Blinken warns Russia could send more troops toward Ukraine soon

Blinken warns Russia could send more troops toward Ukraine soon
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called no Russian president Vladimir called on Putin to choose a “peaceful path”. (Reuters)
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Updated 19 January 2022

Blinken warns Russia could send more troops toward Ukraine soon

Blinken warns Russia could send more troops toward Ukraine soon
  • Top US official calls on Russian leader to choose a ‘peaceful path’
  • Biden administration providing an additional $200 million in defensive military aid to the country

KIEV: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Wednesday that Russian President Vladimir Putin could be preparing to send more forces toward Ukraine after massing tens of thousands of troops.

“We know that there are plans in place to increase that force even more on very short notice, and that gives President Putin the capacity, also on very short notice, to take further aggressive action against Ukraine,” Blinken said on a visit to Kiev.

Blinken called on Putin to choose a “peaceful path” as the top US diplomat paid a solidarity visit to Ukraine amid invasion fears.

“I strongly, strongly hope that we can keep this on a diplomatic and peaceful path, but ultimately, that’s going to be President Putin’s decision,” Blinken said.

The Biden administration said Wednesday it is providing an additional $200 million in defensive military aid to the country amid soaring fears of a Russian invasion.

A senior US State Department official said the assistance was approved in late December as part of American efforts to help Ukraine protect itself. Until Wednesday, however, the administration had refused to comment on it.

The official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly before Blinken’s meetings in Kiev and spoke on condition of anonymity.

“We are committed to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and will continue to provide Ukraine the support it needs,” the official said. The official did not detail the contents of the aid package.

After talks last week failed to ease fears, the White House warned Tuesday that Russia was ready to attack Ukraine at “any point.”

It was a marked intensification of its threat assessment ahead of a meeting between Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expected in Geneva on Friday.

Hoping to show robust support ahead of the talks, the top US diplomat is making a one-day visit to Kiev Wednesday in a show of support for Ukraine.

He was greeted by Ukrainian officials on an icy moonlit tarmac and will later meet President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Blinken heads Thursday to Berlin for four-way talks with Britain, France and Germany to seek Western unity.

“We’re now at a stage where Russia could at any point launch an attack on Ukraine,” the White House’s Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Tuesday.

“No option is off the table,” she said, warning of an “extremely dangerous situation.”

And she said that Russian President Vladimir Putin “has created this crisis.”

Moscow has repeatedly denied that an invasion is planned.

In a call between the US and Russian top diplomats ahead of Blinken’s trip, the Russian foreign ministry said Lavrov had called on Blinken “not to replicate speculation about the allegedly impending ‘Russian aggression’.”

US State Department spokesman Ned Price said that Blinken “stressed the importance of continuing a diplomatic path to de-escalate tensions.”

And a US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Blinken’s goal was to see “if there is a diplomatic off-ramp” and “common ground” where Russia can be persuaded to pull back from Ukraine.

With tens of thousands of Russian troops massing on Ukraine’s borders, efforts have intensified to prevent tensions escalating into a new European war.

However, in a joint press conference with visiting German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock on Tuesday, Lavrov said there would be no further negotiations until the West responds to its demands for sweeping security guarantees.

They include a permanent ban on Ukraine joining NATO.

Washington has rejected the demands.

While the United States and its European allies have no plans to meet a Russian attack against Ukraine with military force, the economic counter-measures would be unlike any used in the past, Washington says.

The US official said it was possible that Russia is not interested in a diplomatic solution.

“I think it’s still too early to tell if the Russian government is genuinely interested in diplomacy, if it is prepared to negotiate seriously in good faith, or whether it will use discussions as a pretext to claim that diplomacy didn’t address Moscow’s interests,” the official said.

Washington meanwhile warned that draft constitutional reforms in Belarus could lead to the deployment of Russian nuclear weapons in the country.

Joint Russia-Belarus military exercises announced Tuesday by Minsk as Russian troops arrived in the country were “beyond normal,” a US official said, and could presage a permanent Russian military presence involving both conventional and nuclear forces.

Kiev has been battling a pro-Moscow insurgency in two breakaway regions bordering Russia since 2014, when the Kremlin annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine has so far left more than 13,000 dead.

Beijing urges millions to keep working from home amid COVID-19 outbreak menace

Beijing urges millions to keep working from home amid COVID-19 outbreak menace
Updated 10 sec ago

Beijing urges millions to keep working from home amid COVID-19 outbreak menace

Beijing urges millions to keep working from home amid COVID-19 outbreak menace
  • The Chinese capital on Monday reported 99 new cases were detected on May 22, up from 61 the previous day
BEIJING/SHANGHAI: Beijing authorities extended work-from-home guidance for many of its 22 million residents to stem a persistent COVID-19 outbreak, while Shanghai deployed more testing and curbs to hold on to its hard-won ‘zero COVID’ status after two months of lockdown.
On Monday, the Chinese capital reported 99 new cases were detected on May 22, up from 61 the previous day — the largest daily tally so far during a month-old outbreak that has consistently seen dozens of new infections every day.
In Shanghai fewer than 600 daily cases were reported for May 22, with none outside quarantined areas, as there has been the case for much of the past week.
Analysts at Gavekal Dragonomics estimated last week that fewer than 5 percent of Chinese cities were reporting infections, down from a quarter in late March, in a COVID-19 outbreak that has cast a pall over growth in the world’s no. 2 economy. But vigilance, and concern, remains acute in Shanghai and the capital.
While there were no new announcements of areas being closed in Beijing, five of the city’s 16 districts advised residents to work from home and avoid gatherings. Those who have to go to work should have a negative result on a PCR test taken within 48 hours, and must not deviate from their home-to-work commute.
“The city’s epidemic prevention and control is at a critical moment,” Beijing’s Tongzhou district posted on its WeChat account late on Sunday, asking residents who work in five other districts to do their jobs from home this week.
“One step forward and victory is in sight. One step back, and previous efforts would be wasted.”
Beijing had already curtailed public transport, asked some shopping malls and other stores and venues to close and sealed buildings where new cases were detected.
In one large residential compound not under isolation orders, shelves have been set up for deliveries at the entrance, according to residents, fueling concern that preparation was in place for tougher controls on movement.
The curbs in Beijing, Shanghai and elsewhere in China are leaving behind significant economic damage and disruption to global supply chains and international trade.
The highly-transmissible omicron variant of the virus first discovered in the city of Wuhan in late 2019 has proven hard to defeat even with strict measures that starkly contrast the resumption of normal life elsewhere in the world.
“We’ve been massively hit,” said a convenience store owner surnamed Sun, whose shop in Beijing has only been allowed to operate during daytime rather than its usual 24/7 hours.
“Even during the Wuhan outbreak we could stay open the whole time.”
In Shanghai, which reopened more than 250 bus routes and a small part of its sprawling subway system on Sunday, many towns and districts announced more mass testing for the coming days and asked residents not to leave their compounds.
The commercial hub of 25 million has allowed more people to leave their homes for brief periods over the past week, but it generally plans to keep most restrictions in place this month, before a lifting its two-month-old lockdown from June 1.
However, while more people are being allowed outside, several residents in various areas of Shanghai said they had been told of new infections in their vicinity that required new curbs on movement.
One resident in Hongkou district, which has not reported any new community-level cases since May 7, said he was told last week not to leave his flat, having been allowed to move within his compound previously.
Hongkou was among six districts which have announced some tightening of curbs in recent days to “consolidate” the results of their efforts so far.
But such moves made some people fear the virus was making a comeback.
The top comment on a post by state agency Xinhua on China’s Twitter-like Weibo post on Shanghai’s latest numbers read: “This can’t be accurate, zero COVID cases at community level? Our compound had one new case yesterday.”
Asked to comment, the Shanghai government said that all cases found in recent days were in “sealed” high-risk areas or quarantine centers, and that any community transmission cases would be announced on official channels.

Seven killed after fire engulfs Philippine ferry

Seven killed after fire engulfs Philippine ferry
Updated 23 May 2022

Seven killed after fire engulfs Philippine ferry

Seven killed after fire engulfs Philippine ferry
  • 12 rescued so far and seven remained missing, says Philippine Coast Guard
  • The ferry was on its way to Real in Quezon province from Polillo island

MANILA: At least seven people were killed and scores plucked to safety in the Philippines Monday after a fire ripped through a ferry and forced passengers to jump overboard, coast guard and witnesses said.
The blaze broke out on the Mercraft 2 at around 6:30 am (2230 GMT Sunday) as it carried 134 passengers and crew from Polillo Island to Real in Quezon province on the main island of Luzon.
Seven people died and 120 have been rescued so far, Philippine Coast Guard spokesman Commodore Armando Balilo said.
Another seven were missing and a search operation was ongoing.
The boat had a 186-person capacity.
Thick black smoke billowed from the boat as flames engulfed the entire vessel, photos shared by the coast guard showed.
People with life rings and life vests were in the water. Some were rescued by other ferries or clambered into inflatable boats.
The fire appears to have started in the engine room, Balilo said.
“We were able to rescue 40 survivors. We have two fatalities,” said Captain Brunette Azagra, whose passenger vessel was 500 meters from the Mercraft when the fire broke out.
“They were lucky because we also came from Polillo. They overtook us, but we were just nearby,” Azagra told a local radio station, describing sea conditions as “quite good.”
At least 23 people were injured, according to the coast guard.
The ship was around seven kilometers away (four miles) from port, Real town disaster officer Ricky Poblete said.
Speaking from the hospital where the injured were being treated, Poblete said the seven dead had drowned.
Photos posted on the coast guard’s Facebook page showed a survivor laying on a stretcher being carried off a ferry.
The Philippines, an archipelago of more than 7,000 islands, is plagued by poor sea transport, with its badly regulated boats and ships prone to overcrowding and accidents.
The Mercraft has been towed to shore, Balilo said.

Russia presses Donbas attacks as Polish leader praises Kyiv

Russia presses Donbas attacks as Polish leader praises Kyiv
Updated 23 May 2022

Russia presses Donbas attacks as Polish leader praises Kyiv

Russia presses Donbas attacks as Polish leader praises Kyiv
  • Zelensky says from 50 to 100 Ukrainian fighters were being killed, apparently each day, in the east
  • Urges the 27-member EU to expedite his country’s request to join the bloc

KYIV, Ukraine: Russia pressed its offensive in eastern Ukraine on Sunday as Poland’s president traveled to Kyiv to support the country’s European Union aspirations, becoming the first foreign leader to address the Ukrainian parliament since the start of the war.
Lawmakers gave a standing ovation to President Andrzej Duda, who thanked them for the honor of speaking where “the heart of a free, independent and democratic Ukraine beats.” Duda said that to end the conflict, Ukraine did not need to submit to conditions given by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Unfortunately, in Europe there have also been disturbing voices in recent times demanding that Ukraine yield to Putin’s demands,” he said. “I want to say clearly: Only Ukraine has the right to decide about its future. Only Ukraine has the right to decide for itself.”
Duda’s visit, his second to Kyiv since April, came as Russian and Ukrainian forces battled along a 551-kilometer (342-mile) wedge of the country’s eastern industrial heartland.
After declaring full control of a sprawling seaside steel plant that was the last defensive holdout in the port city of Mariupol, Russia launched artillery and missile attacks to expand the territory that Moscow-backed separatists have held since 2014 in the region known as the Donbas.

Ukrainian soldiers load bodies of killed Russian soldiers into a refrigerated rail car in Kharkiv on Sunday. (Reuters)

To bolster its defenses, Ukraine’s parliament voted Sunday to extend martial law and the mobilization of armed forces for a third time, until Aug. 23.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has stressed that the 27-member EU should expedite his country’s request to join the bloc. Ukraine’s potential candidacy is set to be discussed at a Brussels summit in late June.
France’s European Affairs minister Clement Beaune on Sunday told Radio J it would be a “long time” before Ukraine gains EU membership, perhaps up to two decades.
“We have to be honest,” he said. “If you say Ukraine is going to join the EU in six months, or a year or two, you’re lying.”
But Poland is ramping up efforts to win over EU members who are more hesitant about accepting Ukraine into the bloc. Zelensky said Duda’s visit represented a “historic union” between Ukraine, which declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and Poland, which ended communist rule two years earlier.
“This is really a historic opportunity not to lose such strong relations, built through blood, through Russian aggression,” Zelensky said. “All this not to lose our state, not to lose our people.”
Poland has welcomed millions of Ukrainian refugees and become a gateway for Western humanitarian aid and weapons into Ukraine. It is also a transit point for some foreign fighters who have volunteered to fight the Russian forces.
Duda credited the US and President Joe Biden for unifying the West in supporting Ukraine and imposing sanctions against Moscow.
“Kyiv is the place from which one clearly sees that we need more America in Europe, both in the military and in this economic dimension,” said Duda, a right-wing populist leader who clearly preferred former President Donald Trump over Biden in the 2020 election.
On the battlefield, Russia appeared to have made slow, grinding moves forward in the Donbas in recent days. It intensified efforts to capture Sievierodonetsk, the main city under Ukrainian control in Luhansk province, which together with Donetsk province makes up the Donbas. The Ukrainian military said Sunday that Russian forces had mounted an unsuccessful attack on Oleksandrivka, a village outside of Sievierodonetsk.
Sievierodonetsk came under heavy shelling, and Luhansk Gov. Serhii Haidai said the Russians were “simply intentionally trying to destroy the city... engaging in a scorched-earth approach.”
Haidai said Moscow was concentrating forces and weaponry there to try to win control of Luhansk, bringing in forces from Kharkiv to the northwest, Mariupol to the south, and from inside Russia.
The sole working hospital in the city has only three doctors and supplies for 10 days, he said.
Ukrainian officials have said little since the war began about the extent of their country’s casualties, but Zelensky said at a news conference Sunday that 50 to 100 Ukrainian fighters were being killed, apparently each day, in the east.
In a general staff morning report, Russia said it was also preparing to resume its offensive on Slovyansk, a city in Donetsk province that saw fierce fighting last month after Moscow’s troops backed away from Kyiv.
In Enerhodar, a Russian-held city 281 kilometers (174 miles) northwest of Mariupol, an explosion Sunday injured the Moscow-appointed mayor at his residence, Ukrainian and Russian news agencies reported. Ukraine’s Unian news agency said a bomb planted by “local partisans” wounded 48-year-old Andrei Shevchuk, whose lives near the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, Europe’s largest.
With Russia claiming to have taken prisoner nearly 2,500 Ukrainian fighters from the Mariupol steel plant, concerns grew about their fate and that of the remaining residents of the city, now in ruins with more than 20,000 feared dead.

Ukrainian soldiers assist their comrades not far from the frontline in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas on May 21, 2022. (AFP)

Relatives of the fighters have pleaded for them to be given rights as prisoners of war and eventually returned to Ukraine. Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Ukraine “will fight for the return” of every one of them.
Denis Pushilin, the pro-Kremlin head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, vowed that the Ukrainian fighters from the plant would face tribunals.
The complete seizure of the Azovstal steel plant, a symbol of Ukrainian tenacity, gave Putin a badly wanted victory in the war he began nearly three months ago, on Feb. 24. Ukraine’s military had told the fighters their mission was complete and they could come out. It described their extraction as an evacuation, not a mass surrender.
Mariupol Mayor Vadim Boychenko warned that the city faces a health and sanitation “catastrophe” from mass burials in shallow pits and the breakdown of sewage systems. An estimated 100,000 of the 450,000 people who lived in Mariupol before the war remain.
Ukrainian authorities have alleged Russian atrocities there, including the bombings of a maternity hospital and a theater where hundreds of civilians had taken cover.
Meanwhile, a Ukrainian court was expected to reach a verdict Monday for a Russian soldier who was the first to go on trial for an alleged war crime. The 21-year-old sergeant, who has admitted to shooting a Ukrainian man in the head in a village in the northeastern Sumy region on Feb. 28, could get life in prison if convicted.
Ukrainian Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova has said her office was prosecuting war crimes cases against 41 Russian soldiers for offenses that included bombing civilian infrastructure, killing civilians, rape and looting.
In other developments, Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, gave a rare interview to national broadcaster ICTV alongside her husband and said she has hardly seen him since the war began.
“Our family, like all Ukrainian families, is now separated,” she said, adding that she speaks to him mostly by phone.
“Unfortunately, we cannot sit together, have dinner with the whole family, talk about everything,” she said.
Zelensky called the interview itself “a date on air,” and the couple, who have two children, joked in front of the journalists.
“We are joking, but we are really waiting, like everyone else, to be reunited, like all families in Ukraine who are separated now, waiting for their relatives and friends who want to be together again,” he said.

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More than 100 million people forcibly displaced worldwide: UN

More than 100 million people forcibly displaced worldwide: UN
Updated 23 May 2022

More than 100 million people forcibly displaced worldwide: UN

More than 100 million people forcibly displaced worldwide: UN
  • The “alarming” figure must shake the world into ending the conflicts forcing record numbers to flee their own homes, the UNHCR said in a statement

GENEVA: Russia’s war in Ukraine has pushed the number of forcibly displaced people around the world above 100 million for the first time ever, the United Nations said Monday.
“The number of people forced to flee conflict, violence, human rights violations and persecution has now crossed the staggering milestone of 100 million for the first time on record, propelled by the war in Ukraine and other deadly conflicts,” said UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
The “alarming” figure must shake the world into ending the conflicts forcing record numbers to flee their own homes, the UNHCR said in a statement.
UNHCR said the numbers of forcibly displaced people rose toward 90 million by the end of 2021, spurred by violence in Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Myanmar, Nigeria, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 and since then, more than eight million people have been displaced within the country, while more than six million refugees have fled across the borders.
“One hundred million is a stark figure — sobering and alarming in equal measure. It’s a record that should never have been set,” said UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi.
“This must serve as a wake-up call to resolve and prevent destructive conflicts, end persecution, and address the underlying causes that force innocent people to flee their homes.”
The 100 million figure amounts to more than one percent of the global population, while only 13 countries have a bigger population than the number of forcibly displaced people in the world.
The figures combine refugees, asylum-seekers, as well as more than 50 million people displaced inside their own countries.
“The international response to people fleeing war in Ukraine has been overwhelmingly positive,” said Grandi.
“Compassion is alive and we need a similar mobilization for all crises around the world. But ultimately, humanitarian aid is a palliative, not a cure.
“To reverse this trend, the only answer is peace and stability so that innocent people are not forced to gamble between acute danger at home or precarious flight and exile.”
UNHCR will outline the full data on forced displacement in 2021 in its annual Global Trends Report, due for release on June 16.
More than two years on since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, at least 20 countries still deny access to asylum for people fleeing conflict, violence, and persecution based on measures to clamp down on the virus.
Grandi called Friday for those countries to lift any remaining pandemic-related asylum restrictions, saying they contravene a fundamental human right.
“I am worried that measures enacted on the pretext of responding to Covid-19 are being used as cover to exclude and deny asylum to people fleeing violence and persecution,” he said.
A joint report last week by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) said around 38 million new internal displacements were reported in 2021. Some of those were by people forced to flee multiple times during the year.
The figure marks the second-highest annual number of new internal displacements in a decade after 2020, which saw record-breaking movement due to a string of natural disasters.
Last year, new internal displacements specifically from conflict surged to 14.4 million — marking a 50-percent jump from 2020, the report showed.
“It has never been as bad as this,” NRC chief Jan Egeland told reporters.
“The world is falling apart.”
Natural disasters continued to account for most new internal displacement, spurring 23.7 million such movements in 2021.

Australia swears in new Labor PM ahead of Quad meeting

Australia swears in new Labor PM ahead of Quad meeting
Updated 23 May 2022

Australia swears in new Labor PM ahead of Quad meeting

Australia swears in new Labor PM ahead of Quad meeting

SYDNEY: Australia’s Labour Party leader Anthony Albanese was sworn in as the country’s 31st prime minister on Monday, promising a “journey of change” as he vowed to tackle climate change, rising living costs and inequality.
Labor returns to power after nine years in opposition as a wave of unprecedented support for the Greens and climate-focussed independents, mostly women, helped end nearly a decade of rule by the conservative coalition in Saturday’s general election.
While votes are still being counted and the makeup of government has yet to be finalized, Albanese was sworn in so he could attend a key meeting of the “Quad” security grouping in Tokyo on Tuesday.
Albanese, raised in public housing by a single mother on a disability pension, was sworn in by Governor-General David Hurley at a ceremony in the national capital, Canberra.
“It’s a big day in my life but a big day for the country, when we change the government,” Albanese told reporters outside his Sydney suburban home ahead of the ceremony.
“I want to channel the opportunity that we have to shape change so that we bring people with us on the journey of change. I want to bring the country together.”
Deputy Labor leader Richard Marles and three key ministers — Penny Wong in foreign affairs, Jim Chalmers as treasurer and Katy Gallagher in finance — were also sworn in, with Wong to join Albanese on the Quad trip.
Albanese said he spoke to US President Joe Biden on Sunday night and was looking forward to meeting him alongside the prime ministers of Japan and India on Tuesday. He will return to Australia on Wednesday.
“This visit aligns with what the Albanese Government sees as the three pillars of Australia’s foreign policy: our alliance with the United States, our engagement with the region, and our support for multilateral forums,” Albanese said in a statement.
Labor’s campaign heavily spotlighted Albanese’s working-class credentials and his image as a pragmatic unifier.
Center-left Labor still remains four seats short of a majority of 76 in the 151 seat lower house with about a dozen races too close to call, according to television channels. Some predicted Labor might get enough seats to govern on their own.
Official results could be several days away, with the counting of a record 2.7 million postal votes underway on Sunday.