Wagner forces turn back short of Moscow ‘to avoid bloodshed’

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Fighters of Wagner private mercenary group stand guard in a street near the headquarters of the Southern Military District in the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia on June 24, 2023. (Reuters)
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Fighters of Wagner private mercenary group stand guard in a street near the headquarters of the Southern Military District in the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia on June 24, 2023. (Reuters)
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Fighters of Wagner private mercenary group stand guard in a street near the headquarters of the Southern Military District in the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia on June 24, 2023. (Reuters)
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Fighters of Wagner private mercenary group stand guard in a street near the headquarters of the Southern Military District in the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia on June 24, 2023. (Reuters)
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Fighters of Wagner private mercenary group stand guard in a street near the headquarters of the Southern Military District in the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia on June 24, 2023. (Reuters)
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Wagner group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin says he has ordered his men to rebel against Russia's military for firing on his convoy. (Prigozhin Press Service via AP, File)
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Updated 24 June 2023
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Wagner forces turn back short of Moscow ‘to avoid bloodshed’

  • Prigozhin halted fighters after discussion with Belarus president Lukashenko
  • Belarus says brokered deal in return for safety of rebels
  • Wagner chief says men will return to base

MOSCOW: Heavily armed Russian mercenaries who advanced most of the way to Moscow began turning back on Saturday, de-escalating a major challenge to President Vladimir Putin’s grip on power, in a move their leader said would avoid bloodshed.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, a former Putin ally and founder of the Wagner army, said his men reached within 125 miles (200 km) of the capital. Earlier, Moscow deployed soldiers in preparation for their arrival and told residents to avoid going out.
The Wagner fighters captured the city of Rostov hundreds of miles to the south before racing in convoy through the country, transporting tanks and armored trucks and smashing through barricades set up to stop them, video showed.
On Saturday night, Wagner fighters loaded tanks on trailers and began withdrawing from the Rostov military headquarters they had seized, a Reuters witness said.
“In 24 hours we got to within 200 km of Moscow. In this time we did not spill a single drop of our fighters’ blood,” Prigozhin, dressed in full combat uniform at an undisclosed location, said in a video.
“Understanding ... that Russian blood will be spilled on one side, we are turning our columns around and going back to field camps as planned.”

Reuters could not independently verify how far Prigozhin’s mercenaries had reached. Video earlier showed convoys of Wagner vehicles less than 310 miles (500 km) from Moscow.
The office of Alexander Lukashenko said the decision to halt further movement of Wagner fighters across Russia was brokered by the Belarusian President, with Putin’s approval, in return for guarantees for their safety.
His office did not give further details. There was no immediate word from Putin on the apparent deal.
Wagner’s lightning insurrection appeared to develop with little pushback from Russia’s regular armed forces, raising questions about Putin’s grip on power in the nuclear-armed nation even after the abrupt halt to Wagner’s advance.
Earlier, Prigozhin said that what he called a “march for justice” was intended to remove corrupt and incompetent Russian commanders he blames for botching the war in Ukraine.
In a televised address from the Kremlin, Putin earlier said the Wagner rebellion put Russia’s very existence under threat.
“We are fighting for the lives and security of our people, for our sovereignty and independence, for the right to remain Russia, a state with a thousand-year history,” he said, vowing punishment for those who “who prepared an armed insurrection.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the Wagner revolt, which sparked a flurry of high-level calls between Western leaders, exposed chaos in Russia.
“Today the world can see that the masters of Russia control nothing. And that means nothing. Simply complete chaos. An absence of any predictability,” Zelensky said in his nightly video address.
Video obtained by Reuters showed troop carriers and two flatbed trucks each carrying a tank driving 30 miles (50 km) beyond the town of Voronezh, more than half way to Moscow.
A helicopter fired on them near Voronezh, where a fuel depot exploded in a fireball shortly after a helicopter flew by, video footage obtained by Reuters showed.

WILL THERE BE CIVIL WAR?
The fighters led by Prigozhin, a former convict, include thousands of ex-prisoners recruited from Russian jails.
His men fought the bloodiest battles of the 16-month Ukraine war, including the protracted battle for the eastern city of Bakhmut. He railed for months against the regular army’s top brass, accusing generals of incompetence and of withholding ammunition from his fighters.
This month, he defied orders to sign a contract placing his troops under Defense Ministry command.
He launched the apparent mutiny on Friday after alleging that the military had killed many of his fighters in an air strike. The Defense Ministry denied this.
He said he had captured the headquarters of Russia’s Southern Military District without firing a shot in Rostov, which serves as the main rear logistical hub for Russia’s entire invasion force in Ukraine.
Residents of the city had milled about calmly, filming on mobile phones as Wagner fighters in armored vehicles and battle tanks took up positions.
One tank was wedged between stucco buildings with posters advertising a circus. Another had “Siberia” daubed in red paint across the front, an apparent statement of intent to sweep across the breadth of Russia.
“Will there be civil war?” a woman in Rostov asked the mercenaries. “No, everything will be fine,” one answered.
The region surrounding Rostov is an important oil, gas and grains hub.
In a series of hectic messages overnight, Prigozhin had demanded that Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the chief of the general staff Valery Gerasimov should come to see him in Rostov.

UKRAINE ATTACKS NEAR BAKHMUT
Western capitals said they were closely following the situation in nuclear-armed Russia. US President Joe Biden spoke with the leaders of France, Germany and Britain, while Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to G7 counterparts.
The top US military officer, Army General Mark Milley, canceled a scheduled trip to the Middle East because of the situation in Russia.
“This represents the most significant challenge to the Russian state in recent times,” Britain’s defense ministry said.
The insurrection risked leaving Russia’s invasion force in Ukraine in disarray, just as Kyiv is launching its strongest counteroffensive since the war began in February last year.
Ukraine’s military said on Saturday its forces made advances near Bakhmut, on the eastern front, and in an area further south.
Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar, writing on Telegram, said an offensive was launched near a group of villages ringing Bakhmut, which was taken by Wagner forces in May after months of fighting.
“In all these areas, we have made advances,” Maliar wrote.
Oleksandr Tarnavskiy, commander of the southern front, said Ukrainian forces had liberated an area near Krasnohorivka, west of the Russian-held regional center of Donetsk.
He said the area had been under Russian control since separatist forces backed by Moscow took control of it in 2014.


Grieving families await bodies after restaurant blaze

Updated 02 March 2024
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Grieving families await bodies after restaurant blaze

  • Among the dead was young university student MinHajj Khan, whose failure to escape the fire was witnessed by a friend with him at the restaurant and confirmed to AFP by his older cousin at the hospital

DHAKA: Anguished families kept vigil outside the morgue of Bangladesh’s largest hospital on Friday, waiting for the bodies of loved ones to be identified after a fire they say should never have happened.
At least 46 people were killed in Thursday night’s blaze in an upscale neighborhood of Dhaka, which broke out in a popular biryani restaurant and quickly engulfed a seven-floor commercial building.
Most of those who perished suffocated in the smoke, while the bodies of others were burned beyond recognition in the resulting inferno.
Among the dead was young university student MinHajj Khan, whose failure to escape the fire was witnessed by a friend with him at the restaurant and confirmed to AFP by his older cousin at the hospital.

BACKGROUND

Firefighters said the blaze was accidentally sparked from an improperly stored cooking gas cylinder and made much worse by the quick chain-reaction explosions of other canisters stored haphazardly around the building.

Khan’s mother had traveled to the hospital insisting his companion was mistaken, angrily sending away doctors requesting a DNA swab to check against bodies brought to the morgue.
“I won’t listen to anyone. I don’t believe any of you. I only want my son. Nothing else,” she said, declining to give her name.
“He promised to take me to Makkah for the pilgrimage. How can I go to Mak without him?“
It took fire crews two hours to control the blaze, with members of the public stepping in to carry hoses and help guide those escaping from the building to safety.
Before they arrived, many inside had rushed upstairs to the rooftop to escape the quickly spreading inferno.
Kazi Taslim Uddin said his 20-year-old son was among the dozens being treated in hospital for injuries after being forced to clamber down the side of the building.
“He tried to go to the ground floor but failed as people were rushing up the opposite way,” he told AFP.
“He grabbed some cables and tried to climb down, but they weren’t long enough,” he added.
“He jumped and got injured. The smoke also scorched his lungs.”
Firefighters said the blaze was accidentally sparked from an improperly stored cooking gas cylinder and made much worse by the quick chain-reaction explosions of other canisters stored haphazardly around the building.
Bereaved family members at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital were furious that nothing had been done to alert the public to the fire risk at the restaurant beforehand.
“It could have saved many lives,” said one man waiting to retrieve the body of a cousin who perished in the blaze who declined to identify himself.
“All these buildings are ticking time bombs. The regulators wake up only after the disaster occurs.”

 


UK PM Sunak warns ‘democracy a target’ in major extremism speech

Updated 01 March 2024
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UK PM Sunak warns ‘democracy a target’ in major extremism speech

  • PM: ‘In recent weeks and months, we have seen a shocking increase in extremist disruption and criminality’

LONDON: Following weeks of simmering tension in the UK over the Gaza conflict, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak Friday said that the “time has come” to battle extremist forces as he warned “democracy itself is a target.”
In an unusual address from outside his Downing Street home, Sunak said that “in recent weeks and months, we have seen a shocking increase in extremist disruption and criminality.”
Regular marches protesting Israel’s military response to Hamas’ October 7th attacks have seen dozens arrested for anti-Semitic chanting and banners, inviting support for a proscribed organization and assaulting emergency workers.
Right wing conter-protesters were also arrested when they descended on London for Remembrance Day events in November.
“Islamist extremists and far-right groups are spreading a poison. That poison is extremism,” said Sunak.
Matters came to a head last week when the Speaker of the House of Commons said he bucked procedure during a debate due to concerns about the safety of MPs.
Sunak said that the protests, a regular occurence on Saturdays in the capital, “had descended into intimidation, threats and planned acts of violence.”
“Now our democracy itself is a target. Council meetings and local events have been stormed.
“MPs do not feel safe in their home. Long-standing parliamentary conventions have been upended because of safety concerns,” he added.
The prime minister said that “police have a tough job in policing the protests” but that “we must draw a line.”
“I say this to the police, we will back up when you take action,” he added.
Sunak’s speech came as left-wing firebrand George Galloway was elected to the UK parliament after tapping into anger over the Israel-Hamas war in a chaotic by-election marred by allegations of anti-Semitism.
Sunak said it was “beyond alarming” that voters had elected a candidate “who dismisses the horror of what happened on October 7th, and who glorifies Hezbollah.”
The government will soon unveil a “new, robust framework” to tackle extremism, which will include backing for the counter-radicalization Prevent program and a demand for universities to stop extremist activity on campus, he explained.
“It is not enough to live side-by-side, we must live together, united by shared values and a shared commitment to this country,” said Sunak.
“The time has now come for us all to stand together to combat the forces of division,” he added.


Military court in Somalia sentences 6 Moroccan men to death for membership in Daesh

Updated 01 March 2024
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Military court in Somalia sentences 6 Moroccan men to death for membership in Daesh

  • The individuals entered Somalia to cause harm to Muslims and Somalis and incite unrest in the country
  • It was not immediately clear if any of the men had access to legal representation or where they were being held Friday

MOGADISHU: A military court in Somalia’s northeastern semiautonomous state of Puntland sentenced to death six Moroccans believed to be foreign fighters for the Daesh group in Somalia.
The individuals entered Somalia to cause harm to Muslims and Somalis and incite unrest in the country, the presiding judge in the Puntland region, Col. Ali Ibrahim Osman, said late Thursday.
The six men, identified as Mohamed Hassan, Ahmed Najwi, Khalid Latha, Mohamed Binu Mohamed Ahmed, Ridwan Abdulkadir Osmany, and Ahmed Hussein Ibrahim, can appeal and if they are unsuccessful they will be shot to death by firing squad.
Additionally, an Ethiopian and a Somali were each sentenced to 10 years in prison, while another Somali defendant was acquitted due to lack of evidence.
It was not immediately clear if any of the men had access to legal representation or where they were being held Friday. The eight men claimed they were misled into joining the group and expressed a desire to be repatriated, Osman said.
According to Osman, the six Moroccans were accused of receiving training with Daesh at its base in the Cal-Miskaat Mountains in northeastern Somalia, which serve as a stronghold for the group.
The Moroccans were apprehended in the mountain range, located to the east of Bosaso, which is the commercial hub of the Puntland region.
The Somali branch of Daesh was established in 2015 by a group of defectors from the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Shabab group, which is the most prominent militant group in Somalia.
The group is notorious for extorting locals and primarily carries out small-scale, sporadic attacks. This marks the first time that authorities in the semi-autonomous Puntland region have charged or sentenced foreigners for joining Daesh.


Armenia, Azerbaijan to continue peace talks after Berlin meet

Updated 01 March 2024
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Armenia, Azerbaijan to continue peace talks after Berlin meet

BERLIN: Armenia and Azerbaijan have agreed to continue peace talks after a new push in Berlin this week to resolve their decades-long conflict, the German foreign ministry said on Friday.
Armenia’s Ararat Mirzoyan and Azerbaijan’s Jeyhun Bayramov held two days of talks in Berlin hosted by German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, who hailed their “courageous steps” toward a peace agreement.
A German foreign ministry spokeswoman on Friday said the two countries had “a great interest in continuing to clarify outstanding issues together and to meet again for this purpose.”
The foreign ministries of Armenia and Azerbaijan had also said in a statement on Thursday that they wished to “continue negotiations on the open issues.”
The German spokeswoman hailed the agreement to pursue talks as “a very good sign” and said the two parties wanted to work “step by step” toward a peace agreement.
Armenia and Azerbaijan fought two wars, in the 1990s and in 2020, before Azerbaijani forces last September retook control of the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh in a lightning offensive that ended three decades of Armenian separatist rule over the enclave.
Tensions have remained high since the Azerbaijani operation that triggered the exodus to Armenia of most of the enclave’s entire ethnic-Armenian population of more than 100,000 people.
The dialogue in Berlin built on a surprise direct meeting between the two nations’ leaders on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference last month.
Under German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s mediation, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev agreed in Munich to push on with peace negotiations.

Manila cafe sheds light on Palestinian heritage in wake of destruction

Updated 01 March 2024
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Manila cafe sheds light on Palestinian heritage in wake of destruction

  • Cafe Habib is run by Palestinian national Mahmoud Habib and his Filipino-Iraqi wife Nadia
  • Their menu is based on recipes from Habib’s mother in Gaza

Manila: Mahmoud and Nadia Habib opened their cafe in early 2023 to bring a piece of Palestine to the Philippines. Little did they know that the place would soon turn into a center of Gaza heritage and a hub of solidarity in Manila.

Located on Mabini Street, Cafe Habib is light, warm and informal with its white tables, grey sofas and ochre walls showing maps, photos and symbols of Palestinian heritage.

From the beginning, the husband — who is a native of Gaza — and the Filipino-Iraqi wife wanted their restaurant’s ambiance to make Filipinos feel as if they had stepped into a place in Palestine.

“We came up with the concept to create a special place where when customers come in, they will not think they are in the Philippines anymore. We wanted to spotlight Arab culture,” Mahmoud told Arab News.

For Nadia, it is also an attempt to “bring a piece of Palestine to the Philippines” to share its rich heritage, traditions, and flavors.

“The Palestinian-themed cafe became our platform to introduce the Filipino people to the beauty and depth of Palestinian culture. We believed that by immersing them in a unique and authentic experience, we could foster understanding and appreciation,” she said.

Their menu features authentic dishes such as falafel, shawarma, and the iconic Palestinian knafeh — crispy filo dough with cheese soaked in syrup and topped with pistachios — all based on recipes that have been in the Habib family for generations.

“These recipes all come from my mother,” Mahmoud said, adding that Nadia also learned to make them during their trips to his home in Gaza.

The last time they visited was in September, just two weeks before Israel launched its latest deadly onslaught that has since killed at least 30,000 people, wounded tens of thousands more, and displaced about 1.5 million.

They saw the destruction and hid from daily bombardment, only managing to return to Manila when Philippine authorities evacuated some of the Filipino-Palestinians from the besieged enclave in November.

Nadia was born and raised in the Philippines, while Mahmoud has been living in the country since 2013, when he arrived to study architecture at the National University.

Upon their return to Manila, they have been trying to reunite with Mahmoud’s family, but until now, it has been to no avail.

“I tried to bring them, but it is very hard,” he said.

It is their cafe, a reminder of Palestine, that keeps the couple strong and gives them space to spread awareness among Filipinos on what is happening in Gaza.

“Speaking up about Palestine is a crucial aspect of our mission, as it lies at the core of why we established this cafe. If customers initiate a conversation about … Palestine, we wholeheartedly engage in the discussion,” Nadia said.

They also helped facilitate the efforts of Filipino peace activists who organized a Gaza solidarity march in November.

“They gave me more power. This shows that our voice goes out to the world, and everyone really has a huge heart,” Mahmoud said.

“I am proud of (this cafe). I am really happy because I’m showing people what Palestine is, who the Palestinian people are.”