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44 Killed In Stampede At Israel Pilgrimage Site

MERON, April 30: A massive stampede at a densely packed Jewish pilgrimage site killed at least 44 people in northern Israel on Friday, blackening the country's largest Covid-era gathering.

The nighttime disaster struck in Meron at the site of the reputed tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a second-century Talmudic sage, where mainly ultra-Orthodox Jews flock to mark the Lag BaOmer holiday.

Closed last year due to coronavirus restrictions, this year's pilgrimage was expected to be a celebratory event in a nation that has largely re-opened thanks to a successful vaccination effort.

It had been "a tragic night," Shimon Lavi, northern Israel's police commander, said, adding his officers did all they could to save lives, helping to ferry the injured to hospital.

The pilgrimage was the largest public gathering since the pandemic broke out, with reports of three times more participants, including children, than authorised by police.

Initial reports indicated the carnage began when a section of stadium seating collapsed but rescue workers later linked the casualties to a stampede.

A spokesman for the Magen David Adom, Israel's rescue service, said "there were 38 dead at the scene but there were more at the hospital."

A source at the northern Ziv hospital, one of several receiving casualties, said it had recorded at least six deaths, taking the overall toll to 44.

The rescue service said it was treating 150 injured, six of them in serious condition.

"It was chaos as people tried to save themselves but they crushed each other," Dov Maisel of the United Hatzala rescue services told army radio.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a "heavy disaster" and said he was praying for the injured.

Over 40 countries offered help to supply oxygen to help India tackle Covid crisis: Foreign Secy

NEW DELHI, April 29: India is looking at getting around 550 oxygen generating plants, 4,000 oxygen concentrators and 10,000 oxygen cylinders from abroad to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, says Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla

India has prioritised imports of oxygen, Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla said on Thursday, adding that 40 countries had pledged their support.

India is looking at getting around 550 oxygen generating plants, 4,000 oxygen concentrators and 10,000 oxygen cylinders from abroad to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla said on Thursday.

"Over 40 countries, not just developed countries but also our neighbours Mauritius, Bangladesh, Bhutan have all come forward to offer assistance," Shringla said.

He informed a flight coming in from Ireland with 700 concentrators. France's flight will be coming in on Saturday.

"We're also expecting tomorrow and over the next couple of days three special flights from the US. President Biden spoke to the PM and offered extensive assistance," he added.

Shringla also said that India is looking at procuring 400,000 units of Remdesivir medicine from Egypt besides exploring to get it from countries like the United Arab Emirates, Bangladesh and Uzbekistan.

"We normally manufacture 67,000 doses of Remdesivir a day. But the requirement today might be between 2-3 lakhs a day. So we have to bridge the gap, this is something that our producers are well aware of, they are actually ramping up their production," the Foreign Secretary said.

He said a cargo flight arriving tonight from UAE with ventilators and carrying Favipiravir medicines.

At a media media briefing, he said over 40 countries have come forward to offer assistance to India to help in view of the unprecedented situation.

The foreign secretary said the government has been majorly focusing on procuring oxygen generators, concentrators, oxygen cylinders, cryogenic tankers as well as liquid oxygen.

He said the medical supplies are being sourced through direct procurement and other modes.

Shringla said two special aircraft carrying large amounts of medical supplies from the US are expected to reach India by Friday and another one is likely in the next few days.

As India battles a devastating second wave of coronavirus pandemic, countries around the world have announced sending medical supplies to help it tide over the situation.

Russia sends 22 tonnes of equipment to India as Covid-19 aid

NEW DELHI, April 28: Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday extended support to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for countering the Covid-19 situation in India even as the two sides decided to establish a new 2+2 dialogue of foreign and defence ministers.

Modi spoke to Putin on telephone against the backdrop of reports that the first Russian consignment of support materials for India’s Covid-19 response was expected to reach the country on Thursday. Russian military aircraft will deliver more than 22 tonnes of equipment, including 20 oxygen production units, 75 ventilators, 150 medical monitors and 200,000 packs of medicine.

The leaders discussed the evolving pandemic situation, and Putin “expressed solidarity with the people and government of India and conveyed that Russia would extend all possible support in this regard”, according to a statement from the external affairs ministry.

Modi thanked Putin and said the “prompt Russian support to India was a symbol of our enduring partnership”.

The leaders decided to establish a new 2+2 dialogue mechanism comprising the foreign and defence ministers of both countries. Russia will be only the fourth country with which India has such a mechanism, the others being the US, Japan and Australia.

The contact at the highest levels of the leadership in India and Russia came after bilateral ties went through a rough patch recently, following Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to New Delhi. Lavrov’s decision to club the trip to India with a visit to Pakistan, and his comments about Moscow being ready to supply special military equipment to Islamabad, did not go down well in New Delhi.

During their conversation, Modi and Putin also discussed cooperation between the two sides to fight the global pandemic. Putin appreciated India’s decision to grant emergency use approval for Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, and the leaders “noted that the Russian vaccine will be manufactured in India for use in India, Russia and third countries”, the statement said.

People familiar with developments said on condition of anonymity the first consignment of Russian-made Sputnik V doses is expected to reach India by the end of the month. The developers of Sputnik V have tied up with several Indian pharmaceutical firms to manufacture 850 million doses a year.

Putin and Modi discussed ways to further deepen bilateral cooperation in different sectors in line with the bilateral special and privileged partnership. Modi conveyed his appreciation for Russia’s support for India’s Gaganyaan programme or first manned space flight, and the completion of the Russian phase of training for the four astronauts.

The first manned space flight, originally planned for 2022, has now been pushed to 2023 because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The two leaders also noted the scope for increasing cooperation in renewable energy, including the hydrogen economy. They also recalled important decisions made during their last summit in Vladivostok in September 2019.

Modi said he looked forward to Putin’s visit to India later this year for the bilateral summit, which would be an occasion to “continue their personal and trusted conversation”, the statement said. Putin assured Modi of Russia’s full support for the success of India’s presidency of the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) grouping during 2021.

Rebels attack Myanmar army near Thai border

April 27: Ethnic minority Karen insurgents attacked a Myanmar army outpost near the Thai border on Tuesday in some of the most intense clashes since a military coup nearly three months ago threw the country into crisis.

The Karen National Union (KNU), Myanmar's oldest rebel force, said it had captured the army camp on the west bank of the Salween river, which forms the border with Thailand.

The Myanmar military later hit back against the insurgents with air strikes, the KNU and Thai authorities said.

The fighting took place as the junta, in a setback for diplomatic efforts by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), said it would "positively" consider the bloc's suggestions to end the turmoil in Myanmar but only when stability was restored.

The ASEAN leaders said after meeting on the weekend with the junta chief that they had reached a consensus on steps to end violence and promote dialogue between the rival Myanmar sides.

The outbreak of hostilities near the border shifted the focus of opposition to the junta away from the pro-democracy protests that have taken place in cities and towns across the country since the coup on Feb. 1.

The military overthrew the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, detained her and other civilian politicians, then cracked down with lethal force on anti-coup protesters.

Security forces have killed more than 750 civilians in the demonstrations, an activist group says.

The Karen and other ethnic minority forces based in frontier regions have supported the largely urban-based pro-democracy opponents of the junta.

In Tuesday's fighting, villagers on the Thai side of the river said heavy gunfire started before dawn.

Video posted on social media showed flames and smoke on the forested hillside and KNU forces had captured the outpost, said the group's head of foreign affairs, Saw Taw Nee.

The Myanmar military later mounted air strikes, Saw Taw Nee said. There was no word on casualties and 450 Thai villagers were moved away from the border to safety, the Thai military said.

The Myanmar army made no comment. It has historically portrayed itself as the one institution that can keep together the ethnically diverse country of more than 53 million people.

The KNU agreed to a ceasefire in 2012, ending its struggle for autonomy that began shortly after Myanmar's independence from Britain in 1948.

But its forces have clashed with the army since it seized power, ending a decade of democratic reforms that had also brought relative peace to Myanmar's borderlands.

Fighting has also flared in the north and west, where the Irrawaddy news site reported 13 government soldiers were killed in clashes in Chin State over the past few days.

About 24,000 people are sheltering in the jungle after being displaced in recent weeks by violence near the Thai border, including military air strikes, Karen groups say.

China's 'bullying and aggression' are becoming more 'ruthless': Taiwan

TAIPEI, April 26: Taiwan is a "sovereign state" and it is not subordinate to China, said Taiwanese Vice President Lai Ching-te, amid escalating aggression from Beijing in the region.

Speaking during an event, Lai said that China's bullying and aggression against Taiwan are becoming more ruthless, Taiwan News reported.

In his opening remarks at this year's "Global Taiwan National Affairs Symposium", Lai said: "It is an undebatable fact that Taiwan is not subordinate to China."

"No one but the 23 million people who live on this piece of land are entitled to the rights to decide the future of the nation," he added.

"China's bullying and aggression against Taiwan are becoming more ruthless, such as by poaching Taiwan's allies and blocking the country's participation in the WHA (World Health Assembly) and other international organizations," he further said.

Since mid-September of last year, Beijing has stepped up its gray-zone tactics by regularly sending planes into Taiwan's ADIZ, with most instances occurring in the southwest corner of the zone and usually consisting of one to three slow-flying turboprop planes.

Over the past few months, Taiwan has reported incursion by Chinese warplanes into ADIZ almost daily.

Last month, Taiwanese premier Su Tseng-chang termed the incursion by Chinese warplanes into Taiwan's Air Defense Identification Zone (ADZ) as "unnecessary" and "thoughtless".

Beijing claims full sovereignty over Taiwan, a democracy of almost 24 million people located off the southeastern coast of mainland China, despite the fact that the two sides have been governed separately for more than seven decades.

Taipei, on the other hand, has countered the Chinese aggression by increasing strategic ties with democracies including the US, which has been repeatedly opposed by Beijing.

China has threatened that "Taiwan's independence" means war.

Wu Qian, spokesperson of China's Ministry of National Defence, on January 28 "warned" the people wanting "Taiwan independence" and had said "those who play with fire will set themselves on fire, and seeking 'Taiwan independence' means nothing but war".

Taiwan President expresses solidarity with India, offers help to combat COVID-19

TAIPEI, April 27: Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen expressed concern over the "rapid spread" of COVID-19 in India and also offered help to New Delhi to combat the pandemic.

Taking to Twitter on Tuesday, Ing-wen wrote, "On behalf of all Taiwanese people, I would like to express my serious concern over the rapid spread of #COVID19 in India. Taiwan stands with India in this difficult time, & we are ready to provide help."

As India fights against the unprecedented health crisis of COVID-19, countries like the US, UK, EU, France, and Germany have offered help.

Amidst the devastating second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, India reported 3.23 lakh fresh coronavirus cases and over 2,700 related deaths in the last 24 hours.

A total of 3,23,144 new COVID-19 cases, 2771 related deaths and 2,51,827 recoveries were reported in the last 24 hours, taking the total active cases to 28,82,204, as per the health ministry update on Tuesday morning.

The total count of positive cases now stands at 1,76,36,307, including 1,97,894 deaths and 1,45,56,209 recoveries.

Australia To Send Oxygen, Ventilators, PPE Kits To India As Part Of Immediate Support Package

MELBOURNE, April 26: Australia will send oxygen, ventilators, and personal protective equipment to India as part of an immediate support package to the country which is battling with the latest surge of the COVID-19 cases, Health Minister Greg Hunt said on Monday.

The federal government was in the process of considering what it could send to help, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation news channel quoted Hunt as saying.

"India is literally gasping for oxygen," the federal health minister said.

"And while we can assist with the national medical stockpile, their particular request is for assistance with regards to the physical supply of oxygen. That will be one of the things we are looking at, in particular with the states," the minister said.

The federal government also confirmed to send oxygen, ventilators and personal protective equipment to India as part of an immediate support package to be announced on Tuesday, according to the report.

However, Australia would not send vaccines.

Hunt further said: ''We are in a strong position on that front because we don't need them at this point in time. We will still keep a reserve, but if they can be of assistance (they will be donated)."

The National Security Committee of Cabinet is set to meet on Tuesday to discuss any assistance for India, as well as any extra steps that may need to be taken to minimise the risk of infections spreading to Australia.

The government was also considering banning all flights from India following the massive spike of coronavirus cases in the country.

The Cabinet meeting will discuss temporarily halting all repatriation flights out of India.

The move could affect thousands of people, including Australian cricketers currently playing in the Indian Premier League in India.

Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne, Australia's ambassador to India Barry O'Farrell, and officials from the Health Department, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Department of Home Affairs were holding discussions over recent days on how to deal with the emerging situation.

India is struggling with a second wave of the pandemic with more than 3,00,000 daily new coronavirus cases being reported in the past few days, and hospitals in several states are reeling under a shortage of medical oxygen and beds.

India's tally on Monday climbed to 1,73,13,163 while active cases crossed the 28-lakh mark, with 3,52,991 people testing positive for coronavirus infection in a day, the highest so far, the Health Ministry said.

The death count rose to 1,95,123 with a record 2,812 new fatalities, it said.

Baghdad hospital fire kills 82

BAGHDAD, April 25: A fire sparked by an oxygen tank explosion killed at least 82 people and injured 110 at a hospital in Baghdad that had been equipped to house Covid-19 patients, an Interior Ministry spokesman said on Sunday.

"We urgently need to review safety measures at all hospitals to prevent such a painful incident from happening in future,” spokesman Khalid al-Muhanna told state television, announcing the toll.

The fire erupted on Saturday at the Ibn Khatib hospital in the Diyala Bridge area.

Ali Bayati, a member of Iraq’s semi-official High Commission for Human Rights, had said earlier a final death toll had not yet been officially announced but it could be between 30 to 45.

Patients' relatives scrambled during the blaze to save their loved ones.

A man who had been visiting his brother described people jumping out of windows to escape.

"The fire spread, like fuel ... I took my brother out to the street, next to the checkpoint. Then I came (back) and went up from there. To the last floor, that did not burn. I found a girl suffocating, about 19 years old, she was suffocating, she was about to die," said Ahmed Zaki.

"I took her on my shoulders and I ran down. People were jumping... Doctors fell on the cars. Everyone was jumping. And I kept going up from there, got people and come down again,” Zaki said.

Patients were moved to other hospitals, medical sources said. But several families were still at the hospital hours after the fire had been extinguished, after failing to find them elsewhere.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi ordered an investigation.

"Such an incident is evidence of negligence and therefore I directed that an investigation be launched immediately and for the hospital's manager and the heads of security and maintenance to be detained along with all those concerned until we identify those negligent and hold them accountable," he said in a statement.

Iraq's healthcare system, ruined by decades of sanctions, war and neglect, has been stretched during the coronavirus crisis. The country has recorded a total of 102,5288 infections, including 15,217 deaths, the health ministry said on Saturday.

Security has improved in recent years but Iraq still suffers from political violence, including militia rocket attacks on foreign forces and a low-level Islamic State insurgency.

Accidents due to neglect and wrecked infrastructure have compounded the woes of ordinary Iraqis.

In 2019, at least 90 people died when an overloaded ferry carrying families on an outing sank in the Tigris river in the northern city of Mosul.

Southeast Asian Nations Say Reach Consensus on Ending Myanmar Crisis

JAKARTA, April 24: Southeast Asian leaders said they had agreed on a plan with Myanmar’s junta chief on Saturday to end the crisis in the violence-hit nation, including halting the killing of civilian protesters and accepting humanitarian assistance.

“It’s beyond our expectation,” Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin told reporters after the leaders’ meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

ASEAN leaders wanted a commitment from Senior General Min Aung Hlaing to restrain his security forces, who monitors say have killed 745 people since a mass civil disobedience movement emerged to challenge his Feb. 1 coup against the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. They had also wanted the release of political prisoners.

“It’s good that he did not reject what was put forward by me and many other colleagues,” Muhyiddin said of the general, who was at the meeting with the other leaders.

According to a statement from Brunei, the chair of the group, a consensus was reached on five points – ending violence, a constructive dialogue among all parties, a special ASEAN envoy to facilitate the dialogue, acceptance of aid and a visit by the envoy to Myanmar.

“He said he heard us, he would take the points in, which he considered helpful,” said Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of the junta chief, according to Channel NewsAsia television. “He was not opposed to ASEAN playing a constructive role, or an ASEAN delegation visit, or humanitarian assistance.”

But Lee added the process had a long way to go, “because there’s one thing to say you’ll cease violence and release political prisoners; it’s another thing to get it done.”

There was no immediate comment from Min Aung Hlaing.

The ASEAN gathering was the first coordinated international effort to ease the crisis in Myanmar, an impoverished country that neighbours China, India and Thailand. Myanmar is part of the 10-nation ASEAN.

The bloc has a policy of consensus decision-making and non-interference in the affairs of its members.

It was unusual for the leader of a military government in Myanmar to attend an ASEAN summit – usually the country has been represented by a lower-ranked officer or a civilian.

The leaders of Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia and Brunei were at the meeting, along with the foreign ministers of Laos, Thailand and the Philippines.

While ASEAN’s policy of non-interference makes it difficult to tackle contentious issues, the body is seen by the United Nations, China and the United States as best placed to deal with the junta directly.

“We in the [@UN] Security Council eagerly await the outcome of the @ASEAN meeting on Burma, which deserves serious and immediate attention,” said U.S Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield on Twitter.

Still, some analysts warned of the dangers of giving legitimacy to the junta by inviting its leader to the summit.

“Formal representation of the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) at the ASEAN summit, without giving any concessions in return, including first and foremost a commitment to stop the bloodshed, is not constructive,” Huong Le Thu, of the Australian Strategic Policy Initiative, wrote in an analysis of the ASEAN meeting.

740 people killed so far in Myanmar since Feb 1 military coup

NAPYITAW, April 24: As violence continues to intensify in Myanmar, 740 people have been confirmed to be killed since the military takeover on February 1, according to Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).

"As of April 23, 745 people are now confirmed killed by this junta coup," said AAPP, adding that a total of 3,371 people are currently under detention.

"A 17-year-old girl, who was released from Shwe Pyi Thar interrogation center, Sanchaung Township, Yangon, said so-called police from no.24 police station verbally assaulted and touched her inappropriately on the shoulder then threatened her with his gun," said AAPP.

It further said that two other women detained at the same interrogation center in relation to the bombings from Yankin Township were also brutally beaten. One of these women was treated worse and assaulted with a metal pipe. The junta is not using female officers but mostly male soldiers during the questioning.

Meanwhile, Myanmar's military leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing is scheduled to attend an ASEAN summit-level meeting in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, on Saturday.

On February 1, the Myanmar military overthrew the civilian government and declared a year-long state of emergency. The coup triggered mass protests and was met by deadly violence.

Philippines protests China's 'threatening' South China Sea presence

MANILA, April 23: The Philippines has sent two new diplomatic protests to China over its failure to withdraw what it called on Friday "threatening" vessels that were massing in contested areas of the South China Sea.

The Philippines has ramped up its rhetoric in recent weeks over the lingering presence of hundreds of Chinese boats in its 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), testing relations between two countries that have sought to heal their historic rifts.

The Philippine foreign ministry said maritime officials had observed the "continued unauthorised presence and activities" of 160 Chinese fishing and militia vessels around the disputed Spratly islands and Scarborough shoal, as of April 20.

Five Chinese coastguard vessels were also spotted around the areas.

"The continued swarming and threatening presence of the Chinese vessels creates an atmosphere of instability and is a blatant disregard of the commitments by China to promote peace and stability in the region," the foreign ministry said.

It comes as the Philippines announces a boosting of its presence of vessels in its EEZ. Under international law, foreign vessels are permitted to make "innocent passage" through a country's EEZ.

Chinese diplomats have denied that militia were aboard the vessels.

China's embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday on the new protests.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, where about $3 trillion worth of ship-borne trade passes each year. An international arbitral tribunal in 2016 invalidated China's expansive claim, which is based on its own maps.

Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have competing claims to various islands and features.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said on Monday he was prepared to deploy navy ships to assert the country's sovereign rights to oil and mineral resources in its EEZ, telling China that if it started drilling for oil, so will he.

Boris Johnson cancels trip to India again

LONDON, April 19: Boris Johnson has said it was "only sensible" to cancel his trip to India, due to take place on 26 April, given the Covid situation in the country.

India has been reporting more than 200,000 cases daily since 15 April.

The prime minister said he would instead speak to his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi online.

The trip - aimed at boosting trade and investment ties - had originally been due to take place in January but was called off because of the UK lockdown.

The second cancellation comes as a Covid variant is spreading in India, with its government confirming 1,620 deaths from the virus on Sunday.

The capital Delhi has been put into lockdown.

Health officials in the UK are investigating whether the variant, first found in India, spreads more easily and is able to resist the vaccine.

Public Health England says 73 cases have been detected in England, and four in Scotland.

India is not currently on the UK government's "red list", meaning people returning from the country do not have to quarantine in a hotel for 10 days.

But, speaking on a visit to Bath, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said he expected it to be added "before the day is out".

He added: "You can see around the world that the virus is still going up in a number of places. We need to be very careful about that."

The chief medical adviser for NHS Test and Trace, Dr Susan Hopkins, said the UK did not have enough data yet to determine if India should be put on the list.

And Mr Johnson said: "The red list is very much a matter for the independent UK Health Security Agency - they will have to take that decision."

Asked about his cancelled India visit, the prime minister said it was "frustrating" but "Narendra Modi and I have basically come to the conclusion that, very sadly, I won't be able to go ahead with the trip.

"I do think it's only sensible to postpone, given what's happened in India, the shape of the pandemic there."

The prime minister added that countries around the world had "a massive amount of sympathy with India, what they're going through", and that the UK's relationship with India was of "huge importance".

The trip - billed as Johnson's first major overseas one since entering Downing Street - had been set up to move the two countries nearer to a post-Brexit trade agreement.

UK home secretary Priti Patel approves Nirav Modi’s extradition

LONDON, April 16: Almost two months after a UK court found fugitive businessman Nirav Modi guilty of fraud and money laundering in the Punjab National Bank scam and ordered his extradition to India, UK home secretary Priti Patel has approved the extradition, people familiar with the development said on Friday.

The decision comes as a shot in the arm for the Indian government, which has been trying to bring fugitive economic offenders back to India, but Nirav Modi reserves a right to appeal his extradition in the high court, which his lawyer said would be the next course of action. Zulfiquar Memon, who represents Nirav Modi, said “We will now go to the high court challenging the order of the Westminster Magistrate Court.”

A UK Home Office spokesperson said: “On February 25, the District Judge gave judgment in the extradition case of Nirav Modi. The extradition order was signed on April 15.”

Nirav Modi now has 14 days to make an application for leave to appeal to the High Court. He may seek leave to appeal against both the decisions of the District Judge and of the Home Secretary, people cited above said.

While ordering his extradition on February 25, the Westminster District Judge Sam Goozee stated that Modi has a case to answer in India as he, along with his brother Nehal Modi and others, had defrauded the public sector bank, laundered the money taken from it and conspired to destroy evidence and intimidate witnesses.

The judge had observed that the circulation of pearls, diamonds and gold between the Nirav Modi firms and the Dubai and Hong Kong based dummy companies was not genuine business and the companies were being used for transferring funds generated in the guise of sale-purchase/export-import of goods colloquially referred to as round tripping transactions.

Modi’s contention that he won’t get a fair trial in India and that he was being targeted due to political reasons was junked by the court.

A Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) official following the case said, “UK government signing the extradition order is a positive development. Even if he goes to a higher court, he doesn’t stand a chance as there is very strong evidence against him.”

Nirav Modi is lodged in Wandsworth prison, on the outskirts of London, since March 19, 2019, when he was arrested on the basis of India’s extradition request.

Modi’s is the second high-profile economic offender after former liquor baron Vijay Mallya whose extradition has been cleared by the trial court in the United Kingdom. Mallya lost his appeal against the extradition in April 2020 as well as any opportunity to approach the UK Supreme Court the next month but the British government has claimed that his extradition is held up due to a ‘confidential legal issue’.

Officials familiar with Mallya’s case say he has applied for asylum in the UK and it is not known how much time British authorities will take to decide it.

Like Vijay Mallya, the CBI and Enforcement Directorate (ED) investigators are confident that the UK high court will reject Nirav Modi’s plea too as there is irrefutable evidence of fraud and money laundering against him.

Overseas Indians welcome revised OCI card rules

WASHINGTON, April 16: Indian-Americans have welcomed the Indian government's decision to simplify the process of maintaining Overseas Citizens of India (OCI) cards, saying more overseas citizens will now opt for this form of residency.

OCI cardholders will now be required to get their document re-issued only once at the age of 20 instead of multiple times needed to be done currently, according to the Indian Union Home Ministry.

'This will remove the confusion to many OCI cardholders on the process of renewing the card at the age of 20 and 50 and one doesn't have to go through the whole OCI card renewal process again,' said Dr Thomas Abraham chairman of the Global organisation of People of Indian Origin (GOPIO).

'This will also encourage more overseas Indians to become OCIs and it will benefit India, through their travel, business and investment in India,' he said.

Highly popular among overseas Indians, the OCI card provides long term visa free travel and stay in India and gives the cardholders a host of privileges normally not given to a foreign national. So far India has issued about 37.72 lakh OCI Cards.

The previous provision of OCI card holders below 20 years of age and above 50 years of age requiring to re-apply for a fresh OCI card every time their passport was renewed was causing a lot of anxiety and travel turbulence to people of Indian origin.

'With a view to facilitate the OCI cardholders, it has now been decided by the Government of India to dispense with this requirement,' the Union Home Ministry said in a statement on Thursday.

A person who has got registration as OCI cardholder prior to attaining the age of 20 years will have to get the OCI card re-issued only once when a new passport is issued after his/her completing 20 years of age, so as to capture his/ her facial features on attaining adulthood.

If a person has obtained registration as OCI cardholder after attaining the age of 20 years, there will be no requirement of re-issue of OCI card.

'With a view to update the data regarding new passports obtained by the OCI cardholder, it has been decided that he/she shall upload a copy of the new passport containing his/her photo and also a latest photo on the online OCI portal, each time a new passport is issued up to 20 years of age and once after completing 50 years of age. These documents may be uploaded by the OCI cardholder within 3 months of receipt of the new passport,” the government statement said.

'OCI process simplification guidelines, issued Thursday, truly make OCI a life-long visa. Previously, it was just a long-term visa,' New York-based social activist Prem Bhandari said.

'Travellers with valid OCI, but renewed passports were denied boarding. The excruciating difficulties NRIs have gone through due to the tedious OCI renewal process after getting a passport renewed, are resolved once for all,' Bhandari said.

At the same time GOPIO urged the Indian Government to take steps to address other issues of the overseas Indian community as well.

'GOPIO strongly urges the government to treat OCI Card holders who have invested in business and creating jobs in India at par with Indian citizens and they shouldn't be termed as foreign nationals by various govt. agencies while doing business including manufacturing and research in India,' Dr. Abraham said.

Taiwan tells Biden emissaries it will counter China's 'adventurous manoeuvres' with U.S

TAIPEI, April 15: Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen told emissaries visiting at U.S. President Joe Biden's request on Thursday that the island would work with the United States to deter threats from Chinese military activities.

Former senior U.S. officials, including former U.S. Senator Chris Dodd and former Deputy Secretaries of State Richard Armitage and James Steinberg, are visiting Taipei in a trip to signal Biden's commitment to Taiwan and its democracy.

Tsai told the U.S. delegation in a meeting at the Presidential Office that Chinese military activities in the region have threatened regional peace and stability.

"We are very willing to work with like-minded countries, including the United States, to jointly safeguard the peace and stability of the Indo-Pacific and deter adventurous manoeuvres and provocations," Tsai said.

She vowed to continue to cooperate with the United States to counter "cognitive warfare" and misinformation, but did not elaborate.

Dodd told Tsai the Biden administration would be Taiwan's "reliable, trusted friend," which will help the island expand its international space and support its investment in self defence.

He added the U.S. partnership with Taiwan is "stronger than ever" and that the visit was to reaffirm Biden's commitment to the island.

Tsai also told the delegation that Taiwan looks forward to resuming trade talks with the United States as soon as possible. Taipei has long sought a free trade deal with Washington.

Dan Biers, director of the State Department's Office of Taiwan Coordination, is also part of the delegation.

Taiwan is China's most sensitive territorial issue and a major source of contention with Washington, which is required by U.S. law to provide the island with the means to defend itself.

Taiwan has complained over the last few months about almost daily missions by China's air force near its air defence identification zone (ADIZ). Twenty-five Chinese aircraft, including fighters and nuclear-capable bombers, entered Taiwan's ADIZ on Monday in the largest reported incursion to date.

China announced on Wednesday it would begin five days of live-fire drills off a part of its coast facing Taiwan, which Taiwan's Defence Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng told reporters the country would pay close attention to.

"There's some psychological impact, but don't get too worked up about this. Everyone should have confidence in the armed forces," he said.

Chiu will meet with the visiting Americans, his deputy Chang Che-ping told lawmakers.

The unofficial U.S. visit, which a White House official called a "personal signal" of the president's commitment to Chinese-claimed Taiwan, is further straining Sino-U.S. relations.

China on Wednesday described its military exercises near Taiwan as "combat drills" and said the meeting of the U.S. officials with Tsai "will only exacerbate the tense situation in the Taiwan Strait".

Mayanmar Security forces kill 80 in Bago

NAYPYITAW, April 11: Over 80 people were killed in Myanmar's central town of Bago on Friday as military and police forces continue their crackdown against protestors using heavy weapons, NHK reported citing a human rights group.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) monitoring group and Myanmar Now news outlet said on Saturday that 82 people were killed on Friday during the protest against the February 1 military coup in the country.

Military and police forces began attacks on the protestors early Friday morning, using guns, bombs, and other heavy weapons, causing many casualties.

The human rights group says that as of Saturday, 701 people have died since the military coup.

In a statement issued on Saturday night, the UN office in Myanmar criticised the military repression in Bago, demanding that the security forces stop the violence immediately and allow the wounded to receive treatment.

On February 1, Myanmar's military seized power in the country, announcing a one-year state of emergency and vowing to take action against alleged voter fraud during the November 8 general election.

Protests broke out in Myanmar against the coup. People hit the streets in various streets, demanding the restoration of civilian government.

In response, the security forces have used rubber bullets and live rounds to break up rallies and detained thousands of activists.

International powers have voiced anger and dismay at the junta's brutal approach and imposed sanctions on key officials.

Iran Starts Up Advanced Centrifuges In New Nuclear Deal Breach

TEHRAN, April 10: Iran announced Saturday it has started up advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges in a breach of its undertakings under a troubled 2015 nuclear deal, days after talks on rescuing it got underway.

President Hassan Rouhani officially inaugurated the cascades of 164 IR-6 centrifuges and 30 IR-5 devices at Iran's Natanz uranium enrichment plant in a ceremony broadcast by state television.

The television aired no images of the cascades but broadcast a link with engineers at the plant who said they had introduced uranium hexafluoride gas to the cascades after receiving the order from Rouhani.

Iran's latest move to step up uranium enrichment follows an opening round of talks Tuesday with representatives of the remaining parties to the nuclear deal on bringing the United States back into the deal.

Former President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018.

The Vienna talks are focused not only on lifting crippling economic sanctions Trump reimposed, but also on bringing Iran back into compliance after it responded by suspending several of its own commitments.

All sides said the talks, in which Washington is not participating directly but has the European Union as intermediary, had got off to a good start.

The IR-5 and IR-6 centrifuges allow uranium to be enriched more quickly and in greater amounts than the Iran's first generation devices, which are the only ones that the 2015 deal allows it to use.

Rouhani again underlined at the ceremony, which coincided with Iran's National Nuclear Technology Day, that Tehran's nuclear programme is solely for "peaceful" purposes.

Britain Queen Elizabeth II's husband Prince Philip dies at 99

LONDON, April 9: Prince Philip, the irascible and tough-minded husband of Queen Elizabeth II who spent more than seven decades supporting his wife in a role that both defined and constricted his life, has died, Buckingham Palace said Friday. He was 99.

His life spanned nearly a century of European history, starting with his birth as a member of the Greek royal family and ending as Britain’s longest serving consort during a turbulent reign in which the thousand-year-old monarchy was forced to reinvent itself for the 21st century.

He was known for his occasionally racist and sexist remarks — and for gamely fulfilling more than 20,000 royal engagements to boost British interests at home and abroad. He headed hundreds of charities, founded programs that helped British schoolchildren participate in challenging outdoor adventures, and played a prominent part in raising his four children, including his eldest son, Prince Charles, the heir to the throne.

Philip spent a month in hospital earlier this year before being released on March 16 to return to Windsor Castle.

“It is with deep sorrow that Her Majesty The Queen has announced the death of her beloved husband, His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh,” the palace said. “His Royal Highness passed away peacefully this morning at Windsor Castle.”

Philip, who was given the title Duke of Edinburgh on his wedding day, saw his sole role as providing support for his wife, who began her reign as Britain retreated from empire and steered the monarchy through decades of declining social deference and UK power into a modern world where people demand intimacy from their icons.

In the 1970s, Michael Parker, an old navy friend and former private secretary of the prince, said of him: “He told me the first day he offered me my job, that his job — first, second and last — was never to let her down.”

The queen, a very private person not given to extravagant displays of affection, once called him “her rock” in public.

In private, Philip called his wife Lilibet; but he referred to her in conversation with others as “The Queen.”

US navy makes 4th transit through Taiwan Strait under Biden amid China tensions

WASHINGTON, April 7: The US guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain on Wednesday carried out a transit through the Taiwan Strait amid the increasing Chinese aggression in the region.

US warships have made similar passages through the waterway separating Taiwan and China on three occasions before Wednesday since Joe Biden took office on January 20, Focus Taiwan reported.

"The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) conducted a routine Taiwan Strait transit April 7 (local time) through international waters in accordance with international law," the US Navy said in a press release.

"The ship's transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the US commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific," the release added.

It also said the US military would continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere where international law permits.

This comes as China's navy has announced that its military drills near the island will become more regular in a move to further escalate tensions near Taiwan.

Taiwan has been complaining of an increase in Chinese military activity near it in recent months, as Beijing steps up efforts to assert its sovereignty over the island, reported Japan Times.

China's navy said its carrier group, led by the Liaoning -- the country's first aircraft carrier -- was carrying out 'routine' drills in the waters near Taiwan, claiming that the aim was to "enhance its capability to safeguard national sovereignty, safety and development interests".

"Similar exercises will be conducted on a regular basis in the future," the navy said on Monday.

This came after Taiwan's Defence Ministry reported a new incursion by China's air force into the island's air defense identification zone. Taiwan's Defense Ministry said it had a "full grasp" of the situation in the air and at sea surrounding Taiwan and that it was "appropriately handling" the matter, Japan Times reported.

Beijing considers the self-ruled island of Taiwan part of China, but the US does not recognise the territorial claim.

China has previously accused the US of undermining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait by sending US warships through the waterway.

Russia says sanctions could push Myanmar towards 'full-scale civil conflict'

MOSCOW, April 6: Russia said on Tuesday that sanctions against authorities in Myanmar were futile, extremely dangerous and could ultimately pushed the country towards civil war, the Interfax news agency reported.

Myanmar has been rocked by protests since the army overthrew the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi on Feb. 1, making unsubstantiated claims of fraud in a November election.

The coup and subsequent crackdown has led to Western sanctions on the military and its lucrative businesses.

"A course towards threats and pressure, including the use of sanction tools against the current Myanmar authorities, is futile and extremely dangerous," Russia's foreign ministry was quoted as saying.

"In fact, such a line contributes to pitting the sides against each other and, ultimately, pushes the people of Myanmar towards a full-scale civil conflict."

The Kremlin has voiced concern over the rising number of civilian deaths in Myanmar. At least 564 people have died at the hands of the security forces since the coup brought the military junta to power.

However, Russia's deputy defence minister met junta Senior General Min Aung Hlaing in the capital Naypyitaw last month, drawing strong criticism from rights activists who accused Moscow of legitimising the junta.

Amid rising tensions, China, US send warships in disputed waters

BEIJING, April 6: China and the United States have sailed aircraft carriers into the disputed waters in the East and South China Seas, as Beijing continues to assert its maritime claims in the region and Washington has ramped up military exercises to counter it.

This comes as Beijing has moored over 200 vessels in the Whitsun Reef in the South China Sea claimed by both China and the Philippines.

The Philippine foreign ministry on Monday said China's claims that the boats were sheltering from bad weather were "blatant falsehoods" and "clearly [a] false narrative of China's expansive and illegitimate claims in the West Philippine Sea".

On Sunday, a US aircraft carrier strike group led by the USS Theodore Roosevelt entered the South China Sea from the Strait of Malacca, according to the Beijing-based South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative, citing satellite data.

It said the USS Mustin guided-missile destroyer was also operating in the East China Sea and edged close to China's Yangtze River on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Chinese aircraft carrier the Liaoning passed through the Miyako Strait off southwestern Japan on Saturday, days after China's defence ministry urged Japan to "stop all provocative moves" over the contested Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, which Tokyo calls the Senkakus.

The PLA Navy announced on social media on Monday night that the Liaoning was en route to conduct "scheduled exercises" near Taiwan, to "test the effectiveness of troop training, and to improve the capacity to safeguard the country's sovereignty, safety and development interests". Similar naval exercises would continue to be organised as planned, it said.

After China's carrier group was spotted passing the waterway between Okinawa and Miyako islands towards the Pacific on Saturday, Japan has also sent destroyer JS Suzutsuki, a P-1 maritime patrol aircraft and a P-3C anti-submarine warfare patrol aircraft to gather information and monitor the movements of the Chinese vessels.

Regional tensions have also been rising over Taiwan, where Beijing has in recent months ramped up "grey zone" warfare tactics against the democratic island it claims as its own.

China claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea and has overlapping territorial claims with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.

China has been increasing its maritime activities in both the South China Sea and the East China Sea over the past few months, partly in response to Beijing's concerns over the increasing US military presence in the region because of escalating Sino-US tensions.

Beijing's rising assertiveness against counter claimants in the East and South Sea has resulted in unprecedented agreement across the Indo-Pacific.

The Philippines' defence chief Delfin Lorenzana on Sunday said the continued presence of Chinese maritime militias around the Whitsun Reef reveals their intent to further occupy features in the West Philippine Sea.

This comes as Lorenzana has called for the Chinese boats to leave Whitsun Reef (Julian Felipe Reef), located within its exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.

The Whitsun Reef belongs to the Spratly archipelago, the territory of which is claimed by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

China considers the Spratly archipelago to be its territory, despite the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling, which said there was no legal basis for China's maritime claims. The arbitration proceeding was initiated by the Philippines in January 2013, Sputnik reported.

Japan deploys destroyer to gather information after Chinese carrier group spotted in Okinawa

TOKYO, April 5: After China's carrier group was spotted passing the waterway between Okinawa and Miyako islands towards the Pacific on Saturday, Japan has sent destroyer JS Suzutsuki, a P-1 maritime patrol aircraft and a P-3C anti-submarine warfare patrol aircraft to gather information and monitor the movements of the Chinese vessels.

According to South China Morning Post (SCMP), China's carrier group includes the aircraft carrier Liaoning, one Renhai class stealth guided missile destroyer, two Luyang III class guided missile destroyers, one Jiangkai II multi-role frigate and one Fuyu class fast combat support ship.

Japan's joint staff confirmed in a statement on Sunday that it has deployed a destroyer to track the movements of the Chinese vessels.

This is the first time that China's Liaoning is known to pass this waterway since April last year. This comes after the US conducted its military exercises with its allies in the region, including the US aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt CSG entering the South China Sea on Sunday morning after a joint-exercise with the Indian Army.

The tension between China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) and the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force (SDF) in the East China Sea has escalated in recent months following Tokyo repeatedly voicing concerns over China's new coastguard law, reported SCMP.

The law allows China's military force to use weapons against foreign ships deemed illegally entering Beijing's waters.

Last month, Japan said China's coastguard had expanded its presence in the contested waters by entering twice a month and as frequently as twice a week near the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, known by the Chinese as Diaoyu.

Meanwhile, the US administration led by President Joe Biden has reaffirmed a pledge to oppose any unilateral action that threatens to undermine Japan's administration of the islands and that the US is obliged to defend Japan from any attack.

SCMP reported that China's defence ministry last week urged Japan to stop making provocative moves and refrain from attacking China over the disputed islands after the defence ministries of both countries held a virtual meeting.

Last week, two Chinese vessels illegally intruded in Japan's territorial waters in what Tokyo calls to be the 11th intrusion by Beijing this year.

Japan controls the Senkaku Islands, however, China and Taiwan continue to claim them. Tokyo maintains the islands are an inherent part of its territory as per history and international law.

China intrudes yet again in South China Sea

HONG KONG, April 5: Another standoff is brewing in the South China Sea, after swarms of Chinese fishing boats and subversive Chinese militia in disguise arrived and parked themselves in the Union Banks.

The fact is that Union Banks - and Whitsun Reef, where 220 Chinese vessels initially congregated in early March - is well within the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Philippines. China is making a move from its playbook for additional maritime territory.

If the Philippines does not respond, it can expect to wave goodbye to this feature in the Union Banks, one located just 129km from its own strategically important Thitu Island.

When told to leave Whitsun Reef by the Philippine government, the Chinese Embassy in Manila haughtily responded that it is part of Chinese territory.

"Chinese fishing vessels have been fishing in its adjacent waters for many years. Recently, some Chinese fishing vessels take shelter near Niu'e Jiao [the Chinese name for Whitsun Reef] due to rough sea conditions. It has been a normal practice for Chinese fishing vessels to take shelter under such circumstances. There is no Chinese Maritime Militia as alleged. Any speculation in such helps nothing but causes unnecessary irritation. It is hoped that the situation could be handled in an objective and rational manner."

The embassy's statement was replete with hubris, disinformation and outright lies, igniting strong emotion among the Philippine populace.

In response, Philippine Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana responded on 4 April, "The utter disregard by the Chinese Embassy in Manila of international law, especially the UNCLOS [United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea] to which China is a party, is appalling. Its Nine-Dash Line claim is without any factual or legal basis. This, together with its so-called historical claim, was flatly and categorically rejected by the arbitral tribunal. The Philippines' claims stand on solid ground, while China's do not."

Lorenzana added, "The continued presence of Chinese maritime militias in the area reveals their intent to further occupy features in the West Philippine Sea. They have done this before at Panatag Shoal [Scarborough shoal]...and at Panganiban Reef [Mischief Reef], brazenly violating Philippine sovereignty and sovereign rights under international law ... China should refrain from conducting activities that disturb regional and international peace and security."

China brazenly won de facto possession of Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 2012, maintaining a continual paramilitary presence at the maritime feature since then after muscling out the Philippines. Many expect China to someday reclaim land and create a military base there as it has done at seven other locations in the Spratly Islands.

Scarborough Shoal is much more to the east and therefore closer to the Philippines, so it would help create a wider network of island bases for the People's Liberation Army (PLA). For that reason, Chinese activity at Scarborough Shoal is closely monitored.

However, China chose to make its latest foray, a land grab, if you will, at Whitsun Reef instead, the largest reef in the Union Banks and 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza on Palawan Island in the Philippines. In March, the Philippine military and government expressed deep concern at the presence of a stunning couple of hundred Chinese fishing boats lined up with military precision at Whitsun Reef.

Even Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has proven to be something of a lapdog to Beijing, was forced to complain. Manila lodged a formal diplomatic protest to Beijing, though Duterte has been quiet on the matter since then. Last year, a defeatist Duterte stated that China was in "possession" of the South China Sea and that it was, therefore, futile to act against it. Duterte also promulgates a false binary range of options - to go to war with China or to totally accede to Beijing.

Certainly, nobody expects Manila to go to war against China, but the country needs to stand up for what it is entitled under international law. Firstly, in July 2016 the Philippines won a resounding victory in the international court of law when the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in its favour and lambasted China for its outrageous maritime claims and activities in the South China Sea. The court ruled that Chinese territorial claims, including its Nine-Dash Line, have absolutely no merit or legal basis. However, Duterte has frittered away that legal and moral victory with his obeisance to China.

Secondly, the Philippines has a longstanding Mutual Defense Treaty with the USA, something that other neighbours like Malaysia and Vietnam do not have as they too wrestle with Chinese assertiveness. This treaty promises that the USA would militarily support the Philippines should the country or its forces come under attack.

Thus, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated positively on 28 March: "The United States stands with our ally, the Philippines, in the face of the PRC's maritime militia amassing at Whitsun Reef. We will always stand by our allies and stand up for the rules-based international order."

The USA is pursuing a multilateral approach to stand up to China, including forging cooperative groups and alliances to resist Chinese rule-breaking. This activity by China in the Spratly Islands has all the initial hallmarks of a foreign policy challenge for US President Joe Biden.

Meanwhile, Teddy Locsin, the Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs, is guilty of following Duterte's limp policy with China. Two days after a trip to China to meet Foreign Minister Wang Yi, he tweeted, "China can say what it wants; the Philippines will do what it must to keep what's hers by right. Irrelevant whether we possess commensurate military power to meet the challenge; we will not yield but die - or trigger World War 3. Not a bad outcome; living is overrated. Honour is all."

Again we see that false dichotomy of two extremes routinely presented by the Philippine government - either surrender or war. Neither extreme is necessary, but it does illustrate the extraordinary success that Chinese pressure and propaganda has had on the leadership of the Philippines.

The Chinese official narrative that these are mere fishing boats and crews sheltering from inclement weather is patently false. Indeed, research proves that elements of the People's Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM), a subset of the PLA's long chain of command, are heavily present in the Union Banks. Indeed, the Chinese embassy's claims that there is no such entity as the PAFMM are a bald-faced lie, since the Chinese government has formally mentioned the militia's existence on numerous occasions.

Important research has been done by Professor Andrew Erickson and Ryan Martinson, both of whom belong to the China Maritime Studies Institute of the Naval War College in the USA. Using freely available data from Chinese automatic identification system (AIS) tracking websites, which show the locations and voyages of vessels, the two American scholars identified seven fishing boats at Whitsun Reef as being among the "Fancheng Nine", a group of nine boats that work for an obscure company called Taishan Fancheng Fisheries Development.

In fact, these are no ordinary fishing boats. These 62.8m-long trawlers are actually assigned to the Far Seas Militia Squadron of the PAFMM. The nine boats - which were built and delivered in just nine months - were delivered on 5 December 2017. At their formal handover ceremony, Wan Liang'an, deputy commander of the Jiangmen Military Sub-district; and Zhang Yuanfa, director of the Readiness Construction Bureau, Jiangmen Military Sub-district, were both in attendance representing China's military. It was obvious from the beginning that these boats were designed for a lot more than fishing.

Erickson noted that the "Fancheng Nine" are assets of the Taishan PAFMM and that they are subject to the PLA chain of command. Older footage of these "fishing boats" shows locker rooms containing small arms, and maritime militia boats are routinely manned by retired PLA Navy personnel as they perform clandestine missions at the behest of the PLA.

Erickson commented, "At the very least, seven PAFMM vessels have been operating at the Spratly Islands' Union Banks, including Whitsun Reef - both during the past month and multiple times over the past year ... They don't troll for fish, but rather for territory."

AIS tracking data shows a squadron of seven of these vessels sailing to Subi Reef, Mischief Reef and Union Banks over the past year. The first two are military bases built by China in the Spratly Islands. These same boats have also conducted intimidation operations in Sandy Cay, just west of the Philippines' Thitu Island. Furthermore, their routes highlight that they are not fishing. Instead of trawling back and forth, they sail 1,300km directly to their patrol areas and then return straight home.

Erickson added: "None of this behaviour would make any sense for fishing vessels - which have strong economic incentives to fish frequently, not linger offshore. [It] instead mirrors the Sansha PAFMM's rotational forward deployments to Scarborough, Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi." In other words, there is no difference between what the "Fancheng Nine" are doing and what PAFMM boats from other militias are doing in the South China Sea.

AIS tracking shows that the latest deployment began with eight boats of the "Fancheng Nine" departing Guangdong on 16 February. They reached Subi Reef several days later. At least seven patrolled the Union Banks, with the eighth vessel having turned off its AIS soon after leaving port.

This modus operandi is typical of China - it ring-fences disputed South China Sea features, establishes permanent presences and drives off others such as local fishermen. China employs this same methodology along the Indian border too, using gray-zone tactics where possible to avoid outright confrontation and to "soften" the military nature of its territorial activities.

The Philippine Air Force has been sending AS.211 jet trainers and other aircraft over the reef on a daily basis. Lorenzana said on 27 March that the military would beef up its naval presence and conduct "sovereignty patrols" to protect Filipino fishermen. It also dispatched a Philippine Coast Guard vessel to the reef, which captured clear video and camera imagery of the Chinese interlopers.

As of 29 March, there were 183 Chinese vessels still at Whitsun Reef, as Beijing rejected Philippine requests for them to leave. Shortly after that, by 31 March, the Chinese fleet had begun to disperse. However, they were not departing, but simply redeploying to other nearby reefs - without leaving the area at all.

In early April there were still 44 vessels in the lagoon of Whitsun Reef, but 115 were at Kennan Reef, 45 near Thitu Island, and another 50 dispersed among Mischief, Fiery and Subi Reefs. Sea conditions were calm, making a mockery of Chinese arguments that they were taking refuge from inclement weather.

It can be predicted that this arm-wrestling for control is far from over. China is using tried-and-tested methods of ambiguity - gray-zone tactics - that have already been wielded to much success.

It could well be that Beijing is testing out the Philippine response and how well Manila will coordinate with the USA after a new US president took up office. Furthermore, Duterte will be leaving office in May 2022, so now is a good time for Beijing to take advantage of his leniency and defeatism. The timing is not accidental, even as the world continues to be preoccupied by COVID-19.

The appearance of swarms of Chinese boats to occupy new territory in the South China Sea is therefore not an unexpected gambit. However, it is one that the Philippines must respond to. A robust response, such as Indonesia's reaction to a Chinese fishing fleet and accompanying Chinese Coast Guard boats near the Natuna Islands in early 2020, is definitely needed from Manila.

Taiwan’s peace, stability key to region, says Japan's Yoshihide Suga

TOKYO, April 5: Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Sunday said Taiwan’s peace and stability is key to the region and that Japan will cooperate with the US to calm rising tensions between China and Taiwan.

Suga is set to meet with President Joe Biden in Washington next week, the US leader’s first in-person summit since taking office in January. Tokyo considers its US alliance to be the cornerstone of its diplomatic and security policies.

Taiwan is expected to be on the agenda as the leaders seek ways to deal with China’s growing security threat in the region.

Chinese warplanes are increasingly entering Taiwanese airspace, and China has protested an agreement to bolster cooperation between the US and Taiwanese coast guards that followed Washington’s new sales of arms equipment to Taipei.

“It is important for Japan and the United States to cooperate and use deterrence to create an environment where Taiwan and China can find a peaceful solution,” Suga said on a television talk show on Sunday.

U.S., Japan and South Korea agree to keep up pressure on North Korea

WASHINGTON, April 2: The United States, South Korea and Japan agreed in high-level security talks on Friday to work together to keep up pressure on North Korea to give up its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

In a joint statement after a day of talks, new U.S. President Joe Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, and his Japanese counterpart, Shigeru Kitamura, and South Korea's national security adviser Suh Hoon reaffirmed their commitment to address the issue "through concerted trilateral cooperation towards denuclearization."

The three countries also agreed on the need for full implementation by the international community of U.N. Security Council resolutions on North Korea, "preventing proliferation, and cooperating to strengthen deterrence and maintain peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula," the statement said.

The national security advisers also discussed the value of working together to address other challenges such as COVID-19, climate change and promoting an immediate return to democracy in Myanmar, the statement said.

The talks held at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, were the most senior-level meeting between the three allies since Biden took power on Jan. 20 and came against a backdrop of rising tensions after North Korean missile launches last week.

Biden, whose administration is finalizing a review of North Korea policy, said last week the United States remained open to diplomacy with North Korea despite its ballistic missile tests, but warned there would be responses if North Korea escalates matters.

The White House has shared little about its policy review and whether it will offer concessions to get Pyongyang to the negotiating table to discuss giving up its nuclear weapons.

However, State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Thursday that denuclearization would remain at the center of policy and any approach to Pyongyang will have to be done in "lockstep" with close allies, including Japan and South Korea.

Biden's Republican predecessor, Donald Trump, held three meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un but achieved no breakthrough other than a pause in nuclear and intercontinental ballistic tests. Biden, a Democrat, has sought to engage North Korea in dialogue but has been rebuffed so far.

Pyongyang, which has long sought a lifting of international sanctions over its weapons programs, said last week the Biden administration had taken a wrong first step and revealed "deep-seated hostility" by criticizing what it called self-defensive missile tests.

A U.S. official briefing before the talks said the North Korea review was in its final stages and "we’re prepared now to have some final consultations with Japan and South Korea as we go forward."

Joseph Yun, who was the U.S. special envoy for North Korea under both former President Barack Obama and Trump and is now at the United States Institute of Peace, said the policy options were obvious: "You want denuclearization and you want to use your sanctions to get to denuclearization."

"But how to make the first step, so that at least North Korea is persuaded not to do anything provocative. That's the challenge." he said.

Some proponents of dialogue are concerned that the Biden administration has not highlighted a broad agreement between Trump and Kim at their first meeting in Singapore in 2018, and warn this could make it difficult to build trust.

Asked whether that agreement still stood, the official said: "I understand the significance of the Singapore agreement," but did not make clear to what extent the issue would be part of the Annapolis talks.

The three officials were also expected to discuss a global shortage of semi-conductor chips that has forced U.S. automakers and other manufacturers to cut production.

US Confirms Will Join Nuclear Deal Meet, 'Open' To Direct Talks With Iran

WASHINGTON, April 2: The United States on Friday confirmed it would take part in a meeting in Vienna next week on the Iran nuclear deal and offered to sit down directly with Tehran.

"These remain early days, and we don't anticipate an immediate breakthrough as there will be difficult discussions ahead. But we believe this is a healthy step forward," State Department spokesman Ned Price said.

"We do not anticipate presently that there will be direct talks between the United States and Iran through this process, though the United States remains open to them," he said.

The European Union announced Friday an in-person meeting in Vienna of all parties to the 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, from which former president Donald Trump withdrew.

The Europeans said it would have "separate" contacts in Vienna with the United States and Iran quickly rejected a direct meeting with its arch-enemy as it presses President Joe Biden first to lift sanctions.

Price said that the "primary issues" for discussion in Vienna will be "the nuclear steps that Iran would need to take in order to return to compliance with the terms of the JCPOA, and the sanctions relief steps that the United States would need to take in order to return to compliance as well."

Iran has insisted that the United States must act first on removing the Trump sanctions, which include a unilateral effort to stop all its oil exports, before it will roll back measures away from compliance that it had taken as a protest.

The Vienna talks will also include the governments of Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia which all remain parties and supporters of the nuclear deal negotiated under former US president Barack Obama.

WHO Covid report shows need for more data: MEA

NEW DELHI, April 2: India Thursday said the joint study by WHO and China on the origins of the coronavirus underlines the need for more data to be made available to investigators, flagging the “difficulties and delays” referred to by the world body’s Director General during the team’s work.

The joint study, released two days ago, had said that the transmission of the virus from bats to humans, or a lab leak, was unlikely.

The Ministry of External Affairs said: “We have seen the recently released WHO-convened global study on the origin of Covid-19… The report represents an important first step in establishing the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic.”

“It has listed four pathways concerning the emergence of the disease but has stressed the need for next-phase studies across the region. The report also stresses the need for further data and studies to reach robust conclusions.”

India said that it is “pertinent to note that the Director General of the WHO has separately raised the issue of delays and difficulties in accessing raw data for the team conducting the study” and added that “we fully support the Director General’s expectation that future collaborative studies will include more timely and comprehensive data sharing”.

The ministry said that in this connection, “we also welcome his readiness to deploy additional missions”.

“We join other stakeholders in voicing their expectations that follow up to the WHO Report or further studies, including on an understanding of the earliest human cases and clusters by the WHO on this critical issue, will receive the fullest cooperation of all concerned,” it said.

India, it said, shared the need for a comprehensive and expert-led mechanism that would expeditiously investigate the origin of Covid-19 in cooperation with all stakeholders.

Tibet occupation just beginning, China trying hard to get five fingers: Lobsang Sangay

NEW DELHI, April 2: After the 'occupation' of Tibet, China is now trying hard to get the 'five fingers', top Tibetan leader Lobsang Sangay claimed on Friday, noting that Chinese expansionist policies are a threat to the world community and all must wake up to its designs.

Addressing an event organised by the Centre for Democracy, Pluralism and Human Rights (CDPHR), he said losing Tibet as a buffer zone between India and China has cost hugely to India in terms of border problem and associated military costs.

"Tibet occupation was just the beginning. You saw the Galwan incident, how many soldiers lost their lives. Tibet is just a beginning as it is the palm but five fingers are still out there which Chinese CPC (Chinese Communist Party) is trying hard to get," claimed Lobsang, president of the Central Tibetan Administration (Tibetan government-in exile).

The Five Fingers of Tibet is a Chinese foreign policy that considers Tibet to be the palm of China's right hand, with five fingers on its periphery: Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, and Arunachal Pradesh, and that it is China's responsibility to 'liberate' these regions.

"India needs to understand, what is happening in Tibet is the blueprint and it is happening in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. Understand China and deal with it," Lobsang said.

He said pluralism and diversity, human rights and freedom binds India together.

"Pluralism is the foundation of India. Pluralism and diversity binds India together, human rights and freedom binds India together but China is bringing a more autocratic system so for Asia - development with democracy and diversity is better than the Chinese model," he said.

Lobsang also alleged that Chinese expansionist policies are a 'threat' to the world community.

"... Therefore the world community must wake up to its designs sooner than later. Standing against China in relation to its record on human rights violations of minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang is not in the control of one country or a small group of countries but the whole world community needs to stand in solidarity," he said.

He further claimed that in the name of poverty alleviation, the Chinese government is employing mainland Chinese discourses in minority regions such as Tibet thereby creating an environment which might lead to endangering of Tibetan identity.

"Not authoritarian policies of China but democratic policies for development that respect diversity is what the world needs," he said.

He highlighted that India's model of development with democracy is better than Chinese model of development without democracy.

More than 40 children killed by Myanmar military, rights group says

YANGON, April 1: At least 43 children have been killed by armed forces in Myanmar since February's military coup, according to rights organisation Save the Children.

The group said the South East Asian country was in a "nightmare situation", with the youngest known victim just six years old.

A local monitoring group puts the overall death toll at 536.

Meanwhile, ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been charged with violating the country's official secrets act.

Ms Suu Kyi, along with four of her allies, were charged last week, but the alleged crime - which carries a prison term of up to 14 years - has only now come to light.

The new charge against Ms Suu Kyi is in addition to earlier charges of possessing illegal walkie-talkies, violating Covid-19 restrictions during last year's election campaign, and publishing information that may "cause fear or alarm".

The UN's envoy to Myanmar has warned of the risk of an "imminent bloodbath" as the crackdown against pro-democracy protests in the country intensifies.

The warning follows a flare-up in fighting between the army and ethnic minority militia in border areas.

The UN has become the latest organisation to urge the families of its workers to leave, but has said that some staff will remain in the country.

The unrest in Myanmar began two months ago, when the military seized control of the country after an election which Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party won by a landslide.

When tens of thousands of people took to the streets nationwide to protest against the coup, the military used water cannon to attempt to disperse them. After a week, the response escalated, and rubber bullets and live ammunition were used.

The deadliest day of the conflict so far came on Saturday, when more than 100 people were killed.

Witnesses say the armed forces have attacked people at random on the streets, and some people have even been killed in their own homes.

The family of six-year-old girl Khin Myo Chit said she was killed by police while she ran towards her father during a raid on their home in the city of Mandalay at the end of March.

"They kicked the door to open it," her sister, May Thu Sumaya, 25, said. "When the door was open, they asked my father whether there were any other people in the house."

When he said no, they accused him of lying and began searching the house, she said.

That was the moment when Khin Myo Chit ran over to their father. "Then they shot and hit her," May Thu Sumaya said.

Also among the dead are a 14-year-old boy who is believed to have been shot while inside - or close to - his home in Mandalay, and a 13-year-old who was shot in Yangon while playing in the street.

Save the Children has warned that the number of children injured in clashes is also likely to be significant, citing the case of a one-year-old baby who was reportedly shot in the eye with a rubber bullet.

The rights group warned that the violence was having an effect on children's mental health as they suffer fear, grief and stress.

"Children have witnessed violence and horror," it said in a statement. "It is clear that Myanmar is no longer a safe place for children."

Lawyers representing Ms Suu Kyi said on Thursday that it was unclear whether their client was aware of how events were unfolding across the country.

"We couldn't say whether [Ms Suu Kyi] knows about outside situations or not - she may or may not know," lawyer Min Min Soe told Reuters news agency, adding that the ousted leader "seems to be in good health".

The violence has sparked an international outcry, with various countries - including the US and UK - announcing sanctions against the coup leaders and military-linked companies.

On Thursday, the UK announced further measures against the Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC), a conglomerate that has provided funds to the Myanmar military.

"The Myanmar military has sunk to a new low with the wanton killing of innocent people, including children," Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said. "The UK's latest actions target one of the military's key funding streams and impose a further cost on them for their violations of human rights."

When Ms Suu Kyi was ousted, military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing took power.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, became independent from Britain in 1948. For much of its modern history it has been under military rule

Restrictions began loosening from 2010 onwards, leading to free elections in 2015 and the installation of a government headed by veteran opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi the following year

In 2017, Myanmar's army responded to attacks on police by Rohingya militants with a deadly crackdown, driving more than half a million Rohingya Muslims across the border into Bangladesh in what the UN later called a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing".

US, Philippines raise concerns over China's maritime militia massing at disputed reef

WASHINGTON, April 1: The United States and the Philippines have raised concerns over the presence of China's maritime militia vessels near the disputed Whitsun Reef in the South China Sea, the White House said.

This comes after talks were held between US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and his Philippine counterpart, Hermogenes Esperon on Thursday.

The White House said in a statement the National Security Advisors discussed their shared concerns regarding the recent massing of People's Armed Forces Maritime Militia vessels at Whitsun Reef.

Sullivan underscored that the United States stands with their Philippine allies in upholding the rules-based international maritime order, and reaffirmed the applicability of the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty in the South China Sea.

Last month, the Philippines announced the deployment of additional navy ships to the South China Sea after over 200 Chinese vessels were spotted in the Whitsun Reef. Later, the Philippines also filed a diplomatic protest over the issue.

On Monday, US Secretary Antony Blinken had come out in support of the Philippines after "China's maritime militia" massed Chinese vessels at a boomerang-shaped Whitsun Reef in the West Philippine sea.

"The United States stands with our ally, the Philippines, in the face of the PRC's maritime militia amassing at WhitsunReef. We will always stand by our allies and stand up for the rules-based international order," Blinken tweeted.

The Whitsun Reef belongs to the Spratly archipelago, the territory of which is claimed by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

China considers the Spratly archipelago to be its territory, despite the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling, which said there was no legal basis for China's maritime claims. The arbitration proceeding was initiated by the Philippines in January 2013, Sputnik reported.

Pakistan does U-turn on resuming trade ties with India

ISLAMABAD, April 1: Pakistan on Thursday did a U-turn on a move for limited resumption of trade with India, with two federal ministers linking the normalisation of bilateral ties to the restoration of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status by New Delhi.

A Cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Imran Khan rejected a decision made by a government panel on Wednesday to allow imports of sugar and cotton from India to control prices and overcome a shortage.

Pakistan’s interior minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed told reporters in Islamabad after the cabinet meeting that the move to permit imports from India was “deferred till Article 370 is not restored”. Speaking in Urdu, he added, “Till then, [imports of] cotton and sugar will not happen.”

Ahmed was referring to the Indian government’s decision of August 5, 2019, to scrap Article 370 of the Constitution, which gave special status to Jammu and Kashmir, and to split the state into two union territories.

Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said in a video statement that the Cabinet deferred the move to import cotton and sugar from India so that there could be further deliberations on the matter.

“At the same time, there was an impression that relations with India are moving towards normalisation and trade has opened up. There was a discussion on this and there was a unanimous opinion among everyone, including the prime minister, that it will not be possible to normalise relations with India till India reviews the unilateral steps it had taken on August 5, 2019,” Qureshi said.

There was no immediate response from Indian officials to the Pakistan government’s decision. India had earlier rejected Pakistan’s stand on the changes in Jammu and Kashmir by saying it was an internal matter.

The Pakistani flip-flop came hours after human rights minister Shireen Mazari, known for her anti-India stance, tweeted that all decisions made by the ECC have to be approved by the Cabinet.

“Just for the record – All ECC decisions have to be approved by cabinet & only then they can be seen as ‘approved by govt’! So today in the cabinet there will be a discussion on ECC decisions including trade with India and then the government decision will be taken!” Mazari said in her tweet.

On Wednesday, the Economic Coordination Committee (ECC) of Pakistan’s Cabinet decided to allow imports from India at a meeting chaired by the country’s new finance minister, Hammad Azhar. The panel approved imports of up to 500,000 tonnes of sugar by the private sector and allowed imports of cotton up to the end of June to meet the needs of small and medium enterprises.

If the ECC’s decision had been implemented, it would have led to the resumption of trade between the two countries after almost two years. Pakistan had unilaterally suspended trade with India in August 2019 to protest against the changes in Jammu and Kashmir.

If the ECC’s decision had been implemented, it would have led to the resumption of trade between the two countries after almost two years. Pakistan had unilaterally suspended trade with India in August 2019 to protest against the changes in Jammu and Kashmir.

Trade between India and Pakistan has invariably taken a hit whenever tensions spike between the countries, and this was also case when the 2019 Pulwama suicide attack triggered a military standoff.

The move by the Indian and Pakistani armies to strictly adhere to the ceasefire on the LoC from February 25 was the outcome of behind-the-scenes contacts between the two sides and led to a thaw in relations.

In recent weeks, Pakistan Army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa has spoken of the need to “bury the past and move forward”, while Prime Minister Khan has said India will have to take the first step for improving ties by addressing Kashmir, the only issue standing in the way of better relations.

Egypt may seek $1 billion in compensation for Suez Canal crisis

CAIRO, April 1: Egypt said it may seek around $1 billion in compensation after a giant container vessel blocked the Suez Canal for almost a week and roiled shipping markets.

The figure is a rough estimate of losses linked to transit fees, damages incurred during the dredging and salvage efforts, the cost of the equipment, and labor, Suez Canal Authority chief executive Osama Rabie said late Wednesday to local television channel Sada Elbalad.

He did not specify who the Canal Authority would seek compensation from.

BBC journalist leaves China citing threats, obstruction

BEIJING, April 1: The British Broadcasting Corp said on Wednesday one of its journalists in China had relocated to Taiwan, a move that comes amid criticism from Beijing of its reports on alleged human rights abuses against Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region.

The journalist, John Sudworth, said he moved with his family because it had become increasingly difficult to remain in the country. He had been under surveillance, faced threats of legal action, obstruction and intimidation, he said.

"We left in a hurry, followed by plainclothes police all the way to the airport through the check-in. The true grim reality for reporters here being made clear all the way to the very end," he told the BBC show that was aired on Wednesday.

China's foreign ministry on Wednesday said Sudworth had not given any notice of his departure, and it strongly condemned the BBC's reporting on Xinjiang, COVID-19 and Hong Kong.

"We never threatened him," foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular daily news briefing. "We don't know why he left because he didn't say goodbye."

Announcing Sudworth's move, the BBC said in a statement that he remained its China correspondent.

"John's work has exposed truth the Chinese authorities did not want the world to know," it said.

Last month, China barred the BBC World News from being aired in response to what the Chinese embassy in London called "relentless fabrication of 'lies of the century' in reporting China."

One flashpoint was a BBC report in February that women in Xinjiang's internment camps for Uighurs were subject to rape, sexual abuse and torture.

China has repeatedly said the BBC's report was false and it has also forcefully denied other claims of human rights abuses in Xinjiang raised by western governments and rights groups.

Sudworth was not one of the BBC journalists credited in the Xinjiang report, though he has been criticised by name by the Chinese foreign ministry as well as Chinese state and Communist Party-backed media for his reporting.

Chinese state media recently reported that unnamed people and entities in Xinjiang were preparing to sue the BBC over reports related to the region. The state media reports did not include details of a suit and no corresponding notices were made public on local court sites.

"I think those people are trying to protect their own rights and interests through legal means, but such acts have nothing to do with the Chinese government," spokeswoman Hua said.

The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China said that Sudworth had left at short notice on March 23 with his wife Yvonne Murray, a journalist for Irish broadcaster RTE.

It said Sudworth had spent the past two years on visas of one-, three- and six-month durations - shorter than the usual one-year for foreign correspondents.

"Abuse of Sudworth and his colleagues at the BBC form part of a larger pattern of harassment and intimidation that obstructs the work of foreign correspondents in China and exposes their Chinese news assistants to growing pressure," an FCCC statement said.

"We urge China to live up to its stated commitment to facilitate unhindered reporting in China. In particular the FCCC calls for an end to dangerous, personal attacks on individual reporters and foreign media outlets."

China expelled more than a dozen foreign journalists working for U.S. media organisations in 2020. That year saw a “rapid decline in media freedom”, the FCCC said in a report this month.

Several foreign correspondents have relocated to Taiwan from China. A foreign ministry spokeswoman in Taiwan said she could not comment on individual cases but said: "We welcome all reporters from media outlets to come to Taiwan and enjoy freedom of the press and speech."

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