Philippines eyes US helicopters after dropping Russia deal to avoid sanctions

Update Philippines eyes US helicopters after dropping Russia deal to avoid sanctions
The Philippines is looking to buy heavy-lift Chinooks from the US after canceling an earlier deal to buy 16 Mi-17 Russian military transport helicopters. (AFP file photo)
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Updated 15 August 2022

Philippines eyes US helicopters after dropping Russia deal to avoid sanctions

Philippines eyes US helicopters after dropping Russia deal to avoid sanctions
  • Manila in June scrapped a deal with Russia worth $227.35m
  • Potential deal comes as Southeast Asian country modernizes military, seeks to strengthen ties with US

MANILA: The Philippines is considering an offer to buy heavy-lift Chinook helicopters from the US at a “special price,” after a deal with Russia was scrapped in order to avoid sanctions, Manila’s ambassador in Washington said on Monday.

The Philippine Department of National Defense confirmed last week it was formalizing the termination of a contract to purchase 16 Mi-17 heavy-lift helicopters from Russia, which had been worth about 12.7 billion pesos ($227.3 million). The deal was canceled earlier in June, just before President Rodrigo Duterte ended his six-year term.

“The United States has offered to try to come out with a similar amount that we’re willing to spend for the Russian helicopters, in other words, at a special price,” Philippine Ambassador Jose Manuel Romualdez told journalists in a virtual forum organized by the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines.

Manila had canceled the deal with Russia to avoid US sanctions linked to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

“This cancellation of this contract is precipitated mainly by the war in Ukraine. And while there are sanctions expected to come our way, from the United States and Western countries, obviously it is not in our interest to continue and pursue this contract,” Romualdez said.

Philippine officials are also pursuing discussions with Russia to recover its $38 million down payment for the helicopters, he added.

Romualdez said the deal with Washington will likely include maintenance, service and parts. Manila intends to use the helicopters not only for the movement of troops but also for disaster preparedness in the Philippines.

The Southeast Asian country is in the process of modernizing its outdated military hardware, which includes warships from World War II and helicopters used by the US in the Vietnam War, after Duterte approved a five-year plan to spend 300 billion pesos in June 2018 to upgrade the military.

The potential military deal comes as the new Philippine government under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. seeks to strengthen economic ties with the US, including in manufacturing, digital infrastructure and clean energy, Romualdez said.


Bangladeshi families, communities grieve for victims of deadly boat disaster

Bangladeshi families, communities grieve for victims of deadly boat disaster
Updated 27 September 2022

Bangladeshi families, communities grieve for victims of deadly boat disaster

Bangladeshi families, communities grieve for victims of deadly boat disaster
  • Death toll has risen to 67 as of Tuesday afternoon, local official says
  • Boat accident is the worst waterway disaster to hit the South Asian nation this year

DHAKA: Almost as soon as the boat started moving to take passengers to the other side of the Karatoya River, where many Hindu devotees were heading to celebrate the Durga Puja festival at a popular temple, the small vessel began to tremble.
The 15-minute journey to cross the river in northern Bangladesh that Sunday afternoon quickly turned into a tragedy, taking less than four minutes before the boat began to sink.
“There had been a huge rush of passengers, and people were all in a hurry to get on the boat. Not a single inch of space was empty,” Ramesh Chandra, a 40-year-old farmer from the northern Panchagarh district, told Arab News on Tuesday.
Chandra, who boarded the boat with his 35-year-old wife Shyamoli Rani Shimuli and his 11-year-old daughter Surovi Rani, said it had all happened suddenly.
“Soon after the boat started moving, it was trembling because of the overload,” he said.
When Chandra realized the boat was sinking, he took his daughter’s hands and swam toward the river bank. But his wife, who was wearing a traditional sari, did not make it.
“My wife knew swimming very well, but she unfortunately failed to manage it as she was wearing a sari, which wrapped her whole body immediately when it got wet,” Chandra said.
He is now left alone to raise his daughter and 13-year-old son Saurov, who had been at home when the incident occurred.
“I don’t know what to do now, how I will be able to raise my children alone without their mother,” Chandra said.
Shimuli’s body was recovered on Sunday evening, and she was cremated the following day. As the family mourns the tragic loss, they also have to grapple with other losses in the extended family.
Chandra said his niece and sister were also killed in the accident, and authorities were still searching for his nephew on Tuesday.
The worst waterways disaster to hit the South Asian nation this year had killed at least 67 people as of Tuesday afternoon, comprising 30 women, 20 children, and 17 men, Mohammad Jahurul Islam, Panchagarh district administrator, told Arab News.
“Our divers are working to trace the (missing) bodies. Rescue operations will continue until we can address the last complaint reported,” Islam said.
Islam said aid was given to the families of the deceased victims to cover expenses for the funeral rites.
Dipankar Roy, who heads the committee investigating the accident, told Arab News that they have conducted interviews with eyewitnesses, survivors, and other concerned parties.
“Our investigation over this tragic incident is almost over. We hope to submit the report by 10 a.m. on Wednesday at the latest,” Roy said.
Hundreds of people die each year in ferry accidents across Bangladesh, as accidents commonly occur due to lax safety standards. In April 2021, at least 35 people were killed after an overcrowded ferry collided with a cargo vessel and sank on the Shitalakhsya River outside the capital Dhaka.
The villages along the Karatoya River were overwhelmed with grief, as many residents mourn the deaths of relatives, friends, and neighbors in the boat accident.
Tarun Kumar Barman, a 35-year-old farmer from Panchagarh, said his village alone had lost eight people to the tragedy. His nine-year-old niece and 48-year-old sister were among the victims.
“All of them were from the Hindu community and had intended to make offerings in the temple on the occasion of Mahalaya,” Barman told Arab News, referring to the beginning of Durga Puja celebrations.
“The whole village is overwhelmed with mourning now. People forgot their daily routines. We are extremely shocked,” he said. “It’s a dead village now. We cremated the bodies one after another. None of us was ready for a situation like this.”


Moscow says will not seek extradition of Russians fleeing draft

Moscow says will not seek extradition of Russians fleeing draft
Updated 27 September 2022

Moscow says will not seek extradition of Russians fleeing draft

Moscow says will not seek extradition of Russians fleeing draft
  • Neighbouring countries have seen Russians arriving en masse since the draft was announced last Wednesday
  • On Tuesday, Central Asian nation Kazakhstan said around 98,000 Russians entered the country since Wednesday

MOSCOW: Moscow said Tuesday it will not request the extradition of Russians traveling abroad to avoid being called-up to fight in Ukraine, after thousands of military-aged men crossed into neighboring countries.
“The Russian ministry of defense has not sent any request to the authorities of Kazakhstan, Georgia, or any other country for the alleged forced return to Russian soil of Russian citizens, and it is not planning to do so,” the ministry said in a statement.
Neighbouring countries have seen Russians arriving en masse since the draft was announced last Wednesday, with hours-long queues at border crossings.
On Tuesday, Central Asian nation Kazakhstan said around 98,000 Russians entered the country since Wednesday.
Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev vowed to protect the safety and welfare of Russians fleeing a “hopeless situation” on Tuesday.
Russians have also headed to the neighboring Black Sea nation of Georgia, which saw the number of Russians arriving daily nearly double since the mobilization announcement.
On Tuesday the local interior ministry in a Russian region that borders Georgia said the situation at the border was “extremely tense.”
The ministry added that a mobile mobilization office will be set up at the border in the “near future.”


Catalonia seeks Spain’s agreement for new independence referendum

Catalonia seeks Spain’s agreement for new independence referendum
Updated 27 September 2022

Catalonia seeks Spain’s agreement for new independence referendum

Catalonia seeks Spain’s agreement for new independence referendum
  • The Spanish government, however, rejected the proposal
  • "They have those maximalist aspirations, which are absolutely not shared by the government," spokesperson Isabel Rodriguez told reporters

BARCELONA, Spain: Catalonia will push the Spanish government for a new agreement on holding a binding referendum on the region’s potential independence that would be recognized both by Spain and the international community, its separatist leader said on Tuesday.
The Spanish government, however, rejected the proposal.
“They have those maximalist aspirations, which are absolutely not shared by the government,” spokesperson Isabel Rodriguez told reporters.
But both governments would keep talking to “normalize” their relationship, she said.
The so-called “clarity agreement” proposal comes shortly before the fifth anniversary of Catalonia’s unauthorized independence referendum and at a critical time for its separatist movement, which is marred by divisions between moderates and radicals that have threatened to fracture the coalition government.
Spain’s Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has favored dialogue with Catalonia to rebuild relations after a chaotic unilateral bid for independence in 2017 plunged Spain into its worst political crisis in years.
It remains, however, staunchly opposed to independence and has hitherto ruled out a legal referendum. The Spanish constitution blocks the country’s break up but some scholars and Catalan separatists argue there could be legal room for a vote if the Spanish government agrees.
A similar proposal by Catalonia in 2012 was firmly rejected by the then conservative government in Madrid. The wealthy northeastern region held a referendum five years later despite a ban by the courts, and issued a short-lived unilateral independence declaration.
Catalan government head Pere Aragones told the regional parliament that for another referendum, Catalonia needed Madrid’s buy-in.
“I have no doubt this is the fastest and most efficient way to hold another vote because it originates from the lessons learned from 2017 and overcomes the difficulties that did not allow us to implement the result five years ago,” he said.
He called his proposal the “most inclusive, democratic and explainable to the international community,” and said he would seek the support of all Catalonia’s political actors.
Aragones has engaged in talks with Madrid and his party, Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, has frequently lent its votes to the socialist-led minority government in congress.
Around 52 percent of Catalans oppose independence and 41 percent back it, according to a June poll.


Afghan Taliban deputy calls for reopening schools for girls

Afghan Taliban deputy calls for reopening schools for girls
Updated 27 September 2022

Afghan Taliban deputy calls for reopening schools for girls

Afghan Taliban deputy calls for reopening schools for girls
  • The Taliban have said they are working on a plan to open secondary schools for girls but have not given a timeframe

ISLAMABAD: A senior member of the Taliban-run government in Afghanistan on Tuesday called on Afghanistan’s new rulers to reopen schools for girls beyond the sixth grade, saying there is no valid reason in Islam for the ban.
The appeal from Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, the Taliban deputy foreign minister, came during a top Taliban gathering in Kabul. It was a rare moderate voice amid the harsh measures imposed by the Taliban since they overran the country and seized power in August 2021.
The measures include banning girls from middle school and high school despite initial promises to the contrary. Women are required to cover themselves from head to toe in public, with only their eyes showing.
The Taliban have said they are working on a plan to open secondary schools for girls but have not given a timeframe.
The United Nations has called the ban “shameful” and the international community has been wary of officially recognizing the Taliban, fearing a return to the same harsh rule the Taliban imposed when they were last in power in the late 1990s.
“It is very important that education must be provided to all, without any discrimination,” Stanikzai said. “Women must get education, there is no Islamic prohibition for girls’ education.”
“Let’s not provide opportunities for others to create a gap between the government and people,” he added. “If there are technical issues, that needs to be resolved, and schools for girls must be opened.”
Still, it was unclear if and how much Stanikzai could sway hard-liners, who appear to hold the reins in the Taliban administration.
Stanikzai was once head of the Taliban team in talks that led to the 2020 agreement in Qatar between the Taliban and the United States that included the complete withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan.
His remarks follow the Taliban appointment of a new education minister, days after the UN called on them to reopen schools for girls. The UN estimates that more than 1 million girls have been barred from attending most of middle school and high school over the past year.
A year after the Taliban took over the country as the Western-backed government and military crumbled, the UN says it is increasingly concerned that restrictions on girls’ education, as well as other measures curtailing basic freedoms, would deepen Afghanistan’s economic crisis and lead to greater insecurity, poverty, and isolation.

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UK-Albania deportation pact undermined by legal challenge

UK-Albania deportation pact undermined by legal challenge
Updated 27 September 2022

UK-Albania deportation pact undermined by legal challenge

UK-Albania deportation pact undermined by legal challenge
  • Asylum-seekers from Balkan country will not be subjected to ‘rapid return’ scheme, ruling out over 90% of arrivals

LONDON: A UK government scheme to send Albanian asylum-seekers home quickly after their arrival has been undermined after it emerged few people would be eligible for it.

A legal challenge brought by campaign group Care4Calais against the “rapid return” deal signed between London and Tirana last month, which would have fast-tracked asylum applications and, subsequently, deportations for Albanians entering the UK illegally, means that only a very small minority of those who arrive — those who fail to claim asylum, or have criminal records — could be subject to removal in any event.

Under the initial terms of the deal, asylum applications by Albanians found to have reached Britain having passed through a safe country en route would be rejected, with those people put onto special chartered aircraft “within days” to return them to their Balkan homeland.

It was aimed predominantly at Albanians trying to enter the country via small boats from northern France, the numbers of whom have been growing rapidly throughout the year.

Ninety percent of Albanians who reach the UK via boats across the English Channel claim asylum. This year, more than 31,000 people have successfully made the crossing so far, around 60 percent believed to be Albanian, according to the UK Home Office.

Clare Moseley, founder of Care4Calais, told The Times: “The government’s PR blitz outlined a fast-track removal scheme that appeared to deny people from Albania their right to a fair hearing for asylum claims.

“The suggestion was that asylum claims made by Albanians are spurious. In fact, 53 percent of Albanian asylum claims are accepted by the Home Office, demonstrating that for many Albanians their country is not a safe place to live.

“Under the threat of judicial review, the government has performed a major climbdown. In doing so, they are accepting that people from Albania have the right to make an asylum claim and have it fairly heard. This is a victory for human decency.”

In a statement, the Home Office said: “The Albania fast-track process focuses on removing the growing number of individuals from Albania who have no right to be in the UK. This includes failed asylum seekers, foreign national offenders, and individuals overstaying in the UK or seeking to game the system by not claiming asylum.

“Those who seek to abuse our system should be in no doubt of our determination to remove them, as the public rightly expects. Since signing our returns agreement with Albania in 2021, we have removed more than 1,000 Albanians, including some who crossed the Channel illegally to come to the UK.”