French official says 300-400 Russian mercenaries operate in Mali

French official says 300-400 Russian mercenaries operate in Mali
A Malian army soldier patrols in Gao. (AFP)
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Updated 11 January 2022

French official says 300-400 Russian mercenaries operate in Mali

French official says 300-400 Russian mercenaries operate in Mali
  • French official: ‘I would say there are around 300-400 members of Wagner and there are also Russian trainers, who provide equipment’
  • Mali’s junta has said the new forces are military instructors who came with equipment they bought from Russia

PARIS: From 300 to 400 Russian mercenaries are operating in central Mali, a senior French armed forces ministry official said, challenging an assertion by the West African country’s junta that only Russian military trainers are deployed there.

Other West African nations have closed their borders with Mali, severed diplomatic ties and imposed economic sanctions in response to its delay in holding elections following a 2020 military coup, the 15-state regional bloc said on Sunday.

The moves were also a response to the arrival of private military contractors from the Russian Wagner Group, whose members are mostly ex-service personnel.

“I would say there are around 300-400 members of Wagner and there are also Russian trainers, who provide equipment,” the French official told reporters at a briefing late on Monday.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Russian mercenaries had deployed with Malian forces to the center of the country.

Mali’s junta, which has proposed a five-year transition rather than stepping down in February as initially planned, has said the new forces are military instructors who came with equipment they bought from Russia.

The European Union has imposed sanctions on the Wagner Group, accusing it of clandestine operations on the Kremlin’s behalf. President Vladimir Putin has said the group does not represent the Russian state, but that private military contractors have the right to work anywhere in the world as long as they do not break Russian law.

France has thousands of troops fighting extremist militants in the Sahel region and in December joined 15 other countries, mostly European states operating in Mali, in condemning the possible arrival of mercenaries.

Paris has said any such move would be incompatible with the French presence in Mali.
“The fact that Wagner is in a different part of Mali limits the risk of interaction which would be very difficult (for us) to accept,” the French official said. “They (the junta) made the choice to turn their backs on the Europeans, the Americans and Africans and that brings consequences.”

He said consultations were under way between France and its European partners, who have provided special forces in Mali, on how to respond. Decisions are likely at European Union level at the end of January, he said.


Thailand to lower COVID-19 alert, ease curbs as infections slow

Thailand to lower COVID-19 alert, ease curbs as infections slow
Updated 9 sec ago

Thailand to lower COVID-19 alert, ease curbs as infections slow

Thailand to lower COVID-19 alert, ease curbs as infections slow
  • Among measures being considered are establishing more ‘sandbox’ areas for tourists
  • Thailand has recorded 2.3 million cases of COVID-19 and almost 22,000 deaths overall
BANGKOK: Thailand will lower its COVID-19 alert level and is considering easing more restrictions to boost its economy, its health minister said on Tuesday, in response to a slower infection rate.
Among measures being considered are establishing more “sandbox” areas for tourists, who can skip quarantine if they stay in specified areas for seven days and undergo two COVID-19 tests.
Nightclubs, pubs and bars will remained closed for now, however, Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul told reporters, adding the COVID-19 alert level will be lowered to 3, from 4, on the government’s 5-level system.
New Sandbox areas could include Chiang Mai, Chonburi, Khon Kaen and Samut Prakan provinces, he said.
The scheme, a calibrated move to rebuild Thailand’s decimated tourism sector, currently operates in Phuket, Phang Nga, Krabi and Koh Samui.
Anutin on Monday said he would propose the return of a ‘Test and Go’ scheme that allows free movement to tourists who pass one COVID-19 test on arrival.
Thailand has recorded 2.3 million cases of COVID-19 and almost 22,000 deaths overall. Nearly two-thirds of its residents are vaccinated and 13.5 percent have received boosters.

Texas synagogue shooter was known to MI5: Report

Texas synagogue shooter was known to MI5: Report
Updated 10 min 53 sec ago

Texas synagogue shooter was known to MI5: Report

Texas synagogue shooter was known to MI5: Report
  • Briton Faisal Akram had ranted about 9/11 attacks a day after they happened
  • Brother: ‘He’s known to police, got a criminal record. How was he allowed to get a visa and acquire a gun?’

LONDON: The British man killed by police after taking people hostage in a US synagogue was known to British security services, The Independent has reported.

Faisal Akram, from the town of Blackburn, also had previous criminal convictions but was still able to obtain a visa and travel to his target in Texas.

The Independent reported that it was not known when MI5 became aware of Akram, 44, but that he had not been considered an imminent threat.

He was known to local police for criminal offenses, and in 2001 had been banned from a local court after ranting about the 9/11 terrorist attacks a day after they took place.

A letter sent to Akram from the court at the time read: “In a clear reference to the terrorist attack on New York the previous day you said on more than one occasion to one of my court ushers ‘you should have been on the ******* plane’.”

Speaking with Sky News, Akram’s brother Gulbar questioned how he had been allowed to travel to the US in the first place and then acquire a gun while there.

“He’s known to police, got a criminal record,” Gulbar said. “How was he allowed to get a visa and acquire a gun?”

US President Joe Biden branded the attack an “act of terror,” and said Akram had made “antisemitic and anti-Israel comments.”

The FBI, with support from British counterterror police, is investigating why Akram targeted the synagogue and took hostages.

British Home Secretary Priti Patel pledged “full support” from the UK police and security services throughout the investigation.

Two British teenagers were arrested on Sunday in relation to the attack, but no further details have been released.

During the attack, Akram had demanded the release of Pakistani neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui, who is jailed in Texas for trying to kill US military officers in Afghanistan.

An FBI agent said after the attack that they believed Akram was “singularly focused on one issue and it was not specifically related to the Jewish community,” but added that they will continue to “work to find motive.”


Hong Kong to cull 2,000 animals after hamsters get COVID-19

Hong Kong to cull 2,000 animals after hamsters get COVID-19
Updated 10 min 51 sec ago

Hong Kong to cull 2,000 animals after hamsters get COVID-19

Hong Kong to cull 2,000 animals after hamsters get COVID-19
  • Customers who bought hamsters in Hong Kong from Dec. 22 will also be subject to mandatory testing

HONG KONG: Hong Kong authorities said Tuesday that they will cull some 2,000 small animals, including hamsters after several of the rodents tested positive for the virus at a pet store where an infected employee was working.
The city will also stop the sale of hamsters and the import of small mammals, according to officials from the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department. The move came after the pet shop employee tested positive for the delta variant on Monday. Several hamsters imported from the Netherlands at the same store tested positive as well.
“If you own a hamster, you should keep your hamsters at home, do not take them out,” said department director Leung Siu-fai at a news conference.
“All pet owners should observe good personal hygiene, and after you have been in contact with animals and their food, you should wash your hands.”
“Do not kiss your pets,” he added.
Even though authorities acknowledged that there is “no evidence” that pets can transmit the coronavirus to humans, as a precautionary measure, customers who had purchased hamsters from the affected store after Jan. 7 will be traced and be subject to mandatory quarantine.
They must also hand over their hamsters to authorities to be put down.
Authorities said that all pet stores selling hamsters in Hong Kong must cease operations and that around 2,000 small mammals, including hamsters and chinchillas, will be culled in a humane manner.
Customers who bought hamsters in Hong Kong from Dec. 22 will also be subject to mandatory testing and are urged not to go into the community until their tests have returned negative. If their hamsters test positive, they will be subject to quarantine.
For now, authorities said they would not rule out transmission between human and animals.
Separately, Hong Kong police have arrested two former flight attendants for allegedly leaving their homes when they should have been in isolation for possible coronavirus infections, which were later confirmed.
The two arrived from the US on Dec. 24 and 25. While in medical surveillance, they had “conducted unnecessary activities,” according to a government statement posted late Monday.
While the statement did not name their employer, the arrests came after flagship carrier Cathay Pacific said it had fired two crew members for breaching coronavirus protocols. Both later tested positive for the omicron variant.
Cathay previously said the actions of the crew who had broken coronavirus protocols was “extremely disappointing” and apologized for the disruption. The company had to cut back on flights — both passenger and cargo — in January amid tightened virus curbs.
The duo have been released on bail and will have their case heard in court on Feb. 9. If convicted of violating anti-epidemic regulations, they could face up to 6 months imprisonment and a fine of up to 5,000 Hong Kong dollars ($642).
Hong Kong has been grappling with a local omicron outbreak traced to several Cathay Pacific crew members who had dined at bars and restaurants across the city before later testing positive for the omicron variant.
Previously in Hong Kong, certain air and sea crew members could isolate at home under certain quarantine exemptions. Regulations tightened Dec. 31 require crew members to isolate in a designated quarantine hotel for about a week to safeguard public health.


Rescuers search for survivors after deadly Afghan quake

Rescuers search for survivors after deadly Afghan quake
Updated 26 min 28 sec ago

Rescuers search for survivors after deadly Afghan quake

Rescuers search for survivors after deadly Afghan quake
  • Images circulating on social media showed residents, including children, searching through the rubble of collapsed homes

HERAT: Rescuers searched Tuesday for survivors of a powerful earthquake in a remote western region of Afghanistan that killed at least 22 people and caused “massive” damage to buildings, officials said.
Monday afternoon’s shallow 5.3-magnitude quake jolted Qadis district in Badghis province, a rural area not easily accessible by road.
“The earthquake caused massive damage to houses, about 700 to 1,000 have been damaged,” Badghis provincial spokesman Baz Mohammad Sarwary said in a video message.
Afghanistan is already in the grip of a humanitarian disaster, worsened by the Taliban takeover of the country in August when Western countries froze international aid and access to assets held abroad.
Sarwary said 22 people were killed and four were injured, revising the death toll from the previous figure of 26 he gave to AFP late Monday.
“There is the possibility that the casualties could increase,” he said in his latest video message.
Taliban government spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed the toll.
Images circulating on social media showed residents, including children, searching through the rubble of collapsed homes.
Government officials said rescue workers were helping search for survivors and transferring the injured to local hospitals.
A Taliban team was in the area assisting in the relief work.
Mujahid said that all government agencies had been instructed to provide the food, medical aid and shelter to those affected.
“We also call on international aid agencies and humanitarian agencies to assist the victims of the disaster,” he said in a statement posted on Twitter.
The epicenter of the quake was near the city of Qala-i-Naw, the capital of Badghis, less than 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the Turkmenistan border, according to the United States Geological Survey.
The United Nations has said it needs $5 billion in 2022 to avert the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan.
A devastating drought has compounded the crisis, with earthquake-hit Qadis one of the worst affected areas.
Afghanistan is frequently hit by earthquakes, especially in the Hindu Kush mountain range, which lies near the junction of the Eurasian and Indian tectonic plates.
Even weak earthquakes can cause significant damage to poorly built homes and buildings in the impoverished country.
In 2015, more than 380 people were killed in Pakistan and Afghanistan when a powerful 7.5-magnitude earthquake ripped across the two countries, with the bulk of the deaths in Pakistan.
In that disaster, 12 young Afghan girls were crushed to death in a stampede as they tried to flee their shaking school building.


Vladimir Putin to host Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi in Moscow on Wednesday

Vladimir Putin to host Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi in Moscow on Wednesday
Updated 51 min 18 sec ago

Vladimir Putin to host Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi in Moscow on Wednesday

Vladimir Putin to host Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi in Moscow on Wednesday
  • Meeting will be Ebrahim Raisi’s most important official visit abroad since he took office in August

MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin will host his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi in Moscow on Wednesday, the Kremlin said, amid talks aimed at reviving the Iran nuclear deal.
The meeting will be Raisi’s most important official visit abroad since he took office in August, and the first visit by an Iranian president to Russia since 2017.
The leaders will discuss the “whole range of issues of bilateral cooperation,” including the 2015 deal that offered Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program, the Kremlin said in a statement.
In 2018, Washington announced its unilateral withdrawal from the agreement under former president Donald Trump, prompting Iran to walk back on its commitments.
Since last year, Iran has been in talks with the signatories of the accord — the United States, France, Britain, Russia, China and Germany — to restore the deal, but negotiations stopped in June after Raisi’s election.
They resumed in November.
Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov earlier this month noted “real progress” in the talks.
Moscow and Tehran have strong political, economic and military ties, shared interests in Afghanistan, and are key allies of Syrian President Bashar Assad in his country’s decade-long civil war.