One person dies in stampede for free flour as Ramadan begins in Pakistan

One person dies in stampede for free flour as Ramadan begins in Pakistan
People wait their turn to get a free sack of wheat flour at a distribution point, in Peshawar, Pakistan. (AP)
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Updated 23 March 2023
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One person dies in stampede for free flour as Ramadan begins in Pakistan

One person dies in stampede for free flour as Ramadan begins in Pakistan
  • The price of basic food items has rocketed in recent months, with inflation at a near 50 year-high
  • Hundreds of people gathered at the local market for the handouts

PESHAWAR, Pakistan: One person was killed and eight others injured during a stampede for free flour in inflation-wracked Pakistan on Thursday, the first day of the holy month of Ramadan.
The price of basic food items has rocketed in recent months, with inflation at a near 50 year-high as the country grapples with a balance of payments crisis that has seen it forced back into negotiations with the International Monetary Fund.
“Nine people were trampled and were taken to hospital where one person died,” said Muhammad Arif, police chief for Charsadda in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province where the incident happened.
Arif said hundreds of people gathered at the local market for the handouts, one of hundreds of distribution points set up by the government during Ramadan.
Millions of low income families across the country are registered under the scheme.
In a nearby district, a man died and four others were injured when a wall they were sitting on collapsed as crowds amassed for free flour.
Authorities told AFP it was not clear why the wall collapsed.
Pakistan’s finances have been wrecked by years of financial mismanagement and political instability — a situation exacerbated by a global energy crisis and devastating floods that left a third of the country under water last year.
The South Asian nation is deeply in debt, and needs to introduce tough tax and utility price increases to unlock another tranche of a $6.5 billion IMF bail-out and avoid defaulting.


Russian missile strikes kill two, wound 10 in east Ukraine, Kyiv says

Russian missile strikes kill two, wound 10 in east Ukraine, Kyiv says
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Russian missile strikes kill two, wound 10 in east Ukraine, Kyiv says

Russian missile strikes kill two, wound 10 in east Ukraine, Kyiv says
KYIV: Two people were killed, 10 were wounded and a family of three were believed to be still trapped under rubble following overnight Russian missile attacks in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region, Ukrainian officials said on Thursday.
Earlier, officials had said one person was killed after six missiles struck the three settlements of Pokrovsk, Novohrodivka and Myrnohrad. In the afternoon, rescuers had retrieved a second body from the debris, according to Ukrainian police.
Police said on Telegram that a 33-year-old woman, a 38-year-old man and an eight-year-old girl could still be under the rubble of a residential building in Novohrodivka. Interior Minister Ihor Klymenko said earlier 10 people, including four children, were wounded. Nine private houses, a police station, cars, and garages were damaged, he added.
Reuters could not independently verify the details.
Invading Russian forces have occupied much of Donetsk and Russia has said it intends to take over the whole region. Moscow has denied deliberately targeting civilians although many have been killed in frequent Russian air strikes.
The Ukrainian military said earlier on Thursday its air defense shot down 14 out of 20 drones in a Russian overnight strike.

Thousands of fake Facebook accounts shut down by Meta were primed to polarize voters ahead of 2024

Thousands of fake Facebook accounts shut down by Meta were primed to polarize voters ahead of 2024
Updated 30 November 2023
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Thousands of fake Facebook accounts shut down by Meta were primed to polarize voters ahead of 2024

Thousands of fake Facebook accounts shut down by Meta were primed to polarize voters ahead of 2024
  • The network of nearly 4,800 fake accounts hints at serious threats posed by online disinformation 
  • National elections will occur in the US, Pakistan, India, Ukraine, Taiwan and other nations next year 

WASHINGTON: Someone in China created thousands of fake social media accounts designed to appear to be from Americans and used them to spread polarizing political content in an apparent effort to divide the US ahead of next year’s elections, Meta said Thursday. 

The network of nearly 4,800 fake accounts was attempting to build an audience when it was identified and eliminated by the tech company, which owns Facebook and Instagram. The accounts sported fake photos, names and locations as a way to appear like everyday American Facebook users weighing in on political issues. 

Instead of spreading fake content as other networks have done, the accounts were used to reshare posts from X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, that were created by politicians, news outlets and others. The interconnected accounts pulled content from both liberal and conservative sources, an indication that its goal was not to support one side or the other but to exaggerate partisan divisions and further inflame polarization. 

The newly identified network shows how America’s foreign adversaries exploit US-based tech platforms to sow discord and distrust, and it hints at the serious threats posed by online disinformation next year, when national elections will occur in the US, India, Mexico, Ukraine, Pakistan, Taiwan and other nations. 

“These networks still struggle to build audiences, but they’re a warning,” said Ben Nimmo, who leads investigations into inauthentic behavior on Meta’s platforms. “Foreign threat actors are attempting to reach people across the Internet ahead of next year’s elections, and we need to remain alert.” 

Meta Platforms Inc., based in Menlo Park, California, did not publicly link the Chinese network to the Chinese government, but it did determine the network originated in that country. The content spread by the accounts broadly complements other Chinese government propaganda and disinformation that has sought to inflate partisan and ideological divisions within the US 

To appear more like normal Facebook accounts, the network would sometimes post about fashion or pets. Earlier this year, some of the accounts abruptly replaced their American-sounding user names and profile pictures with new ones suggesting they lived in India. The accounts then began spreading pro-Chinese content about Tibet and India, reflecting how fake networks can be redirected to focus on new targets. 

Meta often points to its efforts to shut down fake social media networks as evidence of its commitment to protecting election integrity and democracy. But critics say the platform’s focus on fake accounts distracts from its failure to address its responsibility for the misinformation already on its site that has contributed to polarization and distrust. 

For instance, Meta will accept paid advertisements on its site to claim the US election in 2020 was rigged or stolen, amplifying the lies of former President Donald Trump and other Republicans whose claims about election irregularities have been repeatedly debunked. Federal and state election officials and Trump’s own attorney general have said there is no credible evidence that the presidential election, which Trump lost to Democrat Joe Biden, was tainted. 

When asked about its ad policy, the company said it is focusing on future elections, not ones from the past, and will reject ads that cast unfounded doubt on upcoming contests. 

And while Meta has announced a new artificial intelligence policy that will require political ads to bear a disclaimer if they contain AI-generated content, the company has allowed other altered videos that were created using more conventional programs to remain on its platform, including a digitally edited video of Biden that claims he is a pedophile. 

“This is a company that cannot be taken seriously and that cannot be trusted,” said Zamaan Qureshi, a policy adviser at the Real Facebook Oversight Board, an organization of civil rights leaders and tech experts who have been critical of Meta’s approach to disinformation and hate speech. “Watch what Meta does, not what they say.” 

Meta executives discussed the network’s activities during a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, the day after the tech giant announced its policies for the upcoming election year — most of which were put in place for prior elections. 

But 2024 poses new challenges, according to experts who study the link between social media and disinformation. Not only will many large countries hold national elections, but the emergence of sophisticated AI programs means it’s easier than ever to create lifelike audio and video that could mislead voters. 

“Platforms still are not taking their role in the public sphere seriously,” said Jennifer Stromer-Galley, a Syracuse University professor who studies digital media. 

Stromer-Galley called Meta’s election plans “modest” but noted it stands in stark contrast to the “Wild West” of X. Since buying the X platform, then called Twitter, Elon Musk has eliminated teams focused on content moderation, welcomed back many users previously banned for hate speech and used the site to spread conspiracy theories. 

Democrats and Republicans have called for laws addressing algorithmic recommendations, misinformation, deepfakes and hate speech, but there’s little chance of any significant regulations passing ahead of the 2024 election. That means it will fall to the platforms to voluntarily police themselves. 

Meta’s efforts to protect the election so far are “a horrible preview of what we can expect in 2024,” according to Kyle Morse, deputy executive director of the Tech Oversight Project, a nonprofit that supports new federal regulations for social media. “Congress and the administration need to act now to ensure that Meta, TikTok, Google, X, Rumble and other social media platforms are not actively aiding and abetting foreign and domestic actors who are openly undermining our democracy.” 

Many of the fake accounts identified by Meta this week also had nearly identical accounts on X, where some of them regularly retweeted Musk’s posts. 

Those accounts remain active on X. A message seeking comment from the platform was not returned. 

Meta also released a report Wednesday evaluating the risk that foreign adversaries including Iran, China and Russia would use social media to interfere in elections. The report noted that Russia’s recent disinformation efforts have focused not on the US but on its war against Ukraine, using state media propaganda and misinformation in an effort to undermine support for the invaded nation. 

Nimmo, Meta’s chief investigator, said turning opinion against Ukraine will likely be the focus of any disinformation Russia seeks to inject into America’s political debate ahead of next year’s election. 

“This is important ahead of 2024,” Nimmo said. “As the war continues, we should especially expect to see Russian attempts to target election-related debates and candidates that focus on support for Ukraine.” 


Russia’s Lavrov faces Western critics at security meeting, walks out after speech

Russia’s Lavrov faces Western critics at security meeting, walks out after speech
Updated 30 November 2023
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Russia’s Lavrov faces Western critics at security meeting, walks out after speech

Russia’s Lavrov faces Western critics at security meeting, walks out after speech
  • The Russian foreign minister spoke for 15 minutes before walking out of the meetings
  • “The very existence of Russians and their decisive contribution to the history of Ukraine are denied,” Lavrov said

SKOPJE: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov faced Western critics while attending international security talks Thursday in Northern Macedonia, where he blamed “NATO’s reckless expansion to the East” for war returning to Europe.
Lavrov arrived in Skopje to attend meetings hosted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The diplomats of several OSCE member nations, including Ukraine, boycotted the event due to Lavrov’s planned attendance amid Russia’s war in Ukraine.
The Russian foreign minister spoke for 15 minutes before walking out of the meetings. He blamed what he described as Western tolerance of the “ruling neo-Nazi regime in Kyiv” for the war that started with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
“The very existence of Russians and their decisive contribution to the history of Ukraine are denied,” Lavrov said. “There are plenty of facts. The OSCE and its relevant institutions are silent.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly alleged that Ukraine’s government is made up of “neo-Nazis,” even though the country has a democratically elected Jewish president who lost relatives in the Holocaust.
Putin and other Russian officials have invoked the Holocaust, World War II and Nazism to legitimize the invasion of Ukraine. Historians see their rhetoric as disinformation and a cynical ploy.
Western ministers attending the OSCE meeting were sharply critical of Lavrov after he spoke.
“Russia’s attempts to blame others for its own choices are transparent,” said Danish Foreign Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen, who was speaking when Lavrov walked out.
“We will not compromise on the core principles of the European security order or allow Russia to deny Ukraine the right to make its own independent foreign and security policy choices – principles that Russia itself has agreed to,” he continued.
Based in Vienna, Austria, the OSCE is an intergovernmental organization focused on promoting security, stability, and cooperation among its participating states.
NATO member North Macedonia lifted a ban on Russian flights to enable Lavrov to attend the meeting. Russian state news agency Tass reported that the minister flew a longer route over Turkiye and Greece to reach the summit after Bulgaria blocked his plane from using its airspace.
Greek officials did not immediately return a request for comment.
The foreign ministers of Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania had said they would not attend the talks due to Lavrov’s participation.
The Russian minister arrived in Skopje hours after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a brief stop in North Macedonia’s capital late Wednesday.


EU should recognize Palestinian state: Spanish PM

EU should recognize Palestinian state: Spanish PM
Updated 30 November 2023
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EU should recognize Palestinian state: Spanish PM

EU should recognize Palestinian state: Spanish PM
  • When he was sworn in for a new term, Sanchez said his foreign policy priority would be to “work in Europe and in Spain to recognize the Palestinian state”

MADRID: The European Union should recognize a Palestinian state since this would help end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and “stabilize” the region, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said on Thursday.
“It is obvious that we must find a political solution to put an end to this crisis and this solution requires, in my opinion, the recognition of the Palestinian state,” the Socialist premier said during an interview with Spanish public television TVE.
“It is in Europe’s interest to address this issue out of moral conviction because what we are seeing in Gaza is not acceptable,” and also for “a geopolitical objective — to stabilize a region,” he added.
When he was sworn in for a new term this month, Sanchez said his foreign policy priority would be to “work in Europe and in Spain to recognize the Palestinian state.”
If there is no consensus among the EU’s 27 member states, Sanchez has said Madrid does not rule out unilaterally recognizing a Palestinian state.
A handful of smaller European countries have taken the step, mainly east European nations like Hungary, Poland and Romania that did so before they joined the EU.
But until now no large member of the bloc has made the move, which would make Spain a pioneer.
Spain’s parliament voted in 2014 in favor of a resolution calling for recognition of Palestine as a state.
The vote was non-binding, however, and there has been no follow up.
“The situation has changed,” Sanchez told TVE, adding that Arab nations did not understand the EU’s position.
“During all these years, we have seen how Israel systematically occupied Palestinian territory,” he added in a reference to Israeli settlement- building.
According to Amnesty International: “Israel’s policy of settling its civilians in occupied Palestinian territory and displacing the local population contravenes fundamental rules of international humanitarian law.”
Palestinians say the settlements jeopardize their goal of a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Israel last week summoned Spain’s ambassador over criticisms Sanchez made of the Israeli offensive on Gaza during a visit to the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt on Friday.
Israel accused Madrid of supporting “terrorism.”
“Friendly nations must tell the truth,” Sanchez said before recalling he had unequivocally condemned the October 7 attack by Hamas on Israeli civilians and soldiers.
“But we must tell Israel with the same conviction” that it must respect international law, he added.


India to launch green credit initiative with UAE at COP28

India to launch green credit initiative with UAE at COP28
Updated 30 November 2023
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India to launch green credit initiative with UAE at COP28

India to launch green credit initiative with UAE at COP28
  • PM Modi to participate in World Climate Action Summit and three side events
  • Green credit initiative is based on a program of India’s Ministry of Environment

NEW DELHI: Prime Minister Narendra will launch the Green Credit Initiative with the UAE during the COP28 climate conference in Dubai, the Indian government said, as the summit began on Thursday.

World political and business leaders from nearly 200 countries are arriving in Dubai this week for the UN’s annual meeting, which aims to address some of the most pressing issues related to global warming and climate crisis.

Modi will deliver a speech at the opening session of the World Climate Action Summit and will participate in three high-level side events, two of which are being co-hosted by India.

“The first high-level event which is being co-hosted by India and the UAE is the launch of the green credit initiative ... The second side event, co-hosted by India and Sweden, is the launch of Lead IT 2.0,” Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra told reporters in Delhi.

The green credit initiative is based on the Green Credit Program, which was notified by the Indian Ministry of Environment in October. It is a market-based mechanism to incentivize voluntary environmental actions by various stakeholders such as individuals, communities, private-sector industries, and companies.

The LeadIT 2.0. is “essentially a leadership group for energy transition,” Kwatra said.

“This was a joint initiative launched by India and Sweden in 2019 at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York ... This initiative fosters collaboration among the decision-makers, bringing together both the public sector and the private sector with the objective of accelerating the industry transition to net zero emissions.”

The Indian prime minister is also scheduled to participate in another high-level event, “Transforming Climate Finance,” which will be hosted by the COP28 presidency, the UAE.

During the two-day visit, Modi is also expected to hold bilateral meetings with many of his counterparts on the sidelines of the summit, as India — the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases and a country experiencing the brunt of global warming — seeks to play a leadership role in shaping the international agenda on climate change.

“India’s approach to climate action is deeply rooted in our civilization ethos and is reflected foremost in our contributions and our ambitious and effective national policies, especially those which are aimed at economic development, energy, health and nutrition,” Kwarta said.

“We have also been pioneering and in the forefront, and taking global initiatives in fighting climate change and its impacts.”