Russian forces claim progress in Bakhmut but no end in sight

A Ukrainian serviceman patrols a street in Bakhmut, Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2023. (AP/File)
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Updated 08 March 2023
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Russian forces claim progress in Bakhmut but no end in sight

  • The battle for Bakhmut has lasted six months and reduced the city with a prewar population of more than 70,000 to a smoldering wasteland
  • Wagner owner Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose troops have spearheaded the fight in Bakhmut, said they have taken full control of all districts east of the Bakhmutka River

KYIV: The owner of Russia’s Wagner Group military contractor claimed Wednesday that his troops have extended their gains in the Ukrainian stronghold of Bakhmut, but it remained unclear how long the grinding fight might go on.
Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres visited Kyiv for talks with President Volodymyr Zelensky on extending an agreement that allows Ukraine to ship grain from its Black Sea ports and permits Russia to export food and fertilizers.
The battle for the city the Ukrainians have dubbed “fortress Bakhmut” has become emblematic of the way each side has tried to wear down the other. Russian forces must go through Bakhmut to push deeper into parts of the Donetsk province they do not yet control, though Western officials say that capture of the city is unlikely to change the course of the war.
The battle for Bakhmut has lasted six months and reduced the city with a prewar population of more than 70,000 to a smoldering wasteland. It’s not clear which side has paid a higher price.
Wagner owner Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose troops have spearheaded the fight in Bakhmut, said they have taken full control of all districts east of the Bakhmutka River that crosses the city. The city’s center lies west of the river.
Neither Russian nor Ukrainian officials commented on Prigozhin’s claim. The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank that closely monitors the fighting, said Russian forces were likely in control in the areas cited by Prigozhin following a Ukrainian withdrawal.
Russian troops have enveloped the city from three sides, leaving only a narrow corridor leading west. The only highway west has been targeted by Russian artillery fire, forcing Ukrainian defenders to rely increasingly on country roads, which are hard to use before the muddy ground dries.
Zelensky vowed Monday not to retreat from Bakhmut after chairing a meeting with his top generals.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Tuesday that seizing the city would allow Russia to press its offensive farther into the Donetsk region, one of the four Ukrainian regions that Moscow illegally annexed in September.
In a blustery video statement recorded near a World War II monument in Bakhmut, Prigozhin echoed that rationale, saying the prospective Russian push would make “the entire world shudder.”
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg acknowledged that the Russians could seize the city soon.
“What we see is that Russia is throwing in more troops, more forces, and what Russia lacks in quality they try to make up in quantity,” he told reporters on the sidelines of an EU defense ministers meeting in Stockholm. “They have suffered big losses, but at the same time we cannot rule out that Bakhmut may eventually fall in the coming days.”
But like other Western officials, he played down the significance of Bakhmut’s potential capture, arguing that this “does not necessarily reflect any turning point of the war, and it just highlights that we should not underestimate Russia.”
The Ukrainian military has already strengthened defensive lines west of Bakhmut to block the Russian advance, including in the nearby town of Chasiv Yar that sits on a hill. Farther west are the heavily fortified Ukrainian strongholds of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk.
The ISW observed that Russia was also likely short of the mechanized forces it would need to push on from Bakhmut.
On Wednesday, Russian forces shelled scores of towns and villages in the Donetsk region and other areas in Ukraine’s east and south, Ukraine’s presidential office said.
In Kyiv, UN chief Guterres was discussing the possibility of extending the agreement that has kept at least some of the country’s exports flowing.
Ukraine and Russia are leading global suppliers of wheat, sunflower oil and other agricultural products, and Moscow’s Feb. 24, 2022, invasion of Ukraine drove food prices higher across the world.
The current 120-day agreement expires on March 18, and Guterres said extending it for a second time is of “critical importance.”
“Exports of Ukrainian — as well as Russian — food and fertilizers are essential to global food security and food prices,” Guterres said.
In other developments:
— Germany’s defense minister voiced caution over media reports that a pro-Ukraine group was involved in blowing up the Nord Stream gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea last year, as some media have reported. Boris Pistorius said more information is needed to understand who was behind the explosion — and whether they acted with the Ukrainian government’s knowledge.
— Pistorius also said nearly two dozen advanced battle tanks provided by European countries will arrive in Ukraine in the coming weeks. He said that included 18 German Leopard 2 tanks and three from Portugal. The Leopards are part of a larger package of heavy tanks Western countries recently promised to Ukraine.
— A top European Union court has annulled the bloc’s sanctions against the mother of Wagner Group owner Prigozhin because the measures are based solely on the fact that the two are related. Violetta Prigozhina was put on the EU sanctions list because she was considered to be the owner of Concord Management and Consulting LLC, part of the group founded and owned until 2019 by her son. But the Luxembourg-based General Court said she stopped being owner of the company in 2017, even though she did retain some shares in it.
— Authorities in the Russian-held city of Enerhodar, which is the main residential area for workers at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, said Ukrainian drones dropped incendiary devices along a river embankment, setting off fires that spread and endangered power lines.


Four go on trial in France over 2018 Christmas market attack

Updated 2 sec ago
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Four go on trial in France over 2018 Christmas market attack

PARIS: Four men went on trial on Thursday over a 2018 Christmas market attack in France’s eastern city of Strasbourg, with a key suspect insisting he did not know the plans of the radical Islamist who killed five people before being shot dead by police after a 48-hour manhunt.
The traditional Christmas market was in full swing on December 11 when Cherif Chekatt — a convicted criminal featured on a list of possible extremist security risks — opened fire on revellers, shouting “Allahu Akbar” (“God is Greatest” in Arabic).
The four men on trial in Paris are accused of crimes ranging from “terrorism” to helping supply weapons, including the 19th-century revolver Chekatt used in the attack.
The trial opened at the Paris court with the suspects confirming their names.
One of them, Audrey Mondjehi, faces the maximum penalty of life in prison if convicted of “terrorism.” The others risk 10 years imprisonment.
The trial, due to last until early April, is the latest legal process over the militant attacks that have hit France since 2015, with most of those in the dock accused of complicity since the actual perpetrators were generally killed while carrying out their attacks.
In December 2022, a Paris court convicted all eight suspects in the trial over a 2016 truck attack in the Mediterranean city of Nice, which left 86 dead, including the driver.
In the highest-profile case, 20 defendants were convicted in June 2022 over their roles in the November 2015 attack in the French capital, when 130 people were killed.
The Daesh group claimed the Strasbourg attack, but the then-French interior minister Christophe Castaner said it was taking credit for an attack it hadn’t planned.
A video pledging allegiance to the group was however found at the assailant’s home.
Of the accused only Mondjehi, 42, was charged with “terrorism,” while the three others — all in their 30s — face criminal conspiracy charges for their role in supplying weapons.
A fifth defendant, in his mid-80s, may be tried at a later date after a medical examination found his health was not compatible with taking part in the current long trial.
Mondjehi, a former cellmate of the assailant, played “a key role in supplying a weapon” by putting him in touch with sellers, and “could not have been unaware of, or may have even shared, all or part of Cherif Chekatt’s radical convictions,” according to the indictment.
Mondjehi told the court this was not true.
“Never could I have known that this weapon could have been for an attack,” he said.
His lawyer Michael Wacquez said he was concerned Mondjehi could be used as a scapegoat.
“Mondjehi should not be an outlet for the grief of the victims and should not be condemned because Cherif Chekatt is not there,” he said.
According to the investigation, there was no evidence of the other suspects having been aware of Chekatt’s plans.
Although Chekatt cannot now be brought to justice, survivors and relatives of victims said the trial was still crucial.
The attack “turned my whole life upside down,” said Mostafa Salhane, a 53-year-old former taxi driver who spent 15 terrifying minutes with Chekatt who climbed into his cab with a gun in his hand as he fled the scene.
A lawyer representing some of the families, Arnaud Friederich, said the trial was a “key moment” for his clients.
“There will be a before and an after,” he said.
Claude Lienhard, a lawyer for several dozen people, said there was a perception the investigation has been dragging on.
“There’s a fear that this will be a low-cost trial compared with other terror trials, as many feel they have been forgotten,” he said.
Audrey Wagner, who saw Chekatt wound one of her friends, said she expected proceedings to be “distressing” but important to “turn the page.”
Jean-Yves Bruckman, a now-retired firefighter who aided one of the victims said he needed answers “to heal.”
“One question keeps coming back to me: How can you kill someone like that?“

Italy foreign minister urges ‘immediate ceasefire’ in Gaza

Updated 14 min 38 sec ago
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Italy foreign minister urges ‘immediate ceasefire’ in Gaza

  • “We strongly urge Israel to protect the people in Gaza and to rigorously ascertain facts and responsibilities,” Tajani said
  • The Israeli military said a “stampede” occurred when thousands of Gazans surrounded a convoy of 30 aid trucks, leading to dozens of deaths and injuries

ROME: Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani called Thursday for an “immediate ceasefire” in Gaza and called on Israel to protect the Palestinian population after troops opened fire at an aid convoy.
“The tragic deaths in Gaza demand an immediate ceasefire to facilitate more humanitarian aid, the release of hostages and the protection of civilians,” he said on X, hours after the incident which the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory said killed 104 people.
“We strongly urge Israel to protect the people in Gaza and to rigorously ascertain facts and responsibilities,” he said.
The Israeli military said a “stampede” occurred when thousands of Gazans surrounded a convoy of 30 aid trucks, leading to dozens of deaths and injuries, including some who were run over by the lorries.
An Israeli source acknowledged troops had opened fire on the crowd, believing it “posed a threat.”
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni expressed her “deep dismay and concern” over the violence, calling on Israel to “urgently ascertain the dynamics of the incident and relative responsibilities.”
She also called for negotiation efforts to be “immediately intensified to create the conditions for a ceasefire” and the freeing of the hostages.


India’s economy grows at its fastest pace in six quarters in election boost for Modi

Updated 29 February 2024
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India’s economy grows at its fastest pace in six quarters in election boost for Modi

  • India’s economy grew 8.4% in the October-December quarter, much faster than 6.6% estimate
  • India has beaten market expectations, is ranked as one of fastest-growing economies in the world

NEW DELHI: India’s economy grew at its fastest pace in one-and-half years in the final three months of 2023, led by strong manufacturing and construction activity and bolstering Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s economic record just months before a national election.
Asia’s third largest economy grew 8.4 percent in the October-December quarter, much faster than the 6.6 percent estimated by economists polled by Reuters and higher than the 7.6 percent recorded in the previous three months.
“The ongoing growth momentum is indicative of the Indian economy’s resilience, notwithstanding global headwinds,” said Sunil Kumar Sinha, economist at India Ratings, noting that industrial growth continued its good run in the quarter.
India has consistently beat market expectations and is ranked as one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, with China struggling to recover after the pandemic and the euro zone narrowly escaping a recession.
India revised its growth estimate for the current fiscal year to March 31 to 7.6 percent from 7.3 percent.
Such a strong showing in the last major economic data release before elections due by May could bolster Modi’s chances after he made high economic growth one of his main platforms at rallies across the country.
The December growth “shows the strength of Indian economy and its potential,” Modi said in a social media post.
Modi has sharply raised government spending on infrastructure and offered incentives to boost manufacturing of phones, electronics, drones and semiconductors to help India compete with likes of Vietnam and Thailand.
The manufacturing sector, which for the past decade has accounted for 17 percent of Asia’s third-largest economy, expanded 11.6 percent year-on-year in the December quarter, while investment growth was above 10 percent for the second consecutive quarter, and the construction sector grew by more than 9 percent.
“Manufacturing sector growth was supported by lower input costs,” said Rajani Sinha, Economist at CareEdge
Private consumption, accounting for 60 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), recovered slightly in the quarter, with a 3.5 percent year-on-year rise, compared with 2.4 percent in the previous three months.
Government spending contracted 3.2 percent year-on-year, compared with 1.4 percent growth in the previous quarter.
RURAL WEAKNESS
The farm sector, which accounts for about 15 percent of the $3.7 trillion economy, continued to struggle due to unfavorable monsoon rains. It contracted 0.8 percent in the December quarter, compared with 1.6 percent growth in the September quarter.
Slowing rural growth dragged down farm incomes and some farmers have hit the streets
demanding higher procurement prices.
Rural weakness has led to slower growth for major retail companies like Hindustan Unilever and Britannia Industries.
The pace of growth in real rural wages was around 1 percent in 2023 after contracting nearly 3 percent in the previous two years, according to ICRA, while average salaries in urban areas have been going up by nearly 10 percent a year.
However, policymakers remain optimistic about rural recovery.
“With the anticipated better value addition in the farm sector next financial year, rural demand growth and rural income growth will be even better and more evident in FY25,” country’s Chief Economic Adviser V Anantha Nageswaran said.


Indonesian artists seek to amplify Southeast Asian aesthetics at Art Dubai

Updated 29 February 2024
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Indonesian artists seek to amplify Southeast Asian aesthetics at Art Dubai

  • 17th edition of Art Dubai runs from March 1-3 in Madinat Jumeirah
  • Over 65% of the fair’s presentations are from the Global South

Jakarta: Indonesian artists are hoping to amplify Southeast Asian aesthetics in the Middle East with their showcase at Art Dubai this week, where they will join a diverse group of Global South artists from 40 countries.

The 17th edition of Art Dubai, which runs from March 1 to 3 in Madinat Jumeirah, will showcase leading artists and galleries from developing countries, as it seeks to provide a platform for art from typically underrepresented regions and communities. This year, over 65 percent of its presentations are drawn from the Global South.

Indonesia’s artists, represented by various galleries such as Gajah Gallery and Yeo Workshop, are among a group of Southeast Asian creatives presenting works focused on the region’s heritage.

Erizal As, a painter from Indonesia’s West Sumatra province, is hoping that Dubai will help boost the global visibility of his, and other Southeast Asian artists’ work.

“I am indeed hopeful to garner greater recognition in the Middle East, a region experiencing rapid growth and burgeoning appreciation for the arts. I am confident that the universal themes and expressive depth of my work will resonate with the discerning Gulf audience, fostering a meaningful dialogue transcending cultural boundaries,” Erizal told Arab News on Thursday.

“I also think that the inclusion of more Indonesian and Southeast Asian artists may bring a fresh perspective to the local art scene … Maybe the different visual language that we bring actually has the same soul or essence as what Dubai has been feeling and communicating through their arts. The two visual languages can communicate with each other.”

After spending the COVID-19 years painting outdoors in the West Sumatra mountains, Erizal returned to his studio to transform his experiences into a series of abstract paintings, presenting various forms through texture and strokes, to capture the essence of nature. Some of those works are being showcased in Dubai this week.

“With my recent creations, my foremost aspiration is to evoke contemplation on the intrinsic essence of nature, spirituality, and the profound energy that permeates our existence,” Erizal said.

Yunizar, who is also from West Sumatra and is known for his childlike creations seeking to capture the psyche of ordinary individuals, will present his paintings and bronze sculptures at Art Dubai.

“My work depicts my observations of life around me. I mix visualizations of objects with things that are fantastical in nature,” Yunizar told Arab News.

Indonesian artist Yunizar working on his “Detail of Bonsai,” 2021. (Gajah Gallery)

He believes in the “common relatability towards art between humankind everywhere” and hopes to amplify the reach of his work at the international art fair.

“Dubai, in my opinion, has a burgeoning art scene with a rich cultural background that can support the development of new visual trajectories. Showcasing my work on such a global scale, I can only strive and attempt to deliver my best work,” he said.

“I believe that my work transcends cultural boundaries and reverberate with viewers from diverse backgrounds. In terms of quality, my work is not less than that of artists from other regions, such as those from Europe. And with its rich visual language and unmistakable Southeast Asian essence, in my opinion, my art will find resonance among the Gulf audience, fostering meaningful dialogue and appreciation for art across borders.”


Amnesty welcomes news NGO ship crew charges could be dropped

Updated 29 February 2024
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Amnesty welcomes news NGO ship crew charges could be dropped

  • Crew of Iuventa charged with ‘facilitating irregular immigration to Italy from Libya’
  • Prosecution said this week a lack of evidence means case should be dismissed

London: Amnesty International has welcomed news that charges against the crew of NGO ship the Iuventa, which worked to rescue thousands of people from the Mediterranean, could be dropped.

An investigation was opened by Italian authorities in 2017 into the activities of the Iuventa. Four crew members were eventually charged with “facilitating irregular immigration to Italy from Libya,” amid suggestions that they had collaborated with people traffickers, with possible sentences of up to 20 years in jail.

A court in the Italian city of Trapani is set to rule on whether the crew, alongside members of Medecins Sans Frontieres and Save the Children, will be indicted on Saturday, but on Wednesday prosecutors said a lack of evidence meant the charges should be dropped.

“The Iuventa crew has endured six and a half years of court proceedings with unfaltering grace and resilience, and we are glad that there is new hope that the court case will finally be thrown out,” said Elisa De Pieri, regional researcher at Amnesty International.

“The Iuventa ship has saved more than 14,000 lives, including children, and its crew has done so upholding the law of the sea.

“We urge the authorities to stop misusing criminal proceedings and charges of facilitation of irregular migration to obstruct life-saving activities.

“Humanity must come first as we recognize the fearlessness of the Iuventa crew and others who work to battle the horrors that take place in the treacherous waters across the Mediterranean.

“Their acts of solidarity with refugees and migrants should be championed and never be punished. Without them, the already horrific death toll in the central Mediterranean would only get worse.”