Defiant Lukashenko defends plane diversion, blasts critics

Defiant Lukashenko defends plane diversion, blasts critics
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko armed with a Kalashnikov-type rifle near the Palace of Independence in Minsk, Belarus, Aug. 23, 2020. (AP Photo)
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Updated 26 May 2021

Defiant Lukashenko defends plane diversion, blasts critics

Defiant Lukashenko defends plane diversion, blasts critics
  • Minsk air traffic control informed the crew of the Ryanair Athens-to-Vilnius flight that they had a bomb onboard and urged them to land in the Belarusian capital
  • Roman Protasevich — the 26-year-old co-founder of opposition Telegram channel Nexta — and his Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega were arrested after the plane landed

MINSK: A defiant President Alexander Lukashenko on Wednesday defended Belarus’s diversion of a European flight and arrest of a dissident on board, lashing out at critics at home and abroad.
In his first public statement since the Ryanair flight was diverted and opposition journalist Roman Protasevich arrested on Sunday, Lukashenko dismissed the international outcry the incident provoked.
“I acted lawfully to protect our people,” Lukashenko said in an address to parliament, the Belta state-run news agency reported.
The criticism was nothing more than another attempt by his opponents to undermine his rule, he said, accusing them of waging a “modern, hybrid-war” against Belarus.
“Our ill-wishers at home and abroad have changed their methods of attacking the state,” Lukashenko said, accusing them of crossing “red lines” and “boundaries of common sense and human morality.”
“They have moved from organizing riots to strangulation.”
Lukashenko — often dubbed “Europe’s last dictator” — is facing some of the strongest international pressure of his nearly 27-year rule of ex-Soviet Belarus.
The strongman and his allies are already under a series of Western sanctions over a brutal crackdown on mass protests that followed his disputed re-election to a sixth term last August.
European leaders are now accusing authorities in Minsk of essentially hijacking the passenger flight, and they agreed this week to cut air links with Belarus and told airliners to avoid the country’s airspace.
The Belarusian opposition has called for further and stronger measures, and the UN Security Council was set to meet behind closed doors later on Wednesday.
The Athens-to-Vilnius flight was diverted over a supposed bomb scare, with Lukashenko scrambling a MiG-29 fighter jet to accompany the aircraft.
Belarus has released a transcript of communications between Minsk air traffic control and the Ryanair flight, in which the crew was told “you have a bomb on board” and urged to land in Minsk.
Lukashenko on Wednesday denied that the fighter jet had forced the airliner to land, calling such claims an “absolute lie.”
He claimed that Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania had denied the Ryanair flight permission to land and that the commercial flight’s only option had been to turn to Minsk.
Protasevich — the 26-year-old co-founder of opposition Telegram channel Nexta — and his Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega were arrested after the plane landed.
Protasevich, who had been living between Poland and Lithuania, appeared in a video on Monday in which he confessed to helping to organize mass unrest, a charge that could land him in jail for 15 years.
Sapega, a 23-year-old law student at the European Humanities University (EHU) in Lithuania, appeared in another video on Tuesday, saying she worked for a Telegram channel that disclosed information about Belarusian police.
Her lawyer said she had been remanded in pre-trial detention for two months and Russia confirmed she was being detained as a criminal suspect.
Belarus’s opposition says such videos are routinely recorded by security forces, with participants forced to make statements under duress.
Protasevich’s mother told AFP in Poland that she had not slept since he was arrested.
“I’m asking, I’m begging, I’m calling on the whole international community to save him,” Natalia Protasevich said, weeping.
“They’re going to kill him in there.”
EU leaders on Monday warned they would adopt further “targeted economic sanctions” against the Belarusian authorities to add to the 88 regime figures and seven companies on a blacklist.
Last year’s protests lasted for months, with tens of thousands taking to the streets to denounce Lukashenko, but were brutally quashed and thousands were detained — many of whom reported torture and abuse in custody.
On Wednesday, dozens of people marched through the streets of Beryozovka east of Minsk for the funeral of Vitold Ashurok, 50, a well-known opposition activist who died Sunday from cardiac arrest in a penal colony in eastern Belarus.
Many protest leaders — including now-exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who claimed victory in the August vote — fled the country, and the demonstrations have dwindled.
Tikhanovskaya this week urged Europe and Washington to take stronger action against Lukashenko’s regime, but the strongman continues to enjoy solid support from Russia.
The Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday there was no reason to disbelieve Lukashenko’s version of events and announced a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Belarusian leader in Russia on Friday.
Speaking to the European Parliament via video link on Wednesday, Tikhanovskaya called for a series of concrete measures, including a ban on new foreign investments and on Belarus’s main exports like oil and metal products, potash fertilizers and wood.
Diplomatic sources told AFP the UN Security Council would hold an informal meeting on Belarus on Wednesday but was unlikely to agree on a collective statement because of Russia’s support for Minsk.


Millions of Americans risk eviction as coronavirus cases spike

Millions of Americans risk eviction as coronavirus cases spike
Updated 3 min 9 sec ago

Millions of Americans risk eviction as coronavirus cases spike

Millions of Americans risk eviction as coronavirus cases spike
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention feared homelessness would boost coronavirus infections

WASHINGTON: Millions of Americans could find themselves homeless starting Sunday as a nationwide ban on evictions expires, against a backdrop of surging coronavirus cases and political fingerpointing.
With billions in government funds meant to help renters still untapped, President Joe Biden this week urged Congress to extend the 11-month-old moratorium after a recent Supreme Court ruling meant the White House could not do so.
But Republicans balked at Democratic efforts to extend the eviction ban through mid-October, and the House of Representatives adjourned for its summer vacation Friday without renewing it.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said blocking the measure was “an act of pure cruelty... leaving children and families out on the streets,” in a tweet late Saturday.
Several left-wing Democrats had spent the night outside the Capitol in protest — calling out their colleagues over the failure to act.
“We slept at the Capitol last night to ask them to come back and do their jobs. Today’s their last chance,” tweeted Congresswoman Cori Bush, who has herself experienced homelessness and was joined by fellow progressives Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley.
With the clock ticking down to Sunday, the country was braced for a heartbreaking spectacle — families with their belongings at the curbside wondering where to go.
One of those at risk is Terriana Clark, who was living out of a car with her husband and two stepchildren for much of last year, before finding a teaching job and an apartment in Harvey, Louisiana.
Jobless again and struggling to pay rent after a bout of illness, the 27-year-old told The New Orleans Advocate she applied to a local assistance program four months ago, but is still waiting for help.
“If it comes, it comes. If it don’t, it don’t,” she told the paper. “It’s going to be too late for a lot of people. A lot of people are going to be outside.”
Up north in Michigan, Mary Hunt, who makes minimum wage driving a medical taxi, likewise fell behind on her rent on a mobile home because she got sick with COVID-19.
She was served with eviction papers, and frets over what she will do with her stuff and her five cats and one dog.
“How do I choose which cats to keep? It’s not going to happen. I’m not going to leave any of them behind,” Hunt told National Public Radio this week.
“If I lose this house, then they go in the car with me. And people can think I’m a crackpot, but I’m not giving up my family,” Hunt said.
Unlike other pandemic-related aid that was distributed from Washington, such as stimulus checks, it was states, counties, and cities that were responsible for building programs from the ground up to dole out assistance earmarked for renters.
The Treasury Department said that as of June, only $3 billion in aid had reached households out of the $25 billion sent to states and localities in early February, less than three weeks after Biden took office.
Pelosi in another tweet Saturday urged “state and local governments to immediately disburse the $46.5 billion in emergency rental assistance approved by the Democratic Congress so that many families can avoid eviction.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ordered the eviction moratorium in September 2020, as the world’s largest economy lost over 20 million jobs amid the pandemic shutdowns. The CDC feared homelessness would boost coronavirus infections.
Although more than half of those jobs were since recovered, many families still have not caught up on missed rent payments.
The Census Bureau’s latest Household Pulse survey showed that of 51 million renters surveyed, 7.4 million were behind on rent and nearly half of those said they risked being evicted in the next two months.
Nearly 80 percent of households that are behind on their rent as of early July lived in COVID-19 hot spots, according to a study by the Jain Family Institute.
“Putting people out on the street is probably not going to have good effects on community transmission rates,” the institute’s housing policy researcher Paul Williams told CBS MoneyWatch.
Immediately after taking over, the Biden administration had eased paperwork and eligibility requirements for an emergency rental assistance program, but it has stressed that management remains in the hands of state and local officials.
“There can be no excuse for any state or locality not accelerating funds to landlords and tenants that have been hurt during this pandemic,” Biden warned Friday.
The CDC eviction moratorium and other protections prevented an estimated 2.2 million eviction filings since March 2020, said Peter Hepburn, a research fellow at the Eviction Lab at Princeton University.


Myanmar junta chief says new elections in two years

Myanmar junta chief says new elections in two years
Updated 39 min 13 sec ago

Myanmar junta chief says new elections in two years

Myanmar junta chief says new elections in two years
  • Country has been in turmoil since the army ousted Aung San Suu Kyi in February
  • A resurgent virus wave has also amplified havoc, with many hospitals empty of pro-democracy medical staff

YANGON: Myanmar’s junta chief said Sunday that elections would be held and a state of emergency lifted by August 2023, extending the military’s initial timeline given when it deposed Aung San Suu Kyi six months ago.
The country has been in turmoil since the army ousted the civilian leader in February, launching a bloody crackdown on dissent that has killed more than 900 people according to a local monitoring group.
A resurgent virus wave has also amplified havoc, with many hospitals empty of pro-democracy medical staff, and the World Bank has forecast the economy will contract by up to 18 percent.
In a televised address junta leader Min Aung Hlaing said “we will accomplish the provisions of the state of emergency by August 2023.”
“I pledge to hold multiparty elections without fail,” he added.
The general’s announcement would place Myanmar in the military’s grip for nearly two and a half years — instead of the initial one-year timeline the junta announced days after the coup.
The army has justified its power grab by alleging massive fraud during 2020 elections won by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in a landslide, and has threatened to dissolve the party.
Last week it canceled the results of the polls, announcing it had uncovered over 11 million instances of voter fraud.
Suu Kyi has been detained since February 1 and faces an eclectic raft of charges — from flouting coronavirus restrictions to illegally importing walkie talkies — which could see her jailed for more than a decade.
Across Myanmar small groups of demonstrators marched Sunday, six months after soldiers launched their putsch with pre-dawn raids, ending a decade-long experiment with democracy.
Protesters in the northern town of Kale held banners reading “strength for the revolution” while demonstrators let off flares at a march in the commercial capital Yangon.
Tens of thousands of civil servants and other workers have either been sacked for joining rallies or are still on strike in support of a nationwide civil disobedience campaign.
The NLD saw their support increase in the 2020 vote compared to the previous election in 2015.
In a report on the 2020 polls, the Asian Network for Free Elections monitoring group said the elections were “by and large, representative of the will of the people.”


Rockets hit Kandahar airport in southern Afghanistan

Rockets hit Kandahar airport in southern Afghanistan
Updated 01 August 2021

Rockets hit Kandahar airport in southern Afghanistan

Rockets hit Kandahar airport in southern Afghanistan

KANDAHAR: At least three rockets struck Kandahar airport in southern Afghanistan overnight, an official told AFP on Sunday, as the Taliban pressed on with their sweeping offensive across the country.
“Last night three rockets were fired at the airport and two of them hit the runway... Due to this all flights from the airport have been canceled,” airport chief Massoud Pashtun told AFP.
Pashtun said work to repair the runway was underway and expected the airport to be operational later on Sunday.
An official at the civil aviation authority in Kabul confirmed the rocket attack.
The Taliban have for weeks launched withering assaults on the outskirts of Kandahar, stirring fears that the insurgents were on the verge of capturing the provincial capital.
Kandahar’s air base is vital to providing the logistics and air support needed to keep the militants from overrunning Afghanistan’s second-biggest city.
The attack on the airport came as the Taliban inched closer to overrunning two other provincial capitals — Herat in the west and Lashkar Gah in the south.
The Taliban’s significant territorial gains during the final stages of the US military withdrawal have largely been in sparsely populated rural areas.
But in recent weeks they have brought increasing pressure on several provincial capitals and seized key border crossings.
The capture of any major urban center would take their current offensive to another level and fuel concerns that the army is incapable of resisting the Taliban’s battlefield gains.
The government has repeatedly dismissed the Taliban’s steady territorial gains over the summer as lacking strategic value.


US presses Tunisia’s president for swift return to democratic path

US presses Tunisia’s president for swift return to democratic path
Updated 01 August 2021

US presses Tunisia’s president for swift return to democratic path

US presses Tunisia’s president for swift return to democratic path
  • Tunisian President Kais Saied invoked a national emergency over the coronavirus pandemic and poor governance to dismiss the prime minister, freeze parliament

WASHINGTON: US national security adviser Jake Sullivan urged Tunisia's president on Saturday to outline a swift return to the "democratic path" following his seizure of governing powers last Sunday, the White House said.
Tunisian President Kais Saied invoked a national emergency over the coronavirus pandemic and poor governance to dismiss the prime minister, freeze parliament and seize executive control in a move welcomed by street rallies but which his opponents branded a coup.
In a phone call, Sullivan underscored to Saied the need for "rapidly forming a new government, led by a capable prime minister to stabilize Tunisia’s economy and confront the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as ensuring the timely return of the elected parliament," the White House National Security Council said in a statement.


US brings B-52 bombers back into action as Taliban sweep across Afghanistan

US brings B-52 bombers back into action as Taliban sweep across Afghanistan
Updated 01 August 2021

US brings B-52 bombers back into action as Taliban sweep across Afghanistan

US brings B-52 bombers back into action as Taliban sweep across Afghanistan
  • Washington’s strategy to deploy the heavily armed planes a ‘worrying sign’

KABUL: A US B-52 bomber has pounded Taliban positions in Afghanistan’s western Herat province after the group gained ground near the area amid intense clashes with government forces, officials and lawmakers said on Saturday.

The strike took place on the outskirts of Herat city on Friday, with flights to and from the area suspended after increased violence near its airport.

“Unfortunately, all flights to Herat have been canceled due to the fighting and the information we have received suggest that a B-52 was used in the fighting yesterday (Friday) in Herat,” provincial lawmaker Habib Ur Rahman Pedram told Arab News.

No further details were given, such as the number of casualties or the scale of the attack.

Violence has surged across Afghanistan since May 1, when the Taliban launched a sweeping offensive as the US began its troop withdrawal after 20 years of occupation.

In recent weeks, the group has captured several districts and vital border crossings, with the Pentagon estimating that the group now control more than half of Afghanistan’s 419 district centers.

The Taliban have reportedly captured two border crossings in Herat, the second largest city after Kabul, located near the border with Iran and Turkmenistan.

Friday’s attack by the US military marks the second time in less than two weeks that it has deployed the long-range, nuclear-capable plane against the Taliban from distant bases after US-led troops cut vital air support for overstretched Afghan forces.

A B-52 was also sighted in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of southern Helmand province, and the scene of intense fighting between Taliban and government forces, “but appeared to have not carried out any attack on Friday,” Helmand lawmaker Mirwais Khadem told Arab News.

According to security sources from the adjacent Kandahar province, the heavily armed plane hit a group of Taliban fighters in Spin Boldak bordering Pakistan two weeks ago as well, “killing scores of them.”

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid could not confirm whether the B-52 was used to attack the group across Afghanistan.

BACKGROUND

• In recent weeks, Taliban have captured several districts and vital border crossings, with the Pentagon estimating that the group now control more than half of Afghanistan’s 419 district centers.

• The group has reportedly captured two border crossings in Herat, the second largest city after Kabul, located near the border with Iran and Turkmenistan.

But he told Arab News that the Taliban had “tightened the net on government forces around Herat city, in Lashkar Gah, and Kandahar city” in recent days.

Khadem confirmed Mujahid’s accounts, adding that the Taliban had taken over two districts within Lashkar Gah after “heavy fighting for successive days.”

“Government helicopters have hit the Taliban,” the lawmaker added. “People have been displaced and largely heading to Taliban-held areas as the situation in the city is not good.”

The US military in Afghanistan was unavailable for comment when contacted by Arab News on Saturday, while Afghan officials refused to discuss the decision to reinstate the B-52 to curb Taliban advances.

But Interior Ministry spokesman Mirwais Stanekzai told Arab News that “government forces had foiled Taliban’s attacks on the three cities and the enemy has suffered heavy losses.”

B-52 bombers played a crucial role in toppling the Taliban from power in late 2001, with the US using its bases in the Gulf to deploy the plane.

The strategy to deploy the B-52 appears to be a military necessity, as over-stretched Afghan troops are struggling to prevent the loss of more territory and provincial capitals to the Taliban and avoid the potential for renewed civil war without foreign forces to protect the Kabul government.

The clashes in Herat and Kandahar have forced tens of thousands of residents to flee to safer grounds, with government estimates placing the number of families displaced by the surge in violence since early May at more than 40,000.

During Friday’s fighting, the UN’s main compound in Herat came under attack by rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire, according to a statement from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.

“This attack against the United Nations is deplorable, and we condemn it in the strongest terms,” said Deborah Lyons, the UN secretary-general’s special representative for Afghanistan.

The halt of flights to Herat and the reuse of the B-52 were “worrying signs of an escalation in insecurity” across Afghanistan, according to security analyst and retired colonel Mohammad Hassan.

“It is getting worse day by day here,” he told Arab News. “The cancelation of flights to Herat and the fact that America has back started using B-52 are not good signs. It will cause more panic among people at large and shows the precariousness of the situation.”