With Philippines visit, US VP Harris shows support against ‘intimidation’ in South China Sea

Special With Philippines visit, US VP Harris shows support against ‘intimidation’ in South China Sea
US Vice President Kamala Harris tours the village of Tagburos in Palawan, Philippines, Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022. (AP Photo)
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Updated 23 November 2022

With Philippines visit, US VP Harris shows support against ‘intimidation’ in South China Sea

With Philippines visit, US VP Harris shows support against ‘intimidation’ in South China Sea
  • Harris is highest-ranking American official to visit Palawan, island off disputed South China Sea
  • Philippines, China have long-running dispute over strategic, resource-rich waterway

MANILA: The historic visit of US Vice President Kamala Harris to a Philippine island off the South China Sea this week was meant to showcase Washington’s support for one of its oldest security allies in Asia, experts have said, as the Southeast Asian country faced what she called “intimidation and coercion” in the disputed waterway.

Harris’ stop on Palawan, an island facing the South China Sea, was part of a three-day visit to the Philippines amid high geopolitical tensions in the region.

She was the highest-ranking American official to have visited the isle, her arrival taking place just days after an incident between the Philippine navy and the Chinese coastguard.

Onboard a Philippine vessel docked in Puerto Princesa bay on Tuesday, Harris said the US and broader international community “have a profound stake in the future of this region.”

“America’s prosperity relies on the billions of dollars that flow through these waters every day. And we are proud to work with you in your mission,” she added.

“As an ally, the United States stands with the Philippines in the face of intimidation and coercion in the South China Sea.”

The South China Sea is a strategic and resource-rich waterway claimed by China almost in its entirety, but other countries, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei, also have overlapping claims.

In 2016, an international tribunal in The Hague dismissed China’s sweeping claim, a ruling that was rejected by Beijing as it continued to send fishing vessels and raise structures in the region, part of which is a Philippine exclusive economic zone.

A Philippine military commander said on Monday that a Chinese coastguard ship “forcefully retrieved” a piece of rocket that was being towed by a Philippine vessel, a claim that China has denied.

“Beijing just can’t seem to stop harassing and coercing its smaller neighbors,” Gregory B. Poling, a South China Sea expert from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Arab News.

The Philippine government has filed hundreds of diplomatic protests against Chinese activity in the South China Sea in the past few years. Amid increasing tensions with Beijing, the Philippines established in May three coast guard outposts on three islands in the disputed maritime area to monitor ship movements.

Harris’ trip also came amid strained relations between China and the US, particularly over Taiwan, the democratically governed island China regards as its own.

“(But) I don’t think China was a primary audience; the Philippines was,” Poling said. “It sends China the same message: That the United States is committed to standing with its ally.

“The trip sends a message of reassurance to the Philippines, that the United States remains committed to modernizing the alliance and defending Filipino lives and rights in the South China Sea.”

Arsenio Andolong, a spokesperson from the Philippines’ Department of National Defense, said Harris’ visit sent a strong message that Washington considered Manila “an important ally.”

“The defense department sees this as a really clear message that they will stand by their obligations under the MDT (mutual defense treaty),” Andolong told Arab News.

The treaty is a 70-year-old pact stipulating that the Philippines and US would support each other if either were attacked by an external party.

Harris’ trip was “valuable” as it showed how the US “will live up to its obligations” under the treaty, Stephen Cutler, security expert and former FBI legal attache, told Arab News.

“I also hope that they will go far beyond the military significance,” Cutler said. “I think what she does, by coming here and making the kinds of comments that she did, was to show that the United States is interested in a lot more than simply military matters.”

Job: ‘Sniper’: Accused Daesh fighter on trial in US

Job: ‘Sniper’: Accused Daesh fighter on trial in US
Updated 7 sec ago

Job: ‘Sniper’: Accused Daesh fighter on trial in US

Job: ‘Sniper’: Accused Daesh fighter on trial in US
NEW YORK: He had been brought from the battlefields of Syria to a New York lockup, a US citizen charged with serving as a sniper and weapons trainer for the Daesh group.
And even in jail, Ruslan Maratovich Asainov kept a makeshift version of the militants’ black flag right above the desk in his cell, according to trial testimony this week.
“What’s the big deal? It’s mine. It’s religious,” then-jail lieutenant Judith Woods recalled him saying when she went to confiscate the hand-drawn image in 2020.
Years after the fall of the extremist group’s self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate, the trial is a reminder of the enduring and far-reaching fallout of a war that drew tens of thousands of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq. Their home countries are still contending with what should become of them.
Jurors, who are expected to start deliberating as soon as Monday, have gotten a refresher course Daesh’s gruesome rule and its sophisticated, social-media-savvy recruitment of distant supporters to come and take up arms. Prosecutors say Asainov did so and rose through the group’s ranks, eventually becoming an “emir” who taught other members to use weapons.
In post-arrest videos shown at his trial, he gives his occupation as “a sniper” to FBI agents and readily tells them that he provided instruction in everything from rifle maintenance to ballistics to adjusting for weather effects — and, of course, “how to actually pull the trigger.”
“Oh, it’s a long lesson,” he explains, sitting on a bed in a room where he was being held. “I would give, like, a three-hour lesson, just on that, just to pull the trigger.”
Jurors have seen photos alleged to be of Asainov in camouflage, aiming a rifle, and the handmade flag that Woods said she took from his cell. Witnesses have included his flabbergasted ex-wife, who testified that he morphed from a Brooklyn family man into a zealot. She said he weighed in from Syria to complain about their daughter donning a Halloween costume and sent a photo of the bodies of what he said were comrades killed in a battle, according to the Daily News of New York.
Asainov chose not to testify. One of his lawyers, Susan Kellman, has said he went to Syria because he wanted to live under Islamic law. He has pleaded not guilty — a plea that Kellman entered on his behalf because, she said, he didn’t abide by the American legal system.
Nonetheless, the 46-year-old Asainov listened politely to government witnesses on a day this week, alternately stroking his beard and folding his arms across his chest.
Daesh fighters seized portions of Iraq and Syria in 2014 and declared the establishment of a so-called Islamic caliphate there, at a time when Syria was already convulsed by civil war. Fighting laid waste to multiple cities before Iraq’s prime minister declared the caliphate vanquished in 2017; the extremists lost the last of their territory two years later, though sporadic attacks persist even now.
During the height of the fighting, as many as 40,000 people from 120 countries showed up to join in, according to the United Nations. There is no comprehensive US statistic on Americans among those foreign fighters; a 2018 report by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism found at least 64 who had joined jihadist fighting in Iraq and Syria since 2011.
Since Daesh’s defeat, some foreign members and their families have lingered in detention facilities in Syria because their countries refused to take them back. Other accused foreign fighters have returned to their countries, including some who were prosecuted.
Recent US cases include a Kansas mother who led an all-female Daesh battalion, a Minnesota man who served in a battalion that prepared foreign fighters for suicide attacks in Europe, and a Detroit-area convicted this week of training with and then spending more than two years with the group.
Born in Kazakhstan, Asainov is a naturalized US citizen. He lived in Brooklyn starting in 1998, married and had a child.
Then he flew to Istanbul on a one-way ticket in December 2013 and made his way to Syria to join what he later described in a message as “the worst terrorist organization in the world that has ever existed,” authorities say.
“You heard of Daesh,” he said in another text message in January 2015, according to prosecutors’ court filings. “We will get you.”
By that April, Asainov told an acquaintance — in fact, a government informant — that he’d been fighting in Syria for about a year, according to court papers. They say that in various exchanges, he urged the informant to come to Syria and help with Daesh’s media operations, asked for $2,800 to buy a rifle scope, and sent photos of himself with fatigues and rifle, saying he “didn’t mean to show off” but was showing what was “just normal” in his new life.
Authorities announced in July 2019 that US-backed forces in Syria had captured Asainov and turned him over to the FBI.
He faces charges that include providing material support to a US-designated foreign terrorist organization. If convicted, he could be sentenced to life in prison.

Along Ukraine-Belarus border, a war of nerves — and drones

Along Ukraine-Belarus border, a war of nerves — and drones
Updated 45 min 16 sec ago

Along Ukraine-Belarus border, a war of nerves — and drones

Along Ukraine-Belarus border, a war of nerves — and drones
  • Ukrainian units are monitoring the 1,000-kilometer frontier of marsh and woodland for a possible surprise offensive from the north
  • Residents of villages in the region that were temporarily occupied last year are horrified by the prospect of it all starting again

BELARUS BORDER, Ukraine: The reconnaissance drones fly several times a day from Ukrainian positions deep inside the thick forest that marches across the border into Belarus, a close Russian ally, scouring sky and land for signs of trouble on the other side.
Ukrainian units are monitoring the 1,000-kilometer (650-mile) frontier of marsh and woodland for a possible surprise offensive from the north, a repeat of the unsuccessful Russian thrust toward Kyiv at the start of the war nearly a year ago.
This time the Ukrainians are taking no chances. Since the summer they have been reinforcing defenses, building and expanding trenches and laying mines in the forest ahead of the springtime offensive military officials expect. Residents of villages in the region that were temporarily occupied last year are horrified by the prospect of it all starting again.
“We’re listening out for every small sound and noise. This isn’t a way to live,” said Valentina Matveva, 64, from the village of Ripke. “When you’re in constant fear, that’s not life.”
Concerns of a renewed military push were stirred in January after Russia and Belarus held joint air force drills, one month after a rare visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Minsk.
Military experts and Western intelligence have played down the possibility of a renewed northern offensive. The British Defense Ministry tweeted on Jan. 11 that Russian aircraft and existing Russian troops in Belarus, though numerous, are “unlikely to constitute a credible offensive force.”
Belarusian officials attribute the troop deployment along the border to “strategic deterrence” according to local reports. The country’s authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, has insisted he will not send troops to Ukraine.
But Ukrainian commanders are wary, remembering how Russia used Belarus as a launching pad in early 2022.
“We continuously monitor the enemy from the ground and observe the movement of troops, if they are moving, how many troops, and where they are moving,” the area’s army intelligence unit head said during a press tour this week a few kilometers from the border. The officer only identified himself by his first name, Oleksandr, citing security reasons.
Unlike the east with its devastating artillery duels, here in the north it’s largely a war of quadcopters.
Oleksandr said the Belarusians and Russians are “constantly monitoring our guard changes, trying to find our military’s positions.”
At times, Oleksandr’s unit detects enemy reconnaissance drones and shoots them down using anti-drone rifles. Or an enemy drone detects a Ukrainian one and tails it, at which point the Ukrainians try to capture and add it to their stock.
“We got four of their drones this way recently, and they took two of ours,” Oleksandr said.
He says the reconnaissance missions have revealed no sign of worrying activity — yet. “They have a reinforcement section, and the patrol has been strengthened, but we do not observe a significant accumulation of troops from our section,” he said.
Ukraine’s Lt. Gen. Oleksii Pavlyuk, who is responsible for Kyiv province, was quoted in local reports as saying his country was preparing for a possible fresh attack through Belarus. “We’ve created a group on the border with Belarus, which is ready to meet the enemy with dignity,” he was quoted as saying.
Ukrainian officials argue that no one can know how Moscow will move in the coming months, and that a state of alert is necessary along the border.
“The (fortifications) were made to prevent re-infiltration,” said Oleksandr, “Whether it will happen or not, we must always be ready.”
Ukrainian soldiers armed with machine guns stand in five-foot-deep trenches dug into the forest floor and reinforced with planks.
A local villager briskly cycles past. Memories here are still fresh from the temporary occupation when Russian troops attempted to lay siege to the main city of Chernihiv. They withdrew on April 3 as Moscow switched its focus to Ukraine’s eastern provinces.
But despite the Russian-Belarusian drills, there’s also hope.
“The first time they invaded, we didn’t have the weapons and the army (at the border),” said Hanna Pokheelko, 66, from the village of Koluchivka. “But this time we do.”
Attack or no attack, Olena, from the village of Novi Yarylovychi, fears the border situation means she may never see her mother, brother and two sisters living just 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) away in a village inside Belarus.
“I can’t believe they are so close and I can’t see them,” said the 63-year old, who is a Belarusian by birth but married into a Ukrainian family and who didn’t give her full name out of concerns for her family.

IMF giving Pakistan tough time in ‘unimaginable’ economic crisis — PM

IMF giving Pakistan tough time in ‘unimaginable’ economic crisis — PM
Updated 03 February 2023

IMF giving Pakistan tough time in ‘unimaginable’ economic crisis — PM

IMF giving Pakistan tough time in ‘unimaginable’ economic crisis — PM
  • Local currency at record low after being in free fall
  • Foreign reserves down less than three weeks import cover

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif said on Friday the International Monetary Fund was giving his country a tough time over unlocking stalled funding from a $6.5 billion bailout, at a time of “unimaginable” economic crisis.
Hours after his remarks, the Pakistani rupee hit a record low against the US dollar in a steep slide since last week.
Sharif made the comments in a meeting of civil and military leaders in the northwestern city of Peshawar he chaired to prepare a response to Monday’s mosque bombing that killed more than 100 people.
“Our economic situation is unimaginable,” the premier said. “As you know, the IMF mission is in Pakistan, and that’s giving us a tough time,” he said.
“You all know we are running short of resources,” Sharif said, adding Pakistan “at present was facing an economic crisis.”
IMF’s Pakistan representative did not immediately respond to Reuters request for comment.
Sharif made the remarks in the context of funds the country might need for any military or counter-terrorism response to the resurgent Islamist militancy.
The IMF mission is visiting Pakistan to discuss fiscal consolidation measures the institution needs from Pakistan to clear a 9th review of its Extended Fund Facility, aimed at helping countries facing balance-of-payments crises.
Pakistan’s central bank reserves at present stand at $3.09 billion, the lowest since 1998 and not enough to cover the cost of three weeks of imports.
The IMF’s demands aimed at controlling the country’s budget deficit have led to Pakistan leaving its currency to market based exchange rates and hiking fuel prices.
The Pakistani rupee fell by 1.9 percent to a record low of 276.58 per dollar in the inter-bank market on Friday, according to the central bank.
The local currency has dropped 16.5 percent since the artificial cap was removed last week to leave the rupee’s value to be decided by a market-based exchange rate regime.
The rupee also shed 2.65 percent against the US dollar on the open market, according to the association of exchange companies.
Islamabad is in a $6.5 billion IMF program.
An IMF delegation is in Pakistan to restart talks stalled since November for $2.5 billion funds yet to be disbursed.
Still, despite the economic situation, Sharif said his country will do whatever possible to fight militancy.
“We will use all resources in our capacity to fight this menace,” he said.


Man detained on French high-speed TGV after attack threat

Man detained on French high-speed TGV after attack threat
Updated 03 February 2023

Man detained on French high-speed TGV after attack threat

Man detained on French high-speed TGV after attack threat
  • The individual’s mental health was being investigated

BRUSSELS: A man was arrested after threatening to commit an attack while traveling on a high-speed TGV train in eastern France on Friday.
Police sources said the individual threatened to blow up himself or the train. There was no immediate suspicion that terrorism was a motive and the individual’s mental health was being investigated, they added.
“This morning, a police officer ... arrested a threatening individual on board a TGV in Moselle. Kudos to him!” Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said on Twitter.
The officer was off duty at the time, the police sources said. Off-duty policeman are allowed in France to carry a firearm on trains as part of a “traveling to protect” government scheme.

21 dead in attack in South Sudan on eve of Pope’s visit

21 dead in attack in South Sudan on eve of Pope’s visit
Updated 03 February 2023

21 dead in attack in South Sudan on eve of Pope’s visit

21 dead in attack in South Sudan on eve of Pope’s visit
JUBA: At least 21 people have been killed in a cattle raid in South Sudan on the eve of a visit by Pope Francis to encourage peace in the conflict-ridden country, local authorities said.
Francis is scheduled to arrive on Friday for a three-day “pilgrimage of peace” with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
The church leaders are seeking to promote reconciliation and forgiveness in a predominantly Christian country still burdened by chronic armed violence in the aftermath of a civil war.
On Thursday, armed herders killed 21 civilians in a reprisal attack on a rival cattle camp in Kajo-Keji County of Central Equatoria, the county commissioner’s office said.
“The commissioner of Kajo-Keji County condemns in the strongest terms possible the attack on the cattle camp and the massacre of the innocent civilians in the barbaric act of revenge,” its statement issued on Thursday said.
Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, said he was “horrified” by the attack on the eve of his visit.
“It is a story too often heard across South Sudan. I again appeal for a different way: for South Sudan to come together for a just peace,” he posted on Twitter on Thursday.
South Sudan achieved independence from Muslim-majority Sudan in 2011 but soon after plunged into civil war that left 380,000 people dead.
The war formally ended in 2018 but the nation remains plagued by violence waged by well-armed local militias and rival ethnic groups.
This week, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), the United States and other foreign missions raised concerns over signs that armed factions were preparing to fight again in Upper Nile.
The state in the country’s north has witnessed some of the most ferocious armed violence in South Sudan in recent months, with thousands of civilians seeking protection on UN bases.
“With the historic visit of His Holiness Pope Francis, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland to South Sudan expected to take place this week, UNMISS appeals to national and community leaders to exercise restraint and commit to peace and dialogue,” it said in a statement.