Russian FM slams Black Sea Grain Initiative ‘lies’

Russian FM slams Black Sea Grain Initiative ‘lies’
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov addresses the 78th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York City, US, September 23, 2023. (Reuters)
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Updated 23 September 2023
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Russian FM slams Black Sea Grain Initiative ‘lies’

Russian FM slams Black Sea Grain Initiative ‘lies’
  • ‘We were lied to on the basics of the deal,’ Sergey Lavrov tells press briefing attended by Arab News
  • ‘The US is doing everything possible to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state’

NEW YORK: Russia’s foreign minister lambasted the “lies” of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, and refuted suggestions that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, during a heated press conference at the UN on Saturday.

Addressing a briefing attended by Arab News, Sergey Lavrov stressed confidence in Iran’s claim that it has no intention to obtain “the bomb,” referencing the 2003 religious edict issued by its Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei forbidding production or use of nuclear weapons.

“If Iran came into possession of nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia said it would also have to consider this,” Lavrov said at the 78th session of the UN General Assembly.  

“This is something I view as a statement of fact: Nobody wants to see the emergence of new nuclear states; but since we believe that Iran won’t have the bomb, Iran’s neighbors won’t be tempted to take that path.”

Lavrov was speaking amid international calls for a resumption of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, with Gulf states reportedly looking to support mediation efforts.

Agreed last year, the deal allowed 33 million tons of grain to be exported from Ukrainian ports, helping to stabilize global food prices and avert shortages.

But Moscow withdrew in July after months of protest that the export of Russian fertilizer was not being honored.

“The Ukrainian part of the package was implemented rather effectively and swiftly, while the Russian part wasn’t implemented at all,” said Lavrov.

“At the same time, our naval officers were opening up for the safe passage of grain ships, but the corridors were used to launch UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) and carry out strikes on Russian ships.

“But the main reason why we left the agreement is everything promised to us turned out to be a lie.”

Earlier in the week, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres referenced questions that had arisen over Russia’s apparent interest, or lack thereof, in resurrecting the deal.

When this was put to Lavrov, he denied this was the case, reiterating that Moscow’s withdrawal was linked to the “lies” surrounding rights for Russian fertilizer exports, as he pointed to the continuing work between Russian representatives and UN officials to resolve the blockade.

“We were lied to on the basics of the deal, and the secretary-general himself was forced to mislead on that,” Lavrov said.

“Let us once again recall what President (Vladimir) Putin said, which is that as soon as everything that’s enshrined in the Russian part of the package is implemented, on that very day the Ukrainian part of that initiative will become operational.”

Saying “someone in London or Washington doesn’t want the war to end,” Lavrov poured scorn on the continued investment from Western states into Ukraine’s defense apparatus.

Segueing into saying “we all know the US is doing everything possible to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, but somehow this doesn’t seem to cause great concern,” he concluded by appealing to African states to consider Russia as a partner.


Brazil condemns ‘paralysis’ on Gaza, Ukraine at tense G20 meeting

Brazil condemns ‘paralysis’ on Gaza, Ukraine at tense G20 meeting
Updated 22 February 2024
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Brazil condemns ‘paralysis’ on Gaza, Ukraine at tense G20 meeting

Brazil condemns ‘paralysis’ on Gaza, Ukraine at tense G20 meeting
  • “Multilateral institutions are not properly equipped to deal with the current challenges, as has been demonstrated by the Security Council’s unacceptable paralysis on the ongoing conflicts” in Gaza and Ukraine, Vieira says

RIO DE JANEIRO: Brazil criticized the “paralysis” of the UN Security Council on the wars in Gaza and Ukraine as it opened a G20 meeting Wednesday where the international community’s deep divisions were on display.
The outlook is bleak for progress on the thorny agenda of conflicts and crises gripping the planet as foreign ministers from the world’s biggest economies gather in Rio de Janeiro for the Group of 20’s first high-level meeting of the year.
Opening the two-day meeting, which featured US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Brazil’s top diplomat, Mauro Vieira, said the explosion of global conflicts shows international institutions like the United Nations are not working.
“Multilateral institutions are not properly equipped to deal with the current challenges, as has been demonstrated by the Security Council’s unacceptable paralysis on the ongoing conflicts” in Gaza and Ukraine, Vieira said, adding the situation was costing “innocent lives.”
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell for his part warned multilateralism “is in crisis.”
The Security Council has failed to act on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, held in check by Russian veto power, and has struggled to find a response to the war in Gaza, with Israel’s ally the United States using its veto to block calls for a ceasefire, most recently Tuesday.
Brazil, which took over the rotating G20 presidency from India in December, has voiced hopes the group could be a forum to make progress on such questions.
But that likely took a hit when Lula ignited a diplomatic firestorm Sunday by accusing Israel of “genocide,” comparing its military campaign in the Gaza Strip to the Holocaust.
The comments drew outrage in Israel, which declared him persona non grata, and could overshadow any bid to de-escalate the conflict via the G20.
Blinken, who met Lula Wednesday in Brasilia before heading to the G20, “made clear we disagree with (his) comments,” a senior State Department official told journalists.
The secretary of state and Brazilian leader had a “frank exchange” in their more than 90-minute meeting at the presidential palace, the official said.
More than four months after the Gaza war started with Hamas fighters’ unprecedented October 7 attack on Israel, which has vowed to wipe out the Islamist group in retaliation, there is little sign of progress toward peace.
The outlook is similarly grim on Russia’s war in Ukraine, which also has G20 members divided as the second anniversary of President Vladimir Putin’s invasion approaches.
Despite a push by Western countries to condemn the invasion, the G20’s last summit ended with a watered-down statement denouncing the use of force but not explicitly naming Russia, which maintains friendly ties with India and Brazil, among other members.
UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron said he planned to use the Rio meeting to “call out Russia’s aggression” directly to Lavrov, as Britain announced sanctions on six Russian officials over opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s death in prison last week.
Lavrov — who will meet Lula in Brasilia Thursday, according to a Brazilian official — meanwhile lashed out at the West for “pumping Ukraine full of arms.”
“Neither Kiev nor the West have shown the political will to resolve the conflict,” he told Brazilian newspaper O Globo.
Blinken voiced pessimism on the current chances for diplomacy on Ukraine in his meeting with Lula. “We don’t see the conditions for it right now,” a US official said.
Brazil also wants to use its G20 presidency to push the fights against poverty and climate change.
There will also be space for bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the gathering — though a Blinken-Lavrov encounter looks unlikely, given soaring tensions.
The pair last met in person at a G20 gathering in India in March 2023.
Founded in 1999, the G20 brings together most of the world’s biggest economies.
Originally an economic forum, it has grown increasingly involved in international politics.
A Brazilian government source said that after recent G20 struggles for consensus, the hosts axed the requirement that every meeting produce a joint statement — with the exception of the annual leaders’ summit, scheduled for November in Rio.


In life or death, Navalny will influence history: exiled lawyer

In life or death, Navalny will influence history: exiled lawyer
Updated 22 February 2024
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In life or death, Navalny will influence history: exiled lawyer

In life or death, Navalny will influence history: exiled lawyer
  • Olga Mikhailova says Navalny had been tortured in prison for the past three years but was not broken
  • One of Navalny's most high-profile lawyers for 16 years, Mikhailova is now a target of a criminal probe herself
  • She left Russia last October and is applying for asylum in France. Three of her lawyer partners are in jail

PARIS: Alexei Navalny’s top lawyer, Olga Mikhailova, said on Wednesday that in life or in death he would “influence history” as she paid an emotional tribute to the late Russian opposition leader.

Mikhailova, who is arguably the most high-profile member of Navalny’s defense team, had defended the opposition politician for 16 years.
She was often pictured by his side as President Vladimir Putin’s top critic sought to clear his name in a years-long legal tug-of-war with the Kremlin.
Now a target of a criminal probe herself, Mikhailova left Russia in October last year and is applying for asylum in France.

Olga Mikhailova, one of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny’s main lawyers, speaks during a conference by the Russian opposition in Paris on Feb. 21, 2024. (AFP)

“Alexei Navalny is an amazing, courageous, charismatic politician,” Mikhailova, who looked visibly upset, said at a Russian opposition event in Paris.
“The authorities claim that he is dead. Even if that is so and he was killed, I am sure that he will not only go down in history but will also influence the future course of history,” Mikhailova told several dozen people, her voice sometimes breaking.
She did not take questions and declined to speak to journalists.
Russian authorities said on Friday that Navalny, 47, suddenly died in his Arctic prison. The announcement plunged his supporters around the world into a state of shock.
Speaking at the event organized by the Russie-Libertés association, Mikhailova sometimes spoke of Navalny using the present tense.
“He’s not like regular people. He is an iron man,” she said.
Navalny barely survived a poisoning with the Soviet-designed nerve agent, Novichok, in 2020. Following treatment in Germany, he returned to Russia in 2021 and was immediately arrested and subsequently jailed.
Mikhailova, 50, said she warned the opposition politician against coming back to Russia.
“In Berlin, I told him, ‘You’ll be jailed for 10 years,” Mikhailova said.
“And he replied with a smile: ‘You always say I’ll be jailed. Well, you’ll be defending me then.”

Tortured and starved
Upon return, he was sentenced to two and a half years in prison. Last year a Russian court sentenced him to 19 years behind bars on extremism charges.
Mikhailova said he had been tortured in prison for the past three years but was not broken.

Raindrops cover Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny's portrait placed between flowers in front of the Russian Embassy in Berlin, Germany, on Feb. 21, 2024. (AP)

“They abused and starved him,” she said.
“He spent about 300 days in a cold punishment cell where he could either stand or sit on a metal stool during the day,” Mikhailova said.
“Three times a day a mug of hot water was brought to him and it was the only hot meal he had.”
Last fall, the Russian authorities cracked down on Navalny’s defense team.
In October, three lawyers defending Navalny were detained and charged with taking part in an “extremist organization.”
Russian authorities have accused Navalny’s defense team of spreading his anti-Kremlin message from prison by posting his letters on social media.
The announcement of Navalny’s death came as Putin is gearing up to extend his two-decade hold on power in a presidential election in March.
Mikhailova, who says she was on holiday abroad when the three members of the defense team were arrested, decided against returning to Russia where she knew she too would be jailed.
Writing on Facebook in January, she said life abroad was difficult for her daughter and her. “We have no home and a lot of problems,” she added.
In mid-February, a Moscow court ordered Mikhailova’s arrest in absentia.


Chaos erupts in British Commons over Gaza motion

Chaos erupts in British Commons over Gaza motion
Updated 22 February 2024
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Chaos erupts in British Commons over Gaza motion

Chaos erupts in British Commons over Gaza motion
  • Disorder erupted when Speaker Lindsay Hoyle ignored a Gaza ceasefire motion by the SNP and allowed a vote instead for a Labor Party motion
  • Political passions are running high in Britain ahead of a general election due this year, with the Conservatives widely tipped to lose

LONDON: Britain’s House of Commons descended into chaos on Wednesday over a motion calling for a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip.

The chamber was due to debate and vote on a motion for an “immediate ceasefire” in Gaza by the Scottish National Party (SNP).
Instead, in an unusual move, speaker Lindsay Hoyle allowed a vote on a motion for an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire” in Gaza by the Scottish National Party.
This sparked fury and shouts from the ruling Conservatives and the SNP.
SNP head in the Commons, Stephen Flynn, branded the move as “complete and utter contempt” of his party.
Faced with the outrage, Hoyle apologized, saying he had only intended to allow a wider debate on the issue.
The motion was not officially voted on, after the government said it would not participate in protest.
Political passions are running high in Britain ahead of a general election due this year.
The Conservatives, in power since 2010, are widely tipped by pollsters to lose.
Labour has been buoyed after having wrestled away several seats in by-elections from the Conservatives.


UK minister for veterans tells of ‘horrific’ testimony about SAS ‘war crimes’ in Afghanistan

UK minister for veterans tells of ‘horrific’ testimony about SAS ‘war crimes’ in Afghanistan
Updated 22 February 2024
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UK minister for veterans tells of ‘horrific’ testimony about SAS ‘war crimes’ in Afghanistan

UK minister for veterans tells of ‘horrific’ testimony about SAS ‘war crimes’ in Afghanistan
  • Mercer confirms to public inquiry he is talking about ‘allegations of straight murder’
  • Minister warned of legal consequences if he refuses to name British soldiers who spoke to him

LONDON: The British minister for veterans, John Mercer, spoke on Wednesday of “horrific” stories he heard from former members of the Afghan special forces about alleged executions of unarmed detainees, including children, carried out by members of the UK’s elite Special Air Service.

He was speaking during his second day of testimony at a public inquiry set up to investigate accusations made in media reports that SAS members killed civilians and unarmed prisoners during operations in Afghanistan between 2010 and 2013.

In 2022, a BBC investigation alleged that an SAS squadron was involved in questionable killings of at least 54 people, including detainees and children, in a six-month period.

Mercer, himself a former army officer, told the inquiry that discussions he had with former members of Afghan special forces known as the Triples “confirmed my worst fears.”

When asked by the chair of the inquiry whether he was talking about “allegations of straight murder” by members of the SAS, he replied: “Yes.”

He said the accounts given to him included allegations that the SAS executed detainees, including children, who were restrained and posed no threat. There is “no reason why a person under control should lose their life,” he added.

Mercer said that the Triples units, concerned about injuries suffered by children in particular, eventually refused to accompany the British forces on missions. When “Tier 1 Afghan special forces are refusing to go out the door with you,” this should have raised concerns, he said.

If the allegations presented to him are true, the members of the SAS responsible for the actions they described are “criminals,” he said.

Mercer also expressed frustration with the Ministry of Defence for not adequately investigating the allegations, and accused ministry officials of misleading him about the availability of evidence, specifically full-motion video footage from the operations in question.

He said that when he challenged the head of UK Special Forces, Gen. Sir Roland Walker, about this apparent lack of footage, he simply leaned back in his chair and shrugged.

“I don’t disguise the fact that I am angry with these people,” Mercer said. “The fact that I’m sitting here today is because those people, with their rank and privileges, have not done their job.”

During his first day of testimony to the inquiry, on Tuesday, Mercer refused to reveal the names of SAS members who gave him first- and second-hand accounts of incidents in Afghanistan.

Lord Justice Haddon-Cave, who is chairing the inquiry, on Wednesday described the minister’s refusal to reveal the identities as “completely unacceptable,” the BBC reported.

“You need to decide which side you are really on,” Mr. Mercer,” he said. “Is it assisting the inquiry fully, and the public interest and the national interest, in getting to the truth of these allegations quickly, for everyone’s sake? Or is it being part of what is in effect an ‘omerta,’ a wall of silence?”

He warned Mercer that continued refusal to comply with the inquiry’s requests would result in “potentially serious legal consequences that I may need to put in place.”

If Mercer continues to refuse to provide the names, the inquiry has the legal authority to compel him to do so.

In February, BBC current affairs program Panorama reported that UK Special Forces blocked members of Afghan special forces from relocating to the UK after the Taliban reclaimed power in the country in 2021.

Former members of the SAS told Panorama that this veto created a clear conflict of interest because Afghan personnel might be called as witnesses by the public inquiry.


Trump faces warning signs that his fundraising prowess may have limits in 2024 campaign

Trump faces warning signs that his fundraising prowess may have limits in 2024 campaign
Updated 22 February 2024
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Trump faces warning signs that his fundraising prowess may have limits in 2024 campaign

Trump faces warning signs that his fundraising prowess may have limits in 2024 campaign
  • Trump’s diminished cashflow presents an alarming picture of the overwhelming favorite to be the GOP’s presidential nominee
  • Despite threats of vengeance by Trump, some donors are instead backing his last standing rival, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley

WASHINGTON: Donald Trump’s legendary ability to raise massive sums of political cash may be on a collision course with a new and unpleasant reality.

Campaign finance reports released this week flashed bright warning lights, showing two key committees in his political operation raised an anemic $13.8 million in January while collectively spending more than they took in. A major driver of those costs was millions of dollars in legal fees from Trump’s myriad of court cases.
The latest numbers offer only a partial snapshot of the Trump operation’s finances because other branches won’t have to disclose their numbers until April. But Trump’s diminished cashflow nonetheless presents an alarming picture of the overwhelming favorite to be the GOP’s presidential nominee, particularly to would-be donors who aren’t eager to subsidize Trump’s legal challenges.
Despite threats of vengeance by Trump, some are instead backing his last standing rival, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, who outraised Trump’s primary campaign committee by nearly $3 million last month.

Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, center, talks with a young supporter after speaking at a campaign event on Feb. 19, 2024, in Camden, South Carolina. (AP)

In a statement, Trump spokeswoman Karoline Leavitt did not directly address the campaign’s finances.
“President Trump’s campaign is fueled by small-dollar donors across the country from every background who are sick and tired of Crooked Joe Biden’s record-high inflation, wide open border invasion, crime and chaos,” Leavitt said. “Voters don’t want four more years of misery and destruction.”
When asked specifically about the numbers, a Trump spokesman texted a link to a Fox News story published Tuesday, stating that Trump was expected to raise $6 million at a fundraiser held that day.
Legal fees dominated Trump’s January expenditures, amounting to $3.7 million of $15.3 million spent by the two committees. One of the committees, Save America, also held nearly $2 million in unpaid legal debts, the records show.
Save America was bolstered with a cash infusion from a pro-Trump super PAC.
The committee received another $5 million “refund” installment from the super PAC “Make America Great Again Inc.,” which was initially seeded through a $60 million from Save America in the fall of 2022. Instead, Trump campaign officials opted to claw that money back in installments, a running total that has now reached $47 million, records show.
That left Trump’s two committees with $36.6 million in cash on hand compared to Biden’s $132 million stockpile, which he and the Democratic National Committee raised $42 million for in January.
“His endless drama and legal bills will deplete the Republican Party and bring even more electoral losses,” Haley’s communications director, Nachama Soloveichik, said in a statement.
The latest tranche of legal bills comes at a sensitive time, as Trump is orchestrating a takeover of the cash-strapped Republican National Committee, where he plans to install his daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, as the party’s No. 2 official. Some donors and RNC committee members worry that Trump may soon turn to the RNC to help cover his legal bills, too, considering Trump has made claims of legal persecution a pillar of his campaign.
“Every single penny will go to the number one and the only job of the RNC,” Lara Trump said during a recent interview on the conservative network NewsMax, which she added was to focus on electing Donald Trump.

Lara Trump, daughter-in-law to former US President and 2024 presidential hopeful Donald Trump, signs a campaign material after speaking at a VFW Hall in Beaufort, South Carolina on Feb. 21, 2024. (AFP)

What’s not clear is how much of a drag his prodigious legal spending will be on his finances.
The RNC is also facing headwinds of its own, reporting $8.7 million on hand at the end of January, reports show.
Though Trump’s financially strained position is unusual for the odds-on favorite to clinch a major party’s nomination, there is ample time to reenergize his fundraising. It’s still early in the campaign and — assuming he becomes the nominee — he will be able to raise money in concert with the RNC, which should enable him to receive a check from a single donor worth upwards of $1 million. That’s an advantage that Biden and the DNC currently hold over him.
Over the past year, he’s also used pivotal moments in his ongoing legal drama, including his indictment hearings, to open a spigot of campaign cash from his large base of conservative supporters, who chip in small amounts online.
Still, Trump’s cash woes place him in a familiar, if unwelcome, position that echoes the 2020 presidential race, when he and his aides plowed through $1 billion and a large cash advantage over Biden amid profligate spending.
Trump approached the 2024 race with over $100 million, a substantial amount of which was raised in the early days after his 2020 election loss to Biden, when he bombarded supporters with solicitations for an “election defense fund.” This time, legal fees have proven to be a drain, costing over $80 million over the past two years, records show.
Democrats have reacted with glee.
“It’s been a tough couple of weeks if you are Donald Trump and also like money,” said Ammar Moussa, a Biden campaign spokesman. “The RNC had its worst fundraising year in decades, is hemorrhaging cash, and now Trump enters the general election with the weakest operation in recent history.”