Venezuela’s President Maduro to visit Iran ‘very soon’

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. (Reuters photo)
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. (Reuters photo)
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Updated 27 December 2021

Venezuela’s President Maduro to visit Iran ‘very soon’

Venezuela’s President Maduro to visit Iran ‘very soon’
  • Says he will finalize plans he and Iran President Ebrahim Raisi had agreed upon by phone

CARACAS: Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said on Sunday he will soon visit Iran to finalize new agreements on cooperation with the Middle Eastern country, which has become Venezuela’s top ally in boosting oil output amid US sanctions.
Venezuela and Iran have strengthened their ties since last year.
Maduro’s government has received vital equipment for its oil industry from Iran, which in return has received crude and other primary resources from the South American country. Iran has been crucial for Venezuela’s rising oil production in 2021.
“I am going to Teheran very soon, for a visit that President (Ebrahim) Raisi offered me, so that we meet in person, to hold conversations and sign new agreements ... and speed up processes of cooperation,” Maduro said during an interview with satellite news broadcaster Al Mayadeen in Spanish, which was later broadcast on Venezuelan state television.
Maduro said he has had two telephone conversations with Iran’s president, adding that they have agreed to work on new plans, without providing details. He also did not give a date for the visit but described the two countries as “fighters.”
In 2022, Venezuela will also look to reactivate means of cooperation with Arab countries, Maduro added, saying that “they love us in the Arab world, I know that Arab governments and peoples love Venezuela.”
The tightening of US sanctions since 2019 has affected Venezuela’s ability to sell crude and import fuel, which has exacerbated gasoline shortages across the country. 


Shanghai inches toward COVID-19 lockdown exit, Beijing plays defense

Shanghai inches toward COVID-19 lockdown exit, Beijing plays defense
Updated 8 sec ago

Shanghai inches toward COVID-19 lockdown exit, Beijing plays defense

Shanghai inches toward COVID-19 lockdown exit, Beijing plays defense
  • Shanghai’s lockdown since the beginning of April has dealt a heavy economic blow to China’s most populous city
BEIJING/SHANGHAI: Shanghai cautiously pushed ahead on Saturday with plans to restore part of its transport network in a major step toward exiting a weeks-long COVID-19 lockdown, while Beijing kept up its defenses in an outbreak that has persisted for a month.
Shanghai’s lockdown since the beginning of April has dealt a heavy economic blow to China’s most populous city, stirred debate over the sustainability of the nation’s zero COVID-19 policy and stoked fears of future lockdowns and disruptions.
Unlike the financial hub, Beijing has refrained from imposing a city-wide lockdown, reporting dozens of new cases a day, versus tens of thousands in Shanghai at its peak. Still, the curbs and endless mass testing imposed on China’s capital have unsettled its economy and upended the lives of its people.
As Beijing remained in COVID-19 angst, workers in Shanghai were disinfecting subway stations and trains before planned restoration of four metro lines on Sunday.
While service will be for limited hours, it will allow residents to move between districts and meet the need for connections to railway stations and one of the city’s two airports. More than 200 bus routes will also reopen.
Underlining the level of caution, Shanghai officials said commuters would be scanned for abnormally high body temperatures and would need to show negative results of PCR tests taken within 48 hours.
Shanghai found 868 new local cases on Friday, compared with 858 a day earlier, municipal health authorities said on Saturday, a far cry from the peak in daily caseloads last month.
No new cases were found outside quarantined areas, down from three a day earlier, health authorities added.
The city of 25 million has gradually reopened shopping malls, convenience stores and wholesale markets and allowed more people to walk out of their homes, with community transmissions largely eliminated in recent days.
Still, Shanghai tightened stringent curbs on two of its 16 districts on Friday.
The authorities “urge enterprises to strictly implement safe production, which is their responsibility, especially in meeting some epidemic prevention and control requirements,” an official from the city’s emergency bureau told a news conference on Saturday.
Delta Airlines said on Friday it would resume one daily flight to Detroit from Shanghai via Seoul on Wednesday.
Most of Beijing’s recent cases have been in areas already sealed up, but authorities remained on edge and quick to act under China’s ultra-strict policy.
In Fengtai, a district of 2 million people at the center of Beijing’s counter-COVID-19 efforts, bus and metro stations have been mostly shut since Friday and residents told to stay home.
A Fengtai resident was stocking up on groceries at a nearby Carrefour on Saturday, uncertain whether restrictions would continue.
“I’m not sure if I can do more shopping over the next week or so, so I’ve bought a lot of stuff today and even bought some dumplings for the Dragon Boat holiday” in early June, she said, asking not to be identified.
On Friday, thousands of residents from a neighborhood in Chaoyang, Beijing’s most populous district, were moved to hotel quarantine after some cases were detected, according to state-run China Youth Daily.
Social media users on China’s Twitter-like Weibo were swift to draw parallels with Shanghai, where entire residential buildings were taken to centralized quarantine facilities in response to a single positive COVID-19 case in some instances.

Russia halts gas supplies to Finland

Russia halts gas supplies to Finland
Updated 53 min 3 sec ago

Russia halts gas supplies to Finland

Russia halts gas supplies to Finland
  • Natural gas accounts for about eight percent of Finland’s energy consumption and most of it comes from Russia

HELSINKI: Russia on Saturday halted providing natural gas to neighboring Finland, which has angered Moscow by applying for NATO membership, after the Nordic country refused to pay supplier Gazprom in rubles.
Natural gas accounts for about eight percent of Finland’s energy consumption and most of it comes from Russia.
Following Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine, Moscow has asked clients from “unfriendly countries” — including EU member states — pay for gas in rubles, a way to sidestep Western financial sanctions against its central bank.
Finnish state-owned energy company Gasum said it would make up for the shortfall from other sources through the Balticconnector pipeline, which connects Finland to Estonia, and assured that filling stations would run normally.
“Natural gas supplies to Finland under Gasum’s supply contract have been cut off,” the company said in a statement.
Gasum said Friday that it had been informed by Gazprom Export, the exporting arm of Russian gas giant Gazprom, that the supply would stop on Saturday morning.
In April, Gazprom Export demanded that future payments in the supply contract be made in rubles instead of euros.
Gasum rejected the demand and announced on Tuesday it was taking the issue to arbitration.
Gazprom Export said it would defend its interests in court by any “means available.”
Gasum said it would be able to secure gas from other sources and that gas filling stations in the network area would continue “normal operation.”
In efforts to mitigate the risks of relying on Russian energy exports, the Finnish government on Friday also announced that the country had signed a 10-year lease agreement for an LNG (liquefied natural gas) terminal ship with US-based Excelerate Energy.
On Sunday, Russia suspended electricity supplies to Finland overnight after its energy firm RAO Nordic claimed payment arrears, although the shortfall was quickly replaced.
Finland, along with neighboring Sweden, this week broke its historical military non-alignment and applied for NATO membership, after public and political support for the alliance soared following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Moscow has warned Finland that any NATO membership application would be “a grave mistake with far-reaching consequences.”


North Korea reports more fevers as Kim Jong Un claims COVID-19 virus progress

North Korea reports more fevers as Kim Jong Un claims COVID-19 virus progress
Updated 21 May 2022

North Korea reports more fevers as Kim Jong Un claims COVID-19 virus progress

North Korea reports more fevers as Kim Jong Un claims COVID-19 virus progress
  • North Korea said more than 2.4 million people have fallen ill and 66 people have died since an unidentified fever began quickly spreading in late April

SEOUL: North Korea said Saturday it found nearly 220,000 more people with feverish symptoms even as leader Kim Jong Un claimed progress in slowing a largely undiagnosed spread of COVID-19 across an unvaccinated population of 26 million.
The outbreak has caused concern about serious tragedies in the poor, isolated country with one of the world’s worst health care systems and a high tolerance for civilian suffering. Experts say North Korea is almost certainly downplaying the true scale of the viral spread, including a strangely small death toll, to soften the political blow on Kim as he navigates the toughest moment in his decade of rule.
Around 219,030 North Koreans with fevers were identified in the 24 hours through 6 p.m. Friday, the fifth straight daily increase of around 200,000, according to the North’s Korean Central News Agency, which attributed the information to the government’s anti-virus headquarters.
North Korea said more than 2.4 million people have fallen ill and 66 people have died since an unidentified fever began quickly spreading in late April, although the country has only been able to identify a handful of those cases as COVID-19 due to a lack of testing supplies. After maintaining a dubious claim for 2 1/2 years that it had perfectly blocked the virus from entering its territory, the North admitted to omicron infections last week.
Amid a paucity of public health tools, the North has mobilized more than a million health workers to find people with fevers and isolate them at quarantine facilities. Kim also imposed strict restrictions on travel between cities and towns and mobilized thousands of troops to help with the transport of medicine to pharmacies in the country’s capital, Pyongyang, which has been the center of the outbreak.
During a ruling party Politburo meeting on Saturday, Kim insisted the country was starting to bring the outbreak under control and called for tightened vigilance to maintain the “affirmative trend” in the anti-virus campaign, KCNA said. But Kim also seemed to hint at relaxing his pandemic response to ease his economic woes, instructing officials to actively modify the country’s preventive measures based on the changing virus situation and to come up with various plans to revitalize the national economy.
KCNA said Politburo members debated ways for “more effectively engineering and executing” the government’s anti-virus policy in accordance with how the spread of the virus was being “stably controlled and abated,” but the report did not specify what was discussed.
Even while imposing what state media described as “maximum” preventive measures, Kim has stressed that his economic goals still should be met, and state media have described large groups of workers continuing to gather at farms, mining facilities, power stations and construction sites.
Experts say Kim can’t afford to bring the country to a standstill that would unleash further shock on a fragile economy, strained by decades of mismanagement, crippling US-led sanctions over his nuclear weapons ambitions and pandemic border closures. State media have portrayed an urgent push for agricultural campaigns aimed at protecting crops amid an ongoing drought, a worrisome development in a country that has long suffered from food insecurity, and for completing large-scale housing and other construction projects Kim sees as crucial to his rule.
The virus hasn’t stopped Kim from holding and attending important public events for his leadership. State media showed him weeping during Saturday’s state funeral for top North Korean military official Hyon Chol Hae, who is believed to have been involved in grooming Kim as a future leader during the rule of his father, Kim Jong Il.
North Korea’s optimistic description of its pandemic response starkly contrasts with outside concerns about dire consequences, including deaths that may reach tens of thousands. The worries have grown as the country apparently tries to manage the crisis in isolation while ignoring help from South Korea and the United States. South Korea’s government has said it couldn’t confirm reports that North Korea had flown aircraft to bring back emergency supplies from ally China this week.
The North in recent years has shunned millions of vaccine doses offered by the UN-backed COVAX distribution program, possibly because of international monitoring requirements attached to those shots. The WHO and UNICEF have said North Korea so far has been unresponsive to their requests for virus data or proposals for help, and some experts say the North may be willing to accept a certain level of fatalities to gain immunity through infection.
It’s possible at least some of North Korea’s fever caseload are from non-COVID-19 illnesses such as water-borne diseases, which according to South Korean intelligence officials have become a growing problem for the North in recent years amid shortages in medical supplies.
But experts say the explosive pace of spread and North Korea’s lack of a testing regime to detect large numbers of virus carriers in early stages of infection suggest the country’s COVID-19 crisis is likely worse than what its fever numbers represent. They say the country’s real virus fatalities would be significantly larger than the official numbers and that deaths will further surge in coming weeks considering the intervals between infections and deaths.
North Korea’s admission of a COVID-19 outbreak came amid a provocative run in weapons tests, including the country’s first demonstration of an intercontinental ballistic missile since 2017 in March, as Kim pushes a brinkmanship aimed at pressuring the United States to accept the idea of the North as a nuclear power and negotiating economic and security concessions from a position of strength.
The challenges posed by a decaying economy and the COVID-19 outbreak are unlikely to slow his pressure campaign. US and South Korean officials have said there’s a possibility the North conducts another ballistic missile test or nuclear explosive test during or around President Joe Biden’s visits to South Korea and Japan this week.
Nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang have stalled for more than three years over disagreements over how to relax crippling US-led sanctions in exchange for disarmament steps by the North.


Biden, South Korean leader to consult on how to check North Korea

Biden, South Korean leader to consult on how to check North Korea
Updated 21 May 2022

Biden, South Korean leader to consult on how to check North Korea

Biden, South Korean leader to consult on how to check North Korea
  • One mission will be reassuring South Korea about the US commitment to countering North Korea’s Kim Jong Un

SEOUL: President Joe Biden is devoting his Saturday to cementing ties with South Korea and its new leader Yoon Suk Yeol as the two sides consult on how best to check the nuclear threat from North Korea at a time when there’s little hope of real diplomacy on the matter.
The division of the Korean peninsula after World War II has led to two radically different nations. In South Korea, Biden is touring factories for computer chips and next-generation autos in a democracy and engaging in talks for greater cooperation. But in the North, there is a deadly coronavirus outbreak in a largely unvaccinated autocracy that can best command the world’s attention by flexing its nuclear capabilities.
Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One as Biden made his way to South Korea, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the US has coordinated with Seoul and Tokyo on how they’ll respond should the North conduct a nuclear test or missile strike while Biden is in the region or soon after. Sullivan also spoke with his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi earlier in the week and urged Beijing to use its influence to persuade the North to cease the tests.
“China should contemplate taking whatever steps it can to reduce the possibility of a provocative” act, Sullivan said.
As part of a five-day visit in Asia, Biden is focusing his Saturday on his relationship with Yoon, who assumed office little more than a week ago. One mission will be reassuring South Korea about the US commitment to countering North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
There’s worry in Seoul that Washington is slipping back to the Obama administration’s “strategic patience” policy of ignoring North Korea until it demonstrates seriousness about denuclearization, an approach that was criticized for neglecting the North as it made huge strides in building its nuclear arsenal.
Prospects for real nuclear diplomacy are slim as North Korea has ignored South Korean and US offers of assistance with its COVID-19 outbreak, dimming hopes that such cooperation could help ease nuclear tensions or even lead to talks. Still, Biden and Yoon are expected to discuss ways to work with the international community to get the North much needed vaccines and tests, according to senior Biden administration officials who briefed reporters.
The US president plans to lay a wreath at the country’s national cemetery, meet privately with Yoon, hold a joint news conference and then attend a state dinner at the National Museum of Korea.
One focus is sure to be a North that is menacing yet economically fragile. Yet both leaders also are keen to emphasize their growing trade relationship as two Korean industrial stalwarts — Samsung and Hyundai — are opening major plants in the US
Biden faces growing disapproval within the US over inflation near a 40-year high, but his administration sees one clear economic win in the contest with China. Bloomberg Economics Analysis estimates that the US economy will grow faster this year than China for the first time since 1976, a forecast that White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre credited to Biden’s spending on coronavirus relief and infrastructure that led to faster job growth.
The national security event that is galvanizing broader discussions between the two countries has been Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a war that has led to an unprecedented set of sanctions by the US and its allies.
South Korea joined the US in imposing export controls against Russia and blocking Russian banks from the SWIFT payments system. Its participation was key to stopping Russia’s access to computer chips and other technologies needed for weapons and economic development.
At the start of the administration, many White House officials thought that Kim’s nuclear ambitions would prove to be perhaps the administration’s most vexing challenge and that the North Korean leader would aim to test Biden’s mettle early in his time in office.
Through the first 14 months of Biden’s administration, Pyongyang held off on missile tests even as it ignored efforts by the administration to reach out through back channels in hopes of restarting talks that could lead to the North’s denuclearization in return for sanctions relief.
But the quiet didn’t last. North Korea has tested missiles 16 separate times this year, including in March, when its first flight of an intercontinental ballistic missile since 2017 demonstrated a potential range including the entire US mainland.
The Biden administration is calling on China to restrain North Korea from engaging in any missile or nuclear tests. Speaking on Air Force One, Sullivan said Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping could hold a phone call in the coming weeks.
Biden has fiercely criticized Beijing over its human rights record, trade practices, military harassment of the self-ruled island of Taiwan and more. And while Biden has made clear that he sees China as the United States’ greatest economic and national security competitor, he says it is crucial to keep the lines of communication open so the two powers can cooperate on issues of mutual concern. North Korea is perhaps highest on that list.
White House officials said Biden won’t visit the Demilitarized Zone dividing the Korean peninsula during his trip — something that’s become standard for presidents during Seoul visits dating back to Ronald Reagan. Biden visited the DMZ in 2013 as vice president. Sullivan said the president’s decision to skip the stop this time wasn’t driven by security concerns.
Instead, Biden on Sunday will visit the Air Operations Center’s Combat Operations Floor on Osan Air Base, south of Seoul. The US sees it as one of the most critical installations in Northeast Asia.


Russia claims to have taken full control of Mariupol; Ukraine seeks compensation for destruction

Russia claims to have taken full control of Mariupol;  Ukraine seeks compensation for destruction
Updated 47 min 15 sec ago

Russia claims to have taken full control of Mariupol; Ukraine seeks compensation for destruction

Russia claims to have taken full control of Mariupol;  Ukraine seeks compensation for destruction
  • Zelensky said Russia should be made to pay for every home, school, hospital and business it destroys
  • G7 and global financial institutions agree to provide more money to bolster Ukraine’s finances

POKROVSK, Ukraine: Russia claimed to have captured Mariupol on Friday in what would be its biggest victory yet in its war with Ukraine, after a nearly three-month siege that reduced much of the strategic port city to a smoking ruin, with over 20,000 civilians feared dead.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reported to President Vladimir Putin the “complete liberation” of the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol — the last stronghold of Ukrainian resistance — and the city as a whole, spokesman Igor Konashenkov said.
There was no immediate confirmation from Ukraine.
Russia’s state news agency RIA Novosti quoted the ministry as saying a total of 2,439 Ukrainian fighters who had been holed up at the steelworks had surrendered since Monday, including over 500 on Friday.
As they surrendered, the troops were taken prisoner by the Russians, and at least some were taken to a former penal colony. Others were said to be hospitalized.
The defense of the steel mill had been led by Ukraine’s Azov Regiment, whose far-right origins have been seized on by the Kremlin as part of an effort to cast its invasion as a battle against Nazi influence in Ukraine. Russia said the Azov commander was taken away from the plant in an armored vehicle.

A bus carries captured Ukrainian defenders of the besieged Azovstal steel mill in Mariupol on May 20, 2022, to an undisclosed location. (REUTERS)

Russian authorities have threatened to investigate some of the steel mill’s defenders for war crimes and put them on trial, branding them “Nazis” and criminals. That has stirred international fears about their fate.
The steelworks, which sprawled across 11 square kilometers (4 square miles), had been the site of fierce fighting for weeks. The dwindling group of outgunned fighters had held out, drawing Russian airstrikes, artillery and tank fire, before their government ordered them to abandon the plant’s defense and save themselves.
The complete takeover of Mariupol gives Putin a badly needed victory in the war he began on Feb. 24 — a conflict that was supposed to have been a lightning conquest for the Kremlin but instead has seen the failure to take the capital of Kyiv, a pullback of forces to refocus on eastern Ukraine, and the sinking of the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet.
Military analysts said Mariupol’s capture at this point is of mostly symbolic importance, since the city was already effectively under Moscow’s control and most of the Russian forces that were tied down by the fighting there had already left.
In other developments Friday, the West moved to pour billions more in aid into Ukraine and fighting raged in the Donbas, the industrial heartland in eastern Ukraine that Putin is bent on capturing.
Russian forces shelled a vital highway and kept up attacks on a key city in the Luhansk region, hitting a school among other sites, Ukrainian authorities said. Luhansk is part of the Donbas.
The Kremlin had sought control of Mariupol to complete a land corridor between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014, and free up troops to join the larger battle for the Donbas. The city’s loss also deprives Ukraine of a vital seaport.

Mariupol endured some of the worst suffering of the war and became a worldwide symbol of defiance. An estimated 100,000 people remained out a prewar population of 450,000, many trapped without food, water, heat or electricity. Relentless bombardment left rows upon rows of shattered or hollowed-out buildings.
A maternity hospital was hit with a lethal Russian airstrike on March 9, producing searing images of pregnant women being evacuated from the place. A week later, about 300 people were reported killed in a bombing of a theater where civilians were taking shelter, although the real death toll could be closer to 600.
Satellite images in April showed what appeared to be mass graves just outside Mariupol, where local officials accused Russia of concealing the slaughter by burying up to 9,000 civilians.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Monday the evacuation of his forces from the miles of tunnels and bunkers beneath Azovstal was done to save the lives of the fighters.
Earlier this month, hundreds of civilians were evacuated from the plant during humanitarian cease-fires and spoke of the terror of ceaseless bombardment, the dank conditions underground and the fear that they wouldn’t make it out alive.
As the end drew near at Azovstal, wives of fighters who held out at the steelworks told of what they feared would be their last contact with their husbands.
Olga Boiko, wife of a marine, wiped away tears as she said that her husband had written her on Thursday: “Hello. We surrender, I don’t know when I will get in touch with you and if I will at all. Love you. Kiss you. Bye.”
Natalia Zaritskaya, wife of another fighter at Azovstal, said that based on the messages she had seen over the past two days, “Now they are on the path from hell to hell. Every inch of this path is deadly.”
She said that two days ago, her husband reported that of the 32 soldiers with whom he had served, only eight survived, most of them seriously wounded.

A resident walks near a building heavily damaged during Ukraine-Russia conflict in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine, on May 20, 2022. (REUTERS)

While Russia described the troops leaving the steel plant as a mass surrender, the Ukrainians called it a mission fulfilled. They said the fighters had tied down Moscow’s forces and hindered their bid to seize the east.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelensky, described the defense of Mariupol as “the Thermopylae of the 21st century” — a reference to one of history’s most glorious defeats, in which 300 Spartans held off a much larger Persian force in 480 B.C. before finally succumbing.
In other developments Friday:
• Zelensky said Russia should be made to pay for every home, school, hospital and business it destroys. He called on Ukraine’s partners to seize Russian funds and property under their jurisdiction and use them to create a fund to compensate those who suffered.
Russia “would feel the true weight of every missile, every bomb, every shell that it has fired at us,” he said in his nightly video address.
• The Group of Seven major economies and global financial institutions agreed to provide more money to bolster Ukraine’s finances, bringing the total to $19.8 billion. In the US, President Joe Biden was expected to sign a $40 billion package of military and economic aid to Ukraine and its allies.
• Russia will cut off natural gas to Finland on Saturday, the Finnish state energy company said, just days after Finland applied to join NATO. Finland had refused Moscow’s demand that it pay for gas in rubles. The cutoff is not expected to have any major immediate effect. Natural gas accounted for just 6 percent of Finland’s total energy consumption in 2020, Finnish broadcaster YLE said.
• A captured Russian soldier accused of killing a civilian awaited his fate in Ukraine’s first war crimes trial. Sgt. Vadim Shishimarin, 21, could get life in prison.
• Russian lawmakers proposed a bill to lift the age limit of 40 for Russians volunteering for military service. Currently, all Russian men 18 to 27 must undergo a year of service, though many get college deferments and other exemptions.

Heavy fighting was reported Friday in the Donbas, a mostly Russian-speaking expanse of coal mines and factories.
Serhiy Haidai, the governor of Luhansk, said Russian forces shelled the Lysychansk-Bakhmut highway from multiple directions, taking aim at the only road for evacuating people and delivering humanitarian supplies.
“The Russians are trying to cut us off from it, to encircle the Luhansk region,” he said via email.
Moscow’s troops have also been trying for weeks to seize Severodonetsk, a key city in the Donbas, and at least 12 people were killed there on Friday, Haidai said. A school that was sheltering more than 200 people, many of them children, was hit, and more than 60 houses were destroyed across the region, he added.
But he said the Russians took losses in the attack on Severodonetsk and were forced to retreat. His account could not be independently verified.
Another city, Rubizhne, has been “completely destroyed,” Haidai said. “Its fate can be compared to that of Mariupol.”

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