US intelligence says an intentional explosion brought down Wagner chief Prigozhin’s plane

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Website of the Russian newspaper Kommersant and TV channel Rossiya 1 showing news that Wagner Group mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin had been killed in a plane crash are displayed on phone and computer screens in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Aug. 24, 2023. (AP)
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A couple takes a selfie photo in front of the makeshift memorial in honor of Yevgeny Prigozhin and Dmitry Utkin, a shadowy figure who managed Wagner's operations and allegedly served in Russian military intelligence, in Moscow, on August 24, 2023. (AFP)
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A man lays flowers at the makeshift memorial in honor of Yevgeny Prigozhin and Dmitry Utkin, a shadowy figure who managed Wagner's operations and allegedly served in Russian military intelligence, in Moscow, on August 24, 2023. (AFP)
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Updated 25 August 2023
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US intelligence says an intentional explosion brought down Wagner chief Prigozhin’s plane

  • rigozhin supporters claimed on pro-Wagner messaging app channels that the plane was deliberately downed, including suggesting it could have been hit by a missile or targeted by a bomb on board
  • Prigozhin was long outspoken and critical of how Russian generals were waging the war in Ukraine, where his mercenaries were some of the fiercest fighters for the Kremlin

WASHINGTON: A preliminary US intelligence assessment concluded that the plane crash presumed to have killed Russian mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin was intentionally caused by an explosion as Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday eulogized the man who staged the biggest challenge to his 23-year rule.
One of the US and Western officials who described the initial assessment said it determined that Prigozhin was “very likely” targeted and that the explosion falls in line with Putin’s “long history of trying to silence his critics.”
The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment, did not offer any details on what caused the explosion, which was widely believed to have also killed several of Prigozhin’s lieutenants to avenge the mutiny that challenged the Russian leader’s authority.
Pentagon spokesman Gen. Pat Ryder said press reports that a surface-to-air missile took down the plane were inaccurate. He declined to say whether the US suspected a bomb.
Details of the intelligence assessment surfaced as Putin expressed his condolences to the families of those who were reported to be aboard the jet and referred to “serious mistakes” by Prigozhin.
The jet carrying the founder of the Wagner military company and six other passengers crashed Wednesday soon after taking off from Moscow with a crew of three, according to Russia’s civil aviation authority. Rescuers found 10 bodies, and Russian media cited anonymous sources in Wagner who said Prigozhin was dead. But there has been no official confirmation.

President Joe Biden, speaking to reporters Wednesday, said he believed Putin was behind the crash, though he acknowledged that he did not have information verifying his belief.
“I don’t know for a fact what happened, but I’m not surprised,” Biden said. “There’s not much that happens in Russia that Putin’s not behind.”
The passenger manifest also included Prigozhin’s second-in-command, who baptized the group with his nom de guerre, as well as Wagner’s logistics chief, a fighter wounded by US airstrikes in Syria and at least one possible bodyguard.
It was not clear why several high-ranking members of Wagner, including top leaders who are normally exceedingly careful about their security, were on the same flight. The purpose of their joint trip to St. Petersburg was unknown.
At Wagner’s headquarters in St. Petersburg, lights were turned on in the shape of a large cross, and Prigozhin supporters built a makeshift memorial, piling red and white flowers outside the building Thursday, along with company flags and candles.
In this first comments on the crash, Putin said the passengers had “made a significant contribution” to the fighting in Ukraine.
“We remember this, we know, and we will not forget,” he said in a televised interview with the Russian-installed leader of Ukraine’s partially occupied Donetsk region, Denis Pushilin.
Putin recalled that he had known Prigozhin since the early 1990s and described him as “a man of difficult fate” who had “made serious mistakes in life, and he achieved the results he needed — both for himself and, when I asked him about it, for the common cause, as in these last months. He was a talented man, a talented businessman.”
Russian state media have not covered the crash extensively, instead focusing on Putin’s remarks to the BRICS summit in Johannesburg via video link and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Several Russian social media channels reported that the bodies were burned or disfigured beyond recognition and would need to be identified by DNA. The reports were picked up by independent Russian media, but The Associated Press was not able to independently confirm them.
Prigozhin supporters claimed on pro-Wagner messaging app channels that the plane was deliberately downed, including suggesting it could have been hit by a missile or targeted by a bomb on board.
Sergei Mironov, the leader of the pro-Kremlin Fair Russia party and former chairman of the upper house of the Russian parliament said on his Telegram channel that Prigozhin had “messed with too many people in Russia, Ukraine and the West.”
“It now seems that at some point, his number of enemies reached a critical point,” Mironov wrote.
Russian authorities have said the cause of the crash is under investigation.
Kuzhenkino resident Anastasia Bukharova, 27, said she was walking with her children Wednesday when she saw the jet, “and then — boom! — it exploded in the sky.” She said she was scared it would hit houses in the village and ran with the children, but it ended up crashing into a field.
“Something sort of was torn from it in the air,” she added.
Numerous opponents and critics of Putin have been killed or gravely sickened in apparent assassination attempts, and US and other Western officials long expected the Russian leader to go after Prigozhin, despite promising to drop charges in a deal that ended the June 23-24 mutiny.
“It is no coincidence that the whole world immediately looks at the Kremlin when a disgraced ex-confidant of Putin suddenly falls from the sky, two months after he attempted an uprising,” said German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, while acknowledging that the facts were still unclear.
“We know this pattern … in Putin’s Russia — deaths and dubious suicides, falls from windows that all ultimately remain unexplained,” she added.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also pointed the finger: “We have nothing to do with this. Everyone understands who does.”
Soon after the plane went down, people on social media and news outlets began to report that it was a Wagner plane. Minutes after Russian state news agencies confirmed the crash, they cited the civil aviation authority as saying Prigozhin’s name was on the mainfest.
Prigozhin was long outspoken and critical of how Russian generals were waging the war in Ukraine, where his mercenaries were some of the fiercest fighters for the Kremlin. For a long time, Putin appeared content to allow such infighting — and Prigozhin seemed to have unusual latitude to speak his mind.
But Prigozhin’s brief revolt raised the ante. His mercenaries swept through the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and captured the military headquarters there without firing a shot. They then drove to within about 200 kilometers (125 miles) of Moscow and downed several military aircraft, killing more than a dozen Russian pilots.
Putin first denounced the rebellion as “treason” and a “stab in the back.” He vowed to punish its perpetrators, and the world waited for his next move, particularly since Prigozhin had publicly questioned the Russian leader’s justifications for the war in Ukraine.
But instead Putin made a deal that saw an end to the mutiny in exchange for an amnesty for Prigozhin and his mercenaries and permission for them to move to Belarus.
Now many are suggesting the punishment has finally come.
The Institute for the Study of War argued that Russian authorities likely moved against Prigozhin and his top associates as “the final step to eliminate Wagner as an independent organization.”
Abbas Gallyamov, a former speechwriter for Putin turned political consultant, said by carrying out the mutiny and remaining free, Prigozhin “shoved Putin’s face into the dirt front of the whole world.”
Failing to punish Prigozhin would have offered an “open invitation for all potential rebels and troublemakers,” so Putin had to act, Gallyamov said.
Videos shared by the pro-Wagner Telegram channel Grey Zone showed a plane dropping like a stone from a large cloud of smoke, twisting wildly as it fell, one of its wings apparently missing. A free fall like that typically occurs when an aircraft sustains severe damage. A frame-by-frame AP analysis of two videos was consistent with some sort of explosion mid-flight.
 


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.”