US intelligence finds Russia planning Ukraine offensive

Attache of the Land Forces at the US Embassy in Ukraine Colonel Brandon Presley looks at the map during the visit by a delegation of the US Embassy in Ukraine. (AP file photo)
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Attache of the Land Forces at the US Embassy in Ukraine Colonel Brandon Presley looks at the map during the visit by a delegation of the US Embassy in Ukraine. (AP file photo)
 A Ukrainian soldier holds a cat and walks in a trench on the line of separation from pro-Russian rebels near Debaltsevo, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Friday, Dec 3, 2021. (AP)
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A Ukrainian soldier holds a cat and walks in a trench on the line of separation from pro-Russian rebels near Debaltsevo, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Friday, Dec 3, 2021. (AP)
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Updated 04 December 2021

US intelligence finds Russia planning Ukraine offensive

Attache of the Land Forces at the US Embassy in Ukraine Colonel Brandon Presley looks at the map during the visit by a delegation of the US Embassy in Ukraine. (AP file photo)
  • The president offered the measured warning to Putin in response to growing concern about a Russian buildup of troops on the Ukrainian border and increasingly bellicose rhetoric from the Kremlin

WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden pledged on Friday to make it “very, very difficult” for Russia’s Vladimir Putin to take military action in Ukraine as US intelligence officials determined that Russian planning is underway for a possible military offensive that could begin as soon as early 2022.
The new intelligence finding estimates that the Russians are planning to deploy an estimated 175,000 troops and almost half of them are already deployed along various points near Ukraine’s border, according to a Biden administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the finding.
It comes as Russia has picked up its demands on Biden to guarantee that Ukraine will not be allowed to join the NATO alliance.
The official added that the plans call for the movement of 100 battalion tactical groups along with armor, artillery and equipment.
Intelligence officials also have seen an uptick in Russian propaganda efforts through the use of proxies and media outlets to denigrate Ukraine and NATO ahead of a potential invasion, the official said.
Asked about the intelligence finding as he set out for the presidential retreat at Camp David on Friday evening, Biden reiterated his concerns about Russian provocations.
“We’ve been aware of Russia’s actions for a long time and my expectation is we’re gonna have a long discussion with Putin,” Biden said.
The risks of such a gambit for Putin, if he actually went through with an invasion, would be enormous.
US officials and former US diplomats say while Putin clearly is laying the groundwork for a possible invasion, Ukraine’s military is better armed and prepared today than in past years, and the sanctions threatened by the West would do serious damage to Russia’s economy. It remains unclear if Putin intends to go through with what would be a risky offensive, they say.
Earlier Friday, Biden pledged to make it “very, very difficult” for Putin to take military action in Ukraine and said new initiatives coming from his administration are intended to deter Russian aggression.
“What I am doing is putting together what I believe to be will be the most comprehensive and meaningful set of initiatives to make it very, very difficult for Mr. Putin to go ahead and do what people are worried he may do,” Biden told reporters.
The Kremlin said Friday that Putin would seek binding guarantees precluding NATO’s expansion to Ukraine during the call with Biden. But Biden sought to head off the demand.
“I don’t accept anyone’s red line,” Biden said.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian officials also warned that Russia could invade next month. Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told lawmakers Friday that the number of Russian troops near Ukraine and in Russia-annexed Crimea is estimated at 94,300, warning that a “large-scale escalation” is possible in January. US intelligence officials estimate closer to 70,000 troops are deployed near the border, according to an unclassified intelligence document obtained Friday by The Associated Press.
The intelligence findings were first reported by The Washington Post.
There are signs that the White House and Kremlin are close to arranging a conversation next week between Biden and Putin. Putin’s foreign affairs adviser Yuri Ushakov told reporters Friday that arrangements have been made for a Putin-Biden call in the coming days, adding that the date will be announced after Moscow and Washington finalize details. The Russians say a date has been agreed upon, but declined to say when.
Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy have also tentatively agreed to have a call next week, according to a person close to the Ukrainian president who was not authorized to speak publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said administration officials have “engaged in the possibility” of a Biden-Putin call. White House officials did not respond to a request for comment on the expected Zelenskyy call.
“It certainly would be an opportunity to discuss our serious concerns about the bellicose rhetoric, about the military buildup that we’re seeing on the border of Ukraine,” Psaki said of a potential Biden-Putin call.
Biden did not detail what actions he was weighing. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who met Thursday with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Sweden, said the US has threatened new sanctions. He did not detail the potential sanctions but suggested the effort would not be effective.
“If the new ‘sanctions from hell’ come, we will respond,” Lavrov said. “We can’t fail to respond.”
Psaki said the administration would look to coordinate with European allies if it moved forward with sanctions. She noted that bitter memories of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that had been under Ukraine’s control since 1954, are front of mind as the White House considers the way forward.
“We know what President Putin has done in the past,” Psaki said. “We see that he is putting in place the capacity to take action in short order.”
Deep differences were on display during the Blinken-Lavrov meeting, with the Russia official charging the West was “playing with fire” by denying Russia a say in any further NATO expansion into countries of the former Soviet Union. Zelenskyy has pushed for Ukraine to join the alliance, which holds out the promise of membership but hasn’t set a a timeline.
Blinken this week said the US has “made it clear to the Kremlin that we will respond resolutely, including with a range of high-impact economic measures that we’ve refrained from using in the past.”
He did not detail what sanctions were being weighed, but one potentially could be to cut off Russia from the SWIFT system of international payments. The European Union’s Parliament approved a nonbinding resolution in April to cut off Russia from SWIFT if its troops entered Ukraine.
Such a move would go far toward blocking Russian businesses from the global financial system. Western allies reportedly considered such a step in 2014 and 2015, during earlier Russian-led escalations of tensions over Ukraine.
Then-Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said it would be tantamount to “a declaration of war.”
But some US government officials say Putin also could be seeking attention and concessions from Biden and other Western leaders, using the military escalation to force Russia back into a central role in world affairs as it had in the days of the Soviet Union.
“They are seriously envious for superpower status and ... the parity to the United States that existed during the Cold War. That’s what this is all about,” said John Herbst, a former US ambassador to Ukraine.
An invasion is possible, but more likely, “they provoke a crisis, they get concessions from us, and then they reduce the crisis. Right? And that, I think, is probably their objective,” Herbst said Friday.
 


Burkina attack kills around 10 civilians: security source

Burkina attack kills around 10 civilians: security source
Updated 16 sec ago

Burkina attack kills around 10 civilians: security source

Burkina attack kills around 10 civilians: security source
  • Burkina Faso has been struggling with jihadist attacks since 2015, when militants linked to Al-Qaeda and the Daesh group began mounting cross-border raids from Mali

OUAGADOUGOU: At least 10 civilians have been killed in an attack blamed on jihadists in northern Burkina Faso, an area in the grip of a six-year insurgency, security sources said Sunday.
“Unidentified armed individuals carried out an attack on the village of Namssiguian in Bam province” on Saturday, a security source told AFP, adding that the provisional death toll was around 10 dead civilians.
A local resident put the provisional death toll at nine and said that significant damage had been caused to shops and businesses in the village, which had been torched. 


“The terrorists stayed in the village for several hours, where they looted and destroyed,” he said, adding that the assaillants had “sabotaged the telephone antennas beforehand, making all communication impossible.”
The security source warned that the toll could still rise as “families are still awaiting news about family members.”
Burkina Faso has been struggling with jihadist attacks since 2015, when militants linked to Al-Qaeda and the Daesh group began mounting cross-border raids from Mali.
More than 2,000 people have died, according to a toll compiled by AFP.
The national emergency aid agency says that 1.5 million people, nearly two-thirds of them children, were internally displaced as of November 30.
The country’s security forces are poorly equipped to face a ruthless and highly mobile foe, adept at carrying out hit-and-run raids aboard motorbikes and pickup trucks.
On November 14, a force described as numbering several hundred men attacked a police base at Inata near the Malian border, killing 57 people, including 53 gendarmes.
On December 23, 41 people were killed when a convoy of traders was ambushed near Ouahigouya, also near the Malian frontier.


Taliban fighters pepper spray women protesters calling for rights

Afghan women march as they chant slogans and hold banners during a women's rights protest in Kabul on January 16, 2022. (AFP)
Afghan women march as they chant slogans and hold banners during a women's rights protest in Kabul on January 16, 2022. (AFP)
Updated 22 min 8 sec ago

Taliban fighters pepper spray women protesters calling for rights

Afghan women march as they chant slogans and hold banners during a women's rights protest in Kabul on January 16, 2022. (AFP)
  • The Taliban authorities have blocked women public sector employees from returning to work, many secondary schools have still not reopened for girls, and public universities are shut

KABUL: Taliban forces on Sunday fired pepper spray at a group of women protesters in Afghanistan’s capital demanding rights to work and education, three demonstrators told AFP.
Since seizing control of the country by force in August, the Taliban authorities have imposed creeping restrictions on Afghans, especially on women.
Around 20 women gathered in front of Kabul University, chanting “equality and justice” and carried banners that read “Women’s rights, human rights,” an AFP correspondent reported.
The protest however was later dispersed by the Taliban fighters who arrived at the scene in several vehicles, three women protesters told AFP.
“When we were near Kabul University three Taliban vehicles came, and fighters from one of the vehicles used pepper spray on us,” said a protester, who asked not to be named for security reasons.
“My right eye started to burn. I told one of them ‘shame on you’, and then he pointed his gun at me.”
Two other protesters said that one of the women had to be taken to hospital after the spray caused an allergic reaction to her eyes and face.
An AFP correspondent saw a fighter confiscate a mobile phone of a man who was filming the demonstration.
The hard-line Taliban group have banned unsanctioned protests and frequently intervened to forcefully break up rallies demanding rights for women.
The Taliban authorities have blocked women public sector employees from returning to work, many secondary schools have still not reopened for girls, and public universities are shut.
Long distance trips for women who are not accompanied by a close male relative have been banned.
The authorities have also issued guidelines that prevent television channels from broadcasting serials featuring women actors.
Meanwhile, many women are living in hiding, fearful of a regime notorious for human rights abuses during their first stint in power between 1996-2001, before being ousted by a US-led invasion.

 


Snow, ice blasts through south US with powerful winter storm

Snow, ice blasts through south US with powerful winter storm
Updated 33 min 42 sec ago

Snow, ice blasts through south US with powerful winter storm

Snow, ice blasts through south US with powerful winter storm
  • Tens of thousands of customers were without power in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida

ATLANTA: A dangerous winter storm combining high winds and ice swept through parts of the US Southeast on Sunday, knocking out power, felling trees and fences and coating roads with a treacherous, frigid glaze.
Tens of thousands of customers were without power in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida. Highway patrols were reporting hundreds of vehicle accidents, and a tornado ripped through a trailer park in Florida. More than 1,200 Sunday flights at Charlotte Douglas International were canceled – more than 90 percent of the airport’s Sunday schedule, according to the flight tracking service flightaware.com.
Winter Storm Izzy dumped as much as 10 inches of snow in some areas of western North Carolina as the system moved across the southeastern US, said Brian Hurley, a meteorologist with the Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.
First Sgt. Christopher Knox, a spokesman for the North Carolina Highway Patrol, said that by midafternoon, the agency had responded to 300 car crashes and nearly 800 calls for service. Two people died Sunday when their car drove off the road and into trees in a median east of Raleigh. The driver and passenger, both 41-year-old South Carolina residents, were pronounced dead at the scene of the single-vehicle crash. Knox said investigators believe the car was driving too fast for the conditions, described as mixed winter precipitation.
Meanwhile, Transportation Secretary J. Eric Boyette said many roads in the central and western part of the state were covered with ice. He said the eastern part of the state was being hit with high winds and rain.
Kristen Baker Morrow’s 6-year-old son made snow angels after their home in Crouse, North Carolina, got four inches of snow Sunday morning, but she said they couldn’t stay outside long because of the uncomfortable wind chill.
“It took 30 to 45 minutes to get everything on for about 10 minutes in the snow, but it was definitely worth it for him, to get our pictures and make some memories,” said Morrow, a 35-year-old registered nurse.
More than 260,000 customers were without power by midafternoon Sunday, according to poweroutage.us. Especially hard hit was North Carolina, with 90,000 outages. The remaining outages were in Georgia, South Carolina and Florida.
The National Weather Service confirmed that a tornado with 118 mph winds (190 kph) struck southwest Florida. The weather service said the tornado was on the ground for almost two miles (3 kilometers) with a maximum path width of 125 yards (115 meters). Thirty mobile homes were destroyed and 51 had major damage. Three minor injuries were reported.
Edward Murray, 81, told the Naples Daily News in southwest Florida that he was inside his mobile home Sunday morning when a tornado picked it up and tossed it on top of his neighbor’s home.
“That’s my house that’s turned upside down,” he told the newspaper. “The tornado took me off my feet, blew me toward the east wall and buried me under the sink, refrigerator, kitchen chairs and everything else.”
Murray and his daughter, Cokie, escaped unharmed, crawling from the wreckage.
“I was so happy when I saw the sky,” Murray told the newspaper. “I said to the devil, ‘It’s not going to be today’.”
Virginia State Police said traffic came to a standstill Sunday afternoon on Interstate 81 in Roanoke County after a tractor-trailer jackknifed and the cab of the truck disconnected from the trailer in the northbound lanes. Two additional accidents occurred in the traffic backup, one with minor injuries. The Virginia Department of Transportation said a detour was being set up. “Please stay off the roads if possible. Begging again! Hazardous conditions,” read a tweet from VDOT’s Salem office.
From midnight to 12:45 p.m., Virginia state troopers responded to 142 traffic crashes and 162 disabled vehicles. No traffic fatalities were reported.
The West Virginia Department of Homeland Security tweeted photos of snow-covered roads in the southern part of the state and advised residents to “keep calm and hunker down.” The agency says the storm is moving north and most areas of the state are expected to have accumulations of at least 4 inches (10 centimeters), with up to 12 inches (30 centimeters) possible in the mountains.
In Tennessee, there were multiple reports of abandoned and wrecked cars on snow-covered roads.
The storm system could cause hazardous driving conditions over a large portion of the eastern US through Monday as the wet roadways refreeze in southern states and the storm turns and moves northward through the Mid-Atlantic states and New England.
While not a record-breaking storm in terms of snowfall, the large system could impact a dozen or more states.
“It’s a very expansive storm,” Hurley said. “A lot of real estate is going to get four to eight inches of snow and a lot more are also going to get to get some of that ice accumulation.”
New York City was expected to be spared from most, if not all, of the snowfall, but Long Island and Connecticut coastal areas were expecting gale conditions. Upstate New York was projected to get hit with up to a foot of snow to go along with high winds.
Six to 13 inches (15 to 33 centimeters) of snow was expected in parts of east-central Ohio and western Pennsylvania from Sunday afternoon.
Frigid temperatures lingered across New England on Sunday, with wind chills in northern Vermont reported at -27 Fahrenheit (-33 Celsius). In Boston, where a cold emergency was declared on Saturday, wind chills remained below zero (-17 C) even as the region started the thaw.


Ahead of election, Macron banks on rosy French economy, new jobs

Ahead of election, Macron banks on rosy French economy, new jobs
Updated 15 min 49 sec ago

Ahead of election, Macron banks on rosy French economy, new jobs

Ahead of election, Macron banks on rosy French economy, new jobs

PARIS: President Emmanuel Macron will on Monday tout 21 new foreign investment projects in France and a booming economy as proof his economic reforms have been bearing fruit less than three months before a presidential election in which he is expected to run.
During a visit to Alsace in the east, Macron will announce a 300-million-euro ($342 million) industrial project by German chemical giant BASF, one of 21 new projects worth 4 billion euros and 10,000 jobs as part of a drive to attract foreign investors, his office said.
As the presidential race heats up, his aides are keen to shift the debate away from immigration and law-and-order issues and put the spotlight on the economy, which has been recovering strongly from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is the result of all the reforms that were carried out since the start of the mandate,” a presidential aide told reporters.
“Three months before an election, we could have expected investors to be in wait-and-see mode because of the uncertainty of an election. Instead, we see very strong confidence from foreign investors in the president’s economic policy,” he said.
Since 2017, Macron has pushed through a cocktail of supply-side economic reforms meant to boost businesses’ competitiveness, cut taxes on investors and loosen strict labor market rules.
Critics say he has acted as “president of the rich” who wants to do away with France’s cherished social safety nets and has cut welfare benefits for some of the poorest.
But three months ahead of the April election, indicators show the French economy is booming, with growth expected to have hit 6.7 percent in 2021 and France having returned closer to pre-pandemic levels than any G7 peer bar the United States.
Macron supporters also received an unexpected boost from economist Paul Krugman on Friday.


Bangladesh police use drones in Cox’s Bazar after crime rise at Rohingya camps

Bangladesh police use drones in Cox’s Bazar after crime rise at Rohingya camps
Updated 16 January 2022

Bangladesh police use drones in Cox’s Bazar after crime rise at Rohingya camps

Bangladesh police use drones in Cox’s Bazar after crime rise at Rohingya camps
  • Bangladesh hosts over 1.1 million Rohingya who fled neighboring Myanmar during a military crackdown in 2017

DHAKA: Bangladeshi police said on Sunday they had resorted to using drones to monitor Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar after a spike in criminal activity.

Bangladesh hosts over 1.1 million Rohingya who fled neighboring Myanmar during a military crackdown in 2017. Most of them live in dozens of cramped settlements in Cox’s Bazar, a coastal region in the country’s east.

According to data from Cox’s Bazar police, at least 104 murders were recorded in Rohingya camps in the past four years, and more than 1,000 cases had been filed against their inhabitants on charges of abduction, extortion, drug dealing, human trafficking and sexual assault.

“Incidents in which Rohingya are abducted for ransom are on the rise,” Naimul Haque, superintendent of the Armed Police Battalion that oversees the camp area, told Arab News.

“Some of the areas in the camp are inaccessible to law enforcers. We can’t go there by vehicle because of the hilly areas. So, we introduced drones last Thursday to monitor the movement of suspects,” he said.

Since late last week, he added, two police operations have already taken place following footage retrieved from drones, including the arrest of the brother of the leader of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, a Rohingya insurgent group active in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State.

Bangladeshi rights organization SHUJAN has also observed an increase in criminal activity at refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar. “The rate of crime and number of cases against the Rohingya are on the rise,” Mahbubur Rahman, SHUJAN’s secretary in Cox’s Bazar, told Arab News.

“The Rohingya are getting involved in extortion, abduction, drug dealing and human trafficking, which has become a concern for the host communities,” he said. “Some of the Rohingya are being used as drug carriers also since they know the routes between Bangladesh and Myanmar.”

FASTFACT

Law enforcers have limited access to many areas in Cox’s Bazar camps due to congestion and hilly terrain.

Security analyst retired Air Commodore Ishfaq Ilahi Choudhury said the deployment of drones would help law enforcers expand the scale of surveillance.

“Now law enforcers will have better access to the hard-to-reach areas. Improved surveillance will definitely reduce the crime rate in the camp areas,” he said.

“Border Security Force in India is already using drones at many parts of the border as a surveillance tool. Our Border Guard Bangladesh can also use drones to curb drug traffickers, arms dealers and human traffickers in the border areas.”