The House passes billions in aid for Ukraine and Israel after months of struggle

The bills provide $60.84 billion to address the conflict in Ukraine, including $23 billion to replenish US weapons, stocks and facilities. (AP)
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Updated 20 April 2024
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The House passes billions in aid for Ukraine and Israel after months of struggle

  • With overwhelming support, the House approved the Ukraine portion, a $61 billion aid package, in a strong showing of American backing
  • The $26 billion package aiding Israel and providing humanitarian relief to citizens of Gaza also easily cleared

WASHINGTON: The House is pushing swiftly through a series of votes in a rare Saturday session to approve $95 billion in foreign aid for Ukraine, Israel and other US allies, Democrats and Republicans joining together after a grueling monthslong fight over renewed American support for repelling Russia’s invasion.
With overwhelming support, the House approved the Ukraine portion, a $61 billion aid package, in a strong showing of American backing as lawmakers race to deliver a fresh round of US support to the war-torn ally. Some lawmakers cheered, waiving blue-and-yellow flags of Ukraine.
The $26 billion package aiding Israel and providing humanitarian relief to citizens of Gaza also easily cleared. Each segment of the aid package faced an up-or-down vote. A national security bill that includes a provision forcing sale of the popular platform TikTok was quickly approved, as was another supporting Indo-Pacific allies.
The unusual process is allowing unique coalitions to form around the bills, pushing them forward. The whole package will go to the Senate, where passage in the coming days is nearly assured. President Joe Biden has promised to sign it immediately.
“The eyes of the world are upon us, and history will judge what we do here and now,” said Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
The weekend scene presented a striking display of congressional action after months of dysfunction and stalemate fueled by Republicans, who hold the majority but are deeply split over foreign aid, particularly for Ukraine as it fights Russia’s invasion. Speaker Mike Johnson, putting his job on the line, is relying on Democratic support to ensure the military and humanitarian package is approved, and help flows to the US allies.
The morning opened with a somber and serious debate and unusual sense of purpose, Republican and Democratic leaders united to urge swift passage that would ensure the United States supports its allies and remains a leader on the world stage. The House’s visitor galleries crowded with onlookers.
“Sometimes when you are living history, as we are today, you don’t understand the significance of the actions of the votes that we make on this House floor, of the effect that it will have down the road,” said New York Rep. Gregory Meeks, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “This is a historic moment.”
Passage through the House would clear away the biggest hurdle to Biden’s funding request, first made in October as Ukraine’s military supplies began to run low. The GOP-controlled House, skeptical of US support for Ukraine, struggled for months over what to do, first demanding that any assistance be tied to policy changes at the US-Mexico order, only to immediately reject a bipartisan Senate offer along those very lines.
Reaching an endgame has been an excruciating lift for Johnson that has tested both his resolve and his support among Republicans, with a small but growing number now openly urging his removal from the speaker’s office. Yet congressional leaders cast the votes as a turning point in history — an urgent sacrifice as US allies are beleaguered by wars and threats from continental Europe to the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific.
“The only thing that has kept terrorists and tyrants at bay is the perception of a strong America, that we would stand strong,” Johnson said this week. “This is a very important message that we are going to send the world.”
Opponents, particularly the hard-right Republicans from Johnson’s majority, argued that the US should focus on the home front, addressing domestic border security and the nation’s rising debt load, and they warned against spending more money, which largely flows to American defense manufacturers, to produce weaponry used overseas.
Still, Congress has seen a stream of world leaders visit in recent months, from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, all but pleading with lawmakers to approve the aid. Globally, the delay left many questioning America’s commitment to its allies.
At stake has also been one of Biden’s top foreign policy priorities — halting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s advance in Europe. After engaging in quiet talks with Johnson, the president quickly endorsed Johnson’s plan this week, paving the way for Democrats to give their rare support to clear the procedural hurdles needed for a final vote.
“We have a responsibility, not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans to defend democracy wherever it is at risk,” the House Democratic leader, New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, said during the debate.
While aid for Ukraine will likely win a majority in both parties, a significant number of progressive Democrats are expected to vote against the bill aiding Israel as they demand an end to the bombardment of Gaza that has killed thousands of civilians.
At the same time, Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has loomed large over the fight, weighing in from afar via social media statements and direct phone calls with lawmakers as he tilts the GOP to a more isolationist stance with his “America First” brand of politics.
Ukraine’s defense once enjoyed robust, bipartisan support in Congress, but as the war enters its third year, a bulk of Republicans oppose further aid. Trump ally Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., offered an amendment to zero out the money, but it was rejected.
At one point, Trump’s opposition essentially doomed the bipartisan Senate proposal on border security. This past week, Trump also issued a social media post that questioned why European nations were not giving more money to Ukraine, though he spared Johnson from criticism and said Ukraine’s survival was important.
Still, the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus has derided the legislation as the “America Last” foreign wars package and urged lawmakers to defy Republican leadership and oppose it because the bills do not include border security measures.
Johnson’s hold on the speaker’s gavel has also grown more tenuous in recent days as three Republicans, led by Greene, supported a “motion to vacate” that can lead to a vote on removing the speaker. Egged on by far-right personalities, she is also being joined by a growing number of lawmakers including Reps. Thomas Massie, R-Kentucky, who is urging Johnson to voluntarily step aside, and Paul Gosar, R-Arizona
The speaker’s office has been working furiously to drum up support for the bill, as well as for Johnson, R-Louisiana
The package includes several Republican priorities that Democrats endorse, or at least are willing to accept. Those include proposals that allow the US to seize frozen Russian central bank assets to rebuild Ukraine; impose sanctions on Iran, Russia, China and criminal organizations that traffic fentanyl; and legislation to require the China-based owner of the popular video app TikTok to sell its stake within a year or face a ban in the United States.
Still, the all-out push to get the bills through Congress is a reflection not only of politics, but realities on the ground in Ukraine. Top lawmakers on national security committees, who are privy to classified briefings, have grown gravely concerned about the situation in recent weeks. Russia has increasingly used satellite-guided gliding bombs — which allow planes to drop them from a safe distance — to pummel Ukrainian forces beset by a shortage of troops and ammunition.


Olympics-France arrests person planning ‘violent action’ during Olympic torch relay

Updated 4 sec ago
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Olympics-France arrests person planning ‘violent action’ during Olympic torch relay

PARIS: French law enforcement officers arrested someone who was planning a violent action during the Paris 2024 Olympic torch relay in Bordeaux, the Interior ministry said on Thursday.
“Thanks to the police officers and, more broadly, to all the Ministry’s agents who are providing security for this popular celebration with remarkable professionalism and commitment,” Interior minister Gerald Darmanin wrote on X.
The torch relay started in the morning and is scheduled to end around 1930 local time (1730GMT). The Olympics will be held from July 26-Aug 11.

Bosnian Serb leader reiterates threat to secede from Bosnia ahead of UN vote on genocide

Updated 23 May 2024
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Bosnian Serb leader reiterates threat to secede from Bosnia ahead of UN vote on genocide

  • The proposed UN resolution sponsored by Germany and Rwanda has been supported by the Bosniaks, who are mostly Muslim

SREBRENICA: The leader of Bosnia’s Serb-controlled territory reiterated a threat to secede from the Balkan country Wednesday, a day ahead of a UN vote on establishing an annual day to commemorate the 1995 genocide of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims by Bosnian Serbs.
Relatives of the victims, meanwhile, said that the vote would mark a historic day in ensuring that the deaths cannot be denied or forgotten.
The proposed UN resolution sponsored by Germany and Rwanda has been supported by the Bosniaks, who are mostly Muslim, but has sparked protests and a lobbying campaign against the measure by the Bosnian Serb president, Milorad Dodik, and the populist president of neighboring Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic.
The two leaders say the resolution would brand all Serbs as genocidal, although the draft does not explicitly mention Serbs as culprits. Both Serbia and Bosnian Serbs have denied that genocide happened in Srebrenica although this has been established by two UN courts.
For the women who lost their loved ones in the massacre, any denial of the scope of the crime has meant more grief. This is why the UN vote “means a lot” for victims, truth and justice, said Munira Subasic, from the prominent Mothers of Srebrenica group.
“People who live in lies, who don’t know the truth, they will need this UN resolution more than we do,” Subasic said, adding that she was referring to “genocide deniers” among Bosnian Serbs and in Serbia. “They will not be able to glorify war criminals any more.”
“We expect a fair decision tomorrow, a decision that will tell us, the families, that there is justice in the world, that there is humanity,” added Nura Begovic, who also lost several family members in Srebrenica.
On July 11, 1995, Bosnian Serbs overran a UN-protected safe area in Srebrenica. They separated at least 8,000 Muslim Bosniak men and boys from their wives, mothers and sisters and slaughtered them.
The 193-member UN General Assembly plans to debate the resolution Thursday to be followed by a vote. Serbs have the support of their allies Russia and China, while the resolution is supported by the US and most other Western states.
Dodik, who is president of Republika Srpska, which comprises about half of Bosnia, said on the social media platform X that the UN resolution is being forced on the country by supporters of Muslim Bosniaks and that it will split up the country. He said his government could formally propose a separation on Thursday
“Bosnia and Herzegovina has reached its end, or to be more precise, it was brought to an end by those who swore to it,” Dodik said on X. “All that remains is for us all to make an effort to be good neighbors and to part in peace.”
Dodik has made several such threats in the past to have the Serb-controlled territories secede from Bosnia and join with neighboring Serbia. He and some other Bosnian Serb officials are under US and British sanctions partly for jeopardizing a US peace plan that ended Bosnia’s 1992-95 war.
The Srebrenica killings were the bloody culmination of the war, which came after the breakup of Yugoslavia unleashed nationalist passions and territorial ambitions that set Bosnian Serbs against the country’s two other main ethnic populations, Croats and Muslim Bosniaks.
The International Court of Justice, the UN’s highest tribunal, determined in 2007 that the acts committed in Srebrenica constituted genocide, and the court’s determination is included in the draft resolution. It was Europe’s first genocide since the Nazi Holocaust in World War II.
Serbia’s President Vucic and his government have been campaigning both at the UN and among developing countries to win support for a “no” vote. Approval requires a majority of those voting.
In a massive campaign in both Serbia and the Serb-controlled half of Bosnia, organizers have put up billboards and video beams reading “Serbs are not genocidal people.”
Vucic and Dodik, both pro-Russian politicians, also have argued against the resolution by saying it raises the possibility of having to pay war damages. Local analysts say Serb leaders, including Vucic, also fear they could be put on trial for active participation in the Bosnian bloodshed.
The draft resolution condemns “without reservation any denial of the Srebrenica genocide as a historical event.” It also “condemns without reservation actions that glorify those convicted of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide by international courts, including those responsible for the Srebrenica genocide.”
Bosnian Serb wartime political leader Radovan Karadzic and his military commander, Ratko Mladic, were both convicted of genocide in Srebrenica by a special UN war crimes tribunal. In all, the tribunal and courts in the Balkans have sentenced close to 50 Bosnian Serb wartime officials to lengthy prison terms.
Most Serbian and Bosnian Serb officials still celebrate Karadzic and Mladic as national heroes. They continue to downplay or even deny the Srebrenica killings, which has deeply offended relatives of the massacre victims and survivors.
“I can never bring my three sons back … also my husband and my grandson, five men from my house alone,” said Mejra Dzogaz as she looked at a vast memorial center in Srebrenica comprising thousands of white tomb stones for the victims found and buried so far.
“What are we supposed to show to prove (genocide?) asked Dzogaz. “What? Look at this memorial center here.”


Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer to hit campaign trail as UK election race begins

Updated 23 May 2024
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Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer to hit campaign trail as UK election race begins

  • Both party leaders are expected to hit the campaign trail, seeking to seize the early initiative by meeting voters

LONDON: British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his Labour Party rival Keir Starmer will kick off their election campaigns in earnest on Thursday, a day after Sunak surprised the nation by calling a vote for July 4.
Sunak, whose Conservative Party trails Labour by around 20 percentage points in opinion polls, ended months of speculation centered on an election in October or November, and instead used a rain-soaked address to the electorate to kick off what is likely to be six weeks of frenetic campaigning.
Both party leaders are expected to hit the campaign trail, seeking to seize the early initiative by meeting voters and delivering the messages they hope will earn them enough seats in parliament to form a majority government on July 5.
At stake is control of the world’s sixth largest economy which has endured years of low growth and high inflation, is still battling to make a success of its 2016 decision to exit the European Union, and is slowly recovering from twin shocks of COVID-19 and an energy price spike caused by the war in Ukraine.
That backdrop makes the economy one of the most important electoral battlegrounds.
Sunak, 44, announced the election on the day inflation returned close to target, and his early message to voters has been that his plan for the economy is working, and only he can turn that stability into a recovery that benefits all.
“Who do you trust to turn that foundation into a secure future for you, your family and our country?” he told a rally late on Wednesday, casting Labour as a party without a plan.
“We’re working for a Britain where we have renewed confidence in ourselves and our communities. A country where hard work will be met with fair rewards and where the opportunities enjoyed by the previous generations will be there for future ones.”
Starmer, a 61-year-old former lawyer who has pulled Labour’s politics back to the center ground after a spell of electorally unsuccessful left-wing leadership, has pitched his party as one that will bring change for a disgruntled electorate.
“Labour will stop the chaos, turn the page and get Britain’s future back,” he said in an early campaign message to party members, describing the election as “the fight of our lives.”
“This is the moment we’ve been working toward. We must come together to beat the Tories and deliver a Labour government to change Britain for the better.”
If Labour win the election, it would end 14 years of Conservative government and Britain, once known for its political stability, will have had six prime ministers in eight years for the first time since the 1830s.
While the electioneering gets underway, activity in parliament is expected to pick up too as the government works out which of the pieces of legislation currently in process will be rushed through, and which will fall by the wayside.
Laws currently under discussion include Sunak’s plan to impose some of the world’s strictest anti-smoking rules by banning anyone aged 15 and under from ever buying cigarettes.


Tornadoes pummel US Midwest, killing at least 5 in Iowa

Updated 59 min 15 sec ago
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Tornadoes pummel US Midwest, killing at least 5 in Iowa

  • The storms also knocked out power to tens of thousands of people in Illinois and Wisconsin, officials said
  • The tornadoes came at a time when climate change is heightening the severity of storms around the world

GREENFIELD, Iowa: Five people died and at least 35 were hurt as powerful tornadoes ripped through Iowa, with one carving a path of destruction through the small city of Greenfield, officials said Wednesday.

The Iowa Department of Public Safety said Tuesday’s tornadoes killed four people in the Greenfield area, and local officials said a fifth person — a woman whose car was swept away in the wind — was killed by a twister about 25 miles (40 kilometers) away. Officials did not release the names of the victims because they were still notifying relatives.
The Iowa Department of Public Safety said Wednesday it’s believed that the number of people injured is likely higher.
The Greenfield tornado left a wide swath of obliterated homes, splintered trees and crumpled cars in the town of 2,000 about 55 miles (88.5 kilometers) southwest of Des Moines. The twister also ripped apart and crumpled massive power-producing wind turbines several miles outside the city.

A wind turbine lies toppled in the aftermath of tornadoes which ripped through the area yesterday on May 22, 2024 near Prescott, Iowa. (Getty Images/AFP)

Greenfield resident Kimberly Ergish, 33, and her husband dug through the debris field Wednesday that used to be their home, looking for family photos and other salvageable items. There wasn’t much left, she acknowledged.
“Most of it we can’t save,” she said. “But we’re going to get what we can.”
The reality of having her house destroyed in seconds hasn’t really set in, she said.
“If it weren’t for all the bumps and bruises and the achy bones, I would think that it didn’t happen,” she said.
Tuesday’s storms also pummeled parts of Illinois and Wisconsin, knocking out power to tens of thousands of customers in the two states. The severe weather turned south on Wednesday, and the National Weather Service was issuing tornado and flash flood warnings in Texas as parts of the state — including Dallas — were under a tornado watch.
The National Weather Service said initial surveys indicated at least an EF-3 tornado in Greenfield, but additional damage assessment could lead to a more powerful ranking.
The tornado appeared to have been on the ground for more than 40 miles (64 kilometers), AccuWeather Chief Meteorologist Jon Porter said. A satellite photo taken by a BlackSky Technology shows where the twister gouged a nearly straight path of destruction through the town, just south of Greenfield’s center square.
The deadly twister was spawned during a historically bad season for tornadoes in the US, at a time when climate change is heightening the severity of storms around the world. April had the second-highest number of tornadoes on record in the country.
Through Tuesday, there have been 859 confirmed tornadoes this year, 27 percent more than the US sees on average, according to NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma. So far, Iowa’s had the most, with 81 confirmed twisters.
On Tuesday alone, the National Weather Service said it received 23 tornado reports, with most in Iowa and one each in Wisconsin and Minnesota.
The tornado that decimated parts of Greenfield brought to life the worst case scenario in Iowa that weather forecasters had feared, Porter said.
“Debris was lifted thousands of feet in the air and ended up falling to the ground several counties away from Greenfield. That’s evidence of just how intense and deadly this tornado was,” Porter said.
People as far as 100 miles (160 kilometers) away from Greenfield posted photos on Facebook of ripped family photos, yearbook pages and other items that were lifted into the sky by the tornado.

Residents go through the damage after a tornado tore through town yesterday afternoon on May 22, 2024 in Greenfield, Iowa. (Getty Images/AFP)

About 90 miles away, in Ames, Iowa, Nicole Banner found a yellowed page declaring “This Book is the Property of the Greenfield Community School District” stuck to her garage door like a Post-It note after the storm passed.
“We just couldn’t believe it had traveled that far,” she said.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said FEMA’s administrator would head to Iowa on Thursday and that the White House was in touch with state and local officials. She said they were “praying for those who tragically lost their lives” and wished those injured a “speedy recovery.”
Greenfield’s 25-bed hospital was among the buildings damaged, and at least a dozen people who were hurt had to be taken to facilities elsewhere. Hospital officials said in a Facebook post Wednesday that the hospital will remain closed until it can be further assessed and that full repairs could take weeks or months. The hospital, with the help of other providers, set up an urgent care clinic at an elementary school with primary care services to start there Thursday, the post said.
Residential streets that on Monday were lined with old-growth trees and neatly-appointed ranch-style homes were a chaotic jumble of splintered and smashed remnants by Wednesday. Many of the homes’ basements where residents sheltered lay exposed and front yards were littered with belongings from furniture to children’s toys and Christmas decorations.
Dwight Lahey, a 70-year-old retired truck driver, drove from suburban Des Moines to Greenfield to help his 98-year-old mother. She had taken refuge from the twister in her basement, then walked out through her destroyed garage to a nearby convenience store, Lahey said.
“I don’t know how she got through that mess,” he said. His mom was staying in a hotel, uncertain about where she’ll end up with her home gone, he said.
Roseann Freeland, 67, waited until the last minute to rush with her husband to a concrete room in her basement. Seconds later, her husband opened the door “and you could just see daylight,” Freeland said. “I just lost it. I just totally lost it.”
Tuesday’s destructive weather also saw flooding and power outages in Nebraska, damage from tornadoes in Wisconsin and Minnesota, and dust storms in Illinois that forced two interstates to be closed.
The devastation in Iowa followed days of extreme weather that ravaged much of the middle section of the country, including Oklahoma and Kansas. Last week, deadly storms hit the Houston area, killing at least eight and knocking out power to hundreds of thousands.
 


‘Boiling not warming’: Marine life suffers as Thai sea temperatures hit record

Updated 23 May 2024
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‘Boiling not warming’: Marine life suffers as Thai sea temperatures hit record

  • The once vibrant and colorful corals, about five meters underwater, have turned white in a phenomenon known as coral bleaching
  • If water temperatures do not cool, more coral will die, says marine biologist Lalita Putchim

TRAT, Thailand: Aquatic life from coral reefs to fish in the Thailand’s eastern gulf coast is suffering as sea surface temperatures hit record highs this month amid a regional heatwave, worrying scientists and local communities.

The once vibrant and colorful corals, about five meters (16 feet) underwater, have turned white in a phenomenon known as coral bleaching, a sign that their health was deteriorating, due to higher water temperatures, scientists say.
Sea surface temperatures in the Eastern Gulf of Thailand reached 32.73°C (90.91°F) earlier this month while underwater readings are slightly warmer, with dive computers showing around 33°C, data shows.
“I couldn’t find a single healthy coral,” said marine biologist Lalita Putchim of the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources (DMCR) after completing a dive in the gulf coast.
“Almost all of the species have bleached, there’s very little that’s not affected.”
The Trat archipelago is home to over 66 islands, with over 28.4 square kilometers (2,841 hectares) of coral reef, where Lalita has found that up to 30 percent of coral life was bleaching and 5 percent had already died.
If water temperatures do not cool, more coral will die, Lalita said.
“It’s global boiling, not just global warming,” she said.

Lalita Putchim, a marine biologist of the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources, dives to survey an area of bleached corals in a reef in Koh Mak, Trat province, Thailand, on May 8, 2024. (REUTERS)

Rising temperatures were also impacting other marine life and the livelihoods of local fishermen including Sommay Singsura.
In recent years, his daily catch of seafood has been dwindling. Previously he had been able to make up to 10,000 baht ($275) a day, but now sometimes he comes back empty handed.
“There used to be jackfish, short mackerel, and many others ... But now, the situation isn’t good. The weather isn’t like what it used to be,” Sommay laments.
Coral reefs are both a food resource and habitat for marine life, as well as being natural barriers preventing coastal erosion, scientists say.
If bleaching causes marine life to decrease, fishermen will need to spend more to get their catch, which could see selling prices rise, said Sarawut Siriwong, the dean of faculty of Marine Technology at Burapha University.
“While this (coral bleaching) would affect food security, at the same time, their (community) income stability is also at stake,” he said.