of Americans it considers “wrongfully detained” or subject to exit bans in China.
Taiwan has emerged as one of the most contentious issues. Multiple times in his presidency, Biden has said the US would defend the island — which China has eyed for eventual unification — in case of a Beijing-led invasion. But administration officials have stressed each time that the US China policy has not changed.
Pelosi’s trip prompted China, officially the People’s Republic of China, to retaliate with military drills and the firing of ballistic missiles into nearby waters.
The White House said Biden “raised US objections to the PRC’s coercive and increasingly aggressive actions toward Taiwan, which undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and in the broader region, and jeopardize global prosperity.”
In the meeting, Biden said China’s economic practices “harm American workers and families, and workers and families around the world,” the White House said.
The meeting came just weeks after the Biden administration blocked exports of advanced computer chips to China — a national security move that bolsters US competition against Beijing.
Xi’s government said he condemned such moves, saying, “Starting a trade war or a technology war, building walls and barriers, and pushing for decoupling and severing supply chains run counter to the principles of market economy and undermine international trade rules.”
Although the two men have held five phone or video calls during Biden’s presidency, White House officials said those encounters were no substitute for an in-person meeting. They said sitting down with Xi was all the more important after the Chinese leader strengthened his grip on power with a third term and because lower-level Chinese officials have been unable or unwilling to speak for their leader.
White House officials and their Chinese counterparts spent weeks negotiating details of the meeting, which was held at Xi’s hotel with translators providing simultaneous interpretation through headsets. Each leader was flanked by nine N-95 mask-wearing aides, and in the case of Xi, at least one official newly elevated in the recent Congress to its top leadership.
US officials were eager to see how Xi approached the meeting after consolidating his position as the unquestioned leader of the state — whether that made him more or less likely to seek out areas of cooperation.
Biden said Xi was as he’s always been.
“I didn’t find him more confrontational or more conciliatory,” Biden said. “I found him the way he’s always been, direct and straightforward.”


Whistleblower sacked for speaking out on withdrawal from Afghanistan takes UK government to court

Updated 04 February 2023

Whistleblower sacked for speaking out on withdrawal from Afghanistan takes UK government to court

  • Josie Stewart, who gave an anonymous interview and leaked emails to the BBC about the withdrawal, said the civil service has become ‘dangerously politicized’
  • A former head of illicit finance at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, she is challenging her dismissal under the Public Interest Disclosure Act

DUBAI: A former senior official at Britain’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is taking the UK government to court test the legal protections for whistleblowers, amid concerns they are not sufficient to protect civil servants.

Josie Stewart, who worked at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and was sacked after turning whistleblower to reveal details of the chaotic UK response to the fall of Kabul, said the British civil service has become so dangerously politicized that officials who dare to speak out risk being sidelined or losing their jobs.

She told The Guardian newspaper that former colleagues felt their role was to protect ministers, some of whom were only interested in “looking good,” rather than working in the public interest.

Stewart, who was head of the illicit finance team at the FCDO, was fired over an anonymous interview she gave to the BBC about the government’s handling of the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. She is challenging her dismissal, based on the provisions the Public Interest Disclosure Act.

In her first interview since her dismissal, she said the government’s strategy for the withdrawal of its forces had been shaped by political concerns at home. Ministers were more focused on media coverage and “the political fallout” than saving lives, she added.

Her legal action adds to the pressure on Dominic Raab, who was foreign secretary at the time and who is currently fighting for his political career following allegations of bullying, which he denies. Raab was heavily criticized for failing to return home early from holiday in August 2021 when Afghanistan fell to the Taliban.

Stewart, who worked for two years at the British embassy in Kabul during her seven years with the FCDO, volunteered to work in the Whitehall crisis center when the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. One of her allegations was that ministers had not expected the British public to care about the evacuation of locals who had helped British troops amnd officials.

Her case, for which a final hearing is scheduled for September, could set a precedent for how the courts handle similar cases in future, including clarification of whether whistleblowers can avoid dismissal if they disclosed information in “exceptionally serious circumstances” and it should therefore be considered “reasonable” to have done so.

In her interview with The Guardian, 42-year-old Stewart said: “If the law is not tested and used then I don’t know how much it actually means, as potential whistleblowers don’t know which side of the line it is going to fall. Is what they’re going to do likely to be legally protected or not? If they don’t know, then I’m not sure how meaningful the fact the law exists is.”

Stewart, who now works for nonprofit organization Transparency International, alleged that the civil service has been dangerously politicized since the era of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and she accused the cabinet secretary, Simon Case, of failing to stand up for officials.

“I increasingly saw senior officials interpreting their role as doing what ministers say and providing protections to ministers,” she said. “It was almost as if their first loyalty (was) to their political leaders rather than to the public.

“Essentially people who said ‘yes’ and went along with it and bought into this shift in culture and approach were those whose careers went well. Those who resisted either found themselves buried somewhere or looking for jobs elsewhere.

“It threatens the impartiality of the civil service. The civil service is supposed to bring expertise in how to get things done. It risks that expertise being neutered by a slant towards focusing on things that look good rather than achieving impact.”

Stewart also suggested the politicization of the civil service had a dramatic effect on the government’s handling of the evacuation from Afghanistan. Moreover, she highlighted the government’s failure to draw up a plan to help Afghan nationals who had assisted the British, such as translators or contractors, but were not eligible for the existing Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy because they did not work directly for the UK, to leave the country.

“There was no policy because we didn’t intend to do it at all,” Stewart said. “The only reason it came into life during the crisis was because the government was surprised to learn that the British people did actually care and did feel that we owed something to those people.

“Then they thought: ‘Well, people do care and we had better do something about it.’ So it was a misjudgment, politically. Hence the chaos.”

The crisis center received thousands of emails from desperate Afghans asking for help, which remained unopened until pressure from MPs led Raab to promise in the House of Commons that they would all be read by a certain date.

In January 2022 Stewart gave her anonymous interview and leaked emails to the BBC’s Newsnight program that revealed a decision to allow the animal charity Nowzad’s Afghan staff to be evacuated had been taken as a result of instructions from Johnson himself that overruled officials, who had said the workers were not eligible and others were at higher risk. Johnson had denied being involved in the decision.

The unredacted emails were accidentally published on social media by the BBC, revealing Stewart’s identity. She was stripped of her FCDO security clearance and subsequently sacked because, without it, she was unable to do her job.

Stewart’s lawyers expect the government to argue that the protections under the Public Interest Disclosure Act do not apply in this case because she was not, ultimately, dismissed for the act of whistleblowing, and they plan to challenge this.

An FCDO spokesperson said: “We are rightly proud of our staff who worked tirelessly to evacuate more than 15,000 people from Afghanistan within a fortnight.”

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “The cabinet secretary is proud to lead a civil service that works day in, day out to deliver the government’s priorities for the people of this country.”

A BBC spokesperson said: “We take our responsibilities as journalists very seriously and we deeply regret that the name of the email account was inadvertently revealed when the email was published on social media.”

A spokesperson for Boris Johnson declined to comment.


Liberian warlord’s trial set to conclude in Switzerland

Updated 03 February 2023

Liberian warlord’s trial set to conclude in Switzerland

  • Lawyers for the plaintiffs said Kosiah's actions were "widespread and systematic" against a civilian population
  • A verdict by the three-judge panel is expected within months

GENEVA: The appeal hearings of a former Liberian rebel commander convicted of war crimes were set to conclude on Friday in a trial that was broadened in its final stages to include crimes against humanity for the first time in Switzerland.
Alieu Kosiah, who fought in the 1990s against then-President Charles Taylor’s army, was sentenced to 20 years in prison in June 2021 for rape, murder and cannibalism in one of the first trials for war crimes committed in the West African country.
During the three weeks of appeal hearings at the Federal Criminal Court in Bellinzona, the defendant sought to overturn the lower court’s ruling, arguing at length that he was not present when the crimes were committed. Kosiah’s lawyer denied the charges and said he was a minor when first recruited.
But lawyers for the plaintiffs said Kosiah’s actions were “widespread and systematic” against a civilian population.
“We feel strongly that these crimes are the epitome of crimes against humanity,” said Alain Werner, a Swiss lawyer and director of Civitas Maxima, an NGO that represents war crimes victims and is acting on behalf of some of the plaintiffs.
A verdict by the three-judge panel is expected within months. If Kosiah is found guilty of crimes against humanity, this could extend his sentence to life.
The hearings were often laden with emotion, with some Liberian witnesses and victims confronting Kosiah for the first time since the country’s civil wars. They all asked for anonymity because of the risk of reprisals back home where former warlords still hold prominent roles.
In one poignant moment, a former child soldier under Kosiah acknowledged him with a military salute in the court room and then broke down and was too upset to testify.
In another, a witness who had been held as a sex slave by a soldier described how Kosiah had stabbed one of the Liberian plaintiffs present in the back. “Many people in the courtroom were crying. It was very emotional, even 30 years later,” said Zena Wakim, one of the prosecution lawyers.
No trials have taken place in Liberia for its back-to-back civil wars between 1989 and 2003 that became infamous for their brutality and degradation, with marauding child soldiers and combatants high on drugs.
In an indication of the importance of the trial to the Liberian plaintiffs, one of them who says she was raped by Kosiah, named a recently born baby “Justice.”
“I want him in jail,” she told Reuters on the opening day of the appeal trial on Jan. 11.


Job: ‘Sniper’: Accused Daesh fighter on trial in US

Updated 03 February 2023

Job: ‘Sniper’: Accused Daesh fighter on trial in US

  • Ruslan Maratovich Asainov kept a makeshift version of the militants' black flag right above the desk in his cell
  • The trial is a reminder of the enduring and far-reaching fallout of a war that drew tens of thousands of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq

NEW YORK: He had been brought from the battlefields of Syria to a New York lockup, a US citizen charged with serving as a sniper and weapons trainer for the Daesh group.
And even in jail, Ruslan Maratovich Asainov kept a makeshift version of the militants’ black flag right above the desk in his cell, according to trial testimony this week.
“What’s the big deal? It’s mine. It’s religious,” then-jail lieutenant Judith Woods recalled him saying when she went to confiscate the hand-drawn image in 2020.
Years after the fall of the extremist group’s self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate, the trial is a reminder of the enduring and far-reaching fallout of a war that drew tens of thousands of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq. Their home countries are still contending with what should become of them.
Jurors, who are expected to start deliberating as soon as Monday, have gotten a refresher course Daesh’s gruesome rule and its sophisticated, social-media-savvy recruitment of distant supporters to come and take up arms. Prosecutors say Asainov did so and rose through the group’s ranks, eventually becoming an “emir” who taught other members to use weapons.
In post-arrest videos shown at his trial, he gives his occupation as “a sniper” to FBI agents and readily tells them that he provided instruction in everything from rifle maintenance to ballistics to adjusting for weather effects — and, of course, “how to actually pull the trigger.”
“Oh, it’s a long lesson,” he explains, sitting on a bed in a room where he was being held. “I would give, like, a three-hour lesson, just on that, just to pull the trigger.”
Jurors have seen photos alleged to be of Asainov in camouflage, aiming a rifle, and the handmade flag that Woods said she took from his cell. Witnesses have included his flabbergasted ex-wife, who testified that he morphed from a Brooklyn family man into a zealot. She said he weighed in from Syria to complain about their daughter donning a Halloween costume and sent a photo of the bodies of what he said were comrades killed in a battle, according to the Daily News of New York.
Asainov chose not to testify. One of his lawyers, Susan Kellman, has said he went to Syria because he wanted to live under Islamic law. He has pleaded not guilty — a plea that Kellman entered on his behalf because, she said, he didn’t abide by the American legal system.
Nonetheless, the 46-year-old Asainov listened politely to government witnesses on a day this week, alternately stroking his beard and folding his arms across his chest.
Daesh fighters seized portions of Iraq and Syria in 2014 and declared the establishment of a so-called Islamic caliphate there, at a time when Syria was already convulsed by civil war. Fighting laid waste to multiple cities before Iraq’s prime minister declared the caliphate vanquished in 2017; the extremists lost the last of their territory two years later, though sporadic attacks persist even now.
During the height of the fighting, as many as 40,000 people from 120 countries showed up to join in, according to the United Nations. There is no comprehensive US statistic on Americans among those foreign fighters; a 2018 report by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism found at least 64 who had joined jihadist fighting in Iraq and Syria since 2011.
Since Daesh’s defeat, some foreign members and their families have lingered in detention facilities in Syria because their countries refused to take them back. Other accused foreign fighters have returned to their countries, including some who were prosecuted.
Recent US cases include a Kansas mother who led an all-female Daesh battalion, a Minnesota man who served in a battalion that prepared foreign fighters for suicide attacks in Europe, and a Detroit-area convicted this week of training with and then spending more than two years with the group.
Born in Kazakhstan, Asainov is a naturalized US citizen. He lived in Brooklyn starting in 1998, married and had a child.
Then he flew to Istanbul on a one-way ticket in December 2013 and made his way to Syria to join what he later described in a message as “the worst terrorist organization in the world that has ever existed,” authorities say.
“You heard of Daesh,” he said in another text message in January 2015, according to prosecutors’ court filings. “We will get you.”
By that April, Asainov told an acquaintance — in fact, a government informant — that he’d been fighting in Syria for about a year, according to court papers. They say that in various exchanges, he urged the informant to come to Syria and help with Daesh’s media operations, asked for $2,800 to buy a rifle scope, and sent photos of himself with fatigues and rifle, saying he “didn’t mean to show off” but was showing what was “just normal” in his new life.
Authorities announced in July 2019 that US-backed forces in Syria had captured Asainov and turned him over to the FBI.
He faces charges that include providing material support to a US-designated foreign terrorist organization. If convicted, he could be sentenced to life in prison.


Along Ukraine-Belarus border, a war of nerves — and drones

Updated 03 February 2023

Along Ukraine-Belarus border, a war of nerves — and drones

  • Ukrainian units are monitoring the 1,000-kilometer frontier of marsh and woodland for a possible surprise offensive from the north
  • Residents of villages in the region that were temporarily occupied last year are horrified by the prospect of it all starting again

BELARUS BORDER, Ukraine: The reconnaissance drones fly several times a day from Ukrainian positions deep inside the thick forest that marches across the border into Belarus, a close Russian ally, scouring sky and land for signs of trouble on the other side.
Ukrainian units are monitoring the 1,000-kilometer (650-mile) frontier of marsh and woodland for a possible surprise offensive from the north, a repeat of the unsuccessful Russian thrust toward Kyiv at the start of the war nearly a year ago.
This time the Ukrainians are taking no chances. Since the summer they have been reinforcing defenses, building and expanding trenches and laying mines in the forest ahead of the springtime offensive military officials expect. Residents of villages in the region that were temporarily occupied last year are horrified by the prospect of it all starting again.
“We’re listening out for every small sound and noise. This isn’t a way to live,” said Valentina Matveva, 64, from the village of Ripke. “When you’re in constant fear, that’s not life.”
Concerns of a renewed military push were stirred in January after Russia and Belarus held joint air force drills, one month after a rare visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Minsk.
Military experts and Western intelligence have played down the possibility of a renewed northern offensive. The British Defense Ministry tweeted on Jan. 11 that Russian aircraft and existing Russian troops in Belarus, though numerous, are “unlikely to constitute a credible offensive force.”
Belarusian officials attribute the troop deployment along the border to “strategic deterrence” according to local reports. The country’s authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, has insisted he will not send troops to Ukraine.
But Ukrainian commanders are wary, remembering how Russia used Belarus as a launching pad in early 2022.
“We continuously monitor the enemy from the ground and observe the movement of troops, if they are moving, how many troops, and where they are moving,” the area’s army intelligence unit head said during a press tour this week a few kilometers from the border. The officer only identified himself by his first name, Oleksandr, citing security reasons.
Unlike the east with its devastating artillery duels, here in the north it’s largely a war of quadcopters.
Oleksandr said the Belarusians and Russians are “constantly monitoring our guard changes, trying to find our military’s positions.”
At times, Oleksandr’s unit detects enemy reconnaissance drones and shoots them down using anti-drone rifles. Or an enemy drone detects a Ukrainian one and tails it, at which point the Ukrainians try to capture and add it to their stock.
“We got four of their drones this way recently, and they took two of ours,” Oleksandr said.
He says the reconnaissance missions have revealed no sign of worrying activity — yet. “They have a reinforcement section, and the patrol has been strengthened, but we do not observe a significant accumulation of troops from our section,” he said.
Ukraine’s Lt. Gen. Oleksii Pavlyuk, who is responsible for Kyiv province, was quoted in local reports as saying his country was preparing for a possible fresh attack through Belarus. “We’ve created a group on the border with Belarus, which is ready to meet the enemy with dignity,” he was quoted as saying.
Ukrainian officials argue that no one can know how Moscow will move in the coming months, and that a state of alert is necessary along the border.
“The (fortifications) were made to prevent re-infiltration,” said Oleksandr, “Whether it will happen or not, we must always be ready.”
Ukrainian soldiers armed with machine guns stand in five-foot-deep trenches dug into the forest floor and reinforced with planks.
A local villager briskly cycles past. Memories here are still fresh from the temporary occupation when Russian troops attempted to lay siege to the main city of Chernihiv. They withdrew on April 3 as Moscow switched its focus to Ukraine’s eastern provinces.
But despite the Russian-Belarusian drills, there’s also hope.
“The first time they invaded, we didn’t have the weapons and the army (at the border),” said Hanna Pokheelko, 66, from the village of Koluchivka. “But this time we do.”
Attack or no attack, Olena, from the village of Novi Yarylovychi, fears the border situation means she may never see her mother, brother and two sisters living just 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) away in a village inside Belarus.
“I can’t believe they are so close and I can’t see them,” said the 63-year old, who is a Belarusian by birth but married into a Ukrainian family and who didn’t give her full name out of concerns for her family.

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IMF giving Pakistan tough time in ‘unimaginable’ economic crisis — PM

Updated 03 February 2023

IMF giving Pakistan tough time in ‘unimaginable’ economic crisis — PM

  • Local currency at record low after being in free fall
  • Foreign reserves down less than three weeks import cover

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif said on Friday the International Monetary Fund was giving his country a tough time over unlocking stalled funding from a $6.5 billion bailout, at a time of “unimaginable” economic crisis.
Hours after his remarks, the Pakistani rupee hit a record low against the US dollar in a steep slide since last week.
Sharif made the comments in a meeting of civil and military leaders in the northwestern city of Peshawar he chaired to prepare a response to Monday’s mosque bombing that killed more than 100 people.
“Our economic situation is unimaginable,” the premier said. “As you know, the IMF mission is in Pakistan, and that’s giving us a tough time,” he said.
“You all know we are running short of resources,” Sharif said, adding Pakistan “at present was facing an economic crisis.”
IMF’s Pakistan representative did not immediately respond to Reuters request for comment.
Sharif made the remarks in the context of funds the country might need for any military or counter-terrorism response to the resurgent Islamist militancy.
FREE FALL
The IMF mission is visiting Pakistan to discuss fiscal consolidation measures the institution needs from Pakistan to clear a 9th review of its Extended Fund Facility, aimed at helping countries facing balance-of-payments crises.
Pakistan’s central bank reserves at present stand at $3.09 billion, the lowest since 1998 and not enough to cover the cost of three weeks of imports.
The IMF’s demands aimed at controlling the country’s budget deficit have led to Pakistan leaving its currency to market based exchange rates and hiking fuel prices.
The Pakistani rupee fell by 1.9 percent to a record low of 276.58 per dollar in the inter-bank market on Friday, according to the central bank.
The local currency has dropped 16.5 percent since the artificial cap was removed last week to leave the rupee’s value to be decided by a market-based exchange rate regime.
The rupee also shed 2.65 percent against the US dollar on the open market, according to the association of exchange companies.
Islamabad is in a $6.5 billion IMF program.
An IMF delegation is in Pakistan to restart talks stalled since November for $2.5 billion funds yet to be disbursed.
Still, despite the economic situation, Sharif said his country will do whatever possible to fight militancy.
“We will use all resources in our capacity to fight this menace,” he said.