Brittney Griner back home in US after Russian prisoner swap

Brittney Griner back home in US after Russian prisoner swap
A Russian TV shows US basketball player Brittney Griner after the prisoner swap. (Reuters/WNE)
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Updated 09 December 2022

Brittney Griner back home in US after Russian prisoner swap

Brittney Griner back home in US after Russian prisoner swap
  • Russia's invasion of Ukraine after her arrest complicated matters further
  • The deal that saw Griner exchanged for notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout achieved a top goal for President Joe Biden

SAN ANTONIO, United States: Brittney Griner returned to the United States early Friday, nearly 10 months after the basketball star’s detention in Russia made her the most high-profile American jailed abroad and set off a political firestorm.
Griner’s status and prominence in women’s basketball and her imprisonment heightened concerns for her and brought tremendous attention to the case. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine after her arrest complicated matters further.
The deal that saw Griner exchanged for notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout achieved a top goal for President Joe Biden. But the US failed to win freedom for another American, Paul Whelan, who has been jailed for nearly four years.
Asked if more such swaps could happen, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday that “everything is possible,” noting that “compromises have been found” to clear the way for Thursday’s exchange.
Biden’s authorization to release Bout, the Russian felon once nicknamed “the Merchant of Death,” underscored the heightened urgency that his administration faced to get Griner home, particularly after the recent resolution of her criminal case on drug charges and her subsequent transfer to a penal colony.
Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and Phoenix Mercury pro basketball star, was seen getting off a plane that landed Friday at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas.
“So happy to have Brittney back on US soil. Welcome home BG!” tweeted Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs.
The WNBA star, who also played pro basketball in Russia, was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February after Russian authorities said she was carrying vape canisters with cannabis oil. The US State Department declared Griner to be “wrongfully detained” — a charge that Russia has sharply rejected.
Griner pleaded guilty in July but still faced trial because admitting guilt in Russia’s judicial system does not automatically end a case. She was sentenced to nine years.
She acknowledged in court that she possessed canisters with cannabis oil but said she had no criminal intent and accidentally packed them. Her defense team presented written statements that she had been prescribed cannabis to treat pain.
The Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed Thursday’s swap, saying in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that the exchange took place in Abu Dhabi and Bout had been flown home.
Biden spoke by phone with Griner. US officials said she would be offered specialized medical services and counseling.
In releasing Bout, the US freed a former Soviet Army lieutenant colonel whom the Justice Department once described as one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers. He was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and extradited to the US in 2010.
Bout was serving a 25-year sentence on charges that he conspired to sell tens of millions of dollars in weapons that USofficials said were to be used against Americans.


’Consensus’ with Zelensky that Western arms do not hit Russia: Scholz

’Consensus’ with Zelensky that Western arms do not hit Russia: Scholz
Updated 8 sec ago

’Consensus’ with Zelensky that Western arms do not hit Russia: Scholz

’Consensus’ with Zelensky that Western arms do not hit Russia: Scholz
  • “Again and again we are forced to repel the aggression of the collective West,” he said Thursday on the 80th anniversary of the Soviet victory at the Battle of Stalingrad

BERLIN: Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky agrees that weapons supplied by the West will not be used to attack Russian territory, Germany’s leader said in an interview Sunday.
“There is a consensus on this point,” Chancellor Olaf Scholz said in an interview with the weekly Bild am Sonntag.
Ukraine’s Western allies have pledged to arm it with precision rockets and missile systems, as well as tanks, as it tries to push back Russian troops in its east.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has compared the intervention of countries such as Germany with his nation’s struggle during World War II.
“Again and again we are forced to repel the aggression of the collective West,” he said Thursday on the 80th anniversary of the Soviet victory at the Battle of Stalingrad.
But Scholz rejected the comparison.
“His words are part of a series of absurd historical comparisons that he uses to justify his attack on Ukraine,” he said.
“But nothing justifies this war.
“Together with our allies, we are supplying battle tanks to Ukraine so that it can defend itself. We have carefully weighed each delivery of weapons, in close coordination with our allies, starting with America.”
He said that such a consensus-based approach “avoids an escalation.”
 

 


China plays down Blinken’s canceled visit over balloon

Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning attends a news conference in Beijing, China, February 3, 2023. (REUTERS)
Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning attends a news conference in Beijing, China, February 3, 2023. (REUTERS)
Updated 05 February 2023

China plays down Blinken’s canceled visit over balloon

Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning attends a news conference in Beijing, China, February 3, 2023. (REUTERS)
  • The Pentagon rejected that out of hand — as well as China’s contention that the balloon was not being used for surveillance and had only limited navigational ability

TAIPEI: China played down the cancellation of a visit by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken after a large Chinese balloon suspected of conducting surveillance on US military sites roiled diplomatic relations, saying that neither side had formally announced any such plan.
“In actuality, the US and China have never announced any visit, the US making any such announcement is their own business, and we respect that,” China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement on Saturday.
Blinken was due to visit Beijing on Sunday for talks aimed at reducing US-China tensions, the first such high-profile trip after the countries’ leaders met last November in Indonesia. But the US abruptly canceled the trip after the discovery of the huge balloon despite China’s claim that it was merely a weather research “airship” that had blown off course.
The Pentagon rejected that out of hand — as well as China’s contention that the balloon was not being used for surveillance and had only limited navigational ability.

HIGHLIGHTS

• US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was due to visit Beijing on Sunday for talks aimed at reducing US-China tensions.

• The US abruptly canceled the trip after the discovery of the huge balloon despite China’s claim that it was merely a weather research ‘airship’ that had blown off course.

Uncensored reactions on the Chinese internet mirrored the official government stance that the US was hyping up the situation.
Many users made jokes about the balloon. Some said that since the US had put restrictions on the technology that China is able to buy to weaken the Chinese tech industry, they couldn’t control the balloon.
Others called it the “wandering balloon” in a pun that refers to the newly released Chinese sci-fi film called “The Wandering Earth 2.”
Still others used it as a chance to poke fun at US defenses, saying it couldn’t even defend against a balloon, and nationalist influencers leapt to use the news to mock the US. One wrote wryly: “The US, because of the balloon incident, delays Blinken’s visit to China.”
Censorship was visible on the topic — the “wandering balloon” hashtag on Weibo was no longer searchable by Saturday evening.
“The US is hyping this as a national security threat posed by China to the US. This type of military threat, in actuality, we haven’t done this. And compared with the US military threat normally aimed at us, can you say it’s just little? Their surveillance planes, their submarines, their naval ships are all coming near our borders,” Chinese military expert Chen Haoyang of the Taihe Institute said on Phoenix TV, one of the major national TV outlets.

 


How centuries of Middle Eastern influence shaped Indian architecture

People visit the Jama Masjid complex in the walled city area of New Delhi, India on Nov. 26, 2022. (AFP)
People visit the Jama Masjid complex in the walled city area of New Delhi, India on Nov. 26, 2022. (AFP)
Updated 05 February 2023

How centuries of Middle Eastern influence shaped Indian architecture

People visit the Jama Masjid complex in the walled city area of New Delhi, India on Nov. 26, 2022. (AFP)
  • Earliest examples of Islamic architecture to survive in India are from the 12th century
  • Exchanges with the Muslim world yielded architecture that is neither strictly Islamic nor Hindu

NEW DELHI: Middle Eastern influence on Indian architecture is most famously represented by the iconic Taj Mahal, but the mausoleum is not the only fine example of the unique style that throughout centuries developed into a blend of Arab, Persian and indigenous designs.

The earliest examples of Islamic architecture to survive in the Indian subcontinent date from the late years of the 12th century, but the cultural influence of Islamic art had already been present there since the Arabs conquered the Sindh region — now in Pakistan — in 712.

As Muslims came to India, new features and architectural techniques were introduced in building design, including the use of the arch and dome, the construction of which was further refined by the Hindu craftsmen who long before had mastered the art of stonework.

The Taj Mahal is seen through morning air pollution in Agra, India, Jan. 12, 2019. (Reuters)

The Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque in the Qutb Minar complex in Delhi is the earliest surviving mosque in India. Its construction began in 1192, under Qutb-ud-din Aibak, a Turkic general, who later became the first ruler of the Sultanate of Delhi.

The mosque’s arched facade gives it an Islamic feel, but rich floral ornamentation is an Indian feature.

“Cultural interactions started from the Sultanate period onwards…The coming of Turks and their local interactions led to Hindu architecture influencing mosque architecture,” said Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi, professor of history at Aligarh Muslim University and secretary of the Indian History Congress.

“Muslim rulers brought architects and engineers from Iran, the Arab world and Central Asia…but the master craftsmen and artisans were locals. The end result was the amalgamation of traditions.”

A tourist takes photos while visiting the Qutub Minar complex in New Delhi on March 9, 2021. (AFP)

As time passed, new Muslim powers arrived in India, bringing their architectural heritage. At the same time, local sultanates emerged and flourished as well, developing their own forms. The Hindu kingdoms that retained different degrees of independence during the time of Muslim supremacy also produced important works and influenced predominant styles.

These multilevel exchanges yielded an architecture that was neither strictly Islamic nor strictly Hindu.

“There are many places in Gujarat where it is not easy to identify mosques and temples. In the northern Hindu city of Ayodhya, temples look similar to mosques because they have domes,” Rezavi told Arab News. “If you are talking about India’s history, you cannot talk in terms of Hindus and Muslims. There was no distinction between them.

They borrowed each other’s characteristic features.” But it was the Mughals who brought the Indo-Islamic style to its full bloom.

The advent of the Mughal dynasty, which ruled the subcontinent between the 16th and 19th centuries, marked the global revival of Islamic architecture with works that until today are examples of the highest quality and refinement.

Originally from Central Asia, the Mughals carried cultural elements borrowed from Arabs, Persians and Ottomans. As they settled in India, they fused them with the various provincial styles they found in their new domains.

For Anuj Srivastva, one of the most renowned Indian architects who teaches at the New Delhi School of Planning and Architecture, it is no wonder that when the British took control of the subcontinent in the 19th century, they regarded Mughal architecture as the classic Indian style.

“Indo-Saracenic architecture is an amalgamation of styles. It drew stylistic and decorative elements from native Indo-Islamic architecture,” he told Arab News.

“When the Mughals came, they carried Central Asian, Arab and Persian influences, and they created their own style and integrated it with the existing architecture in India.”

The 1570 tomb of Humayun, the son of Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire, inaugurated the Mughal dynasty’s style. The first garden tomb on the subcontinent, it inspired other major architectural innovations, which three generations later culminated in the construction of the Taj Mahal.

One of the most significant architectural achievements of Humayun’s son, Akbar, was the great fort at Agra and the city of Fatehpur Sikri. They also brought Middle Eastern styles deeper into the Indian realm.

“Fatehpur Sikri displays distinct Persian and Arabic influence,” Rezavi said.

“Some of the temples in the Hindu city of Mathura have the same carvings as Mughal King Akbar’s capital Fatehpur Sikri. You have the same architecture, the same carvings, the same styles, big vaults. Entire temple grounds are similar to the typical features that were used in mosques.”

It was during the reign of Akbar’s grandson, Shah Jahan, when Mughal architectural creativity reached its zenith.

He built the great Red Fort complex at Delhi in 1648, where the planning of the palace was based on Islamic prototypes but the pavilions and garden design reflect a fusion of all traditions of the subcontinent at that time. The structure influenced later buildings and gardens in Rajasthan, Delhi, Agra and beyond.

The Jama Masjid was built by Shah Jahan in Delhi in 1656. Constructed in red sandstone and marble, it is one of the largest and finest mosques in India. It took a decade to complete and the work of thousands of artisans.

But the greatest masterpiece of Shah Jahan’s time is the Taj Mahal, a white-marble mausoleum he built in Agra in 1648, in memory of the emperor’s wife, Mumtaz Mahal.

Known as one of the world’s wonders and a “monument of love,” it is recognized by UNESCO as “the greatest architectural achievement in the whole range of Indo-Islamic architecture.”

For Rezavi, it is also a structure where native Indian styles reached their finest display.

“The architecture in India is an amalgamation of indigenous and Indo-Islamic traditions,” he said.

“Look at the Taj Mahal. It has both Indian and Iranian influences, but I feel that indigenous influences are more prominent.”

 


US downs Chinese balloon over ocean, moves to recover debris

US downs Chinese balloon over ocean, moves to recover debris
Updated 05 February 2023

US downs Chinese balloon over ocean, moves to recover debris

US downs Chinese balloon over ocean, moves to recover debris
  • An operation was underway in U.S. territorial waters in the Atlantic Ocean to recover debris from the balloon
  • Television footage showed a small explosion, followed by the balloon descending toward the water

WASHINGTON: The United States on Saturday downed a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the Carolina coast after it traversed sensitive military sites across North America and became the latest flashpoint in tensions between Washington and Beijing.
An operation was underway in US territorial waters in the Atlantic Ocean to recover debris from the balloon, which had been flying at about 60,000 feet and was estimated to be about the size of three school buses.
President Joe Biden had told reporters earlier Saturday that “we’re going to take care of it,” when asked about the balloon. The Federal Aviation Administration and Coast Guard worked to clear the airspace and water below the balloon as it reached the ocean.
Television footage showed a small explosion, followed by the balloon descending toward the water. US military jets were seen flying in the vicinity and ships were deployed in the water to mount the recovery operation.
Officials were aiming to time the operation so they could recover as much of the debris as possible before it sinks into the ocean. The Pentagon had previously estimated that any debris field would be substantial.
The balloon was spotted Saturday morning over the Carolinas as it approached the coast. In preparation for the operation, the FAA Administration temporarily closed airspace over the Carolina coastline, including the airports in Charleston and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and Wilmington, North Carolina. The FAA rerouted air traffic from the area and warned of delays as a result of the flight restrictions.
The Coast Guard advised mariners to immediately leave the area because of US military operations “that present a significant hazard.”
Biden had been inclined to down the balloon over land when he was first briefed on it on Tuesday, but Pentagon officials advised against it, warning that the potential risk to people on the ground outweighed the assessment of potential Chinese intelligence gains.
The public disclosure of the balloon this week prompted the cancelation of a visit by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Beijing scheduled for Sunday for talks aimed at reducing US-China tensions. The Chinese government on Saturday sought to play down the cancelation.
“In actuality, the US and China have never announced any visit, the US making any such announcement is their own business, and we respect that,” China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement Saturday morning.
China has continued to claim that the balloon was merely a weather research “airship” that had been blown off course. The Pentagon rejected that out of hand — as well as China’s contention that it was not being used for surveillance and had only limited navigational ability.
The balloon was spotted over Montana, which is home to one of America’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base.
The Pentagon also acknowledged reports of a second balloon flying over Latin America. “We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon,” Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to a question about the second balloon.
Blinken, who had been due to depart Washington for Beijing late Friday, said he had told senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi in a phone call that sending the balloon over the US was “an irresponsible act and that (China’s) decision to take this action on the eve of my visit is detrimental to the substantive discussions that we were prepared to have.”
Uncensored reactions on the Chinese Internet mirrored the official government stance that the US was hyping the situation. Some used it as a chance to poke fun at US defenses, saying it couldn’t even defend against a balloon, and nationalist influencers leapt to use the news to mock the US
China has denied any claims of spying and said it is a civilian-use balloon intended for meteorology research. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs emphasized that the balloon’s journey was out of its control and urged the US not to “smear” it based on the balloon.


Protect, advance women for a better South Sudan, pope says

Protect, advance women for a better South Sudan, pope says
Updated 04 February 2023

Protect, advance women for a better South Sudan, pope says

Protect, advance women for a better South Sudan, pope says
  • The rights of girls and women was a recurring theme on the penultimate day of the pope's visit to South Sudan
  • "Please, protect, respect, appreciate and honour every woman, every girl, young woman, mother and grandmother" the pope said

JUBA: Pope Francis joined other Christian leaders and the UN on Saturday in urging the protection and advancement of women in South Sudan, where rape has been a weapon of war, child brides are common and most girls do not reach secondary education.
The rights of girls and women was a recurring theme on the penultimate day of the pope’s visit to South Sudan, an unprecedented joint “pilgrimage of peace” with Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Church of Scotland Moderator Iain Greenshields.
“Please, protect, respect, appreciate and honor every woman, every girl, young woman, mother and grandmother. Otherwise, there will be no future,” the pope said during a meeting of the three leaders with people displaced by conflict.
Later, Welby returned to the theme in his address to about 50,000 people at an ecumenical prayer vigil at a mausoleum to South Sudan’s liberation hero John Garang.
“Young men, you will value and honor women, never raping, never violent, never cruel, never using them as if they were there to satisfy desire,” he said.
“Women of South Sudan, I know that on top of the grief of conflict and the responsibility to provide for your families, many of you live with the trauma of sexual violence and the daily fear of mistreatment in your own homes.”
A United Nations report on South Sudan issued last March condemned widespread sexual violence against women and girls in conflict and said it was “fueled by systemic impunity.”
The report said “widespread rape is being perpetrated by all armed groups across the country, often as part of military tactics for which government and military leaders are responsible.”
South Sudan broke away from Sudan in 2011 but plunged into civil war in 2013 with ethnic groups turning on each other. Despite a 2018 peace deal between the two main antagonists, bouts of inter-ethnic fighting have continued to kill and displace large numbers of civilians.
PROTECT, RESPECT, HONOUR
At the event where the three religious leaders heard accounts from children living in displaced persons camps, the resident UN humanitarian coordinator in South Sudan, Sara Beysolow Nyanti, also raised the issue of pervasive sexual violence against women and girls.
The pope responded by calling on everyone in South Sudan “to ensure that women are protected, respected, valued and honored.”
Francis said that if women are given opportunities “they will have the ability to change the face of South Sudan, to give it a peaceful and cohesive development!“
Sister Orla Treacy, an Irish member of the Loreto Sisters religious order who runs a school in Rumbek, north of the capital, and works to prevent child marriages, said less than 5 percent of girls finish secondary school. About 10 percent of 15-year-old girls and 52 percent of 18-year-old girls in South Sudan are married, she said.
Treacy and a group of students had walked about 200 km (125 miles) from Lakes State to see the pope. She said the governor of that region had recently signed a decree promising to stop child marriages.
South Sudan has the world’s highest maternal mortality rate, according to the World Bank, and poverty and hunger are rife across the country, with two thirds of the population needing humanitarian assistance as a result of conflict as well as three years of catastrophic floods.