The head of Russia’s private Wagner militia said on Sunday that fierce fighting was ongoing in the northern parts of the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, which has been the focus of Russian forces’ attention for weeks.
Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the founder and head of the Wagner group, said his soldiers were “fighting for every street, every house, every stairwell” against Ukrainian forces who were not retreating.
Finns vote as far right aims to unseat PM Sanna Marin
Marin's Social Democratic Party (SDP) was in third place with 18.7 percent, behind center-right National Coalition (19.8 %), and the nationalist euroskeptic Finns Party (19.5 %)
Updated 17 sec ago
HELSINKI: Finland votes Sunday in legislative elections that could see the country take a dramatic turn to the right, as center-right and anti-immigration parties vie to unseat Social Democratic Prime Minister Sanna Marin.
After the breakthrough by nationalists in neighboring Sweden and the far right’s victory in Italy last year, Finland could become the latest country to join the nationalist wave in Europe.
The vote comes just days ahead of Finland’s formal accession to the NATO defense alliance, made possible after Turkiye ratified the country’s membership bid on Thursday.
“The polls show that the more right-wing political trend in Finland is gaining strength,” Juho Rahkonen from the E2 research institute told AFP.
Traditionally, the biggest of the eight main parties in parliament gets the first chance to build a government, and since the 1990s that party has always claimed the prime minister’s office.
“We are aiming to win this election and continue our work for a more sustainable future,” Marin told reporters at the sidelines of her final campaign event in Helsinki.
The latest survey published Thursday by public broadcaster Yle showed the center-right National Coalition holding a thin lead at 19.8 percent, with the nationalist euroskeptic Finns Party in second place at 19.5 percent.
The Social Democratic Party (SDP) led by Marin, who took office in 2019 as the world’s youngest prime minister at age 34, was in third place with 18.7 percent.
“We have had a great campaign. We have the best candidates all over Finland and we are first in the polls, so I’m optimistic,” National Coalition leader Petteri Orpo told AFP at a campaign rally on Saturday.
While Marin ranks as Finland’s most popular prime minister this century in polls, she is struggling to convert her popularity into SDP seats in parliament.
“Although she is exceptionally popular, she also arouses opposition. The political divide has been reinforced,” Rahkonen said.
While some view her as a strong leader who deftly navigated the Covid-19 pandemic and the NATO membership process, others see the rising public debt on her watch and scandals over video clips of her partying as signs of her inexperience.
Finland’s debt-to-GDP ratio has risen from 64 percent in 2019 to 73 percent, which Orpo’s National Coalition wants to address by cutting spending by six billion euros ($6.5 billion).
Marin has defended her track record and accused the National Coalition of wanting to “take from the poor to give to the rich.”
A top spot for the far-right Finns Party, and a far-right prime minister, would be a first in Finland, with its leader Riikka Purra poised to top her party’s record score.
Her euroskeptic party wants a hard line on immigration, pointing to neighboring Sweden’s problems with gang violence as a cautionary tale.
“The biggest issue at the moment is the growing juvenile delinquency,” she told AFP on Saturday, claiming that “most of these street gangs and young criminals in the streets are migrants.”
Support for the populist party has surged since last summer, spurred by the “rise in energy prices and the general decline in purchasing power” following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Rahkonen said.
While the party served in a center-right government in 2015, it later split into two factions, one hard-line and the other moderate, with only the hard-liners still in parliament.
The Finns Party sees an EU exit as its long-term goal and wants to postpone Finland’s target of carbon neutrality for 2035.
Negotiations to build a government are expected to be thorny.
Marin has ruled out forming a government with what she calls the “openly racist” Finns Party, while Orpo has said he will keep his options open, despite clashing with the Finns Party on immigration, the EU and climate policy.
This gives him a central role in forming the next government, as both the Finns Party and the SDP would likely need him to obtain a majority.
Voting stations open at 9:00 am (0600 GMT) and close at 8:00 p.m. (1700 GMT), when the results of advance voting will be published. About 40 percent of voters have cast their ballots in advance.
At least 21 dead after tornadoes rake US Midwest, South
Debris and memories of regular life lay scattered inside the shells of homes and on lawns: clothing, insulation, roofing paper, toys, splintered furniture, a pickup truck with its windows shattered
Updated 02 April 2023
WYNNE, Arkansas: Storms that dropped possibly dozens of tornadoes killed at least 21 people in small towns and big cities across the South and Midwest, tearing a path through the Arkansas capital, collapsing the roof of a packed concert venue in Illinois, and stunning people throughout the region Saturday with the damage’s scope.
Confirmed or suspected tornadoes in at least eight states destroyed homes and businesses, splintered trees and laid waste to neighborhoods across a broad swath of the country. The dead included seven in one Tennessee county, four in the small town of Wynne, Arkansas, three in Sullivan, Indiana, and four in Illinois.
Other deaths from the storms that hit Friday night into Saturday were reported in Alabama and Mississippi, along with one near Little Rock, Arkansas, where city officials said more than 2,600 buildings were in a tornado’s path.
Residents of Wynne, a community of about 8,000 people 50 miles (80 kilometers) west of Memphis, Tennessee, woke Saturday to find the high school’s roof shredded and its windows blown out. Huge trees lay on the ground, their stumps reduced to nubs. Broken walls, windows and roofs pocked homes and businesses.
Debris and memories of regular life lay scattered inside the shells of homes and on lawns: clothing, insulation, roofing paper, toys, splintered furniture, a pickup truck with its windows shattered.
Ashley Macmillan said she, her husband and their children huddled with their dogs in a small bathroom as a tornado passed, “praying and saying goodbye to each other, because we thought we were dead.” A falling tree seriously damaged their home, but no one in the family was hurt.
“We could feel the house shaking, we could hear loud noises, dishes rattling. And then it just got calm,” she said.
Recovery was already underway, with workers using chainsaws and bulldozers to clear the area. Utility crews worked to restore power.
At least seven people died in Tennessee’s McNairy County, east of Memphis along the Mississippi border, said David Leckner, the mayor of Adamsville.
“The majority of the damage has been done to homes and residential areas,” Leckner said, adding that although it appeared all people were accounted for, crews were going door to door to be sure.
Gov. Bill Lee drove to the county Saturday to survey the damage, noting that the storm came days after six people were killed in a school shooting in Nashville.
“But it looks like your community has done what Tennessean communities do, and that is rally and respond,” he said.
Jeffrey Day said he called his daughter after seeing on the news that their community of Adamsville was being hit. Huddled in a closet with her two-year-old son as the storm passed over, she answered the phone screaming.
“She kept asking me, ‘What do I do, daddy?’” Day said. “I didn’t know what to say.”
In Belvidere, Illinois, part of the roof of the Apollo Theatre collapsed as about 260 people were attending a heavy metal concert. Some of them pulled a 50-year-old man from the rubble, but he was dead when emergency workers arrived. Officials said 40 other people were hurt, including two with life-threatening injuries.
“They dragged someone out from the rubble, and I sat with him and I held his hand and I was (telling him), ‘It’s going to be OK.’ I didn’t really know much else what to do,” concertgoer Gabrielle Lewellyn told WTVO-TV.
On Saturday, crews were cleaning up around the Apollo, with forklifts pulling away loose bricks. Business owners picked up shards of glass and covered shattered windows.
In Crawford County, Illinois, three people were killed and eight others injured after a tornado hit around New Hebron, Bill Burke, the county board chair, said.
Sheriff Bill Rutan said 60 to 100 families were displaced.
“We’ve had emergency crews digging people out of their basements because the house is collapsed on top of them, but luckily they had that safe space to go to,” Rutan said at a news conference.
Illinois state Rep. Adam Niemerg called the tornado “catastrophic.”
That tornado was not far from where three people were killed in Indiana’s Sullivan County, about 95 miles (150 kilometers) southwest of Indianapolis.
Sullivan Mayor Clint Lamb said at a news conference that an area south of the county seat of about 4,000 “is essentially unrecognizable right now” and that several people were rescued from rubble overnight. There were reports of as many as 12 people injured, he said, and search-and-rescue teams combed damaged areas.
“I’m really, really shocked there isn’t more as far as human issues,” he said, adding that recovery “is going to be a very long process.”
In the Little Rock area, at least one person was killed and more than 50 were hurt, some critically.
The National Weather Service said that tornado was a high-end EF3 twister with wind speeds up to 165 mph (265 kph) and a path as long as 25 miles (40 kilometers).
Masoud Shahed-Ghaznavi was lunching at home when it roared through his neighborhood, causing him to hide in the laundry room as sheetrock fell on his head and windows shattered. When he emerged, the house was mostly rubble.
“I see everything around me is sky,” Shahed-Ghaznavi recalled. He barely slept Friday night.
“When I closed my eyes, I couldn’t sleep, imagined I was here,” he said Saturday outside his home.
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard to help local responders.
Another suspected tornado killed a woman in northern Alabama’s Madison County, county official Mac McCutcheon said. And in northern Mississippi’s Pontotoc County, officials confirmed one death and four injuries.
Tornadoes also caused damage in eastern Iowa and broke windows northeast of Peoria, Illinois.
The storms struck just hours after President Joe Biden visited Rolling Fork, Mississippi, where tornadoes last week destroyed parts of town.
It could take days to determine the exact number of tornadoes, said Bill Bunting, chief of forecast operations at the Storm Prediction Center. There were also hundreds of reports of large hail and damaging winds, he said.
“That’s a quite active day,” he said. “But that’s not unprecedented.”
More than 530,000 homes and businesses in the affected area lacked power at midday Saturday, over 200,000 of them in Ohio, according to PowerOutage.us.
The sprawling storm system also brought wildfires to the southern Plains, with nearly 100 new ones reported Friday in Oklahoma, according to the state forest service.
At least 32 people were injured in the fires, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Health. There were reports of more than 40 homes destroyed around the state.
The storms also caused blizzard conditions in the Upper Midwest.
A threat of tornadoes and hail remained for the Northeast including in parts of Pennsylvania and New York.
Three British men being held in Afghanistan: UK non-profit group
Britain’s foreign ministry said the five “had no role in the UK government’s work in Afghanistan and traveled to Afghanistan against the UK government’s travel advice”
Updated 02 April 2023
LONDON: Three British men have been detained by the Taliban in Afghanistan, UK non-profit group the Presidium Network said on Saturday.
The group said on Twitter it had been “working closely with two of the families.”
“We are working hard to secure consular contact with British nationals detained in Afghanistan and we are supporting families,” the UK’s foreign ministry added in a statement.
Scott Richards of the Presidium Network told Sky News: “We believe they are in good health and being well treated.
“We have no reason to believe they’ve been subject to any negative treatment such as torture and we’re told that they are as good as can be expected in such circumstances.”
There had been “no meaningful contact” between authorities and the two men Presidium is assisting, he added.
These two men are believed to have been held by the Taliban since January.
It is not known how long the third man has been held for.
Media reports named the men as charity medic Kevin Cornwell, 53, an unnamed manager of a hotel for aid workers and YouTube star Miles Routledge.
Presidium on Twitter urged the Taliban to be “considerate of what we believe is a misunderstanding and release these men.”
Last year the Taliban freed a veteran television cameraman and four other British nationals it had held for six months.
Peter Jouvenal was one of a “number” of Britons that the government in London said had been held by the hard-line Islamists.
Britain’s foreign ministry said the five “had no role in the UK government’s work in Afghanistan and traveled to Afghanistan against the UK government’s travel advice.”
“This was a mistake,” it added.
At the time, Afghanistan government spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid accused the Britons of “carrying out activities against the country’s laws and traditions of the people of Afghanistan.”
“After consecutive meetings between the IEA (Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan) and Britain the said persons were released... and handed over to their home country,” he said.
“They promised to abide by the laws of Afghanistan, its traditions and culture of the people and not to violate them again,” he added.
The Taliban returned to power in August 2021 and has since sparked global outrage with its policies in particular toward women and girls.
Protesters face off in Kyiv as clergyman’s home raided
The hearing was initially adjourned as Pavlo complained of health issues but later resumed, with the court ordering a 60-day house arrest
Updated 02 April 2023
KYIV, Ukraine: Protesters faced off outside a historic monastery in the Ukrainian capital on Saturday after the home of a leading clergyman was raided by the security services.
Metropolitan Pavlo of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which has been accused of links with Moscow despite renouncing them, was called in for questioning on charges of inciting religious hatred.
The SBU security service said Pavlo is suspected of “justifying and denying the aggression by the Russian army against Ukraine and of glorifying its members” as well as “violating the equality of citizens on racial, national, regional and religious grounds.”
“The law and the responsibility for violating it are the same for everyone and a cassock is no guarantee of pure intentions,” SBU chief Vasyl Maliuk said in a statement, accusing Russia of using religion “to promote propaganda and divide Ukrainian society.”
The SBU said it had raided the home of Pavlo, who was later taken to court for a hearing to decide whether or not he should be detained, an AFP reporter saw.
The hearing was initially adjourned as Pavlo complained of health issues but later resumed, with the court ordering a 60-day house arrest.
He will have to wear an electronic surveillance device and “refrain from communicating with witnesses” as the inquiry continues, it said.
The development comes three days after the expiry of a deadline for an eviction order from Ukrainian authorities for the monks of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church who live in a part of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra monastery.
The monks have said they will stay as long as possible at the site, an ancient golden-domed complex overlooking the Dnipro River that is the country’s most significant Orthodox monastery.
Dozens of Church supporters, including clergymen, could be seen outside the monastery on Saturday, waving religious symbols and praying in front of a small group of opponents.
The Pechersk monastery and other Church premises were raided last year by security services over suspected links to Russian agents.
The country also has an Orthodox Church of Ukraine, a separate institution that is entirely independent from Moscow.
In a video statement broadcast by Ukrainian media earlier on Saturday, Pavlo denied supporting the Russian invasion.
“They say I support the aggression of Russia against Ukraine. I have said, I say and I will say: I condemn all attacks on our state and what Russia and Putin have done is unjustifiable,” he said.
High time to emphasize positive side of migration, IOM chief Antonio Vitorino tells Arab News
Benefits of human flows often overlooked amid polarizing debate, according to director general of International Organization for Migration
Vitorino made the comments on the occasion of International Dialogue on Migration, a contribution of IOM to the upcoming 2023 SDG Summit
Updated 32 min 32 sec ago
NEW YORK CITY: Migration is as old as humanity itself. Like birds, human beings are said to be a migratory species. Across all eras of human history, they have been inclined to wander away from home, driven by various motives, but always with some idea of a better life.
While migration has emerged as a prominent international and national policy issue, the public discourse on migrants has increasingly become polarized. The toxicity of the migration debate has intensified over the past few years, with the politics of fear and division setting the tone for discussions.
Extremist politicians around the world deploy disruption and disinformation as tools to retain power, exploiting migrants for far-right xenophobic agendas.
Amid often negatively skewed discussions on migration and migrants, the many ways in which migrants contribute to societies is often overlooked. One can lose sight of the dynamism of migrants globally. They are overrepresented in innovation and patents, arts and sciences awards, start-ups and successful companies.
Antonio Vitorino aimed to bring these contributions to the forefront at the International Dialogue on Migration, or IDM, a biannual event that took place in New York on March 30-31, as part of the International Organization for Migration’s contribution to the 2023 SDG Summit in September.
The event brought together governments, youth representatives, civil society, local authorities and community representatives, UN agencies and experts to assess how the positive impacts of human mobility can be harnessed to attain the SDGs.
“Migration is a fact of life. There have always been migrants everywhere,” Vitorino, a Portuguese lawyer and politician who took over as the director-general of IOM in October 2018, said during an interview with Arab News in New York City.
“We are very much used to seeing migration as a problem. There are challenges to migration, I don’t deny that. But I think the time has come for us to be more adamant in emphasizing the positive side of migration.”
Currently, there are about 281 million living in a country other than their countries of birth, or 3.6 percent of the global population — that is, only 1 in 30 people.
More than 100 million of those were forcibly displaced by conflict, persecution, poverty, climate disaster.
Most frequently, reasons underpinning migration are a complex combination of altered rainfall, armed conflict and a failure of government institutions and support.
Out of the 15 most vulnerable countries to climate change, 13 are witnessing an armed conflict.
The list of contributions of migrants is long indeed.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, who was on the front line?” Vitorino said. “Who was delivering the services and the food while many societies were locked out? Migrants were there on the front line.
“Look to the health system. Even in the developed world, many of the health care workers are migrants or of migrant origin.
“And I do believe that migrants have a key role to play as entrepreneurs. You know, when someone migrates, there is a strong will of winning, of confronting the new environment and making the best for the migrant, for the family, but also for the society in which they are working.
“They are workers. They are consumers. They pay taxes. And this positive side of migration is not very often highlighted.”
Money sent home by migrants is a significant part of international capital flows. Remittances compete with international aid as one of the largest financial inflows to developing countries.
According to the World Bank, they are playing a large role in contributing to economic growth and to the livelihoods of many countries.
About $800 billion are transferred by migrants each year directly to families or communities in their countries of origin. This number does not capture unrecorded flows, so the magnitude of global remittances is likely to be much larger. They are often a lifeline for the poorest households, allowing them to meet their basic needs.
“There are countries where 10 percent, 20 percent, even 30 percent of their GDP depend on the remittances from the migrants and the diaspora,” said Vitorino.
“And now with the war in Ukraine and the (resultant) rise in food prices, remittances are used by the families in the countries of origin, mainly to buy food, (and pay for) education and housing.”
“So, it’s a contribution to the social stability and to the development of the countries of origin.
“But we are not just talking about money. We’re talking about something much, much more important, which is the link between the diaspora and the countries of origin: Family relations, friends. Migrants that come back to the country of origin, even for a limited period of a few months, transfer knowledge to their countries, expertise, and sometimes even technology.
“And that two-way flow is very positive also for the development of the countries of origin.”
IOM is attempting to make the case for integrating migrants into host societies. Vitorino acknowledges the complexity of the issue, which requires public policies, the engagement of civil society and local authorities. It involves the workplace, the school for the children, access to health and social security services.
“That is always challenging,” he said, “but that is where you win integration, and you take the best of migrants to the development of the host communities.”
Economic impacts vary across countries. And while migration brings challenges, there is broad consensus among economists that immigration is also a catalyst for economic growth and confers net benefits on destination countries as well.
In 2015, people on the move contributed more than 9 percent, or $6.7 trillion, to global GDP.
The response to the COVID-19 pandemic, involving drastic restrictions on freedom of movement all around the world, has resulted in an unprecedented decrease in world trade and economic growth.
That demonstrated that “if there is no human mobility, there will be a negative impact on economic growth. That’s why migration is very much aligned with different SDGs.”
The potential role of migrants in achieving the UN SDGs cannot be underestimated, IDM says.
Leaving no one behind being key to it, the 2030 SDGs agenda represented a major leap forward for migration where the latter figured not merely as a core development issue on its own, but also as a cross-cutting one that is intricately related to all other goals.
Vitorino said that the pandemic, for instance, demonstrated that excluding migrants from health coverage — SDG 3 being ensuring health and well-being for all — creates a problem for the entire community because the virus will tend to proliferate in those marginalized migrant communities.
“Therefore, I think that the SDGs are a key guideline for us all. (On) the question of health coverage, it is very important that we guarantee that wherever they are, in countries of origin or countries of destination, migrants have access to health care. This is a fundamental right. It is inherent to the dignity of human beings irrespective of their legal status.”
Despite IOM’s efforts, “unfortunately, there is still a very uneven panorama about vaccination. The developed world has rates of vaccination around 70 percent and the low-income countries are still around 20 percent. This is an issue of concern to us. And this definitely something that does not help to fulfill the objectives of the 2030 agenda,” said Vitorino.
He visited Turkiye to oversee the organization’s operations following the Feb. 6 twin earthquakes; he said he had never seen anything like it.
“Nothing I’ve been in, theaters of war, even recently in Ukraine, (compares with) the degree of destruction and devastation that I witnessed in Turkiye.
“I see a city of 200,000 people totally smashed by the fury of the earthquake. The fury of nature should make us think very carefully about the frequency and the intensity of these natural hazards that are also related to climate change.”
It is difficult to isolate climate factors from other social, economic, political and security ones underpinning migration.
Climate change intersects also with conflict and security. The Syrian civil war, where exceptional drought contributed to population movements toward urban areas that were not addressed by the political regime, illustrates this connection.
The World Bank estimates that 143 million people could be moving within their own countries by 2050 because of extreme weather events in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America, in the absence of urgent global and national climate action.
Researchers highlight that an increase in temperatures could lead to growing asylum applications to the EU.
Drought and desertification, heat waves and sea-level rise will cause depletion of ecosystems ranging from water shortages to loss of arable land, leading to conflicts over scare natural resources. The threats to human security might in turn drive people to migrate in search of alternative income and ways to meet their basic needs.
“Sometimes you have people displaced because of drought, and (others) because of floods, at the same time, in the same country,” said Vitorino.
“Look to Central America where the El Nino is changing the production of coffee and cocoa and people are deprived of their traditional agricultural means. They move to the cities. And if they don’t find solutions in the cities, they go on moving, usually toward the United States.
“My theory is to say we need to act to build the adaptation and resilience of those communities because they do not want to move. They are forced to move. And we need to support them to find the means of adapting to climate change.
“And also if they are forced to move, such as, for instance, in some Pacific islands that are going to unfortunately disappear because of sea-level rise, we need to make it safe, orderly and regular.”
IOM estimates that since 2014, about 55,000 migrants have died or disappeared. Of those, about 8,000 were en route to the US. They perished in accidents or while traveling in subhuman conditions.
The fire that killed dozens of people at an immigration processing center in Ciudad Juarez on the border with Texas on the night of March 27 was only the latest chapter in a continuing tragedy. A surveillance video has shown immigration agents walking away from the trapped detainees as the flames were engulfing them.
In 2022, 2,062 migrants died while crossing the Mediterranean Sea. Between 2014 and 2018, for instance, the bodies of about 12,000 people who drowned were never found.
Vitorino laments the recent increase seen in the number of irregular migrants moving around the world.
“We need to have a holistic approach to these movements and understand that you cannot just deal with one of the reasons without taking into consideration the other reasons,” he said, adding that “the need to preserve human lives and prevent deaths is a priority.”
IDM, he said, will provide conclusions that will feed into the report of the secretary general next year about the implementation of the Global Compact on Migration.
“We need evidence-based policies based on reliable and effective data. We need to guarantee the role of youth, particularly in the fight against climate change. We need to make sure that migrants are fully included in the health coverage, a critical issue to succeed in the SDGs.
“And we need to mobilize the diaspora to the development of the countries of origin.
“Those are the key messages that I hope from the IDM.”