Russia accused of fending Assad ‘despite its chemical weapons attack’

Russia accused of fending Assad ‘despite its chemical weapons attack’
US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield. (Supplied)
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Updated 06 March 2021

Russia accused of fending Assad ‘despite its chemical weapons attack’

Russia accused of fending Assad ‘despite its chemical weapons attack’
  • The team asked Syria “to declare the exact types and quantities of chemical agents produced and/or weaponized at this site,” but no response has been received, Nakamitsu said

NEW YORK: The US has accused Syrian leader Bashar Assad and Russia of trying to block all efforts to hold his regime accountable for using chemical weapons during attacks on civilians.
US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the UN Security Council that “the Assad regime has tried to avoid accountability by obstructing independent investigations and undermining the role and work of the OPCW,” the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons which is the international chemical weapons watchdog.
She accused Russia of defending Assad “despite its chemical weapons attacks,” obstructing independent investigations, and undermining efforts to hold the Syrian regime accountable not only for using chemical weapons but for “numerous other atrocities.”
OPCW investigators blamed three chemical attacks in 2017 on Assad’s regime in April 2020.
The OPCW Executive Council responded by demanding that Syria provide details.
When it didn’t, France submitted a draft measure on behalf of 46 countries in November to suspend Syria’s “rights and privileges” in the global watchdog which means it would lose its vote. It will be considered at the April meeting of the OPCW’s 193 member states.
Syria joined the Chemical Weapons Convention in September 2013, pressed by Russia after a deadly chemical weapons attack that the West blamed on Damascus. By August 2014, the Assad regime declared that the destruction of its chemical weapons was completed.
But Syria’s initial declaration of its chemical stockpiles and chemical weapons production sites to the OPCW has remained in dispute.
UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Izumi Nakamitsu told the council that issues related to Syria’s declaration “remain outstanding” including a chemical weapons production facility that the Syrian government declared “as never having been used for the production of chemical weapons.”
She said, however, that analysis of information and all materials gathered by the OPCW Declaration Assessment Team since 2014 “indicates that production and/or weaponization of chemical warfare nerve agents did, in fact, take place at this facility.”
The team asked Syria “to declare the exact types and quantities of chemical agents produced and/or weaponized at this site,” but no response has been received, Nakamitsu said.
Russia’s UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia accused some countries, which he didn’t name, of repeatedly using the chemical weapons “card” as a tool to pressure the Syrian regime, using grave accusations “backed up by unconvincing evidence like video footage on social media or ‘testimony’ of knowingly biased witnesses, or falsified facts.”

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US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield accused Russia of obstructing independent investigations, and undermining efforts to hold the Syrian regime accountable not only for using chemical weapons but for numerous other atrocities.

At the same time, he said, “they reject the counter-arguments provided not only by Russia and Syria, but also by independent experts and organizations, and do not give any coherent explanation as to why they do so.”
Nebenzia reiterated Russia’s accusations that the OPCW and its technical experts have become the “transmitter of anti-Syrian claims of the Western countries” — an allegation strongly denied by Nakamitsu, US ambassador Thomas-Greenfield, and many other speakers.
“The root cause of the problem is that our Western colleagues have long turned Syria’s chemical file into a means of punishment of the unwanted authorities in Damascus,” the Russian ambassador said.
“Therefore, attempts to establish the connection between the file and actual use or non-use of chemical weapons are absolutely senseless.”
Syria’s new UN ambassador, Bassam Al-Sabbagh, who served as his country’s envoy to the OPCW for seven years after 2013, stressed the regime’s condemnation of the use of chemical weapons and denial that it ever used chemical weapons.
He said Syria has made “tangible progress” in resolving issues in its initial declaration and expressed regrets that some countries “always see the glass half empty and don’t hesitate to criticize rather than applaud progress achieved.”
France’s UN Ambassador Nicolas De Riviere countered that “the Syrian regime is still lying, hiding the truth and evading its international obligations.”
He emphasized “the need to fight impunity.”
He sharply criticizedd “the unfounded accusations” against the OPCW, saying “they are undignified and, above all, they are irresponsible.”
“The Security Council has a historic responsibility for the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and the re-emergence of chemical weapons in the world is a major threat,” De Riviere said.
“We cannot allow these weapons to become commonplace.


US Navy says seizes huge weapons cache in Arabian Sea

US Navy says seizes huge weapons cache in Arabian Sea
Updated 22 min 5 sec ago

US Navy says seizes huge weapons cache in Arabian Sea

US Navy says seizes huge weapons cache in Arabian Sea
DUBAI: The US Navy’s Fifth Fleet said Sunday it had seized a huge cache of illicit Russian and Chinese weapons from a stateless dhow sailing in international waters of the North Arabian Sea.
The Fifth Fleet, which is based in Bahrain, said the guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey intercepted the vessel and discovered the cargo during a routine boarding, in a two-day operation on May 6-7.
“The cache of weapons included dozens of advanced Russian-made anti-tank guided missiles, thousands of Chinese Type 56 assault rifles, and hundreds of PKM machine guns, sniper rifles and rocket-propelled grenades launchers,” it said in a statement.
The arms are in US custody and their source and intended destination is under investigation, it said.
The Fifth Fleet said the Monterey was in operation for 36 hours, providing security for boarding teams.
“After all illicit cargo was removed, the dhow was assessed for seaworthiness, and after questioning, its crew was provided food and water before being released.”
The statement did not indicate where the vessel may have come from, but said the US Navy’s regular patrols in the region “disrupt the transport of illicit cargo that often funds terrorism and unlawful activity.”

Afghans begin burying dead from bloody school blasts

Afghans begin burying dead from bloody school blasts
Updated 09 May 2021

Afghans begin burying dead from bloody school blasts

Afghans begin burying dead from bloody school blasts
  • The Taliban deny involvement, and insist they have not carried out attacks in Kabul since February last year

KABUL: Dozens of young girls were being buried Sunday at a desolate hilltop cemetery in Kabul, a day after a secondary school was targeted in the bloodiest attack in Afghanistan in over a year.
A series of blasts outside the school during a peak holiday shopping period killed more than 50 people, mostly girl students, and wounded over 100 in Dash-e-Barchi, a west Kabul suburb populated mostly by Hazara Shiites.
The government blamed the Taliban for the carnage, but the insurgents denied responsibility and issued a statement saying the nation needed to “safeguard and look after educational centers and institutions.”
Saturday’s blasts came as the United States military continues to pull out its last 2,500 troops from the violence-wracked country despite faltering peace efforts between the Taliban and Afghan government to end a decades-long war.
Interior Ministry spokesman Tareq Arian told reporters that a car bomb detonated in front of the Sayed Al-Shuhada girls school on Saturday, and when the students rushed out in panic, two more devices exploded.
Residents were shopping ahead of this week’s Eid Al-Fitr holiday, which marks the end of Islamic holy month of Ramadan, when the blasts occurred.
On Sunday, relatives began burying the dead at a hilltop site known as “Martyrs Cemetery,” where victims of attacks against the Hazara community are laid to rest.
Hazaras are Shiite Muslims and considered heretic by extremist Sunnis. Sunni Muslims make up the majority of the Afghan population.
Afghan officials including President Ashraf Ghani blamed the Taliban.
“This savage group does not have the power to confront security forces on the battlefield, and instead targets with brutality and barbarism public facilities and the girls’ school,” Ghani said in a statement after the blasts.
The Taliban denied involvement, and insist they have not carried out attacks in Kabul since February last year, when they signed a deal with Washington that paved the way for peace talks and withdrawal of the remaining US troops.
But the group has clashed daily with Afghan forces in the rugged countryside even as the US military reduces its presence.
The United States was supposed to have pulled all forces out by May 1 as agreed with the Taliban last year, but Washington pushed back the date to September 11 — a move that angered the insurgents.
The leader of the Taliban, Haibatullah Akhundzada, reiterated in a message released ahead of Eid that any delay in withdrawing the troops was a “violation” of that deal.
“If America again fails to live up to its commitments then the world must bear witness and hold America accountable for all the consequences,” Akhundzada warned in Sunday’s message.
He said also that the nation should give particular attention to the healthy and literate growth of children.
The nation “must safeguard and look after educational centers and institutions,” he said.
The top US diplomat in Kabul, Ross Wilson, called Saturday’s blasts “abhorrent.”
“This unforgivable attack on children is an assault on Afghanistan’s future, which cannot stand,” Wilson tweeted.
The Dasht-e-Barchi neighborhood has been a regular target of attacks from Sunni Islamist militants.
In May last year, a group of gunmen launched a brazen daylight raid on a hospital in the area that left 25 people dead, including 16 mothers of newborn babies.
Ghani had blamed the Taliban and the militant Daesh group for that attack.
On October 24, a suicide bomber blew himself up at a tuition center in the same district, killing 18 people in an attack that was claimed by Daesh.


India’s daily COVID-19 deaths near record, calls for nationwide lockdown mount

India’s daily COVID-19 deaths near record, calls for nationwide lockdown mount
Updated 09 May 2021

India’s daily COVID-19 deaths near record, calls for nationwide lockdown mount

India’s daily COVID-19 deaths near record, calls for nationwide lockdown mount
  • India’s health ministry reported 4,092 fatalities over the past 24 hours
  • Many Indian states have imposed strict lockdowns over the past month to stem the surge in infections

MUMBAI: India’s COVID-19 deaths rose by more than 4,000 for a second consecutive day on Sunday as calls for a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the virus mounted.
India’s health ministry reported 4,092 fatalities over the past 24 hours, taking the overall death toll to 242,362. New cases rose by 403,738, just shy of the record and increasing the total since the start of the pandemic to 22.3 million.
India has been hit hard by a second COVID-19 wave with cases and deaths hitting record highs every other day. With an acute shortage of oxygen and beds in many hospitals and morgues and crematoriums overflowing, experts have said the actual numbers for COVID-19 cases and fatalities could be far higher.
Many Indian states have imposed strict lockdowns over the past month to stem the surge in infections while others have announced restrictions on public movement and shut down cinemas, restaurants, pubs and shopping malls.
But pressure is mounting on Prime Minister Narendra Modi to announce a nationwide lockdown similar to the one imposed during the first wave last year.
India on Saturday reported its highest ever single-day COVID-19 death toll of 4,187 fatalities. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates that India will see 1 million COVID-19 deaths by August.
Support has been pouring in from around the world in the form of oxygen cylinders and concentrators, ventilators and other medical equipment for overwhelmed hospitals.


Large Chinese rocket segment disintegrates over Indian Ocean

Large Chinese rocket segment disintegrates over Indian Ocean
Updated 09 May 2021

Large Chinese rocket segment disintegrates over Indian Ocean

Large Chinese rocket segment disintegrates over Indian Ocean

BEIJING: A large segment of a Chinese rocket re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and disintegrated over the Indian Ocean on Sunday, the Chinese space agency said, following fevered speculation over where the 18-ton object would come down.

Officials in Beijing had said there was little risk from the freefalling segment of the Long March-5B rocket, which had launched the first module of China’s new space station into Earth orbit on April 29.

But the US space agency NASA and some experts said China had behaved irresponsibly, as an uncontrolled re-entry of such a large object risked damage and casualties.

“After monitoring and analysis, at 10:24 (0224 GMT) on May 9, 2021, the last-stage wreckage of the Long March 5B Yao-2 launch vehicle has re-entered the atmosphere,” the China Manned Space Engineering Office said in a statement, providing coordinates for a point in the Indian Ocean near the Maldives.

It added that most of the segment disintegrated and was destroyed during descent.

The US military’s Space Command said the rocket “re-entered over the Arabian Peninsula at approximately 10:15 p.m. EDT on May 8 (0215 GMT Sunday).”

“It is unknown if the debris impacted land or water.”

Monitoring service Space-Track, which uses US military data, said that the location in Saudi Arabia was where American systems last recorded it.

“Operators confirm that the rocket actually went into the Indian Ocean north of the Maldives,” it tweeted.

The segment’s descent matched expert predictions that any debris would have splashed down into the ocean, given that 70 percent of the planet is covered by water.

Because it was an uncontrolled descent, there was widespread public interest and speculation about where the debris would land.

American and European space authorities were among those tracking the rocket and trying to predict its re-entry.

Objects generate immense amounts of heat and friction when they enter the atmosphere, which can cause them to burn up and disintegrate. But larger ones such as the Long March-5B may not be destroyed entirely.

Their wreckage can land on the surface of the planet and may cause damage and casualties, though that risk is low.

Last year, debris from another Chinese Long March rocket fell on villages in the Ivory Coast, causing structural damage but no injuries or deaths.

That, and the one that came down Sunday, are tied for the fourth-biggest objects in history to undergo an uncontrolled re-entry, according to data from Harvard-based astronomer Jonathan McDowell.

The uncertainty and risks of such a re-entry sparked accusations that Beijing had behaved irresponsibly.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin suggested last week that China had been negligent, and NASA Administrator Bill Nelson echoed that after the re-entry on Sunday.

“Spacefaring nations must minimize the risks to people and property on Earth of re-entries of space objects and maximize transparency regarding those operations,” Nelson said in a statement.

“It is clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris.”

To avoid such scenarios, some experts have recommended a redesign of the Long March-5B rocket – which is not equipped for a controlled descent.

“An ocean reentry was always statistically the most likely,” McDowell tweeted.

“It appears China won its gamble (unless we get news of debris in the Maldives). But it was still reckless.”

Chinese authorities had downplayed the risk, however.

“The probability of causing harm to aviation activities or (on people and activities) on the ground is extremely low,” foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Friday.

Beijing has poured billions of dollars into space exploration to boost its global stature and technological might.

The launch of the first module of its space station – by the Long March rocket that came down Sunday – was a milestone in its ambitious plan to establish a permanent human presence in space.


Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti: Permitted to hold Eid prayers, sermons 3 times in Muslim minority countries due to COVID

Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti: Permitted to hold Eid prayers, sermons 3 times in Muslim minority countries due to COVID
Updated 09 May 2021

Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti: Permitted to hold Eid prayers, sermons 3 times in Muslim minority countries due to COVID

Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti: Permitted to hold Eid prayers, sermons 3 times in Muslim minority countries due to COVID
  • He said it was permitted due to coronavirus restrictions and lack of mosques

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti said it was permitted to repeat Eid prayers and sermons three times to accommodate three separate congregations in Muslim minority countries due to coronavirus restrictions and to prevent the spread of the virus.
Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah Al-Asheikh, also the head of the Council of Senior Scholars and the Committee for Islamic Research and Issuing Fatwas, said the decision was also based on the lack of mosques and chapels outside major cities.
In response to a question on the permissibility of Muslim minority countries performing the Eid prayer and sermon three times due to the large number of worshipers in light of precautionary measures and the lack of mosques, Sheikh Abdulaziz said: “It is not permitted to repeat the Eid prayer in one prayer hall for one congregation after another without necessity or urgency,” but added that we are in unprecedented times.
The Grand Mufti said some scholars permitted it when necessary and according to our current situation with the coronavirus pandemic and the precautionary measures, the preservation of public health is one of the main objectives of Sharia law.