Biden and Putin trade warnings over Ukraine, but vow diplomacy

Biden and Putin trade warnings over Ukraine, but vow diplomacy
President Joe Biden on Thursday warned his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin of a tough US response to any invasion of Ukraine. (Reuters)
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Updated 31 December 2021

Biden and Putin trade warnings over Ukraine, but vow diplomacy

Biden and Putin trade warnings over Ukraine, but vow diplomacy
  • After a 50 minute phone call both presidents indicated support for further diplomacy on the tense standoff between Russia and Western-backed Ukraine
  • Biden "made clear that the United States and its allies and partners will respond decisively if Russia further invades Ukraine,"

WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden on Thursday warned his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin of a tough US response to any invasion of Ukraine, while the Kremlin leader said anti-Moscow sanctions would be a “colossal mistake.”
After a 50 minute phone call — their second in just over three weeks — both presidents indicated support for further diplomacy on the tense standoff between Russia and Western-backed Ukraine.
Putin was “pleased” overall with the talks, foreign policy adviser Yury Ushakov told reporters. A senior US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the tone “was serious and substantive.”
But there was no disguising the depth of disagreement — or the dangerously high stakes on the fringes of eastern Europe — ahead of in-person negotiations between high-ranking Russian and US officials on January 10.
Biden “made clear that the United States and its allies and partners will respond decisively if Russia further invades Ukraine,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement.
Ushakov, referring to Washington’s repeated threats of economic sanctions as a response to a Ukraine attack, said this would be “a colossal mistake. We hope this will not happen.”
Ushakov also said that Russia is looking for a concrete “result” in the January talks in Geneva, while the White House said it, too, wanted action — de-escalation by Russia’s massive military presence on the Ukrainian border.
“President Biden reiterated that substantive progress in these dialogues can occur only in an environment of de-escalation rather than escalation,” Psaki said.
Washington and its European allies accuse Russia of threatening former Soviet territory Ukraine with a new invasion. Some 100,000 Russian troops are massed near the border of the country, where Putin already seized the Crimea region in 2014 and is accused of fomenting a pro-Russian separatist war which erupted that same year in the east.
Moscow describes the troop presence as protection against expansion of NATO, although Ukraine has not been offered membership in the military alliance.
Earlier this month, the Russians issued a sweeping set of demands, including guarantees that NATO not expand and a bar on new US military bases in former territories of the Soviet Union.
The United States rejects what it calls a bid by the Moscow to dictate independent countries’ futures.
In a readout after the call, the Kremlin stressed that Biden told Putin that US offensive weapons would not be deployed in Ukraine. The White House, however, said Biden merely reaffirmed existing policy.
“President Biden made clear that the US is continuing to provide defensive security assistance to Ukraine and is not introducing offensive strike weapons. This was not a new commitment,” a US official told AFP.
And US officials repeated warnings of blistering economic sanctions backed both by Washington and EU capitals if Russia does attack Ukraine further.
Biden “laid out two paths,” a senior administration official said. “One is a path of diplomacy... and the other path is more focused on deterrence, including serious costs.”
The January talks will see Russian officials sitting down separately with negotiators representing the United States, NATO and the regional OSCE security forum, which also includes the United States.
Russia’s delegation will be led by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, and the US delegation by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman.
Ukraine, which wants to join NATO but has been told it is far from being ready to win acceptance, is eager not to be cut out of any wider deal.
US officials have been at pains to insist that no decision will be taken behind the Ukrainians’ backs and that while US troops would not be sent to defend the country against Russia, ongoing deliveries of weapons and other military assistance are set to expand if Moscow attacks.


Minority Hindus in Kashmir demand relocation after killing of community member

Minority Hindus in Kashmir demand relocation after killing of community member
Updated 22 May 2022

Minority Hindus in Kashmir demand relocation after killing of community member

Minority Hindus in Kashmir demand relocation after killing of community member
  • Kashmiri Pandits pointed to lack of security in the region as they call for relocation
  • Protests mark the first time the community organized simultaneous demonstrations in Kashmir

NEW DELHI: Hindus in Indian-administered Kashmir took to the streets for the tenth day in a row on Sunday, demanding relocation from the region and saying the government had failed to provide them security following the killing of a community member.

Scores of minority Hindus in India’s only Muslim-majority region, locally known as Pandits, have been staging protests after militants allegedly killed Rahul Bhat, a Hindu government employee, inside an office complex in Chadoora on May 12. 

Police said two militants had entered Bhat’s office and fired at him. He was then taken to hospital, where he later died. 

The protests began a day after the fatal incident, and mark the first time Pandits have organized simultaneous demonstrations in the disputed region. Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan, with both countries claiming the territory in full and ruling it in part.

“Our main demand is that the government should relocate us outside Kashmir,” Sanjay Tickoo, head of the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti, told Arab News. 

Around 6,000 Kashmiri Pandits employed by the government need to be relocated, Tickoo added. 

“The government has failed to secure the lives of the people in Kashmir. All these big talks by the Indian government have failed to bring any positive change in the valley.” 

Hundreds of thousands of Pandits were forced out of Kashmir when a revolt erupted against Indian rule in 1989. Many lost homes and livelihoods, and later lived in camps across India. 

Officials have worked on resettling Kashmiri Pandits, and thousands returned in 2010 under a government resettlement plan that provided jobs and housing.

In 2019, the government under Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi stripped the region of its semi-autonomy and removed inherited protections on land and jobs. As push for resettlement continues, some say the government is not doing enough. 

“Be it Muslims or Hindus, no one is secure in the valley,” Satish Mahaldar, chairman of Reconciliation, Return and Rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits, told Arab News. 

Former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir and leader of Peoples Democratic Party, Mehbooba Mufti, said the Kashmiri Pandits “have all the reasons” to protest. 

“The BJP had claimed that with the abrogation of special status the situation will become normal and Pandits could return safely. But the opposite has happened,” Mufti told Arab News, referring to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

She said the government must “initiate steps for reconciliation” to improve the situation in Kashmir. 

Srinagar-based Sandeep Koul, whose family lived for generations in Kashmir and stayed throughout the 1990s violence, said the feeling of insecurity has only deepened in his community. 

“We feel more insecure in the valley now than in the 1990s,” Koul told Arab News. “This new Kashmir is not secure for us, it is not secure for anybody.”

Ashwani Kumar Chrungoo, a Kashmiri-based BJP leader and a member of the Kashmiri Pandit community, told Arab News: “It is not possible to provide security to each person and every hour.” 

But he said he is “with the Kashmiri Pandits at this time of distress.

“Many things have changed in Kashmir valley, but the situation of Kashmiri Pandits has not changed much.”


UK foreign aid cut came at ‘worst moment in history’: Opposition MP

UK foreign aid cut came at ‘worst moment in history’: Opposition MP
Updated 22 May 2022

UK foreign aid cut came at ‘worst moment in history’: Opposition MP

UK foreign aid cut came at ‘worst moment in history’: Opposition MP
  • Humanitarian aid in 2021 stripped back by 51%, hammering countries including Yemen, Somalia
  • Charities call for change in policy as Ukraine war puts 1.7bn worldwide at risk of hunger

LONDON: The UK’s humanitarian aid budget was slashed by 51 percent last year, disproportionately affecting some of the world’s neediest countries, including Yemen and Somalia, at the “worst moment in history,” according to a senior MP with the main opposition Labour Party.

The government had pledged to cut total overseas aid from 0.7 percent of gross domestic product to 0.5 percent in November 2020.

Figures show that the cut saw the UK send £744 million ($929 million) overseas last year in humanitarian aid, down from £1.53 billion the previous year.

The total overseas aid spend was £11.5 billion, down 21 percent from the £14.48 billion in 2020.

War-torn Yemen suffered one of the deepest cuts, with its pool of aid falling 63 percent to £82 million, from £221 million in 2020.

The UN estimates that as many as 24 million people, including 13 million children, require aid of some kind across the country.

Somalia, also devastated by conflict, saw its humanitarian aid from the UK slashed by 41 percent to £71 million, from £120 million the previous year.

Both countries have been hit hard by acute food shortages, exacerbated in recent months by spiking prices as a result of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

The Eastern European neighbors represent almost a third of global wheat exports, and are vital producers of agricultural fertilizers. 

The UK has dipped into its finances to find an additional £220 million in aid for Ukraine, but the UN says the war could put as many as 1.7 billion people worldwide at risk of poverty and starvation.

Yemen in particular faces famine, with the UN estimating that 17.4 million people are already food insecure. East Africa is also affected by drought, with 23 million people requiring food aid.

Sarah Champion, chair of the House of Commons international development committee, told The Observer: “It would be hard to consider a worse moment in history for the government to be cutting its foreign aid budget.

“We are the only member of the rich country G7 grouping to be doing so. It is having a damaging effect on our international standing — and the survival chances of some of the poorest people on the planet.”

Sam Nadel, head of government relations at charity Oxfam, told the paper: “The government is cutting aid at a time we have war in Ukraine, the Covid pandemic and millions of people in Africa on the brink of starvation. 

“It’s the most horrific timing. It’s also shortsighted because aid helps tackle global challenges, which helps the UK in the long term.”

Another charity, Action Against Hunger, is calling for an additional package of £750 million in aid for African countries affected by war, drought and the coronavirus pandemic. 

Kate Munro, the charity’s head of advocacy, told The Observer: “It saves money to act early in a crisis.”

Last week, UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss announced a new international development strategy to target British aid more directly at areas around the world that needed it. 

The Foreign Office said in a statement: “Stepping up our life-saving humanitarian work to prevent the worst forms of human suffering around the world is one of the top priorities the foreign secretary laid out in the UK’s international development strategy this week.

“We will prioritize humanitarian funding levels at £3 billion over the next three years, to remain a global leader in crisis response, including in Africa.”


Rich Lebanese buy ‘island passports’ as crisis bites

Rich Lebanese buy ‘island passports’ as crisis bites
Updated 22 May 2022

Rich Lebanese buy ‘island passports’ as crisis bites

Rich Lebanese buy ‘island passports’ as crisis bites
  • Wealthy Lebanese, mostly living in Gulf or African nations, are now among those hunting for passports that offer easier travel and a safety net from the economic crisis at home
  • Commonwealth Caribbean nations are particularly attractive because of their long-standing schemes offering citizenship within months in exchange for a lump sum

BEIRUT: Fearing visa hassles could cost him his job in Dubai while an economic collapse had dashed any homecoming options, Lebanese executive Jad splurged around $135,000 on a new citizenship for himself and his wife.

Within a month of making the payment last year, the 43-year-old businessman received a small package in his mailbox.

Inside were two navy blue passports from the Caribbean island nation of Saint Kitts and Nevis — his ticket to visa-free access to more than 150 countries, including in Europe.

This was a major upgrade from the Lebanese passport, which is ranked among the worst in the world and has become nearly impossible to renew because the cash-strapped state is running out of stocks.

“Three years ago, I would not have imagined I would buy a passport,” said Jad, who had previously grappled with lengthy visa procedures for business trips.

“But now because of the situation in Lebanon — and because we can afford it — we finally did it,” he said, asking for his full name to be withheld for privacy reasons.

A Saint Kitts passport ranks 25th in the world while Lebanon languishes at 103rd on the Henley passport index for freedom of travel.

With a population of under 55,000, it started selling citizenships a year after gaining independence in 1983.

Citizenship by investment schemes have become a booming business internationally, attracting the well-to-do from volatile countries like Iraq, Yemen and Syria.

Some EU member states, including Bulgaria, Cyprus and Malta, have also operated “golden passport” schemes, but they have run into opposition from the European Commission over the back door they offer to EU citizenship.

Wealthy Lebanese, mostly living in Gulf or African nations, are now among those hunting for passports that offer easier travel and a safety net from the economic crisis at home.

Commonwealth Caribbean nations are particularly attractive because of their long-standing schemes offering citizenship within months in exchange for a lump sum.

Applicants are not even required to visit.

When Jad first went to Paris as a Kittitian, officers at passport control told him: “You come from a nice country.”

“But actually I have never been there,” he said.

Jad’s Lebanese friends in the Gulf were also shopping for “island passports” or investing in real estate in Greece and Portugal to obtain residency as part of so-called “golden visa” schemes, he said.

“This is not just a trend. It’s a solution.”

A single passport usually costs around $150,000, a sum funnelled into a sustainable growth fund for the country, which only installed traffic lights in its capital Basseterre in 2018.

Other Caribbean islands including Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada and Saint Lucia also sell passports.

Few people can afford such a purchase in Lebanon, a country in an economic crisis that has seen the currency nosedive, banks freeze deposits and most of the population fall into poverty.

Yet demand for foreign citizenship has spurred a boom in passport consultancy, with firms advertising on social media, billboards and even inside Beirut’s airport.

Among them is Global Pass, converted in 2020 from a real estate company after Lebanese started complaining of higher visa rejection rates.

“Our business has grown by at least 40 percent from 2020 to 2021,” said founder Ziad Karkaji.

Even international firms are raking in a profit.
Jose Charo, who heads the Beirut office of Swiss-based Passport Legacy, said Lebanese now account for one-quarter of the company’s clientele.
Their number has grown fivefold due to the economic crisis that was made worse by a devastating explosion at Beirut’s port in 2020, Charo said.

Having Grenadian citizenship makes applying for a US investor visa easier for business people, he said, while those looking to retire or settle abroad can invest around a quarter of a million dollars in Greece or Portugal to secure permanent residency.
“The industry will keep on growing,” Charo said.
“They are buying their freedom.”


Illinois speaker backs legislation recognizing Arabs as minority contractors

Illinois speaker backs legislation recognizing Arabs as minority contractors
Updated 22 May 2022

Illinois speaker backs legislation recognizing Arabs as minority contractors

Illinois speaker backs legislation recognizing Arabs as minority contractors
  • If passed, it would allow Arabs to compete for a share of state contracts reserved for businesses that are majority-owned by designated ethnic minorities

CHICAGO: Emanuel “Chris” Welch, the speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives, announced on Friday during a visit to a mosque that he supports the adoption of a law that would grant Arab and Muslim contractors special “minority” status when they bid for a share of more than $46 billion in annual state contracts.

The state’s Minority Business Enterprises and Women’s Business Enterprises policies set aside up to 30 percent of state contracts for businesses that are majority-owned by individuals from designated ethnic minorities — Asian-Indian, Asian-Pacific, Black, Hispanic or Native American — and 5 percent for those majority-owned by women.

Welch said he supports legislation, introduced by Illinois State Representative Cyril Nichols, that would include Arabs as a “recognized minority group” so that they can receive “their fair share” of these state contracts.

“I know that there are some issues that are particularly important to your community and that Representative Nichols has been a leader on those issues,” said Welch, who is the first African American to serve as the Illinois speaker.

“Nichols filed a bill a couple weeks ago that will specifically address the issue of minority status. My office is going to lend him support to make sure we have the necessary hearings on that bill here over the summer.”

Speaking during a meeting at the Orland Park Mosque in suburban Chicago, arranged by American Arab Chamber of Commerce President Hassan Nijem, Welch pledged to push for the bill during the November veto session, when bills are normally reviewed and considered for adoption.

“I think the MBE program is enormously significant because we have been traditionally left out, as minorities, not just in the state of Illinois but in this country,” he said.

“Unfortunately that has been the history of our country and it has taken people like Dr. Martin Luther King and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, and all those who came before us, to fight for civil rights and inclusion. That fight continues today. That’s what the MBE program is all about.”

Welch said that the state legislature last month passed a budget worth $46.5 billion and that the “MBE makes sure that money gets into the pockets of people who look like the people of Illinois.”

He added: “Diversity is the strength of the state and everything we do should reflect that diversity, and how we spend that money is very much a part of that.

“Long before I was the speaker, people will tell you, I have fought for diversity on corporate boards, diversity in how we spend our money, diversity in our suppliers.

“And now that I am actually here at the head of the table, trust me, when I am done this community is going to see a big difference.”

Welch urged leaders of the Arab and Muslim communities to “inform and educate” other legislators in the state to help build support for the adoption of the minority classification.

“When Representative Nichols proposes hearings, you need to make sure that the community shows up (and) testifies,” he said. “People that can’t be there, submit written testimony. Let us know why this is such an important issue. How does this help the state? Advocacy really does matter.”

Nichols, who was also at the mosque meeting, said that he realized the real importance of his proposed law in April when he appeared on “The Ray Hanania Radio Show,” which is hosted by the US Arab Radio Network and sponsored by Arab News.

“The speaker is right, you have to call your legislators because I have to get a whole bunch of people to agree with this,” Nichols added. “They need to hear from you. …  We always say that if it is righteous, the Most High will make sure that we are covered. We can get a lot done together.”

Welch said: “Power comes from building coalitions and building allies. There is now a Black caucus, a Hispanic caucus and an Asian caucus.”

He added that he anticipates a day when there will be an “Arab Caucus” to help ensure that Arabs and Muslims actively engage at all levels of Illinois government.

“The only way to govern is through inclusive leadership,” Welch said. “I think it is extremely important that your community be a part of this coalition we are building. Nobody is getting left out. Everybody in, nobody left out.

“And that is what this is all about. We are being intentional, we are here for a reason, and we are figuring out ways to make that inclusion happen — and I want to be a part of that … with you.”

Nichols said that Muslims and Arabs in Detroit had raised the issue of minority status, and that he felt the same thing was needed in Illinois, particularly in the Chicago area which is home to more than 450,000 Christian and Muslim Arabs.

Sheikh Kifah Mustapha, the Imam of the Orland Park Mosque, said that the Arab community will communicate and work with legislators to help them understand why the bill is so important to their community.

“With … the potential to be part of future contracts and future business, being declared as a minority is one of the main objectives,” he said. “If it happens, our own community members will have a share of all these contracts, up to 20 or 25 percent … and this means our community will grow and will contribute back to the well-being of the state itself.

“We are happy that the speaker of the house is here, and the representative also, to talk about this issue and what it means and where he can help and support that perspective.”


Counter-extremism experts question UK government review into Prevent

Counter-extremism experts question UK government review into Prevent
Updated 22 May 2022

Counter-extremism experts question UK government review into Prevent

Counter-extremism experts question UK government review into Prevent
  • Leaked report recommends renewed focus on Islamism over far-right perpetrators
  • ‘Mixed, unstable or unclear’ ideologies now cover over half of all referrals to Prevent

LONDON: Leading government counter-extremism experts in the UK have questioned a leaked review of the Prevent program that has called for a renewed focus on Islamist risks over far-right extremism.

The review conducted by William Shawcross, former head of the neoconservative Henry Jackson Society think tank, has attracted criticism for calling for more attention to be directed to Islamism while Prevent referrals over the ideology have dropped to 22 percent. Meanwhile, one-quarter now revolve around far-right extremism.

The Shawcross report argues that there is a worrying decline in Islamism referrals that does not match the security situation on the ground, with several recent terror attacks in Britain being conducted by those inspired by the ideology.

But Lewys Brace, an extremism researcher at Exeter University who advises the government, said the Shawcross recommendations do not “reflect what’s going on at all, in any way. Mixed ideologies is where it’s all heading.”

Recent data from the program shows that “mixed, unstable or unclear” ideologies now cover over half of all referrals to Prevent.

Brace told The Observer that Shawcross’s mentality is stuck in “circa 2004-2007,” when Britain endured several high-casualty Islamist attacks, including the 7/7 bombings of 2005 that killed 52.

The Manchester Arena attack of 2017 that killed 22 was conducted by an Islamist perpetrator, but Brace warned that the terror risk has developed since then.

He said Jake Davison, who killed five people last August in Plymouth, reportedly associated with “incel” culture, a violent, predominantly online space where extremist misogynistic views are expressed. 

Brace added: “Since Plymouth they (counter-extremism officials) have been a lot more concerned about that sort of amorphous ideology.”

Defenders of the leaked Shawcross report’s suggestions have pointed to the 2020 Reading stabbings, where an Islamist killed three, and the Streatham attack in February that year, where an Islamist released from jail went on a stabbing spree.

But the security services have continued to observe people at risk who display unclear or “blended” ideologies.