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Japan PM Shinzo Abe Announces He Will Resign Over Health Problems

TOKYO, Aug 28: Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced Friday he will resign, ending his record-breaking tenure in a bombshell development that kicks off a leadership race in the world's third-largest economy.

Abe said he is suffering a recurrence of the ulcerative colitis that forced him to cut short a first term in office and said that he no longer felt able to continue as prime minister.

"There must not be time when I am not able to deliver results," he said, speaking in a calm but sombre voice.

"Now that I am not able to fulfil the mandate from the people with confidence, I have decided that I should no longer occupy the position of the prime minister."

While speculation about Abe's political future has been growing in recent weeks, after he twice visited hospital for unspecified health checks, the resignation nonetheless came as a surprise.

Even as recently as Friday morning, the government's spokesman had appeared to dismiss concerns about Abe's health and suggested he would stay on in office.

But Abe made clear that would not be possible, and offered apologies for once again having to cut short his tenure.

"I would like to sincerely apologise to the people of Japan for leaving my post with one year left in my term of office, and amid the coronavirus woes, while various policies are still in the process of being implemented," he said, bowing deeply.

Abe said he would "firmly execute my duty to the end," and until the next prime minister is appointed, a process that is expected to require a leadership election involving ruling party lawmakers and members.

The resignation shocked the markets, with Tokyo stocks plunging more than two percent towards the end of afternoon trade when reports of Abe's decision first emerged.

"It was a big surprise", said Shinichi Nishikawa, a professor of political science at Meiji University in Tokyo.

"His resignation comes at a time when Japan is facing tough issues, including measures against the coronavirus," said Nishikawa.

Still, some potential successors have already emerged, among them Finance Minister Taro Aso, chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga, former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba and LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida.

Kishida is rumoured to be Abe's personal choice, while Aso commands one of the strongest blocs within the ruling coalition.

Most of the potential successors are seen as unlikely to break significantly with Abe's policies.

Abe declined to be drawn on who he would like to see take the top job, saying he had "no intention" of influencing the election, and that those often floated as candidates were all "highly capable."

Experts said the election process was likely to happen in coming weeks, with a new parliamentary session possible by October.

Abe's decision to step down will be bitterly familiar for the man who was forced to leave office just one year after becoming the country's youngest ever prime minister.

He has since become Japan's longest-serving premier, forever associated with the economic policy intended to revive the country's economy that bears his name: Abenomics.

He said his legacy would be for others to decide but pointed to his efforts to bring Barack Obama to Hiroshima, making him the first sitting US president to visit the site of the atomic bomb attack, as among his proudest achievements.

Among his greatest disappointments, he said, was his inability to bring home Japanese kidnapped by North Korea decades ago.

India asks China to disengage at LAC

NEW DELHI, Aug 27: India on Thursday emphasised the need for a diplomatic solution to the stand-off with China based on agreements on the border issue, saying the disengagement of troops can move forward only if both sides implement actions they have agreed on in several rounds of diplomatic and military talks.

The external affairs ministry outlined India’s latest position on the protracted stand-off hours after the Chinese defence ministry said New Delhi should look at the “big picture” of bilateral ties and work with Beijing to bring the relationship back on track while avoiding misjudgements.

External affairs ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava referred to remarks made in a recent interview by external affairs minister S Jaishankar, who noted that several border incidents in the past had all been resolved through diplomacy.

Jaishankar further said that “when it comes to finding a solution, this must be predicated on honouring all agreements and understandings” and “not attempting to alter the status quo unilaterally”, he added.

At the same time, Srivastava pointed out, India believes complete disengagement requires re-deployment of troops by both sides “towards their regular posts on their respective sides of the Line of Actual Control (LAC)”.

“It is natural that this can be done only through mutually agreed reciprocal actions. Thus, it is important to bear in mind that achieving this requires agreed actions by both sides,” he said.

In Beijing, defence ministry spokesperson Col Wu Qian told a monthly news briefing that China expects India to work with it to maintain peace and tranquillity on the border while “bearing in mind the big picture of bilateral ties and putting the border issue in an appropriate position in this big picture”.

India should “avoid misjudgement, keep divergences from escalating into disputes, and take concrete steps to bring the bilateral relations back to the right track of normal development”, Wu said.

Wu’s comments echoed remarks in a recent speech by China’s envoy to India, Sun Weidong, who described the June 15 border clash that killed 20 Indian soldiers as “a brief moment from the perspective of history”, and said the two sides should now “seek common ground while reserving differences”.

Like the Chinese foreign ministry, Wu’s statement, published on the official military website, put the onus on India to restore normalcy in ties, currently the worst in decades.

The remaining issues at the LAC should be handled properly and both sides further “cool down the China-India border situation”, Wu said.

The “big picture” advice in China’s diplomatic narrative appeared to suggest that Beijing doesn’t want the border tensions to impact other components of the relationship, such as trade and economic cooperation.

But it was evident at the end of the last meeting of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination (WMCC) on border affairs on August 20 that the two sides had been unable to bridge differences on troop disengagement.

New Delhi said there were “outstanding issues” that need to be resolved speedily at the meeting, and Jaishankar said in his recent interview the current situation was “surely the most serious situation” since the 1962 war, and that the “quantum of forces currently deployed by both sides at the LAC is also unprecedented”.

Srivastava said at the last meeting of WMCC, the two sides reaffirmed they will “continue to sincerely work towards complete disengagement of the troops” in line with agreements reached by the two foreign ministers and the two Special Representatives (SRs) during their conversation on July 5.

“Both sides also agree that full restoration of peace and tranquillity in the border areas would be essential for the overall development of bilateral relations. The two sides had also agreed to continue their engagements both through diplomatic and military channels,” Srivastava said.

North Korea’s Kim presides over meeting; ends speculations on his health

SEOUL, Aug 26: North Korean state media on Wednesday showed leader Kim Jong Un at a meeting of a top committee issuing warnings about the coronavirus and a looming typhoon, following international speculation over his state of health.

Kim’s comments come amid conjecture over his condition after South Korea’s spy agency said he had delegated some authority to his sister Kim Yo Jong to relieve his “governance stress”.

A former aide to late South Korean president Kim Dae-jung even said on Facebook he thought the North’s leader was in a coma, though with no apparent evidence.

But Kim presided over a meeting Tuesday of a top committee of the ruling Workers’ Party, the official KCNA news agency reported, where he assessed “defects in the state emergency anti-epidemic work for checking the inroads of the malignant virus”.

The impoverished North -- whose crumbling health system would struggle to cope with a major virus outbreak -- has not confirmed a single case of the disease that has swept the world since first emerging in neighbouring China.

Pictures in the Rodong Sinmun newspaper showed Kim addressing the meeting, wearing a white suit and in one image apparently smoking a cigarette.

Kim addressed “some shortcomings” in the preventive efforts and called for stronger measures to eliminate “defects”, KCNA said.

Last month Pyongyang imposed a lockdown on the city of Kaesong, close to the border with the South, claiming a defector who had returned was suspected of carrying the virus.

The restrictions were lifted earlier this month and the infection was never confirmed.

The meeting also discussed emergency measures to prevent crop damage or casualties from Typhoon Bavi, which is forecast to hit the country this week.

There have been days of heavy rain across parts of North Korea, which is vulnerable to flooding as many mountains and hills have long been stripped of vegetation, allowing water to flow downhill unchecked.

Kim laid out tasks for various departments, saying thoroughly preventing casualties and crop damage was “crucial”, KCNA reported.

Several analysts have played down suggestions that Kim’s health is deteriorating and Seoul’s intelligence agency has a mixed record with its past pronouncements on developments in the North.

Earlier this year Kim was absent from public view for nearly three weeks, missing a key celebration in April for the birthday of his grandfather, the North’s founder -- the most important day in the country’s political calendar -- prompting widespread questions over his condition.

US spy planes fly into China airspace during drills

BEIJING, Aug 26: The US military aircraft’s intrusion into Chinese airspace during live-fire military exercises was “blatant provocation” and could lead to “misjudgments and accidents”, China has said even as a second US reconnaissance aircraft is said to have flown over the South China Sea on Wednesday.

A day after an US U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft flew into Chinese air space during live-fire exercises by the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) northern theatre command, an US RC-135S reconnaissance aircraft on Wednesday flew near a separate and ongoing PLA drill in the South China Sea.

The US aircraft crossed the Bashi Channel from the east, headed southwest into the South China Sea, and returned on the same route, the Beijing-based think tank, South China Sea Probing Initiative (SCSPI), said on Wednesday.

“It came near an ongoing PLA exercise in waters off Hainan Island’s southeast coast,” Chinese state media reported, quoting the SCSPI.

Both the Chinese foreign and defence ministries have lashed out at the US for sending spy planes into mainland airspace during military drills; the foreign ministry has lodged a formal protest.

Wu Qian, a defence ministry spokesperson, said the trespass severely affected China’s normal military exercises and training activities.

It violated the rules of behaviour for air and maritime safety between China and the US, as well as relevant international practices, Wu said.

“The US action could easily have resulted in misjudgments and even accidents,” Wu said, adding it was a blatant act of provocation.

Chinese state media reported that the PLA has shot down at least five U-2 aircraft in the past as they trespassed into mainland airspace.

The Chinese PLA is currently conducting separate military exercises in three different seas, in itself a rare case of simultaneous drills.

“By simultaneously conducting drills in the three seas, it means China is testing its ability to fight enemies coming from three directions at the same time - for example from Taiwan, from Japan and from the US from the south,” Chinese military expert Ni Lexiong, a retired professor at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, told Reuters.

In late July, an US anti-submarine warplane had come within 100 km from Shanghai in eastern China in the backdrop of the tit-for-tat closure of consulates carried out the week before.

The latest round of military tension adds to the deteriorating bilateral ties between the two countries with Beijing and Washington already at loggerheads over related South China Sea disputes and arms sales to Taiwan besides the Hong Kong security bill, the condition of minorities in Xinjiang, and the origin of the coronavirus and the ongoing trade war.

North Korea’s Kim Jong-un in coma, sister Kim Yo-jong to take over: Reports

SEOUL, Aug 24: North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is reportedly in a coma and his sister Kim Yo-jong will be exercising de facto control over national and international matters, several media outlets said quoting a former aide of South Korea’s late president Kim Dae-jung.

Chang Song-min, who served Kim Dae-jung as a political affairs secretary and as head of the state affairs monitoring office, reportedly claimed in a social media post that no North Korean leader would entrust any of his authority to another person unless he was too sick to rule or was removed through a coup.

“I assess him (Kim Jong Un) to be in a coma, but his life has not ended,” he was quoted as saying by The Korea Herald. “A complete succession structure has not been formed, so Kim Yo-jong is being brought to the fore as the vacuum cannot be maintained for a prolonged period,” he added.

Chang claims to have secured the information from a source in China that Kim is “comatose.”

According to the South Korean daily, Seoul’s spy agency told lawmakers in a closed-door meeting about a ruling system that Kim seemed to have set up following which he shall share authority and responsibility with his most trusted aides. The National Intelligence Agency, however, said that the new system is not associated with any serious health issue.

Chang’s claims come months after the North Korean dictator had not made a public appearance amid speculations of his deteriorating health. He was last seen presiding over a Workers’ Party politburo meeting on April 11 before a top security adviser to the South’s President Moon Jae-in downplayed rumours and said Kim Jong Un was “alive and well”.

He was then seen cutting the ribbon at the opening of a fertilizer factory on May 2, KCNA reported.

However, Chang has claimed that all photographs of Kim released by North Korea in recent months were fake.

India rejects reference to Kashmir in China-Pakistan joint statement

NEW DELHI, Aug 22: India on Saturday rejected a reference to Jammu and Kashmir in a joint statement issued by China and Pakistan, saying it was tantamount to interference in the country’s internal affairs.

After Pakistani foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi briefed his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi of Islamabad’s views on the situation in the Indian union territory during talks on Friday, the joint statement said China opposes any “unilateral” actions that complicate the situation in Jammu and Kashmir.

Responding to the joint statement, external affairs ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said: “As in the past, we categorically reject the reference to the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir in the joint press release of the 2nd round of China-Pakistan foreign ministers’ strategic dialogue.

“The Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir is an integral and inalienable part of India and we expect the parties concerned not to interfere in matters that are internal affairs of India.”

Srivastava also reiterated India’s opposition to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is a key component of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK).

“At the same time we also reiterate our consistent position on the so-called ‘China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’. India has repeatedly conveyed its concerns to both China and to Pakistan on the projects in [the] so-called China Pakistan Economic Corridor, which are in the territory of India that has been illegally occupied by Pakistan,” he said.

“We resolutely oppose actions by other countries that change the status quo in Pakistan-occupied Jammu and Kashmir and call on the parties concerned to cease such actions,” he added.

The Kashmir issue figured in the second strategic dialogue of the Chinese and Pakistani foreign ministers in the southern province of Hainan on Friday. Qureshi arrived in China on Thursday for the talks against the backdrop of the India-China border standoff.

“The Pakistani side briefed the Chinese side on the situation in Jammu and Kashmir, including its concerns, position and current urgent issues,” said the joint statement issued at the end of the two-day strategic dialogue.

“The Chinese side reiterated that the Kashmir issue is a dispute left over from history between India and Pakistan, which is an objective fact, and that the dispute should be resolved peacefully and properly through the UN Charter, relevant Security Council resolutions and bilateral agreements. China opposes any unilateral actions that complicate the situation,” the joint statement added.

China and Pakistan backed a “peaceful, stable, cooperative and prosperous South Asia” and the joint statement further said: “Parties need to settle disputes and issues in the region through dialogue on the basis of equality and mutual respect.”

Beijing had adopted issued a similar position immediately after New Delhi scrapped Kashmir’s special status in August last year. Since then, China has also sought to raise the Kashmir issue at the UN Security Council on Pakistan’s behalf several times, but without much success.

In a recorded message addressed to his Pakistani counterpart Arif Alvi, Chinese President Xi Jinping had on Friday described CPEC as “a landmark project” under BRI, and said it is of “great importance to promoting in-depth development of the China-Pakistan all-weather strategic cooperative partnership”.

Pakistan bans 88 new terrorists in bid to slip out of FATF’s grey list

ISLAMABAD, Aug 22: In an attempt to be dropped from the Financial Action Task Force’s grey list, Pakistan has banned 88 new terrorists, in compliance with the new list issued by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The banned terrorists include Hafiz Saeed, Masood Azhar and Dawood Ibrahim, local media reports said on Saturday.

Paris-based FATF put Pakistan on the grey list in June 2018 and asked Islamabad to implement a plan of action by the end of 2019, but the deadline was extended later due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Pakistan government issued two notifications on August 18 announcing sanctions on key leaders of terror outfits such as 26/11 Mumbai attack mastermind and Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) chief Hafiz Saeed, Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) chief Masood Azhar, and underworld don Dawood Ibrahim. Ibrahim, who heads a vast illegal business, has emerged as India’s most wanted terrorist after the 1993 Mumbai bombings which killed nearly 200 people.

The notifications ratified a complete ban on all leaders and members of the now defunct Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) hiding in the Pak-Afghan border areas. Hafiz Saeed Ahmad of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, Mohammad Masood Azhar who leads the Jaish-e-Mohammed, Mullah Fazlullah (alias Mullah Radio), Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, Muhammad Yahya Mujahid and Abdul Hakeem Murad who is wanted by Interpol.

Leaders of other terror outfits like Noor Wali Mehsud, Fazal Raheem Shah of the Uzbekistan Liberation Movement, Taliban leaders Jalaluddin Haqqani, Khalil Ahmad Haqqani, Yahya Haqqani and Dawood Ibrahim originally from Maharashtra and his associates, were also on the list.

The notifications order seizure of all movable and immoveable properties of these outfits and individuals, and freezing of their bank accounts. These terrorists have been barred from transferring money through financial institutions, purchasing arms and travelling abroad.

The notifications said that leadership of the defunct TTP, and other organisations including Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish Mohammed, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Tariq Geedar group of TTP, Harkatul Mujahedin, Al Rasheed Trust, Al Akhtar Trust, Tanzim Jaish-al Mohajireen Ansar, Jamaat-ul Ahrar, Tanzim Khutba Imam Bukhari, Rabita Trust Lahore, Revival of Islamic Heritage Society of Pakistan, Al-Harmain Foundation Islamabad, Harkat Jihad Al Islami, Islami Jihad Group, Uzbekistan Islami Tehrik, Daesh of Iraq, Emirates of Tanzim Qafqaz working against Russia, and Abdul Haq Uyghurs of Islamic Freedom Movement of China have been banned.

India asks Beijing to walk the talk on Ladakh disengagement

NEW DELHI, Aug 20: India and China were unable to bridge their differences on the disengagement and de-escalation process along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) during diplomatic talks on Thursday, with New Delhi emphasising the need to resolve “outstanding issues” speedily.

People familiar with developments during the meeting of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination (WMCC) on border affairs dismissed an assertion in a readout from the Chinese foreign ministry that the two sides had “positively evaluated the progress” in the disengagement process.

External affairs ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava told a virtual media briefing the two sides will continue to work towards “complete disengagement” on the LAC. “In this context, they agreed to resolve the outstanding issues in an expeditious manner and in accordance with existing agreements and protocols,” he added.

The WMCC meeting was co-chaired by joint secretary (East Asia) Naveen Srivastava of the external affairs ministry and Hong Liang, director general of the boundary and oceanic department of China’s foreign ministry. This was the body’s fifth virtual meeting since the Ladakh standoff along the disputed border emerged in the open in May.

The people cited above, speaking on condition of anonymity, rejected the Chinese foreign ministry’s assertion that the two sides had “positively evaluated” the progress in disengagement of troops at friction points on the LAC.

“That’s their assessment. It isn’t our assessment,” said one of the people. “The disengagement process is a work in progress and more needs to be done.”

The people pointed to the external affairs ministry spokesperson’s comments on August 14 about “some progress” being made in the disengagement process, and that translating the principles of disengagement on the ground is a “complex process that requires re-deployment of troops by each side towards their regular posts on their respective sides of the LAC”. This, they said, continues to be India’s position.

Spokesperson Srivastava characterised the discussions during the WMCC meeting as “candid and in-depth” and said the two sides “reaffirmed that in accordance with the agreements reached between the two foreign ministers and the two Special Representatives (SRs), the two sides will continue to sincerely work towards complete disengagement of the troops along the LAC in the western sector”.

“The two sides were in agreement that restoration of peace and tranquillity in the border areas would be essential for the overall development of bilateral relations,” Srivastava added.

The two sides acknowledged the need to maintain close communication through diplomatic and military channels to ensure complete disengagement, and agreed to continue ongoing engagements, including the meetings of WMCC, he said.

The Chinese foreign ministry’s readout, issued in Mandarin, said the two sides reviewed the situation in the border areas, “positively evaluated the progress made in the disengagement of the frontline forces of the two countries”, and had a frank and in-depth exchange on “remaining issues on the ground”.

The two sides “agreed to earnestly implement the consensus reached by the two countries’ foreign ministers and Special Representatives on border issues, continue to maintain dialogue and communication through military and diplomatic channels, promote further relaxation and cooling of the Sino-Indian border situation, properly handle remaining issues on the ground, and jointly maintain peace and tranquillity in the border areas,” the readout added.

Ba issues rallying cry for China’s Uighur Muslims

LONDON, Aug 19: Former Chelsea striker Demba Ba has called on footballers to stand up for Uighur Muslims and condemn China’s treatment of the minority group regardless of the financial consequences. UN experts estimate than more than a million Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims have been detained against their will for several years in camps in the far western region of Xinjiang.

China denies mistreatment of the group, saying the camps holding many Uighurs provide vocational training and are needed to fight extremism.

“When are we going to see the rest of the world stand up for Muslims?” Ba, himself a Muslim from Senegal who suffered at least one incident of racial abuse when he played for Chinese side Shanghai Shenhua in 2018, told the BBC.

“I have to try and organise something so football players can get together and, in the meantime, talk about this matter because not a lot of people want to.

“I know there are footballers who want to fight for justice. As sportspeople, we have a power we don’t even know. If we get together and talk, things change. If we stand up, people stand up with us.”

Arsenal midfielder Mesut Ozil, a German Muslim of Turkish origin, last year called Uighurs “warriors who resist persecution” and criticized both China’s crackdown and the silence of Muslims elsewhere in the world in response.

China’s state broadcaster CCTV removed Arsenal’s game against Manchester City from its schedule after Ozil spoke out.

Arsenal were quick to distance themselves from Ozil’s comments at the time and Ba, 35, who now plays for Turkish club Istanbul Basaksehir, believes players are being pressured to stay silent on such matters.

“Arsenal talked about Black Lives Matter but when it was about Uighur lives Arsenal didn’t want to talk about it because of the pressure and economic impact,” he said.

“When there are financial benefits, some people close their eyes. Money has more value than real values. I think clubs put a lot of pressure on players not to get involved, but how can you not when you see the injustice with your own eyes.”

The U.S. National Basketball Association said it incurred substantial financial losses in China after a Houston Rockets official tweeted his support for Hong Kong’s anti-China protests last October, infuriating Beijing.

Belarus president remains defiant as strikes widen

MINSK, Aug 18: More workers in Belarus joined a widening strike Tuesday as they press for the resignation of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has extended his 26-year rule in an election the opposition says was rigged.

Lukashenko has bluntly rejected the demands to step down following a harsh police crackdown on peaceful protesters in the days after the Aug. 9 vote. In a move intended to secure the loyalty of law enforcement agencies amid the swelling demonstrations and strikes, he signed a decree honoring over 300 police officers for their service.

The opposition denounced the awards as a national insult following the suppression of protests with rubber bullets, stun grenades and clubs. Nearly 7,000 people were detained, hundreds were injured and at least two people died.

The Interior Ministry that oversees police insisted the awards weren’t linked to the crackdown that has galvanized public anger and drawn international criticism.

Lukashenko’s actions prompted thousands — including workers at state-controlled factories and plants, actors and broadcasters — to walk off the job.

The prospect of a massive nationwide shutdown was an unprecedented challenge to Lukashenko, who has relied on blue-collar workers as the core of his supporters. During Monday’s visit to a factory in Minsk he was heckled and jeered by workers shouting “Go away!”

“The authorities should understand that they are losing control,” head of an independent miners’ union Yuri Zakharov said on Tuesday. “Only Lukashenko’s resignation and punishment of those in charge of rigging and beatings can calm us down. “The strike will continue and grow until he steps down.”

The labor action that began Monday quickly grew to several major industrial plants, including a huge factory that accounts for a fifth of the world’s potash fertilizer output.

In the city of Soligorsk, home to the giant Belaruskali potash factory, strike organizer Anatoly Bokun said workers at all potash mines have halted work. The factory, which employs 16,000, is Belarus’ major cash earner.

“They are putting pressure on us and threatening us with mass dismissals, but we will not return to work until Lukashenko steps down,” Bokun said as thousands of workers joined a protest rally.

“They have stolen our choice,” said one striking worker, 32-year-old Gleb Sandros. “What else can we do to stop the authorities’ arbitrary and lawless action?”

Belarus’ ambassador to Slovakia, Igor Leshchenya, became the first government official to challenge Lukashenko on Saturday when he posted a video in support of the protests before handing in his resignation.

He was joined Tuesday by Belarus’ ambassador to Spain, Pavel Pustavy. In a statement posted on Facebook, he urged authorities to recount the vote and prosecute those who beat peaceful protesters.

Workers at state-controlled television and the nation’s most prominent theater also have joined protests.

Nearly 1,000 people gathered in front of the Janka Kupala National Theater in Minsk to support members of its troupe who gave notice en masse after its director, Pavel Latushko, was fired for siding with the protesters.

Culture Minister Yuri Bondar visited the theater to try to assuage concerns. The actors demanded he reinstate Latushko, a former diplomat and a former culture minister himself, but Bondar refused. He left after being heckled and jeered by the performers, who threw a stack of resignation letters at his feet.

“It’s important to speak out, important not to stay silent,” prominent actor Kristina Drobysh told supporters outside the theater. “We’ve overcome our fear, our society has overcome its fear. Belarusians have changed — which means Belarus will change, too.”

Several hundred demonstrators also gathered in front of a detention center in Minsk where the husband of Lukashenko’s top challenger in the vote, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, was being held to cheer him on his 42nd birthday. Tsikhanouskaya joined the race after the jailing of her husband, Sergei, a popular opposition blogger who had wanted to run for president.

Last week, Tsikhanouskaya left the country for Lithuania in a move her campaign said was made under duress. On Monday she declared her readiness to act as a national leader to facilitate a new election. Her top associate, Maria Kolesnikova, said that members of an opposition “coordination council” being formed to negotiate the transition of power would meet Tuesday.

“Our goal is to unite society, all of Belarus, so that the Belarusian society has a legitimate institution to negotiate and make demands,” said Kolesnikova.

Lukashenko, a 65-year-old former state farm director who has been in office since 1994, described the opposition council’s meeting as an attempt to grab power and warned that the government will take “adequate” steps to “cool those hotheads.”

Western officials refused to recognize the election as free or fair and criticized the violent crackdown.

The U.N. Security Council scheduled a closed-door discussion of Belarus on Tuesday, and European Union leaders are to discuss it on Wednesday.

The EU has anxiously watched a response from Russia, which has a union agreement with Belarus envisaging close political, economic and military ties. Lukashenko spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin twice over the weekend and said that the Russian leader promised him security assistance if Belarus needs it.

Russia has remained tight-lipped and said nothing about possible security assistance. Putin on Tuesday had phone calls with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and European Council President Charles Michel to discuss developments in Belarus.

Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said she “underlined that the Belarusian government must refrain from violence against peaceful protesters, immediately release political prisoners and enter into a national dialogue with the opposition and (civil) society to overcome the crisis.”

According to Macron’s office, he underscored the EU’s “determination to play a constructive role at the side of Belarus people so that the violence toward the population stops immediately” and try to help expedite a political solution.

Terse readouts from the Kremlin said Putin underlined the need to refrain from foreign interference in Belarus’ affairs.

Asked about developments in the country, President Donald Trump said “it doesn’t seem like there’s too much democracy there in Belarus.”

“But we are speaking to lots of people and we’ll be speaking at the appropriate time to Russia and we’ll be speaking to other people that are involved,” he said.

India-Nepal decide to accelerate bilateral projects

KATHMANDU, Aug 17: India and Nepal on Monday agreed to speed up work on bilateral projects, including infrastructure schemes and cross-border rail links, as senior officials of the two sides held a meeting for the first time since a border row strained ties.

The meeting of the India-Nepal oversight mechanism was held in Kathmandu via video conference two days after a phone conversation between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Nepalese counterpart KP Sharma Oli, which people familiar with developments said had helped to clear the air between the two sides.

This was the eighth meeting of the mechanism, set up in 2016 to monitor the progress of India-funded projects, and it carried out a comprehensive review of economic and development cooperation schemes since the last meeting in July 2019.

“Both sides deliberated on the issues and agreed to expedite their implementations,” said a statement from the Indian embassy in Kathmandu.

A statement from Nepal’s foreign ministry added: “Both sides underlined the need for the expeditious implementation of the bilateral projects. In that connection, they agreed to undertake necessary measures to timely address problems and obstacles in the course of implementation.”

The meeting, co-chaired by Indian ambassador Vinay Mohan Kwatra and Nepal’s foreign secretary Shanker Das Bairagi, was attended by representatives of ministries and departments of the Nepal government and consultants and contractors engaged in implementing the projects.

Kwatra and Bairagi noted the progress in development projects over the past year, including reconstruction of 46,301 earthquake-affected houses in Gorkha and Nuwakot districts, operationalisation of the Motihari-Amlekhgunj cross-border petroleum products pipeline, opening of an integrated check post at Biratnagar and high impact community development projects.

India has committed to rebuild 50,000 houses damaged by the devastating earthquake of April 2015.

The statement from the Nepalese side said the meeting discussed the status of several key projects such as the terai roads, cross-border railways, Arun-III hydropower project, Pancheshwar multipurpose project, irrigation projects, power and transmission lines, construction of the Nepal Police Academy, Ramayana circuit, motorable bridges over Mahakali river, agriculture and cultural heritage.

Nepal also appreciated the Covid-19-related assistance from India, including the supply of medicines and medical equipment.

In May, Nepal objected to the opening of a new road by India to Lipulekh region on the border with Tibet. Nepal responded by issuing a new map that showed Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura, all controlled by India, as part of Nepalese territory, exacerbating the border row.

Some experts have highlighted the need for India to improve ties with Nepal at a time when it is engaged in a border standoff with China. But former ambassador Neelam Deo, director of Mumbai-based foreign policy think tank Gateway House, said the India-Nepal relationship is important regardless of other factors.

“It is as important as our relations with Bangladesh and Bhutan, even with all the difficulties. Its importance can’t be overstated. Whether things will now improve is contingent on Prime Minister Oli’s political fortunes. Obviously, there are people within the Nepal government who want a more balanced situation and who don’t want a break in ties with India, and they are pushing back,” Deo said.

Workers heckle embattled Belarus leader amid strikes

MINSK, Aug 17: Workers heckled and jeered President Alexander Lukashenko on Monday as he visited a factory and strikes grew across Belarus, raising the pressure on the country’s leader to step down after 26 years in power.

On the ninth straight day of mass protests over the official results of the August 9 presidential election that demonstrators say was rigged, Lukashenko flew by helicopter to a factory in the capital of Minsk to rally support, but he was met by angry workers chanting, “Go away!” He told the workers, “I will never cave in to pressure.”

Lukashenko said the country could have a new presidential election, but only after approving an amended version of its constitution - an apparent bid to buy some time amid the growing political crisis.

He told the workers that those who intend to strike could leave if they want, but added the protests are ruining the economy and said the country would collapse if he steps down.

“Some of you might have got the impression that the government no longer exists, that it has tumbled down. The government will never collapse, you know me well,” the 65-year-old former state farm director shouted.

As he spoke, over 5,000 striking workers from the Minsk Tractor Plant marched down the streets of the city, joining an increasing number of state-controlled factories across the nation of 9.5 million in walking off the job.

Miners at the huge potash factory in Soligorsk also said they were joining the strike. The giant Belaruskali factory that accounts for a fifth of the world’s potash fertilizer output is the nation’s top cash earner.

The workers want Lukashenko to give way to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the leading opposition candidate in the election. Tikhanovskaya, who fled to Lithuania after the elections, said she was willing to lead the country. Lithuania, a Nato member, said Belarus has started military drills on its western border.

European Union leaders meeting over the latest developments in Belarus will send a message to the Russian government to stay out of the former Soviet republic, even as Britain said it rejected the results of the “fraudulent” polls.

A senior US official said Russia must respect Belarus’ sovereignty and right of its people to freely elect their own leaders.

Canada’s Niagara Falls illuminated in colours of Indian flag on Independence Day

TORONTO, Aug 15: The Indian tricolour was illuminated at the iconic Canadian landmark of Niagara Falls and car rallies were held in multiple cities as members of the Indo-Canadian community celebrated Independence Day amidst the restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The flag-hoisting at Niagara Falls was officiated by India’s Consul General in Toronto, Apoorva Srivastava, at an event organised by the Indo-Canada Arts Council. The Falls, one of the natural wonders of the world, was illuminated in the colours of the Indian flag at the evening ceremony. The special illumination was conducted with the cooperation of the Niagara Falls Illumination Board and Niagara Parks Commission, with the support of the city of Niagara Falls.

The Indian flag was also raised at Toronto’s City Hall, while another attraction, the three-dimensional Toronto sign, was lit in the hues of the Tricolour.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greeted the Indo-Canadian community on the occasion. In a statement released by his office, Trudeau said, “Canada and India have a strong, longstanding, and vibrant relationship built on our shared traditions of democracy and pluralism, and deep cultural and people-to-people ties. The over one million Canadians of Indian heritage have made – and continue to make – many important contributions to our country.”

Messages were also issued by the Premiers of the provinces of Ontario and Alberta, while Indo-Canadian Minister of Public Services and Procurement Anita Anand joined in singing India’s national anthem Jana Gana Mana at a virtual event organised by the community in her constituency of Oakville.

The Indian flag was raised at the High Commission in Ottawa by envoy Ajay Bisaria and also at the consulates in Toronto and Vancouver.

The Indo-Canadian community also turned out for a series of car rallies, with the flag fluttering upon their cars, in several cities in the country including Ottawa, Vancouver, Calgary and Brampton, while the traditional India Day Parade took on a digital form this year.

Given the adverse impact of the coronavirus crisis, India’s diplomatic missions also marked the day by contributing to the relief efforts. The High Commission joined Ottawa’s Mayor Jim Watson and Indo-Canadian MP Chandra Arya in donating meals to those in shelter homes. The mission in Toronto collaborated with community group Canada India Foundation to deliver meals to seniors in a long-term care facility in Mississauga, a city in the Greater Toronto Area.

India asks China to complete stalled disengagement process along LAC

NEW DELHI, Aug 14: India on Friday called on China to work with it to complete the stalled process of disengagement and de-escalation along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) as the future of bilateral ties depends on the situation along the border.

External affairs ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava outlined India’s position on the need to complete the disengagement process “at the earliest” against the backdrop of reports of China’s reluctance to vacate positions in territory that India considers to be on its side of the LAC.

The two sides have held several meetings of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination (WMCC) on border affairs and the corps commanders to ensure complete disengagement in line with existing agreements and protocols but the process of thinning out troops has virtually stalled at several friction points, particularly Pangong Lake and Depsang.

“We therefore expect the Chinese side to sincerely work with us towards the objective of complete disengagement and de-escalation and full restoration of peace and tranquillity in the border areas as agreed by the Special Representatives,” Srivastava told a weekly news briefing.

“This is also necessary and essential in the context of overall development of our bilateral relationship. As the external affairs minister had noted in a recent interview, the state of the border and the future of our ties cannot be separated,” he added.

The engagements through diplomatic and military channels for complete disengagement in the border areas is in accordance with the agreement of the Special Representatives of India and China that “early and complete disengagement” along the LAC is “essential for the smooth overall development of bilateral relations”, Srivastava said.

He said further meetings of WMCC and the corps commanders “are likely to happen in the near future” but did not give details.

Srivastava noted that both sides had reached agreement on the “broad principles of disengagement”, and based on this, “some progress had been earlier made”.

He further said: “I must add that translating these principles on ground is a complex process that requires redeployment of troops by each side towards their regular posts on their respective sides of the LAC. It is natural that this can be done only through mutually agreed reciprocal actions.

“While we would like the ongoing disengagement process to be completed at the earliest, it is important to bear in mind that achieving this requires agreed actions by both sides.”

Hope India won't complicate border situation: China

NEW DELHI, Aug 12: Urging India to create favourable conditions for maintaining peace and stability in the border areas, China said that India should refrain from taking actions which might have the potential to further complicate the border situation.

The Chinese embassy spokesperson tweeted late on Wednesday in response to a query where an “Indian source” asked whether the confrontation will last long.

“China and India have been maintaining close communication through military and diplomatic channels. At present, the overall situation at the China-India boundary is getting stable and de-escalated,” said Ji Rong.

She further said that the Indian side can meet the Chinese side halfway and should refrain from any actions that will complicate the border situation.

India should create favourable conditions for maintaining peace and stability in the border areas and healthy development of bilateral ties, she added.

The talks between military representatives of India and China to discuss disengagement in the Depsang plains north of Galwan area on Saturday morning near the Line of Actual Control has failed to yield to any substantial result.

The main agenda of the meeting was to address the situation in the Depsang plains that has seen big mobilisation of around 15,000 Chinese troops.

The Depsang plain is a major hotspot due to its strategic location since it provides access to the logistical hub and airstrip at Daulat Beg Oldie and the critical Karakoram Pass in the north.

The Indian Army holds a majority of the Depsang plains area while the People’s Liberation Army holds the eastern edge with the concentration of PLA troops on ‘Bottleneck’ area which is located 25 km from the strategic airfield at Daulat Beg Oldie.

Israel, UAE announce US-brokered 'historic' deal to normalise relations

DUBAI, Aug 13: The United Arab Emirates on Thursday said an agreement with Israel to normalise relations was done to deal with the threat that further annexation of Palestinian territories posed to the two-state solution. The UAE's minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, urged the Palestinians and Israelis to return to the negotiating table.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday a US-brokered deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates represented a "historic day" for his country.

The agreement, announced by US President Donald Trump, broke new ground in Israel's outreach to Gulf Arab countries with a common fear of Iran's regional influence.

But Israel's agreement, according to White House officials, to suspend de facto annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank posed a measure of political risk at home for Netanyahu, who had pledged to carry out the step.

A senior Israeli official said applying Israeli sovereignty to areas of the West Bank - territory Palestinians seek for a state along with Gaza and East Jerusalem - was still on the agenda.

But the official said: "The Trump administration asked us to temporarily suspend the (sovereignty) announcement so that the historic peace agreement with the UAE can be implemented."

The United Arab Emirates said Thursday that its deal to normalise relations with Israel was "a bold step" to secure a two-state solution to the long-running Israel-Palestinian conflict.

"Most countries will see this as a bold step to secure a two-state solution, allowing time for negotiations," the UAE's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash told a press conference.

Asked when the two countries will open embassies, he said he did not want to speculate on the timeframe "but it is definitely not a long time".

Maintaining peace with India a diplomatic priority, says China amid Ladakh border tension

BEIJING, Aug 11: Maintaining peace along the disputed boundary and deepening strategic trust with India is one of China’s diplomatic priorities, the Chinese foreign ministry has said, adding that Beijing will try to expand “shared interests” with neighbours in the future.

Responding to a query about China’s diplomatic priorities as the Covid-19 pandemic impacts the world and international diplomacy, foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian briefly outlined Beijing’s plans for way ahead in bilateral ties with the US, Russia, EU, Japan, and India.

“For the China-India relationship, the two sides should jointly safeguard peace and security in the border areas and maintain a steady and sound development of bilateral ties”, Zhao said.

“We will continue to deepen strategic mutual trust and expand shared interests with our neighbours and other developing countries”, he said in a statement published on the Chinese foreign ministry’s website on Monday night.

Zhao was responding to a question from the official Xinhua news agency on China’s current diplomatic work and its diplomatic priorities looking ahead.

The Chinese official did not make any reference to the ongoing tension between India and China along the line of actual control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh.

The two countries have held several rounds of diplomatic and military talks to de-escalate, but the process is yet to be completed.

A new statement from the Chinese foreign ministry issued Monday indicated that the process of disengagement was not complete; the statement, however, did not share details of the situation on the ground.

The Chinese foreign ministry said the “…the frontline forces of China and India have been in close communication on controlling the situation.”

“At present, the two sides have disengaged in most of the border areas and will continue to coordinate and consult through military and diplomatic channels to further ease the tension and maintain peace and tranquility in the border areas,” the statement in Mandarin said.

On July 30, India had rejected China’s contention that disengagement has been completed at most locations along their disputed border, and called on Beijing to work sincerely for complete de-escalation and full restoration of peace along the LAC.

External affairs ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava had acknowledged there has been “some progress” towards disengagement and de-escalation along the LAC though the process is far from complete.

“There has been some progress made towards this objective, but the disengagement process has as yet not been completed,” Srivastava said during the weekly virtual media briefing.

Srivastava was reacting to China’s position, which had said earlier that frontline troops had “completed disengagement in most locations and the situation on the ground is easing”.

On the overall international situation in diplomacy, Zhao said: “Covid-19 has engulfed and impacted the whole world since its outbreak early this year”.

“We have actively planned and developed our relations with other major countries, responded rationally to the unreasonable pressure the US has piled on China, made new progress in advancing China-Russia relations under the strategic guidance of the two heads of state, and sustained cooperation as the main tone of China-EU relations”, he said.

“We will continue to improve relations with neighboring countries, strengthen solidarity and cooperation with other developing countries, advocate the building of a community of common health for mankind, firmly uphold China’s sovereignty and security interests, and endeavor to fulfill the purpose of diplomacy for the people,” Zhao said.

US Health Secy Alex Azar meets President Tsai; Reaffirms Support to Taiwan

TAIPEI, Aug 10: Alex Azar, the United States Health and Human Services secretary, met with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen Monday, the highest-level meeting between Washington and the self-ruled island in decades.

The visit has been condemned by Beijing, which regards Taiwan as Chinese territory, and comes amid an all-time low in US-China relations.

Azar arrived in Taiwan Sunday, where he and his team were given coronavirus tests and were seen wearing face masks. The group was met by members of Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as the director general of the Taiwan Centers for Disease Control and the director of the American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto US embassy.

Speaking Monday, Azar said his trip "demonstrates the robust US-Taiwan partnership on global health and health security, one of many aspects of our comprehensive friendship."

"We consider Taiwan to be a vital partner, a democratic success story, and a force for good in the world," he added.

"There are three overarching themes for this trip. The first is to recognize Taiwan as an open and democratic society, executing a highly successful and transparent COVID-19 response. The second is to reaffirm Taiwan as a long partner and friend of the United States, and to highlight our history of broad collaboration on health and public health. The third is to note that Taiwan deserves to be recognized as a global health leader with an excellent track record of contributing to international health."

Speaking alongside Azar, Tsai thanked US President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Azar "for their continued recognition of the Taiwan model's contribution to global anti-pandemic efforts, as well as their strong support for Taiwan's international participation."

Taiwan has been widely hailed for its effective response to the coronavirus, with 480 cases and seven deaths from a population of 23 million people. That success served to highlight Taiwan's exclusion from the World Health Organization (WHO), where China has blocked its democratic neighbor from taking an observer seat.

Tsai described that development as "highly regrettable" Monday.

Though the Communist Party has never controlled Taiwan, Beijing considers the island to be a sovereign part of China.

"China firmly opposes any official interactions between the US and Taiwan. This position is consistent and clear. China has made stern representations with the US side both in Beijing and in Washington," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said last week.

"I want to stress that the one-China principle is universally recognized by the international community. Any attempt to ignore, deny or challenge that principle is doomed to fail."

Following the 1949 conclusion of the Chinese civil war, when the defeated nationalist government retreated to Taiwan, the Republic of China -- as the island is officially known -- continued to maintain diplomatic relations and a United Nations seat, meaning there were effectively two Chinas competing for recognition and alliances.

As many countries opened relations with the People's Republic of China, they cut off ties with Taiwan, which lost its UN seat in 1971.

Today, few countries have diplomatic relations with the island, instead recognizing Beijing as the legitimate "one-China" government. However many countries, including the US, do not acknowledge Chinese claims to sovereignty over the island of Taiwan.

In recent years, as Taiwan moved further from China's orbit, electing Tsai's pro-independence Democratic People's Party, calls have grown in some quarters for countries to do more to support the island in the face of Chinese pressure, both military and diplomatic.

The coronavirus crisis, and Taiwan's successful response, has bolstered Taipei's standing globally, with dozens of countries supporting a motion at a recent WHO meeting -- eventually dropped due to time constraints -- to readmit Taiwan as an observer.

With tensions growing between Washington and Beijing, the US appears to be willing to engage with Taiwan far more than in the past, including through arms sales and visits like Azar's.

Speaking Monday, Azar said his visit was "consistent with the United States' long standing 'one-China policy' and past engagement with Taiwan."

Azar’s trip coincided with a visit by former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori to pay his respects to the late President Lee Teng-hui, who led Taiwan from dictatorship to democracy in the 1990s and reshaped the island’s relationship with China.

In a meeting with Tsai on Sunday that could further worsen Japan-China ties, Mori conveyed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s condolences while the Taiwanese president said she hoped the two sides can work together to combat the virus. The group included Abe’s younger brother, Nobuo Kishi, who is also a lawmaker in his ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Lebanese PM steps down in wake of Beirut explosion, protests

BEIRUT, Aug 10: Lebanon’s prime minister says he is stepping down from his job in the wake of the Beirut port explosion last week that triggered public fury and mass protests.

In a brief televised speech, Prime Minister Hassan Diab said on Monday that he is taking “a step back” so he can stand with the people “and fight the battle for change alongside them.”

He said: “I declare today the resignation of this government. May God protect Lebanon,” repeating the last phrase three times.

A brief while earlier, Diab’s Cabinet resigned. The developments follow a weekend of anti-government protests in the wake of the Aug. 4 explosion in Beirut’s port that caused widespread destruction, killed at least 160 people and injured about 6,000 others.

Diab blamed corrupt politicians who preceded him for the “earthquake” that has hit Lebanon.

“They (political class) should have been ashamed of themselves because their corruption is what has led to this disaster that had been hidden for seven years,” he added.

India-China need to find new equilibrium to resolve differences: Jaishankar

NEW DELHI, Aug 8: India and China can overcome their differences in the long-term if they reach “some kind of equilibrium” but achieving this is one of the big challenges faced by the country, external affairs minister S Jaishankar said on Saturday.

Jaishankar made the remarks while participating in an interactive session organised by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) as part of its “India@75 Summit - Mission 2022” initiative. The event looks ahead at India in its 75th year of independence in 2022 and seeks to bring together stakeholders such as industry and government to work on a vision.

Replying to a question on whether India and China, which are currently engaged in a tense border standoff, could be friends in the coming decades, Jaishankar said the two countries are neighbours and demographically unique as they are the only ones with populations of more than one billion.

China is the world’s second largest economy and India is set to become the third largest, and the period of their difficulties and the period of their “re-emergence in a very strong way in international politics” were not far apart, he said.

“We are seeing the parallel but differential rise of the two countries... To my mind, what it does is it puts a huge premium on reaching some kind of equilibrium or understanding between the two [in the interests of both countries]. How to do that is one of the big challenges that we face,” Jaishankar said.

The border standoff, which emerged in the open in May, has taken India-China relations to a new low. Both countries have mobilised tens of thousands of troops along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), especially in Ladakh sector, after a brual clash on June 15 caused the death of 20 Indian soldiers and unspecified Chinese casualties.

Efforts to disengage and de-escalate the tensions have run into problems as the Chinese side hasn’t pulled back its troops are several key friction points on the LAC, such as Pangong Lake and Depsang.

Jaishankar said he believes the world “has a lot riding on” India and China reaching equilibrium, given the size and impact of both countries. “It is not an easy question to answer, there are problems [that are] well laid out. Certainly, it’s something which I feel is very central to our foreign policy calculations,” he said.

He said a good foreign policy is one that addresses national and economic security and advances the country’s goals and aspirations in a competitive environment. Such a policy depends on skill and agility to build “capabilities strongly, deeply [and] much faster”, he added.

In this regard, Jaishankar held up China as a “remarkable example of our lifetime” and pointed out that India too is doing its bit by weighing in on big issues such as climate change and shaping big debates on matters such as terrorism.

Jaishankar also said India’s approach was based more on issues as the country is now dealing with a “much more loose architecture” with more poles and less rules, where overlapping interests are a key factor in working with other nations.

“The country which is able to navigate best by finding overlapping interests and working with most countries is going to be very successful in diplomacy,” he said, adding that this would mean a country has to be less dogmatic and less dependent on global chains and global sources while striving for strategic autonomy.

Could Europe’s Last Dictatorship Be on Its Way Out?

Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko faces a real challenge in this weekend’s election

By Daniel Twining and Scott Mastic

For 26 years, Alexander Lukashenko has maintained a Stalin-like grip on power in Belarus: jailing political opponents, eliminating free media and civil society, and terrorizing critics. Yet with a presidential election just around the corner on August 9, it is increasingly clear that the Belarusian people are no longer afraid, and that it is Lukashenko who fears his own people. The end of the last dictatorship in Europe at the hands of a public ready to move toward the democratic West would have enormous strategic consequences for the United States—and Russia.

Could the time for democratic reform in Belarus finally have arrived? A recent protest in Minsk—which drew 60,000 citizens—gives reason to hope that Lukashenko’s time may be up. The definitive answer may come with Sunday’s elections—if Lukashenko allows them to be credibly conducted. If the results are rejected and democratic opposition silenced, it is crucial that the United States and its European partners insist upon the Belarusian people’s right to self-determination.

Several recent developments have converged to make political change in Belarus conceivable. The government has disastrously managed the COVID-19 pandemic, imposing added strains on an economy already in free fall. The one-two punch of a Russian cutoff in oil supplies and the dramatic collapse in global oil prices has caused the economy to sharply contract. According to World Bank forecasts, Belarus’s economy is anticipated to shrink by at least 4 percent in 2020—the largest decline in 25 years.

Meanwhile, Lukashenko has continued jailing political activists and journalists, declaring that he will not allow a “Maidan” to take place in Belarus. The reference to the historic demonstrations in Ukraine that ousted autocrat Victor Yanukovych in 2014 shows Lukashenko sees the threat to his own power posed by the mobilization of the citizens he has repressed for so long.

Despite the dangers, an energized opposition coalition has united around the goal of political change. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a former language teacher, has emerged from political obscurity to become the democratic movement’s presidential candidate. She joined the race after her husband, prominent blogger Siarhei Tikhonovskii, was arrested shortly after announcing his own presidential campaign. Tikhanovskaya has attracted the support of candidates who were denied a place on the ballot and jointly formed the United Campaign—a rarity in Belarusian opposition politics, where infighting has long stymied progress and allowed the regime to divide and weaken its opponents.

Tikhanovskaya’s campaign for change is resonating with the Belarusian people, carried through social media and massive public rallies. If she can turn out those voters—and if they can express their will without interference from the regime—she could either win the election outright or force a runoff. Either scenario would constitute a stinging rejection of Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime.

How likely is it that Lukashenko would countenance a defeat at the ballot box? Unfortunately, we can expect him to resort to falsifying results during early voting and on Election Day—and popular protests could be met with a harsh response if earlier arrests and televised riot police drills are any indication.

It is vital for the United States and Europe to stand behind the Belarusian people as they assert their democratic rights. Given the cautious interest in a new economic and diplomatic relationship expressed by Western countries as Belarus’s relationship with Russia has shifted, the allies have both an interest in a democratic outcome and an important source of leverage over Lukashenko. To this end, NATO and EU nations must send a simple, united message to Lukashenko: The West expects a credible election process that reflects the will of voters.

Unfortunately, U.S. official support for political change in Belarus has been mixed. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has urged the regime to conduct clean elections. Peaceful political change at the ballot box would be a setback to the Kremlin’s efforts to build a shadow empire in former Soviet states and could enable greater Belarus-NATO cooperation, advancing the historic American goal of a Europe whole and free.

But other American officials believe continued engagement with Lukashenko’s repressive regime following a flawed election is the key to drawing Belarus out of Russia’s orbit. They worry that alienating Lukashenko would only push him further into the arms of the Kremlin—even though Russia-Belarus tensions are at historic highs given Moscow’s predatory designs on its neighbor.

The wiser American course would be to recognize that a democratic, reforming Belarus would be a better partner and surer source of European security. Democratic institutions would protect Belarus’s sovereignty more than corrupt, closed-door dealings between Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin.

Belarus’s political future is in the hands of its citizens, not any foreign power. For the first time in decades, the Belarusian people may be on the cusp of finally breaking free from the bonds of Soviet-style dictatorship. The United States should stand with them.

@ Daniel Twining is president of the International Republican Institute, which supports democracy around the world. Scott Mastic is vice president of programs at IRI.

In A First, US Health Secretary Alex Azar To Visit Taiwan

By Deepak Arora

WASHINGTON, Aug 5: In the coming days, U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar will lead a delegation to Taiwan. This marks the first visit to Taiwan by an HHS Secretary, the first Cabinet member to visit in six years, and the highest level visit by a U.S. Cabinet official since 1979.

“Taiwan has been a model of transparency and cooperation in global health during the COVID-19 pandemic and long before it,” said Secretary Alex Azar.

“I look forward to conveying President Trump’s support for Taiwan’s global health leadership and underscoring our shared belief that free and democratic societies are the best model for protecting and promoting health. This trip represents an opportunity to strengthen our economic and public health cooperation with Taiwan, especially as the United States and other countries work to strengthen and diversify our sources for crucial medical products.”

Secretary Azar’s historic visit will strengthen the U.S.-Taiwan partnership and enhance U.S-Taiwan cooperation to combat the global COVID-19 pandemic. Taiwan’s role in the international community is critical, as demonstrated by its remarkable success battling COVID-19 as a free and transparent democratic society.

In 2018, President Donald Trump signed into law the Taiwan Travel Act, and this visit is part of America’s policy of sending high-level U.S. officials to Taiwan to reaffirm the U.S.-Taiwan friendship, pursue shared interests, and celebrate the shared values that bond the United States and Taiwan to the international family of democracies.

In contrast to authoritarian systems, U.S. and Taiwan societies and economies are uniquely equipped to drive global progress in areas such as medicine and science to help the world tackle emerging threats. The COVID-19 pandemic is the most recent example of joint U.S.-Taiwan efforts to confront global challenges for the good of the world.

On behalf of President Trump, Secretary Azar will meet with senior Taiwan counterparts, COVID-19 responders and experts, and other Taiwan partners to discuss the COVID-19 response, global health, the U.S.-Taiwan partnership, and Taiwan’s role as a reliable global supplier of medical equipment and critical technology.

The Secretary will also give a major speech while in Taiwan to public health graduate students and alumni of the U.S. CDC training program, where he will highlight Taiwan’s constructive role in the international community, especially in global public health.

The Secretary will be joined by Ambassador (ret) James F. Moriarty, Chairman of the Board of the American Institute in Taiwan; Dr. Mitchell Wolfe, Chief Medical Officer of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Brian Harrison, HHS Chief of Staff; Garrett Grigsby, Director of the HHS Office of Global Affairs; and other members of the Administration.

Additional information and details regarding the delegation’s meetings and site visits will be forthcoming in news releases and social media posts.

HHS and the Taiwan authorities have been closely coordinating health and safety protocols for the delegation’s visit.

Over 100 Killed, 4,000 injured in Beirut blasts

BEIRUT, Aug 5: Lebanese rescue workers dug through the mangled wreckage of buildings on Wednesday looking for survivors after a massive warehouse explosion sent a devastating blast wave across Beirut, killing at least 100 people and injuring nearly 4,000.

Officials said the toll was expected to rise after Tuesday’s blast at port warehouses that stored highly explosive material.

The blast was the most powerful ever to rip through Beirut, a city still scarred by civil war three decades ago and reeling from an economic meltdown and a surge in coronavirus infections.

It sent a mushroom cloud into the sky and rattled windows on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, about 100 miles (160 km) away.

President Michel Aoun said 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, used in fertilisers and bombs, had been stored for six years at the port without safety measures. He called it “unacceptable”.

An official source familiar with preliminary investigations blamed the incident on negligence. Ordinary Lebanese blamed politicians who have overseen decades of state corruption and bad governance that has plunged Lebanon into financial crisis.

“It’s like a war zone. I’m speechless,” Beirut’s mayor, Jamal Itani, said while inspecting damage he estimated ran into billions of dollars. “This is a catastrophe for Beirut and Lebanon.”

The head of Lebanon’s Red Cross, George Kettani, said at least 100 people had been killed. “We are still sweeping the area. There could still be victims. I hope not,” he said.

The intensity of the blast threw victims into the sea and rescue teams were trying to recover bodies. Many of those killed were port and custom employees and people working in the area or driving through during the Tuesday afternoon rush hour.

The Red Cross was coordinating with the Health Ministry to set up morgues because hospitals were overwhelmed, Kettani said.

Facades of central Beirut buildings were ripped off, furniture was sucked into streets and roads were strewn with glass and debris. Cars near the port were flipped over.

“This is the killer blow for Beirut, we are a disaster zone. My building shuddered, I thought it was an earthquake,” said Bilal, a man in his 60s, in the downtown area.

Like others, he blamed the political elite. “We already have a financial economic crisis, people are hungry and, these thieves and looters, will they compensate for the losses? Who will compensate for those who lost their loved ones,” he said.

Offers of international support poured in. Gulf Arab states, who in the past were major financial supporters of Lebanon but recently stepped back because of what they say is Iranian meddling, sent planes with medical equipment and other supplies. Iran offered food and a field hospital, ISNA news agency said.

The United States, Britain, France and other Western nations, which have been demanding political change in Lebanon, also offered help. The Netherlands said it was sending doctors, nurses and specialised search and rescue teams.

“This explosion seals the collapse of Lebanon. I really blame the ruling class,” said Hassan Zaiter, 32, a manager at the heavily damaged Le Gray Hotel in downtown Beirut.

For many it was a dreadful reminder of the 1975 to 1990 civil war that tore the nation apart and destroyed swathes of Beirut, much of which had been rebuilt. Post-war reconstruction and political corruption mired Lebanon in huge debts.

“With this blast they took us back to the years of war ... Our leaders are in a coma,” said Ali Abdulwahed, 46, a manager at Café de l’Etoile, a restaurant next to parliament.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab promised accountability, saying: “Those responsible will pay the price”.

Officials did not say what caused the initial blaze at the port that set off the blast. A security source and media said it was started by welding work being carried out on a warehouse.

The port district was left a tangled wreck, disabling the nation’s main route for imports needed to feed a nation of more than 6 million people. Lebanon has already been struggling to house and feed hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria.

Lebanon’s main grain silo at the port was destroyed, leaving the nation with less than a month’s wheat reserves.

The U.S. embassy in Beirut, which moved to another part of the city after a huge bomb attack struck its originally waterfront embassy in 1983, warned residents about reports of toxic gases released by the port blast.

The explosion came three days before a U.N.-backed court is due to deliver a verdict in the trial of four suspects from the Iranian-backed Shi’ite Muslim group Hezbollah over a 2005 bombing that killed former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri and 21 others.

Hariri was killed by a huge truck bomb on another part of the Beirut waterfront, about 2 km (about one mile) from the port.

India calls Pak’s new ‘political map’ as ‘Political absurdity’

NEW DELHI, Aug 4: Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan on Tuesday unveiled a new “political map of Pakistan” that counts Jammu and Kashmir and Junagadh in Gujarat as its territories. “This is the most historic day in Pakistan’s history,” Khan said at a news conference after getting cabinet approval for the map.

India’s foreign ministry dissed Imran Khan’s Pakistan for its obsession with territorial aggrandisement supported by cross-border terrorism.

“This is an exercise in political absurdity, laying untenable claims to territories in the Indian State of Gujarat and our Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir, and of Ladakh. These ridiculous assertions have neither legal validity nor international credibility,” external affairs ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said in a brief statement.

“In fact, this new effort only confirms reality of Pakistan’s obsession with territorial aggrandisement supported by cross-border terrorism,” Srivastava said, referring to the ‘so-called political map’ released by Imran Khan.

An Indian official had earlier described Islamabad’s effort to publish the document as a “cartographic hallucination”.

Imran Khan’s move comes a day ahead of the first anniversary of the Indian government tabling in parliament the legislation to scrap Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and splitting the erstwhile state into two centrally-administered territories, Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh.

Imran Khan’s government has already worked out a long list of programmes to commemorate the first anniversary, including requests to its partners such as China and Turkey to issue statements, or tweets that criticise India.

Over the last one year, Pakistan has made several attempts to raise the change in Jammu and Kashmir’s status from a state to a union territory at several international fora but hasn’t been able to get much traction. Khan’s government, nevertheless, counts its effort as a huge success. Imran Khan counted it as his government’s biggest success.

A Pakistan watcher in New Delhi said Imran Khan’s decision to issue the map reflected a desperation at some level to show his constituency back home that he was making progress. It also suits Imran Khan’s ‘iron brother’ Xi Jinping’s China who feels that India is getting aggressive and the rise of India needs to be monitored and checked, he said.

The new map also comes at a time the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is coming under increasing pressure.

There are reports that Baloch and Sindhi separatist groups in Pakistan have announced they are forming an alliance to attack Chinese interests. On July 25, Baloch Raji Ajoi Sangar, or BRAS, a consortium of four Baloch separatist organizations, announced in a media release an alliance with the Sindudesh Revolutionary Army, or SRA, a little known separatist group operating in southeastern Sindh province. Balochistan is another province in the southwest. This development could increase security costs for Belt and Road Initiative projects in Pakistan.

At his news briefing on Tuesday, Khan said the newly-launched map is backed by all political parties of the country which he said support the principled stance of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. “This map also opposes the Indian government’s illegal act of August 5 last year,” he added.

Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi described the map as an “unprecedented step”.

“For the first time in history, our government has openly presented its stance before the world,” he said.

In the same vein, Qureshi informed that the Kashmir Highway in Islamabad is being named Srinagar Highway. Solidarity walks, photo exhibitions and seminars will be arranged with coronavirus related SOPs in consideration to raise voices against Indian atrocities in Jammu and Kashmir, said Qureshi.

Many killed as two blasts rock Beirut

BEIRUT, Aug 4: Two powerful explosions that rocked the port of Beirut on Tuesday left “people dead and injured”, the Lebanon’s National News Agency reported.

Georges Kettaneh, the president of the Lebanese Red Cross, referred to “hundreds of wounded” in a statement on Lebanese LBC television, adding: “We are overwhelmed by phone calls.”

Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hasan Diab has declared Wednesday a day of mourning, and President Michel Aoun called for “urgent” defence council talks.

China moves PLA battalion across India’s Lipulekh Pass in Uttrakhand

NEW DELHI, Aug 1: China has mobilised a battalion strength of People’s Liberation Army soldiers near Uttarakhand’s Lipulekh Pass, one of the locations along the Line of Actual Control that have witnessed movement of Chinese troops over the last few weeks outside of the Ladakh sector.

India and China have been engaged in a standoff in East Ladakh beginning early May that flared up on June 15, leading to the bloodiest clash between soldiers from ṭwo sides in 45 years. Three weeks later, both sides agreed to start the disengagement and de-escalation of troops at the standoff points after a conversation between National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

There has been thinning of troops at the standoff points but the disengagement is still work in progress.

Simultaneously, Indian military officers in Ladakh noticed a huge effort by Chinese troops to bolster its strength in the depth areas, and give infrastructure projects on its side a hard push. Chinese troops have augmented its presence on its side of the LAC elsewhere too.

“There has been accretion of PLA troops across the LAC at Lipulekh Pass, parts of North Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh,” a top military commander said.

Lipulekh Pass, which falls on the Mansarovar Yatra route, has been in the headlines for the last few months after Nepal objected to a 80-km road built by India to the Himalayan pass. The Lipulekh Pass is also used for annual barter trade during June-October between tribal populations living on either side of the Indo-China LAC.

Kathmandu escalated tensions with India this year after it changed its political map to count the Kalapani area including Lipulekh - which lies close to the tri-junction of India-China-Nepal - as its own.

At Lipulekh Pass, PLA has moved a battalion - approximately a 1,000 soldiers - at some distance from the border.

“It is a signal that the Chinese troops are prepared,” a second army officer said. He added that India has matched the strength of the PLA troops and is keeping a close watch on Nepal in context of its recent border claims.

“The situation on the Line of Actual Control remains dynamic with the PLA trying to emphasise its presence beyond Ladakh by building infrastructure on their side of the LAC,” the top military commander quoted above said.

In Ladakh and elsewhere, the troop movements and the mistrust has led the army to prepare to station soldiers in the icy heights of Ladakh through the winter irrespective of how the disengagement and de-escalation efforts pan out.

The government has already sounded out its embassies in US, Russia and Europe to locate manufacturers of high-altitude clothing and snow tent manufacturers for emergency purchases. If it still falls short, the plan B is to divert stocks from locations such as Thoise, the base station for soldiers deployed in Siachen Glacier.

“It looks unlikely that we would be able to take our eyes off the border,” said an army commander. Underscoring that this could be the only way for now to make Indian territory off-limits for an expansionist China and hold peace on the border.

“After the PLA aggression, we don’t trust the Chinese and fear that they will come back again north of Pangong Tso as summer arrives in 2021,” said a military commander.

Although the PLA has disengaged from patrolling points 14 (Galwan), 15-16 (Hot Springs), a smattering of adversary troops are still on forward location at patrolling point 17 A (Gogra) and withdrawal from all contested finger features is a distance away at the Pangong Tso.

Australian envoy to India publicly reminds Chinese envoy of South China Sea award

NEW DELHI, Aug 1: In a public spat on social media, Australian envoy to India Barry O’Farrell publicly reminded the Chinese envoy to India Sun Weidong of the 2016 South China sea award by Permanent Court of Arbitration that was rejected by Beijing.

The case between Philippines v. china was ruled in favour of the Philippines with the tribunal ruling that China has "no historical rights" in the south China sea based on the "nine-dash line" map.

The Australian envoy Barry O’Farrell Tweeted, "Thank you @China_Amb_India . I would hope then you follow the 2016 South China Sea Arbitral Award which is final and binding under international law, and also generally refrain from actions that unilaterally alter the status quo."

The tweet by Envoy Barry was in response to Chinese envoy Sun Weidong tweeting, "Noted remarks by Australian HC to India on #SouthChinaSea disregarding facts. #China's territorial sovereignty & maritime rights&interests are in conformity w/ int'l law incl UNCLOS. It's clear who safeguard peace&stability & who destablize&provoke escalation in the region."

The Australian envoy on Thursday had said, "Australia remains deeply concerned by actions in the South China Sea that are destabilising and could provoke escalation."

The Tweet by Australian envoy got lot of traction on Twitter and was retweeted over 2000 times while Chinese envoy's tweet was retweeted just around 100 times.

The Chinese envoy had again responded to Australian envoy's tweet saying, "So-called arbitral tribunal of #SouthChinaSea violated principle of state consent. The award is illegal,null&void&has no binding force. China neither accepts nor recognizes it. We hope those non-claimant countries could contribute to regional peace&stability rather than contrary."

On 23 July, Australia lodged a note with the UN Secretary-General refuting China’s unlawful maritime claims in the South China Sea.

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