Biden and Macron hold talks on Ukraine, climate, China

French President Emmanuel Macron waves as he holds US President Joe Biden’s hand onstage during an official State Arrival Ceremony for Macron on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington D.C. (Reuters)
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Updated 01 December 2022

Biden and Macron hold talks on Ukraine, climate, China

  • Biden is honoring Macron with the first state dinner of his presidency on Thursday evening
  • Both leaders at the ceremony paid tribute to their countries’ long alliance

WASHINGTON D.C.: Presidents Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron sat down Thursday for the centerpiece talks of a pomp-filled French state visit, with the two leaders eager to talk through the war in Ukraine, concerns about China’s increasing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific and European dismay over aspects of Biden’s signature climate law.
Biden is honoring Macron with the first state dinner of his presidency on Thursday evening, but first the two leaders met in the Oval Office to discuss difficult issues that they confront.
At the top of the agenda is the nine-month-old war in Ukraine in which Biden and Macron face headwinds as they try to maintain unity in the US and Europe to keep economic and military aid flowing to Kyiv as it tries to repel Russian forces.
“The choices we make today and the years ahead will determine the course of our world for decades to come,” Biden said at an arrival ceremony.
Macron at the start of the face-to-face meeting acknowledged the “challenging times” in Ukraine and called on the two nations to better “synchronize our actions” on climate.
The leaders began their talks shortly after hundreds of people gathered on the South Lawn on a sunny, chilly morning for the ceremony that included a 21-gun salute and review of troops. Ushers distributed small French and American flags to the guests who gathered to watch Biden and Macron start the state visit.
Both leaders at the ceremony paid tribute to their countries’ long alliance. But they acknowledged difficult moments lay ahead as Western unity shows some wear nine months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In Washington, Republicans are set to take control of the House, where GOP leader Kevin McCarthy has said his party’s lawmakers will not write a “blank check” for Ukraine. Across the Atlantic, Macron’s efforts to keep Europe united will be tested by the mounting costs of supporting Ukraine in the war and as Europe battles rising energy prices that threaten to derail the post-pandemic economic recovery.
Macron at the arrival ceremony stressed a need for the US and France to keep the West united as the war continues.
“Our two nations are sisters in the fight for freedom,” Macron declared.
Amid the talk of maintaining unity, differences on trade were shadowing the visit.
Macron has made clear that he and other European leaders are concerned about the incentives in a new climate-related law that favor American-made climate technology, including electric vehicles.
He criticized the legislation, known as the Inflation Reduction Act, during a luncheon Wednesday with US lawmakers and again during a speech at the French Embassy. Macron said that while the Biden administration’s efforts to curb climate change should be applauded, the subsidies would be an enormous setback for European companies.
“The choices that have been made ... are choices that will fragment the West,” Macron said. He said the legislation “creates such differences between the United States of America and Europe that all those who work in many companies (in the US), they will just think, ‘We don’t make investments any more on the other side of the Atlantic.’”
He also said major industrial nations need to do more to address climate change and promote biodiversity.
In an interview that aired Thursday on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Macron said the US and France were working together well on the war in Ukraine and geopolitics overall, but not on “some economic issues.” The US climate bill and semiconductor legislation, he said, were not properly coordinated with Europe and created “the absence of a level playing field.”
Earlier, he had criticized a deal reached at a recent climate summit in Egypt in which the United States and other wealthy nations agreed to help pay for the damage that an overheating world is inflicting on poor countries. The deal includes few details on how it will be paid for, and Macron said a more comprehensive approach is needed — “not just a new fund we decided which will not be funded and even if it is funded, it will not be rightly allocated.″
The blunt comments follow another low point last year after Biden announced a deal to sell nuclear submarines to Australia, undermining a contract for France to sell diesel-powered submarines. The relationship has recovered since then with Biden acknowledging a clumsy rollout of the submarine deal and Macron emerging as one of Biden’s strongest European allies in the Western response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
As for the Inflation Reduction Act, the European Union has also expressed concern that tax credits, including those aimed at encouraging Americans to buy electric vehicles, would discriminate against European producers and break World Trade Organization rules.
Macron planned to make his case to US officials against the subsidies, underscoring that it’s crucial for “Europe, like the US, to come out stronger ... not weaker” as the world emerges from the tumult of the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to a senior French government official
Macron also planned to seek exceptions to the US legislation for some European clean energy manufacturers, according to a second French official who requested anonymity under the presidency’s customary practices.
Biden administration officials have countered that the legislation goes a long way in helping the US to meet global goals to curb climate change.
Macron also raised eyebrows earlier this month in a speech at a summit in Bangkok when he referred to the US and China as “two big elephants” that are the cusp of creating “a big problem for the rest of jungle.” His visit to Washington also comes as both the US and France are keeping an eye on China after protests broke out last weekend in several mainland cities and Hong Kong over Beijing’s “zero COVID” strategy.
The honor of this state visit is a boost to Macron diplomatically that he can leverage back in Europe. His outspoken comments help him demonstrate that he’s defending French workers, even as he maintains a close relationship with Biden. The moment also helps Macron burnish his image as the EU’s most visible and vocal leader, at a time when Europe is increasingly concerned that its economy will be indelibly weakened by the Ukraine war and resulting energy and inflation crises.
Macron and his wife, Brigitte, came to the US bearing gifts carefully tailored to their American hosts, including a vinyl and CD of the original soundtrack from the 1966 film “Un Homme et une Femme,” which the Bidens went to see on their first date, according to the palace.
Biden and First Lady Jill Biden presented the Macrons with a mirror framed by fallen wood from the White House grounds and made by an American furniture maker. It is a reproduction of a mirror from the White House collection that hangs in the West Wing.
Biden also gave President Macron a custom vinyl record collection of great American musicians and an archival facsimile print of Thomas Edison’s 1877 Patent of the American Phonograph. The First Lady gave Mrs. Macron a gold and emerald pendant necklace designed by a French-American designer.
Harris will host Macron for a lunch at the State Department before the evening state dinner for some 350 guests, a glitzy gala to take place in an enormous tented pavilion constructed on the White House South Lawn.


Indonesian Muslims protest Quran burning in Sweden

Updated 30 January 2023

Indonesian Muslims protest Quran burning in Sweden

JAKARTA: Hundreds of Indonesian Muslims marched to the heavily guarded Swedish Embassy in the country’s capital on Monday to denounce the recent desecration of Islam’s holy book by far-right activists in Sweden and the Netherlands.
Waving white flags bearing the Islamic declaration of faith, more than 300 demonstrators filled a major thoroughfare in downtown Jakarta and trampled and set on fire portraits of Danish anti-Islam activist Rasmus Paludan along with the flags of Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands.
Authorities blocked streets leading to the embassy, where more than 200 police and soldiers were deployed in and around the building that was barricaded with razor wire.
Earlier this month, Paludan received permission from police to stage a protest outside the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm, where on Jan. 21 he burned the Quran. Days later, Edwin Wagensveld, Dutch leader of the far-right Pegida movement in the Netherlands, tore pages out of a copy of the Quran near the Dutch Parliament and stomped on them.
It angered millions of Muslims around the world and triggered protests, including in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation. Protesters in Jakarta chanted “God is Great” and “Get out, Swedish embassy!”
Indonesian government has strongly condemned the burning of the Quran by Paludan and summoned Swedish Ambassador Marina Berg last week, said Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Teuku Faizasyah.
“This act of blasphemy has hurt and tarnished religious tolerance,” the ministry said in a statement on Jan. 22. "Freedom of expression must be exercised in a responsible manner.”
Turkey has accused the government in Stockholm, which has applied jointly with Finland to join NATO, of being too lenient toward groups it deems as terror organizations or existential threats, including Kurdish groups. NATO requires unanimous approval of its existing members to add new ones, but Turkey says it would only agree to admit Sweden if the country met its conditions.
Protest organizer Marwan Batubara told the crowd that Paludan was being aggressively hostile to Islam and called on Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark to punish those who desecrated the Quran and apologize to Muslims.
“It hurt us deeply and we demand that Sweden bring him to court so that such incidents don’t happen again,” he said. “Defending those who insult Islam under freedom of expression will only invite martyrs to defend Islam.”
The Swedish Embassy in Jakarta said in a statement that “the Islamophobic act committed by a far-right extremist in Sweden is strongly rejected by the Swedish government.”
“This act does not in any way reflect the opinions of the Swedish government,” the statement said.


India's top court to consider cases against block on BBC documentary on Modi

Updated 30 January 2023

India's top court to consider cases against block on BBC documentary on Modi

  • At least 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in 2002 riots in India's Gujarat state
  • The documentary alleges Modi had ordered police to turn a blind eye while he was CM

NEW DELHI: India's Supreme Court will consider petitions next week against a government order blocking the sharing of clips of a BBC documentary that questioned Prime Minister Narendra Modi's leadership during riots in 2002 in the western state of Gujarat. 

The government has dismissed as a biased "propaganda piece" the film released last week, titled "India: The Modi Question", and blocked the sharing of any clips from it on social media. 

The Supreme Court will take up the petitions next week, Chief Justice D Y Chandrachud said in court on Monday. 

A New Delhi-based lawyer, M L Sharma, opposed the government's move in one of the petitions to the Supreme Court. 

A separate petition by lawyer Prashant Bhushan, journalist N. Ram and opposition politician Mahua Moitra focused on the order to take down social media links to the documentary. 

In a Twitter comment on the second petition, Law Minister Kiren Rijiju said, "This is how they waste the precious time of the Honourable Supreme Court, where thousands of common citizens are waiting and seeking dates for justice." 

Modi, who aims for a third term in elections next year, was chief minister of Gujarat in February 2002, when a suspected Muslim mob set fire to a train carrying Hindu pilgrims. 

The incident sparked one of the worst outbreaks of religious bloodshed in independent India. 

In reprisal attacks across the state at least 1,000 people were killed, most of them Muslim, as crowds roamed the streets for days, targeting the religious minority. But activists put the toll at more than twice that, at about 2,500. 

Modi has denied accusations that he did not do enough to stop the riots. He was exonerated in 2012 following an inquiry overseen by the Supreme Court and a petition questioning his exoneration was dismissed last year. 

The BBC has said the documentary was "rigorously researched" and involved a wide range of voices and opinions, including responses from people in Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. 


WHO says COVID-19 still an international emergency

Updated 30 January 2023

WHO says COVID-19 still an international emergency

  • WHO chief had suggested the emergency phase of the pandemic is not over

GENEVA: Three years to the day after the World Health Organization sounded the highest level of global alert over COVID-19, it said Monday the pandemic remains an international emergency.
The UN health agency’s emergency committee on Covid-19 met last Friday for a 14th time since the start of the crisis.
Following that meeting, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus “concurs with the advice offered by the committee regarding the ongoing COVID-19pandemic and determines that the event continues to constitute a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC),” the organization said in a statement.
Tedros, it said, “acknowledges the committee’s views that the COVID-19 pandemic is probably at a transition point and appreciates the advice of the committee to navigate this transition carefully and mitigate the potential negative consequences.”
Even prior to the meeting, the WHO chief had suggested the emergency phase of the pandemic is not over, pointing to surging numbers of deaths and warning that the global response to the crisis “remains hobbled.”
“As we enter the fourth year of the pandemic, we are certainly in a much better position now than we were a year ago, when the omicron wave was at its peak, and more than 70,000 deaths were being reported to WHO each week,” he told the committee at the start of Friday’s meeting.
Tedros said the weekly death rate had dropped below 10,000 in October but had been rising again since the start of December, while the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions in China had led to a spike in deaths.
In mid-January, almost 40,000 COVID-19 weekly deaths were reported — more than half of them in China — while the true toll “is certainly much higher,” he said.
The WHO first declared a so-called PHEIC as what was then called the novel coronavirus began to spread outside China on January 30, 2020.
Though declaring a PHEIC is the internationally agreed mechanism for triggering a global response to such outbreaks, it was only after Tedros described the worsening COVID-19situation as a pandemic on March 11, 2020, that many countries realized the danger.
Globally, more than 752 million confirmed cases of Covid-19 have been reported to the WHO, including more than 6.8 million deaths, though the United Nations’ health agency always stresses that the true numbers are likely much higher.


Bomb kills 34 at mosque inside Peshawar police compound - city commissioner

People look for survivors under a collapsed roof, after a suicide blast in a mosque in Peshawar on January 30, 2023. (Reuters)
Updated 30 January 2023

Bomb kills 34 at mosque inside Peshawar police compound - city commissioner

  • Security officials say too early to determine if attack was carried out by suicide bomber
  • Such attacks have increased since Pakistan Taliban called off truce with government last year

PESHAWAR: Up to 34 people were killed and dozens of others wounded when an explosion ripped through a mosque inside a compound where the headquarters of the provincial police force are located in Peshawar, the commissioner of the northwestern city said.

Police said up to 350 worshipers were inside the mosque for afternoon prayers when the bomber detonated his explosives.

“It was a big explosion that totally damaged the mosque’s roof but it will be premature to say whether it was a suicide explosion,” Commissioner Peshawar Riaz Mehsud told Arab News, putting the casualties at 34 and number of wounded at 150. “Security officials are investigating the nature of the blast.”

"We haven't yet confirmed how many policemen are dead and wounded but I think 90 percent casualties are of police personnel because most of those offering prayers in the mosque were policemen," Mehsud added.

Muhammad Ijaz Khan, the Capital City Police Officer (CCPO), said many people, including policemen, were still trapped under the debris.

“We can’t as of yet determined what caused the explosion but it was a security lapse,” Khan said.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the bombing but the Pakistani Taliban group have recently carried out similar attacks, with assaults on the rise since last November when the group called off a ceasefire signed with the government in May.

Muhammad Asim, a spokesman for the Lady Reading Hospital (LRH), the city’s largest medical facility, told Arab News people were still being pulled out of the rubble and being brought to the hospital, so the death toll could rise.

Ahmad Khan, a police constable who was inside the mosque when the blast occurred, said the roof collapsed after the explosion.

“It was the time for Zuhr (afternoon) prayers,” Khan said. “I was in the second row among worshippers when the blast took place. The roof of the mosque collapsed with many worshippers trapped but I managed to come out with small injuries.”

Akbar Khan, an official at the Edhi charity in Peshawar, estimated that 50 people, including policemen, were still trapped under the debris.

Soon after the blast, the provincial health department declared a state of emergency at the city’s hospitals.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif urged people, especially followers of his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz ruling party, to donate blood to those injured in suicide attack.

“Reach Lady Reading Hospital, Peshawar, and contribute to saving precious human lives,” he tweeted.
 


Gandhi's killer a hero to India's diehard Hindu nationalists 

Updated 30 January 2023

Gandhi's killer a hero to India's diehard Hindu nationalists 

  • Gandhi, who is celebrated the world over as an apostle of non-violent struggle, was gunned down 75 years ago
  • For generations, Gandhi's killer Nathuram Godse was roundly despised as archvillain of India's freedom struggle

MEERUT: Hindu fundamentalist Ashok Sharma has devoted his life to championing the deeds of an Indian "patriot": not revered independence hero Mahatma Gandhi, but the man who shot him dead. 

Sharma is the custodian of a temple dedicated to Nathuram Godse, who 75 years ago this Monday on January 30, 1948, gunned down a figure celebrated the world over as an apostle of non-violent struggle. 

For generations, the young religious zealot – hanged the following year – was roundly despised as the archvillain of India's long struggle to free itself from British colonial rule. 

But since the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi nearly a decade ago, an alternate history forged in Hindu nationalist ideology has left Sharma no longer a "lone warrior" in worshipping the assassin. 

"I was ostracised by everyone, including my family and friends... but today I command respect for being Godse's disciple," he told AFP at his shrine in the bustling city of Meerut, a couple of hours from New Delhi by car. 

"There is a wind of change in the country and people have understood that Godse was the real patriot and Gandhi a traitor." 

Sharma established his unremarkable temple complex in 2015, a year after Modi took office, after several unsuccessful attempts under previous governments that saw him briefly jailed and his property seized. 

Its inauguration was met with outrage and hand-wringing in the press, renewed in 2019 when it marked the anniversary of Gandhi's death with a staged re-enactment of the killing using an effigy that spurted fake blood. 

Now the humble shrine, featuring small ceramic busts of Godse and his chief accomplice Narayan Apte, is visited by droves of people – some out of curiosity, but most to pay their respects. 

Sharma and his followers hold daily prayers in front of the Godse idol, chanting religious sermons that accuse Gandhi of betraying the nation despite his role in mobilising the mass protests that brought India's independence. 

In their view, Gandhi failed to stop Britain's colony from being partitioned into the separate nations of India and Pakistan, thwarting it from becoming a state governed by ancient Hindu scriptures. 

"It is because of Gandhi and his ideology that India was divided and Hindus had to bow before Muslims and outsiders," said Abhishek Agarwal, like Sharma a member of the century-old radical Hindu Mahasabha group. 

School students scatter flowers on the statue of Mahatma Gandhi on his death anniversary in Hyderabad on January 30, 2023. (AFP)

Agarwal said that Godse was denigrated by post-independence secular politicians in a conspiracy to suppress Hindu beliefs and impose democracy, a concept he claims is alien to local historical tradition. 

"But now Gandhi is exposed and Godse's word is spreading far and wide. The secular leaders cannot stop this storm and there will be a time when Gandhi's name will be wiped out from the pious land," he told AFP. 

Godse was born in a small Indian village in 1910, the son of a postal worker, and at a very young age joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a still-prominent Hindu revivalist outfit whose members conduct paramilitary drills and prayer meetings. 

He was 37 years old when he shot Gandhi at point-blank range as the latter emerged from a multi-faith prayer meeting in New Delhi. 

At the time, authorities briefly banned the RSS -- despite its leaders claiming that Godse left the organisation before the crime -- but reversed course not long before the killer was executed alongside an accomplice. 

Today, the RSS has continued relevance as the ideological fountainhead of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which it founded to champion Hindu causes in the political realm. 

Decades before he became India's leader, Prime Minister Modi's first role in public life was as an RSS cadre. 

Modi has regularly paid respect to Gandhi as one of the 20th century's most venerated figures, visiting his spiritual retreat and speaking movingly about his ideals and legacy. 

He has refrained from weighing in on efforts by nationalist activists to rehabilitate the legacy of Gandhi's assassin -- to the disappointment of Sharma and his acolytes. 

But he has also never explicitly denounced Godse or his ideology, and his government has championed the work of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, an important Hindu ideologue who served as Godse's mentor and was tried alongside him but acquitted as a co-conspirator in the assassination. 

Modi has proved adept at channelling India's growing tide of Hindu nationalism after coming to power in 2014, invoking the glorious past of India's majority religion and promising to end its "persecution". 

His departure from the secular values of his predecessors has been watched with dismay by Gandhi's great-grandson Tushar, an author living in Mumbai. 

Tushar told AFP that Godse's veneration was the direct result of an ideology espoused by Modi's government that risked sowing the "seeds of our destruction". 

"For too long we've been too diplomatic and a bit generous in equating it as nationalism. It's not nationalism, it is fanaticism," he said. 

"Our hate will devour us. If we have to survive, then somewhere the venom of hate will have to be expunged."