US Secretary of State Blinken to visit Ukraine amid Russia invasion fears

US Secretary of State Blinken to visit Ukraine amid Russia invasion fears
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will also head Thursday to Berlin for four-way talks with Britain, France and Germany on the Ukraine crisis. (AP)
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Updated 18 January 2022

US Secretary of State Blinken to visit Ukraine amid Russia invasion fears

US Secretary of State Blinken to visit Ukraine amid Russia invasion fears
  • Top US official to meet with President Volodymyr Zelensky and ‘reinforce the United States’ commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity’

WASHINGTON: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will fly Tuesday to Ukraine in a show of support amid fears of a Russian invasion, the State Department said.
Blinken, who will meet Wednesday in Kyiv with President Volodymyr Zelensky, will “reinforce the United States’ commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said.
Blinken will also head Thursday to Berlin for four-way talks with Britain, France and Germany on the Ukraine crisis.
The four transatlantic powers will discuss “joint efforts to deter further Russian aggression against Ukraine, including allies’ and partners’ readiness to impose massive consequences and severe economic costs on Russia,” Price said in a statement.
Blinken’s trip “follows extensive diplomacy with our European allies and partners about a united approach to address the threat Russia poses to Ukraine and our joint efforts to encourage it to choose diplomacy and de-escalation in the interests of security and stability,” Price said.
It comes as Blinken’s German and French counterparts also visit Ukraine, following travel to the frontlines by top EU diplomat Josep Borrell.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock on Tuesday was also holding talks in Moscow in hopes of defusing the crisis.
Russia last year sent tens of thousands of troops to the borders with Ukraine, according to Western officials who fear a new invasion.
Russia denies plans to invade but has demanded security guarantees from the West, including promises that NATO will not be expanded to Ukraine.
The United States and its allies last week held extensive talks with Russia, including in a meeting of the two countries’ senior diplomats in Geneva.
Russia has publicly said that it is disappointed with the results, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saying Tuesday that Moscow needs answers before continuing dialogue.
The United States says that Russian demands are non-starters and that Ukraine, where thousands have died in a pro-Russian insurgency launched in 2014, has the right to make its own decisions.
European allies are cautious about admitting Ukraine to the alliance for fear of angering Russia.
The United States has warned of major economic consequences and has voiced hope that Germany would sever the soon-to-open Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline if Russia invades.


Israel delivers helmets, vests to emergency and civilian groups in Ukraine

Israel delivers helmets, vests to emergency and civilian groups in Ukraine
Updated 4 sec ago

Israel delivers helmets, vests to emergency and civilian groups in Ukraine

Israel delivers helmets, vests to emergency and civilian groups in Ukraine

JERUSALEM: Israel has delivered 2,000 helmets and 500 protective vests for emergency and civilian organizations in Ukraine, Israel’s Defense Ministry said on Wednesday.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz last month said he would authorize the delivery of helmets and vests, signaling a shift in Israel’s position on providing such equipment. It follows a request by Ukraine for the supplies.


North Korea hails COVID-19 recovery as WHO worries over missing data

North Korea hails COVID-19 recovery as WHO worries over missing data
Updated 8 min 59 sec ago

North Korea hails COVID-19 recovery as WHO worries over missing data

North Korea hails COVID-19 recovery as WHO worries over missing data
  • Country’s anti-virus headquarters announced 232,880 new cases of fever and another six deaths
  • Outside experts believe most of the fevers are COVID-19 but North Korea lacks tests to confirm so many

SEOUL: North Korea said Wednesday more than a million people have already recovered from suspected COVID-19 just a week after disclosing an outbreak it appears to be trying to manage in isolation as global experts express deep concern about the public health threat.
The country’s anti-virus headquarters announced 232,880 new cases of fever and another six deaths in state media Wednesday. Those figures raise its totals to 62 deaths and more than 1.7 million fever cases since late April. It said at least 691,170 remain in quarantine.
Outside experts believe most of the fevers are COVID-19 but North Korea lacks tests to confirm so many. The outbreak is almost certainly larger than the fever tally, since some virus carriers may not develop fevers or other symptoms.
It’s also unclear how more than a million people recovered so quickly when limited medicine, medical equipment and health facilities exist to treat the country’s impoverished, unvaccinated population of 26 million. Some experts say the North could be simply releasing people from quarantine after their fevers subside.
Globally, COVID-19 has killed about 6.3 million people with the true toll believed to be much higher. Countries with outbreaks of a similar size to North Korea’s official fever tally have confirmed thousands of deaths each.
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Tuesday that North Korea has not responded to its request for more data about its outbreak.
Before acknowledging COVID-19 infections for the first time last week, North Korea had held to a widely doubted claim of keeping out the virus. It also shunned millions of vaccine shots offered by the UN-backed COVAX distribution program, likely because of international monitoring requirements attached to them.
North Korea and Eritrea are the only sovereign UN-member countries not to have rolled out vaccines, but Tedros said neither country has responded to WHO’s offers of vaccines, medicines, tests and technical support.
“WHO is deeply concerned at the risk of further spread in (North Korea),” Tedros said, also noting the country has worrying numbers of people with underlying conditions that make them more likely to get severe COVID-19.
WHO emergencies chief Dr. Michael Ryan said unchecked transmission of the virus could lead to new variants but that WHO was powerless to act unless countries accepted its help.
The North has so far ignored rival South Korea’s offer to provide vaccines, medicine and health personnel, but experts say the North may be more willing to accept help from its main ally China. South Korea’s government said it couldn’t confirm media reports that North Korea flew multiple planes to bring back emergency supplies from China on Tuesday.
North Korean officials during a ruling party Politburo meeting Tuesday continued to express confidence that the country could overcome the crisis on its own, with the Politburo members discussing ways for “continuously maintaining the good chance in the overall epidemic prevention front,” the official Korean Central News Agency said Wednesday.
There’s suspicion that North Korea is underreporting deaths to soften the blow for Kim, who already was navigating the toughest moment of his decade in power. The pandemic has further damaged an economy already broken by mismanagement and US-led sanctions over Kim’s nuclear weapons and missiles development.
At the Politburo meeting, Kim criticized officials over their early pandemic response, which he said underscored “immaturity in the state capacity for coping with the crisis” and he blamed the country’s vulnerability on their “non-positive attitude, slackness and non-activity,” KCNA said.
He urged officials to strengthen virus controls at workplaces and redouble efforts to improve the supply of daily necessities and stabilize living conditions, the report said.
North Korea has also deployed nearly 3,000 military medical officers to help deliver medicine to pharmacies and deployed public health officials, teachers and students studying health care to identify people with fevers so they could be quarantined. The country has been relying on finding people with symptoms and isolating them at shelters since it lacks vaccines, high-tech medicine and equipment, and intensive care units that lowered hospitalizations and deaths in other nations.
While raising alarm over the outbreak, Kim has also stressed that his economic goals should be met. State media reports show large groups of workers are continuing to gather at farms, mining facilities, power stations and construction sites, being driven to ensure their works are “propelled as scheduled.”
North Korea’s COVID-19 outbreak came amid a provocative run in weapons demonstrations, including its first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile in nearly five years, in a brinkmanship aimed at forcing the United States to accept the idea of the North as a nuclear power and negotiate economic and security concessions from a position of strength.
US and South Korean officials also believe North Korea could conduct its seventh nuclear test explosion this month.
The North Korean nuclear threat is expected to top agenda when US President Joe Biden meets South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol during a visit to Seoul this week. Kim Tae-hyo, Yoon’s deputy national security adviser, told reporters Wednesday that North Korea probably won’t conduct a nuclear test this week but that its preparations for another ICBM test appeared imminent.
Kim Jong Un during Tuesday’s Politburo meeting affirmed he would “arouse the whole party like (an) active volcano once again under the state emergency situation” to prove its leadership before history and time and “defend the wellbeing of the country and the people without fail and demonstrate to the whole world the strength and the spirit of heroic Korea once again,” KCNA said. The report did not make a direct reference to a major weapons test.
Recent commercial satellite images of the nuclear testing ground in Punggye-ri indicate refurbishment work and preparations at a yet unused tunnel on the southern part of the site, which is presumably nearing completion to host a nuclear test, according to an analysis released Tuesday by Beyond Parallel, a website run by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.


959 Ukrainian fighters from Azovstal surrendered so far, says Russia

959 Ukrainian fighters from Azovstal surrendered so far, says Russia
Since Monday, 959 militants from Azovstal have surrendered, 80 of whom were wounded. (AFP)
Updated 1 min 21 sec ago

959 Ukrainian fighters from Azovstal surrendered so far, says Russia

959 Ukrainian fighters from Azovstal surrendered so far, says Russia
  • 694 Ukrainian fighters surrendered over the last 24 hours

Russia said on Wednesday that a total of 959 Ukrainian fighters, including 80 wounded, had surrendered from the bunkers and tunnels below Mariupol’s Azovstal steelworks since Monday.
The defense ministry said 694 Ukrainian fighters — including members of the Azov regiment — had surrendered in the past 24 hours, including 29 wounded.
In the latest update on what Moscow calls its special military operation, the ministry said Russia also struck eastern Ukraine with missiles in the Soledar area of the Donetsk region.
Russia also hit foreign mercenaries, destroyed Ukrainian Su-24 aircraft, Ukrainian arsenals and S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems, the ministry said.
Russia struck 76 control points and 421 troop and artillery points, including 147 artillery and mortar, with missiles and artillery, the ministry said.
It hit a Ukrainian battery of 155-mm M777 howitzers manufactured by the United States, the ministry said.
It was not possible to independently confirm the claims.


China removes some COVID-19 test rules on travelers from US

China removes some COVID-19 test rules on travelers from US
Updated 48 min 34 sec ago

China removes some COVID-19 test rules on travelers from US

China removes some COVID-19 test rules on travelers from US
  • Previous requirements on antibody tests before flights will be removed as well

BEIJING: Travelers flying to China from US cities including Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco from May 20 will no longer need a RT-PCR test seven days before flights, notices issued late on Tuesday by the Chinese embassy and consulates showed.
Previous requirements on antibody tests before flights will be removed as well, the notices said.
Travelers still need to do two RT-PCR tests within 48 hours or 24 hours of their flights — depending on which airport they are flying out of — plus another antigen test, those notices showed.


US-Taliban deal biggest factor in collapse of Afghan forces, watchdog says

US-Taliban deal biggest factor in collapse of Afghan forces, watchdog says
Updated 18 May 2022

US-Taliban deal biggest factor in collapse of Afghan forces, watchdog says

US-Taliban deal biggest factor in collapse of Afghan forces, watchdog says
  • Withdrawal ‘destroyed’ the morale of the Afghan military as it was dependent on US military support

WASHINGTON: The biggest factor that led to the collapse of the Afghan military in August last year was the US decision to withdraw forces and contractors from Afghanistan through an agreement with the Taliban signed by the Trump administration and executed by the Biden administration, a US watchdog report concluded.
The withdrawal “destroyed” the morale of the Afghan military as it was dependent on US military support, according to an assessment by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, which was made public late Tuesday.
“SIGAR found that the single most important factor in the ANDSF’s (Afghan National Defense and Security Forces) collapse in August 2021 was the US decision to withdraw military forces and contractors from Afghanistan through signing the US-Taliban agreement in February 2020 under the Trump administration, followed by President Biden’s withdrawal announcement in April 2021,” the report said.
Under US President Joe Biden’s Republican predecessor Donald Trump, the United States made a deal with the Islamist Taliban to withdraw all American forces.
After the signing of the deal, the US military support to Afghan forces came down, which also included a drop in air strikes in 2020 after a record high level in the previous year, the report added.
“Limiting airstrikes after the signing of the US-Taliban agreement the following year left the ANDSF without a key advantage in keeping the Taliban at bay,” John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, said.
The Taliban overran Afghanistan in August as the former Western-backed government collapsed with surprising speed and the last US troops withdrew.
Biden had argued the war in Afghanistan needed to be brought to a close after 20 years of fighting that had cost American lives, drained resources and distracted from greater strategic priorities.
The US Congress created the office of SIGAR to provide an oversight of reconstruction projects and activities during the war in Afghanistan.
“Many Afghans thought the US-Taliban agreement was an act of bad faith and a signal that the US was handing over Afghanistan to the enemy as it rushed to exit the country,” Sopko said.