Belgian locked up by Iran on hunger strike: family

The family of Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele, being held in Iran, says he is on a hunger strike over the "inhuman" treatment by his captors. (AFP/File)
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Updated 29 November 2022

Belgian locked up by Iran on hunger strike: family

  • Olivier Vandecasteele, 41, is suffering "monstruous injustice" at the hands of Iranian authorities
  • He is one of several Western nationals detained in Iran, in what foreign-based activists say is a bid to extract concessions

BRUSSLES: A Belgian aid worker detained in Iran is on a hunger strike over the “inhuman” treatment by his captors, his family said on Tuesday, expressing worries about his failing health.
Olivier Vandecasteele, 41, is suffering “monstruous injustice” at the hands of Iranian authorities, who arrested him in Tehran in February, they said in a statement.
He is one of several Western nationals detained in Iran, in what foreign-based activists say is a bid to extract concessions.
Iran is seeking the return of one of its diplomats, Assadollah Assadi, who is in prison in Belgium serving a 20-year sentence after being found guilty last year of masterminding a foiled 2018 bomb plot outside Paris.
Vandecasteele has been kept in solitary confinement since being seized and is suffering a growing number of physical afflictions, his family said.
They included “major weight loss, haematomas on his toes, fingernail loss, and worrying dental and gastric problems,” they said.
He started his hunger strike two weeks ago, consuming nothing more than bread and water once a day.
His last communication with his family was on September 1, and they said they feared he was suffering “irreversible harm” from the “disgraceful” detention conditions.
The bomb plot Assadi was convicted for was an attempted attack on a conference outside Paris held by an exiled Iranian opposition group.
Iran insists that Assadi should enjoy diplomatic immunity, even though he was arrested in Germany, away from Austria where he was accredited to work in Iran’s embassy in Vienna.
Belgium this year agreed a prisoner-swap treaty with Iran seen as opening the door for Assadi to be sent home if Tehran releases Vandecasteele.
But the treaty has generated controversy, with some Belgian politicians, Iranian opposition groups and the United States all coming out against it as allowing an Iranian “terrorist” to escape justice.


Pope Francis wraps up South Sudan trip, urges end to ‘blind fury’ of violence

Updated 05 February 2023

Pope Francis wraps up South Sudan trip, urges end to ‘blind fury’ of violence

JUBA: Pope Francis wound up a peace mission to South Sudan on Sunday urging the people to make themselves immune to the “venom of hatred” to achieve the peace and prosperity that have eluded them through years of bloody ethnic conflicts.
Francis presided at an open-air Mass on the grounds of a mausoleum for South Sudan’s liberation hero John Garang, who died in a helicopter crash in 2005 before the predominantly Christian country broke away from Muslim Sudan in 2011.
The 86-year-old pope wove his homily around the themes that have dominated his trip to the world’s newest nation — reconciliation and mutual forgiveness for past wrongs. The crowd sang, drummed and ululated as Francis entered the dusty area.
He begged the crowd of about 70,000 people to shun the “blind fury of violence.”
Two years after independence, South Sudan plunged into a civil war that killed 400,000 people. Despite a 2018 peace deal between the two main antagonists, bouts of fighting have continued to kill and displace large numbers of civilians.
At the end of the service, in a farewell address shortly before heading to the airport to fly home, the pope thanked the people of South Sudan for the affection they showed him.
“Dear brothers and sisters, I return to Rome with you even closer to my heart,” he told them. “Never lose hope. And lose no opportunity to build peace. May hope and peace dwell among you. May hope and peace dwell in South Sudan!“
The pope has had a longstanding interest in South Sudan. In one of the most remarkable gestures of his papacy, he knelt to kiss the feet of the country’s previously warring leaders during a meeting at the Vatican in 2019.
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, leader of the global Anglican Communion, and Iain Greenshields, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, accompanied the pope during his visit to South Sudan.
The “pilgrimage of peace” was the first time in Christian history that leaders of the Catholic, Anglican and Reformed traditions conducted a joint foreign visit.
HOPE OF A TURNING POINT
Earlier on his Africa trip, the pope visited Democratic Republic of Congo, home to the continent’s largest Roman Catholic community, where he celebrated Mass for a million people and heard harrowing stories from people harmed by war in the eastern part of the country.
Among the worshippers at Sunday’s Mass in the South Sudanese capital Juba was Ferida Modon, 72, who lost three of her children to conflict.
“I want peace to come to South Sudan. Yes, I believe that his visit will change the situation. We are now tired of conflict,” she said. “We want God to listen to our prayers.”
Jesilen Gaba, 42, a widow with four children, said: “The fact that the three Churches united for the sake of South Sudan, this is the turning point for peace. I want the visit to be a blessing to us. We have been at war, we have lost many people.”
Francis made another appeal for an end to the tribalism, financial wrongdoing and political cronyism at the root of many of the country’s problems.
He urged the people to build “good human relationships as a way of curbing the corruption of evil, the disease of division, the filth of fraudulent business dealings and the plague of injustice.”
South Sudan has some of the largest crude oil reserves in sub-Saharan Africa but a UN report in 2021 said the country’s leaders had diverted “staggering amounts of money and other wealth” from public coffers and resources.
The government dismissed the report and has denied accusations of widespread corruption.


Fierce fighting in north of Ukraine’s Bakhmut, says Russian head of Wagner militia

Updated 05 February 2023

Fierce fighting in north of Ukraine’s Bakhmut, says Russian head of Wagner militia

  • Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the founder and head of the Wagner group, said his soldiers were “fighting for every street, every house, every stairwell”

The head of Russia’s private Wagner militia said on Sunday that fierce fighting was ongoing in the northern parts of the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, which has been the focus of Russian forces’ attention for weeks.
Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the founder and head of the Wagner group, said his soldiers were “fighting for every street, every house, every stairwell” against Ukrainian forces who were not retreating.


US downs Chinese balloon, drawing a threat from China

Updated 05 February 2023

US downs Chinese balloon, drawing a threat from China

  • An operation was underway in US territorial waters in Atlantic Ocean to recover debris from balloon
  • Television footage showed a small explosion, followed by the balloon descending toward the water

WASHINGTON: The US military on Saturday shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the Carolina coast after it traversed sensitive military sites across North America. China insisted the flyover was an accident involving a civilian aircraft and threatened repercussions.
President Joe Biden issued the order but had wanted the balloon downed even earlier, on Wednesday. He was advised that the best time for the operation would be when it was over water, US officials said. Military officials determined that bringing it down over land from an altitude of 60,000 feet would pose an undue risk to people on the ground.

China responded that it reserved the right to “take further actions” and criticized the US for “an obvious overreaction and a serious violation of international practice.”
In its statement Sunday, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that “China will resolutely uphold the relevant company’s legitimate rights and interests, and at the same time reserving the right to take further actions in response.”
The presence of the balloon in the skies above the US this week dealt a severe blow to already strained US-Chinese relations that have been in a downward spiral for years. It prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken to abruptly cancel a high-stakes Beijing trip aimed at easing tensions.
“They successfully took it down and I want to compliment our aviators who did it,” Biden said after getting off Air Force One en route to Camp David.The giant white orb was spotted Saturday morning over the Carolinas as it approached the Atlantic coast. About 2:39 p.m. EST, an F-22 fighter jet fired a missile at the balloon, puncturing it while it was about 6 nautical miles off the coast near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, senior defense officials said.
The spectacle had Americans looking to the skies all week, wondering whether the mysterious balloon had floated over them.
On Saturday, Ashlyn Preaux, 33, went out to get her mail in Forestbrook, South Carolina, and noticed her neighbors looking up — and there it was, the balloon in the cloudless blue sky. Then she saw fighter jets circling and the balloon get hit.
“I did not anticipate waking up to be in a ‘Top Gun’ movie today,” she said.
The debris landed in 47 feet of water, shallower than officials had expected, and it spread out over roughly seven miles and the recovery operation included several ships. The officials estimated the recovery efforts would be completed in a short time, not weeks. A salvage vessel was en route.

US defense and military officials said Saturday that the balloon entered the US air defense zone north of the Aleutian Islands on Jan. 28 and moved largely over land across Alaska and then into Canadian airspace in the Northwest Territories on Monday. It crossed back into US territory over northern Idaho on Tuesday, the day the White House said Biden was first briefed on it.
The balloon was spotted Thursday over Montana, home to Malmstrom Air Force Base, which has fields of nuclear missile silos.
The Americans were able to collect intelligence on the balloon as it flew over the US, giving them a number of days to analyze it and learn how it moved and what it was capable of surveilling, according to two senior defense officials said. The officials briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.
The officials said the US military was constantly assessing the threat, and concluded that the technology on the balloon didn’t give the Chinese significant intelligence beyond what it could already obtain from satellites, though the US took steps to mitigate what information it could gather as it moved along.
Republicans were critical of Biden’s response.
“Allowing a spy balloon from the Communist Party of China to travel across the entire continental United States before contesting its presence is a disastrous projection of weakness by the White House,” said Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., tweeted: “Now that this embarrassing episode is over, we need answers from the Biden Administration on the decision-making process. Communist China was allowed to violate American sovereignty unimpeded for days. We must be better prepared for future provocations and incursions by the CCP.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., was more positive: “Thank you to the men and women of the United States military who were responsible for completing the mission to shoot down the Chinese surveillance balloon. The Biden Administration did the right thing in bringing it down.”

China has claimed that the balloon was merely a weather research “airship” that had been blown off course. The Pentagon rejected that out of hand — as well as China’s contention that it was not being used for surveillance and had only limited navigational ability.
The Chinese government on Saturday sought to play down the cancelation of Blinken’s trip. “In actuality, the US and China have never announced any visit, the US making any such announcement is their own business, and we respect that,” China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.
The Pentagon also acknowledged reports of a second balloon flying over Latin America. “We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon,” Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement. Officials said the balloons are part of a fleet that China uses for surveillance, and they can be maneuvered remotely through small motors and propellers. One official said they carry equipment in the pod under the balloon that is not usually associated with standard meteorological activities or civilian research.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to a question about the second balloon.
This isn’t the first time Chinese spy balloons have crossed into US airspace in recent years, one of the officials said. At least three times during the Trump administration and at least one other time during Biden’s time as president they’ve seen balloons cross, but not for this long, the official said.
Blinken, who had been due to depart Washington for Beijing late Friday, said he had told senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi in a phone call that sending the balloon over the US was “an irresponsible act and that (China’s) decision to take this action on the eve of my visit is detrimental to the substantive discussions that we were prepared to have.”
Uncensored reactions on the Chinese Internet mirrored the official government stance that the US was hyping the situation. Some used it as a chance to poke fun at US defenses, saying it couldn’t even defend against a balloon, and nationalist influencers leaped to use the news to mock the US
China has denied any claims of spying and said it is a civilian-use balloon intended for meteorology research. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs emphasized that the balloon’s journey was out of its control and urged the US not to “smear” it because of the balloon.
In preparation for the operation Saturday, the Federal Aviation Administration temporarily closed airspace over the Carolina coast, including the airports in Myrtle Beach and Charleston, South Carolina, and Wilmington, North Carolina. The FAA rerouted air traffic from the area and warned of delays as a result of the flight restrictions. The FAA and Coast Guard worked to clear the airspace and water below the balloon as it reached the ocean.
Television footage showed a small explosion, followed by the giant deflated balloon descending like a ribbon toward the water.
Bill Swanson said he watched the balloon deflate instantly from his house in Myrtle Beach as fighter jets circled around.
“When it deflated it was pretty close to instantaneous,” he said. “One second it’s there like a tiny moon and the next second it’s gone.” Swanson added that a trail of smoke followed the balloon as it dropped.


At least 23 dead as dozens of wildfires torch forests in Chile

Updated 05 February 2023

At least 23 dead as dozens of wildfires torch forests in Chile

  • Hundreds of wildfires have hit large areas in the country's southern regions, sparked by soaring temperatures
  • The sparsely populated three regions hit by fire are home to many farms, plus extensive tracts of forest land

SANTIAGO, Chile: Dozens of wildfires blazing though Chile caused the government to extend an emergency order to another region on Saturday, as a scorching summer heat wave complicates efforts to control fires that have claimed at least 23 lives so far.
More than 1,100 people have sought refuge in shelters while at least 979 people have been reported injured by the raging fires, according to an official briefing later on Saturday.
The latest emergency order covers the southern region of Araucania, next to the previously declared Biobio and Nuble regions, located near the middle of the South American country’s long Pacific coastline.
“Weather conditions have made it very difficult to put out (the fires) that are spreading and the emergency is getting worse,” Interior Minister Carolina Toha told reporters at a news conference in the capital Santiago.
“We need to reverse that curve,” she added, noting that on Friday 76 more fires had ignited.
Another 16 fires sparked to life on Saturday, according to officials, as local temperatures in the Southern Hemisphere summer exceeded 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 Celsius).
The sparsely populated three regions covered by the emergency orders are home to many farms, including where grapes, apples and berries are grown for export, plus extensive tracts of forest land.
Officials told reporters on Saturday that the governments of Spain, the United States, Argentina, Ecuador, Brazil and Venezuela have offered help, including planes and firefighters.
On Friday, an emergency-support helicopter in La Araucania crashed, killing its pilot and a mechanic, according to officials.
Authorities reported that 11 of the victims, or nearly half of the casualties reported so far, died in the town of Santa Juana in Biobio, located some 310 miles (500 km) south of Santiago.
Since late last week, helicopters have dropped fire retardant over raging fires as billowing clouds of smoke obstruct roadways. Firefighters and local residents alike are struggling to contain the flames against the backdrop of a hazy orange-tinted sky.
The orders allow for the deployment of soldiers and additional resources to deal with the natural disaster.
Some 40,000 hectares (99,000 acres) have been burnt by the fires, according to official data released late on Friday, an area larger than the US city of Philadelphia.
National forestry agency CONAF reported on Saturday that 80 of 231 total wildfires are being actively battled, while 151 of them are under control.
Officials said that over 90 percent of the wildfires have been smothered before they spread beyond 12 acres (5 hectares).
But for those unlucky enough to get caught up in one of the uncontrolled wildfires, immediate evacuation was the only option.
“I left with what I had on,” said Carolina Torres, who fled from an approaching fire near the city of Puren, in the region of Araucania.
“I think everyone here did the same thing because the winds shifted and you just had to grab everything right away.”
On Friday, President Gabriel Boric cut short his summer vacation and traveled to Nuble and Biobio, pledging to make sure the affected areas receive all necessary support.
Boric also pointed to “signs” that some fires may have been started intentionally, but did not provide any additional details.

Decoder


Ukraine says latest Russian assault on Bakhmut beaten back

Updated 05 February 2023

Ukraine says latest Russian assault on Bakhmut beaten back

KYIV: Ukraine fought off a fresh Russian assault on the embattled eastern city of Bakhmut, its leaders said Saturday, as it endured a fresh wave of shelling in the disputed Donetsk region.
Officials meanwhile recovered the bodies of two British volunteers, killed trying to help evacuate people from the eastern warzone.
And the southern city of Odesa suffered a massive power cut affecting half a million households after an accident at a war-damaged electrical substation.
“This week, the Russian occupation forces threw all their efforts into breaking through our defense and encircling Bakhmut, and launched a powerful offensive in the Lyman sector,” said Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar.
“But thanks to the resilience of our soldiers, they did not succeed.”
Ukraine’s border guard service reported that its soldiers had stopped the latest attack, killing four and wounding seven of the opposing forces.
Russia unleashed a fresh wave of bombardment across the eastern front lines Saturday morning. Ukrainian officials reported shelling in the Chernigiv, Zaporizhzhia, Dnipropetrovsk, Kharkiv Lugansk, Donetsk and Mykolaiv regions.
In his evening address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky acknowledged that the situation was getting tougher.

Russia, he said, was “throwing more and more of its forces at breaking down our defense.”
“It is very difficult now in Bakhmut, Vugledar, Lyman and other areas,” he added, referring to the frontline cities in the east of the country.
France, Italy and the United States on Friday all promised fresh deliveries of weapons to Ukraine.
Germany’s leader said in an interview Sunday there was agreement that weapons supplied by the West would not be used to attack Russian territory.
“There is a consensus on this point,” Chancellor Olaf Scholz said in an interview with the weekly Bild am Sonntag.
Kyiv, while expressing its gratitude for the pledged weapons, is already pressing for more, including fighter jets.

2 British rescuers killed

Officials in Kyiv said Saturday that the bodies of the two Britons killed while trying to help people evacuate from the eastern warzone had been recovered in a prisoner swap.
Chris Parry, 28, and Andrew Bagshaw, 47, were undertaking voluntary work in Soledar, in the Donetsk region of Ukraine, when their vehicle was reportedly hit by a shell.

Their bodies were returned to Ukraine authorities as part of a wider exchange, in which Kyiv got 116 prisoners and Russia 63.
“We managed to return the bodies of the dead foreign volunteers,” said Zelensky’s chief of staff Andriy Yermak, naming them as the two British men.
Concern had grown about their fates after the head of the Russian mercenary group Wagner, which helped capture Soledar from Ukrainian forces, said on January 11 that one of the missing men’s bodies had been found there.
Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin had also published online photographs of passports that appeared to belong to Parry and Bagshaw, which he claimed were found with the corpses.
On Friday, news emerged of the death of an American medic killed in Bakhmut when his evacuation vehicle was hit by a missile.
Global Outreach Doctors, with whom he was working, said 33-year-old Pete Reed was a former US Marine Corps rifleman who also worked as a paramedic.
The Odesa power cut hit hundreds of thousands of people.
“As of today, almost 500,000 customers have no electricity supply,” said Maksym Marchenko, of the Odesa regional administration. Energy Minister Herman Galushchenko said that came to “about a third of consumers” there.
“The situation is complex, the scale of the accident is significant,” Prime Minister Denys Shmygal said on messaging app Telegram.
Ukrenergo, the country’s energy operator, reported an accident at a substation supplying both the city and the region of Odesa.
The power network there had been gradually degraded by repeated Russian bombardment in recent months, it added: “As a result, the reliability of power supply in the region has decreased.”

More embargo on Russian products

On Sunday, Russia faces a fresh turn of the sanctions screw, with an embargo on ship deliveries of its refined oil products.
The European Union, the Group of Seven industrialized nations and Australia will cap the price of Moscow’s refined oil products.
Already in December, the EU imposed an embargo on Russian crude oil coming into the bloc by sea and — with its G7 partners — imposed a $60-per-barrel cap on Russian crude exports to other parts of the world.
The new embargo and price caps starting Sunday will target Russian refined oil products such as petrol, diesel and heating fuel arriving on ships.
The Kremlin has warned that the measures will destabilize world markets.