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NATO Puts Forces On Standby As Fears Of Russian Invasion Of Ukraine Rise

KYIV/BRUSSELS, Jan 24: NATO said on Monday it was putting forces on standby and reinforcing eastern Europe with more ships and fighter jets in response to Russia's military build-up at Ukraine's borders.

The move added to a flurry of signals that the West is bracing for an aggressive Russian move against Ukraine, though Moscow denies any plan to invade.

"I welcome allies contributing additional forces to NATO," the Western military alliance's Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement. "NATO will continue to take all necessary measures to protect and defend all allies, including by reinforcing the eastern part of the alliance."

Britain said it was withdrawing some staff and dependants from its embassy in Ukraine in response to "a growing threat from Russia", a day after the United States said it was ordering diplomats' family members to leave.

"Military action by Russia could come at any time," the US Embassy said in a statement. Officials "will not be in a position to evacuate American citizens in such a contingency, so US citizens currently present in Ukraine should plan accordingly," it added.

US diplomats at the embassy in Kyiv were being allowed to leave voluntarily.

The tensions over Ukraine have contributed to a rise in oil, with the latest Russia-U.S. talks on Friday failing to produce any big breakthrough.

Russia is demanding that NATO withdraw a promise to let Ukraine join one day, and that the alliance pull back troops and weaponry from former Communist countries in eastern Europe that joined it after the Cold War.

Washington says those demands are non-starters but it is ready to discuss other ideas on arms control, missile deployments and confidence-building measures.

The United States and the European Union have warned Russia not to invade Ukraine. Denmark said the EU was ready to impose "never-seen-before" economic sanctions and EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels said they would send a unified warning to Moscow.

An estimated 100,000 Russian troops remain poised within reach of the Ukrainian border. Russia is awaiting a written response to its demands this week.

Ukraine's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it considered the U.S. embassy move as "premature and a manifestation of excessive caution."

"In fact, there have been no cardinal changes in the security situation recently: the threat of new waves of Russian aggression has remained constant since 2014 and the buildup of Russian troops near the state border began in April last year," it said.

Britain said at the weekend it had information the Russian government was considering a former Ukrainian lawmaker as a potential candidate to head a pro-Russian puppet leadership in Kyiv.

The Russian Foreign Ministry dismissed the British allegation as "disinformation," accusing NATO of escalating tensions over Ukraine.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the EU did not plan to withdraw diplomats' families from Ukraine at the moment. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said Germany would remain present in Ukraine for now but was evaluating the situation continuously.

Latvia warned its citizens not to travel to Ukraine except in cases of "urgent necessity". Lithuania's foreign minister said the West must make sanctions for Russia "unbearable" if it attacked Ukraine.

US 'deeply concerned' on Russia plot to install pro-Kremlin leader in Ukraine

WASHINGTON, Jan 23: The White House on Saturday called the UK government assessment of the Kremlin’s plan to install pro-Russian leader in Kyiv “deeply concerning”, saying it stands with the democratically elected Ukrainian government.

"This kind of plotting is deeply concerning," said National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne. "The Ukrainian people have the sovereign right to determine their own future, and we stand with our democratically-elected partners in Ukraine."

The UK Foreign Office has accused Moscow of seeking to replace Ukraine’s government with a pro-Russia administration as tensions swell between the two neighbours.

The British government said that Yevhen Murayev, a former Ukrainian member of parliament, is a potential candidate. The assertions, based on an intelligence assessment, were made without providing details or a timeframe on the intelligence to back it up.

Britain also claimed that the Russian intelligence services maintain links with “numerous” former Ukrainian politicians. The four former Ukrainian officials mentioned by the UK – Serhiy Arbuzov, Mykola Azarov, Andriy Kluyev and Volodymyr Sivkovych – are already subject to Western sanctions. They are believed to reside in Russia.

“Russia must de-escalate, end its campaigns of aggression and disinformation, and pursue a path of diplomacy,” UK foreign secretary Liz Truss said in the statement. “Any Russian military incursion into Ukraine would be a massive strategic mistake with severe costs.”

Russia's foreign ministry has rejected the allegations as "disinformation" from Britain.

"Disinformation circulated by @FCDOGovUK is yet another indication that it is the @NATO Members led by the Anglo-Saxon nations who are escalating tensions around #Ukraine," the ministry said in a tweet.

"We urge the Foreign Office to stop spreading nonsense."

The US and the UK have started sending military aid to Ukraine as part of their effort to bolster its defences against a potential Russian invasion. Meanwhile, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania plan to send US-made anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine, a move fully endorsed by the United States.

New Zealand PM Cancels Wedding Amid New Covid Rules

WELLINGTON, Jan 23: New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was Sunday forced to call off her own wedding as she tightened Covid-19 restrictions in the face of an outbreak of the Omicron variant.

"My wedding will not be going ahead," she confirmed after detailing new restrictions; including a limit of 100 fully vaccinated people at events.

"I just joined many other New Zealanders who have had an experience like that as a result of the pandemic and to anyone who is caught up in that scenario I am so sorry."

The emergence of nine cases of Omicron in a family who travelled between cities to attend a wedding, and the infection of a flight attendant on one aircraft they flew on, forced New Zealand to impose its "red setting" restrictions from midnight Sunday.

Omicron is far more transmissible than the earlier Delta variant but is less likely to make people seriously ill.

In addition to limiting crowd numbers, face coverings are now mandatory on public transport and in shops.

Ardern and long-time partner Clarke Gayford have never announced their wedding date, but it was believed to be scheduled for some time in the next few weeks.

The new restrictions are set to remain in place until at least the end of next month.

"Such is life," Ardern said when asked how she felt about setting regulations which ended her planned nuptials.

"I'm no different to thousands of other New Zealanders who have had much more devastating impacts felt by the pandemic, the most gutting of which is the inability to be with a loved one sometimes when they are gravely ill. That will far outstrip any sadness I experience."

New Zealand has detected 15,104 Covid-19 cases and recorded 52 deaths since the pandemic began.

Tough border restrictions and snap lockdowns have been in place for much of the last two years.

German Navy Chief resigns over remarks in India on Ukraine, Russia

NEW DELHI, Jan 22: Following an unprecedented controversy in Germany and a diplomatic incident with Ukraine, German Navy Chief Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach tended his resignation late on Saturday over his comments in New Delhi that Ukraine can never get back Crimea and Russian President Vladimir Putin “probably” deserved respect.

“I have asked Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht to relieve me from my duties with immediate effect,” Vice Adm Schoenbach said in a statement according to news agency Reuters. “The minister has accepted my request,” he added.

Vice Adm Schoenbach also apologized for his comments, the news agency said, “My rash remarks in India... are increasingly putting a strain on my office… I consider this step (the resignation) necessary to avert further damage to the German navy, the German forces, and, in particular, the Federal Republic of Germany.”

Speaking at an interactive session at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) on Friday during his visit to India, the German Navy Chief said Crimean peninsula which was annexed by Russia from Ukraine is “gone” and “not coming back”.

He also questioned if Russia really wants to attack Ukraine. “Does Russia really want a small and tiny strip of Ukraine soil to integrate into their country? No, this is nonsense. Putin is probably putting pressure because can do it and he splits EU opinion. What he really wants is respect,” he said.

Further he stated: “He (Putin) wants high-level respect and my God giving some respect is low cost, even no cost. If I was asked, it is easy to give him the respect he really demands and probably also deserves. Russia is an old country, Russia is an important country. Even we India, Germany, need Russia. we need Russia against China…”

In the same context he added, "I am a very radical Roman Catholic. I’m believing in God and I believe in Christianity and there we have a Christian country even Putin, he’s an atheist but it doesn't matter. Having this big country on our side...”

Earlier in the day on Saturday, Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said it summoned German Ambassador Anka Feldhusen in Kiev to stress “the categorical unacceptability” of his comments.

German Ministry of Defence in Berlin distanced itself from his comments stating that Navy chief’s statement in “no way correspond to the position of the [German government] in terms of content and choice of words.” He was also given the opportunity to make a statement to the Inspector General of the German military, according to Germany’s Bild newspaper.

Later, Vice Adm Schoenbach backtracked from his comments in a post on Twitter saying “it was clearly a mistake.” “My defence policy remarks during a talk session at a think tank in India reflected my personal opinion in that moment. They in no way reflect the official position of the defence ministry,” he said in another tweet.

Raising the issue on social media, Ukraine Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Ukraine is grateful to Germany for the support it has already provided since 2014, as well as for the diplomatic efforts to resolve the Russian-Ukrainian armed conflict. “But Germany’s current statements are disappointing and run counter to that support and effort,” he said on Twitter.

He further added: “The German partners must stop undermining unity with such words and actions and encouraging [Russian President] Vladimir Putin to launch a new attack on Ukraine.”In addition to the comments, in a reference to reports that Germany had blocked Estonia from sending German-made weapons to Ukraine, Mr. Kuleba added, “Germany’s recent statements about the impossibility of transferring defence weapons to Ukraine, particular due to permission to third parties, the futility of returning Crimea, hesitations to disconnect Russia from SWIFT - do not correspond to the level of our relations and the current security situation.”

Vice Adm Schoenbach’s comments came at a time when the new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is trying to play a critical role on dialling down tensions over the Russian buildup along the border with Ukraine, and the decision by the U.S. and some NATO members to bolster arms and ammunition supplies to the Ukrainian army to counter any possible Russian invasion.

Two Indians Killed In UAE Terror Attack Carried Out Using Drones

NEW DELHI, Jan 17: Three people including two Indian nationals were killed and six wounded as a suspected drone attack blew up petrol tanks near a major oil storage facility in the United Arab Emirates capital Abu Dhabi.

"We have heard from the authorities here that two Indians died," said India's envoy to the UAE Sunjay Sudhir. "We are trying to find out their identities. We will reach out to their families... Stay calm. The UAE is a very peaceful place," Sudhir said.

Saudi Arabia's foreign ministry condemned "in the strongest terms the cowardly terrorist attack" while Bahrain also slammed the "terrorist Huthi militia's launch of a number of booby-trapped drones".

Yemen's Iran-aligned Houthi movement said it carried out the attack on the UAE, according to reports. On Twitter, some people posted what appeared to be the site of the explosion, showing a thick plume of black smoke rising high into the sky.

Earlier, local media had reported that three fuel tanks exploded near depots of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, but the cause was not immediately known.

Houthi military spokesman Yahya Saree later told the broadcaster, Almasirah, that they would soon give details of their "military operation in UAE territory".

The incident in Abu Dhabi comes just days after a UAE ship was seized by the Houthis. The United Nations Security Council has condemned the seizure and demanded immediate release of the vessel and crew.

Yemen has been engulfed in a conflict between government forces led by President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, and the Houthi rebels. Since March 2015, a Saudi-led Arab alliance working with Hadi's forces has been conducting air, land and sea operations against the Houthis.

The Saudi-led coalition believes the use by Houthi forces of two ports as military bases would turn them into legitimate military targets, coalition spokesman Brigadier General Turki al-Malki said last week.

The ports of Hodeidah and Salif are controlled by Yemen's Iran-aligned Houthi movement and which the Saudi-led coalition has said uses them as launching points for missiles, drones and marine operations.

However, air and sea access to Houthi-held areas is controlled by the Saudi-led coalition, that intervened in Yemen in early 2015 after the movement ousted the internationally recognised government from the capital Sanaa.

North Korea warns of 'stronger' action following new US sanctions

PYONGYANG, Jan 14: North Korea on Friday berated the Biden administration for imposing fresh sanctions against the country over its latest missile tests and warned of stronger and more explicit action if Washington maintains its “confrontational stance.”

In a statement carried by North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency, an unidentified Foreign Ministry spokesperson defended the North’s recent launches of purported hypersonic missiles as a righteous exercise of self-defense.

The spokesperson said the new sanctions underscore hostile U.S. intent aimed at “isolating and stifling” the North despite Washington’s repeated calls for Pyongyang to resume diplomacy that has stalled over disagreements about sanctions relief and nuclear disarmament steps.

The Biden administration on Wednesday imposed sanctions on five North Koreans over their roles in obtaining equipment and technology for the North’s missile programs in its response to the North’s latest missile test this week and also said it would seek new U.N. sanctions.

The announcement by the Treasury Department came just hours after North Korea said leader Kim Jong Un oversaw a successful test of a hypersonic missile on Tuesday that he claimed would greatly increase the country’s nuclear “war deterrent.”

The North Korean spokesperson accused the United States of maintaining a “gangster-like” stance, saying that the North’s development of the new missile is part of its efforts to modernize its military and does not target any specific country or threaten the security of its neighbors.

“Nevertheless, the U.S. is intentionally escalating the situation even with the activation of independent sanctions, not content with referring the DPRK’s just activity to the UN Security Council,” the spokesperson said, using an abbreviation of North Korea’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“This shows that though the present U.S. administration is trumpeting about diplomacy and dialogue, it is still engrossed in its policy for isolating and stifling the DPRK ... If the U.S. adopts such a confrontational stance, the DPRK will be forced to take stronger and certain reaction to it,” the spokesperson said.

Tuesday’s test was North Korea’s second demonstration of its purported hypersonic missile in a week. The country in recent months has been ramping up tests of new, potentially nuclear-capable missiles designed to overwhelm missile defense systems in the region, as it continues to expand its military capabilities amid a freeze in diplomacy with the United States.

Hypersonic weapons, which fly at speeds in excess of Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound, could pose a crucial challenge to missile defense systems because of their speed and maneuverability.

Such weapons were on a wish-list of sophisticated military assets Kim unveiled early last year along with multi-warhead missiles, spy satellites, solid-fuel long-range missiles and submarine-launched nuclear missiles.

Still, experts say North Korea would need years and more successful and longer-range tests before acquiring a credible hypersonic system.

The Biden administration, whose policies have reflected a broader shift in U.S. focus from counterterrorism and so-called rogue states like North Korea and Iran to confronting China, has said it’s willing to resume talks with North Korea at any time without preconditions.

But North Korea has so far rejected the idea of open-ended talks, saying the U.S. must first withdraw its “hostile policy,” a term Pyongyang mainly uses to describe the sanctions and joint U.S.-South Korea military drills.

In an interview with MSNBC, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the North’s latest tests “profoundly destabilizing” and said the United States was deeply engaged at the U.N. and with key partners, including allies South Korea and Japan, on a response.

“I think some of this is North Korea trying to get attention. It’s done that in the past. It’ll probably continue to do that,” Blinken said. “But we are very focused with allies and partners in making sure that they and we are properly defended and that there are repercussions, consequences for these actions by North Korea.”

The State Department said Biden’s special representative for North Korea, Sung Kim, held separate calls with the nuclear envoys of South Korea and Japan to discuss trilateral cooperation following the North’s recent launches and reiterated Washington’s “ironclad” commitment to defend its allies.

A U.S.-led diplomatic push aimed at convincing North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program collapsed in 2019 after the Trump administration rejected the North’s demands for major sanctions relief in exchange for a partial surrender of its nuclear capabilities.

Kim Jong Un has since pledged to further expand a nuclear arsenal he clearly sees as his strongest guarantee of survival, despite the country’s economy suffering major setbacks amid pandemic-related border closures and persistent U.S.-led sanctions.

Nearly 34 mn locked down in China as Omicron fear spreads

BEIJING, Jan 11: Nearly 34 million people in China are now fully or partially locked down with authorities scrambling to contain a spreading Covid-19 outbreak with cases of the highly transmissible Omicron variant reported among the infected.

The number of people ordered to stay home rose to 33.6 million after a third Chinese city, Anyang, in the central Chinese province of Henan was locked down on Monday. New cases prompted the lockdown of 5.5 million residents in the city of Anyang on Monday evening.

The city recorded 58 of the 87 of the cases in Henan province.

At least two Omicron cases have been confirmed in the city in recent days, linked to an outbreak in the city of Tianjin in the neighbourhood of Beijing but about 500km away from Anyang.

The Anyang municipal government has banned vehicles from roads and required all residents to stay inside their homes while an epidemiological investigation is under way.

“The first cases in the city are believed to be linked to the same transmission chain as the existing local cases in north China’s Tianjin Municipality, which are confirmed to be caused by the Omicron variant”, according to the publicity department of the Anyang city government. “Currently, all supermarkets in the city have suspended business other than selling daily necessities. Shops have been closed and take-out services have also been suspended,” official media reported.

China’s national health commission reported 110 new locally transmitted Covid-19 cases for Monday, including 87 in Henan province, 13 in Shaanxi, and 10 in Tianjin.

At least 13 million people have been under lockdown in the northwestern city of Xian, home to the famous Terracotta Warriors tourist site since December 23; another 1.1 million are locked down in Yuzhou in Henan.

Residents of Tianjin, a city of nearly 14 million people near Beijing, continued to be mostly home on Tuesday with the local government restricting movement.

Several residential communities continued to be under closed-loop management following the discovery of Covid-19 cases in the premises.

Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi Jailed For 4 Years For Walkie-Talkie Possession

YANGON, Jan 10: A Myanmar junta court on Monday convicted Aung San Suu Kyi of three criminal charges, sentencing her to four years in prison in the latest in a slew of cases against the ousted civilian leader.

The Nobel laureate has been detained since February 1 when her government was forced out in an early morning coup, ending Myanmar's short-lived experiment with democracy.

The generals' power grab triggered widespread dissent, which security forces sought to quell with mass detentions and bloody crackdowns in which more than 1,400 civilians have been killed, according to a local monitoring group.

A source with knowledge of the case said the 76-year-old was found guilty of two charges related to illegally importing and owning walkie-talkies and one of breaking coronavirus rules.

Junta spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun confirmed the verdicts and sentences and said Suu Kyi would remain under house arrest while other cases against her proceed.

The walkie-talkie charges stem from when soldiers raided her house on the day of the coup, allegedly discovering the contraband equipment.

Monday's sentence adds to the penalties the court handed down in December when she was jailed for four years for incitement and breaching Covid-19 rules while campaigning.

Junta chief Min Aung Hlaing cut the sentence to two years and said she could serve her term under house arrest in the capital Naypyidaw.

164 Killed In A Week In Kazakhstan Protests Over Fuel Hikes: Reports

ALMATY, Jan 9: More than a hundred people have died in Kazakhstan in the wake of violent riots that have shaken Central Asia's largest country this week, media reported Sunday citing the health ministry.

The energy-rich nation of 19 million people has been rocked by a week of upheaval with nearly 6,000 -- including a number of foreigners -- detained over the unrest.

At least 164 people were killed in the riots, including 103 in the largest city Almaty, which saw some of the fiercest clashes between protesters and police.

The new figures mark a drastic increase in the death toll with officials previously saying 26 "armed criminals" had been killed and 16 security officers had died.

In total, 5,800 people have been detained for questioning, the presidency said in a statement on Sunday.

The figures included "a substantial number of foreign nationals", it said without elaborating.

"The situation has stabilised in all regions of the country," even if security forces were continuing "cleanup" operations, the statement added after President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev held a crisis meeting.

Fuel price rises sparked the unrest that broke out a week ago in western provincial areas but quickly spread to large cities, including the economic hub Almaty, where riots erupted and police opened fire using live rounds.

The interior ministry, quoted Sunday by local media, put property damage at around 175 million euros ($199 million).

More than 100 businesses and banks were attacked and looted and more than 400 vehicles destroyed, the ministry reportedly said.

A relative calm appeared to have returned to Almaty, with police sometimes firing shots into the air to stop people approaching the city's central square, a correspondent said.

Supermarkets were reopening on Sunday, media reported, amid fears of food shortages.

Kazakhstan said Saturday its former security chief had been arrested for suspected treason, as Russia hit back at US criticism of its deployment of troops to the crisis-hit country.

News of the detention of Karim Masimov, a former prime minister and longtime ally of Kazakhstan's ex-leader Nursultan Nazarbayev, came amid speculation of a power struggle in the ex-Soviet nation.

The domestic intelligence agency, the National Security Committee (KNB), announced Masimov had been detained on Thursday on suspicion of high treason.

President Tokayev sacked Masimov after protests turned into widespread violence, with government buildings in Almaty stormed and set ablaze.

Masimov, 56, was fired at the height of the unrest on Wednesday, when Tokayev also took over from Nazarbayev as head of the powerful security council.

Nazarbayev's spokesman Aidos Ukibay on Sunday again denied rumours the ex-president had left the country and said he supported the president.

Ukibay added that Nazarbayev voluntarily ceded control of the security council.

In a hardline address to the nation on Friday, Tokayev said 20,000 "armed bandits" had attacked Almaty and authorised his forces to shoot to kill without warning.

US Calls For End To Kazakhstan Shoot-To-Kill Order

WASHINGTON, Jan 9: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday criticized Kazakhstan's shoot-to-kill order against protesters accused of fomenting unrest, calling for the policy in the central Asian nation to be scrapped.

"That is something that I absolutely reject. The shoot-to-kill order, to the extent it exists, is wrong and should be rescinded," President Joe Biden's top diplomat told ABC Sunday talk show "This Week."

"We have real concerns about the state of emergency that was declared in Kazakhstan," he said, adding that he spoke with Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tileuberdi on Thursday.

"We've been clear that we expect the Kazakh government to deal with protesters in ways that respects their rights, that pulls back from violence at the same time."

More than 160 people have died and 5,800 have been arrested in Kazakhstan following violent riots this week in the energy-rich nation of 19 million people, media reported Sunday citing the health ministry.

The figures, while not independently verified, mark a significant increase from a previous toll by officials who said 26 "armed criminals" had been killed and 16 security officers had died.

21 Tourists Die Trapped In Vehicles After Snowstorm In Pakistan

ISLAMABAD, Jan 8: At least 21 people died in an enormous traffic jam caused by tens of thousands of visitors thronging a Pakistani hill town to see unusually heavy snowfall, authorities said Saturday.

Police reported that at least six people had frozen to death in their cars, while it was not immediately clear if others had died from asphyxiation after inhaling fumes in the snowdrift.

Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid said the military had mobilised to clear roads and rescue thousands still trapped near Murree, around 70 kilometres (45 miles) northeast of the capital, Islamabad.

Video shared on social media showed cars packed bumper-to-bumper, with one-metre-high (three-foot) piles of snow on their roofs.

"People are facing a terrible situation," Usman Abbasi, a tourist stuck in the town where heavy snow was still falling, told AFP by phone.

For days, Pakistan's social media has been full of pictures and video of people playing in the snow around Murree, a picturesque resort town built by the British in the 19th century as a sanatorium for its colonial troops.

The Punjab province chief minister's office said Murree had been declared a "disaster area" and urged people to stay away.

Prime Minister Imran Khan said he was shocked and upset at the tragedy.

"Unprecedented snowfall & rush of people proceeding without checking weather conditions caught district admin unprepared," he tweeted.

"Have ordered inquiry & putting in place strong regulation to ensure prevention of such tragedies."

Authorities warned last weekend that too many vehicles were trying to enter Murree, but that failed to discourage hordes of daytrippers from the capital.

"It's not only the tourists, but the local population is also facing severe problems," said tourist Abbasi.

"Gas cylinders have run out and drinking water is not available in most areas -- it's either frozen or the water pipes have been damaged due to severe cold."

He said hotels in the town were running out of food, and mobile phone services were patchy.

The town of around 30,000 clings to the side of steep hills and valleys and is serviced by narrow roads that are frequently clogged even in good weather.

Sheikh Rashid said residents had sheltered people trapped in the town and provided blankets and food to those they could reach on the outskirts.

Authorities said schools and government buildings had taken in those who could make it to the town from the clogged roads.

Helicopters were also on standby for when the weather cleared.

Rescue 1122, Pakistan's emergency service, released a list naming 21 people it said had been confirmed dead.

It included a policeman, his wife and their six children.

Hasaan Khawar, a spokesman for the Punjab government, said they had frozen to death inside a trapped car.

India joins Quad partners, Japan and South Korea for Sea Dragon exercise

NEW DELHI, Jan 6: India and its partners in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad along with Canada and South Korea are participating in the multinational exercise Sea Dragon at Guam in the Western Pacific.

The exercise, primarily focused on anti-submarine warfare (ASW) training, will involve more than 270 hours of in-flight training and activities ranging from tracking simulated targets to tracking a US Navy submarine. Each event will be graded and the country scoring the highest points will receive the Dragon Belt award.

The wargame, being held at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, includes contingents from the Indian Navy, the US Navy, Royal Australian Air Force, Royal Canadian Air Force, Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force and the South Korean Navy.

Two P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft of the US Navy are participating in the drill. During classroom training sessions, pilots and flight officers from all the countries will build plans and discuss tactics incorporating the capabilities and equipment of their nations, the US Pacific Fleet said in a statement.

“As [officer-in-charge], I am eager for the opportunity to further develop our partnerships with Australia, Canada, India, Japan, and Korea while at Sea Dragon 2022,” said Lt Cmdr Braz Kennedy, officer-in-charge of the US detachment from Patrol Squadron 47.

The Royal Canadian Air Force won the Dragon Belt at last year’s exercise and is defending the title at Sea Dragon 2022.

“This exercise is an annual, multi-national high-end ASW training exercise,” said Cmdr Tomoyuki Michiyama, commanding officer of Flight Division 31 of Air Patrol Squadron 3 of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force.

“I believe that by conducting a wide range of training, from classroom training on the ground to actual training targeting a submarine, we will be able to improve our tactical skills. In addition, through training, exchange of opinions, and various types of exchanges, we expect to strengthen cooperation and deepen mutual understanding among the participating navies and air forces.”

The P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft will conduct maritime patrols and reconnaissance and theatre outreach operations within the US Pacific Fleet area of operations.

P5 nations pledge to avoid nuclear war

WASHINGTON, Jan 3: Five of the world’s most powerful nations have agreed that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought” in a rare joint pledge to reduce the risk of such a conflict ever starting.

The pledge was signed by the US, Russia, China, the UK and France, the five nuclear weapons states recognised by the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) who are also the five permanent members of the UN security council. They are known as the P5 or the N5.

Such a common statement on a major issue of global security has become a rarity at a time of increasing friction between Russia, China and the west. With Moscow threatening to invade Ukraine and China signaling its readiness to use military force against Taiwan, the joint statement represents a renewed commitment to prevent any confrontation turning into a nuclear catastrophe.

A senior US state department official said the wording of the statement had been hammered out at P5 meetings over several months, despite the high-tension environment.

“At the base level to be able to say that this is how we think about these risks, and this is an acknowledgement that it is something that we want to avoid, particularly during a difficult time, I think is noteworthy,” the official said.

The release of the statement had been timed to coincide with the five-yearly review conference of the NPT, but that conference has been postponed amid the spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19, and disagreements on whether the session could be held virtually.

“We affirm that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” the statement said, echoing a joint declaration by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev at a 1985 summit in Geneva.

The NPT was a bargain between states without nuclear weapons, who pledged not to acquire them, and the five nuclear-armed states, which promised to disarm. The review conference, originally planned for 2020, was expected to be contentious as a result of the stalling of momentum towards disarmament and the moves made by the five weapons states to modernise their arsenals.

Four other countries with nuclear weapons not recognised under NPT – Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea – have also shown no signs of reducing their stockpiles.

Meanwhile, the breakdown of the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran and the deadlock so far in attempts to salvage it, have raised the risks of nuclear proliferation, particularly in the Middle East.

Monday’s joint statement was aimed at improving the atmosphere at the NPT review conference.

China’s vice-foreign minister, Ma Zhaoxu, welcomed Monday’s statement as “positive and weighty”, adding it would “help increase mutual trust and replace competition among major powers with coordination and cooperation”.

It took several months of negotiation over the wording of the declaration before all five powers were ready to agree. France in particular had concerns that such a statement would undermine the deterrent effect of its arsenal.

“France has a nuclear doctrine reserving the right to use nuclear weapons as a “final warning” to warn off an aggressor or even a state sponsor of terrorism”, said Oliver Meier, senior researcher at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy.

Meier said the UK’s reservations were not so clearly expressed but he believed them to be similar.

A line in the joint statement saying that “nuclear weapons – for as long as they continue to exist – should serve defensive purposes, deter aggression, and prevent war,” was added to address French concerns.

The five nuclear weapons powers also stated that the “reduction of strategic risks”, making sure global tensions never lead to nuclear conflict, was one of their “foremost responsibilities”.

“We underline our desire to work with all states to create a security environment more conducive to progress on disarmament,” the statement said.

A senior US official said the declaration was the result “of a good and substantive and constructive conversation about how to reduce nuclear threats and eventually eliminate them”.


South Africa Parliament Chamber Where Lawmakers Sit Destroyed By Fire

CAPE TOWN, Jan 2: A massive fire in South Africa's houses of parliament in Cape Town has completely destroyed the National Assembly where parliamentarians sit, a spokesman said on Sunday as the blaze continued to rage.

"The entire chamber where the members sit... has burned down," Moloto Mothapo said, adding that the blaze had still not been extinguished.

No casualties have been reported so far but President Cyril Ramaphosa told reporters at the scene an arrest had been made.

"Someone has been held right now and is being questioned," he said.

An investigation has been opened into the blaze which started at around 0300 GMT on Sunday in the parliament complex's oldest wing, which was completed in 1884 and has wood-panelled rooms.

As day dawned, smoke could be seen billowing from the building against a blue sky.

"The roof of the Old Assembly building has collapsed and is gone," Jean-Pierre Smith, Cape Town's mayoral committee member for safety and security, told reporters earlier.

The historic building houses a collection of rare books and the original copy of the former Afrikaans national anthem "Die Stem van Suid-Afrika" ("The Voice of South Africa"), which was already damaged.

"The entire building has suffered extensively smoke and water damage," Smith said, adding "the fire has not been contained".

After ravaging the older wing of the building, the flames spread to newer parts of the complex which are currently in use.

"Firefighters are currently trying to control the fire in the New Wing, where the fire has affected the National Assembly Chamber," parliamentary spokesman Mothapo told an online news conference earlier in the day.

The imposing red and white building was still shrouded in a thick cloud of black at midday.

A team of firefighters who were first to arrive at the scene battled the flames for several hours before being forced to retreat and call for reinforcements.

Around 70 firefighters were later deployed, some using a crane to spray water on the blaze.

Former Cape Town mayor and current minister Patricia de Lille warned it would still be several hours before the fire was brought under control.

Inside the rooms, fine showers of grey ash fell from the ceiling to the floor, which was already littered with debris.

Emergency services said they feared the fire could spread swiftly through the old rooms, which are decorated with wood, thick carpets and curtains.

Images broadcast on television had earlier shown giant flames leaping from the roof.

The area around the fire in the upmarket neighbourhood was quickly cordoned off.

The cordon stretched to a square where flowers were still displayed in front of the nearby St. George's Cathedral, where anti-apartheid icon Archbishop Desmond Tutu's funeral took place on Saturday.

After a simple, no-frills mass, with a cheap coffin -- according to the famously modest Tutu's instructions -- his ashes were interred in the cathedral on Sunday.

Cape Town has been home to South Africa's houses of parliament since 1910, when separate administrations formed a union under British dominion and became a predecessor to the modern South African republic.

The site includes the National Assembly and the upper house National Council of Provinces, while the government is based in Pretoria.

It was in parliament where South Africa's last apartheid president FW de Klerk announced in 1990 plans to dismantle the brutal white-minority regime.

The houses of parliament in Cape Town consist of three sections, with the newer additions constructed in the 1920s and 1980s.

Another fire also broke out in the older wings of parliament in March, but it was quickly contained.

Cape Town suffered another major fire in April, when a blaze on the famed Table Mountain which overlooks the city spread, ravaging part of The University of Cape Town's library holding a unique collection of African archives.

China 'Should Stop Spread Of Military Adventurism': Taiwan President

TAIPEI (Taiwan), Jan 1: Taiwan's president on Saturday urged China to curb its "military adventurism", with tensions between the two sides at their highest level in years.

Beijing has ramped up military and diplomatic pressure on Taiwan since Tsai Ing-wen came to power in 2016, as she rejects the stance that the island is Chinese territory.

Chinese warplanes have made a historically high number of incursions into Taiwan's air defence zone in recent months.

The authorities in Beijing "should stop the spread of military adventurism within their ranks", Tsai said in her New Year speech.

"The use of military means is absolutely not an option for resolving the differences between our two sides."

Beijing considers Taiwan a part of its territory, and has vowed to seize it one day, by force if necessary.

President Xi Jinping in his New Year address declared that "the complete reunification of our motherland is an aspiration shared by people" in both China and Taiwan.

Taiwan's defence ministry warned in October that military tensions with China were at their highest in four decades after a record number of Chinese jets entered its air defence zone.

Beijing has also stepped up efforts in recent years to isolate Taiwan on the international stage.

It regards any formal declaration of an "independent" Taiwan as a provocation and has repeatedly threatened consequences for countries that support Taipei in its self-determination.

Beijing has encouraged Taiwan's dwindling diplomatic allies to switch sides.

Most recently, Nicaragua recognised Beijing over Taipei, and China opened its embassy in the Central American nation on Friday.

India, Pakistan exchange lists of nuclear installations and facilities

NEW DELHI, Jan 1: India and Pakistan on Saturday exchanged a list of their nuclear installations through diplomatic channels simultaneously in New Delhi and Islamabad, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said in a statement.

Under the Agreement on the Prohibition of Attack against Nuclear Installations and Facilities, both India and Pakistan inform each other of the nuclear installations and facilities in an attempt to prohibit the two sides from attacking each other's nuclear facilities.

"India and Pakistan today exchanged, through diplomatic channels simultaneously at New Delhi and Islamabad, the list of nuclear installations and facilities, covered under the agreement on the prohibition of attack against nuclear installations and facilities between India and Pakistan," the MEA said in a statement.

"The Agreement, which was signed on 31 December 1988 and entered into force on 27 January 1991 provides, inter alia, that India and Pakistan inform each other of the nuclear installations and facilities to be covered under the Agreement on the first of January of every calendar year," the statement reads.

This was the 31st consecutive exchange of such lists with the first one taking place on January 01, 1992.

Meanwhile, India and Pakistan also exchanged lists of prisoners held in their prisons, which includes civilians, defence personnel and fishermen, the MEA said.

Pakistan shared with the Indian High Commission in Islamabad a list of 628 Indian prisoners in Pakistan, including 51 civilians and 577 fishermen. While, India handed a list of 355 Pakistani prisoners in India, including 282 civilians and 73 fishermen, to the High Commission for Pakistan in New Delhi.

“This step is consistent with clause (i) of the Consular Access Agreement between Pakistan and India, signed on 21 May 2008, under which both countries are required to exchange lists of prisoners in each other’s custody twice a year, on 01 January and 01 July, respectively,” a statement from the ministry read.

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