Putin promises free grain at Africa summit

Putin promises free grain at Africa summit
Russian President Vladimir Putin, rear center, hosts a breakfast meeting with leaders of African regional organisations on the sideline of the Russia Africa Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, Thursday, July 27, 2023. (AP)
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Updated 27 July 2023

Putin promises free grain at Africa summit

Putin promises free grain at Africa summit
  • Putin held one-on-one talks with Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and said Russia will more than triple the number of Ethiopian students it hosts and cover their education costs
  • Africa’s 54 nations make up the largest voting bloc at the UN and have been more divided than any other region on General Assembly resolutions criticizing Russia’s actions in Ukraine

MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday offered free grain to six African countries as he launched a summit with leaders from the continent days after withdrawing from the Ukraine grain export deal.
The two-day summit in Putin’s native Saint Petersburg is being scrutinized as a test of his support in Africa, where he retains backing despite international isolation sparked by his military intervention in Ukraine last year.
Russia last week refused to extend a deal under which Ukrainian grain exports passed through the Black Sea to reach global markets, including Africa, easing pressure on food prices.
In a keynote address at the summit, Putin said Russia could “substitute Ukrainian grain” and promised to send grain to six African countries.
“In the coming months we will be able to ensure free supplies of 25,000 to 50,000 tons of grain to Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Mali, Somalia, Central African Republic and Eritrea,” Putin said.
Over a year, the grain deal allowed around 33 million tons of grain to leave Ukrainian ports, helping to stabilize global food prices and avert shortages.
Since the suspension of the agreement attacks have intensified on the southern Odesa region home to Ukraine’s ports — where the Russian army said it hit military infrastructure.
Ukrainian army spokeswoman Nataliya Gumenyuk told AFP that Russia imposed a blockade of “virtually all” its ports “to close Ukraine as a country that can feed the world.”
Gumenyuk said Ukraine needed Western air defense quickly to protect grain facilities from strikes, adding Ukraine “may not have ports anymore” in two or three months.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken pressed African leaders attending the summit to demand answers about the grain disruptions that have propelled poorer nations toward crisis.
“They know exactly who’s to blame for this current situation,” Blinken said of the leaders.
“My expectation would be that Russia will hear this clearly from our African partners,” he said Thursday during a visit to New Zealand.
Seventeen African leaders including South African President Cyril Ramaphosa were expected at the Russia-Africa summit taking place until Friday.
The Kremlin has accused Western countries of trying to prevent African states from participating at the summit, the second of its kind.
On Friday, Putin is set to discuss Ukraine during a working lunch with a group of African heads of state, according to the Kremlin.
The situation in Niger, where President Mohamed Bazoum has been detained by soldiers following a coup bid, is “actively” discussed on the sidelines of the summit, the Kremlin spokesman said.
Russia urged the “rapid release of President Bazoum by the military” in a statement from foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.
Putin held talks Wednesday with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, praising their joint energy projects.
Putin also chaired a working breakfast with heads of African regional organizations, and bilateral talks including with Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Putin gifted Mnangagwa a helicopter, and wished him success in the upcoming elections that analysts expect to be tense.
On the sidelines of the summit, Putin said “fighting has intensified significantly” in the southern Zaporizhzhia region.
Since launching its offensive in Ukraine, Moscow has sought to strengthen ties with Africa by emphasising Russia’s stand against Western “imperialism.”
“The framework in which Russia and Africa interact has seriously changed” with the coronavirus pandemic and the Ukraine conflict, said Vsevolod Sviridov of the Center for African Studies at HSE University.
“It is necessary to find common ground, to explain to each other positions on topical issues, for example, the grain deal,” he told AFP.
Russia’s Wagner mercenary group has been a major player in the security sphere in Africa but its failed mutiny against Russia’s military leadership last month has cast doubt on the future of the group’s operations on the continent.
The summit in Saint Petersburg comes a month ahead of a summit of leaders of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) due to take place in Johannesburg.
South Africa has said that Putin, who is the subject of an international arrest warrant for his actions in Ukraine, will not be attending in person.

Indian farmers cut off as activists warn of pre-election digital blackouts

Indian farmers cut off as activists warn of pre-election digital blackouts
Updated 32 min 35 sec ago

Indian farmers cut off as activists warn of pre-election digital blackouts

Indian farmers cut off as activists warn of pre-election digital blackouts
  • Farmers march on Delhi to demand higher prices for crops, Internet shutdowns hamper flow of food and aid 
  • Campaigners say shutdowns aim to quell dissent as India tops world charts of Internet switchoffs

SHAMBHU, India: They have been beaten with canes, doused in tear gas and blocked by concrete barricades and metal spikes but the thousands of farmers trying to march to India’s capital to demand higher crop prices also face an invisible barrier — digital blackouts.

As their caravan of tractors and trucks moved from the northern state of Punjab toward New Delhi in February, the farmers found their phones going dead as state authorities imposed temporary Internet shutdowns.

It is not the first time authorities have cut the Internet — India imposed the highest number of Internet shutdowns in the world in 2022 — and campaigners fear more digital crackdowns ahead of elections expected by May.

Farm union leaders are seeking guarantees, backed by law, of more state support or a minimum purchase price for crops.

The farmers, who set off on their “Delhi Chalo” (Let’s go to Dehli) protest in early February, were stopped by security forces about 200 km (125 miles) north of the capital, with water cannons and tear gas used to push them back.

They are now camped out at Shambhu Barrier, on the border between the states of Punjab and Haryana.

Since Feb. 12, Haryana state authorities have cut access to mobile Internet services at regular intervals and for several days at a time. They said they did so to “stop the spread of misinformation and rumors” and to prevent the mobilization of “mobs of agitators and demonstrators,” according to local media.

The farmers, many of whom are members of the Sikh religious minority from Punjab, say the shutdowns made it hard to get medical help for the injured and to source food. It also cut them off from their leaders, making coordination difficult.

“Snapping the communication lines only spreads rumors and distresses our families,” said Hardeep Singh, a 28-year-old who was nursing an injured eye after recent clashes with police.

“We’re already far away from home and the communication blackout adds to our miseries,” he said.

Farmers shout slogans during a protest against India's central government to demand minimum crop prices in Amritsar on March 5, 2024. (AFP)

Neither the chief minister’s office in Haryana nor the state’s telecoms ministry responded to requests for comment.

Campaigners have accused the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi of repeatedly using Internet shutdowns to stifle opposition.

“The alarming trend of Internet shutdowns coupled with widespread online censorship is a grim reflection of digital authoritarianism, particularly in the lead-up to elections,” said Gayatri Malhotra of the digital rights organization Internet Freedom Foundation.

“Should this trajectory persist, it threatens to severely impede people’s access to information, curtail their capacity to make informed electoral decisions, and restrict their freedom to organize, assemble and communicate their electoral demands peacefully,” Malhotra told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


India frequently uses Internet shutdowns to control protests, including in disputed Kashmir and northeastern Manipur state, where dozens have died in ethnic clashes since last year.

A farmer performs a fire breathing act during a protest demanding minimum crop prices, at Shambhu Haryana-Punjab border near Ambala some 220 Km from New Delhi on February 14, 2024. (AFP)

Mobile access has also often been cut during elections and examinations and these shutdowns were often imposed for indefinite periods and without the publication of shutdown orders, in violation of a 2020 judgment by the nation’s top court.

The state of Haryana ranks fourth in the country for the highest number of Internet shutdowns, following Jammu and Kashmir, Rajasthan, and Manipur, according to Delhi-based advocacy group Software Freedom Law Center.

The farmers’ protests have already sparked other restrictions.

Dozens of accounts on social media platform X have been suspended for backing the farmers, with rights groups and those affected calling the step a worrying sign in the world’s largest democracy where nearly a billion people will cast their votes in national elections due by May.

Although the farmers’ protest is confined to Punjab for now, their complaints of falling incomes resonate more widely, highlighting a perception in India’s huge rural hinterland that Modi has done too little to support the farming community and raise living standards.

Over 40 percent of India’s 1.4 billion people are dependent on agriculture and many say they have suffered economically under Modi. Hardeep Singh, for example, grows wheat and rice on his four-acre farm, but like many he said poor returns on investments, including pesticides and farm equipment, made it increasingly difficult to make ends meet without guaranteed prices for his produce.

While pollsters say Modi will almost certainly win a rare third term in office, the discontent of farmers will be a headache for years to come.

The federal agriculture ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the protesters’ demands for higher guaranteed prices for all crops.


Farmers hold placards and shout slogans during a protest against India's central government to demand minimum crop prices in Amritsar on March 5, 2024. (AFP)

Farmers said the blackout not only stopped them from spreading their message to the outside world, but also blocked them from receiving information and instructions.

“The Internet was our primary means of ensuring our protests receive adequate coverage and reach a wider audience, free from the interference of mainstream media that often portrays us in a negative light,” said Taranjeet Singh, a 34-year-old farmer. In Punjab, Singh is a common surname and middle name.

To overcome the challenge, many farmers have installed television sets in their tractor trailers to get the latest news.

The blackouts also make it harder to treat injured and sick people, and to contact emergency services such as ambulances.

“We are forced to walk several kilometers away from the protest site to access stable wireless network connections, which wastes our valuable time, and could prove fatal for those injured and requiring immediate medical care,” said Baba Sukhdev Singh, a 50-year-old volunteer with the Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee, one of the unions leading the march.

Many farmers also said signal jammers were being used in the area, preventing them from contacting people in their villages to ask for food supplies.

Taranjeet Singh said farmers were left walking around in desperation, asking one another about what the protest leaders might want them to do next.

“The communication blackout casts us into a state of darkness, exacerbating the chaos and confusion,” he said.

China boosts defense spending as regional disputes heat up

China boosts defense spending as regional disputes heat up
Updated 05 March 2024

China boosts defense spending as regional disputes heat up

China boosts defense spending as regional disputes heat up
  • China has the world’s second-largest defense budget behind the United States
  • China’s military spending makes up 1.6 percent of GDP, far less than United States 

China announced Tuesday it would boost its defense spending in 2024, as hostility over Taiwan and in the South China Sea grows.

The 7.2 percent increase, identical to last year’s figure, was announced at the start of the annual meeting of the country’s rubber-stamp parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC).

China will spend 1.665 trillion yuan ($231.4 billion) on defense in 2024, according to the budget report that lays out the government’s financial plans for the year ahead.

China has the world’s second-largest defense budget behind the United States, even though the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) surpasses the US military by number of personnel.

Still, China’s military spend is around three times smaller than Washington’s in recent years.

The world’s second-largest economy will maintain “reasonable growth” in its defense budget to “safeguard its sovereignty, security and development interests,” NPC spokesman Lou Qinjian said Monday.

'Viewed with suspicion'

Soldiers of People's Liberation Army (PLA) march in formation during the military parade marking the 70th founding anniversary of People's Republic of China, on its National Day in Beijing, China, on October 1, 2019. (REUTERS)

The country’s expenditure on its armed forces has been on the rise for decades, broadly in line with economic growth.

China’s military spending makes up 1.6 percent of its GDP, far less than the United States or Russia, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri).

But its defense expansion is viewed with suspicion by Washington, as well as other powers in the region including Japan, with which Beijing has a territorial dispute over islands in the East China Sea.

China has also increasingly flexed its muscles in the South China Sea, which it claims almost entirely despite an international arbitration ruling that declared its stance baseless.

China’s boost in spending is also a cause for concern for self-ruled Taiwan, which Beijing says is part of its territory to be claimed by force if necessary.

As the NPC kicked off on Tuesday, the government work report said China would again “resolutely oppose separatist activities aimed at ‘Taiwan independence’” in 2024.

'Biggest challenge to NATO'

China also says it is worried about cooperation between its regional rivals and the United States, as well as NATO.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said in January that China was the “biggest long term challenge NATO Allies face.”

“We see them in Africa, we see them in the Arctic, we see them trying to control our critical infrastructure,” he added.

China made “a number of significant acquisitions, including a substantial increase in number of nuclear warheads” last year, James Char, an expert on the Chinese army at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore, told AFP.

According to Sipri, Beijing had 410 nuclear warheads in 2023, an increase of 60 from the year before.

However, that still significantly lags behind Washington’s 3,708 and Moscow’s 4,489.

Moreover, “recent military corruption scandals raise doubts about the effectiveness of (Beijing’s) missile force and overall military professionalism,” said Adam Ni, editor of China Neican, a newsletter on Chinese current affairs.

Over the course of the last year there has been a leadership overhaul of China’s Rocket Force — the army unit that oversees its nuclear arsenal — following media reports of a graft probe involving its former chief.

Among a slew of other dismissals, former defense minister Li Shangfu was sacked without explanation last October after just a few months in the job.

'US still top dog'

Corruption needs to be tackled if President Xi Jinping’s “goal of displacing the US armed forces as the world’s pre-eminent military power” is to be realized, said NTU’s Char.

For the time being, Washington remains firmly in the top spot.

The United States has the world’s highest military spending, according to Sipri — standing at $877 billion in 2022, the latest figures available.

China comes second, followed by Russia and India.

The United States also has “global presence and alliance networks, which China cannot replicate in the short term,” said Neican’s Ni.

Washington has hundreds of military bases abroad, while Beijing has just one, in Djibouti.

“Given the PLA’s shortcomings — — particularly in combined arms and joint operations -— it stands to reason that Beijing possesses neither the wherewithal nor the desire to initiate conflict against Washington or launch an invasion across the Taiwan Strait,” said Char.

“A lingering concern, however, is that aggressive interactions between the PLA and other militaries in the region carry the potential to go awry and escalate into a full-blown conflict.”

Maldives signs China defense deal as India prepares exit

Maldives signs China defense deal as India prepares exit
Updated 05 March 2024

Maldives signs China defense deal as India prepares exit

Maldives signs China defense deal as India prepares exit
  • Maldives pro-China President Mohamed Muizzu has ordered Indian military personnel out of the country
  • India is suspicious of China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean and its influence in the Maldives

Malé, Maldives: The Maldives has signed a “military assistance” deal with China after ordering Indian troops deployed in the small but strategically-placed archipelago to leave, officials said Tuesday.

Some 89 Indian military personnel in the country will be gone by May 10 after having been previously ordered out by pro-China President Mohamed Muizzu, who came to power last year on an anti-Indian platform.

The Maldivian defense ministry said they signed an “agreement on China’s provision of military assistance” with Beijing late Monday, saying the agreement was “gratis,” or without payment or charge, but giving no further details.

The defense ministry said the deal was to foster “stronger bilateral ties,” in a post on social media platform X.

India is suspicious of China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean and its influence in the Maldives, a chain of 1,192 tiny coral islands stretching around 800 kilometers (500 miles) across the equator, as well as in neighboring Sri Lanka.

Both South Asian island nations are strategically placed halfway along key east-west international shipping routes.

Relations between Male and New Delhi have chilled since Muizzu won elections in September.

New Delhi considers the Indian Ocean archipelago to be within its sphere of influence, but the Maldives has shifted into the orbit of China — its largest external creditor.

Muizzu, who visited Beijing in January where he signed a raft of infrastructure, energy, marine and agricultural deals, has previously denied seeking to redraw the regional balance by bringing in Chinese forces to replace Indian troops.

India last week said it was bolstering its naval forces on its “strategically important” Lakshadweep islands, about 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of the Maldives.

The Indian naval unit based on the island of Minicoy will boost “operational surveillance” of the area, the navy said.

Addressing a public rally north of the capital on Monday, Muizzu vowed there would be no Indian troops on Maldivian soil after May 10, when they are expected to complete a withdrawal.

The Indians had been deployed to operate three reconnaissance aircraft New Delhi had gifted Male to patrol its vast maritime boundary.

India is expected to replace the military personnel with civilian staff to operate the aircraft, and the Maldives defense ministry announced last month that Indian civilian crew had begun arriving in the atoll nation.

Last month, Male allowed a controversial Chinese research ship to enter its waters in a sign of the nation’s diplomatic reorientation toward Beijing and away from its traditional benefactor India.

China’s Xiang Yang Hong 3 arrived in Male after being refused permission to dock by Sri Lanka following objections from India, which has labeled it a spy ship.

China also gave 12 electric ambulances to the Maldives on Sunday, the health ministry said.

Ukraine says it destroyed Russian warship on Black Sea

Ukraine says it destroyed Russian warship on Black Sea
Updated 49 min 52 sec ago

Ukraine says it destroyed Russian warship on Black Sea

Ukraine says it destroyed Russian warship on Black Sea
  • There was no official response from the Russian defense ministry

KYIV: Ukraine claimed Tuesday that its forces had destroyed a Russian military patrol boat on the Black Sea near the Crimean peninsula, annexed by Russia 10 years ago.
The strategic waterway has become an increasingly important battleground as Ukrainian forces claim a string of attacks on Moscow’s fleet.
Ukraine’s military intelligence spokesman Andriy Yusov said the ship had been hit previously but was destroyed after the overnight attack by maritime drones.
“As for the crew, the details are being clarified. There are dead and wounded. But it is likely that some of the crew managed to evacuate,” he told Ukrainian media.
There was no official response from the Russian defense ministry.
Ukraine’s military intelligence said earlier that their drones struck the ship near the Kerch Strait, causing “damage to the stern, starboard and port sides.”
The Ukrainian president’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, said that Russia’s Black Sea fleet is “a symbol of the occupation,” adding that, “it cannot be in Ukraine’s Crimea.”
Ukraine’s air force said earlier Tuesday it had downed 18 of 22 Iranian-designed attack drones launched by Russia over the Black Sea port city of Odesa.

North Korea denounces South Korea-US military drills, warns of consequences

North Korea denounces South Korea-US military drills, warns of consequences
Updated 05 March 2024

North Korea denounces South Korea-US military drills, warns of consequences

North Korea denounces South Korea-US military drills, warns of consequences
  • The exercises can never be defensive but are an attempt to invade the North, spokesperson said

SEOUL: North Korea’s defense ministry urged South Korea and the United States to stop military drills, saying they are rehearsals of war and warning of consequences, KCNA reported on Tuesday.
South Korean and US militaries kicked off their annual spring exercises on Monday with twice the number of troops joining compared to last year, seeking to improve their responses to North Korea’s evolving nuclear and missile threats.
An unnamed spokesperson of Pyongyang’s defense ministry said it strongly denounces what it called “frantic, reckless” military drills, urging them to stop, KCNA said.
The exercises can never be defensive but are an attempt to invade the North, the spokesperson said, pointing to their increased scale and the participation of 11 member countries of the United Nations Command.
“A nuclear war may be ignited even with a spark,” KCNA quoted the spokesperson as saying.
The US and South Korea will have to “pay a dear price for their false choice,” the official added, vowing to conduct “military activities to strongly control the unstable security environment.”
South Korea’s defense ministry dismissed the North’s statement, saying the exercises are defensive and meant to fend off the North’s provocations and aggression.
“If North Korea makes a direct provocation using the exercises as an excuse, we will make overwhelming responses immediately, strongly and until the end,” it said in a statement.
The Freedom Shield exercises, set to end on March 14, came as North Korea pushes to develop its nuclear capabilities with missile and other weapons tests.
The exercises are primarily designed to neutralize the North’s nuclear threats, including by “identifying and striking” cruise missiles, which Pyongyang had indicated could carry nuclear warheads, Seoul military officials said.