Putin to meet Pope Francis, Italian leaders on one-day visit to Rome

Russian President Vladimir Putin is meeting with Pope Francis during a one-day visit to Rome. (Vatican Media via Reuters)
Updated 04 July 2019

Putin to meet Pope Francis, Italian leaders on one-day visit to Rome

  • ‘We have a special relationship, tested by time, with Italy’

ROME: Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives in Rome Thursday for a lightning visit including talks with the pope and Italy’s populist government, which has called for an easing of sanctions despite Moscow’s ongoing crisis with the West.

Rome’s historic center is on security lockdown for the visit with 50 streets blocked to traffic and Italian media reporting that mobile phone signals could be scrambled.

Putin will be driven around in his six-meter-long armored limo by a chauffeur who has been practicing negotiating his way around the Eternal City’s narrow streets. His talks with Italian leaders should be easier.

Far-right Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini has often expressed admiration for Putin, and his coalition government advocates reviewing EU sanctions against Russia.

On the eve of the visit, Putin praised Salvini and his Lega party for having a “welcoming attitude” to Russia.

“They are pushing for a rapid abolition of the anti-Russian sanctions introduced by the US and the EU,” Putin said in an interview with Corriere della Sera.

The US and EU have progressively imposed sanctions on Russia since its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Moscow’s involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, including the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17.

Salvini has previously visited Moscow and been pictured in pro-Putin T-shirts.

When his party won most Italian votes in May’s European elections, Salvini posted a photo of himself with a picture of Putin in the background.

“Men like him (Putin) who act in the interest of their own citizens, there should be dozens in this country,” Salvini said last year.

The Kremlin says Putin wants to discuss Russia-EU relations, the situation in Syria, Ukraine and Libya and Iran’s nuclear program.

An EU summit last month extended economic sanctions targeting whole sectors of the Russian economy, including its crucial oil and gas industry, until the end of 2019.

Italy has not vetoed the sanctions but the EU front appears less united thanks to Rome’s pro-Russian overtures.

Before talks with Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and President Sergio Mattarella, Putin will have his third meeting with Pope Francis.

Their last encounter was in 2015 when the pope urged all parties to the conflict in Ukraine to make a “sincere effort” for peace.

The meeting lasted an unusual 50 minutes. Only audiences with former US President Barack Obama and French President Emmanuel Macron have been longer.

Francis first met Putin in 2013, as the Roman Catholic Church sought to improve ties with the Russian Orthodox Church.

Only in 2009 did the Vatican and Moscow re-establish full diplomatic ties which had been severed during Soviet times.

Relations have improved since the coming to power in the same year of Patriarch Kirill, who headed up the Russian Orthodox Church’s diplomatic arm for years.

The Russian Orthodox Church has frequently accused the Catholic Church of proselytizing in Russia, an Orthodox Christian country of 144 million.

The pope in 2016 held a historic meeting with Kirill in Cuba, the first encounter between the heads of the two largest Christian churches since Christianity split into Western and Eastern branches in the 11th Century — an event known as “The Great Schism.”

Kremlin adviser Yuri Ushakov said on Wednesday that “for the time being a possible invitation for the pope to visit Russia is not on the agenda.”

The pope and Putin will discuss “preserving Christian holy sites in Syria,” the Kremlin said.

Salvini and fellow Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio will attend a dinner for Putin in the evening, after which the Russian president will meet his old friend and former premier Silvio Berlusconi, known for his sex scandals and “bunga bunga” parties.

“We are bound by a friendship stretching back many years,” Putin said in the Corriere interview, hailing “a politician of global stature.”


Sindhi, Baloch ‘separatists’ forming ties in Sindh, Pakistani officials say

Updated 28 min 35 sec ago

Sindhi, Baloch ‘separatists’ forming ties in Sindh, Pakistani officials say

  • Follows little-known Sindhudesh Revolutionary Army carrying out attacks

KARACHI: Investigations into a spate of recent attacks in southern Sindh province have led Pakistani officials to believe there are growing links between Sindhi separatists and militant groups from the insurgency-racked Balochistan province, officers with knowledge of the investigation have told Arab News.

However, experts warn that it may be too early to assume a “nexus” between the groups.

Late last month, gunmen attacked the Pakistan Stock Exchange building in the city of Karachi, the capital of Sindh, killing two guards and a policeman before security forces killed all four attackers.

Counterterrorism officials said that the attack had been claimed by the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), a separatist group from the southwestern province of Balochistan, which has been designated as a terrorist organization by the US and the EU.

Just weeks earlier, three consecutive explosions killed four people, including two soldiers in Sindh. A shadowy secessionist organization, the Sindhudesh Revolutionary Army (SRA), which wants the province to break away from the Pakistani federation, claimed responsibility for the attacks. This week, SRA also claimed a grenade attack on a Karachi bakery in which a retired paramilitary Rangers official was killed. 

SRA and two other Sindhi groups were banned by the government in May this year. 

Speaking to the media after the attack on the stock exchange building,  Sindh Rangers  chief  Major General Omer Ahmed Bukhari said that the attacks proved that “hostile intelligence agencies” were working to forge a “nexus” between Sindhi and Balochi insurgent groups, adding that he believed current investigations would establish this beyond doubt. 

In a statement emailed to the media after the stock exchange attack, the BLA admitted that it had “complete support” from Sindhi groups. 

“Today both the nations (Baloch and Sindhi) are fighting for the independence of their homelands against Pakistan,” the BLA statement said. “We had the complete support of the Sindhi nation in today’s attack, and it shows a strong brotherly bond between both the nations.”

Separatists have been fighting security forces for years in Balochistan over what they see as the unfair exploitation of the province’s vast mineral wealth. Insurgents are also opposed to — and attack projects linked to — China’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative in the resource-rich province. 

Pakistan has regularly blamed India for supporting Baloch separatists, a charge that Delhi denies.

Last month, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan told parliament that he had no doubt India was behind the attack on the stock exchange building, which India promptly denied. Khan offered no evidence for his allegation, but he said that there had been intelligence reports warning of attacks in Pakistan and he had informed his Cabinet about the threats.

Sindhi separatists such as the Sindhudesh Revolutionary Army have carried out low-intensity attacks in the past, including blowing up train tracks. Their attacks, however, have been less violent than that of neighboring Balochistan where separatists have attacked a Chinese consulate, a leading hotel chain and on many occasions killed security officials patrolling a coastal highway.

Now, officials fear that Sindhi groups might be able to enhance their capacity to carry our deadlier attacks with help from Baloch militants and other hostile groups. 

“It can be a source of lawlessness in the future if this nexus is not broken,” said a police officer involved in investigating a “possible nexus between Sindhi and Baloch insurgent groups, backed by India.” He requested anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media about the issue.

The police official said that Baloch groups already had “some capability” to launch damaging attacks, “but once there is a nexus, it can also be helpful for Sindhi nationalists, and that’s worrisome.”

A senior intelligence officer, who also declined to be named, said there had been a noticeable increase in the frequency of attacks by Sindhi groups, which pointed to the fact that they might have more experienced helpers.

“Increase in capability (through a nexus with Baloch groups) will only be proved if they launch more sophisticated attacks,” he said. “Law enforcement agencies are absolutely aware and alert to the dangers posed by the growth of this nexus.”

Raja Umar Khattab, a senior counter-terrorism officer in Karachi, said that while teaming up with other groups might enhance the capacity of Sindhi nationalists, he did not see the nexus posing a significant threat in the near future. 

“The nexus can supplement the capacity of Sindhi sub-nationalists,” Khattab said, “but they will not be able to create any big law and order situation due to the preparedness of the law enforcement agencies.”

Sindh’s chief of Rangers has also said that Baloch and Sindh separatists were cosying up to the London faction of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a Pakistani political party whose leader Altaf Hussain lives in exile in London. 

“Hostile intelligence agencies strive to make a nexus of the cells, sleeper cells and facilitators of the remnant terrorist organizations (separatists), which include the remnants of the MQM,” Bukhari said during a press conference after the stock exchange attack.

The MQM, one of Pakistan’s most prominent political parties, is mostly comprised of descendants of Muslim Urdu-speaking people who migrated to Pakistan around the time of the partition of India in 1947. 

Once able to control Sindh province with an iron grip, the party’s fortunes have waned in recent years, particularly since 2013 when the military launched a crackdown against criminal groups and militants as murder rates soared and mutilated bodies were dumped in alleyways daily. Many saw the operation, centered in Karachi, as a pretext to wrest control of the port city from the MQM, an accusation that security forces deny.

While Karachi crime rates have dropped sharply and many local businesses have welcomed the operation, allegations of brutal and illegal methods have remained. 

The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances has in the past referred dozens of cases of illegal abductions of MQM workers to the Pakistan government, concluding a “pattern of specific targeting” of the MQM by Rangers, which the paramilitary force denies.

Before the 2013 operation, law enforcement agencies and many Karachi residents accused the MQM of racketeering, the abduction, torture and murder of opponents and holding the city to ransom by calling mass strikes at will.

On Wednesday, the MQM’s Qasim Ali Raza denied that the party had any links to separatists or attacks in Sindh and urged the state to stop the “blind and fraudulent” process of blaming the party. 

The Karachi-based political analyst, Mazhar Abbas, said that a nexus between the MQM and separatist groups, if it existed, would not work. 

“The workers of MQM neither accepted the alliance with Sindhi nationalists (in the past),” he said, “nor will they subscribe to the current idea of a friendship.”

Other analysts said that there was as yet no “solid” evidence to claim the nexus existed. 

“Politically, there has been some closeness between Sindhi and Baloch nationalists, but speaking about a military nexus, one needs to have solid evidence at hand,” said Sohail Sangi, a Karachi-based analyst who closely observes separatist groups.

However, Anwar Sajjadi, a Quetta-based security analyst, said that he believed a growing nexus was a possibility, adding it was no coincidence that Sindhi groups had recently started voicing opposition to Chinese projects being built under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) umbrella, which Baloch groups have long opposed.

“We have seen uniformity in their stances,” Sajjadi said. “Same stance on CPEC and other (rights) issues is bringing all these groups closer.”

Related