Russia extends troop drills; Ukraine appeals for cease-fire

Russia extends troop drills; Ukraine appeals for cease-fire
This video grab shows helicopters during joint exercises of the armed forces of Russia and Belarus as part of an inspection of the Union State's Response Force, at a firing range near Brest. (File/AFP)
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Updated 20 February 2022

Russia extends troop drills; Ukraine appeals for cease-fire

Russia extends troop drills; Ukraine appeals for cease-fire
  • Western leaders warned that Russia was poised to attack Ukraine
  • The US and many European countries have threatened massive, immediate sanctions if Russia invades Ukraine

KYIV: Russia extended military drills near Ukraine’s northern borders Sunday amid increased fears that two days of sustained shelling along the contact line between soldiers and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine could spark an invasion. Ukraine’s president appealed for a cease-fire.
The exercises were originally set to end Sunday and brought a sizable contingent of Russian forces to Belarus. The presence of the Russian troops raised concern that they could be used to sweep down on the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, a city of about 3 million people less than a three-hour drive away.
Western leaders warned that Russia was poised to attack its neighbor, which is surrounded on three sides by about 150,000 Russian soldiers, warplanes and equipment. Russia held nuclear drills Saturday as well as the conventional exercises in Belarus, and has ongoing naval drills off the coast in the Black Sea.
The United States and many European countries have alleged for months that Russia is trying to create pretexts to invade. They have threatened massive, immediate sanctions if it does.
“We’re talking about the potential for war in Europe,” US Vice President Kamala Harris said Sunday at a security conference in Munich, Germany. “It’s been over 70 years, and through those 70 years ... there has been peace and security.”
A top European Union official, Charles Michel, said: “The big question remains: does the Kremlin want dialogue?”
“We cannot forever offer an olive branch while Russia conducts missile tests and continues to amass troops,” said Michel, the president of the European Council.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called Saturday on Russian President Vladimir Putin to choose a place where the two leaders could meet to try to resolve the crisis and on Sunday appealed for a cease-fire on Twitter. Russia has denied plans to invade, but the Kremlin had not responded to his offer by Sunday, and it was Belarus — not Russia — that announced the extension of the drills.
NATO has estimated there are 30,000 Russian troops in Belarus.
In Kyiv, life continued seemingly as usual on Sunday, with brunches and church services in full swing. Katerina Spanchak, who fled the separatist-occupied Lugansk region years ago, said she prayed for peace.
“We are people, we all love life, and we are all united by our love of life. We should appreciate it every day. That’s why I think everything will be fine,” Spanchak said outside services at St. Michael’s monastery.
But in Lugansk, the area of eastern Ukraine where her parents still live, and neighboring Donetsk, separatist leaders ordered a full military mobilization and sent more civilians to Russia, which has issued about 700,000 passports to residents of the rebel-held territories. Claims that Russian citizens are being endangered might be used as justification for military action.
Officials in the separatist territories claimed Ukrainian forces launched several artillery attacks over the past day and that two civilians were killed during an unsuccessful assault on a village near the Russian border. Ukraine’s military said two soldiers died in firing from the separatist side on Saturday.
Ukraine’s leader criticized the US and other Western nations for holding back on new sanctions for Russia. Zelenskyy, in comments before the conference, also questioned the West’s refusal to allow Ukraine to join NATO immediately. Putin has demanded that NATO reject Ukraine as a member.
In new signs of fears of imminent war, Germany and Austria told their citizens to leave Ukraine, and NATO’s liaison office in Kyiv pulled staff to Brussels and to the western Ukraine city of Lviv.
US President Joe Biden said late Friday that based on the latest American intelligence, he was now “convinced” that Putin has decided to invade Ukraine in coming days and assault the capital.
A US military official said an estimated 40 percent to 50 percent of the ground forces surrounding Ukraine had moved into attack positions closer to the border. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal US assessments, said the change had been underway for about a week and did not necessarily mean Putin was committed to an invasion.
Lines of communication between Moscow and the West remain open: French President Emmanuel Macron spoke with Putin on Sunday for nearly two hours before a 30-minute call with the Ukrainian president. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov agreed to meet next week.
Blinken said Sunday the US was still working every lever possible to try to dissuade Putin from invading Ukraine but said recent events, including the extension of the troops in Belarus and the increase in shelling along the contact line, showed Putin well underway in laying the pretexts and groundwork for invasion, in line with findings of US intelligence and previous Russian territorial grabs. “He is following the script almost to the letter,” Blinken told CNN.
“Up to the last minute, there is still an option for him to pull back,” Blinken told NBC’s Meet the Press. He said his offer to meet Lavrov in Europe in the coming days was conditioned on Russia not rolling into Ukraine beforehand.
Macron’s office said both the Ukrainian and Russian leaders had agreed to work toward a diplomatic solution “in coming days and coming weeks.”
Immediate worries focused on eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces have been fighting the pro-Russia rebels since 2014 in a conflict that has killed some 14,000 people.
Ukraine and the separatist leaders traded accusations of escalation. Russia on Saturday said at least two shells fired from a government-held part of eastern Ukraine landed across the border, but Ukraine’s foreign minister dismissed that claim as “a fake statement.”
“When tension is escalated to the maximum, as it is now, for example, on the line of contact, then any spark, any unplanned incident or any minor planned provocation can lead to irreparable consequences,” Putin’ spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in an interview that aired Sunday on Russian state television.
On the front lines, Ukrainian soldiers said they were under orders not to return fire. Zahar Leshushun, peering into the distance with a periscope, had followed the news all day from a trench where he is posted near the town of Zolote.
“Right now, we don’t respond to their fire because ...” the soldier said before being interrupted by the sound of an incoming shell. “Oh! They are shooting at us now. They are aiming at the command post.”
Sporadic violence has broken out for years along the line separating Ukrainian forces from the Russia-backed separatists, but the spike in recent days is orders of magnitude higher than anything recently recorded by international monitors: nearly 1,500 explosions in 24 hours.
Denis Pushilin, the head of the pro-Russia separatist government in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, cited an “immediate threat of aggression” from Ukrainian forces in his announcement of a call to arms. Ukrainian officials vehemently denied having plans to take rebel-controlled areas by force.
A similar statement followed from his counterpart in the Luhansk region. On Friday, the rebels began evacuating civilians to Russia with an announcement that appeared to be part of their and Moscow’s efforts to paint Ukraine as the aggressor.
Metadata from two videos posted by the separatists announcing the evacuation of civilians to Russia show that the files were created two days ago, the AP confirmed. US authorities have alleged that the Kremlin’s effort to come up with an invasion pretext could include staged, prerecorded videos.


Taliban kill one of their ex-leaders from minority Hazara community

Taliban kill one of their ex-leaders from minority Hazara community
Updated 53 min 35 sec ago

Taliban kill one of their ex-leaders from minority Hazara community

Taliban kill one of their ex-leaders from minority Hazara community
  • Mawlawi Mahdi was shot dead by Taliban forces near the border with Iran as he attempted to flee the country
  • The Hazara, native to Afghanistan’s central mountains, are the country’s largest mainly Shiite ethnic group

KABUL: The Taliban killed one of their former leaders who was known as the first commander of the group hailing from the minority Shiite Hazara community, officials confirmed on Wednesday, adding that he had rebelled against the de facto government.
Mawlawi Mahdi was shot dead by Taliban forces near the border with Iran as he attempted to flee the country, the defense ministry said in a statement.
Mahdi’s appointment as a commander some years ago was touted as an example of the Taliban’s changed on stance on minorities. He was in the spotlight after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in the wake of the pullout of western forces last year.
The Taliban are hard-line followers of the Sunni branch of Islam, and were previously almost exclusively associated with the Pashtun ethnicity. More recently, the group had sought to include members of other ethnicities and some Shiites.
The Hazara, native to Afghanistan’s central mountains, are the country’s largest mainly Shiite ethnic group. After the Taliban formed a government last year, Mahdi was given the post of intelligence chief in a central province.
The origins of the breach between Mahdi and the Taliban have not been made public, but as far back as June, the defense ministry had spoken of a clearance operation against rebels in northern Afghanistan.
The defense ministry on Wednesday described Mahdi as a the “leader of the rebels” in a district in the northern province of Sar-e-Pol.
A Taliban source told Reuters that Mahdi had fallen out with the Taliban and had revolted against the group’s leadership.
The statement said he was killed in Herat close to the border with Shiite majority Iran, where he was trying to flee.
Reuters was not able to contact representatives of Mahdi for comment.


US to withhold billions of dollars from Taliban over Al-Zawahiri

US to withhold billions of dollars from Taliban over Al-Zawahiri
Updated 17 August 2022

US to withhold billions of dollars from Taliban over Al-Zawahiri

US to withhold billions of dollars from Taliban over Al-Zawahiri
  • Officials: Al-Qaeda leader’s presence in Afghanistan eroded confidence that $3.5bn would not fund terror
  • UN warns 6.6m Afghans face famine this winter without urgent humanitarian intervention

LONDON: Billions of dollars being held by the US will not be transferred to Afghanistan after Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri was killed in Kabul on July 31.

Al-Zawahiri’s presence in Afghanistan meant Washington does not have “confidence” that the country’s central bank “has the safeguards and monitoring in place to manage assets responsibly,” said Tom West, the US special representative for Afghanistan.

“Needless to say, the Taliban’s sheltering of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri reinforces deep concerns we have regarding diversion of funds to terrorist groups.”

The US has held around $3.5 billion intended for Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover of the country last year.

Afghanistan’s economy has struggled since the withdrawal of coalition forces in August 2021, with officials negotiating with US representatives for ways to alleviate the situation.

But West said the US does not see returning funds to the country as a “near-term option” as the Taliban cannot provide guarantees that the money will not be used to fund terrorism.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price, though, said Washington would find alternative, humanitarian uses for the funds to help ease the suffering of ordinary Afghans. 

“The idea that we have decided not to use these funds for the benefit of the Afghan people is simply wrong. It is not true,” he added.

“Right now we’re looking at mechanisms that could be put in place to see to it that these $3.5 billion in preserved assets make their way efficiently and effectively to the people of Afghanistan in a way that doesn’t make them ripe for diversion to terrorist groups or elsewhere.”

US President Joe Biden in February ordered that $7 billion being held by the US for Afghanistan be split between humanitarian aid for the country, and 9/11 victims and their families.

Al-Zawahiri, the successor to Osama bin Laden, who orchestrated the 9/11 attacks, was killed last month in a drone strike while standing on the balcony of a house in which he was living in the center of Kabul.

His presence in Afghanistan was a “gross violation” of an agreement struck with Washington for the Taliban not to permit terrorist organizations to operate in the country, the US said.

A UN Security Council report earlier this year said the Taliban takeover had allowed “greater freedom” for foreign fighters to live and operate in the country.

The UN’s humanitarian coordinator and deputy special representative for Afghanistan, Ramiz Alakbarov, said the country faces “pure catastrophe” due to its precarious economic state, with 6.6 million people threatened with famine this winter and 24 million in need of humanitarian aid.

He added that poverty is forcing Afghans to make desperate decisions such as “the selling of organs, and the selling of children,” and that despite many spending as much as 90 percent of their income on food, he was still seeing evidence of severely malnourished children nationwide.

Erin Sikorsky, director at the US-based Center for Climate and Security, told the Daily Telegraph: “Poor governance by the Taliban will make things worse. It is likely Afghanistan will see more internally displaced people going forward, as disruptions to ... agriculture intersect with other security risks.”

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Former Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa will return next week — local media

Former Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa will return next week — local media
Updated 17 August 2022

Former Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa will return next week — local media

Former Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa will return next week — local media
  • Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the first Sri Lankan president to quit mid-term, is temporarily sheltering in Thailand
  • Rajapaksa has made no public appearances or comment since leaving Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka’s former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa will return to the island nation next week after fleeing in July amid mass protests, local broadcaster Newsfirst reported on Wednesday, citing a former ambassador.
Udayanga Weeratunga, a former Sri Lankan envoy to Russia who is related to Rajapaksa, said he will arrive in Sri Lanka on Aug. 24, Newsfirst reported.
Rajapaksa, the first Sri Lankan president to quit mid-term, is temporarily sheltering in Thailand, after fleeing Sri Lanka on a military plane to the Maldives and then spending weeks in Singapore.
He resigned from office soon after arriving in Singapore, facing public anger over his government’s handling of Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis since independence from Britain in 1948.
Rajapaksa has made no public appearances or comment since leaving Sri Lanka. Reuters was not able to immediately contact him or Weeratunga.
The office of Rajapaksa’s successor, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who suggested last month that the former president refrain from returning to Sri Lanka in the near future, did not immediately respond for a request for comment.
“I don’t believe it’s the time for him to return,” Wickremesinghe told the Wall Street Journal in an interview on July 31. “I have no indication of him returning soon.”

Myanmar junta hits back at ASEAN after being barred from meetings

Myanmar junta hits back at ASEAN after being barred from meetings
Updated 17 August 2022

Myanmar junta hits back at ASEAN after being barred from meetings

Myanmar junta hits back at ASEAN after being barred from meetings
  • ASEAN has barred Myanmar’s generals from attending regional meetings
  • Junta has declined offers to send non-political representatives instead to ASEAN meetings

Myanmar’s military leadership on Wednesday lashed out at the ASEAN grouping of Southeast Asian countries for excluding its generals from regional gatherings, accusing it of caving to “external pressure.”
Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have heaped condemnation on Myanmar’s junta, which they say has failed to make concrete progress on a peace plan agreed with the 10-nation bloc last year, including engaging with opponents and a cessation of hostilities.
Myanmar’s military seized power from an elected government in a coup last year, and has since then crushed dissent with lethal force. Most recently, the junta has been criticized for executing political activists and imprisoning Aung San Suu Kyi, the symbol of Myanmar’s opposition and democracy movement.
ASEAN has barred Myanmar’s generals from attending regional meetings, and some members said last month it would be forced to rethink the way forward unless the junta demonstrates progress on the peace plan.
The junta has declined offers to send non-political representatives instead to ASEAN meetings.
“If a seat representing a country is vacant, then it should not be labelled an ASEAN summit,” junta spokesperson Zaw Min Tun said at a routine news conference on Wednesday, adding that Myanmar was working on implementing the peace plan.
“What they want is for us to meet and talk with the terrorists,” he said, using the junta’s label for pro-democracy movements that have taken up arms against the military.
He said ASEAN was violating its own policy of non-interference in a country’s sovereign affairs while facing “external pressure,” but did not elaborate.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Cambodia, which is currently chairing ASEAN, did not immediately respond to Reuters’ request for comment.
Several western countries including the United States and Britain have imposed sanctions on Myanmar’s junta over the coup.


Lesotho inaugurates Saudi Arabia-funded $11.2 million water supply project

Lesotho inaugurates Saudi Arabia-funded $11.2 million water supply project
Updated 17 August 2022

Lesotho inaugurates Saudi Arabia-funded $11.2 million water supply project

Lesotho inaugurates Saudi Arabia-funded $11.2 million water supply project

DUBAI: Lesotho has inaugurated a $11.2 million water supply project that will supply clean water to five cities in the south African country.

Funded by the Saudi Fund for Development (SFD), the project aims to sustain water resources and provide clean water sources in Lesotho as well as mitigate effects of drought in the country to ensure water and food security.

The undertaking will see the laying of a 210-kilometer-long pipe network and the construction of 25 pumping stations.

Saudi Arabia, through the SFD, supports developing countries achieve their development goals by providing grants, technical aid as well soft loans and since its inception in 1975 has provided 730 development loans to finance 692 development projects and programs in 84 developing countries.