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US airstrikes in Iraq, Syria targeted Iran-backed militia groups: Pentagon

WASHINGTON, June 28: The Pentagon announced Sunday it had conducted retaliatory targeted airstrikes against "facilities used by Iran-backed militia groups" on the Iraq-Syria border, which a monitor said killed at least five militia fighters.

The strikes come at a delicate moment as the United States blames Iran-linked Iraqi factions for recent attacks against Iraqi installations housing its personnel, while also hoping to work out a return to a nuclear deal with Tehran.

"US military forces earlier this evening conducted defensive precision airstrikes against facilities used by Iran-backed militia groups in the Iraq-Syria border region," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement, adding that the attacks were carried out at the direction of President Joe Biden.

While the United States did not provide information on casualties, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that "at least five Iran-backed Iraqi militia fighters were killed and several others were wounded in an attack by US warplanes" on the Syrian side of the frontier.

The war monitor, which relies on a network of sources inside Syria to collect information, said that military positions were among the targets hit.

Syria's state-run SANA news agency said one child had been killed and that at least three other people were wounded.

Kirby said that the targets €"two in Syria, one in Iraq€" were selected because "these facilities are utilized by Iran-backed militias that are engaged in unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) attacks against US personnel and facilities in Iraq."

Kataeb Hezbollah and Kataeb Sayyid al-Shuhada, two hardline Iraqi military factions with close ties to Tehran, were among the "several Iran-backed militia groups" that had used the targeted facilities, Kirby said.

Since the start of the year, there have been more than 40 attacks against US interests in Iraq, where 2,500 American troops are deployed as part of an international coalition to fight the jihadist Islamic State group.

The vast majority have been bombing against logistics convoys, while 14 were rocket attacks, some of them claimed by pro-Iran factions that aim to pressure Washington into withdrawing all their troops.

"Given the ongoing series of attacks by Iran-backed groups targeting US interests in Iraq, the president directed further military action to disrupt and deter such attacks," Kirby said.

"Specifically, the US strikes targeted operational and weapons storage facilities at two locations in Syria and one location in Iraq, both of which lie close to the border between those countries," he added.

The move marks the second such US attack on Iran-backed militia in Syria since Biden took office, with the first having occurred in February with a strike on facilities in the country's east that left more than 20 fighters dead, according to the Observatory.

On a separate, diplomatic front, the US-issued strikes come two days after the United States and France warned Iran that time was running out to return to a nuclear deal, expressing fear that Tehran's sensitive atomic activities could advance if talks drag on.

A return to the 2015 Iran accord has been a key Biden promise after the nuclear deal was trashed by his predecessor Donald Trump.

"We have a national interest in trying to put the nuclear problem back in the box that it was in the JCPOA," US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, using the acronym for the accord's formal name.

The UN nuclear watchdog said Friday it had received no reply from Tehran over the possible extension of a temporary agreement covering inspections at Iranian nuclear facilities which expired on Thursday.

Meanwhile, Iraqi Kurdish officials said Saturday three explosives-laden drones hit near the northern Iraqi city of Arbil, where the United States has a consulate.

The attack also occurred as the Hashed al-Shaabi, a pro-Iran paramilitary alliance opposed to the US presence in Iraq, held a military parade near Baghdad attended by senior officials.

In April, a drone packed with explosives hit the coalition's Iraq headquarters in the military part of the airport in Arbil, the Iraqi Kurdish regional capital.

The tactic poses a headache for the coalition, as drones can evade air defenses.

"As demonstrated by this evening's strikes, President Biden has been clear that he will act to protect US personnel," Kirby said Sunday.

Announcement of the strikes came one day before Biden meets at the White House with Reuven Rivlin, president of Israel, Iran's arch foe.

U.S. Navy says carrier group operating in S. China Sea

TAIPEI, June 15: A U.S. aircraft carrier group led by the USS Ronald Reagan has entered the South China Sea as part of a routine mission, the U.S. Navy said on Tuesday, at a time of rising tensions between Washington and Beijing, which claims most the disputed waterway.

China frequently objects to U.S. military missions in the South China Sea saying they do not help promote peace or stability, and the announcement follows China blasting the Group of Seven nations for a statement scolding Beijing over a range of issues.

"While in the South China Sea, the strike group is conducting maritime security operations, which include flight operations with fixed and rotary wing aircraft, maritime strike exercises, and coordinated tactical training between surface and air units," the U.S. Navy said.

"Carrier operations in the South China Sea are part of the U.S. Navy's routine presence in the Indo-Pacific."

The carrier is being accompanied by the guided-missile cruiser USS Shiloh and the guided-missile destroyer USS Halsey, it added.

China has ramped up its military presence in the South China Sea in recent years, including building artificial islands and air bases.

The South China Sea has become one of many flashpoints in the testy relationship between China and the United States, with Washington rejecting what it calls unlawful territorial claims by Beijing in the resource-rich waters.

U.S. warships have passed through the South China Sea with increasing frequency in recent years, in a show of force against the Chinese claims.

WHO's Covid-19 origin probe 'highly deficient', says Blinken

WASHINGTON, June 14: The World Health Organization's first phase of study on the origins of COVID-19 pandemic is "highly deficient", said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday (local time) and added that leaders from the Group of Seven (G7) countries will insist China to cooperate with a second phase of WHO study.

"The World Health Organization, you're right, the first study they put out was highly deficient," Blinken told Fox News on Sunday, as quoted by the US State Department press release.

"The leaders of the G-7 have come together insisting that China to cooperate with the so-called phase two study by the WHO to really get to the bottom of what happened. But that's not enough."

Backing the calls for further probe into the origin of the virus, Blinken said that "We need to get to the bottom of what happened."

"We need accountability, but we also need to understand what happened, why it happened, how it happened, if we're going to be able to put in place the necessary measures to prevent it from happening again, or at least be in a better place to mitigate the next pandemic if we can't fully prevent one," he added.

On Sunday, the G7 leaders called for a "timely, transparent, expert-led, and science-based WHO-convened" investigation into the origins of COVID-19, including, as recommended by the experts' report, in China.

"Strengthening transparency and accountability, including reiterating our commitment to the full implementation of, and improved compliance with, the International Health Regulations 2005. This includes investigating, reporting, and responding to outbreaks of unknown origin. We also call for a timely, transparent, expert-led, and science-based WHO-convened Phase 2 COVID-19 Origins study including, as recommended by the experts' report, in China," the G7 leaders said in the Carbis Bay communique.

Recently, the calls to investigate further the origins of the virus have intensified. President Biden has also ordered a fresh US intelligence inquiry into the origins of the pandemic.

The origin of novel coronavirus that caused havoc around the world has remained unclear even after 1.5 years the first case of infection was reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

China's aggressive behaviour in Indo-Pacific can spark crisis there: US defence secy

WASHINGTON, June 11: Describing China as a pacing challenge, US Defence Secretary Llyod Austin said Beijing's 'aggressive behaviour' in the Indo-Pacific could spark a crisis in the region.

Responding to questions from members of the Senate Armed Services Committee during a Congressional hearing on the annual budget of the Pentagon, he stressed on having a direct line of communication between the militaries and also between government officials. 'As we look at some of the aggressive behaviour that we have witnessed from China in the Indo-Pacific, I'm concerned about something that could happen that could spark a crisis,' Austin said on Thursday.

'We need the ability to be able to talk with our allies and partners and also with our adversaries or potential adversaries. So, I think there needs to be a direct line of communication between the military and also between government officials as well,' the defence secretary said.

Austin described the US' relationship with China currently as one of competition.

'They desire to be the preeminent country on the planet. Their mid to long-term goal is to do that. They look to compete with us, not only militarily but across a spectrum of activity,' he said.

'What you see us doing, the military and other sectors in our government, is making sure that we remain competitive, economically; making sure that we continue to develop the best scientists in the world and the most comprehensive research. So it is a competition across a broad spectrum of activity,' Austin said.

During the Senatorial hearing, Senator Angus King said that he believed one of the 'most serious risks the US faces today is an accidental conflict with China', of some kind of conflict in the South China Sea, the Strait of Taiwan, and the danger of escalation from that accidental conflict of some kind.

'It's concerning to me that we don't seem to have an effective hotline with China. I understand the Chinese are reluctant about this, but I believe this should be a national security priority,' King said.

Austin described China as a pacing challenge for the United States.

'China is our pacing challenge. So we've really weighted our main effort there to the Indo-Pacific region. My first trip overseas was out to the region, along with Secretary of State Antony Blinken. We visited South Korea, Japan, and India as well,' he said.

'We truly value the importance of strong relationships with our allies and partners. I think there's a great capacity that can be leveraged there. So, in some areas through those partnerships, while still strong, we will remain focused on that,” he said.

General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that from a military standpoint, China is the number one threat for the US.

Russia is a considerable great power competitor as well, he noted.

'The most significant military threat that we're focused on is China. It's our pacing challenge. That's what we have asked you a number of times to help us resource our efforts on that challenge,' he told the lawmakers.

US intends to hold 'very ambitious' Quad leaders meeting in Washington: White House official

WASHINGTON, June 9: The United States intends to hold a "very ambitious" Quad leaders meeting in Washington which will have all Quad leaders in attendance, said Kurt Campbell, President Joe Biden's policy coordinator for the Indo-Pacific region.

Speaking at an online event hosted by the Center for a New American Security think tank, Campbell said that the QUAD bloc of nations is focused on "deepening" its cooperation ahead of a potential in-person meeting of leaders later this year.

"...But our goal is to hold an in-person Quad meeting...very ambitious meeting here in Washington in the fall with all leaders in attendance. We will ensure that we've taken the necessary steps on the vaccine deliverable-- we intend to build on that," Campbell said.

Quad is a security alliance between India, the US, Japan and Australia.

Campbell in his remarks indicated that the Biden administration doesn't foresee a delay in the four-nation plan, which was announced at the White House in March at the Quad Virtual summit.

He also added that other countries had shown "interest" in the grouping and that involvement wasn't closed to others.

"Our discussions with both our partners in the private sector and also in government suggests that we are - knock on wood - still on track for 2022. I think we understand, the only way to be effective, to counter this, is through vaccine diplomacy. We're trying to step that up more generally," he said.

The United States, India, Japan, and Australia had agreed at the Quad summit in March that Indian drugmaker Biological E Ltd would produce at least a billion vaccine doses by the end of 2022 that would go to Southeast Asian countries, elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific, and beyond.

On June 4, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US Vice President Kamala Harris had in a telephonic conversation discussed the US' strategy for global vaccine sharing and Quad vaccine initiative to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

They highlighted the potential of the India-US partnership as well as the Quad vaccine initiative in addressing the long-term health impact of the pandemic.

India-US-Japan-Australia Quadrilateral initiative, or Quad, at its maiden summit in March 2021 had decided to build a first-of-its-kind joint vaccine supply chain to address the current and any future pandemic situations in the Indo-Pacific region.

Blinken signals possible resumption of U.S.-Taiwan trade, investment talks

WASHINGTON, June 8: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday signaled a possible resumption of trade and investment talks with Taiwan stalled since the Obama administration, but gave no indication of any willingness to pursue a full-scale trade pact Taipei has been seeking.

At a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on the U.S. State Department's annual budget request, Blinken was asked about the Biden administration's position on a bilateral trade agreement with Taiwan.

"I'd have to refer you to Katherine Tai, the U.S. Trade Representative, but I know we are engaged in conversations with Taiwan, or soon will be, on some kind of framework agreement, and those conversations should be starting."

Any such agreement is likely to irritate China, which claims Taiwan as its own territory.

Asked about Blinken's comment, a spokesperson for the U.S. Trade Representative's office said, "the United States believes it is important to continue strengthening our bilateral trade relationship with Taiwan," but added: "we have no meetings to announce at this time."

A spokesman for Taiwan's representative office in Washington said: "We are working to engage in discussions with USTR, which will hopefully lead to progress in our bilateral trade relationship."

Bonnie Glaser, a Taiwan expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said Blinken's comment was a signal Washington was likely to move forward with a resumption of Trade Investment Framework Talks (TIFA) with Taiwan that have not been held since the Obama administration.

She said the administration had probably not made a decision on whether to take the much larger step of pursuing a bilateral trade agreement with Taiwan, however.

"Senior Biden administration officials have been encouraging USTR Tai to hold a round of the TIFA talks, and Taipei is eager to do this as soon as possible," Glaser said.

She said Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen was keen to show some progress on trade talks with the United States ahead of an August referendum that could reverse her January decision to lift remaining restrictions on imports of U.S. pork and beef.

TIFA talks stalled after former President Barack Obama left office in 2016 and his successor Donald Trump’s trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, focused on trade talks with China.

Glaser said China would likely criticize a TIFA resumption out of concern that the talks could eventually lead to a free trade agreement and embolden other countries, such as Britain, to launch trade negotiations with Taiwan.

"China also will see such talks as part of a Biden strategy to strengthen ties with Taiwan and what they see as a diminishing U.S. commitment to One China," she said, referring to the long-standing U.S. policy of recognizing Beijing rather than Taipei.

Biden: Market democracies should write global trade rules & not China

WASHINGTON, June 6: US President Joe Biden has said the United States and Europe can work in close coordination on global challenges, and market democracies, not China, should write global rules governing trade and technology.

In an opinion article for Washington Post on Saturday, Biden said the US must lead the world from a position of strength to address issues like coronavirus, climate crisis, and the challenge posed by "harmful activities of the governments of China and Russia".

"While in Brussels, I'll meet with the president of the European Commission and the president of the European Council to discuss how the United States and Europe can work in close coordination on global challenges. We will focus on ensuring that market democracies, not China or anyone else, write the 21st-century rules around trade and technology. And we will continue to pursue the goal of a Europe whole, free and at peace," Biden wrote in an opinion piece.

"Whether it is ending the covid-19 pandemic everywhere, meeting the demands of an accelerating climate crisis, or confronting the harmful activities of the governments of China and Russia, the United States must lead the world from a position of strength," he added.

Ahead of the G7 Summit in the UK starting next week, Biden said that it was up to the leading democracies to offer "a high-standard alternative to China for upgrading physical, digital and health infrastructure that is more resilient and supports global development."

"Just as it does at home, honing the ability of democracies to compete and protecting our people against unforeseen threats requires us to invest in infrastructure," he added.

These remarks by Biden came after the White House issued an executive order on Thursday implying the ban on the acquisition of US investors or investments targeting 59 Chinese military and surveillance companies.

These firms have been linked accused of performing activities undermining the security of the United States and its allies.

Biden administration's order expands the list issued under his predecessor, Donald Trump, in November 2020, which targeted 44 companies.

US to give Taiwan 750,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines

TAPEI, June 6: The United States has announced a donation of 750,000 COVID-19 vaccines to Taiwan during a three-hour visit by a bipartisan group of US Senators to Taipei on Sunday.

This decision was part of Washington's promise to donate at least 80 million doses by the end of this month to the world. Taiwan was chosen as one of the first to receive vaccines as it continues to battle a sudden surge in cases, NHK reported.

A group of three Senators arrived at Songshan Airport in Taipei on a US Air Force cargo plane. The short visit was part of a larger tour of the Indo-Pacific region.

"It was critical that Taiwan be included in the first group to receive vaccines because the United States recognizes Taiwan's urgent need and values this partnership," said Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat who serves on the Senate Committee on Armed Services.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) said that the United States' pledge to donate COVID-19 vaccines to Taiwan has sent a strong and clear message of its support for the country.

Earlier this week, the White House had said that of the first 25 million, 19 million will be distributed through the COVAX initiative.

As part of Washington's vaccine outreach, 7 million doses will be given to Asia which includes the following countries and entities: India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Maldives, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Laos, Papua New Guinea, Taiwan, and the Pacific Islands.

Blinken honours Tiananmen massacre martyrs

WASHINGTON, June 3: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the 32nd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and termed the widespread crackdown as a "political turmoil".

Blinken on Thursday honoured the "sacrifices of those killed 32 years ago, and the brave activists who carry on their efforts today in the face of ongoing government repression."

"Tomorrow marks the 32nd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Named after the nearby Gate of Heavenly Peace, the square is instead synonymous with the brutal actions by the Government of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1989 to silence tens of thousands of individuals advocating to have a say in their government and exercise their human rights and fundamental freedoms," Blinken said in a statement.

"The courage of the brave individuals who stood shoulder-to-shoulder on June 4 reminds us that we must never stop seeking transparency on the events of that day, including a full accounting of all those killed, detained, or missing," he added.

Blinken said that the Tiananmen demonstrations are echoed in the struggle for democracy and freedom in Hong Kong, where a planned vigil to commemorate the massacre in Tiananmen Square was banned by local authorities.

The United States will continue to stand with the people of China as they demand that their government respect universal human rights, he added.

Kamala Harris calls Modi; Assures Covid vaccines

WASHINGTON, June 3: US Vice President Kamala Harris on Thursday spoke to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and informed him about the United States' global allocation plan of the first 25 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines.

Apart from Modi, Harris spoke to Mexico President Andres Manuel López Obrador, Guatemala President Alejandro Giammattei and Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Keith Rowley.

"In four separate calls, the Vice President notified each of the leaders that the Biden-Harris Administration will begin sharing the first 25 million doses of Covid vaccines to their respective countries and others, as part of the Biden-Harris Administration’s framework for sharing at least 80 million vaccines globally by the end of June," Senior advisor and chief spokesperson Symone Sanders said in a statement on Harris's calls with foreign leaders.

In his phone call with Kamala Harris, Prime Minister Modi also discussed further ways to fortify the India-US vaccine cooperation, contribution to post-Covid global health, and economic turnaround.

The Biden-Harris administration on Thursday released its vaccination sharing plan in which India features along with several other countries which will receive vaccines from the US either through Covax or directly.

The vaccine doses are likely to be shared with the countries by June as the US administration plans to share 80 million doses globally by the end of June. The details of the first 25 million doses were released on Thursday. Out of these 25 million, 19 million doses will be shared through Covax, the vaccine coalition of the World Health Organization. "The remaining doses, just over 6 million, will be shared directly with countries experiencing surges, those in crisis, and other partners and neighbours, including Canada, Mexico, India, and the Republic of Korea," the President's statement read.

After the call, Modi took to Twitter and thanked Kamala Harris for "all the support and solidarity from the US government, businesses and Indian diaspora".

"We also discussed ongoing efforts to further strengthen India-US vaccine cooperation, and the potential of our partnership to contribute to post-Covid global health and economic recovery," Modi wrote.

US to share 60 lakh Covid vaccine doses with India, other nations: Biden

WASHINGTON, June 3: US President Joe Biden on Thursday promised to share six million (approx 60 lakh) coronavirus vaccine doses with India and countries experiencing surges, and its other partners and neighbours, including Canada.

The US will donate 75% of its unused Covid-19 vaccines to the UN-backed COVAX global vaccine sharing programme.

The White House unveiled the allocation for sharing the first 2.5 crore doses with the world on Thursday. The President said it plans to share eight crore vaccine doses globally by the end of June.

The US President stated that initial 2.5 crore doses would be shipped from existing production of Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccine stocks.

Of the first tranche of 2.5 crore doses, the White House says about 1.9 crore will go to COVAX, with approximately 60 lakh for South and Central America, 70 lakh for Asia, and 50 lakh for Africa. The doses mark a substantial — and immediate — boost to the lagging COVAX effort, which to date has shared just 76 million doses with needy countries.

"US will share 80 million doses of our vaccine supply with the world. Out of this, nearly 19 million will be shared through COVAX, incl approx 6 million doses for Latin America & Caribbean, approx 7 million for South & Southeast Asia, and approx 5 million for Africa," Biden said on Thursday.

"The remaining doses, just over 6 million, will be shared directly with countries experiencing surges, those in crisis, and other partners and neighbors, including Canada, Mexico, India, and the Republic of Korea," the US President added.

He further said that the US would continue to follow the science and to work in close cooperation with its democratic partners to coordinate a multilateral effort, including through the G7.

Scores of countries have requested doses from the United States, but to date only Mexico and Canada have received a combined 45 lakh doses. The US also has announced plans to share enough shots with South Korea to vaccinate its 550,000 troops who serve alongside American service members on the peninsula.

Biden has committed to providing other nations with all six crore domestically produced doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine.




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