Russian warships and aircraft enter the Caribbean for military exercises

The rescue and tugboat Nicolay Chiker, part of the Russian naval detachment visiting Cuba, arrives at Havana’s harbor, June 12, 2024. (AFP)
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Updated 12 June 2024

Russian warships and aircraft enter the Caribbean for military exercises

  • Russia is a longtime ally of Venezuela and Cuba, and its warships and aircraft have periodically made forays into the Caribbean
  • This mission comes less than two weeks after President Joe Biden authorized Ukraine to use US-provided weapons to strike inside Russia to protect Kharkiv

CARACAS: A fleet of Russian warships and aircraft on Wednesday entered the Caribbean in what some see as a projection of strength as tensions grow over Western support for Ukraine.
The US military expects the exercises will involve a handful of Russian ships and support vessels, which may also stop in Venezuela.
Russia is a longtime ally of Venezuela and Cuba, and its warships and aircraft have periodically made forays into the Caribbean. But this mission comes less than two weeks after President Joe Biden authorized Ukraine to use US-provided weapons to strike inside Russia to protect Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, prompting President Vladimir Putin to suggest his military could respond with “asymmetrical steps” elsewhere in the world.
“Most of all, the warships are a reminder to Washington that it is unpleasant when an adversary meddles in your near abroad,” said Benjamin Gedan, director of the Latin America Program at the Washington-based Wilson Center think tank, referring to the Western involvement in Russia’s war in Ukraine. “It also reminds Russia’s friends in the region, including US antagonists Cuba and Venezuela, that Moscow is on their side.”
Although the fleet includes a nuclear-powered submarine, a senior US administration official told The Associated Press that the intelligence community has determined no vessel is carrying nuclear weapons. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide details that had not been announced publicly, said Russia’s deployments “pose no direct threat to the United States.”
US officials last week said the Russian ships were expected to remain in the region through the summer.
In December 2018, a pair of Russian nuclear-capable Tu-160 strategic bombers visited Venezuela in what the Russian military described as a training mission. Russia also sent Tu-160s and a missile cruiser to Venezuela in 2008 amid tensions with the US after Russia’s brief war with Georgia. A pair of Tu-160s also visited Venezuela in 2013.
Russian ships have occasionally docked in Havana since 2008, when a group of Russian vessels entered Cuban waters in what state media described as the first such visit in almost two decades. In 2015, a reconnaissance and communications ship arrived unannounced in Havana a day before the start of discussions between US and Cuban officials on the reopening of diplomatic relations.
A State Department spokesperson told the AP that Russia’s port calls in Cuba are “routine naval visits,” while acknowledging its military exercises “have ratcheted up because of US support to Ukraine and exercise activity in support of our NATO allies.”
Russian military and defense doctrine holds Latin America and the Caribbean in an important position, with the sphere seen as under US influence acting as a counterweight to Washington’s activities in Europe, said Ryan Berg, director of the Americas Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“While this is likely little more than provocation from Moscow, it sends a message about Russia’s ability to project power into the Western Hemisphere with the help of its allies, and it will certainly keep the US military on high alert while they are in theater,” Berg said.
The timing of this year’s mission may serve Russia’s purposes, but it is also raising questions of whether Venezuela’s government may use it as an opportunity to shore up President Nicolás Maduro’s bid for a third term in the July 28 election.
Venezuela’s chief opposition coalition is threatening the ruling party’s decadeslong grip on power, and engineering a crisis built on simmering tensions with Guyana is among the scenarios that analysts believe Maduro’s government could use to delay or cancel the vote.
“It is almost unthinkable that Maduro will risk actually losing power,” said Evan Ellis, Latin America research professor with the US Army War College.
“The most obvious alternative, consistent with Venezuelan military’s recent moves ... is to fabricate an international crisis that would provide an excuse for ‘postponing’ Venezuela’s election,” he continued. “The presence of Russian warships in the vicinity would greatly add to the escalation risk of any such crisis that Maduro would fabricate, which is possibly the point.”
Venezuelan voters approved a referendum in December to claim sovereignty over the Essequibo territory, which accounts for two-thirds of Guyana and lies near big offshore oil deposits. Venezuela argues it was stolen when the border was drawn more than a century ago.
Guyana is awaiting a decision regarding Venezuela’s claim from the International Court of Justice, but Maduro’s government does not recognize its authority.
The US supports Guyana in the ongoing dispute and assisted it with surveillance flights late last year when Venezuela had threatened to invade the country. Guyana’s government last month gave permission for the US military to fly two powerful F/A-18F Super Hornet jets over its capital in a demonstration of close cooperation.
Guyana’s Vice President Bharrat Jagdeo on June 6 acknowledged that the Russian fleet does not represent “a direct threat.”
“Nevertheless, we’re vigilant, and we’re keeping this issue firmly in our policy radar,” Jagdeo said in a press conference.

Sri Lanka apologizes for cremating Muslim Covid victims

Updated 59 min 34 sec ago

Sri Lanka apologizes for cremating Muslim Covid victims

  • The cabinet issued an “apology regarding the compulsory cremation policy during the Covid-19 pandemic,” the government said in a statement

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka’s government Tuesday formally apologized to the island’s Muslim minority for forcing cremations on Covid victims, disregarding WHO assurances that burials in line with Islamic rites were safe.
The cabinet issued an “apology regarding the compulsory cremation policy during the Covid-19 pandemic,” the government said in a statement.
It said a new law would guarantee the right to burial or cremation to ensure the funeral customs of Muslims or any other community were not violated in future.
Traditionally, Muslims bury their dead facing Makkah. Sri Lanka’s majority Buddhists are typically cremated, as are Hindus.
Muslim representatives in Sri Lanka welcomed the apology, but said their entire community, accounting for about 10 percent of the island’s 22 million population, was still traumatized.
“We will now sue two academics — Meththika Vithanage and Channa Jayasumana — who were behind the forced cremation policy of the government,” Hilmy Ahamed, spokesman for the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, told AFP.
“We will also seek compensation.”
Ahamed said a young Muslim couple suffered untold anguish when their 40-day-old infant was cremated by the state against their wishes.
Then president Gotabaya Rajapaksa banned burials despite his administration facing international condemnation at the UN Human Rights Council and other forums for violating Muslim funeral norms.
In a book published earlier this month, he defended his action saying he was only carrying out “expert advice” from Vithanage, a professor of natural resources, not to let Covid victims be interred.
She has no medical background.
Rajapaksa halted his forced cremations policy in February 2021 following an appeal from then Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan during a visit to Sri Lanka.
The government then allowed burials at the remote Oddamavadi area in the island’s east under strict military supervision — but without the participation of the bereaved family.
Rajapaksa was forced out of office two years ago following months of protests over an unprecedented economic crisis, which had led to shortages of food, fuel and medicines.

India’s Modi focuses on jobs creation in first budget after winning polls

Updated 23 July 2024

India’s Modi focuses on jobs creation in first budget after winning polls

  • India’s finance minister says economy grew at sizzling 8.2 percent rate duirng last fiscal year
  • Modi remains under pressure to generate jobs to sustain India’s economic growth

NEW DELHI: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s newly formed government presented an annual budget to Parliament that raises spending to generate more jobs and spur economic growth, while aiming to appease coalition partners it needs to stay in power.

In her budget speech Tuesday, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said the government is focused on driving domestic growth through jobs, training and small businesses.

India’s inflation rate is stable and moving toward the government’s 4 percent target, she said, while the economy grew at a sizzling 8.2 percent rate in the last fiscal year.

“India’s economic growth continues to be the shining exception and will remain so in the years ahead,” Sitharaman said.

More than a decade after he first took office as prime minister, Modi is under pressure to generate more jobs to help sustain growth.

The proposed budget includes a $24 billion package for job creation over the next five years and raises spending on loans for small and medium-size businesses. It allocates $18 billion to support agriculture and farm technology, such as climate-resilient seed varieties.

It also would raise spending, to $133 billion, on construction of thirty million homes for the poor, schools, airports, highways and other infrastructure. The budget would cut taxes on big corporations and allocate more funds to two states, Andhra Pradesh and Bihar, that are governed by the Modi government’s biggest coalition partners.

The government plans to build new airports, medical colleges and sports and tourism facilities in eastern India’s Bihar state, which is ruled by the Janata Dal (United) party.

Sitharaman also announced special financial support for southern India’s Andhra Pradesh state, ruled by the Telugu Desam party.

Modi’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party is relying on those two regional parties to keep its coalition government in power after it failed to win a majority on its own in recent national elections.

India’s economy — the fifth largest in the world — is projected to grow at an annual rate of between 6.5 percent to 7 percent in the fiscal year ending in March 2025. But experts say the benefits of its rapid growth are shared unequally, as wealth of already affluent Indians has risen steadily without reaching the the majority of Indians who toil in the country’s large informal sector, where the quality of jobs is poor and precarious.

Billions of dollars worth of subsidies to manufacturing have not led to creation of enough jobs. To mitigate rising unemployment, the government said it will provide 12-month paid internship opportunities to 10 million young people in India’s top 500 companies for a five-year period. Sitharaman said the training cost will be borne by the companies.

According to the Center for Monitoring the Indian Economy, youth unemployment was at 9.2 percent in early July, underscoring the challenge of delivering jobs in the world’s most populous country, where millions graduate every year.

Inequality has surged in India in the last decade. According to a report by World Inequality Lab, wealth concentrated in the richest 1 percent of India’s population is at its highest in six decades.

The government is aiming for a fiscal deficit of 4.9 percent of India’s gross domestic product for the 2024-25 financial year, lower than the 5.1 percent figure in February’s short-term budget, Sitharaman said.

India is one of the highest current sources of emissions that lead to global warming, but the government announced plans Tuesday to set up a new 800-megawatt coal-fired thermal power plant. Sitharaman said the government will also support development of small and modular nuclear reactors to help meet India’s future energy demand.

The budget also allocates $1.37 billion to address damage from floods. India, which is one of the countries most vulnerable to climate impacts, has suffered an increase in flooding due to extreme rains and glacier melt in the last few years.

The budget requires approval from both houses of Parliament, but it is bound to be enacted as Modi’s coalition government holds a majority.

Netanyahu visit risks US exposure to war crimes allegations: HRW

Updated 23 July 2024

Netanyahu visit risks US exposure to war crimes allegations: HRW

  • Israeli prime minister to appear before joint Congress session on July 24
  • Lawmakers should be ‘seriously concerned about liability risks’: Human Rights Watch director

LONDON: US lawmakers risk exposure to war crimes allegations amid Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s appearance before a joint Congress session on July 24, Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday.

Netanyahu’s visit “highlights the continued and significant US supply of weapons to Israel’s military despite credible allegations of ongoing war crimes in Gaza,” HRW added.

Late last year, the Biden administration increased the threshold for delivering weapons exports to foreign countries, in an apparent attempt to reduce the likelihood of international law violations.

Washington is also mandated by domestic laws to carry out a risk assessment before providing arms exports.

But despite HRW and Oxfam warning in March that Israeli assurances to the US over the legal requirements were “not credible,” the Biden administration reported to Congress in May that Tel Aviv was “complying” with the new US threshold and domestic laws.

Tirana Hassan, HRW’s executive director, said: “US officials are well aware of the mounting evidence that Israeli forces have committed war crimes in Gaza, including most likely with US weapons.

“US lawmakers should be seriously concerned about the liability risks of continuing to provide arms and intelligence based on Israel’s flimsy assurances that it’s abiding by the laws of war.”

HRW and Oxfam filed a dossier to the US State Department that highlighted Israel’s numerous violations of international law in Gaza.

The Israel Defense Forces have “unlawfully attacked residential buildings, medical facilities and aid workers, restricted medical evacuations and used starvation as a weapon of war,” HRW said.

“Israeli authorities have detained and mistreated thousands of Palestinians, with persistent reports of torture.

“In the occupied West Bank, where Israeli forces have killed over 500 Palestinians since Oct. 7, settlers and soldiers have displaced entire Palestinian communities, destroying every home, with the apparent backing of higher Israeli authorities and effectively confiscating Palestinians’ lands.”

US weapons have been used by Israeli forces throughout the period, HRW warned, citing reports by CNN, National Public Radio, the New York Times and Agence France-Presse.

Under international law, a state assisting another state or non-state actor can be complicit in war crimes if prior knowledge and contribution to the partner’s intentions is found. Individuals can also be prosecuted under this guideline.

HRW called on the US and other weapons suppliers to immediately suspend military assistance to Israel.

By using its leverage, including through targeted sanctions, the Biden administration can “save lives,” the organization added.

US warns of China-Russia cooperation in Arctic

Updated 23 July 2024

US warns of China-Russia cooperation in Arctic

  • Russia has in recent years beefed up its military presence in the Arctic
  • China has poured money into polar exploration and research

WASHINGTON: The US Defense Department warned Monday of increasing Russian-Chinese collaboration in the Arctic, as climate change opens the region to greater competition over maritime routes and resources.
“We’ve seen growing cooperation between the PRC and Russia in the Arctic commercially, with the PRC being a major funder of Russian energy exploitation in the Arctic,” Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks told journalists, using an abbreviation for the People’s Republic of China.
There is also growing military cooperation, “with Russia and China conducting joint exercises off the coast of Alaska,” Hicks said as the department released its 2024 Arctic strategy.
“All of these challenges have been amplified because the effects of climate change are rapidly warming temperatures and thinning ice coverage, and it’s enabling all of this activity,” she said.
The Arctic strategy describes it as “a strategically important region” for the United States that includes “the northern approaches to the homeland” and “significant US defense infrastructure.”
Russia has in recent years beefed up its military presence in the Arctic by reopening and modernizing several bases and airfields abandoned since the end of the Soviet era, while China has poured money into polar exploration and research.
The rapid melting of polar ice has sent activity in the inhospitable region into overdrive as nations eye newly viable oil, gas and mineral deposits as well as shipping routes in an area with a complex web of competing territorial claims.
“The Arctic may experience its first practically ice-free summer by 2030, and the loss of sea ice will increase the viability of Arctic maritime transit routes and access to undersea resources,” the Arctic strategy says.
“Increases in human activity will elevate the risk of accidents, miscalculation, and environmental degradation,” and US forces “must be ready and equipped to mitigate the risks associated with potential contingencies in the Arctic.”
China later defended its Arctic policy and said it acts on the “principles of respect, cooperation, mutual wins and sustainability,” adding it was “committed to maintaining peace and stability” in the region.
“The United States distorts China’s Arctic policy and makes thoughtless remarks on China’s normal Arctic activities (which are) in accordance with international law,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said.

Violence against women and girls in UK a ‘national emergency’: police

Updated 23 July 2024

Violence against women and girls in UK a ‘national emergency’: police

LONDON: Violence against women and girls in England and Wales is a “national emergency” with almost 3,000 offenses recorded daily, police warned in a new report published on Tuesday.
The study, commissioned by two law enforcement bodies, estimates that at least one in every 12 women will be a victim every year, with the exact number expected to be much higher.
“Violence against women and girls is a national emergency,” senior police chief Maggie Blyth said in comments accompanying the report.
The study found that more than one million violent crimes against women and girls were recorded by police in 2022-2023.
They accounted for just under a fifth of all police-recorded crime excluding fraud in England and Wales between April 2022 and March 2023.
The report said violence against women and girls had increased 37 percent between 2018-2019 and last year, with domestic abuse being one of the biggest demands on policing.
One in 20 adults in England and Wales, or 2.3 million people, will be perpetrators of crimes against women and girls annually, the study added.
“These are cautious estimates as we know much crime goes unreported and in policing, we often only see the tip of the iceberg,” Blyth said.
She warned that violence against females in the two countries had “reached epidemic levels” and called for government intervention in the “overwhelmed” criminal justice system.
Child sexual abuse and exploitation offenses meanwhile jumped by 435 percent between 2013 and 2022, the report estimated — from just over 20,000 to nearly 107,000.
Offenders are getting younger, with the average age of a suspect now 15, it said.
The report said stalking and harassment accounted for 85 percent of online-related offenses.
Britain’s interior ministry declared violence against women and girls a national threat to public safety in February last year.
More than 4,500 new officers have been trained to investigate rape and serious sexual offenses over the last year, with the report detailing a 38-percent increase in charges for adult rape from the year ending December 2022 to the year ending December 2023.