17 arrested in Cuba for scamming citizens to fight for Russia in Ukraine

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Marilin Vinent shows a photo of her son Dannys Castillo dressed in military fatigues in an Aug. 22 message from her son that reads in Spanish, "I'm already entangled", during an interview at her home in Havana, Cuba, on Sept. 8, 2023. Vinent said that her son and other Cubans traveled at the end of July to Russia after being promised work in a construction job, but that he was one of the Cubans recruited to fight for Russia in Ukraine. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
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Marilin Vinent shows a photo of her son Dannys Castillo dressed in military fatigues in an Aug. 22 message from her son that reads in Spanish, "I'm already entangled", during an interview at her home in Havana, Cuba, on Sept. 8, 2023. Vinent said that her son and other Cubans traveled at the end of July to Russia after being promised work in a construction job, but that he was one of the Cubans recruited to fight for Russia in Ukraine. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
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Cuba's government says it has uncovered a human trafficking ring that was coercing its citizens to fight for Russia in Ukraine. (Reuters)
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Updated 09 September 2023
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17 arrested in Cuba for scamming citizens to fight for Russia in Ukraine

  • Interior Ministry's chief crime investigator says some the arrested recruiters had previous criminal records
  • Cuba and Russia are political allies but the Foreign Ministry said “Cuba is not part of the war in Ukraine”

HAVANA: Cuban authorities have arrested 17 people in connection with what they described as a network to recruit Cuban nationals to fight for Russia in Ukraine.

The head of criminal investigations for Cuba’s Interior Ministry, César Rodríguez, said late Thursday on state media that at least three of the 17 arrested are part of recruitment efforts inside the island country.
He did not identify the alleged members of the network but said they had previous criminal records. Some families started speaking up about the case on Friday, and at least one mother said that her son was promised a job in construction in Russia.
Cuba’s Foreign Ministry said on Monday that the government had detected a network operating from Russia to recruit Cuban citizens living both in Russia and in Cuba to fight in Ukraine. It said authorities were working “to neutralize and dismantle” the network but gave no details.
“Cuba is not part of the war in Ukraine,” the Foreign Ministry said in a news release.
Cuba and Russia are political allies and Cubans do not require a visa to travel to Russia. Many go there to study or to work.
In May 2023, a newspaper in the Russian region of Ryazan, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) southeast of Moscow, reported from a military enlistment office there that “several citizens of the Cuba Republic” signed up to join the army. The Ryazanskiye Vedomosti newspaper quoted some Cubans as saying they were there to help Russia “complete tasks in the special military operation zone.” It also said “some of them in the future would like to become Russian citizens.”
In Havana, prosecutor José Luis Reyes told state TV that suspects are being investigated for crimes, including being a mercenary or recruiting mercenaries, and could face sentences of up to 30 years or life in prison, or even the death penalty.
Marilin Vinent, 60, said Friday that her son Dannys Castillo, 27, is one of the Cubans recruited in Russia.
At her home in Havana, she said her son and other Cubans traveled at the end of July to Russia after being promised work in a construction job. “They were all deceived,” she said.




Marilin Vinent shows a photo of her son Dannys Castillo dressed in military fatigues in an Aug. 22 message from her son that reads in Spanish, "I'm already entangled", during an interview at her home in Havana, Cuba, on Sept. 8, 2023. Vinent said that her son and other Cubans traveled at the end of July to Russia after being promised work in a construction job, but that he was one of the Cubans recruited to fight for Russia in Ukraine. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

Vinent showed reporters photos of her son in her cellphone, including some of him dressed in military fatigues.
She said that her son told her he had accepted the offer to go to Russia because he wanted to economically help the family, as the island is suffering an economic crisis, with people facing shortages of some products.
“I don’t know if my son is alive. We don’t know anything,” she said. “What I would like is to talk to him.”
The US State Department said in a statement that it’s aware of the reports. “We are deeply concerned that young Cubans may have been deceived and recruited to fight for Russia in its brutal full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and we continue to monitor this situation closely,” it said.
Russian law allows foreign nationals to enlist in its army, after signing a contract with the Defense Ministry.
Since September 2022, foreigners who have served in the Russian army for at least one year are allowed to apply for Russian citizenship in a simplified procedure, without obtaining a residency permit first.
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said earlier in September that the city was setting up “infrastructure to assist the Russian Defense Ministry in facilitating the enlistment of foreign nationals” in the capital’s main government office for migrants.
Last month, Russian media reported cases of authorities refusing to accept citizenship applications from Tajik nationals until they sign a contract with the Defense Ministry and enlist in the army. And in an online statement last week, the British Defense Ministry said there are “at least six million migrants from Central Asia in Russia, which the Kremlin likely sees as potential recruits.”
The ministry said on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, that “exploiting foreign nationals allows the Kremlin to acquire additional personnel for its war effort in the face of mounting casualties.”
It also noted that there have been online adds seeking recruits for the Russian army in Armenia and Kazakhstan.
 


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.”