US says ‘the time is now’ for Sweden to join NATO and for Turkiye to get new F-16s

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a press meeting in Lulea, Sweden, on May 30, 2023 (AP)
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Updated 30 May 2023
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US says ‘the time is now’ for Sweden to join NATO and for Turkiye to get new F-16s

  • Blinken maintained that the administration had not linked the two issues but acknowledged that some US lawmakers had
  • President Joe Biden implicitly linked the two issues in a phone call to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

OSLO: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Tuesday the “time is now” for Turkiye to drop its objections to Sweden joining NATO but said the Biden administration also believed that Turkiye should be provided with upgraded F-16 fighters “as soon as possible.”
Blinken maintained that the administration had not linked the two issues but acknowledged that some US lawmakers had. President Joe Biden implicitly linked the two issues in a phone call to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday.
“I spoke to Erdogan and he still wants to work on something on the F-16s. I told him we wanted a deal with Sweden. So let’s get that done,” Biden said.
Still, Blinken insisted the two issues were distinct. However, he stressed that the completion of both would dramatically strengthen European security.
“Both of these are vital, in our judgment, to European security,” Blinken told reporters at a joint news conference in the northern Swedish city of Lulea with Sweden’s Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson. “We believe that both should go forward as quickly as possible; that is to say Sweden’s accession and moving forward on the F-16 package more broadly.”
“We believe the time is now,” Blinken said. He declined to predict when Turkiye and Hungary, the only other NATO member not yet to have ratified Sweden’s membership, would grant their approval.
But, he said, “we have no doubt that it can be, it should be, and we expect it to be” completed by the time alliance leaders meet in Vilnius, Lithuania in July at an annual summit.
Fresh from a strong re-election victory over the weekend, Erdogan may be willing to ease his objections to Sweden’s membership. Erdogan accuses Sweden of being too soft on groups Ankara considers to be terrorists, and a series of Qur’an-burning protests in Stockholm angered his religious support base — making his tough stance even more popular.
Kristersson said the two sides had been in contact since Sunday’s vote and voiced no hesitancy in speaking about the benefits Sweden would bring to NATO “when we join the alliance.”
Blinken is in Sweden attending a meeting of the US-EU Trade and Technology Council and will travel to Oslo, Norway on Wednesday for a gathering of NATO foreign ministers, before going on to newly admitted alliance member Finland on Friday.
Speaking in Oslo ahead of the foreign ministers’ meeting, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the goal was to have Sweden inside the grouping before the leaders’ summit in July.
“There are no guarantees, but it’s absolutely possible to reach a solution and enable the decision on full membership for Sweden by the Vilnius summit,” Stoltenberg said.


Grenade thrown at army recruitment center in west Ukraine

Updated 58 min 34 sec ago
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Grenade thrown at army recruitment center in west Ukraine

  • An expanded military recruitment drive has sparked anger and fear in Ukraine

KYIV: Ukrainian officials said Monday a hunt was underway for an individual suspected of throwing a grenade at a military recruitment office in the west of the country.
An expanded military recruitment drive has sparked anger and fear in Ukraine, where dozens of military-aged men have been caught illegally fleeing the country and recruitment officers say they receive abuse from the public.
Police in the western region of Lviv said they received reports that a grenade was thrown at an enlistment office in the town of Busk shortly after midnight.
“No one was injured in the incident. The facade and windows of the building were damaged,” the regional police service said.
“Law enforcement officers are taking measures to identify and detain the culprit,” it said in a statement, adding that forensic experts were working at the scene.
A local police official told state media that the blast left a small crater outside the building and two windows were smashed.
Russian authorities have detained dozens of people for attacking conscription offices and military facilities since February 2022, when their forces invaded Ukraine.
But similar attacks are rare in Ukraine, where authorities have launched an aggressive recruitment drive to replenish the army’s ranks after more than two costly years of warfare.


Pakistan to ban Imran Khan’s party, information minister says

Updated 15 July 2024
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Pakistan to ban Imran Khan’s party, information minister says

  • Decision based on a number of factors, including the proven charge that Khan’s PTI had received foreign funds
  • Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf candidates contested the Feb. 8 election as independents after it was barred from the polls

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan plans to ban former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, the information minister said on Monday.
The decision was based on a number of factors, including the proven charge that Khan’s PTI had received foreign funds from sources that are illegal in Pakistan, as well as rioting by the party’s leadership and supporters last year that targeted military installations, Minister Attaullah Tarar said.
“The federal government will move a case to ban the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf,” Tarar said, saying the matter would go to cabinet and the Supreme Court if needed.
PTI candidates contested the Feb. 8 election as independents after it was barred from the polls.
The Supreme Court ruled on Friday that the party was eligible for more than 20 extra reserved seats in parliament, ramping up pressure on the country’s weak coalition government.
It was not immediately clear what impact the planned ban would have on the court’s decision to grant reserved seats.
Tarar said the government would also seek legal review of the reserved seats issue.
Jailed since August, Khan was on Saturday acquitted, along with his third wife, on charges that they married unlawfully but he will not be freed after authorities issued new orders to arrest him.
Khan came to power in 2018 and was ousted in 2022 after falling out with Pakistan’s powerful military.


China’s Communist Party begins key economic meeting amid national security concerns

Updated 15 July 2024
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China’s Communist Party begins key economic meeting amid national security concerns

  • Historically, this third meeting has emerged as one at which major economic and policy decisions have been set
  • The degree to which the meeting acknowledges concerns about the business environment and national security could signal whether there will be some policy adjustments

BEIJING: China’s ruling Communist Party started a four-day meeting Monday that is expected to lay out a strategy for self-sufficient economic growth in an era of heightened national security concerns and restrictions on access to American technology.
While the meeting typically focuses on such long-term issues, business owners and investors will also be watching to see if the party announces any immediate measures to try to counter a prolonged real estate downturn and persistent malaise that has suppressed China’s post-COVID-19 recovery.
“There’s a lot of unclarity of policy direction in China,” which is weighing on consumer and investor confidence, said Bert Hofman, the former World Bank country director for China and a professor at the National University of Singapore. “This is a point in time where China needs to show its cards.”
Economic growth slowed to 4.7 percent on an annual basis in the April to June quarter, the government reported Monday.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping addressed the closed-door meeting on Monday, expounding on a draft of its coming decision on “deepening reform and advancing Chinese modernization,” the official Xinhua News Agency said.
Security was tightened in central Beijing, as it generally is for major government events, with uniformed guards posted in some subway stations and neighborhood-watch people wearing red armbands stationed in public areas.
The decision will send a message to local government officials and others about the future direction of policy. The general expectation is that it will confirm a path laid out by Chinese leader Xi Jinping, though some hope for some fine-tuning to address concerns that increasing government control over business and society is stifling economic growth.
What is the “third plenum” and why does it matter?
The Communist Party’s 205-member Central Committee is holding its third plenum, or the third plenary session of a five-year term that started in 2022. This year’s meeting was expected to be held last year, but was delayed.
Historically, this third meeting has emerged as one at which major economic and policy decisions have been set, though not every time. Analysts say the plenum often sets longer-term directions impacting the economy.
1. In 1978, the meeting endorsed the “reform and opening up” of former leader Deng Xiaoping, the transformation from a planned economy to a more market-based economy that propelled China’s growth in the ensuing decades.
2. In 1993, it endorsed a “socialist market economy” that sealed the victory of reformers battling against conservatives warning about the dangers of economic liberalization.
3. In 2013, in another endorsement of reform, it said that the market would become the decisive force in the allocation of resources.
The last pronouncement, made a year after Xi became leader, didn’t come to be. Within a couple of years, the party began backtracking before setting off in a new direction in 2017, Hofman said.
What issues are at stake?
Under Xi, the Communist Party has decided that the party needs to be at the center of efforts to take China to the next level of development. China is the world’s second-largest economy, but with a population of 1.4 billion people, it is also still a middle-income country.
The government has reined in China’s high-flying tech giants, such as Alibaba, the fintech and e-commerce giant. As the United States became more adversarial, Xi pushed Chinese companies and universities to try to develop the high-end semiconductors and other technology that is being blocked by US restrictions on exports to China.
Free-market advocates are concerned this government-led approach is discouraging the entrepreneurial spirit. Another worry is that the rising importance of national security will take a toll on economic growth. The government has investigated companies that transferred economic data overseas in what appears to be a widening definition of what constitutes a breach of the law.
A major change in direction is not expected and would be momentous if it were to happen. Instead, the degree to which the meeting acknowledges concerns about the business environment and national security could signal whether there will be some policy adjustments.
What policy shifts might happen?
Further support for high-tech industries that are considered vital for national security and future growth is all but certain, along with related industrial policies.
But the party faces demands on other fronts. Alexander Davey, an analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Germany, said they are watching how the government will balance two major prerogatives: economic growth and social equity.
Local governments are heavily in debt, with multiple cities suspending transit services because they could not afford to keep running them. In February last year, the city of Shangqiu, home to more than 7 million people, temporarily shut down bus lines.
“There may be a bit of a shift, does the central government issue more debt to local government so they can run their services?” Davey said. The trade off will be between vast resources poured into science and tech development, areas deemed vital to national security, and social services.
Investors will be on the lookout for indications that the government, having increased its control over the economy, will take any steps to create a more favorable environment for private companies.
Then, there is the real estate market. In April, the government announced policies that signaled a shift in its approach by funding direct purchases of unsold homes.
“A notable first-half shift in China’s property stance,” said Yifan Hu, chief investment officer for greater China at UBS bank, in a statement. “This ongoing pressure underscores the need for additional easing, which we think will be forthcoming given the supportive policy tone.”


Rwandans vote ‘smoothly’ in election expected to extend Kagame’s rule

Updated 15 July 2024
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Rwandans vote ‘smoothly’ in election expected to extend Kagame’s rule

  • Incumbent Paul Kagame has won more than 93% of the vote at each of the three previous elections
  • Kagame is running against two other candidates, Frank Habineza and Philippe Mpayimana

KIGALI: Voters in Rwanda lined up at polling stations on Monday to elect their next president, with 66-year-old incumbent Paul Kagame, who has ruled the central African country for nearly a quarter of a century, expected to cruise to victory.
Kagame has won more than 93 percent of the vote at each of the three previous elections. Eight candidates had applied to run against him, but only two were retained in the final list validated by the electoral commission.
The others, including Kagame’s most vocal critics, were barred for various reasons that included prior criminal convictions.
At the Rwandexco polling center in the capital Kigali people started queueing 90 minutes before polls opened.
Voter Barimukije Pheneas said he had chosen to re-elect Kagame, who is praised for rebuilding the country in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide by prioritizing development and putting in place effective social services.
“We voted smoothly without any crowding, and we are happy,” Pheneas said. “I voted for Paul Kagame because he has achieved a lot for us; he united us.”
Kagame is running against two other candidates, Frank Habineza and Philippe Mpayimana, who also challenged him at the last poll in 2017.
He is looking to win the endorsement of the more than 9 million eligible voters, who are also electing members of parliament. Provisional results are expected by July 20.
Motorcycle taxi driver Karangwa Vedaste said the voting process was calm and peaceful.
“I voted for a leader I trust. The one I voted for is a secret in my heart. We will share it when he wins,” Vedaste said.
Kagame won nearly 99 percent of the vote in the 2017 poll, which followed a constitutional change removing term limits that would have prevented him from standing again.
He has won acclaim for transforming Rwanda into a thriving economy but has also faced criticism from rights activists and Western nations for muzzling the media, stifling opposition and backing rebel groups in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.
Rwanda’s government has denied all the accusations against it, and while campaigning, Kagame promised continued development and stability.
Its human rights record was thrown into the spotlight when Rwanda struck a migration deal in 2022 with the UK to receive thousands of asylum seekers. Britain’s new government has said it would scrap the deal.


Greece fears water shortages after warmest winter ever

Updated 15 July 2024
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Greece fears water shortages after warmest winter ever

  • “Would you like some water? Turn off the tap!” one public service announcement in Athens implores; another daily spot urges the capital’s residents to not fill their bath all the way to the top

ATHENS: After Greece’s warmest winter and earliest heatwave on record, authorities are sounding the alarm over the risk of dire water shortages in the heat of the Mediterranean summer.
“Would you like some water? Turn off the tap!” one public service announcement in Athens implores; another daily spot urges the capital’s residents to not fill their bath all the way to the top.
Already, there are signs that habits may need to change.
At the beginning of July, the Mornos reservoir around 200 kilometers (125 miles) west of Athens, the main water source for the Attica region surrounding the capital, levels were down 30 percent from the same period last year.
And overall reserves for Attica were down by nearly a quarter over the same period, according to the water utility company EYDAP.
Home to more than a third of Greece’s population, the region of 3.7 million inhabitants was recently placed on “yellow alert” by EYDAP, which urged people to reduce consumption to keep reserves at a sustainable level.
Across Greece’s islands, which tend to rely on wells and desalination plants to meet water needs, the problem is even more acute.
Added pressure comes from the millions of tourists who flock to the country’s beaches each summer, swelling the local populations.
On some islands suffering from overtourism, the demand for water in summer “is sometimes 100 times greater than in winter,” Nikitas Mylopoulos, a professor of water resource management at the University of Thessaly, told AFP.
Mylopoulos said the problem of mass tourism was being compounded by poor water management.
At the end of June, a month-long state of emergency was declared for the Dodecanese island of Leros.
The island’s council noted malfunctions at the desalination plant, alleging “poor maintenance in the past.”
Other islands threatened by water scarcity include Sifnos in the Cyclades, Chios in the north Aegean and Lefkada and Corfu in the Ionian Sea.
Sifnos’s mayor, Maria Nadali, has criticized “the over-consumption of water for swimming pools and watering large gardens.”
On Lefkada, Michalis Makropoulos, a local resident and author, denounced a “deplorable” situation where “the water was cut off at the end of June for four consecutive days.”
In a local newspaper article, he blamed the problem on “years of mismanagement by the municipal authorities” and the “uncontrolled development of tourism without adequate infrastructure.”
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis traveled to Lefkada in July to announce “one of the largest water supply projects in Greece to cover the needs.”
The water shortfalls have been made worse by intense heat, which scientists say is at least in part a result of human-driven climate change.
The mildest Greek winter on record has been followed by higher average temperatures this spring.
Last month, the country’s earliest-ever heatwave resulted in the hottest June since 1960, with temperatures reaching 43 degrees Celsius (109 Fahrenheit) in many parts of the country.
The heat has also sparked an increase in wildfires, with more than a thousand recorded last month, more than double the number in the same month last year, authorities say.
The head of the water utility EYDAP, Charalambos Sachinis, has said a “special plan” had been drawn up “to deal with extreme water shortages,” including investments of around 750 million euros ($819 million).
Elissavet Feloni, a hydrologist at the National Technical University of Athens, said the company was also planning to tap Lake Yliki, around 85 kilometers northwest of Athens, as an additional emergency source alongside the main Mornos reservoir.
“However, this is an energy-intensive solution because the water has to be pumped up, whereas the Mornos stream has a natural gradient,” she said.
“For better water management, a central body needs to be set up to develop a comprehensive approach to resources across the country,” she said.