2022: When floods battered Pakistan, Russia invaded Ukraine, protests erupted in Iran

(L-R) Rescuers remove debris inside destroyed apartments of a residential building hit by shelling in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict in Donetsk, Russian-controlled Ukraine, on Dec. 6, 2022, a woman walks after the morality police shut down in a street in Tehran, Iran on Dec. 6, 2022, a man rides a boat past toll plaza amid flood water on main Indus highway, following rains and floods during the monsoon season in Sehwan, Pakistan, on September 15, 2022, Healthcare workers and relatives carry a woman from an ambulance for treatment at a COVID-19 care facility, amidst the spread of COVID-19 in Mumbai, India, on May 4, 2021. (REUTERS)
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Updated 07 December 2022

2022: When floods battered Pakistan, Russia invaded Ukraine, protests erupted in Iran

  • At UN climate talks, countries agreed to create fund to help poor nations threatened by climate disasters
  • US dollar soared, crypto imploded and Elon Musk bought Twitter which has threatened to fall apart

Sometimes, it’s what doesn’t happen that matters most.

By the evening of Feb. 25 this year, a day after Russian tanks had crossed into Ukraine in the largest military attack in Europe since World War Two, Moscow’s troops had reached the outskirts of Kyiv.

With distant artillery fire booming across the capital, Ukraine’s defense ministry urged residents to build petrol bombs to repel the invaders. President Volodymyr Zelensky filmed himself with aides on the streets of the city, vowing to defend his country’s independence.

“Tonight, they will launch an assault,” Zelensky said. “All of us must understand what awaits us. We must withstand this night.”

The assault never came – and 10 months on, Moscow’s “special military operation” is bogged down. In some places, it’s in retreat. Many in Moscow had expected Russia’s military to sweep to victory, oust Zelensky’s government and install a Russia-friendly regime.

To be sure, Russian forces remain in control of vast swathes of Ukraine’s east and south, and at least 40,000 civilians have been killed and 14 million displaced in the grinding conflict. But Ukrainian forces, reinforced by billions of dollars of Western weaponry, have regularly proven themselves savvier and more effective than the morale-sapped Russians.

It was a similar story in the United States, where Republicans and some pundits had predicted a red wave in midterm elections. The Republican Party won control of the House of Representatives, but victory there was slim with a majority of fewer than 10 seats. The party not only failed to take back the Senate, but lost several gubernatorial races. Democrats triumphed in all three secretary of state contests in presidential battleground states where their Republican rivals had denied the legitimacy of the 2020 elections.

Midterms usually deliver a loud rebuke to the party of the sitting president. This time around it was a soft tsk.

In economics, most of the world’s big central banks waited until March to begin ratcheting up interest rates. The European Central Bank did not move until July. Monetary hawks complained that the delay allowed inflation to surge. Will that prove costly in the long term? Can the Fed keep the US economy from recession?

The answers will become clearer in 2023. There are early signs that inflation may have peaked in some economies, but growth is also softening. In a few countries – looking at you, Britain – the outlook remains grim.

At United Nations climate talks in Egypt, countries agreed to create a fund to help poor nations threatened by climate disasters, but failed to agree plans to cut emissions faster. Meantime, record heatwaves in China, floods in Pakistan and Europe, and glacier collapses in India, Italy and Chile were reminders of how fast our planet’s climate is shifting.

This was also the year that protests exploded in Iran after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was arrested for wearing an “improper” head covering. Eyewitnesses said she was beaten, though Iranian authorities deny that. The protests, led mostly by women, spread through the country and across social classes. The longer they continue, the more of a threat they will pose to the 43-year-old Islamic revolution.

What else happened in 2022? The US dollar soared, crypto imploded, and Elon Musk bought Twitter (which he preceded to shake up so much it has threatened to fall apart). It was the year Latin America lurched to the left, a cease-fire finally came in Ethiopia’s civil war, and North Korea fired off missile after missile. And it was the year Britain lost a queen, gained a king and saw three Prime Ministers in Downing Street.

Finally, much of the world emerged from COVID, at least socially if not in epidemiological terms. The big exception was China, whose zero-COVID policy has sparked protests and unrest in the past few weeks.

In October, the country’s twice-a-decade Communist Party congress had seen President Xi Jinping tighten his grip on power and win a third term, a break with recent party tradition which had seen presidents serve just two terms. Could Zero-COVID rock the status quo?


Eye-watering onion prices make Philippine staple a luxury

Updated 31 January 2023

Eye-watering onion prices make Philippine staple a luxury

  • Onion prices have soared in recent months, reaching as high as 800 pesos (nearly $15) a kilogram in Manila supermarkets, making them more expensive than chicken or pork

BONGABON, Philippines: Even before his onions are fully grown, Philippine farmer Luis Angeles races to harvest the crop and cash in on eye-watering prices for a vegetable that has become a luxury item in the country.
Onion prices have soared in recent months, reaching as high as 800 pesos (nearly $15) a kilogram in Manila supermarkets, making them more expensive than chicken or pork.
Some restaurants have stripped the staple ingredient from dishes, while many families already grappling with the highest inflation in 14 years have stopped eating them.
To meet demand and push retail prices back below 200 pesos, the government has approved the importation of 21,000 tons of onions and faces calls to crack down on traders suspected of hoarding.
But prices remain stubbornly high and onion farmers like Angeles have been harvesting earlier than usual to reap the windfall.
“What is happening is historic,” said Angeles, 37, as his workers pulled undersized red and white bulbs out of the soil near the northern town of Bongabon, the country’s self-proclaimed “onion capital.”
“This is the first time that prices have reached this level.”
When he began harvesting last month, Angeles received as much as 250 pesos per kilogram for his crop.
By the time his onions reached Manila supermarket shelves, the price had more than doubled, exceeding the daily minimum wage.

Customers shop for onions at a market in Manila. (Jam Sta. Rosa / AFP) 

“I told my family, ‘Let’s just smell the onion instead of eating it’,” Candy Roasa, 56, said as she walked through a market in the capital where she has seen vendors selling bulbs the size of a small child’s fist for as much as 80 pesos each.
As onion memes spread on social media, the humble vegetable has become a symbol of wealth in the poverty-afflicted country.
At least one bride used pricey bulbs instead of flowers for her wedding bouquet.
Philippine Airlines crew members on a recent flight from the Middle East were busted trying to smuggle a few bags of the pungent commodity through Manila’s airport.

It is not the first time the Philippines has experienced a shortage of a basic food staple that caused prices to spike — sugar, salt and rice have all been hit in the past.
Poor yields, high costs, insufficient investment in irrigation and machinery, lack of access to cold storage facilities and farm-to-market roads, and crop-destroying typhoons have long impacted the sector.
Pest outbreaks as well as soaring oil and fertilizer prices since Russia invaded Ukraine last year have only added to farmers’ woes.

A farmer harvests onions at a farm in Bongabon, Nueva Ecija province in the northern Philippines. (Jam Sta. Rosa / AFP) 

Despite government pledges to boost domestic food production, the country relies heavily on imports to feed its growing population — but tariffs fuel inflation.
President Ferdinand Marcos appointed himself agriculture secretary to overhaul the near-moribund industry, which accounts for about a quarter of the country’s employment but only makes up 10 percent of gross domestic product.
“Our agriculture sector is significantly challenged,” said Geny Lapina, agricultural economics and management professor at the University of the Philippines.
Every Filipino eats an average of 2.34 kilograms of onions per year and theoretically the country produces enough to meet the demand, official data shows.
But since the tropical climate only allows one planting per year of the rain-averse crop, stocks are consumed or spoil well before the next harvest.
The recent lifting of Covid-19 restrictions, which allowed the resumption of food-focused festivals and family gatherings for Christmas, triggered soaring demand for onions.
William Dar, who was agriculture secretary in former president Rodrigo Duterte’s administration, said the shortage could have been avoided if the current government had allowed imports back in August.
“This is the net result of the poor planning,” Dar told local broadcaster ABS-CBN.
There are growing concerns about future food security in the Philippines, which is ranked among the most vulnerable nations to the impacts of climate change and is plagued by poor nutrition.
The median age of farmers is 57 and the average farm plot has shrunk to around 1.3 hectares from nearly three hectares in the 1960s.
Many farmers are sharecroppers who do not own the land they till and cannot afford to make much-needed investments to improve productivity without government help.
Salvador Catelo, an agricultural economist at the University of the Philippines, said there were “lots of daunting challenges to be immediately solved.”
“We have rich natural resource endowments which are absent in many countries that are performing (better) than us in terms of productivity and self-sufficiency,” Catelo said.
As imported onions flow into the country, Angeles fears farm-gate prices could plummet to as low as 30 pesos per kilogram before he finishes his harvest.
“We are just trying to make our investment survive,” he said.


What’s behind the Pakistani Taliban’s insurgency?

Updated 31 January 2023

What’s behind the Pakistani Taliban’s insurgency?

  • TTP is separate from but a close ally of the Afghan Taliban, and that group’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021 emboldened the TTP

ISLAMABAD: When a suicide bomber struck a mosque inside a police compound in the northwestern city of Peshawar on Monday, suspicion immediately fell on the Pakistani Taliban, also known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP.
In a post on Twitter, a commander for the group, Sarbakaf Mohmand, claimed responsibility for one of the deadliest attacks on security forces in recent months.
But more than 10 hours later, TTP spokesperson Mohammad Khurasani distanced the group from the bombing, saying it was not its policy to target mosques or other religious sites, adding that those taking part in such acts could face punitive action under TTP’s policy. His statement did not address why a TTP commander had claimed responsibility for the bombing.
The TTP’s denial also came after the Afghan Foreign Ministry condemned attacks on worshippers as contrary to the teachings of Islam.
Relations already are strained between Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers, who are sheltering the TTP leadership and fighters.
A look at the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, which has waged an insurgency in the country for 15 years:
Why is the TTP fighting an insurgency?
Angered by Pakistan’s cooperation with Washington in the war on terrorism, the TTP was officially set up by Pakistani militants in 2007 when different outlawed groups agreed to work together against Pakistan and support the Afghan Taliban, who were fighting US and NATO forces.
The TTP seeks stricter enforcement of Islamic laws, the release of its members in government custody, and a reduction in Pakistani military presence in parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the province bordering Afghanistan that it has long used as a base.

Caption

The TTP has stepped up attacks on Pakistani soldiers and police since November, when it unilaterally ended a cease-fire with the government after the failure of months of talks, hosted by Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers in Kabul. The TTP has repeatedly warned police not to take part in operations against its fighters in Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
What is the relationship between the TTP and the Afghan Taliban?
The TTP is separate from but a close ally of the Afghan Taliban, and that group’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021 emboldened the TTP, which shares the group’s ideology.
TTP fighters used to hide in Pakistan’s tribal northwest and also had sanctuary in Afghanistan, but they mostly lived a fugitive existence.
However, the Afghan Taliban started openly sheltering the TTP when they came to power. The Afghan Taliban also released TTP leaders and fighters who had been arrested by previous administrations in Kabul.
The Taliban have repeatedly said they will not allow anyone, including the TTP, to use Afghan soil for attacks against any country, including Pakistan. But Pakistani officials say there is a disconnect between the words and actions of the Afghan Taliban, who could stop the TTP from launching attacks inside the country but are failing to do so.


ALSO READ: 59 killed, 157 wounded, as suicide blast rips through Pakistan police mosque

The Pakistani Taliban have expressed their allegiance to the head of the Afghan Taliban, said Abdullah Khan, a senior defense analyst and managing director of the Islamabad-based Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies.
He added, however, that they have their own agenda and strategy.
TTP’s operations have largely been aimed at targeting Pakistani forces, similar to the Afghan Taliban’s agenda of ousting foreign forces from the country.
Khan fears that Pakistan will see a surge in militant violence in the coming weeks and months.
Has viollence increased recently?
Pakistan has seen innumerable militant attacks in the past two decades, but there has been an uptick since November, when the TTP ended a cease-fire with the government that had lasted for months.
The Pakistani Taliban regularly carry out shootings or bombings, especially in the rugged and remote northwestern Pakistan, a former TTP stronghold.
The violence has raised fears among residents of a possible military operation in the former tribal regions of North and South Waziristan, now two districts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Hours after Monday’s mosque bombing, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah Khan told the independent Geo news channel that Afghan Taliban rulers must stand by their commitment to the international community to not allow anyone to use their soil for attacks against another country.
“They should honor their promises,” he said.

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UK police face calls to prosecute Iranian accused of promoting terrorism

Updated 31 January 2023

UK police face calls to prosecute Iranian accused of promoting terrorism

  • Sayed Ataollah Mohajerani, a former senior Iranian government official living in London, is accused of backing the fatwa against author Sir Salman Rushdie
  • Human rights lawyers who filed the complaint said UK authorities have an obligation to prosecute international crimes and protect citizens from all forms of terrorism

LONDON: The UK’s Metropolitan police is facing calls to prosecute a former senior Iranian government official accused of endorsing the fatwa against author Sir Salman Rushdie.

Met officers are examining a legal case file that accuses Sayed Ataollah Mohajerani, who lives in London, of violating the Terrorism Act 2006 by promoting terrorism, the Guardian newspaper reported on Monday.

The fatwa against Rushdie, following publication of his 1988 novel “The Satanic Verses,” was issued in February 1989 by Ayatollah Khomeini, who was Iran’s supreme leader at the time. It has never been lifted. In August 2022, Rushdie was stabbed several times and seriously injured while appearing on stage at a literary festival in New York.

A complaint was filed against Mohajerani that same month by Iranian human rights lawyer Kaveh Moussavi and British solicitor Rebecca Mooney, according to the Guardian. It states that Mohajerani was deputy to the Iranian prime minister in 1988 and vice-president for parliamentary and legal affairs between 1989 and 1997, a period of time during which the regime in Tehran ordered the assassinations of hundreds of dissidents in Europe.

Moussavi and Mooney allege that Mohajerani did not attempt to prevent the killings and, since moving to the UK, he has on several occasions lauded as an Iranian national hero Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, who was killed by a US drone strike in January 2020 in Iraq.

They also say that in his 1989 book, “A Critique of the Satanic Verses Conspiracy,” Mohajerani defended the fatwa against Rushdie and clearly expressed his view that it was religiously justified and irrevocable, and therefore impossible to withdraw.

Mohajerani denied the allegations and said his book is simply a critique of Rushdie’s novel that aims to shed light on its religious origins, the Guardian reported.

“When Salman Rushdie was attacked by an American citizen, I tweeted that I hope Salman Rushdie will recover from this event, and based on William Falkner’s advice, write a novel through concentrating on the beauties and moral values, at the service of human beings,” Mohajerani told the Guardian.

“On the contrary, in ‘The Satanic Verses,’ he added a huge amount of oil to the fire. Hopefully he will find a proper chance to correct himself.”

Mohajerani also said that because of the separation of powers between the judiciary and the executive in Iran, he had no role in the executions of prisoners in 1988.

Moussavi condemned Mohajerani’s defense as being “indicative of his culpability.”

“The idea that this is or was an independent judiciary is plain absurd. That he repeats it confirms again who he really is,” he told the Guardian.

“In law, he was required to protest and do his utmost to stop these crimes and, if unable, he must resign. I doubt very much if his defense counsel will offer these concoctions in a court case, as defense or mitigation.”

Police in London have reportedly said that the complex issues raised by the case file will require significant resources and additional time to investigate.

Mooney, representing the human rights charity Ending Immunity, highlighted the obligations on UK authorities to prosecute international crimes under international law.

“The first duty of the state is to protect its citizens — that requires preemptive, prosecutorial and punitive measures where appropriate,” she said. “That is why we have terrorism laws, including (laws against) promoting terrorism through speech. It is meaningless to have these laws if we do not prosecute.”


Germany vows millions for Amazon as Scholz meets Lula in Brazil

Updated 31 January 2023

Germany vows millions for Amazon as Scholz meets Lula in Brazil

  • The package includes a brand-new $33.6 million in aid for Brazilian states for rainforest protection

BRASÍLIA: Germany on Monday outlined more than $200 million in contributions for environmental projects in Brazil as Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited the South American giant reeling from Amazon destruction under ex-president Jair Bolsonaro.
The package includes a brand-new $33.6 million in aid for Brazilian states for rainforest protection, on top of another $38 million already announced for an Amazon protection fund to which Germany and Norway had halted payments under climate-skeptic Bolsonaro.
Protection of the Amazon — a crucial sink for planet-warming carbon dioxide — was high on the agenda for talks between Scholz and Brazil’s leftist new President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva that also aimed to “deepen the resumption of relations,” according to the Brazilian presidency.
Scholz was the first German chancellor to visit Brazil since 2015, and the first Western leader to meet Lula since he became president on January 1 after four years of frosty relations with Brazil under far-right Bolsonaro.
Shortly before Scholz’s arrival in the capital Brasilia, German economic cooperation minister Svenja Schulze announced her country would make additional funds available for Amazon preservation after “difficult years.”
“Brazil is the lung of the world. If it has problems, we all have to help it,” Schulze said at a press conference in Brasilia with Lula’s new environment minister Marina Silva.
Bolsonaro’s four-year term was marked by a surge in fires and clear-cutting in the rainforest.
Average annual deforestation on his watch rose by 59.5 percent from the previous four years, and by 75.5 percent from the previous decade, according to government figures.
German funds for Brazil would also include $32 million for energy efficiency projects for small and medium companies, $9.7 million for “sustainable supply chain projects,” $5.7 million for renewable energy use in industry and transport and $14.2 million for reforestation of degraded areas, according to a Germany embassy statement.
$87 million would go toward low-cost loans for farmers to “reforest their land.”
Amazon destruction was a major sticking point in a trade deal between the European Union and the Mercosur grouping comprised of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.
The blocs reached an agreement in 2019 following 20 years of talks, but it has not yet been ratified.
Scholz, who visited Chile and Argentina before heading to Brazil, said in Buenos Aires on Saturday a “quick conclusion” was needed to the trade deal impasse, adding that with Lula in place, “we are in a better position.”
Lula had presided over a sharp drop in deforestation when he previously led Brazil from 2003 to 2010, and has vowed to reboot environmental protection.
He has said it was “urgent” for a deal to be concluded, but stressed on the campaign trail that further negotiation was needed to ensure Brazil can pursue “our interest in reindustrializing.”
Energy is also on the agenda for talks between the leaders of Europe and South America’s biggest economies.
German business is seeking new opportunities overseas following the economic shock caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and as concerns grow about reliance on China.
All three countries on Scholz’s itinerary — Argentina, Chile and Brazil — are rich in natural resources and “very interesting partners,” a government source in Berlin said.
In an interview Saturday with the Grupo de Diarios America (GDA) consortium of South American newspapers, Scholz said Germany wanted to boost cooperation with Latin America and the Caribbean on “renewable energies, green hydrogen and responsible trade in raw materials.”
A Berlin government source said Germany would use the Latin American tour to drum up further international support against Moscow as the war in Ukraine drags on.
Argentina, Chile and Brazil have criticized the invasion of Ukraine at the United Nations but have not adopted sanctions against Moscow.
Lula caused shock last year when he said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was “as responsible as” Russian President Vladimir Putin for the conflict.


Biden says ‘no’ to US sending F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine

Updated 31 January 2023

Biden says ‘no’ to US sending F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine

  • Ukraine’s leaders have said that the F-16s are at the top of their latest weapons wish list

WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden said Monday he will not be sending F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine to help its war against Russian invaders.
“No,” he said when asked by reporters at the White House if he was in favor of sending the jets, which Ukraine’s leaders have said are at the top of their latest weapons wish list.

Western nations this month finally agreed after serious divisions to send Ukraine modern NATO-standard tanks, one of the most powerful weapons in their conventional armies.
The upgrade in support sparked hope in Kyiv that it will soon begin getting F-16 warplanes to bolster its own depleted air force, but the issue remains very much under debate in the West.
With the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion on February 24 looming, there are growing expectations that Biden could travel to Europe as a show of support for the alliance supporting Ukraine. Poland is at the heart of the effort as a logistics hub, provider of weapons, and key US ally in eastern Europe.
“I’m going to be going to Poland. I don’t know when, though,” he told reporters when asked about a visit.