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China must accept Taiwan is already independent: Tsai Ing-wen

TAIPEI, Jan 15: China must accept that Taiwan is already independent, President Tsai Ing-wen has said, warning Beijing that any attempt to invade the democratic island would be “very costly”.

Tsai won a second term over the weekend with a record 8.2 million votes, an outcome that was seen as a forceful rebuke of China’s ongoing campaign to isolate the self-ruled island.

China’s leadership had made no secret of its desire to see Tsai turfed out because she and her party refuse to acknowledge their view that the island is part of a “one China”.

Beijing regards Taiwan as its own territory and has vowed to one day seize it, by force if necessary -- especially if it declares independence.

But in her first interview since Saturday’s re-election, Tsai said there was no need to formally announce independence because the island already runs itself.

“We don’t have a need to declare ourselves an independent state,” she told the BBC.

“We are an independent country already and we call ourselves the Republic of China, Taiwan.”

Modern Taiwan has been run separately from the mainland for the last 70 years.

For decades it was a dictatorship under Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists following their 1949 defeat to the communists in China’s civil war.

But since the 1980s it morphed into one of Asia’s most progressive democracies, although it is only diplomatically recognised by a dwindling handful of countries.

Polls show growing numbers of Taiwanese reject the idea that the island should be part of the Chinese mainland.

“We have a separate identity and we’re a country of our own,” Tsai said.

“We’re a successful democracy, we have a pretty decent economy, we deserve respect from China”.

China has greeted Tsai’s re-election with anger, warning against any move to push the island closer towards independence.

“Splitting the country is doomed to leave a name that will stink for eternity,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi said this week.

Chinese state media also accused Tsai of winning the election through cheating, without providing evidence.

In her interview, Tsai warned against a military response from Beijing.

“Invading Taiwan is something that is going to be very costly for China,” she said.

Critics accuse Tsai of being needlessly antagonistic towards Beijing.

But Tsai said she had resisted pressure from within her own party to be more forceful on the issue of independence.

“There are so many pressures, so much pressure here that we should go further,” she said.

“Maintaining a status quo remains our policy... I think that is a very friendly gesture to China.”

Tsai has repeatedly said she is willing to talk to Beijing as long as there are no pre-conditions. But Beijing has refused, cutting off official communication with her administration.

Over the last four years, it has also has ramped up economic, military and diplomatic pressure, hoping it would scare voters into supporting the opposition.

But the strong-arm tactics backfired with voters resoundingly backing Tsai for another four more years.

Putin names head of tax service Mishustin as new prime minister

MOSCOW, Jan 15: President Vladimir Putin has named Tax Service chief Mikhail Mishustin as Russia’s new prime minister, the Kremlin said Wednesday.

The 53-year-old Mishustin has worked in the government since 1998 and kept a low profile while serving as the head of the Federal Tax Service since 2010.

The Russian leader made the appointment after he engineered a surprise shakeup of Russia’s leadership and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev submitted his resignation earlier in the day.

Putin proposed changes to the constitution that could keep him in power well past the end of his term in 2024. He emphasized that constitutional changes must be put to a vote in a nationwide referendum.

Medvedev resigned his post after Putin announced the proposed constitutional amendments. Putin kept his longtime ally in the Kremlin’s leadership structure, appointing him to the newly created post of deputy head of the presidential Security Council.

The shakeup sent shock waves through Russia’s political elites who were left pondering what Putin’s intentions were and speculating about future Cabinet appointments.

Medvedev has been prime minister for nearly eight years. After Putin’s first two terms ended in 2008, Medvedev served as a placeholder president from 2008 to 2012 and appointed his mentor as prime minister, although Putin continued to wield power. Under Medvedev, the constitution was amended to lengthen the president’s term from four years to six.

Medvedev said in televised comments that he needed to resign in light of Putin’s proposed changes in government.

Putin suggested amending the constitution to allow lawmakers to name prime ministers and Cabinet members. The president currently holds the authority to make those appointments.

“It will increase the role of parliament and parliamentary parties, powers and independence of the prime minister and all Cabinet members,” Putin told an audience of top officials and lawmakers.

At the same time, Putin argued that Russia would not remain stable if it were governed under a parliamentary system. The president should retain the right to dismiss the prime minister and Cabinet ministers, to name top defense and security officials, and to be in charge of the Russian military and law enforcement agencies, he said.

Putin has been in power longer than any other Russian or Soviet leader since Josef Stalin, who led from 1924 until his death in 1953. He will have to step down in 2024 after his term ends under the current law, which limits the president to two consecutive terms.

Observers speculated that Putin may stay in charge by shifting into the prime minister’s seat after increasing the powers of parliament and the Cabinet and trimming presidential authority.

Political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin said Putin’s speech made it clear he was pondering the move to premiership.

“Putin is advancing the idea of keeping his authority as a more powerful and influential prime minister while the presidency will become more decorative,” Oreshkin said.

In his address, Putin said the constitution must also specify the authority of the State Council consisting of regional governors and top federal officials.

Tatiana Stanovaya of the Carnegie Moscow Center said it appears as if Putin might try to continue pulling the strings as head of the council and could even shift into a new position before his term ends.

“It looks very much like Putin is preparing to leave the presidency, whether that will take place in 2024 or even earlier, and is currently trying to create a safety mechanism for his successor in case of conflict,” she wrote on Facebook.

“Putin looks like he is counting on becoming the head of the State Council, which will get increased powers and become a key decision-making platform with input from the Presidential Administration, the government and the governors.”

Other possible options include a merger with neighboring Belarus that would create a new position of the head of a new unified state — a prospect that has been rejected by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Political analyst Kirill Rogov said that Putin intends to stay in charge while re-distributing powers between various branches of government.

“Such a model resembling the Chinese one would allow Putin to stay at the helm indefinitely while encouraging rivalry between potential successors,” Rogov observed.

Putin served two presidential terms in 2000-2008 before shifting into the prime minister’s job for four years to observe the term limit. Medvedev kept his seat warm and then stepped down after just one term to allow his mentor to reclaim the top job in 2012. While in office, Medvedev raised the presidential term from four to six years.

Even though Putin continued calling the shots during Medvedev’s presidency, he wasn’t quite happy with his performance. He was particularly critical of Medvedev’s decision to give the green light to the Western air campaign over Libya in 2011 that led to the ouster and the killing of long-time dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Medvedev’s decision to step down after one term to let Putin return to the presidency also sparked massive protests in Moscow in 2011-2012 in a major challenge to the Kremlin. Some of Putin’s associates suspected Medvedev’s aides of encouraging the protests.

In his speech, Putin emphasized the need to amend the constitution to give it a clear priority over international law.

“The requirements of international law and treaties and decisions of international organs can only be valid on the territory of Russia as long as they don’t restrict human rights and freedoms and don’t contradict the constitution,” he said.

He also said that the constitution must be tweaked to say that top government officials aren’t allowed to have foreign citizenship or residence permits.

Putin in his address vowed to encourage population growth by offering additional subsidies to families that have children.

He said that Russia would remain open for cooperation with all countries while maintaining a strong defense capability to fend off potential threats.

“For the first time in history, we aren’t trying to catch up with anyone,” Putin said. “On the contrary, other leading nations are yet to develop the weapons that Russia already has.”

Iran agrees de-escalate crisis with US

TEHRAN, Jan 12: Iran signalled Sunday it favours a de-escalation after 10 days of heightened tensions with the United States during which both sides fired missiles and Tehran accidentally shot down a passenger aircraft.

Security was stepped up in Iran’s capital after a vigil the previous night for those killed in the air disaster turned into an angry protest and police temporarily arrested the British ambassador for being there.

US President Donald Trump warned Iran against harming demonstrators and against a repeat of a deadly crackdown against rallies in November sparked by a fuel price hike.

“To the leaders of Iran - DO NOT KILL YOUR PROTESTERS,” Trump tweeted in his occasional all-capitals style.

US Defence Secretary Mark Esper, however, said Trump was still willing to “sit down and discuss without precondition a new way forward” with Iran, although Tehran has steadfastly refused to hold talks with Washington unless it lifts sanctions first.

Tehran said it favoured an easing of tensions after its arch-enemy Washington on January 3 killed a revered Iranian general, Quds Force chief Qasem Soleimani, in a Baghdad drone strike.

In a meeting between Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and the visiting emir of Qatar, both sides agreed de-escalation is the “only solution” to the regional crisis, the emirate’s ruler said.

Qatar hosts the largest US military base in the region but also enjoys strong ties with Iran, with which it shares the world’s largest gas field.

“This visit comes at a critical time in the region,” Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani said on what was believed to be his first official visit to the Islamic republic.

“We agreed... that the only solution to these crises is de-escalation from everyone and dialogue.” For his part, Rouhani said: “Given the importance of security of the region... we’ve decided to have more consultations and cooperation for the security of the entire region.”

Also on Sunday, Hossein Salami, commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, said the missiles it fired last Wednesday on Iraqi bases hosting US troops were not aimed at killing American personnel.

“Our aim was not really to kill enemy soldiers. That was not important,” he told parliament.

The US said no American personnel were harmed in the attacks.

Across the border in Iraq, the military said rockets slammed on Sunday into Al-Balad, an Iraqi airbase where US forces have been stationed, wounding two Iraqi officers and two airmen.

The base had held a small US Air Force contingent as well as American contractors, but a majority of these personnel had already been evacuated due to the tensions between the US and Iran, according to military sources.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Sunday’s rocket attacks. The US has previously blamed such attacks on Iran-backed groups in Iraq.

The current crisis claimed a tragic toll when Iran -- on hair-triggered alert just after attacking the Iraqi bases -- last Wednesday accidentally shot down the Ukraine International Airlines plane, killing all 176 people aboard.

After days of denial from Iran, Rouhani on Saturday admitted to “human error” in bringing down the Boeing 737, and the Guards’ aerospace commander General Amirali Hajizadeh accepted full responsibility.

On Saturday evening, a memorial at Tehran’s Amir Kabir University in honour of those killed turned into a demonstration that was attended by hundreds of students.

They shouted “death to liars” and demanded the resignation and prosecution of those responsible, Fars news agency reported, saying that police “dispersed” them.

Around the same time, police temporarily arrested the British ambassador, Rob Macaire, who had attended the vigil, sparking a fresh diplomatic crisis.

Macaire tweeted Sunday: “I wasn’t taking part in any demonstrations! Went to an event advertised as a vigil for victims of #PS752 tragedy.

“Normal to want to pay respects -- some of victims were British. I left after 5 mins, when some started chanting.” Fars said Macaire was summoned on Sunday to Iran’s foreign ministry for his “presence in illegal gatherings”.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran’s official protest was conveyed to him and to the British government,” it said, citing the ministry.

Later on Sunday up to 200 protesters rallied outside the British diplomatic mission, chanting “Death to Britain” and burning a Union Jack..

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Sunday called for countries in the region to bolster ties to overcome turbulence caused by the presence of the US and its allies.

“The current situation... demands -- more than ever before -- strengthening of relations between countries in the region as well as avoiding influence of foreigners’“ meddling, Khamenei was quoted as saying on his official Twitter account as he hosted Qatar’s emir.

Elsewhere in Tehran, tensions appeared to be mounting again, with a heavy police presence notably around the iconic Azadi Square south of the centre.

Riot police armed with water cannon and batons were seen at Amir Kabir, Sharif and Tehran universities as well as Enqelab Square.

Around 50 Basij militiamen brandishing paintball guns, potentially to mark protesters to authorities, were also seen near Amir Kabir.

Rockets hit Iraq airbase hosting US troops, 4 injured

SAMARRA, Jan 12: A volley of rockets slammed into an Iraqi airbase north of Baghdad where US forces have been based, wounding four local troops, the Iraqi military said on Sunday.

Its statement said eight Katyusha-type rockets landed on Al-Balad airbase, wounding two Iraqi officers and two airmen.

Al-Balad is the main airbase for Iraq’s F-16s, which it bought from the US to upgrade its air capacities.

The base had held a small US Air Force contingent as well as American contractors, but a majority had been evacuated following tensions between the US and Iran over the past two weeks, military sources told AFP.

“About 90 percent of the US advisers, and employees of Sallyport and Lockheed Martin who are specialised in aircraft maintenance, have withdrawn to Taji and Erbil after threats,” one of the sources said.

“There are no more than 15 US soldiers and a single plane at al-Balad,” the source added.

Military bases hosting US troops have been subject to volleys of rocket and mortar attacks in recent months that have mostly wounded Iraqi forces, but also killed one American contractor last month.

That death set off a series of dramatic developments, with the US carrying out strikes against a pro-Iran paramilitary group in Iraq as well as a convoy carrying top Iranian and Iraqi commanders outside Baghdad airport.

Pro-Iran factions in Iraq have vowed revenge for those raids, even as Iran said it had already responded in “proportion” by striking another western airbase where US soldiers are located.

Rocket attacks against Baghdad’s high-security Green Zone, where the US and other embassies are based alongside international troops, are still taking place.

Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said, Mideast’s longest-ruling monarch, dies at 79

MUSCAT, Jan 11: Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said, the Mideast’s longest-ruling monarch who seized power in a 1970 palace coup and pulled his Arabian sultanate into modernity while carefully balancing diplomatic ties between adversaries Iran and the U.S., has died. He was 79.

The state-run Oman News Agency announced his death late Friday on its official Twitter account. The sultan was believed to have been in poor health in recent months, and traveled to Belgium for a medical checkup last month. The royal court declared three days of mourning.

The British-educated, reclusive sultan reformed a nation that was home to only three schools and harsh laws banning electricity, radios, eyeglasses and even umbrellas when he took the throne.

Under his reign, Oman became known as a welcoming tourist destination and a key Mideast interlocutor, helping the U.S. free captives in Iran and Yemen and even hosting visits by Israeli officials while pushing back on their occupation of land Palestinians want for a future state.

“We do not have any conflicts and we do not put fuel on the fire when our opinion does not agree with someone,” Sultan Qaboos told a Kuwaiti newspaper in a rare interview in 2008.

The sultan’s death, however, raises the risk of unrest in this country on the eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula. The unmarried Sultan Qaboos had no children and did not publicly name an heir, a tradition among the ruling Al Said dynasty whose history is replete with bloody takeovers.

Oman’s longtime willingness to strike its own path frustrated Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, longtime foes of Iran who now dominate the politics of regional Gulf Arab nations. How Oman will respond to pressures both external and internal in a nation Sultan Qaboos absolutely ruled for decades remains in question.

“Maintaining this sort of equidistant type of relationship ... is going to be put to the test,” said Gary A. Grappo, a former U.S. ambassador to Oman. “Whoever that person is is going to have an immensely, immensely difficult job. And overhanging all of that will be the sense that he’s not Qaboos because those are impossible shoes to fill.”

The sultan had been believed to be ill for some time, though authorities never disclosed what malady he faced. A December 2019 report by the Washington Institute for Near-East Policy described the sultan as suffering from “diabetes and a history of colon cancer.”

Sultan Qaboos spent eight months in a hospital in Germany, returning to Oman in 2015, with the royal court only saying that the treatment he received was successful. In December 2019, he traveled to Belgium for a week for what the court described as “medical checks.” Days of worry about his condition ended Dec. 31, 2019, with the royal court describing him to be in stable condition.

Sultan Qaboos cut a fashionable figure in a region whose leaders are known for a more austere attire. His colorful turbans stood out, as did his form-fitting robes with a traditional curved khanjar knife stuck inside, the symbol of Oman. He occasionally wore a white turban out of his belief that he spiritually led Oman’s Ibadi Muslims, a more liberal offshoot of Islam predating the Sunni-Shiite split.

The sultan’s willingness to stand apart was key to Oman’s influence in the region. While home only to some 4.6 million people and smaller oil reserves than its neighbors, Oman under Sultan Qaboos routinely influenced the region in ways others couldn’t.

Oman’s oil minister routinely criticizes the policies of the Saudi-led OPEC oil cartel with a smile. Muscat hosts meetings of Yemen’s Houthi rebels, locked in a yearslong bloody war with Saudi Arabia. When Americans or dual nationals with Western ties are detained in Iran or areas under Tehran’s influence, communiques that later announce their freedom routinely credit the help of Oman.

The sultan’s greatest diplomatic achievement came as Oman hosted secret talks between Iranian and U.S. diplomats that led to the landmark 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers limiting Iran’s atomic program in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. Yet even then, the sultan maintained ties to those in the Pahlavi dynasty that Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution overthrew.

Sultan Qaboos’ outward-looking worldview could not have contrasted more sharply than that of his father, Sultan Said bin Taimur, under whose rule the sultanate more resembled a medieval state. Slavery was legal, no one could travel abroad and music was banned. At the time, the country, which is nearly the size of Poland, had only 10 kilometers (6.21 miles) of paved roads.

Yet Sultan Said let his son Qaboos, born in Salalah on Nov. 18, 1940, travel to study in England. Qaboos’ time abroad included schooling at Britain’s Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and training with the Scottish Rifles Regiment in what was then West Germany.

Qaboos returned to Salalah in 1964 but found himself instead locked away in a palace. Music cassettes sent to him from friends abroad included secret messages from the British. London was frustrated with Sultan Said, who had grown increasingly eccentric after surviving an assassination attempt and as Communist rebels kept up their offensive in the sultanate’s Dhofar region.

A July 23, 1970 palace coup ended up with Sultan Said shooting himself in the foot before going into exile in London. Qaboos took power.

“Yesterday, Oman was in darkness,” Sultan Qaboos said after the coup. “But tomorrow, a new dawn will rise for Oman and its people.”

Sultan Qaboos quickly moved toward modernizing the country, building the schools, hospitals and roads his father didn’t. With the help of Iranian forces under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the British and Jordan, the sultan beat back the Dhofar rebellion.

“You can see the sultan’s fingerprints,” Grappo said. “They’re just everywhere.”

Over time, Sultan Qaboos introduced what amounted to a written constitution, created a parliament and granted citizens limited political freedoms. But the sultan always had final say. In a sign of his strong grip, he also served as prime minister and minister of defense, finance and foreign affairs, as well as governor of the sultanate’s Central Bank.

“Holding all these positions in government probably sort of constrained his country in the sense of developing senior leadership,” Grappo said.

That strong grip extended to any sign of dissent. The Royal Oman Police often patrol in riot-ready vehicles with chicken wire covering the windows, something only seen in the island nation of Bahrain which has faced years of low-level unrest. U.S. diplomats routinely describe the Omani press as “muzzled” and even private outlets self-censor out of fear of running afoul of so-called “red lines.” All public gatherings require government permission.

Small protests broke out as part of the wider Arab Spring unrest in 2011, revealing discontent over corruption, unemployment and rising prices within the sultanate.

Oman was one of the few countries in the Arab world to maintain ties with Egypt after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, and acted as a mediator between Iran and Iraq during their ruinous eight-year war. It has also long served as a quiet base for U.S. military operations, including a failed 1980 attempt to free hostages held by Iran after the U.S. Embassy takeover in Tehran.

As he grew older, Sultan Qaboos also grew increasingly reclusive. He is known to have had three major passions — reading, music and yachting.

He “read voraciously,” Grappo said, played the organ and lute. He created a symphony orchestra and opened a royal opera house in Muscat in 2011. His yacht “Al Said” is among the world’s largest and was frequently seen anchored in Muscat’s mountain-ringed harbor.

Sultan Qaboos was briefly married to a first cousin. They had no children and divorced in 1979.

Tehran will welcome any Indian initiative to reduce tensions: Iranian envoy

NEW DELHI, Jan 8: Days ahead of Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif’s arrival in New Delhi, the Iranian envoy said his country will welcome any Indian initiative to reduce tensions triggered by the killing of General Qasem Soleimani in a US airstrike.

Zarif is expected to arrive in New Delhi on January 14 to speak at the Raisina Dialogue, a think tank event backed by the external affairs ministry. He is also expected to meet his Indian counterpart S Jaishankar – the first high-level contact between the two sides since the recent escalation in West Asia.

India has sought to adopt a nuanced position in view of its strategic partnership with the US and its dependence on Iran for unfettered access to Afghanistan and Central Asia through Chabahar port. Prior to US sanctions kicking in last June, Iran was also among India’s top three energy suppliers.

“India usually plays a very good role in peace in the world. India belongs to this region. We welcome all initiatives from all countries, especially India as a good friend for us, to not allow escalation,” Iranian ambassador Ali Chegeni told reporters on the margins of a condolence meeting for Soleimani at the embassy.

Describing India as a “good friend”, Chegeni noted Zarif had a “very good discussion” with Jasishankar on Sunday. “We have no problem with India,” he said.

He added, “We are not for war, we are looking for peace and prosperity for everybody in this region. We welcome any Indian initiative or any project that can help peace and prosperity in this world.”

The remarks came hours after Iran fired more than a dozen ballistic missiles at two Iraqi bases where US forces are stationed in retaliation for Soleimani’s death. There was no immediate response from Indian officials.

The visit of Zarif, who will be accompanied by deputy foreign minister Seyed Sajjadpour, will give India and Iran a chance to exchange detailed notes on the situation and to find ways to reduce tensions while ensuring New Delhi’s interests in the region aren’t affected, people familiar with developments said.

India has so far called for stability in the region and restraint by all players, and Chegeni’s comments indicated Iran too wasn’t keen on further escalation.

Referring to Soleimani’s killing and the Iranian missile strikes, Chegeni said: “We hope it won’t be needed to be repeated, but if anyhow, it is repeated, this won’t be the last one for us. I hope it won’t be repeated from both sides.”

He said the US drone strike that targeted Soleimani was an “illegal act” which violated international laws as the commander of al-Quds Force was killed in a third country. He accused the US of “supporting terrorists” as Soleimani had played a key role in the campaign against the Islamic State, which poses a threat to India, Europe and other parts of the world.

Defending the Iranian missile strikes at exactly the same time that Soleimani was killed on Friday, Chegeni said, “This is not revenge, this was the right of our people.

India dials Tehran over ‘serious turn of developments’

NEW DELHI, Jan 5: External Affairs Minister Dr. S Jaishankar on Sunday had a conversation with his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif and said India was deeply concerned about the spiralling tension in the region after the killing of top Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani in an US air strike.

“Just concluded a conversation with FM @JZarif of Iran. Noted that developments have taken a very serious turn. India remains deeply concerned about the levels of tension. We agreed to remain in touch,” Jaishankar said in a tweet.

The external affairs minister had a word with the Iranian leader barely days after Iran’s top military commander Soleimani was killed in an US air strike as his convoy left the airport at Baghdad. Soleimani was the head of Iran’s elite Quds military force and one of the most powerful figures in the Islamic world.

Two missiles hit US base housing troops in Iraq: Report

BAGHDAD, Jan 4: Two mortar rounds hit the Iraqi capital’s Green Zone Saturday and two rockets slammed into a base housing US troops, security sources said, a day after a deadly American strike.

The precision drone strike outside the Baghdad airport on Friday killed Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani, top Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and a clutch of other Iranian and Iraqi figures.

In Baghdad, mortar rounds on Saturday evening hit the Green Zone, the high-security enclave where the US embassy is based, security sources said.

The Iraqi military said that one projectile hit inside the zone, while another landed close to the enclave.

Sirens rang out at the US compound, sources said.

A pair of Katyusha rockets then hit the Balad airbase north of Baghdad, where American troops are based, security sources and the Iraqi military said.

Security sources there reported blaring sirens and said surveillance drones were sent above the base to locate the source of the rockets.

According to a report, Iraq’s Kataib Hezbollah militia warned on Saturday Iraqi security forces to stay away from U.S. bases in Iraq, quoting al-Mayadeen television.

“Security forces must stay clear of American bases by a distance not less and a thousand metres starting Sunday evening,” al-Mayadeen quoted the militia as saying.

The US embassy in Baghdad as well as the 5,200 American troops stationed across the country have faced a spate of rocket attacks in recent months that Washington has blamed on Iran and its allies in Iraq.

One attack last month killed a US contractor working in northern Iraq, prompting retaliatory American air strikes that killed 25 hardline fighters close to Iran.

Tensions boiled over on Friday when the US struck Soleimani’s convoy as it drove out of the airport and US diplomats and troops across Iraq had been bracing themselves for more rocket attacks.

Khamenei vows ‘severe revenge’ for Qasem Soleimani’s killing

TEHRAN, Jan 3: Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei vowed “severe revenge” for the killing of Qasem Soleimani, calling him a martyr.

“We congratulate Imam Mahdi (‘a.j.) & Soleimani’s pure soul& condole the Iranian nation on this great martyrdom. He was an eminent example of a person trained in Islam. He spent all his life in struggling for God. Martyrdom was the reward for his tireless efforts over the years,” Khamenei said on Twitter.

“His efforts & path won’t be stopped by his martyrdom, by God’s Power, rather a #SevereRevenge awaits the criminals who have stained their hands with his & the other martyrs’ blood last night. Martyr Soleimani is an Intl figure of Resistance & all such people will seek revenge,” he said in his second tweet.

Calling Soleimani’s loss “bitter”, Khamenei further said that their Jihad of Resistance will continue with more motivation. “The continuing fight & ultimate victory will be more bitter for the murderers & criminals,” he said on Twitter.

Soleimani was killed in a US drone strike at Baghdad International Airport on the orders of President Donald Trump, who appears to have acted with an eye on both an expected move in the US Senate to impeach him and his re-election bid later this year.

Reports emanating from Tehran indicate that the Iranian government’s top leadership is already considering ways to retaliate to the killing of Soleimani, a general considered very close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Experts believe any retaliation could trigger a spiraling confrontation that could spread from Iraq and engulf the wider region.

The US Defence Department said it killed Soleimani because he “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region”. It also accused Soleimani of approving the attacks on the US Embassy in Baghdad earlier this week.

445 Bangladeshi caught returning from India in 2 months: BGB chief

NEW DELHI, Jan 2: Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) has intercepted 445 people returning to the country from India in the last two months, Major General Shafeenul Islam who heads the country’s border guarding force told reporters on Thursday, according to media reports from Dhaka.

This accounts for nearly half of all arrests made by BGB for illegal border crossing from India. Maj Gen Islam told reporters that the BGB had detained nearly 1,000 people through 2019.

The spike in the arrests along the India-Bangladesh border coincides with a renewed campaign and public debate in India around the Citizenship Amendment Act that was passed by parliament last month and the proposed National Register of Citizens.

The CAA-NRC plan had triggered widespread street protests that started from northeastern states and later spread to other states and had spotlighted Home Minister Amit Shah pledge to evict all illegal immigrants by 2024.

Maj Gen Islam, who was recently in Delhi for the Director General level talks with the Border Security Force (BSF), told reporters that the 445 people caught at the border were Bangladeshi nationals who went to India illegally at different times and have nothing to do with the citizenship law in India.

“It is BGB’s duty to stop illegal infiltration into the country. It is our routine job and has nothing to do with NRC or CAA, therefore we are not worried about India’s internal crisis,” the BGB chief told reporters, according to Dhaka Tribune.

There have been reports in the Bangladesh media earlier about these arrests. Like the report in The Daily Star in November that quoted officials linking the spike in illegal crossing to fears of detention by the police.

The Daily Star reported the BGB chief as saying on Thursday that the paramilitary force had detained 1,102 people for trespassing into Bangladesh from neighbouring India last year. Of them, 606 were men, 258 people were women, 235 were children and three were human traffickers.

After verifying their identities through local representatives, BGB came to know that all the intruders are Bangladeshis. At least 253 cases were filed on charge of illegal trespassing through the borders of Jhenidah, Maheshpur and Satkhira, he said.

Taiwan’s military chief of staff, 7 others killed after helicopter crash

TAIPEI, Jan 2: Taiwan’s top military officer and seven others died after a helicopter crash landed in the mountains Thursday, the defence ministry said.

Chief of general staff General Shen Yi-ming was killed after the UH-60M Black Hawk helicopter crashed in mountains near Taipei, according to defence ministry spokesman Shih Shun-wen. Five others have been rescued.

Shen, 62, and several top military officials were on a routine mission to visit soldiers in the northeast Yilan county ahead of the lunar new year later this month.

Kim Jong Un says North Korea to show ‘new strategic weapon’ in near future

SEOUL, Jan 1: Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Wednesday said his country will continue developing nuclear programmes and introduce a “new strategic weapon” in the near future, state media KCNA said, after the United States missed a year-end deadline for a restart of denuclearisation talks.

Kim convened a rare four-day meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party’s policy-making committee since Saturday as the United States had not responded to his repeated calls for concessions to reopen negotiations, dismissing the deadline as artificial.

There were no grounds for North Korea to be bound any longer by the self-declared nuclear and ICBM test moratorium as the United States makes “gangster-like demands” including continuing joint military drills with South Korea, adopting cutting edge weapons and imposing sanctions, Kim said, according to KCNA.

He pledged to further develop North Korea’s nuclear deterrent but left the door open for dialogue, saying the “scope and depth” of that deterrent will be “properly coordinated depending on” the attitude of the United States.

“The world will witness a new strategic weapon to be possessed by the DPRK in the near future,” Kim said, using the acronym for North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“We will reliably put on constant alert the powerful nuclear deterrent capable of containing the nuclear threats from the U.S. and guaranteeing our long-term security.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he hoped North Korea would “choose peace and prosperity over conflict and war.”

Kim had previously said he might have to seek a “new path” if Washington fails to meet his expectations. U.S. military commanders said Pyongyang’s actions could include the testing of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which it has halted since 2017, alongside nuclear warhead tests.

Tension had been rising ahead of the year-end deadline as North Korea conducted a series of weapons tests and waged a war of words with U.S. President Donald Trump.

The nuclear talks have made little headway though Kim and Trump met three times. A working-level meeting in Stockholm in October fell apart, with a North Korean chief negotiator accusing U.S. officials of sticking to their old stance.

KCNA quoted Kim as saying that there will “never be denuclearisation on the Korean peninsula” if Washington adheres to what he calls its hostile policy.

We “will steadily develop necessary and prerequisite strategic weapons for the security of the state until the U.S. rolls back its hostile policy towards the DPRK and lasting and durable peace-keeping mechanism is built,” Kim said.

He called for his people to brace for an “arduous and prolonged struggle” and foster a self-reliant economy because of delays in a much-anticipated lifting of sanctions.

“The present situation warning of long confrontation with the U.S. urgently requires us to make it a fait accompli that we have to live under the sanctions by the hostile forces in the future, too, and to strengthen the internal power from all aspects.”

Harry Kazianis, senior director of Korean Studies at the Centre for the National Interest in Washington, said Kim appeared to be gambling that threatening another demonstration of his ability to hit the United States with a nuclear weapon would somehow push America into granting more concessions.

“North Korea has, in effect, put an ICBM to Donald Trump’s head in order to gain the two concessions it wants most: sanctions relief and some sort of security guarantee,” he said.

“With U.S. Presidential elections coming as well as elections in South Korea, the mood for compromise might have gone up in smoke the moment North Korea sent its ICBM into the sky.”

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