Russian mercenary leader’s exile ends revolt but leaves questions about Putin’s power

Russian mercenary leader’s exile ends revolt but leaves questions about Putin’s power
A man holds the Russian national flag in front of a Wagner group military vehicle with the sign read as "Rostov" in Rostov-on-Don late on June 24, 2023. (AFP)
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Updated 25 June 2023
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Russian mercenary leader’s exile ends revolt but leaves questions about Putin’s power

Russian mercenary leader’s exile ends revolt but leaves questions about Putin’s power
  • Under the deal, Yevgeny Prigozhin will go to neighboring Belarus, which has supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine 
  • The brief revolt exposed vulnerabilities among the Russian forces, with rebel soldiers able to move Rostov-on-Don

The greatest challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin in his more than two decades in power fizzled out after the rebellious mercenary commander who ordered his troops to march on Moscow abruptly reached a deal with the Kremlin to go into exile and sounded the retreat. 

The brief revolt, though, exposed vulnerabilities among Russian government forces, with Wagner Group soldiers under the command of Yevgeny Prigozhin able to move unimpeded into the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and advance hundreds of kilometers (miles) toward Moscow. The Russian military scrambled to defend Russia’s capital. 

Under the deal announced Saturday by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, Prigozhin will go to neighboring Belarus, which has supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Charges against him of mounting an armed rebellion will be dropped. 

The government also said it would not prosecute Wagner fighters who took part, while those who did not join in were to be offered contracts by the Defense Ministry. Prigozhin ordered his troops back to their field camps in Ukraine, where they have been fighting alongside Russian regular soldiers. 

Putin had vowed earlier to punish those behind the armed uprising led by his onetime protege. In a televised speech to the nation, he called the rebellion a “betrayal” and “treason.” 

In allowing Prigozhin and his forces to go free, Peskov said, Putin’s “highest goal” was “to avoid bloodshed and internal confrontation with unpredictable results.” 

The risk for Putin is whether he will be seen as weak, analysts said. 

“Putin has been diminished for all time by this affair,” former US Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst said on CNN. 

Moscow had braced for the arrival of the Wagner forces by erecting checkpoints with armored vehicles and troops on the city’s southern edge. About 3,000 Chechen soldiers were pulled from fighting in Ukraine and rushed there early Saturday, state television in Chechnya reported. Russian troops armed with machine guns put up checkpoints on Moscow’s southern outskirts. Crews dug up sections of highways to slow the march. 

Wagner troops advanced to just 200 kilometers (120 miles) from Moscow, according to Prigozhin. But after the deal was struck, Prigozhin announced that he had decided to retreat to avoid “shedding Russian blood.” 

Prigozhin had demanded the ouster of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, whom Prigohzhin has long criticized in withering terms for his conduct of the 16-month-long war in Ukraine. On Friday, he accused forces under Shoigu’s command of attacking Wagner camps and killing “a huge number of our comrades.” 

If Putin were to agree to Shoigu’s ouster, it could be politically damaging for the president after he branded Prigozhin a backstabbing traitor. 

The US had intelligence that Prigozhin had been building up his forces near the border with Russia for some time. That conflicts with Prigozhin’s claim that his rebellion was a response to an attack on his camps in Ukraine on Friday by the Russian military. 

In announcing the rebellion, Prigozhin accused Russian forces of attacking the Wagner camps in Ukraine with rockets, helicopter gunships and artillery. He alleged that Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff, ordered the attacks following a meeting with Shoigu in which they decided to destroy the military contractor. 

The Defense Ministry denied attacking the camps. 

Congressional leaders were briefed on the Wagner buildup earlier last week, a person familiar with the matter said. The person was not authorized to speak publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity. The US intelligence briefing was first reported by CNN. 

A possible motivation for Prigozhin’s rebellion was the Russian Defense Ministry’s demand, which Putin backed, that private companies sign contracts with it by July 1. Prigozhin had refused to do it. 

“It may well be that he struck now because he saw that deadline as a danger to his control of his troops,” Herbst wrote in an article for the Atlantic Council. 

Early Saturday, Prigozhin’s private army appeared to control the military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, a city 660 miles (over 1,000 kilometers) south of Moscow, which runs Russian operations in Ukraine, Britain’s Ministry of Defense said. 

Russian media reported that several helicopters and a military communications plane were downed by Wagner troops. Russia’s Defense Ministry has not commented. 

After the agreement de-escalated tensions, video from Rostov-on-Don posted on Russian messaging app channels showed people cheering Wagner troops as they departed. Prigozhin was riding in an SUV followed by a large truck, and people greeted him and some ran to shake his hand. The regional governor later said that all of the troops had left the city. 

Wagner troops and equipment also were in Lipetsk province, about 360 kilometers (225 miles) south of Moscow. 

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin declared Monday a non-working day for most residents as part of the heightened security, a measure that remained in effect even after the retreat. 

Ukrainians hoped the Russian infighting would create opportunities for their army to take back territory seized by Russian forces. 

“These events will have been of great comfort to the Ukrainian government and the military,” said Ben Barry, senior fellow for land warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He said that even with a deal, Putin’s position has probably been weakened. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said late Saturday, shortly before Prigozhin announced his retreat, that the march exposed weakness in the Kremlin and “showed all Russian bandits, mercenaries, oligarchs” that it is easy to capture Russian cities “and, probably, arsenals.” 

Wagner troops have played a crucial role in the Ukraine war, capturing the eastern city of Bakhmut, an area where the bloodiest and longest battles have taken place. But Prigozhin has increasingly criticized the military brass, accusing it of incompetence and of starving his troops of munitions. 

The 62-year-old Prigozhin, a former convict, has longstanding ties to Putin and won lucrative Kremlin catering contracts that earned him the nickname “Putin’s chef.” 

He and a dozen other Russian nationals were charged in the United States with operating a covert social media campaign aimed at fomenting discord ahead of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election victory. Wagner has sent military contractors to Libya, Syria, several African countries and eventually Ukraine. 


With spears and shields, India’s Nihang Sikh warriors join farmers’ protest

With spears and shields, India’s Nihang Sikh warriors join farmers’ protest
Updated 6 sec ago
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With spears and shields, India’s Nihang Sikh warriors join farmers’ protest

With spears and shields, India’s Nihang Sikh warriors join farmers’ protest
  • Nihang Sikhs is a warrior sect dating back to 1600s distinguished by ink-blue robes and ancient weapons 
  • As farmers waited to march Friday, Nihang honed skills by practicing fencing, horseback riding and meditating

SHAMBHU, India: Thousands of protesting Indian farmers facing off with security forces have come under the protection of the Nihang Sikhs, a warrior sect dating back to the 1600s distinguished by their ink-blue robes and ancient weapons such as swords and spears.
The farmers, who are also mainly Sikhs and who hail from the northern state of Punjab, are demanding higher prices for their crops, and began marching to the capital Delhi earlier this month to press their demands to the government.
Police, however, have stopped the march about 200 km (125 miles) from the capital, using water cannons and tear gas to disrupt the demonstration.
On Wednesday, the farmers said they would stop their protest for two days after one of the demonstrators died. Police officers confirmed the man died at a protest site but added the cause of his death would only be determined by an autopsy.
As they waited for the march to resume, the Nihang warriors honed their skills by practicing fencing, horseback riding and meditating.
Easily distinguishable by their flowing robes and matching turbans, several Nihangs say they joined the march to “protect” the farmers.
“Guru Gobind Singh has preached that Sikhs must always be ready to fight injustice and oppression,” said Sher Singh, one of the Nihangs referring to the spiritual leader of the Sikhs.
“We have to be prepared if these protesters face any trouble even in the middle of the night.”
India’s minority Sikh community makes for more than half of Punjab’s 30 million population, and the Nihangs took part in a similar, year-long farmers’ protest in 2021.
“Farmers are being oppressed...The government must not think that they can scare the farmers away...this is Punjab and we are standing in solidarity with the farmers,” said Raja Ram Singh, another Nihang.
During the 2021 march, three Nihangs were arrested in connection with the murder of a Sikh man at one of the protest sites who they accused of desecrating Sikh holy texts, according to local media reports.
The Nihangs did not deny the allegations, maintaining that the man had committed sacrilege by attacking their holy book, the media reports added.


Vice Media says ‘several hundred’ staff members will be laid off, Vice.com news site shuttered

Vice Media says ‘several hundred’ staff members will be laid off, Vice.com news site shuttered
Updated 23 February 2024
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Vice Media says ‘several hundred’ staff members will be laid off, Vice.com news site shuttered

Vice Media says ‘several hundred’ staff members will be laid off, Vice.com news site shuttered
  • Vice filed for bankruptcy last year before being sold for $350 million to consortium led by Fortress Investment Group
  • Vice was once a swashbuckling media company geared to younger audience with immersive storytelling style

NEW YORK: Vice Media plans to lay off several hundred employees and no longer publish material on its Vice.com website, the company’s CEO said in a memo to staff Thursday.

Vice, which filed for bankruptcy last year before being sold for $350 million to a consortium led by the Fortress Investment Group, is also looking to sell its Refinery 29 publishing business, CEO Bruce Dixon said in his memo to staff.

It’s the latest sign of financial problems buffeting the media industry. Digital sites the Messenger, BuzzFeed News and Jezebel have all shut down in the past year, and legacy media outlets like the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal have also seen job cuts.

Once a swashbuckling media company geared to a younger audience with an immersive storytelling style that encompassed digital, television and film outlets, New York-based Vice was valued at $5.7 billion in 2017.

Dixon offered no specifics about the layoffs, other than saying hundreds of people will be affected and will be notified early next week. The New York Times reported that the company currently has about 900 people on staff.

“I know that saying goodbye to our valued colleagues is difficult and feels overwhelming, but this is the best path forward for Vice as we position the company for long-term creative and financial success,” Dixon said.

He said it was no longer cost-effective for Vice to distribute its digital content, including news, the way it has been. He said Vice would put more emphasis on its social channels and look for different ways to distribute its content.

As part of its strategic shift, Dixon said Vice would follow a studio model.

Before filing for bankruptcy protection last year, Vice canceled its “Vice News Tonight” television program as part of a round of layoffs then.


Former ‘Daesh bride’ Shamima Begum to learn UK citizenship fate

Former ‘Daesh bride’ Shamima Begum to learn UK citizenship fate
Updated 23 February 2024
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Former ‘Daesh bride’ Shamima Begum to learn UK citizenship fate

Former ‘Daesh bride’ Shamima Begum to learn UK citizenship fate
  • Shamima Begum was 15 years old when she left her east London home for Syria with two school friends in 2015
  • Her British citizenship was revoked on national security grounds after she was found in a Syrian refugee camp

LONDON: A judgment is expected Friday in the appeal case of a woman who lost her British citizenship after leaving as a teenager to marry a Daesh group fighter.
Shamima Begum, 24, took her case against the revocation of her citizenship to the Court of Appeal in London in October last year.
Her lawyer told the court that the Home Office had failed to consider its legal duties to Begum as a potential victim of trafficking.
Begum, whose family is of Bangladeshi origin, was 15 years old when she left her east London home for Syria with two school friends in 2015.
While there, she married a Daesh fighter and had three children, none of whom survived.
In February 2019, Begum said she was left stateless when Britain’s interior minister at the time, Sajid Javid, revoked her British citizenship on national security grounds after she was found in a Syrian refugee camp.
A UK tribunal ruled in 2020 that she was not stateless because she was “a citizen of Bangladesh by descent” when the decision was made, by virtue of her Bangladeshi mother.
Last year, Begum lost a challenge against the decision at the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC).
The SIAC said that while there was a “credible suspicion that Begum was recruited, transferred and then harbored for the purpose of sexual exploitation,” this did not prevent Javid from removing her citizenship.
The ruling meant that Begum could not return to the UK from her current home, a refugee camp in northern Syria.
Lawyers for the Home Office have argued that SIAC’s conclusion was correct.
Begum is one of hundreds of Europeans whose fate has challenged governments following the 2019 collapse of the Islamist extremists’ self-styled caliphate.
Begum’s lawyer told the SIAC hearing that her client had been “influenced” along with her friends by a “determined and effective” Daesh group “propaganda machine.”
Around 900 people are estimated to have traveled from Britain to Syria and Iraq to join the Daesh group. Of those, around 150 are believed to have been stripped of their citizenship, according to government figures.


Taliban authorities execute two convicted murderers in football stadium

Taliban authorities execute two convicted murderers in football stadium
Updated 23 February 2024
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Taliban authorities execute two convicted murderers in football stadium

Taliban authorities execute two convicted murderers in football stadium
  • Both men were executed by multiple gunshots as thousands gathered to witness the executions 
  • Taliban scholars in Afghanistan have employed one of the most severe interpretations of Shariah law

GHAZNI, Afghanistan: Taliban authorities publicly executed two men convicted of murder in a football stadium in eastern Afghanistan on Thursday, according to an AFP journalist at the scene.

Both men were executed by multiple gunshots to the back in Ghazni city after Supreme Court official Atiqullah Darwish read aloud a death warrant signed by Taliban Supreme Leader Hibatullah Akhundzada.

“These two people were convicted of the crime of murder,” Darwish said. “After two years of trial in the courts of the country, the order has been signed.”

Thousands of people gathered in the stadium to witness the executions.

Families of the convicted men’s victims were present, including women and children, and were asked if they wanted to grant the condemned a last-minute reprieve, but they declined in both cases.

Relatives were also offered to carry out the execution themselves, in line with Taliban government implementation of Islamic law, but members of the security forces killed both men after they refused.

The executed were identified as Said Jamal and Gul Khan, both guilty of knife murders in September 2017 and January 2022 respectively, according to a Supreme Court statement.

The statement said Akhundzada had conducted an “extraordinary investigation” into their cases.

The Taliban administration in Kabul has not been officially recognized by any other government since it took power in 2021 and installed its strict interpretation of Islamic law.

Akhundzada ordered judges in 2022 to fully implement all aspects of Islamic law — including “eye for an eye” punishments known as “qisas.”

Islamic law, or sharia, acts as a code of living for Muslims worldwide, offering guidance on issues such as modesty, finance and crime.

However, interpretations vary according to local custom, culture and religious schools of thought.

Taliban scholars in Afghanistan have employed one of the most severe interpretations of the code, including capital and corporal punishments little used by most modern Muslim states.

Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent building a new judicial system under the last foreign-backed government, a combination of Islamic and secular law with qualified prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges.

However, many Afghans complained of corruption, bribery and the slow delivery of justice.

Public executions were common during the Taliban’s first rule from 1996 to 2001.

Thursday’s executions are believed to be the third and fourth death penalties meted out since the Taliban authorities returned to power.

The first two had also been convicted of murder.

There have been regular public floggings for other crimes, however, including theft, adultery and alcohol consumption.

The last reported execution was carried out in June 2023, when a convicted murderer was shot dead in the grounds of a mosque in Laghman province in front of some 2,000 people.

The UN mission in Afghanistan, UNAMA, condemned the use of capital punishment in a post on social media later Thursday, urging the authorities “to establish an immediate moratorium on the use of the death penalty, as a step toward its abolition.”


US achieves first moon landing in half century with private spacecraft

US achieves first moon landing in half century with private spacecraft
Updated 23 February 2024
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US achieves first moon landing in half century with private spacecraft

US achieves first moon landing in half century with private spacecraft
  • Spacecraft built and flown by Texas-based company Intuitive Machines landed near the moon’s south pole
  • To date, spacecraft from just four other countries, Russia, China, India and Japan, have ever landed on the moon

A spacecraft built and flown by Texas-based company Intuitive Machines landed near the moon’s south pole on Thursday, the first US touchdown on the lunar surface in more than half a century and the first ever achieved by the private sector.

NASA, with several research instruments aboard the vehicle, hailed the landing as a major achievement in its goal of sending a squad of commercially flown spacecraft on scientific scouting missions to the moon ahead of a planned return of astronauts there later this decade.

But initial communications problems following Thursday’s landing raised questions about whether the vehicle may have been left impaired or obstructed in some way.

The uncrewed six-legged robot lander, dubbed Odysseus, touched down at about 6:23 p.m. EST (2323 GMT), the company and NASA commentators said in a joint webcast of the landing from Intuitive Machines’ mission operations center in Houston.

The landing capped a nail-biting final approach and descent in which a problem surfaced with the spacecraft’s autonomous navigation system that required engineers on the ground to employ an untested work-around at the 11th hour.

It also took some time after an anticipated radio blackout to re-establish communications with the spacecraft and determine its fate some 239,000 miles (384,000 km) from Earth.

When contact was finally renewed, the signal was faint, confirming that the lander had touched down but leaving mission control immediately uncertain as to the precise condition and orientation of the vehicle, according to the webcast.

“Our equipment is on the surface of the moon, and we are transmitting, so congratulations IM team,” Intuitive Machines mission director Tim Crain was heard telling the operations center. “We’ll see what more we can get from that.”

Later in the evening, the company posted a message on the social media platform X saying flight controllers “have confirmed Odysseus is upright and starting to send data.”

QUESTION OF OBSTRUCTION

Still, the weak signal suggested the spacecraft may have landed next to a crater wall or something else that blocked or impinged its antenna, said Thomas Zurbuchen, a former NASA science chief who oversaw creation of the agency’s commercial moon lander program.

“Sometimes it could just be one rock, one big boulder, that’s in the way,” he said in a phone interview with Reuters.

Such an issue could complicate the lander’s primary mission of deploying its payloads and meeting science objectives, Zurbuchen said.

Accomplishing the landing is “a major intermediate goal, but the goal of the mission is to do science, and get the pictures back and so forth,” he added.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson immediately cheered Thursday’s feat as a “triumph,” saying, “Odysseus has taken the moon.”

As planned, the spacecraft was believed to have come to rest at a crater named Malapert A near the moon’s south pole, according to the webcast. The spacecraft was not designed to provide live video of the landing, which came one day after it reached lunar orbit and a week after its launch from Florida.

Thursday’s landing represented the first controlled descent to the lunar surface by a US spacecraft since Apollo 17 in 1972, when NASA’s last crewed moon mission landed there with astronauts Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt.

To date, spacecraft from just four other countries have ever landed on the moon — the former Soviet Union, China, India and, mostly recently, just last month, Japan. The United States is the only one ever to have sent humans to the lunar surface.

Odysseus is carrying a suite of scientific instruments and technology demonstrations for NASA and several commercial customers designed to operate for seven days on solar energy before the sun sets over the polar landing site.

The NASA payload focuses on space weather interactions with the moon’s surface, radio astronomy and other aspects of the lunar environment for future landing missions.

Odysseus was sent on its way to the moon last Thursday atop a Falcon 9 rocket launched by Elon Musk’s company SpaceX from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

DAWN OF ARTEMIS

Its arrival marked the first “soft landing” on the moon ever by a commercially manufactured and operated vehicle and the first under NASA’s Artemis lunar program, as the US races to return astronauts to Earth’s natural satellite before China lands its own crewed spacecraft there.

NASA aims to land its first crewed Artemis in late 2026 as part of long-term, sustained lunar exploration and a stepping stone toward eventual human flights to Mars. The initiative focuses on the moon’s south pole in part because a presumed bounty of frozen water exists there that can be used for life support and production of rocket fuel.

A host of small landers like Odysseus are expected to pave the way under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, designed to deliver instruments and hardware to the moon at lower costs than the US space agency’s traditional method of building and launching those vehicles itself.

Leaning more heavily on smaller, less experienced private ventures comes with its own risks.

Just last month the lunar lander of another firm, Astrobotic Technology, suffered a propulsion system leak on its way to the moon shortly after being placed in orbit on Jan. 8 by a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Vulcan rocket.

The malfunction of Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander marked the third failure of a private company to achieve a lunar touchdown, following ill-fated efforts by companies from Israel and Japan.