Saudi Arabia to open new visa centers, introduce flights for Indian pilgrims

Special Saudi Arabia to open new visa centers, introduce flights for Indian pilgrims
Saudi Hajj and Umrah Minister Tawfiq Al-Rabiah speaks at a press conference in New Delhi on Dec. 5, 2023. (Indian Ministry of External Affairs)
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Updated 05 December 2023
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Saudi Arabia to open new visa centers, introduce flights for Indian pilgrims

Saudi Arabia to open new visa centers, introduce flights for Indian pilgrims
  • More than 1.2m Indian pilgrims visited Saudi Arabia for Umrah in 2023
  • Hajj ‘important aspect’ of Saudi-India bilateral relations: Indian minister

NEW DELHI: Saudi Arabia will open new visa centers in India and introduce budget flights to facilitate the increasing number of Indian pilgrims in their Umrah journeys, Saudi Minister of Hajj and Umrah Tawfiq Al-Rabiah said on Tuesday.

Al-Rabiah is in New Delhi as part of an official trip aimed at strengthening collaboration with Indian officials and partners and streamlining Umrah pilgrimage for international pilgrims.

As part of its Vision 2030 reform plan, the Kingdom has utilized technological advancements, enhanced measures, and upgraded infrastructure to “transform Umrah into a rewarding religious expedition” for Muslims worldwide, Al-Rabiah pointed out during a joint press conference in the Indian capital.

With more than 200 million people professing Islam in India, the Hindu-majority country has the world’s largest Muslim-minority population.

In 2023, the number of Umrah pilgrims from India increased by around 74 percent compared to last year, surpassing 1.2 million people.

That increase was the result of Saudi-India collaborative efforts, Al-Rabiah noted, adding that the two countries had initiated discussions to increase direct flights between them “to accommodate an increasing number of Indians looking to perform Umrah.”

“We’re also focused on enhancing capacity to meet the anticipated increase by introducing new scheduled flights through Saudi low-cost airlines, flynas and flyadeal,” he said.

“These efforts are complemented by initiatives to streamline visa issuance procedures and establish three new visa centers in India.”

Indian minority affairs minister, Smriti Irani, who held talks with Al-Rabiah on Tuesday, said they had “productive discussions on how to further deepen engagements,” particularly on their cooperation for Hajj pilgrimage.

“Both nations have agreed to continue to work together to make the Hajj process as convenient and as seamless as possible with best provision of services for all Hajj pilgrims,” Irani told reporters at the press conference.

Under the 2023 Hajj quota, around 175,000 Indians – nearly 47 percent of whom were women – traveled to Saudi Arabia for the spiritual journey that is one of the five pillars of Islam.

India’s Minister of State for External Affairs Vellamvelly Muraleedharan, said Al-Rabiah’s visit would “bolster the overall bilateral partnership” between the two countries, adding that Hajj was an “important aspect” of that relationship.

“There is a mutual recognition that our partnership will not only be beneficial to our countries and communities … but will be valuable to the region and the world,” Muraleedharan added.


Ukraine warns against ‘destructive external interference’ in Transnistria

Ukraine warns against ‘destructive external interference’ in Transnistria
Updated 6 sec ago
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Ukraine warns against ‘destructive external interference’ in Transnistria

Ukraine warns against ‘destructive external interference’ in Transnistria
  • Fears that landlocked Transnistria could become a new flashpoint in Russia’s conflict with neighboring Ukraine
  • Russia’s foreign ministry: ‘Protecting the interests of the residents of Transnistria, our compatriots, is one of our priorities’
KYIV, Ukraine: Ukraine’s foreign ministry on Wednesday cautioned against any meddling from Russia in Moldova’s breakaway region of Transnistria, whose separatist leaders earlier appealed to Russia for “protection.”
The move from Transnistrian separatists raised fears that the landlocked territory could become a new flashpoint in Moscow’s conflict with neighboring Ukraine.
“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine... calls for a peaceful resolution of economic, social and humanitarian issues between Chisinau and Tiraspol without any destructive external interference,” the ministry said.
Transnistria is a primarily Russian-speaking region that has long depended on Moscow for support.
After the separatist lawmakers’ resolution was passed, Russia’s foreign ministry said it considered “all requests” for help.
“Protecting the interests of the residents of Transnistria, our compatriots, is one of our priorities,” the ministry told Russian news agencies.
Officials in Moldova and analysts have downplayed concerns.
But the move has fueled comparisons with February 2022, when Russian-backed militants in eastern Ukraine asked for protection against what they said was relentless attacks by Kyiv’s forces.
“Our country knows the horrors of war and the price of peace better than anyone else,” Ukraine’s foreign ministry said.
“We are making and will continue to make every effort... to prevent any attempts by Russia to destabilize Moldova or other countries in our region,” it added.

S. Korean, US troops will begin major exercises next week in response to N. Korean threats

S. Korean, US troops will begin major exercises next week in response to N. Korean threats
Updated 28 February 2024
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S. Korean, US troops will begin major exercises next week in response to N. Korean threats

S. Korean, US troops will begin major exercises next week in response to N. Korean threats

SEOUL: South Korean and US troops will begin their expanded annual military drills next week in response to North Korea’s evolving nuclear threats, the two countries said Wednesday, a move that will likely enrage North Korea because it views its rivals’ joint training as an invasion rehearsal.

In recent months, North Korea has inflamed animosities on the Korean Peninsula with fiery rhetoric and continued missile tests. While it’s unlikely for North Korea to launch full-blown attacks against South Korea and the US, observers say the North could still stage limited provocations along the tense border with South Korea.

On Wednesday, the South Korea and US militaries jointly announced that the allies will conduct Freedom Shield exercise, a computer-simulated command post training, and a variety of separate field training, from March 4-14.

Col. Lee Sung-Jun, a spokesperson for South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that the allies’ drills are designed to bolster their joint capabilities to prevent North Korea from using its nuclear weapons. He said the allies are to carry out 48 field exercises this spring, twice the number conducted last year, and that this year’s drills would 

involve air assault, live-firing and bombing training.

“Our military is ready to punish North Korea immediately, strongly and to the end in the event of its provocation, and we’ll further strengthen our firm readiness through the upcoming drills,” Lee said. 

Col. Isaac L. Taylor, a spokesperson for the US military, said the allies’ exercises have been defensive in nature and that there is solid evidence that “a high readiness rate” helps ensure deterrence.

North Korea didn’t immediately respond to the drills’ announcement. North Korea has reacted to previous major South Korea-US military drills with its own missile tests.

North Korea has sharply intensified its weapons testing activities since 2022 in part of its efforts to expand its nuclear and missile arsenals. This year, the North already conducted six rounds of missile tests — five of them reportedly involving cruise missiles — and other weapons launches.


UK pro-Palestinian marches to continue until government calls for ceasefire, protesters say

UK pro-Palestinian marches to continue until government calls for ceasefire, protesters say
Updated 28 February 2024
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UK pro-Palestinian marches to continue until government calls for ceasefire, protesters say

UK pro-Palestinian marches to continue until government calls for ceasefire, protesters say
  • Cleverly said that the protesters had “made their point” and were putting “huge pressure” on police

LONDON: Pro-Palestinian marches in the UK will continue to take place with thousands participating despite calls by British Home Secretary James Cleverly to end demonstrations, organizers have said.

The UK capital has been the scene of some of Europe’s largest pro-Palestine protests since October, with regular marches every fortnight in central London drawing hundreds of thousands.

Protest organizers said that the demonstrations would continue “at the very least until we see an immediate ceasefire” in Gaza, The Times reported.

Organizers vowed to continue taking to the streets even if a “humanitarian pause” was agreed on, arguing that this would only be a “stay of execution” for Palestinians.

Cleverly said that the protesters had “made their point” and were putting “huge pressure” on police. He added that the demonstrations in London, as well as those in other towns and cities across the UK, were “not really saying anything new.”

Ministers are concerned about the drain on police resources, with estimates suggesting that the protests have cost £25 million and caused thousands of rest days for officers to be canceled, The Times reported.

The government is debating changing protest rules to require organizers to give police more than the current six days’ notice.

The Palestine Solidarity Campaign condemned the UK government’s “growing attacks on the right to protest.”

According to PSC Director Ben Jamal, people will “continue to march in huge numbers because the genocide has not stopped.”

He promised to fight back against the “repressive environment” being “whipped up” by the government.

Other groups that have joined the protests criticized the police’s response to the marches, which began in October, after Israel began its bombardment and military invasion of Gaza with nearly 30,000 people killed.

Chris Nineham, a founding member of the Stop the War Coalition, said that there were fewer arrests per person at pro-Palestinian marches than at the Glastonbury Festival or a Premier League football match, The Times reported.

He accused Scotland Yard of “extraordinary hysteria” and “overpolicing.”

UK Policing Minister Chris Philp said that there had been 600 arrests at the marches to date, but emphasized that free speech and the right to protest were the foundations of a democratic society.

On Saturday, the PSC plans to stage protests at dozens of Barclays bank branches across the country, which has financial ties to arms companies that sell weapons to Israel.

Earlier in February, a group of pro-Palestinian activists blocked the bank’s Canary Wharf headquarters and protested with a banner that read: “Are you sure you want to close your account? YES.” They chanted, among other things: “Barclays, Barclays, you can’t hide, you’re enabling genocide,” as well as “Your profits are covered in Palestinian blood.”
 


Ukraine needs $3 billion in financial aid per month in 2024, Kyiv says

Ukraine needs $3 billion in financial aid per month in 2024, Kyiv says
Updated 28 February 2024
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Ukraine needs $3 billion in financial aid per month in 2024, Kyiv says

Ukraine needs $3 billion in financial aid per month in 2024, Kyiv says
  • “We cannot allow a delay in attracting external financing,” Marchenko said
  • The EU finally approved its 50 billion euro four-year facility for Ukraine this month

KYIV: Ukraine needs about $3 billion in foreign financial aid on a monthly basis to get through 2024, Finance Minister Serhiy Marchenko said on Wednesday, highlighting the challenges Kyiv faces as US support begins to falter.
Marchenko said Ukraine’s macroeconomic stability during the war with Russia had been possible due to a steady inflow of international financial aid from Kyiv’s allies, something he added remained crucial this year.
“In 2024, the monthly need for external financing will reach about $3 billion. We cannot allow a delay in attracting external financing,” Marchenko said in a statement.
Ukraine has received more than $73 billion in financial aid from its Western partners in the two years since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022.
So far this year the level of support has been much lower as major packages from the European Union and the United States have suffered major delays.
The EU finally approved its 50 billion euro four-year facility for Ukraine this month but the US financial and military support package remains stuck in Congress, blocked by Republican lawmakers.
Addressing finance ministers and central bankers from the Group of Seven major industrialized nations on Wednesday, Marchenko said the government had been more active on the domestic debt market this year and looked for other ways to increase its budget revenues.
Senior executives of several of Ukraine’s biggest state-owned companies have told Reuters they had paid some of their obligatory budget payments in advance to help the government cover the budget deficit.
Ukraine’s budget gap is about $37 billion this year.
Ukraine channels most of its budget revenues into the defense effort and relies on foreign aid to pay pensions and state employees’ wages, and to cover social and humanitarian spending.
Finance ministry data shows Ukraine received about $1.2 billion from Japan and Norway in the first two months of this year.
“International donors’ help is not just a financial issue, but an opportunity to support millions of Ukrainians who need it and to save the lives of thousands of soldiers,” Marchenko said.


EU watchdog wants new search and rescue rules after hundreds of migrants drown off Greece

EU watchdog wants new search and rescue rules after hundreds of migrants drown off Greece
Updated 28 February 2024
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EU watchdog wants new search and rescue rules after hundreds of migrants drown off Greece

EU watchdog wants new search and rescue rules after hundreds of migrants drown off Greece
  • European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly said current rules prevent the EU’s border and coast guard agency Frontex from fulfilling its obligations to protect the rights of migrants
  • Up to 750 people were believed to be crammed aboard the Adriana when it sank off Greece last June

BRUSSELS: The European Union’s administrative watchdog called Wednesday for a change to Europe’s search and rescue rules following an inquiry into last year’s sinking of a rusty fishing boat, the Adriana, carrying hundreds of migrants while traveling from Libya to Italy.
European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly said current rules prevent the EU’s border and coast guard agency Frontex from fulfilling its obligations to protect the rights of migrants or act independently of national authorities when boats they use are in distress.
Up to 750 people were believed to be crammed aboard the Adriana when it sank off Greece last June. Just 104 people were rescued — mostly migrants from Syria, Pakistan and Egypt — and 82 bodies were found. Human rights groups accused Greek authorities of failing to properly investigate. Italian authorities were also involved in the incident.
“Why did reports of overcrowding, an apparent lack of life vests, children on board and possible fatalities fail to trigger timely rescue efforts that could have saved hundreds of lives?” O’Reilly asked.
Frontex provides surveillance and other support to the 27 national authorities — plus those of some EU partner countries — to help protect their maritime and land borders. In emergencies, it is obliged to follow the orders of those authorities and has no power to coordinate rescue missions.
O’Reilly said documents inspected during her inquiry showed that Frontex made four separate offers to assist Greek authorities with aerial surveillance of the Adriana but received no response. Current rules prevented Frontex from going to the ship without Greek permission.
“We must ask ourselves why a boat so obviously in need of help never received that help despite an EU agency, two member states’ authorities, civil society and private ships knowing of its existence,” O’Reilly said.
Thousands of people die or go missing in the Mediterranean each year in desperate attempts to reach Europe in barely seaworthy boats to escape poverty, war, abuse or discrimination. But the EU and member countries do not have a search and rescue mission actively patrolling.
The Italian authorities set up a search and rescue effort in 2013, but it was abandoned due to accusations that it only inspired more people to come. Italy and others have actively sought to stop charity ships from doing such work, sometimes by impounding their vessels.
“If Frontex has a duty to help save lives at sea, but the tools for it are lacking, then this is clearly a matter for EU legislators,” O’Reilly said. She said cooperation with national coast guards by Frontex when it lacks autonomy “risks making the EU complicit in actions that violate fundamental rights and cost lives.”
Reacting to the ombudsman’s findings, the agency said it “is deeply committed to saving lives and we’re always looking for ways to do our job better, especially when it comes to search and rescue missions.”
Frontex welcomed the ombudsman’s acknowledgement that the agency had followed all laws and procedures when alerting Greek and Italian authorities.
It said an assessment by Frontex’s own fundamental rights officer “confirms our adherence to international laws and the adequacy of our support to national authorities, alongside the proper conduct of search and rescue operations.”
EU member countries and lawmakers are currently negotiating a new overhaul of the bloc’s asylum and migration rules, and are trying to push it through before Europe-wide elections on June 6-9. The reforms do not include any proposals for proactive search and rescue missions.