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US, Germany To Send Tanks To Ukraine

BERLIN/ Kyiv, Jan 25: The United States was expected to announce as soon as Wednesday that it will send heavy tanks to Ukraine, and Germany has decided to do the same, sources said, a reversal that Kyiv has said would reshape its war with Russia.

Hours before Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy turned 45 on Wednesday, he pressed allies to move forward with providing his forces with more than five to 15 modern tanks.

"Discussions must be concluded with decisions," Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address. "Decisions on real strengthening of our defence against terrorists. Allies have the required number of tanks."

Just days after arguing against granting Kyiv's requests, Washington was ready to start a process that would eventually send M1 Abrams battle tanks to Ukraine, two U.S. officials said on Tuesday. A third official said the U.S. commitment could total about 30 tanks delivered over the coming months.

Meanwhile, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz had decided to send Leopard 2 battle tanks to Ukraine and allow other countries such as Poland to do so as well, two sources familiar with the matter said.

Spiegel magazine, which first reported the news, said Germany was planning to supply at least one company of Leopard 2 A6 tanks, which usually comprises 14 tanks. Other allies, in Scandinavia for example, intend to go along with Germany in supplying their Leopard tanks to Kyiv, the magazine reported.

While there was no official confirmation from Berlin or Washington, officials in Kyiv hailed what they said was a potential gamechanger on the battlefield in a war that is now 11 months old - even if the rumoured tank numbers fell short of their hopes.

"A few hundred tanks for our tank crews .... This is what is going to become a real punching fist of democracy," Andriy Yermak, the head of Zelenskiy's administration, wrote on Telegram.

Kyiv has pleaded for months for Western tanks that it says would give its forces the firepower and mobility to break through Russian defensive lines and recapture occupied territory in the east and south. Germany has held back, wary of moves that could cause Moscow to escalate.

Front lines in the war, which stretch more than 1,000 kilometres through eastern and southern Ukraine, have been largely frozen for two months despite heavy losses on both sides. Russia and Ukraine are both widely believed to be planning new offensives.

Zelenskiy said on Tuesday night that Russia was intensifying its push toward Bakhmut, an industrial town in eastern Ukraine that has been the focus of intense fighting. "They want to increase the pressure on a larger scale," he said.

Whether to supply Ukraine with significant numbers of heavy modern battle tanks has dominated discussions among Kyiv's Western allies in recent days.

The Kremlin has said supplying tanks to Ukraine would not help and that the West would regret its "delusion" that Kyiv could win on the battlefield.

Berlin has been pivotal because the German-made Leopards, fielded by some 20 armies around the world, are widely seen as the best option. The tanks are available in large numbers and easy to deploy and maintain.

While the U.S. Abrams tank is considered less suitable due to its heavy fuel consumption and difficulty to maintain, a U.S. move to send them to Ukraine could make it easier for Germany - which has called for a united front among Ukraine's allies - to allow the supply of Leopards.

Russian President Vladimir Putin casts the "special military operation" that began when his troops invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24 last year as a defensive and existential battle against an aggressive and arrogant West.

Ukraine and the West call Russia's actions an unprovoked land grab to subdue a fellow former Soviet republic that Moscow regards as an artificial state.

Separately on Tuesday, Ukraine dismissed more than a dozen senior officials as part of an anti-corruption drive made more critical by the need to keep its Western backers onside.

The European Union, which offered Ukraine the status of candidate member last June, welcomed the development.

Among Ukrainian officials who resigned or were dismissed were the governors of the Kyiv, Sumy, Dnipropetrovsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, the latter three frontline provinces. Kyiv and Sumy were major battlefields earlier in the war.

Some, though not all, of the officials who left had been linked to corruption allegations.

Ukraine has a history of graft and shaky governance, and is under international pressure to show it can be a reliable steward of billions of dollars in Western aid.

Chris Hipkins Replaces Jacinda Ardern As New Zealand PM

WELLINGTON, Jan 25: Hundreds gathered to applaud Jacinda Ardern as she left New Zealand's parliament to resign as prime minister on Wednesday, before Chris Hipkins was swiftly sworn in as her replacement.

Ardern said last week she no longer had "enough in the tank" after steering the country through natural disasters, its worst-ever terror attack and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Hipkins was sworn in by Governor-General Cindy Kiro during a ceremony in the capital Wellington, saying he was "energised and excited by the challenges ahead".

"This is the biggest privilege and responsibility of my life," he said.

The 44-year-old is now tasked with reversing the government's sagging popularity, which has been hampered by a deteriorating economy and a resurgent conservative opposition.

Ardern made her last public appearance as prime minister earlier on Wednesday, walking out of the distinctive Beehive parliament building as hundreds of staff and onlookers broke into a spontaneous round of applause.

Prince William was among the first to congratulate Ardern.

"Thank you Jacinda Ardern for your friendship, leadership and support over the years, not least at the time of my grandmother's death," he wrote on his official Twitter account.

Folk singer Yusuf/Cat Stevens, who played a concert in memory of the 51 people killed during the 2019 Christchurch mosque massacre, also praised Ardern.

On Twitter, he described Ardern as a "supporter of the peace train who kept New Zealanders together following the terror attack in Christchurch".

Ardern was first elected as prime minister in 2017, before riding a wave of "Jacindamania" to secure a second term with a landslide victory in 2020.

But her centre-left government has increasingly struggled over recent months as it battles soaring inflation, a housing affordability crisis, and a looming recession.

After chairing his first cabinet meeting on Wednesday afternoon, Hipkins said it was an "immensely proud moment" for him to take "the baton of responsibility" from Ardern.

He singled out the cost of living as one of his most urgent priorities, but was coy when pressed on other potential policy changes.

Ardern, a global figurehead of progressive politics, has been credited with raising New Zealand's profile on the world stage.

Hipkins said he would be building his own relationships, but he expected Ardern "will put in a good word".

The father-of-two is nicknamed "Chippy" and describes himself as a "regular, ordinary Kiwi" from a working-class background who loves sausage rolls and cycling to work.

He has condemned the "utterly abhorrent" social media abuse levelled at Ardern, which intensified during her years as prime minister.

Ardern said Tuesday she would "hate" for her departure to be seen as "a negative commentary on New Zealand".

"I leave feeling gratitude for having this wonderful role for so many years," she said.

Ardern will continue to sit in parliament, but has announced her intention to step back from the cut and thrust of daily politics.

She has also said she plans to marry her partner Clarke Gayford, a television personality who fronts a popular fishing show, and is looking forward to taking her daughter Neve to school.

Gayford said Ardern's resignation had been met with an "incredible outpouring of thanks and respect", and that he was immensely proud of her "superhuman efforts".


Third Hindu Temple Vandalised In Australia With Anti-India Graffiti

CANBERRA, Jan 23: A third Hindu temple was vandalised with anti-India graffiti in Melbourne's Albert Park on Monday, days after Shri Shiva Vishnu Temple in Carrum Downs was vandalised, The Australia Today reported.

The management of Melbourne's International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) temple also known as the Hare Krishna Temple found the temple walls vandalised with anti-India graffiti in the early hours of Monday morning.

Speaking to The Australia Today, Bhakta Das, Director of Communication for ISKCON temple said that they were "shocked" by the disregard for respect for the place of worship and added that they hav filed the complaint with Victoria Police.

"We are shocked and outraged with this blatant disregard for respect for the place of worship," Das said.

Shivesh Pandey, an IT consultant and devotee of ISKCON temple said that Victoria Police has failed to take any action against people who are running a "hate-filled agenda" against the Hindu community, the news report said.

"In the last two weeks, Victoria Police has failed to take any decisive action against the people who are running their hate-filled agenda against the peaceful Hindu community," The Australia Today quoted Shivesh Pandey as saying.

The attack on ISKCON Temple comes two days after Victorian multifaith leaders held an emergency meeting with Victorian Multicultural Commission, as per the news report. The Victorian Multicultural Commission had issued a statement condemning the vandalism of Hindu Temples in Mill Park and Carrum Downes.

Earlier, the Shri Shiva Vishnu Temple in Australia's Carrum Downs was vandalised with anti-Hindu graffiti. The act came to notice on January 16 after temple devotees came for 'darshan' amid the three-day long "Thai Pongal" festival which is being celebrated by Australia's Tamil Hindu community.

On January 12, BAPS Swaminarayan Temple in the Mill park area of Melbourne was vandalised by anti-India elements with anti-India slogans written on the walls of the temple, located in the suburb of Mill Park, The Australia Today reported.

Patel, an onlooker who does not want to reveal his first name told The Australia Today, shared how he witnessed the vandalised walls of the temple when he visited the site on Thursday.

"When I reached the temple today morning all walls were coloured with graffiti of Khalistani hatred towards Hindus." The Australia Today quoted Patel as saying.

He added, "I am angry, scared and dismayed by the blatant display of religious hatred towards the peaceful Hindu community by Khalistan supporters."

In a statement to The Australia Today, BAPS Swaminarayan Mandir stated that they are "deeply saddened and shocked by these acts of vandalism and hate." It said that they have remained committed to "peaceful coexistence and dialogue to all faiths."

Chinese Billionaire Hui Ka Yan Loses 93% Of His Wealth: Report

BEIJING, Jan 22: A Chinese billionaire, who was one of the country's most wealthy and influential businessmen, has seen a 93 per cent dip in his fortune. Hui Ka Yan, the Chairman of China Evergrande Group was once worth $42 billion, which made him Asia's second-richest person. However, his wealth has declined to $3 billion, Bloomberg Billionaire Index showed, as reported by CNN.

Evergrande is the country's most indebted developer with $300 billion in liabilities and has been at the heart of China's real estate problems since 2021. To save his company, the billionaire also ended up selling his houses and private jets.

The company has about 200,000 employees, raked in more than $110 billion in sales in 2020 and owns more than 1,300 developments in more than 280 cities, the publication added. The company also failed to deliver its preliminary debt restructuring plan last year, stoking questions about its future, as per CNN.

In addition to his wealth declining, Hui is also finding himself increasingly isolated politically, with the latest signal coming from the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). CPPCC is an elite group comprising government officials and the biggest names in the business.

The businessman had been part of CPPCC since 2008 and of its elite 300-member standing committee since 2013. However, he was told not to attend the annual convention last year as his property empire became the biggest casualty of the nation's credit crunch, reported Sydney Morning Herald. Not only that, he has now been excluded from the latest list of individuals who will form the CPPCC for the next five years.

"The CPPCC role is like an honorary reward that China gives to faithful business people to make contributions to the country. It's not surprising at all that property tycoons like Hui, who created trouble in the property sector with their over-leveraging, are out of the list," Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who has authored several books about Chinese politics told Bloomberg.

"2023 is a crucial year for Evergrande Group to fulfil its duty as an enterprise and deliver projects in every possible way," the property magnate had said in a New Year message seen by Hong Kong-based newspaper South China Morning Post (SCMP).

"I believe we can complete our mission of delivery, repay various debts, eliminate the risks, and start a new chapter on survival, as long as all of our work together and never give up on resuming our construction, sales, as well as operations," he had said.

The Bloomberg Billionaire Index further showed that China's five richest property tycoons also lost about $65 billion combined in the past two years.

Global Indecision Is Killing More Of Our People: Ukraine

KYIV, Jan 21: Ukraine on Saturday blasted the "global indecision" of its allies after Germany refused to supply its vaunted Leopard tanks to bolster Kyiv's fighting capacity in the nearly year-long war with Russia.

On Friday, some 50 nations agreed to provide Kyiv with billions of dollars' worth of military hardware, including armoured vehicles and munitions needed to push back Russian forces.

But German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius said that despite heightened expectations, "We still cannot say when a decision will be taken, and what the decision will be, when it comes to the Leopard tank."

"Today's indecision is killing more of our people," Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted.

"Every day of delay is the death of Ukrainians. Think faster," he said.

Several allies echoed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in saying the tanks were essential to Ukraine's fight with its much larger neighbour.

In a joint statement the foreign ministers of the three Baltic states urged Germany "to provide Leopard tanks to Ukraine now.

"This is needed to stop Russian aggression, help Ukraine and restore peace in Europe quickly," said a message tweeted by Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics and endorsed by his Estonian and Lithuanian counterparts.

"Germany as the leading European power has special responsibility in this regard."

In Berlin, hundreds of people demonstrated outside the Federal Chancellery building calling for Germany to send tanks to Ukraine.

Berlin has been hesitant to send the Leopards or allow other nations to transfer them to Kyiv.

Reports earlier in the week indicated Germany would agree to do so only if the US provided its tanks as well. Washington has said providing its Abrams tanks to Ukraine is not feasible, citing difficulties in training and maintenance.

But expectations had grown ahead of Friday's Ukraine Contact Group meeting of around 50 US-led countries that Germany would at least agree to let other countries operating Leopards transfer them to Kyiv's army.

US Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina who is currently visiting Kyiv, called on both countries to supply the machines.

"To the Germans: Send tanks to Ukraine because they need them. It is in your own national interest that (Russian President Vladimir) Putin loses in Ukraine."

"To the (US President Joe) Biden Administration: Send American tanks so that others will follow our lead," he said.

The pleas came as the Russian army said its troops had launched an offensive in Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia region, where fighting intensified this week after several months of an almost frozen front.

In its daily report Saturday, Moscow's forces said they had carried out "offensive operations" in the region and claimed to have "taken more advantageous lines and positions".

Russia also said it had held a training exercise on repelling air attacks in the Moscow region, using an S-300 anti-aircraft missile system.

Ukraine's defence ministry reported 26 air strikes and 15 attacks from multiple-launch rocket systems Saturday.

"The enemy does not abandon its aggressive plans, focusing its main efforts on attempts to fully occupy the Donetsk region," on Ukraine's border with Russia, it said.

In Kyiv, Zelensky attended the funeral of his interior minister and other officials killed in a helicopter crash outside the capital Wednesday.

The seven coffins were hoisted into the echoing hall in central Kyiv by military pallbearers in full ceremonial dress, to the sound of a lone trumpet and a snare drum.

Denys Monastyrsky, one of Zelensky's top aides, is the highest-ranking Ukrainian official to die in the war that Russia launched on February 24, 2022.

Zelensky and his wife Olena Zelenska wore all black and carried floral tributes.

"Ukraine is losing its best sons and daughters every day," Zelensky said in a statement later.

The cause of the crash that killed him and 13 others when the chopper fell near a kindergarten is still being investigated.

US officials said Ukraine still faced an uphill battle against Russian forces who occupy one-fifth of the country 11 months after invading.

But they spoke of a possible Ukrainian counter-offensive in the coming weeks to retake parts of its territory.

US Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley pointed to the substantial amount of equipment -- much of it armoured vehicles and artillery -- that Ukraine was being pledged at Ramstein, as well as the large-scale training of its forces by allies.

"I do think it's very possible for the Ukrainians to run a significant tactical or even operational-level offensive operation to liberate as much Ukrainian territory as possible," Milley said.

But the Kremlin warned Friday that Western tanks would make little difference on the battlefield.

"One should not exaggerate the importance of such supplies in terms of the ability to change something," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

Chris Hipkins To Be New Zealand PM After Jacinda Ardern Decides To Quit

SYDNEY, Jan 21: New Zealand's former COVID-19 response minister Chris Hipkins will replace Jacinda Ardern as prime minister after receiving the only nomination from fellow MPs, the ruling Labour Party said Saturday.

The 44-year-old senior politician must be formally backed by Labour members of parliament on Sunday to take over as the country's 41st prime minister, following Ardern's shock resignation on Thursday.

The police and education minister will lead his party's uphill battle to win general elections on October 14 as the party lags in opinion polls, criticised by opponents over rising prices, poverty and crime rates.

"The Labour Party caucus will meet at 1pm on Sunday to endorse the nomination and confirm Chris Hipkins as Party Leader," said a statement by senior Labour Party member Duncan Webb.

As leader of the governing party, Hipkins will also become prime minister when Ardern steps down.

Ardern, a global figurehead for progressive politics, stunned New Zealand when announcing her abrupt exit from office, less than three years after securing a second term in a landslide election win.

The 42-year-old -- who steered the country through natural disasters, the Covid pandemic, and its worst-ever terror attack -- said she no longer had "enough in the tank".

Ardern said her decision to step down was "tinged with sadness" but after having made the announcement she had "slept well for the first time in a long time".

Political commentators have lined up to condemn the social media abuse that was increasingly directed at Ardern before her resignation.

Former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark said Ardern had "faced a level of hatred and vitriol" that was "unprecedented in our country".

Her successor is widely seen as a safe pair of hands with more than 14 years in parliament.

Political commentator Josie Pagani has described Hipkins as "sensible, likeable, tough and capable".

There was no immediate reaction to Hipkins' win from the country's main opposition National Party.

The right-wing ACT Party urged him to "deliver on substance instead of snowing New Zealand with spin", criticising his party's record on the number of welfare recipients, rising food prices and a tight labour market.

The Green Party said it looked forward to working with him to "end poverty, take bold climate action and protect our native wildlife".

Hipkins' appointment also quashed speculation that Justice Minister Kiri Allan, one of Labour's senior Maori MPs, might have become the country's first Maori prime minister.

But Allan praised Hipkins as decisive and said she believed he would be "an incredibly strong prime minister".

Hipkins won plaudits for his near two-year term as the Covid response minister in a country that shut down its borders to keep the coronavirus out, only fully reopening in August last year.

He conceded last year that people were fed up with the strict pandemic restrictions, describing the border closures as "tough going".

Hipkins describes himself as an "outdoor enthusiast" keen on mountain biking, hiking and swimming.

Ukraine interior minister, 3 children among 18 killed in Kyiv helicopter crash

KYIV, Jan 18: A helicopter crash near a kindergarten school outside Ukraine capital Kyiv has killed 18, including the country's interior minister, a news agency said Wednesday. Kyiv region governor, Oleksiy Kuleba said three children were also among those killed.

"There is information about 29 wounded, including 15 children. All necessary assistance is provided to them," he said. According to British broadcaster BBC, the minister's deputy and another official also died.

"A helicopter… crashed in Brovary. As a result… leadership of the interior ministry died," Igor Klymenko,the head of Ukraine's police service, said.

The interior ministry was led by Denys Monastyrsky, a 42-year-old father of two who was appointed to the post in 2021. His deputy was Yevgeniy Yenin.

Nine of those killed were onboard the emergency services helicopter that crashed in Brovary, Kyiv’s eastern suburb, a news agency said.

In videos shared on social media, the crash site can be seen covered in flames and smoke as rescue operations are carried out. According to an agency, the chopper went down next to a school kindergarten and a residential building.

Kira Rudik, a member of Ukraine's parliament, shared a video of the crash site.

Earlier, Oleksiy Kuleba, head of Kyiv's regional administration, said, "In the city of Brovary, a helicopter fell near a kindergarten and a residential building. At the time of the tragedy, children and employees were in the kindergarten."

Russia and Ukraine fought for control of Brovary in the early stages of Vladimir Putin's invasion, which began in February last year. Defeated Russian troops withdrew from Brovary in early April.

The crash comes after 45 people including six children died when a Russian missile struck a residential building in the eastern city of Dnipro last week.

UK Says Will Back Ukraine 'Until Victorious' As Russia Protests Tanks

WASHINGTON, Jan 17: The top UK diplomat warned Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday that Britain will support Ukraine until they win the war, after Moscow was angered by London's decision to send tanks.

"The message we're sending to Putin -- and, frankly, anyone else that cares to be watching -- is that we made a commitment to support Ukrainians until they are victorious," Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said on a visit to Washington.

"What Putin should understand is we are going to have the strategic endurance to stick with them until the job is done and the best thing that he can do to preserve the lives of his own troops is to recognize that," he said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Cleverly, who will later Tuesday hold talks with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, is visiting the United States and Canada after Britain became the first country to meet Ukraine's request for Western heavy tanks.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said his government would provide 14 Challenger 2 tanks.

European countries have previously supplied Kyiv with modernized versions of Soviet tanks and the United States and France have committed to lighter versions, with Washington sending Bradley armored vehicles.

Cleverly said that Britain decided to send tanks to the Ukrainians because "what we recognize they need is the ability to push back hard in the east and the in the south," areas which Russia has tried to seize since its invasion launched nearly 11 months ago.

Cleverly said that Britain was committed to looking at other assistance to Ukraine as its needs evolve.

Over 9,000 Civilians Killed In Ukraine Since Russia Invaded: Kyiv

KYIV, Jan 17: Over 9,000 civilians, including 453 children, have been killed in Ukraine since Russia's invasion last February, a senior Ukrainian presidential aide said on Tuesday.

"We have registered 80,000 crimes committed by Russian invaders and over 9,000 civilians have been killed, including 453 children," Andriy Yermak, head of the Ukrainian presidential staff, said at the World Economic Forum in the Swiss resort of Davos.

"We will not forgive a single (act of) torture or life taken. Each criminal will be held accountable," he said, reiterating that Ukraine wants a special international tribunal to try Russian political leaders and reparations for the destruction caused by Russia's invasion.

The Office of the UN high commissioner for human rights said on Monday that more than 7,000 civilians had been killed in Ukraine since Russia invaded.

40 Killed From Russian Missile Strike In Ukraine City

DNIPRO/KYIV, Jan 16: The death count from a Russian missile strike in the Ukrainian city of Dnipro rose to 40 on Monday with dozens more missing, making it the deadliest civilian incident of Moscow's three-month campaign of hurling missiles at cities far from the front.

Germany's Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht resigned on Monday after remarks over the war criticised as tone deaf, setting the stage for what is expected to be one of the most important weeks in outlining Western military support for Kyiv.

With allies due to meet on Friday at a US air base in Germany to discuss military aid, Berlin is under intense pressure to allow exports of its Leopard battle tanks, which Ukraine hopes will become the backbone of a new armoured force.

Ukrainian officials acknowledged little hope of finding anyone else alive in the rubble of Saturday's attack in Dnipro, but President Volodymyr Zelensky said the rescue in the central Ukrainian city would go on "as long as there is even the slightest chance to save lives".

"Dozens of people were rescued from the rubble, including six children. We are fighting for every person!" President Zelensky said in an overnight televised address.

Moscow denies intentionally targeting civilians in a campaign of air strikes since October that have knocked out power and water in Ukrainian cities, and says the incident in Dnipro was caused by Ukrainian air defences.

Kyiv says it has no way of shooting down the anti-ship missile it says struck an apartment building in Dnipro on Saturday during Russia's latest volley of attacks.

At least 40 people were killed in the attack with 30 still unaccounted for, city official Gennadiy Korban said. He said 75 people were wounded including 14 children.

The German government said Chancellor Olaf Scholz had accepted the resignation of Ms Lambrecht and would soon appoint a new defence minister to replace her.

Her exit comes just three days before she was due to host her US counterpart, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and four days before allies gather at Ramstein air base in Germany for the next meeting to coordinate military support for Kyiv.

Ms Lambrecht had been criticised in recent days for tone deafness after an upbeat New Year's Eve message filmed in front of fireworks, in which she spoke of the opportunities she had to meet "interesting, great people" as a result of the Ukraine war.

The coming week is expected to see intense diplomacy to secure additional weapons for Kyiv, with the focus on Germany's reluctance so far to supply tanks or let its allies send them.

France, the United States and Germany have all pledged armoured fighting vehicles this month, but Western countries had so far stopped short of offering main battle tanks. Britain broke that taboo over the weekend by offering a squadron of Challengers.

Moscow has accused the West of escalating the conflict, although Russia also says the supply of tanks would not affect the course of the war. The British tanks "will burn like the rest", Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Monday.

Eastern and central European NATO allies mainly rely on German-built Leopards, seen as the Western tanks most suited to forming the core of a new Ukrainian armoured force. Poland and Finland said last week they would like to send them, but that requires Berlin's permission.

Ukrainian forces recaptured swathes of territory during the second half of 2022. But the front lines have largely been frozen in place for the past two months, despite intense fighting in which both sides are believed to have taken heavy losses. Kyiv says new Western armour would break the stalemate, giving its forces the capability to break through Russian defensive lines.

Moscow claimed to have captured the eastern salt-mining town of Soledar last week, in what would be its biggest battlefield success since last August. Kyiv says it still has some presence in the town and fighting continues.

"Put simply, THE BATTLE CONTINUES," Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar said on the Telegram messaging app. "Everything else is unverified information."

Ukraine's Western allies say the fight for Soledar, with a pre-war population of barely 10,000, is unlikely to have much wider impact, except insofar as the huge losses there could sap manpower both sides need for decisive battles that lie ahead.

Ukraine has been warning that Moscow could be planning a new assault in coming weeks, including from close ally Belarus, which has allowed Russia to use its territory as a staging ground but has so far resisted joining the war directly.

Russia and Belarus began joint military aviation exercises on Monday. Minsk said the drills are defensive and it will not enter the war.

"We're maintaining restraint and patience, keeping our gunpowder dry," said Pavel Muraveyko, first deputy state secretary of Belarusian Security Council, according to a post on the Belarusian defence ministry's Telegram app on Sunday.

Putin Orders Ceasefire In Ukraine For 2 Days

MOSCOW, Jan 5: Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday ordered a temporary ceasefire in Ukraine on Orthodox Christmas, celebrated this week by both countries, according to the Kremlin.

This is the first time Russia introduced a full ceasefire in Ukraine since the launch of the offensive in February last year.

The announcement comes following a request for a ceasefire during the religious holiday from Russia's 76-year-old Orthodox leader Patriarch Kirill.

"I instruct the defence minister of the Russian Federation to introduce from 12:00 (0900 GMT) on January 6, 2023 until 24:00 (2100 GMT) on January 7, 2023 a ceasefire along the entire line of contact between the sides in Ukraine," the Kremlin said in a statement.

"Given the fact that a large number of citizens professing Orthodoxy live in the areas of combat, we call on the Ukrainian side to declare a ceasefire and give them the opportunity to attend church services on Christmas Eve, as well as on the Day of the Nativity of Christ," the statement added.

In a call with the Russian leader earlier Thursday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pressed Putin to declare a "unilateral" ceasefire in Ukraine.

Putin Puts Warship Armed With 'Invincible' Zircon Missiles On Combat Duty

MOSCOW, Jan 4: President Vladimir Putin sent a frigate to the Atlantic Ocean armed with new generation hypersonic cruise missiles on Wednesday, a signal to the West that Russia will not back down over the war in Ukraine.

Russia, China and the United States are in a race to develop hypersonic weapons which are seen as a way to gain an edge over any adversary because of their speeds - above five times the speed of sound - and manoeuvrability.

In a video conference with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Igor Krokhmal, commander of the frigate named "Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union Gorshkov", Putin said the ship was armed with Zircon (Tsirkon) hypersonic weapons.

"This time the ship is equipped with the latest hypersonic missile system - 'Zircon'," said Putin. "I am sure that such powerful weapons will reliably protect Russia from potential external threats."

The weapons, Putin said, had "no analogues in any country in the world".

More than 10 months since Putin sent troops into Ukraine, there is no end in sight to the war which has descended into a grinding winter artillery battle that has killed and wounded tens of thousands of soldiers on both sides.

Russia has also used hypersonic Kinzhal (Dagger) missiles in Ukraine.

Along with the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle which entered combat duty in 2019, the Zircon forms the centrepiece of Russia's hypersonic arsenal.

Russia sees the weapons as a way to pierce increasingly sophisticated U.S. missile defences which Putin has warned could one day shoot down Russian nuclear missiles.

Shoigu said the Gorshkov would sail to the Atlantic and Indian oceans and to the Mediterranean Sea.

"This ship, armed with 'Zircons', is capable of delivering pinpoint and powerful strikes against the enemy at sea and on land," Shoigu said.

Shoigu said the hypersonic missiles could overcome any missile defence system. The missiles fly at nine times the speed of sound and have a range of over 1,000 km, Shoigu said.

The main tasks of the voyage were to counter threats to Russia and to maintain "regional peace and stability jointly with friendly countries", Shoigu said.

A U.S. Congressional Research Service report on hypersonic weapons says that Russian and Chinese hypersonic missiles are designed to be used with nuclear warheads.

The target of a hypersonic weapon is much more difficult to calculate than for intercontinental ballistic missiles because of their manoeuvrability.

Beyond Russia, the United States and China, a range of other countries are developing hypersonic weapons including Australia, France, Germany, South Korea, North Korea and Japan, according to the U.S. Congressional Research Service.

Russia Blames Soldiers' Cellphone Use For Ukraine Strike That Killed 89

MOSCOW, Jan 4: Russia's defence ministry on Wednesday blamed the illegal use of mobile phones for a deadly Ukrainian missile strike that killed 89 servicemen, raising the reported death toll significantly.

Moscow previously said 63 Russian soldiers were killed in the weekend strike. The ministry's reaction came amid mounting anger among some Russian commentators, who are increasingly vocal about what they see as a half-hearted campaign in Ukraine.

Most of the anger on social media was directed at military commanders rather than Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Russian defence ministry said four Ukrainian missiles hit a temporary Russian barracks in a vocational college in Makiivka, twin city of the Russian-occupied regional capital of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.

Although an official probe has been launched, the main reason for the attack was clearly the illegal mass use of mobile phones by servicemen, the ministry said.

"This factor allowed the enemy to track and determine the coordinates of the soldiers' location for a missile strike," it said in a statement issued just after 1 a.m. in Moscow on Wednesday.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy made no mention of the attack in a video address on Tuesday in which he said Russia was set to launch a major offensive to improve its fortunes.

"We have no doubt that current masters of Russia will throw everything they have left and everyone they can round up to try to turn the tide of the war and at least delay their defeat," Zelenskiy said in a video address.

"We have to disrupt this Russian scenario. We are preparing for this. The terrorists must lose. Any attempt at their new offensive must fail," he continued.

Ukraine's military has said it launched a strike that resulted in Russian loss of equipment and possibly personnel near Makiivka. But it has given no further details.

Russian nationalist bloggers and some pro-Russian officials in the region put the Makiivka death toll in the hundreds, though some say that those estimates are exaggerated.

The attack was another blow to Putin and what he calls a "special military operation" to deter threats to Russian security and to protect Russian speakers. Ukraine and its allies accuse Moscow of an unprovoked imperialist-style grab for territory.

General Valery Zaluzhny, commander in chief of the Ukrainian armed forces, said the situation on the front line near the eastern town of Bakhmut was particularly tough.

Russian forces have repeatedly tried to take Bakhmut and the surrounding area, in some cases literally advancing over the corpses of their own soldiers, Zaluzhny wrote on the Telegram messaging app, saying Ukrainian forces were hanging on.

A little known patriotic group which supports the widows of Russian soldiers is calling on Putin to order a large-scale mobilisation of millions of men and to close the borders to ensure victory in Ukraine.

Zelenskiy reiterated Ukrainian assertions that Moscow is planning a full-scale mobilisation, a step that Russian officials say is not currently being considered.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson said Washington had seen reports "that the Ukrainian military struck a Russian military barracks that stored ammunition inside of Ukrainian territory" and led to many Russian deaths. "We have also read reports that many of these soldiers were new recruits."

Putin plans to talk to Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Interfax, the latest in a series of conversations the two men have had since the start of the war.

Turkey acted as mediator alongside the United Nations last year to establish a deal allowing grain exports from Ukrainian ports but the chances of serious peace talks look remote, especially as fighting continues to rage.

Ukraine's General Zaluzhny, summarising a Tuesday call with U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, thanked the American for helping ensure the provision of anti-missile weapons systems that Kyiv says is knocking out more and more of the Russian missiles aimed at power-generating plants.

Zaluzhny said he had discussed what equipment Ukraine needed to increase its chances against Russia, a message that senior officials have hammered on a daily basis.

"Right now is the moment when, together with our partners, we should strengthen our defence," said Zelenskiy.

Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told Zelenskiy that he can count on Britain for support over the long run "as demonstrated by the recent delivery of more than 1,000 anti-air missiles", Sunak's office said on Tuesday.

Modi Discusses Climate Action With King Charles

NEW DELHI, Jan 3: Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a telephonic conversation today with King Charles III– their first since he assumed the Office of the Sovereign of the UK. Modi conveyed his best wishes to the King for a very successful reign.

In a statement to the media, the government said the two discussed a number of subjects of mutual interest -- including climate action, conservation of biodiversity and innovative solutions for financing energy-transition.

Modi expressed his appreciation for "His Majesty's abiding interest and advocacy on these issues," the statement read.

The Prime Minister, the government said, also briefed the King on India's priorities for its G-20 Presidency, including propagation of digital public goods.

India formally assumed the G20 Presidency on December 1. The next G20 Leaders' Summit at the level of Heads of State/Government will be held on September 9 and 10.

During the conversation, Modi also explained the relevance of Mission LiFE - Lifestyle for Environment, through which India seeks to promote environmentally sustainable lifestyles. The five-year programme -- envisioned as an India-led global mass movement that will nudge individual and collective action to protect and preserve the environment -- was introduced by the Prime Minister at COP26 at Glasgow in November 2021.

The two leaders also exchanged views on the Commonwealth of Nations and how to further strengthen its functioning. They also expressed appreciation for the role of the Indian community in the UK in acting as a "living bridge" between the two nations and enriching bilateral relations.

Charles III was formally proclaimed Britain's new king in September following the death of his mother Queen Elizabeth II.

In his first New Year Honours list released in London, the King has knighted Alok Sharma, an Indian-origin former UK minister, for his contribution to combating climate change at the COP26 summit.

China Has Unilaterally Tried To Change LAC: S Jaishankar

VIENNA, Jan 3: External Affairs Minister, S Jaishankar today lambasted China for trying to unilaterally change the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

In an interview with the Austrian ZIB2 podcast, a daily news magazine of ORF television, he said, "We had an agreement not to unilaterally change the LAC, which they have tried to unilaterally do. So there is, I think, an issue, a perception that we have which derives directly from our experiences."

The Galwan Valley and Pangong Lake in the west of the LAC, have hosted flashpoints in recent years. In the east Tawang was the site of the latest India-China scuffle.

"I think there's a larger concern based on our experiences. The concern is that we had agreements with China not to amass forces in our border areas, and they have not observed those agreements, which is why we have the currently tense situation that we do," he said.

Recently, India and China held the 17th Round of Corps Commander Level Meeting at the Chushul-Moldo border meeting point on the Chinese side on December 20 and agreed to maintain security and stability on the ground in the Western Sector.

Speaking about China trying to change the status quo, he said that China may blame India for not following the agreements, however, the satellite pictures could clearly show who was at the fault.

"Now, where else the status quo may change or not change? I would hesitate as a foreign minister to predict publicly. I may have my own views and assessments, but I certainly can share my experience. And my experience is that written agreements were not observed and that we have seen levels of military pressure, which, in our view, has no justification. China would say the opposite. They would say that India had not obeyed different agreements. But obviously, no, I think it's difficult for China to say that. For this reason, the record is very clear, because today there's a lot of transparency. You have satellite pictures. If you see who moved the forces to the border areas first, I think the record is very clear. So it's very difficult for China to say what you suggested they could," said Jaishankar.

Commenting on India which is likely to overtake China as the most populous country, and its place in world politics, Jaishankar said, "India will probably overtake China as the world's most populous country within this year. Is this fact of any political significance to India, or is it just a mere statistic? You know, we'll know that when we reach there, won't we? Because we have never used numbers in that manner. Maybe other countries have. I would still say it is a statistic to a large extent."

He also highlighted the need for reforms in the United Nations, saying that the world's most populous country is not among the permanent members of the Security Council.

"What does it say about the state of the UN? If that is the case? So it's both a yes and a no. It's partly a statistic, but I think it's a statistic that means a lot. For several years, you have called for a permanent seat on the Security Council as if Brazil as Japan, or Germany. How long will it take, from your point of view, till this reform of the Council will actually become reality? Well, ideally, we'd liked it yesterday, of course, but the problem, I think, is that those who are today enjoying the benefits of permanent membership clearly are not in a hurry to see the reform. I think it's a very short-sighted view, in my opinion, because at the end of the day, the credibility of the UN, and frankly, their own interests and effectiveness, is at stake. So my sense is it will take some time, hopefully not too much time," said Jaishankar.

He also underscored that the UN is not represented evenly, he said, "I can see a growing body of opinion among UN members who believe that there must be change. It's not just us. You have entire Africa, entire Latin America left out developing countries vastly underrepresented, I think, the state of the world. This was an organization invented in 1945. It's 2023. And when you would have to guess for a year when this will happen, what would it be? No, I wouldn't guess, because I know the complexities of this process. It's a tough one. I would be honest with you. It's a tough one. But I don't think we should give up because it's a tough one. On the contrary, because it's a tough one, we should actually up the ante, increase the feeling in bad parts of the world that this reform is essential."

Canada Grants Permanent Residency To More Than 437,000 Foreigners In 2022

OTTAWA, Jan 3: Canada set an immigration record last year by granting more than 437,000 foreigners permanent residency, the government said on Tuesday, as it ramps up immigration to fight a tight labour market.

The government had set a target to welcome 431,645 new permanent residents in 2022, and the immigration ministry said Canada has reached that target to make it the largest annual intake of people in Canadian history.

The tally for last year is about 9% higher than 2021, when Canada surpassed the previous record set in 1913, and comes as Canada seeks to bring in 1.45 million new permanent residents by 2025-end.

Immigration is a key part of the solution as Canada focuses on addressing acute labour market shortages, the ministry said. People with permanent residency permits can typically apply for citizenship after five years.

Immigration accounts for almost 100% of Canada's labour force growth and by 2036 immigrants will represent up to 30% of Canada's population, up from 20.7% in 2011, the statement said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government has relied on immigration to boost the Canadian economy and support an ageing population since coming to power in 2015.

Shortage of skilled workers in industries like healthcare is acute and the most recent official data shows there were 871,300 job vacancies in October, down from a record high of over a million open roles in Canada in May.

To tackle that, Ottawa is planning targeted draws for skilled immigrants for the first time in 2023, allowing it to cherry-pick applicants with the most in-demand skills for the regions of the country that most need workers.

But many immigrants still struggle to find work in their chosen field, and some advocates say supports have not grown in pace with the number of new permanent residents.

Canada has also struggled to keep up with a surge in applications after COVID-19 pandemic related restrictions eased as the number of processed applications doubled to about 5.2 million in 2022 from the previous year, the ministry said.

All Planets In Our Solar System Visible At Same Time From Earth

WASHINGTON, Jan 4: American space agency NASA recently shared a picture that captures a rare phenomenon: all the planets of our solar system witnessed from Earth simultaneously.

The phenomenon known as the 'Planet Parade' allows people to see Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Planet parade is an astronomical phenomenon during which several planets may be observed in the sky by the naked eye.

The sight was shared by NASA as the Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) yesterday.

In the 'After Sunset Planet Parade' image posted on January 2, a wide range of planets such as Jupiter, Mars, Venus, Saturn, and Mercury can be seen sparkling against a purple sky in the late evening.

Featuring Mars, Uranus, Jupiter, Neptune, Saturn, Mercury, and Venus in one frame, the photo quickly went viral as internet users marvelled at the dazzling dusk time scene. Taken by astronomer and photographer Tunc Tezel in December 2022, the image also featured bright stars like Altair, Fomalhaut, and Aldebaran.

Posting a new astronomy-related image each day, NASA's APOD tradition stretches back decades. Every day there is a new image along with a short explanation written by a professional astronomer, providing a perfect mix of informational and entertaining content.

APOD's first photo of 2023 featured "the largest rock in our solar system" famously called the 'pale blue dot' through a photo taken by NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft in 1990.

Today's photo, by photographer Tommy Lease, shows the awe-inspiring Kemble's Cascade of Stars, which is an asterism (a group of stars different from a constellation). APOD's tagline, "discover the cosmos", promises that each day is a new foray into the vast, intricate universe in which we live.

Tens Of Thousands Pay Respects To Former Pope Benedict At Vatican

VATICAN CITY, Jan 2: Tens of thousands of people paid their respects on Monday to former pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican, at the start of three days of lying-in-state in St Peter's Basilica before his funeral.

They began queueing before dawn to view the German theologian's body, which was transferred early in the morning from the monastery in the Vatican grounds where he died on Saturday aged 95.

"I arrived at 6:00 am, it seemed normal to come and pay homage to him after all he did for the church," said an Italian nun, sister Anna-Maria, near the front of the line that snaked around the vast St Peter's Square.

Benedict led the Catholic Church for eight years to 2013 before becoming the first pope in six centuries to step down, citing declining health.

His successor Pope Francis will lead the funeral on Thursday in St Peter's Square before Benedict's remains are placed in the tombs beneath the basilica.

He will be buried in the tomb which held pope John Paul II's remains until 2011, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said Monday.

Benedict's body, dressed in red papal mourning robes and a gold-edged mitre, was laid out on a catafalque draped in gold fabric in front of the altar of St Peter's, flanked by two Swiss Guards.

Many of those filing past took pictures on their smartphones, while some prayed or made the sign of the cross.

"The atmosphere is very intimate," Francesca Gabrielli, a pilgrim from Tuscany in central Italy, said inside the basilica.

She said Benedict was "a great pope, profound, unique".

Some 65,000 people paid their respects Monday, according to the Vatican.

'Lord, I love you!'

Benedict died at the Mater Ecclesiae monastery where he had lived for the past decade. His last words in the early hours of Saturday were said by the Vatican to have been "Lord, I love you!"

Members of the public are allowed to view the body during day-time, passing first through the metal detectors used routinely to screen visitors to the basilica.

Among the visitors Monday were curious tourists, including Valerie Michalak, on holiday with her family from Benedict's native Germany.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be part of this big ceremony," she said.

Thursday's funeral is unprecedented in modern times in that it will be presided over by a sitting pontiff.

Benedict's shock resignation created the extraordinary situation of having two "men in white" -- both him and Francis -- at the Vatican.

Papal deaths usually trigger the calling of a conclave of cardinals to elect a successor, but this time Francis remains in post and will lead proceedings.

The Vatican has yet to release details of the guest list, beyond saying it will include delegations from Italy and Germany.

Spain's royal household said former queen Sofia, wife of ex-king Juan Carlos I, would attend the funeral. Polish President Andrzej Duda will also be present.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who at the weekend joined world leaders from Joe Biden to Vladimir Putin in paying tribute to Benedict, was among the first to visit his body on Monday morning.

She was greeted by Archbishop Georg Gaenswein, Benedict's long-time aide.

The last papal funeral, of John Paul II in 2005, drew a million faithful and heads of state from around the world.

But Benedict has been an ex-pope for longer than he was pontiff -- and he was a more divisive figure.

A brilliant theologian, he alienated many Catholics with his staunch defence of traditional values and as pope struggled to impose his authority on the church as it battled a string of crises, including over clerical sex abuse.

His successor cuts a very different figure, an Argentine Jesuit who is most at home among his flock and has sought to forge a more compassionate church.

Pope Francis paid tribute to Benedict in three New Year's events at the Vatican over the weekend, "thanking God for the gift of this faithful servant of the Gospel and of the Church".

Francis, 86, has raised the prospect that he might follow Benedict's example and one day resign.

In July, suffering knee problems that have forced him to rely on a wheelchair, he admitted he needed to slow down or think about stepping aside.

Last month, Francis revealed he had signed a resignation letter when he took office should poor health prevent him from carrying out his duties.

ISIS Owns Up Kabul Attack That Killed 20

RIYADH/KABUL, Jan 2: The ISIS terror group on Monday claimed the responsibility for an attack on the Taliban in Kabul. The terror group said on Telegram that the attack on Sunday had killed 20 people and wounded 30.

A spokesman for Afghanistan's Taliban-run interior ministry said an explosion outside the military airport in the capital Kabul had caused multiple casualties.

The interior ministry denied the casualty figures claimed by ISIS and said it would release the official death count.

The ISIS has claimed several high-profile attacks in Kabul, including the attack at a hotel that caters to Chinese businessmen and a shooting at Pakistan's embassy that Islamabad called an assassination attempt against its ambassador, who escaped unharmed.

Russia Says More Than 60 Soldiers Killed In Ukrainian Strike

KYIV, Jan 2: Russia on Monday said more than 60 soldiers were killed in a Ukrainian strike on Russian-controlled territory in a New Year assault, the biggest loss of life reported by Moscow so far.

Kyiv took responsibility for the strike, which it said took place in the occupied city of Makiivka in eastern Ukraine on New Year's Eve.

In a rare announcement that followed criticism by Russian military correspondents, the defence ministry in Moscow said 63 Russian servicemen were killed "as a result of a strike by four missiles" in Makiivka.

It was the biggest loss of life reported by the Russian defence ministry so far in a conflict that has dragged on since President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops to invade on February 24 last year.

The Russian ministry said US-supplied Himars rocket systems had been used and the target was a temporary deployment point.

Late on Monday, the general staff of Ukraine's armed forces said in a statement that its forces were behind the strikes on Makiivka.

"Up to 10 units of enemy military equipment of various types were destroyed and damaged," the general staff said.

Earlier in the day, the strategic communications department of Ukraine's armed forces said nearly 400 Russian troops were killed in Makiivka.

The general staff, which usually communicates on such incidents, did not confirm the figure and said the human "losses" were still being established.

Russian war correspondents, who have gained influence in recent months, said hundreds could have been killed in the strike on a vocational school in Makiivka and accused Russia's top commanders of not learning from past mistakes.

Former Russian separatist leader Igor Strelkov said the troops, largely consisting of mobilised Russians, were stationed in an unprotected building that was "almost completely" destroyed because ammunition stored on the premises detonated in the strike.

He said "hundreds" had been killed and wounded.

"Ten months into the war, it is dangerous and criminal to consider the enemy a fool who does not see anything," said Andrei Medvedev, deputy speaker of the Moscow city legislature.

The Samara governor, Dmitry Azarov, said that among the victims were residents of his region, adding that a hotline was set up for their relatives.

On social media, some accused Russian authorities of downplaying the toll.

"Dear God, who will believe in the figure of 63? The building has been completely destroyed," one Russian, Nina Vernykh, wrote on the country's largest social network, VKontakte.

An announcement on the social network urged Russians to collect clothes, medicines and equipment for those who survived the strike.

"Everything that the mobilised had on them remains under the rubble," said the announcement.

Another announcement said that residents in four of the region's cities -- Samara, Tolyatti, Syzran and Novokuibyshevsk -- will gather on Tuesday to mourn the troops.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the country's forces had shot down more than 80 drones since the start of 2023.

"In the near future, this number may increase," he said.

He also said it was paramount to increase "the cost of a new mobilisation and the war on the whole for the terrorist state".

Russian strikes across Ukraine on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day killed at least five people and wounded dozens.

Kyiv again came under fire from Iranian-made drones on Monday, although Ukrainian forces claimed the majority were shot down by air defences.

Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko reported an explosion in northeastern Kyiv and said emergency services were dispatched.

"An injured 19-year-old man was hospitalised in the Desnyanskyi district of the capital," he said.

On Monday evening, Kharkiv region head Oleg Synegubov said Ukraine's second-largest city and the surrounding region had once again been attacked with Russian missiles.

"Critical infrastructure has been targeted," he wrote.

General Valery Zaluzhny, commander in chief of the Ukrainian armed forces, said the army had so far liberated "40 percent of the territories occupied after February 24".

Journalists in Kramatorsk, the de facto administrative capital of Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region, reported four loud explosions on Monday evening.

The Russian Defense Ministry said on social media Monday night that it had conducted strikes near the city and in the Kharkiv region, claiming to have killed "more than 70 foreign mercenaries."

After suffering a series of humiliating battlefield defeats, Moscow began targeting electrical and other critical infrastructure in October.

The strikes have caused sweeping blackouts and cut off water supplies and heating to civilians as the temperature in some regions dropped below freezing.

The UN's human rights chief has warned the campaign has inflicted "extreme hardship" on Ukrainians and decried probable war crimes by Russian forces.

Ukraine and the European Union will hold a summit in Kyiv on February 3 to discuss financial and military support, Zelensky's office said in a statement on Monday that followed a phone call with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

The leaders discussed the supply of "appropriate" weapons and a new 18 billion euro ($19 billion) financial assistance programme to Ukraine, with Zelensky pushing for the first tranche to be sent this month, according to the statement.

Kim Jong Un Sacks His No. 2 In North Korea's Military

SEOUL, JAN 2: North Korea has sacked Pak Jong Chon, the second most powerful military official after leader Kim Jong Un, state media reported. Pak, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of the ruling Workers' Party and a secretary of the party's Central Committee, was replaced by Ri Yong Gil at the committee's annual meeting last week, the official KCNA news agency said on Sunday.

No reason for the change was given. Pyongyang regularly revamps its leadership and the year-end party gathering has often been used to announce personnel reshuffles and major policy decisions.

State television showed Pak sitting in the front row of the podium with his head down during the meeting while other members raised their hands to vote on personnel issues. His seat was later shown unoccupied.

He was also absent in photos released on Monday by the official KCNA news agency of Kim's New Year's Day visit to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun which houses the bodies of his grandfather and father, unlike in October when Pak accompanied Kim on a trip to the palace to mark a party anniversary.

The party's Central Military Commission, which is headed by Kim, is considered the country' most powerful military decision-making body, above the defence ministry.

Pak's replacement came as Kim called for developing new intercontinental ballistic missiles and a larger nuclear arsenal to counter the United States and South Korea as key to the isolated country's 2023 defence strategy.

Pak had rapidly moved up the military ladder from a one-star artillery commander in 2015 to a four-star general in 2020, taking credit for contributing to progress in the country's short-range missile technology.

In late 2020, Pak was promoted to the politburo and earned the title of marshal, the highest military rank under Kim, and became a leading voice last November against joint South Korea-US military exercises.

Like most other top military aides who went through ups and downs repeatedly under Kim, Pak was briefly demoted in mid-2021 after Kim chided some officials for their handling of North Korea's anti-coronavirus policy, before being promoted again months later.

Pak's dismissal comes despite Kim mostly lauding the military's advances in weapons development during the meeting, unlike other areas where he pointed out some faults and called for improvement.

Oh Gyeong-sup, a fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, said a recent flare-up in inter-Korea tension over North Korean drones' intrusion into the South could have played a role.

Officials in Seoul said South Korea sent three drones across the border in response to the intrusion, but there was no response from the North, which Oh said could mean that it failed to detect the aircraft.

"Pak might have taken responsibility for the failure of security operations," Oh said.

Ri, Pak's successor, is also a senior military commander who held key positions including chief of the army's general staff and defence minister.

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