UN atomic watchdog: Deal with Iran key to full inspections

UN atomic watchdog: Deal with Iran key to full inspections

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Director General of International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, Rafael Mariano Grossi from Argentina, addresses the media during a news conference behind plexiglass shields after a meeting of the IAEA board of governors at the International Center in Vienna, Austria, Monday, … more >

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By DAVID RISING

Associated Press

Monday, March 1, 2021

BERLIN (AP) – A temporary agreement with Iran to allow United Nations inspectors continued access to the country’s atomic facilities is less comprehensive than before, but lays the groundwork for the return to full verification measures if and when Tehran allows it, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said Monday.

Iran began restricting international inspections last week, but under a last-minute deal worked out during a trip to Tehran by Rafael Grossi, the head of the Vienna-based U.N. atomic watchdog, some access was preserved.

Under the agreement, Iran will no longer share surveillance footage of its nuclear facilities with the IAEA but it has promised to preserve the tapes for three months. It will then hand them over to the IAEA if it is granted sanctions relief. Otherwise, Iran has vowed to erase the tapes, narrowing the window for a diplomatic breakthrough.

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Speaking to reporters after adressing member nations, Grossi said the deal meant inspectors could still keep track of the quantity of enriched uranium, for example, but have lost their view of other activities such as Iran‘s mining operations and its research and development.

That means they’re not able to form as complete a picture of Iran‘s nuclear program, Grossi suggested.

“With a nuclear program which has the breadth and depth of the Iranian one – complex, big, sophisticated – we need everything,” he said.

Inspections are a critical part of the landmark 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.

Since President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. unilaterally out of the deal in 2018, Iran has been slowly increasing its violation of the pact by enriching more uranium than allowed, and to a greater purity than allowed, among other things.

The violations have been intended to put pressure on the other signatories to the deal – Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China – to come up with ways to offset the economic devastation caused by American sanctions, but so far they have not been able to come up with a solution suitable to Iran.

U.S. President Joe Biden has said he is ready to join talks with Iran and world powers to discuss a return to the deal. The new restrictions on inspections complicate matters, and, in effect, set the clock ticking on coming up with some sort of a resolution.

In his address, Grossi told member nations that more than just allowing sufficient inspections to continue, the access agreed under the “temporary bilateral technical understanding” he reached with Iran provides his teams with the continuity necessary to resume full inspections later if there is a new agreement.

“I want to emphasize that it is a temporary technical understanding and that it is compatible with Iranian law,” Grossi said, according to prepared remarks provided by the IAEA, “It is to enable the Agency to resume its full verification and monitoring of Iran’s nuclear-related commitments under the JCPOA if and when Iran resumes its implementation of those commitments.”

On the weekend, Iran turned down a European Union invitation to host joint talks with the U.S. about the nuclear deal, saying “the time isn’t ripe.” The U.S. said, however, it remains open to meet.

EU Commission spokesman Peter Stano said Monday that EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell “is still prepared to organize a meeting with all parties.”

“For us, as coordinators of the JCPOA, what is important is to continue the engagement,” he said. “We took note of their announcement that they don’t see the time right, right now, for such a meeting but the aim … remains to facilitate the full implementation of the JCPOA, and he remains ready to convene all the participants and the U.S. for informal consultations when the time is right.”

_____

Samuel Petrequin in Brussels contributed to this report.

UN chief: Appeal for Yemen raises ‘disappointing’ $1.7B

UN chief: Appeal for Yemen raises ‘disappointing’ $1.7B

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FILE – In this June 27, 2020 file photo, a malnourished boy lies in a bed waiting to receive treatment at a feeding center at Al-Sabeen hospital in Sanaa, Yemen. The United Nations is launching an appeal Monday, March 1, … more >

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By SAMY MAGDY

Associated Press

Monday, March 1, 2021

CAIRO (AP) – A United Nations appeal for aid to Yemen to alleviate the world’s worst humanitarian disaster raised some $1.7 billion Monday- a result the U.N. chief called “disappointing.”

At a virtual pledging conference co-hosed by Sweden and Switzerland, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had appealed for $3.85 billion this year to address the impoverished Arab country’s dire needs.

The amount raised, however, was less than what the U.N. received last year, and a billion dollars short of what was pledged in the 2019 conference, he said.

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Guterres called for countries to “consider again what they can do to help stave off the worst famine the world has seen in decades.”

From the outset it was unlikely that donors would meet the U.N.‘s goal given the coronavirus pandemic and its devastating consequences for economies around the globe. Corruption allegations in Yemen aid operations were also a factor.

Yemen’s war started in 2014 when the Iran-backed rebel Houthis seized the capital, Sanaa, and much of the country’s north. The Saudi-led, U.S.-backed coalition intervened months later to dislodge the rebels and restore the internationally recognized government.

The conflict has killed some 130,000 people, spawned the world’s worst humanitarian disaster and reversed development gains by 20 years, according to the U.N. Development Program.

Half of Yemen’s health facilities are shuttered or destroyed and 4 million Yemenis have been driven from their homes. The pandemic, cholera epidemics and severe malnutrition among children have led to thousands of additional deaths.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs warned that more than 16 million people in Yemen will go hungry this year, with some half a million already living in famine-like conditions.

Guterres called for a nationwide cease-fire and U.N.-led negotiations to end the war. “In the end, the only path to peace is through an immediate, nationwide cease-fire. … There is no other solution,” he said.

Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, who is on a week-long visit to Yemen, also called the outcome of the conference “disappointing,” warning that the lack of funding would cause massive cuts to Yemen aid.

“The shortfall in humanitarian aid will be measured in lives lost,” he said.

Saudi Arabia, which leads the coalition fighting the Houthis, announced it would donate $430 million in aid for Yemen this year to be funneled through the U.N. and related agencies. Saudi Arabia had pledged half a billion dollars in 2020, the largest amount pledged by any country.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken led the U.S. delegation to the conference, which took place amid efforts by President Joe Biden’s administration to bring an end to the conflict.

He said the U.S. would donate $191 million for Yemen this year, a decrease of about $35 million from the amount it announced in the 2020 pledging conference.

He called for a cease-fire and for warring parties to halt their interference in aid operations and “allow assistance to reach the innocent women, children, and men.”

“We can only end the humanitarian crisis in Yemen by ending the war in Yemen. And so the United States is reinvigorating our diplomatic efforts to end the war,” Blinken said.

Other major pledges came from Germany ($241 million), the United Arab Emirates ($230 million), the United Kingdom ($123.23 million) and the European Union ( $116.2 million).

Wealthy countries, such as the U.S., Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, cut back drastically on aid to Yemen last year. The reductions came amid the pandemic, corruption allegations and concerns the aid might not be reaching its intended recipients in territories controlled by the rebels.

Last year, aid agencies received about $1.9 billion – half of what was needed and half of what was given the previous year, according to David Miliband, head of the International Rescue Committee.

Mohammed Abdul-Salam, spokesman for the Houthis, said such pledging conferences “don’t help Yemen as much as they help the aggression countries,” referring to the Saudi-led coalition.

“Halting the aggression and lifting the siege is the biggest aid that can be provided to Yemen,” he said in a series of tweets.

Several speakers at the conference called for the Houthis to stop their offensive on the central province of Marib and their increasing cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia.

“Money is not the only thing Yemenis need. They need an end to attacks on civilians; they need a ceasefire; they need an end to bureaucratic and political blockages on aid flows,” said Miliband.

The rebels renewed their offensive on Marib earlier last month to retake the oil-rich province from the internationally recognized government. But they have not made progress.

The fighting has displaced more than 10,500 people in just three weeks, the U.N. migration agency said Monday.

___

Associated Press writers Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, contributed.

Biden to meet with Mexican president amid migration issues

Biden to meet with Mexican president amid migration issues

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FILE – Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, left, poses for photos with then-Mexican presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in Mexico City, Monday March 5, 2012. President Biden is planning a virtual meeting with Mexican President Obrador. The meeting, on … more >

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By JOSH BOAK and MARK STEVENSON and ELLIOT SPAGAT

Associated Press

Monday, March 1, 2021

WASHINGTON (AP) – President Joe Biden plans a virtual meeting Monday with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador – a chance for the pair to talk more fully about migration, confronting the coronavirus and cooperating on economic and national security issues.

Mexico‘s president has said he intends during the meeting to propose to Biden a new Bracero-style immigrant labor program that could bring 600,000 to 800,000 Mexican and Central American immigrants a year to work legally in the United States.

A senior Biden administration official declined to say whether the U.S. president would back or oppose the proposal, saying only that both countries agree on the need to expand legal pathways for migration. The official insisted on anonymity to discuss private conversations. Asked about the Mexican president’s proposal. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that reinstituting the Bracero program would require action by Congress.

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The original Bracero program allowed Mexicans to work temporarily in the United States to fill labor shortages during World War II and for a couple of decades after the war. López Obrador said the U.S. economy needs Mexican workers because of “their strength, their youth.”

On Monday, López Obrador said his new proposal would be a program not only for agriculture workers but for other sectors and professionals.

The Biden official said the meeting will help Biden begin to institutionalize the relationship with Mexico, rather than let it be determined by tweets – a preferred form of diplomacy by his predecessor, Donald Trump.

The United States shares a trade agreement – most recently updated in 2018 and 2019 – with Mexico and Canada, which are its second- and third-biggest trade partners after China. The trade agreement could complicate López Obrador‘s efforts to possibly defund and eliminate independent regulatory, watchdog and transparency agencies in Mexico.

There are also questions of whether López Obrador will warm to Biden‘s efforts to address climate change and move to cleaner energy sources. The Mexican president supports a measure to make that country’s national grids prioritize power from government plants, many of which burn coal or fuel oil.

At Monday’s news conference, López Obrador confirmed they would discuss climate change, but he said “Biden is respectful of our sovereignty” because “he doesn’t see Mexico as America’s backyard.”

The Trump era was defined by the threat of tariffs, crackdowns on migration and his desire to construct a wall on the U.S. southern border, yet Trump appeared to enjoy an amicable relationship with his Mexican counterpart.

Mexico paid nothing for Trump’s cherished border wall, despite the U.S. leader’s repeated claims that it would. But López Obrador’s government did send troops to Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala to deal with an unprecedented wave of asylum-seekers bound for the U.S. Mexico hosted about 70,000 people seeking U.S. asylum while they waited for dates in immigration courts, a policy known as Remain in Mexico and officially as Migrant Protection Protocols.

The Biden administration immediately began to unwind Remain in Mexico, suspending it for new arrivals on the president’s first day in office and soon after announcing that an estimated 26,000 people with still-active cases could be released in the United States while their cases played out.

But Biden, through the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has kept extraordinary pandemic-related powers in place to immediately expel anyone arriving at the U.S. border from Mexico without an opportunity to seek asylum.

Mexicans and many Central Americans are typically returned to Mexico in less than two hours under Title 42 authority – so named for a section of a 1944 public health law. Biden aides have signaled they have no immediate plans to lift it.

Yet Biden has also shown an openness to immigrants who previously came to the country illegally. He is backing a bill to give legal status and a path to citizenship to all of the estimated 11 million people in the country who don’t have it. Biden also broke with Trump by supporting efforts to allow hundreds of thousands of people who came to the U.S. illegally as young children to remain in the country.

López Obrador said Saturday that an aging United States will also need temporary immigrant workers from Mexico to sustain economic growth.

He said he plans to tell Biden, “It is better that we start putting order on migratory flows.”

But pressures are building at the U.S. southern border with an increase in children crossing into the country without visas. This has created a challenge for the Biden administration. Border Patrol agents are apprehending an average of more than 200 children crossing the border without a parent per day, but nearly all 7,100 beds for immigrant children maintained by the Department of Health and Human Services are full.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Monday sought to push back against the notion that the crisis at the border was spinning out of control.

“The men and women of the Department of Homeland Security, are working around the clock seven days a week to ensure that we do not have a crisis at the border, that we manage the challenge as acute as the challenge is, and they are not doing that alone,” Mayorkas said.

The Biden administration has preserved a policy, imposed at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, of quickly expelling people captured along the border and has tried to dissuade people from attempting the journey. Mayorkas, who is expected to take part in Monday’s bilateral meeting, reiterated the administration‘s message to migrants that now is not the time to come to the United States.

“We are not saying don’t come,” Mayorkas said. “We are saying don’t come now.”

___

Stevenson reported from Mexico City and Spagat from San Diego.

Biden administration acknowledges border ‘crisis’ ahead of chat with Mexican president

Biden administration acknowledges border ‘crisis’ ahead of chat with Mexican president

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Asylum seekers receive food as they wait for news at the border, Friday, Feb. 19, 2021, in Tijuana, Mexico. After waiting months and sometimes years in Mexico, people seeking asylum in the United States are being allowed into the country … more >

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By Stephen Dinan

The Washington Times

Monday, March 1, 2021

The new administration is acknowledging an ongoing border “crisis” as President Biden prepares to hold a virtual meeting with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Briefing reporters ahead of the confab, a senior administration official said Mr. Biden will ask what more Mexico might do to stop the new surge of illegal immigrants, even as the president looks to show he has a plan to improve treatment of those who do reach the U.S.

Mr. Lopez Obrador said over the weekend that he will propose a “Bracero”-style immigration program to Mr. Biden in the video chat, calling for hundreds of thousands of Mexican and Central American migrants to be admitted each year to the U.S. to work.

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The original Bracero program was instituted during World War II and lasted two decades, bringing in millions of migrant laborers who worked low-skilled jobs, with controls to try to make sure they went home when their time was up. The program became controversial over treatment of the workers and over claims they were undercutting American workers.

The senior U.S. official briefing reporters said he had seen those reports, but that’s not the administration’s immediate interest.

“For now, we are focused on managing a crisis at the border,” the official said.

Last week White House press secretary Jen Psaki declined to call the border situation a “crisis.”

“I don’t think I’m going to put new labels on it from here or from the podium,” she said, though she said the situation was “a priority of the administration.”

Mr. Biden’s early moves on immigration have sparked a new migrant surge, with large groups of illegal immigrant families making their way up through Central America and Mexico to the border.

Though top officials say the border is closed to them, hundreds are being admitted each day.

That’s due in part to weakening cooperation from Mexico, which under the last administration cooperated on taking back people the U.S. expelled under coronavirus orders, or pushed back across the border under the Migrant Protection Protocols.

The U.S official said Mexico in some regions of the border now refuses to take back families from other countries who show up at the U.S. border with children under age 6. That’s a large portion of the migrants now arriving at the border, the U.S. official said.

He said Mr. Biden is deeply immersed in the issues, “down to a tactical level,” and is getting updates on the border situation “in real time.”

Pakistan hopes to save $3 billion in new gas deal with Qatar

Pakistan hopes to save $3 billion in new gas deal with Qatar

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Associated Press

Monday, March 1, 2021

ISLAMABAD (AP) – Pakistan’s landmark, new deal with Qatar for liquefied natural gas at lower rates will save Islamabad a total of about $3 billion over the next 10 years, an adviser to the country’s prime minister said Monday.

The agreement, signed last Friday, will save the state $317 million annually due to the reduced price of the gas compared to the 2015 agreement between the two countries, according to Nadeem Babar, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s adviser on petroleum.

This “will result in the lowering of the overall cost of liquefied natural gas” imported from Qatar, Babar said.

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Under the agreement, which comes into effect in January 2022, Pakistan will import liquefied natural gas – or LNG – from Qatar at a reduced price of about 31%, compared to the previous agreement signed in 2015 for 15 years. At the time, Islamabad’s agreeing to pay a higher price had drawn criticism from experts.

Many Pakistanis have been rallying, angry over long power cuts in the summer and shortages of natural gas in winter, to demand an uninterrupted supply of electricity and gas. Khan’s government has said it was trying its best to overcome an energy shortfall through different measures.

New WTO chief pushes for vaccine access, fisheries deal

New WTO chief pushes for vaccine access, fisheries deal

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New Director-General of the World Trade Organisation Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, center, poses between WTO Deputy Directors-General Alan Wolff, left, and Karl Brauner upon her arrival at the WTO headquarters to takes office in Geneva, Switzerland, Monday, March 1, 2021. Nigeria’s Ngozi … more >

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By JAMEY KEATEN

Associated Press

Monday, March 1, 2021

GENEVA (AP) – The new head of the World Trade Organization called Monday for a “technology transfer” when it comes to COVID-19 vaccines and urged member nations to reach a deal to reduce overfishing after years of fruitless talks as she laid out her top priorities after taking office.

Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a Nigerian economist and former government minister, donned a mask and doled out welcoming elbow bumps as she took up her job at WTO headquarters on the banks of Lake Geneva. Still, she immediately set about trying to change the organization‘s culture.

“It cannot be business as usual. We have to change our approach from debate and rounds of questions to delivering results,” she told ambassadors and other top government envoys that make up the 164-member body’s General Council.

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“The world is leaving the WTO behind. Leaders and decision-makers are impatient for change,” she said, noting several trade ministers had told her that “if things don’t change,” they would not attend the WTO‘s biggest event – a ministerial meeting – “because it is a waste of their time.”

Okonjo-Iweala, 66, is both the first woman and the first African to serve as the WTO‘s director-general. Her brisk comments were a departure from the more cautious approach of her predecessor, Roberto Azevedo, who resigned on Aug. 31 – a year before the end of his term.

She did not take sides on an effort led by South Africa and India to wrest a temporary waiver of WTO rules on intellectual property protections, which could help expand production of COVID-19 vaccines and expedite their rollout around the world. But she gave an early shout-out to the developing world.

While “intensifying” dialogue continues on the vaccine waiver proposal, Okonjo-Iweala said: “I propose that we ‘walk and chew gum’ by also focusing on the immediate needs of dozens of poor countries that have yet to vaccinate a single person. People are dying in poor countries.”

She alluded to “difficult” targets to produce 10 billion doses, “so we must focus on working with companies to open up and license more viable manufacturing sites now in emerging markets and developing countries. We must get them to work with us on know-how and technology transfer now.”

As for fisheries, WTO negotiators have been tasked with striking a deal that could help eliminate subsidies for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, and prohibit fisheries subsidies that contribute to overfishing and an overcapacity of fishing boats.

Member states of the WTO, which works to craft accords that can ensure smooth international trade, have struggled to reach an agreement on fisheries even after two decades of work. Okonjo-Iweala called for finalizing the negotiations “as soon as possible,” and credited Colombian ambassador Santiago Wills, who chairs those talks, for his “really hard” work.

“My presence is to try and support him proactively to try and unblock the situation so he can complete the fantastic work he has been doing,” she said alongside Wills as they met with advocacy groups outside the WTO gates. “It has been 20 years – and 20 years is enough.”

Wills said it was “music to my ears to see on the first day the (director general) comes here and makes a statement on the fisheries negotiations.”

Okonjo-Iweala‘s first day also consisted of meeting staffers and attending her first meeting of the General Council. The closed-door council meeting was largely held by videoconference because of measures aimed to fight the pandemic.

Okonjo-Iweala’s victory in the race last fall was delayed largely because the U.S. administration under Donald Trump supported another candidate. Her appointment came through last month when the Biden administration cleared the way for her selection at the trade body, whose rules require consensus.

The WTO is facing headwinds such as rising protectionism. Its dispute settlement system has been blocked because the U.S. has almost singlehandedly prevented appointments to its Appellate Body – a rough equivalent to an appeals court.

Okonjo-Iweala said last month that “wide-ranging reforms” are needed, vowing that a first priority would be to address the economic and health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic – such as by working to lift export restrictions on supplies and vaccines to get them distributed to countries in need.

Defying deadly crackdown, crowds again protest Myanmar coup

Defying deadly crackdown, crowds again protest Myanmar coup

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Anti-coup protesters run away from tear gas launched by security forces in Yangon, Myanmar, Monday, March 1, 2021. Defiant crowds returned to the streets of Myanmar’s biggest city on Monday, determined to continue their protests against the military’s seizure of … more >

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By

Associated Press

Monday, March 1, 2021

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Police in Myanmar’s biggest city fired tear gas Monday at defiant crowds who returned to the streets to protest last month’s coup, despite reports that security forces had killed at least 18 people a day earlier.

The protesters in Yangon were chased as they tried to gather at their usual meeting spot at the Hledan Center intersection. Demonstrators scattered and sought in vain to rinse the irritating gas from their eyes, but later regrouped.

The coup reversed years of slow progress toward democracy in Myanmar after five decades of military rule. It came Feb. 1, the same day a newly elected Parliament was supposed to take office. Ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s party would have led that government, but instead she was detained along with President Win Myint and other senior officials.

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The army has leveled several charges against Suu Kyi – an apparent effort by the military to provide a legal veneer for her detention and potentially to bar her from running in the election the junta has promised to hold in one year. On Monday, Suu Kyi made a court appearance via videoconference and was charged with two more offenses, her lawyer Khin Maung Zaw told reporters.

Accused of inciting unrest, she was charged under a law that dates from British colonial days and has long been criticized as a vaguely defined catch-all law that inhibits freedom of expression. That charge carries a maximum sentence of two years in prison. The other charge from Monday carries a one-year sentence.

Following her detention on the day of the coup, the 75-year-old Suu Kyi was initially held at her residence in the capital of Naypyitaw, but members of her National League for Democracy party now say they don’t know where she is.

Since the takeover, a movement of protests in cities across the country has been growing – and the junta’s response has become increasingly violent.

The U.N. said it had “credible information” that at least 18 people were killed and 30 were wounded across Myanmar on Sunday. Counts from other sources, such the Democratic Voice of Burma, an independent television and online news outlet, put the death toll in the 20s.

Any of the reports would make it the highest single-day death toll since the military takeover. The junta has also made mass arrests, and the independent Assistance Association for Political Prisoners reported that as many as 1,000 people were detained Sunday, though it has only confirmed 270 of those. Several journalists have been among those detained, including one for The Associated Press.

At least five people are believed to have been killed Sunday in Yangon when police shot at protesters, who have remained non-violent despite provocation from the security forces and pro-military counter-demonstrators.

People erected makeshift sidewalk shrines Monday at the spots where several of the victims were shot and also paid their respects by standing outside the hospitals where the bodies were being released to families.

In Dawei, a small city in southeastern Myanmar where an estimated five people were killed Sunday, the number of protesters on the streets Monday was lower than usual. Marchers there split into smaller groups, parading through the city to the applause of bystanders who also made the three-finger salutes adopted by the resistance movement to show their support.

Confirming the deaths of protesters has been difficult amid the chaos and general lack of news from official sources, especially in areas outside Yangon, Mandalay and Naypyitaw. But in many cases, there was evidence posted online such as videos of shootings, photos of bullet casings collected afterwards and gruesome pictures of bodies.

In a statement published Monday in the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper, Myanmar’s Foreign Ministry declared that the junta “is exercising utmost restraint to avoid the use of force in managing the violent protests systematically, in accordance with domestic and international laws in order to keep minimum casualties.”

But U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres strongly condemned the crackdown, calling the use of lethal force against peaceful protesters and arbitrary arrests “unacceptable,” and expressed serious concern at the increase in deaths and serious injuries, said U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric.

“What the world is watching in Myanmar is outrageous and unacceptable,” the U.N.’s independent expert on human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, said in a separate statement. “Words of condemnation are necessary and welcome but insufficient. The world must act. We must all act.”

He proposed that countries could institute a global embargo on the sale of arms to Myanmar, “tough targeted and coordinated sanctions” against those responsible for the coup, the crackdown and other rights abuses, and sanctions against the business interests of the military.

Social media posts from Myanmar have increasingly urged the international community to invoke the doctrine of the “responsibility to protect” to intervene directly to restrain the junta.

Any kind of coordinated measures, however, would be difficult to implement as two permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, China and Russia, would almost certainly veto them on the basis of being opposed to interference in the internal affairs of other countries.

In Washington, White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan issued a statement saying the U.S. is “alarmed” by the violence and stands in solidarity with Myanmar‘s people, “who continue to bravely voice their aspirations for democracy, rule of law, and respect for human rights.”

Washington has imposed sanctions on Myanmar because of the coup, and Sullivan said it would “impose further costs on those responsible,” promising details “in the coming days.”

Security forces began employing rougher tactics on Saturday, taking preemptive action to break up protests and make mass arrests. Many of those detained were taken to Insein Prison in Yangon’s northern outskirts, historically notorious for holding political prisoners.

Among the arrests made Sunday, the independent Assistance Association for Political Prisoners was able to identify about 270 people, bringing to 1,132 the total number of people the group has confirmed being arrested, charged or sentenced since the coup.

An AP journalist was taken into police custody on Saturday morning while providing news coverage of the protests. The journalist, Thein Zaw, remains in police custody.

The AP called for his immediate release.

“Independent journalists must be allowed to freely and safely report the news without fear of retribution. AP decries in the strongest terms the arbitrary detention of Thein Zaw,” said Ian Phillips, the AP’s vice president for international news. The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Myanmar also condemned the arrest.

Netanyahu accuses Iran of attacking Israeli-owned cargo ship

Netanyahu accuses Iran of attacking Israeli-owned cargo ship

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In this Aug. 14, 2020, photo, the vehicle cargo ship Helios Ray is seen at the Port of Chiba in Chiba, Japan. An explosion struck the Israeli-owned Helios Ray as it sailed out of the Middle East on Friday, Feb. … more >

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By Ilan Ben Zion

Associated Press

Monday, March 1, 2021

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday accused Iran of attacking an Israeli-owned ship in the Gulf of Oman last week, a mysterious explosion that further spiked security concerns in the region.

Without offering any evidence to his claim, Netanyahu told Israeli public broadcaster Kan that “it was indeed an act by Iran, that’s clear.”

Iran is the greatest enemy of Israel, I am determined to halt it. We are hitting it in the entire region,” Netanyahu said. Iran promptly dismissed the charges.

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The blast struck the Israeli-owned MV Helios Ray, a Bahamian-flagged roll-on, roll-off vehicle cargo ship, as it was sailing out of the Middle East on its way to Singapore on Friday. The crew was unharmed, but the vessel sustained two holes on its port side and two on its starboard side just above the waterline, according to American defense officials.

The ship came to Dubai’s port for repairs on Sunday, days after the blast that revived security concerns in Mideast waterways amid heightened tensions with Iran.

Iran has sought to pressure the U.S. to lift sanctions on Tehran as President Joe Biden’s administration considers option for returning to negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. Biden has said repeatedly the U.S. would return to the nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers that his predecessor, Donald Trump, withdrew from in 2018 only after Iran restores its full compliance with the accord.

The explosion on the Israeli-owned ship last week recalled the tense summer of 2019, when the U.S. military accused Iran of attacking several oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman with limpet mines, designed to be attached magnetically to a ship’s hull. The Gulf of Oman leads through the narrow Strait of Hormuz, a vital passage for the world’s oil supplies. Tehran has denied the accusations that it was behind the limpet mine attacks.

It remains unclear what caused Friday’s blast on the Helios Ray. The vessel had discharged cars at various ports in the Persian Gulf before the explosion forced it to reverse course. Over the weekend, Israel’s defense minister and army chief had both indicated they held Iran responsible for what they said was an attack on the vessel.

Iran responded to Netanyahu‘s statement saying it “strongly rejected” the claim that it was behind the attack. In a press briefing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said Netanyahu was “suffering from an obsession with Iran” and described his charges as “fear-mongering.”

Khatibzadeh also accused Israel of taking “suspicious actions in the region” against Iran in recent months to undermine the 2015 nuclear deal, without elaborating, and vowed Iran would respond.

Israel knows very well that our response in the field of national security has always been fierce and accurate,” he said.

Overnight, Syrian state media reported a series of alleged Israeli airstrikes near Damascus, saying air defense systems had intercepted most of the missiles. Israeli media reports said the alleged airstrikes were on Iranian targets in response to the ship attack.

Israel has struck hundreds of Iranian targets in neighboring Syria in recent years, and Netanyahu has repeatedly said Israel will not accept a permanent Iranian military presence there. Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah have provided military support to Syrian President Bashar Assad in the more than decade-long Syrian civil war.

The Israeli military declined to comment.

Iran also has blamed Israel for a recent series of attacks, including another mysterious explosion last summer that destroyed an advanced centrifuge assembly plant at its Natanz nuclear facility and the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a top Iranian scientist who founded the Islamic Republic’s military nuclear program two decades ago. Iran has repeatedly vowed to avenge Fakhrizadeh’s killing.

“It is most important that Iran doesn’t have nuclear weapons, with or without an agreement, this I also told to my friend Biden,” Netanyahu said Monday.

Iranian threats of retaliation have raised alarms in Israel since the signing of normalization deals with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in September.

___

Associated Press writers Isabel DeBre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.

‘Not a good idea:’ Experts concerned about pope trip to Iraq

‘Not a good idea:’ Experts concerned about pope trip to Iraq

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A Christian priest holds a Vatican flag as he walks by a poster of Pope Francis during preparations for the Pope’s visit in Mar Youssif Church in Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. (AP/Photo/Hadi Mizban) more >

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By NICOLE WINFIELD and SAMYA KULLAB

Associated Press

Sunday, February 28, 2021

VATICAN CITY (AP) – Infectious disease experts are expressing concern about Pope Francis’ upcoming trip to Iraq, given a sharp rise in coronavirus infections there, a fragile health care system and the unavoidable likelihood that Iraqis will crowd to see him.

No one wants to tell Francis to call it off, and the Iraqi government has every interest in showing off its relative stability by welcoming the first pope to the birthplace of Abraham. The March 5-8 trip is expected to provide a sorely-needed spiritual boost to Iraq’s beleaguered Christians while furthering the Vatican’s bridge-building efforts with the Muslim world.

But from a purely epidemiological standpoint, as well as the public health message it sends, a papal trip to Iraq amid a global pandemic is not advisable, health experts say.

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Their concerns were reinforced with the news Sunday that the Vatican ambassador to Iraq, the main point person for the trip who would have escorted Francis to all his appointments, tested positive for COVID-19 and was self-isolating.

In an email to The Associated Press, the embassy said Archbishop Mitja Leskovar’s symptoms were mild and that he was continuing to prepare for Francis’ visit.

Beyond his case, experts note that wars, economic crises and an exodus of Iraqi professionals have devastated the country’s hospital system, while studies show most of Iraq’s new COVID-19 infections are the highly-contagious variant first identified in Britain.

“I just don’t think it’s a good idea,” said Dr. Navid Madani, virologist and founding director of the Center for Science Health Education in the Middle East and North Africa at Harvard Medical School’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

The Iranian-born Madani co-authored an article in The Lancet last year on the region’s uneven response to COVID-19, noting that Iraq, Syria and Yemen were poorly placed to cope, given they are still struggling with extremist insurgencies and have 40 million people who need humanitarian aid.

In a telephone interview, Madani said Middle Easterners are known for their hospitality, and cautioned that the enthusiasm among Iraqis of welcoming a peace-maker like Francis to a neglected, war-torn part of the world might lead to inadvertent violations of virus control measures.

“This could potentially lead to unsafe or superspreading risks,” she said.

Dr. Bharat Pankhania, an infectious disease control expert at the University of Exeter College of Medicine, concurred.

“It’s a perfect storm for generating lots of cases which you won’t be able to deal with,” he said.

Organizers promise to enforce mask mandates, social distancing and crowd limits, as well as the possibility of increased testing sites, two Iraqi government officials said.

The health care protocols are “critical but can be managed,” one government official told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity.

And the Vatican has taken its own precautions, with the 84-year-old pope, his 20-member Vatican entourage and the 70-plus journalists on the papal plane all vaccinated.

But the Iraqis gathering in the north, center and south of the country to attend Francis’ indoor and outdoor Masses, hear his speeches and participate in his prayer meetings are not vaccinated.

And that, scientists say, is the problem.

“We are in the middle of a global pandemic. And it is important to get the correct messages out,” Pankhania said. “The correct messages are: the less interactions with fellow human beings, the better.”

He questioned the optics of the Vatican delegation being inoculated while the Iraqis are not, and noted that Iraqis would only take such risks to go to those events because the pope was there.

In words addressed to Vatican officials and the media, he said: “You are all protected from severe disease. So if you get infected, you’re not going to die. But the people coming to see you may get infected and may die.”

“Is it wise under that circumstance for you to just turn up? And because you turn up, people turn up to see you and they get infected?” he asked.

The World Health Organization was diplomatic when asked about the wisdom of a papal trip to Iraq, saying countries should evaluate the risk of an event against the infection situation, and then decide if it should be postponed.

“It’s all about managing that risk,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19. “It’s about looking at the epidemiologic situation in the country and then making sure that if that event is to take place, that it can take place as safely as possible.”

Francis has said he intends to go even if most Iraqis have to watch him on television to avoid infection. The important thing, he told Catholic News Service, is “they will see that the pope is there in their country.”

Francis has frequently called for an equitable distribution of vaccines and respect for government health measures, though he tends to not wear face masks. Francis for months has eschewed even socially distanced public audiences at the Vatican to limit the chance of contagion.

Dr. Michael Head, senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton’s Faculty of Medicine, said the number of new daily cases in Iraq is “increasing significantly at the moment” with the Health Ministry reporting around 4,000 a day, close to the height of its first wave in September.

Head said for any trip to Iraq, there must be infection control practices in force, including mask-wearing, hand-washing, social distancing and good ventilation in indoor spaces.

“Hopefully we will see proactive approaches to infection control in place during the pope’s visit to Baghdad,” he said.

The Iraqi government imposed a modified lockdown and curfew in mid-February amid a new surge in cases, closing schools and mosques and leaving restaurants and cafes only open for takeout. But the government decided against a full shutdown because of the difficulty of enforcing it and the financial impact on Iraq’s battered economy, the Iraqi officials told AP.

Many Iraqis remain lax in using masks and some doubt the severity of the virus.

Madani, the Harvard virologist, urged trip organizers to let science and data guide their decision-making.

A decision to reschedule or postpone the papal trip, or move it to a virtual format, would “be quite impactful from a global leadership standpoint” because “it would signal prioritizing the safety of Iraq’s public,” she said.

___

Kullab reported from Baghdad. Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed.

___

Follow all of AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic, https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-vaccine and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

Israeli-owned ship docked in Dubai after mysterious blast

Israeli-owned ship docked in Dubai after mysterious blast

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The Israeli-owned cargo ship, Helios Ray, sits docked in port after arriving earlier in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021. The ship has been damaged by an unexplained blast at the gulf of Oman on Thursday. (AP Photo/Kamran … more >

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By ISABEL DEBRE

Associated Press

Sunday, February 28, 2021

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – An Israeli-owned cargo ship that suffered a mysterious explosion in the Gulf of Oman came to Dubai‘s port for repairs Sunday, days after the blast that revived security concerns in Mideast waterways amid heightened tensions with Iran.

Associated Press journalists saw the hulking Israeli-owned MV Helios Ray sitting at dry dock facilities at Dubai‘s Port Rashid. Although the crew was unharmed in the blast, the vessel sustained two holes on its port side and two on its starboard side just above the waterline, according to American defense officials.

It remains unclear what caused the blast, but the incident comes amid sharply rising tension between the U.S. and Iran over its unraveling 2015 nuclear deal. Iran has sought to pressure President Joe Biden’s administration to grant the sanctions relief it received under the accord with world powers that former President Donald Trump abandoned.

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From the shore, AP journalists could not immediately see damage to the vessel. The dock blocked the view of the vessel’s starboard side down to the waterline and the port side could only be seen from a distance. The blue and white ship was anchored near Dubai’s storied floating hotel, the Queen Elizabeth 2. An Emirati coast guard vessel was seen sailing behind the ship, with Dubai police and Emirati armed forces vehicles parked nearby.

Emirati officials did not respond to requests for comment on the vessel docking in the country.

Friday’s blast on the ship, a Bahamian-flagged roll-on, roll-off vehicle cargo vessel, recalled a string of attacks on foreign oil tankers in 2019 that the U.S. Navy blamed on Iran. Tehran denied any role in the suspected assaults, which happened near the Strait of Hormuz, a key oil chokepoint.

Several Israeli officials hinted that they believed Iran was responsible for the explosion on the ship. In a speech at an army base on Sunday, Israeli military Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi accused Iran of carrying out “operations against civilian targets,” a charge the army later confirmed was in reference to the suspected ship attack.

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz echoed concerns about Iran‘s threats against Israel, adding in a speech that the army was “working to build up our forces and is preparing itself for any scenario, including one in which we would need to take operative action to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.” In an interview with Israeli Kan TV the day before, he said the circumstances of the explosion pointed toward Iranian involvement but stressed it needed to be investigated further.

Meanwhile on Sunday, Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for firing a ballistic missile and nine bomb-laden drones at “sensitive sites” in Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh the night before. The group’s military spokesman Yahia Sarei added that another six explosive drones targeted “military positions” in the southwestern cities of Abha and Khamis Mushait. The Saudi interception of the missile set off an apparent explosion over Riyadh that startled residents and scattered shell debris, without causing casualties.

The Helios Ray had discharged cars at various ports in the Persian Gulf before making its way out of the Middle East toward Singapore. The blast hit as the ship was sailing from the Saudi port Dammam out of the Gulf of Oman, forcing it to turn to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, for inspection.

Iranian authorities have not publicly commented on the ship. The country’s hard-line Kayhan daily, whose editor-in-chief was appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, alleged the Helios Ray was “possibly” on an “espionage” mission in the region, without offering any evidence to support the claim. The Sunday report speculated the ship may have been “trapped in an ambush by a branch of resistance axis,” referring to Iranian proxies in the region.

Iran also has blamed Israel for a recent series of attacks, including a mysterious explosion last summer that destroyed an advanced centrifuge assembly plant at its Natanz nuclear facility and the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a top Iranian scientist who founded the Islamic Republic’s military nuclear program two decades ago.

Iran’s repeated vows to avenge Fakhrizadeh’s killing have raised alarms in Israel, particularly as the Gulf sees an increase in Israeli traffic following the country’s normalization deals with the UAE and Bahrain.

___

Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell and Malak Harb in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Ilan Ben Zion and Josef Federman in Jerusalem and Samy Magdy in Cairo contributed to this report.

Pence, world leaders call for unity at international Rally of Hope

Pence, world leaders call for unity at international Rally of Hope

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The rally, organized by the Universal Peace Federation (UPF), drew well over 1 million participants from across the globe, all united in the fight against oppression, poverty and racial discrimination. more >

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By Ben Wolfgang

The Washington Times

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Former Vice President Mike Pence on Saturday joined other world leaders in calling on nations to forge new friendships and break down historic barriers to peace as the globe pulls free from the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mr. Pence said as coronavirus case counts drop and vaccination levels mount, it is now time to look ahead and begin building a better tomorrow.

“Every day we are one day closer to putting the long night of the coronavirus behind us. Rays of sunlight have pierced the horizon and a bright new day is dawning,” Mr. Pence told current and former heads of state and prominent U.S. political figures participating in a digital “Rally of Hope.”

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“Now, as nations undertake the urgent work of restoring lost jobs, reopening shuttered industries, we must remember that our task is not merely to rebuild the world of the past, but to forge a brighter future for all our citizens,” he said.

The rally, organized by the Universal Peace Federation (UPF), drew well over 1 million participants from across the globe, all united in the fight against oppression, poverty and racial discrimination. Saturday’s event was the fifth such rally since last August, with the virtual gatherings offering a valuable outlet for optimism and encouragement in what’s been a bleak period amid the coronavirus outbreak.

In addition to Mr. Pence, a host of other prominent officials and world leaders spoke at Saturday’s rally, including: Cape Verde President Jorge Carlos Fonseca; Guyana Prime Minister Mark Phillips; Former South Africa President F.W. de Klerk; and others.

In her own remarks Saturday, UPF co-founder Dr. Hak Ja Han Moon expressed hope that the longstanding dream of a united Korean peninsula will become a reality.

“The people of Korea have been chosen by heaven. Nonetheless, the sad reality is the Korean peninsula remains divided,” she said. “And we dream of a heavenly unified Korea. That dream will come true. If the Korean peninsula, if the people of Korea can become one people and if the Asia Pacific can be united into heavenly civilization, and connect the entire world, we can become a force for good that will expand to all of the continents and oceans of the world.”

Other speakers Saturday said that COVID-19 should serve as a reminder of how fragile life can be, and of the need for human beings to work past even the most entrenched divisions.

“I am optimistic that this unprecedented crisis is also our chance to put aside our differences, to show we are prepared to love our neighbor as ourselves and work as one to create the better and more peaceful world we all want to see,” said David Beasley, former Republican governor of South Carolina who now serves as executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme.

“Every single one of us can contribute and help to build a brighter future for the children of Korea and beyond. If we work together in partnership, I truly believe we will one day achieve our dream of a world free from hunger and conflict,” he said. “I also know for sure that when people come together to pray together, break bread together, miracles begin to happen. So, let us pray together for peace and healing on the Korean peninsula.”

‘Within our lifetime’

In his address, Mr. Pence also underscored the unshakeable U.S. commitment to its ally South Korea, and he stressed that Washington will stand hand in hand with Japan and other Pacific allies in the face of China’s rise as an economic and military power.

A unified Korean peninsula would contribute greatly to a more stable, peaceful Pacific region — and Mr. Pence said that goal is within reach.

“We will stand firm against our common adversaries, even as we work in good faith to turn our adversaries into friends. In so doing, I believe we can lay a foundation to bring about the peaceful unification of Korea within our lifetime,” Mr. Pence said. “That vision of freedom, peace, and prosperity is the same vision the people of the United States and the Republic of Korea have shared for nearly 70 years: A Korea united by the universal values of human dignity, liberty, and economic freedom.”

Mrs. Moon, the leader of the Unification Church, and her late husband, Rev. Sun Myung Moon, devoted their lives to the reunification of the Korean Peninsula and to the promotion of world peace. They founded The Washington Times.

UPF’s global reach was evident Saturday as leading officials from all corners of the planet delivered messages of hope.

“Conflict among humans is a concept as old as time, and peace, as a result, has evaded us on this earth for centuries,” said Mark Phillips, prime minister of Guyana. “But every new day, we have a chance to start anew and fix the errors of the past while forging a new path forward; a path to resolving conflict and uniting as a global unit.”

The need for countries to come together as one has never been more important. Officials said that it will be crucial to lend a hand — economically, spiritually, and in other ways — to less fortunate nations that face the toughest climb back from the pandemic.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has had repercussions not only of a biomedical and epidemiological nature on a global scale, but also social, economic, political, cultural and historical impacts unprecedented in the recent history of epidemics,” said Cape Verde President Jorge Carlos de Almeida Fonseca. “This crisis is global and multifaceted. It is a health crisis, but it is also, without doubt, also an economic, financial, social, environmental and often political crisis — shaping the development of almost the entire planet, and with negative consequences in the least developed countries.”

Internet disruption reported in southeast Iran amid unrest

Internet disruption reported in southeast Iran amid unrest

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By ISABEL DEBRE

Associated Press

Saturday, February 27, 2021

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – Iran’s impoverished southeast has been experiencing wide disruptions of internet services, experts said, as unrest gripped the remote province after fatal border shootings.

Several rights groups reported in a joint statement that authorities shut down the mobile data network in the restive province of Sistan and Baluchestan, calling the disruptions an apparent “tool to conceal” the government’s harsh crackdown on protests convulsing the area.

The reports of internet interference come as Iranian authorities and semiofficial news agencies increasingly acknowledge the turmoil challenging local authorities in the southeast – a highly sensitive matter in a country that seeks to repress all hints of political dissent.

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Starting Wednesday, the government shut down the mobile data network across Sistan and Baluchestan, where 96% of the population accesses the internet only through their phones, rights groups said, crippling the key communication tool.

After four days of unverified “localized regional network disruptions” amid the protests, NetBlocks, which monitors worldwide internet access, confirmed a new disruption to internet connectivity in the province beginning late Saturday.

“This is Iran’s traditional response to any kind of protest,” Amir Rashidi from Miaan Group, a human rights organization that focuses on digital security in the Middle East, told The Associated Press on Saturday. “Shutting down the internet to block news and pictures getting out makes (authorities) feel more comfortable opening fire.”

The week saw a series of escalating confrontations between police and protesters. Crowds with light arms and grenade launchers descended on Kurin checkpoint near Iran’s border with Pakistan on Thursday, Abouzar Mehdi Nakhaie, the governor of Zahedan, the provincial capital, said in comments carried by Iran’s semiofficial ISNA news agency. The violence killed one policeman, he added.

Earlier this week, protesters attacked the district governor’s office and stormed two police stations in the city of Saravan, outraged over the shootings of fuel smugglers trying to cross back into Iran from Pakistan on Monday. The border shootings and ensuing clashes killed at least two people, the government said. Many rights activists in the area reported higher death tolls without offering evidence.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Saeed Khatibzadeh, vowed Friday to investigate the deaths. Officials insisted that calm had returned to the streets.

The Iranian government previously has cut off internet access and cellphone service in tense times. In the fall of 2019, for instance, Iran imposed a near nationwide internet blackout as anti-government protests sparked by an increase in fuel prices roiled the capital of Tehran and other cities. Hundreds were reportedly killed in the crackdown nationwide.

Given that authorities targeted the mobile network and not the landline in Sistan and Baluchestan, the disruption likely wouldn’t appear on regular network data, said Mahsa Alimardani, researcher at Article 19, an international organization that fights censorship. The area already suffered from unreliable internet connections.

“This targeted shutdown was very intentional because they knew the realities of this province,” where people are poor and use cheap phones as opposed to computers, Alimardani said.

Sistan and Baluchestan is one of most unstable and least developed parts of Iran. The relationship between its predominantly Sunni residents and Iran’s Shiite theocracy long has been fraught. A low-level violent insurgency in Sistan and Baluchestan involves several militant groups, including those demanding more autonomy for the region.

The area also lies on a major trafficking route for drugs and petrol, which is highly subsidized in Iran and a key source of income for smugglers.

Pakistan expert: Religiosity aiding spike in militancy

Pakistan expert: Religiosity aiding spike in militancy

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FILE – In this Aug. 5, 2012, file photo, Pakistani Taliban patrol in their stronghold of Shawal in Pakistani tribal region of South Waziristan. Militant attacks are on the rise in Pakistan amid a growing religiosity that has brought greater … more >

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By KATHY GANNON

Associated Press

Saturday, February 27, 2021

ISLAMABAD (AP) – Militant attacks are on the rise in Pakistan amid a growing religiosity that has brought greater intolerance, prompting one expert to voice concern the country could be overwhelmed by religious extremism.

Pakistani authorities are embracing strengthening religious belief among the population to bring the country closer together. But it’s doing just the opposite, creating intolerance and opening up space for a creeping resurgence in militancy, said Mohammad Amir Rana, executive director of the independent Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies.

“Unfortunately, instead of helping to inculcate better ethics and integrity, this phenomenon is encouraging a tunnel vision” that encourages violence, intolerance and hate, he wrote recently in a local newspaper. “Religiosity has begun to define the Pakistani citizenry.”

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Militant violence in Pakistan has spiked: In the past week alone, four vocational school instructors who advocated for women’s rights were traveling together when they were gunned down in a Pakistan border region. A Twitter death threat against Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai attracted an avalanche of trolls. They heaped abuse on the young champion of girls education, who survived a Pakistani Taliban bullet to the head. A couple of men on a motorcycle opened fire on a police check-post not far from the Afghan border killing a young police constable.

In recent weeks, at least a dozen military and paramilitary men have been killed in ambushes, attacks and operations against militant hideouts, mostly in the western border regions.

A military spokesman this week said the rising violence is a response to an aggressive military assault on militant hideouts in regions bordering Afghanistan and the reunification of splintered and deeply violent anti-Pakistan terrorist groups, led by the Tehreek-e-Taliban. The group is driven by a radical religious ideology that espouses violence to enforce its extreme views.

Gen. Babar Ifitkar said the reunified Pakistani Taliban have found a headquarters in eastern Afghanistan. He also accused hostile neighbor India of financing and outfitting a reunified Taliban, providing them with equipment like night vision goggles, improvised explosive devises and small weapons.

India and Pakistan routinely trade allegations that the other is using militants to undermine stability and security at home.

Security analyst and fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation, Asfandyar Mir, said the reunification of a splintered militancy is dangerous news for Pakistan.

“The reunification of various splinters into the (Tehreek-e-Taliban) central organization is a major development, which makes the group very dangerous,” said Mir.

The TTP claimed responsibility for the 2012 shooting of Yousafzai. Its former spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan, who mysteriously escaped Pakistan military custody to flee to the country, tweeted a promise that the Taliban would kill her if she returned home.

Iftikar, in a briefing of foreign journalists this week, said Pakistani military personnel aided Ehsan’s escape, without elaborating. He said the soldiers involved had been punished and efforts were being made to return Ehsan to custody.

The government reached out to Twitter to shut down Ehsan’s account after he threatened Yousafzai, although the military and government at first suggested it was a fake account.

But Rana, the commentator, said the official silence that greeted the threatening tweet encouraged religious intolerance to echo in Pakistani society unchecked.

“The problem is religiosity has very negative expression in Pakistan,” he said in an interview late Friday. “It hasn’t been utilized to promote the positive, inclusive tolerant religion.”

Instead, successive Pakistani governments as well as its security establishments have exploited extreme religious ideologies to garner votes, appease political religious groups, or target enemies, he said.

The 2018 general elections that brought cricket star-turned-politician Imran Khan to power was mired in allegations of support from the powerful military for hard-line religious groups.

Those groups include the Tehreek-e-Labbaik party, whose single-point agenda is maintaining and propagating the country’s deeply controversial blasphemy law. That law calls for the death penalty for anyone insulting Islam and is most often used to settle disputes. It often targets minorities, mostly Shiite Muslims, who makeup up about 15% of mostly Sunni Pakistan’s 220 million people.

Mir, the analyst, said the rise in militancy has benefited from state policies that have been either supportive or ambivalent toward militancy as well as from sustained exposure of the region to violence. Most notable are the protracted war in neighboring Afghanistan and the simmering tensions between hostile neighbors India and Pakistan, two countries that possess a nuclear weapons’ arsenal.

“More than extreme religious thought, the sustained exposure of the region to political violence, the power of militant organizations in the region, state policy which is either supportive or ambivalent towards various forms of militancy … and the influence of the politics of Afghanistan incubate militancy in the region,” he said.

Mir and Rana both pointed to the Pakistani government’s failure to draw radical thinkers away from militant organizations, as groups that seemed at least briefly to eschew a violent path have returned to violence and rejoined the TTP.

Iftikar said the military has stepped up assaults on the reunited Pakistani Taliban, pushing the militants to respond, but only targets they can manage, which are soft targets.

But Mir said the reunited militants pose a greater threat.

“With the addition of these powerful units, the TTP has major strength for operations across the former tribal areas, Swat, Baluchistan, and some in Punjab,” he said. “Taken together, they improve TTP’s ability to mount insurgent and mass-casualty attacks.”

Myanmar police deploy early to crank up pressure on protests

Myanmar police deploy early to crank up pressure on protests

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Police stand in formation blocking a main road in Mandalay, Myanmar, Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021. Myanmar security forces cracked down on anti-coup protesters in the country’s second-largest city Mandalay on Friday, injuring at least three people, two of whom were … more >

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Associated Press

Saturday, February 27, 2021

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) – Police in Myanmar escalated their crackdown on demonstrators against this month’s military takeover, deploying early and in force on Saturday as protesters sought to assemble in the country’s two biggest cities and elsewhere.

Security forces in some areas appeared to become more aggressive in using force and making arrests, utilizing more plainclothes officers than had previously revealed themselves. Photos posted on social media showed that residents of at least two cities, Yangon and Monywa, resisted by erecting makeshift street barricades to try to hinder the advance of the police.

Myanmar’s crisis took a dramatic turn on the international stage at a special session of the United Nations General Assembly on Friday when the country’s U.N. ambassador declared his loyalty to the ousted civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi and called on the world to pressure the military to cede power.

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There were arrests Saturday in Myanmar‘s two biggest cities, Yangon and Mandalay, where demonstrators have been hitting the streets daily to peacefully demand the restoration of the government of Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy party won a landslide election victory in November. Police have increasingly been enforcing an order by the junta banning gatherings of five or more people.

Many other cities and towns have also hosted large protests against the Feb. 1 coup.

Police in Dawei, in the southeast, and Monywa, 135 kilometers (85 miles) northwest of Mandalay, used force against protesters. Both cities, with populations of less then 200,000 each, have been seeing large demonstrations.

Social media carried unconfirmed reports of a protester shot dead in Monywa. The reports could not immediately be independently confirmed but appeared credible, with both photos and identification of the victim, though later accounts said the woman had not died. The reports from Monywa also said dozens or more people were arrested.

The military takeover reversed years of slow progress toward democracy after five decades of military rule. Suu Kyi’s party would have been installed for a second five-year term in office, but the army blocked Parliament from convening and detained her and President Win Myint, as well as other top members of her government.

At the General Assembly in New York, Myanmar’s U.N. ambassador, Kyaw Moe Tun, declared in an emotional speech to fellow delegates that he represented Suu Kyi’s “civilian government elected by the people” and supported the fight against military rule.

MRTV, a Myanmar state-run television channel, broadcast an announcement Saturday from the Foreign Ministry that Kyaw Moe Tun has been dismissed from his post because he had abused his power and misbehaved by failing to follow the instructions of the government and betraying it.

Kyaw Moe Tun had urged all countries to issue public statements strongly condemning the coup, and to refuse to recognize the military regime. He also called for stronger international measures to stop violence by security forces against peaceful demonstrators.

He drew loud applause from many diplomats in the 193-nation global body, as well as effusive praise from other Burmese on social media, who described him as a hero. The ambassador flashed a three-finger salute that has been adopted by the civil disobedience movement at the end of his speech in which he addressed people back home in Burmese.

In Yangon on Saturday morning, police began arrests early at the Hledan Center intersection, which has become the gathering point for protesters who then fan out to other parts of the city. Police took similar action in residential neighborhoods.

Security forces also tried to thwart protests in Mandalay, where roadblocks were set up at several key intersections and the regular venues for rallies were flooded with police.

Buddhist monks were prominent in Saturday’s march in Mandalay, as they have been regularly, lending moral authority to the civil disobedience movement that is challenging the military rulers.

Mandalay has been the scene of several violent confrontations, and at least four of eight confirmed deaths linked to the protests, according to the independent Assistance Association of Political Prisoners. On Friday, at least three people there were injured, including two who were shot in the chest by rubber bullets and another who suffered what appeared to be a bullet wound to his leg.

According to the association, as of Friday, 771 people had been arrested, charged or sentenced at one point in relation to the coup, and 689 were being detained or sought for arrest.

The junta said it took power because last year’s polls were marred by massive irregularities. The election commission before the military seized power coup had refuted the allegation of widespread fraud. The junta dismissed the old commission’s members and appointed new ones, who on Friday annulled the election results.

___

Associated Press writer Edith Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

Processing of asylum seekers expands at US-Mexico border

Processing of asylum seekers expands at US-Mexico border

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A member of the International Organization for Migration takes a child’s temperature before crossing the border into El Paso, Texas at the Leona Vicario shelter in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. After waiting months and sometimes years in … more >

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By MARÍA VERZA

Associated Press

Friday, February 26, 2021

MEXICO CITY (AP) – The processing of asylum seekers waiting to enter the United States expanded to a third border crossing Friday, even as nongovernmental organizations called for more effort to protect the thousands still in Mexican border cities.

A week after the U.S. government began processing those with active cases made to wait in Mexico during the Trump administration at a border crossing between Tijuana and San Diego, the process expanded this week to the Matamoros-Brownsville crossing and Friday to Ciudad Juarez-El Paso.

A camp of migrants on the banks of the Rio Grande in Matamoros was a particular priority for the Biden administration and Mexico. It holds about 750 people now, but the city is dangerous and camp residents were hard hit by frigid winter weather that affected Texas and northern Mexico this month.

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On Friday, the second day of processing there, 100 asylum-seekers crossed from Matamoros. On Thursday, about two dozen were processed.

The acceleration came as Mexico Foreign Affairs Secretary Marcelo Ebrard met virtually with his counterpart U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Mexico also announced late Friday that President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and President Joe Biden would hold their first bilateral meeting Monday.

Mexico’s Foreign Affairs ministry said in a statement that among the topics to be discussed will be “the mechanisms for cooperation to address the structural causes of migration in northern Central America and southern Mexico.” They also plan to discuss strategies to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and opportunities for economic recovery.

The organization Doctors Without Borders, which works along the migratory routes through Central America and Mexico, warned Friday that there are places where migrants remain at great risk.

The great majority of the 25,000 asylum seekers with active cases who were forced to wait out the process in Mexico under Trump’s so-called “Remain in Mexico” program, still have weeks or months of waiting ahead. The situation is further complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has reduced capacity at shelters that provide a degree of safety for migrants.

Sergio Martínez, head of Doctors Without Borders in Mexico, called on both governments to remember that the migrants need protection while they wait, noting growing violence in border cities, including Piedras Negras and Nuevo Laredo.

“What we want to do from (Doctors Without Borders) is push the Mexican government to take the necessary steps to protect this population, who are its responsibility while they are in Mexican territory,” he said. The U.S. government must also collaborate since it created the situation, he added.

In September and October 2019, before the pandemic, the organization recorded that in cities like Nuevo Laredo three out of four migrants they registered said they had been kidnapped in the previous 10 days. Once the pandemic began they were not able to continue the level of monitoring, but believe the security risks have only grown as some local authorities have closed shelters citing public health concerns, leaving migrants without safe spaces.

Matamoros “is a drop in the bucket, the tip of the iceberg, and what really concerns us more are the other places on the border that don’t have even the protection of media attention” and where organized crime continues preying on migrants, he said.

Saudis angrily reject critical U.S. report on Khashoggi killing

Saudis angrily reject critical U.S. report on Khashoggi killing

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In this Sept. 18, 2019, file photo, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (Mandel Ngan/Pool Photo via AP, File) more >

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By David R. Sands

The Washington Times

Friday, February 26, 2021

Saudi Arabia is bluntly rejecting a declassified U.S. intelligence report released Friday by the Biden administration implicating Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, in the gruesome October 2018 killing of U.S.-based Saudi dissident journalist Ahmad Khashoggi.

U.S. intelligence analysts concluded that MBS, as the 35-year-old prince is widely known, had to have been aware of the mission carried out by a large number of top Saudi officials targeting Khashoggi on a visit to Istanbul, although the report said it was not clear if the aim was to kill Khashoggi, a prominent critic of the prince, or merely to capture him and take him back to Riyadh.

“The government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia completely rejects the negative, false and unacceptable assessment in the report pertaining to the kingdom’s leadership, and notes that the report contained inaccurate information and conclusions,” the Saudi Foreign Affairs Ministry said in a statement carried on the official government news service Friday.

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Calling Khashoggi’s death an “abhorrent crime,” the ministry added, “This crime was committed by a group of individuals that have transgressed all pertinent regulations and authorities of the agencies where they were employed.” 

“The relevant authorities in the kingdom took all possible measures within our legal system to ensure that these individuals were properly investigated, and to ensure that justice was served. The concerned individuals were convicted and sentenced by the courts in the Kingdom, and these sentences were welcomed by the family of Jamal Khashoggi,” the statement continued.

Like the Biden administration, the Saudi ministry expressed hope the bilateral relationship can survive the serious strains sparked in part by the Khashoggi case. The State Department said Friday is was imposing new visa restrictions on dozens of Saudi officials in the wake of the intelligence report’s release.

“We look forward to maintaining the enduring foundations that have shaped the framework of the resilient strategic partnership between the Kingdom and the United States,” the Saudi statement concluded.

Kentucky House passes bill to allow early in-person voting

Kentucky House passes bill to allow early in-person voting

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Friday, February 26, 2021

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) – The Kentucky House on Friday wrapped up its quick work on legislation that would make early voting a permanent feature in the state’s elections.

The bill, introduced this week, passed the House on a 93-4 vote, sending it to the Senate. It would allow three days of no-excuse, early in-person voting – including a Saturday – ahead of Election Day.

Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams said he hopes the strong bipartisan support in the House will add to the bill’s momentum when it reaches the Senate. Adams describes it as the state’s most significant election-reform legislation in nearly three decades.

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Another key part of the bill would allow counties to establish vote centers, where any voter in the county may vote regardless of precinct.

The measure continues some special features allowed in last year’s election because of the COVID-19 pandemic – most notably the early in-person voting.

Last year, pandemic-related rules for Kentucky’s general election included multiple weeks of early in-person voting to prevent a crush of Election Day voting.

Without new legislation, Kentucky’s election laws will revert to the pre-pandemic rules.

But the House-passed bill wouldn’t continue a temporary, pandemic-related accommodation that allowed widespread mail-in absentee balloting in the 2020 election.

___

The legislation is House Bill 574.

Biden calls air strikes a warning to Iran to ‘be careful’

Biden calls air strikes a warning to Iran to ‘be careful’

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President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden, walk out of the White House to board Marine One at the White House in Washington, Friday, Feb. 26, 2021, for a short trip to Andrews Air Force Base, Md., and then … more >

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By Dave Boyer

The Washington Times

Friday, February 26, 2021

President Biden said Friday he authorized air strikes against Iranian-backed militia in Syria to send a message that Tehran “can’t act with impunity.”

“You can’t act with impunity,” Mr. Biden told reporters on a trip to Texas. “Be careful.”

U.S. forces on Thursday struck a location in Syria used by Iranian-backed militia groups, in response to recent rocket attacks on American forces in the region.

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White Dutch poet declines to translate Amanda Gorman’s works amid ‘uproar’

White Dutch poet declines to translate Amanda Gorman’s works amid ‘uproar’

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American poet Amanda Gorman reads a poem during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, Pool) more >

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Friday, February 26, 2021

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — A writer who was chosen to translate American poet Amanda Gorman‘s work into Dutch has handed back the assignment following criticism that a white author was selected to translate the words of a Black woman who is the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history.

Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, who last year became the youngest writer to win the International Booker Prize with her novel “The Discomfort of Evening,” announced the decision in a Twitter post Friday.

A Dutch translation of “The Hill We Climb,” the poem Gorman recited to wide acclaim at the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden, was scheduled to be released at the end of March by publisher Meulenhoff.

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“I am shocked by the uproar around my involvement in the dissemination of Amanda Gorman‘s message, and I understand people who feel hurt by the choice of Meulenhoff to ask me,” said Rijneveld, who writes poetry as well as novels.

Meulenhoff general director Maaike le Noble said in a statement that the publisher wants to learn from the experience.

“We are going to look for a team to cooperate with to translate Amanda‘s words and message of hope and inspiration as well as possible and in her spirit,” Le Noble said.

The publisher said earlier this week that Rijneveld was the translator it had dreamed of and said that “Amanda Gorman herself was also immediately enthusiastic about the choice for the young poet.”

One of the critics of the choice of Rijneveld was Janice Deul, an activist and journalist who wrote an opinion piece in the Netherlands‘ national daily newspaper de Volkskrant about the topic.

“Not to take anything away from Rijneveld’s qualities, but why not chose a writer who is — just like Gorman — spoken word artist, young, female and unapologetically Black.”

On Friday, Deul tweeted: “Thanks for this decision” and tagged Rijneveld and Meulenhoff.

Alabama lieutenant governor to skip Senate race in 2022

Alabama lieutenant governor to skip Senate race in 2022

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FILE -In this Sept. 24, 2020 file photo, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., speaks during the Senate’s Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. Shelby, the Senate’s fourth most senior member, has told confidantes that … more >

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By

Associated Press

Friday, February 26, 2021

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) – Alabama Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth said Friday he will not run for the U.S. Senate seat being given up by longtime incumbent Richard Shelby next year.

Ainsworth, a first-term Republican from Guntersville, announced on social media that he had considered a bid but decided against running because his three children need a father who’s present and involved in their lives.

“I feel strongly that God’s plan currently calls for me to continue leading on the state, not federal, level of government,” he said in a tweet. Elected lieutenant governor in 2018, Ainsworth served a term in the Alabama House before that.

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Shelby, 86, announced earlier this month that he won’t seek a seventh term. Several other people are considering campaigns, but only former Trump administration ambassador and businesswoman Lynda Blanchard has announced a run.

Rep. Mo Brooks of Huntsville has said he is considering a campaign, as is Secretary of State John Merrill. Another possible candidate is Shelby’s former chief of staff, Katie Boyd Britt, who now heads the Business Council of Alabama and likely would have the senator’s backing if she decided to run.

Blanchard, 61, said she never considered running for office until former President Donald Trump appointed her to serve as ambassador to Slovenia, the home country of former first lady Melania Trump. Blanchard and her husband began a commercial real estate company that has apartment complexes throughout the South.

Top US diplomat ‘visits’ Mexico, Canada on virtual trip

Top US diplomat ‘visits’ Mexico, Canada on virtual trip

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken, second from right, speaks during a virtual meeting at the State Department in Washington, Friday, Feb. 26, 2021, with Canadian Foreign Minister Marc Garneau who is in Ottawa, Canada. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, Pool) more >

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By BEN FOX

Associated Press

Friday, February 26, 2021

WASHINGTON (AP) – Diplomats sat beside stacks of briefing papers, flanked by flags and emphasized their closeness. But they were geographically far apart Friday as Secretary of State Antony Blinken, because of the pandemic, started a new chapter in North American relations with virtual visits to Mexico and Canada in what was billed as his first official trip.

Though symbolically important in any administration, the decision by President Joe Biden to dispatch Blinken to Mexico and Canada for the first visits, even virtually, is part of a broader effort to turn the page from a predecessor who at times had fraught relations with both nations. The three nations signed a revamped trade accord last year after then-President Donald Trump demanded a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

“The United States has long-standing relationships with both Mexico and Canada,” Blinken said afterward. “Today’s meetings were an opportunity to dive deeper into shared priorities.”

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Biden will engage himself with his counterpart, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, on Monday when the two leaders are scheduled to hold their own virtual meeting. The two leaders are expected to discuss migration, the COVID-19 recovery and economic cooperation, according to the White House.

The secretary began his virtual visits with Mexico, a country Trump repeatedly disparaged in his campaign and early in his presidency, though relations turned more cordial under López Obrador.

“I wanted to ‘visit,’ in quotation marks, Mexico first to demonstrate the importance that we attach, President Biden attaches, to the relationship between our countries,” Blinken told his counterpart, Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard.

Blinken’s meetings with Mexico and Canada, two of the largest U.S. trading partners, covered economic issues as well as well as efforts to confront climate change and fight COVID-19, which prompted the countries to close their borders to all but essential traffic.

Biden last week made his first bilateral meeting, also virtual, with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who at times had a frosty relationship with Trump. Biden disappointed some in Canada with his decision upon taking office to reverse Trump and revoke the permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline, which President Barack Obama’s administration determined had only limited energy and economic benefits to the U.S. and conflicted with efforts to curb climate change.

That didn’t come up in the public portion of Blinken’s meeting with Foreign Minister Marc Garneau, who welcomed Biden’s commitment to “renew U.S. leadership and diplomacy.” The secretary later met privately with Trudeau.

Ebrard, for his part, welcomed Biden’s decision to reverse his predecessor and rejoin both the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization. He also praised the “initiatives” of the new administration, an apparent reference to the decision to set a new course on some immigration and border policies.

“We understand that these are being done in recognition to the Mexican community,” he said, without mentioning any specific policy. “We are receiving them with empathy.”

Biden ended Trump’s policy of requiring migrants seeking asylum to wait in Mexico or to pursue their claims in Central America. He also restored protection for people without legal status in the U.S. who were brought to the country as children, many of whom are Mexican, and is backing legislation that would enable them to seek citizenship.

The Biden administration has begun processing the asylum claims of about 25,000 migrants who had been in Mexico, often in unsanitary and dangerous conditions, but has not lifted a policy, imposed at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, of quickly expelling people captured along the border and has sought to discourage illegal migration.

Blinken told reporters the administration is working to develop a “more rational” asylum process.

Just before his visit with Ebrard, Blinken conducted a virtual tour of the busy border crossing at El Paso, Texas, and said the administration is working with Mexico and Central American nations to ease the conditions that drive people to try to illegally reach the United States.

“To anyone thinking about undertaking that journey, our message is: Don’t do it. We are strictly enforcing our immigration laws and our border security measures,” he said.

WFP: Security protocols, leaks a focus of Congo probe

WFP: Security protocols, leaks a focus of Congo probe

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A supporter leans on a wooden cross which reads "The truth will win" as he protests against the extradition of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange outside Belmarsh Magistrates Court in London, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. The U.S. government and Assange will … more >

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By NICOLE WINFIELD

Associated Press

Friday, February 26, 2021

ROME (AP) – A U.N. investigation into the attack on a humanitarian convoy in Congo that killed the Italian ambassador, his bodyguard and driver will look into whether the long-planned mission’s security protocols were followed and whether information might have leaked to the unknown gunmen involved in the ambush.

The deputy communications director of the World Food Program, Greg Barrow, told an online briefing Friday that the Feb. 22 mission to bring Ambassador Luca Attanasio to a WFP school feeding program in eastern Congo had been in the works since 2020.

Advance planning and security meetings as well as security briefings took place up to the moment the seven-member team took off from Goma, in Congo’s east, in a two-car convoy bound for the program in Rutshuru, he said.

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“Very careful planning went on ahead of this visit,” he said.

Attanasio, his security escort, Carabiniere paramilitary officer Vittorio Iacovacci, and the WFP’s Congolese driver Moustapha Milambo were killed Monday when an armed group stopped them and ordered them out of their cars. Milambo was killed instantly, and Attanasio and Iacovacci were fatally shot in an ensuing shootout after a nearby ranger patrol arrived on the scene.

There has been no claim of responsibility for the attack. Several armed groups are active in the region.

Italy has formally asked the United Nations for an inquiry into what happened amid questions about whether the U.N. security arrangements were sufficient for the mission. The U.N. has said the road had been declared “green” by the U.N. and cleared for travel without security escorts or armored vehicles.

The WFP says it is cooperating in the Italian, Congolese and U.N. investigations.

Barrow said the U.N. probe would scrutinize the preparatory meetings leading up to the mission itself as well as whether security protocols were followed.

“The main focus of the fact-finding mission will be on what security protocols were undertaken, how they were followed and what steps were taken to minimize any sort of risk to any of those who were on this mission,” he said. “And that would include any access to any advance information or contemporary information about the trips.”

He said that while the attack had prompted an automatic security review, the WFP had no plans to alter its humanitarian efforts in Congo. It wasn’t immediately clear why Attanasio was inspecting the food program since Italy wasn’t funding it.

One of the survivors of the ambush, WFP’s deputy country director Rocco Leone, said it was incumbent on the surviving four members of the mission to establish the truth of what transpired.

“I am sure that I speak for everyone in saying that I look forward to the facts behind this tragic incident being soon established, and so that the perpetrators of this heinous attack can be brought to justice,” Leone said in a statement read by Barrow. “It is important that humanitarian operations can continue unhampered to save and change the lives of the many needy people whom we are here to serve.”

U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle jets used in strikes against Iran-backed militias, Pentagon says

U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle jets used in strikes against Iran-backed militias, Pentagon says

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F-15E Strike Eagle from Seymour Johnson AFB N.C., demonstrates its maneuverability at the Charleston Air Expo, Joint Base Charleston S.C., April 9, 2011. The F-15E is a multirole fighter capable of air to surface and air to air combat. (U.S. … more >

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By Mike Glenn

The Washington Times

Friday, February 26, 2021

A pair of U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jets dropped seven precision-guided munitions Thursday during airstrikes on a remote compound in eastern Syria used by Iranian-backed militias.

The strikes destroyed nine buildings in a compound along the border and damaged two others, Pentagon officials confirmed on Friday. The mission was in response to recent rocket attacks targeting American and allied forces in Iraq and to defend against ongoing threats from the Kait’ib Hezbollah (KH) and Kait’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada (KSS) militant groups.

“This location is known to facilitate Iranian-aligned militia group activity,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters. 

SEE ALSO: Russia, ally of Syria, fumes at U.S. airstrike against militia group

Mr. Kirby said he couldn’t confirm how many people on the ground were killed or wounded because the battle-damage assessment was still ongoing.

While some lawmakers have complained they didn’t know about the mission until afterwards, Pentagon officials said congressional leadership was notified before the strikes. Individual senators and U.S. representatives along with their staff were being briefed on Friday.

“There will be a full classified briefing early next week,” Mr. Kirby said.

Pentagon officials wouldn’t say where the U.S. mission originated. 

“The targets were chosen carefully — very deliberately — and struck in exactly the same manner,” Mr. Kirby said.

The Biden administration cited Article II of the Constitution — which identifies the president as commander-in-chief of the military — and Article 15 of the U.N. Charter in defending the mission’s legality under domestic and international law. 

“International law gives nations involved in operations the right to self defense,” Mr. Kirby said. “This really was a defensive strike meant to help protect in the future American forces and coalition partners given what we knew about what those structures were used for.”

The compound was a way station for militant groups like KH and KSS traveling from Syria into Iraq, officials said.

“We’re confident that these were legitimate targets that were utilized by groups associated with these recent attacks,” Mr. Kirby said.

The airstrikes were the end result of an investigation conducted by Iraqi military officials that began following a Feb. 13, 2021, barrage that landed three rockets in and around Erbil International Airport. The blast killed a civilian U.S. contractor — not an American citizen — and wounded a U.S. service member.

“It was very much a team effort. (Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin) was very sincere when he praised our Iraqi partners for the investigative and intelligence work that they did. There was some very good work done on the intelligence side that helped lead to this successful strike,” Mr. Kirby said. “We offered support and assistance. We were able to provide some information to their investigative process that helped.”

While U.S. officials say they’re confident Iran has been supporting the militia groups targeting American troops in Iraq, they said Thursday’s strike also was meant to send a broader message.

“We will defend ourselves. We will protect our interests and certainly act to protect our people and the forces of our allies and partners,” Mr. Kirby said. “That is an unambiguous and clear message to anyone in the region about what the stakes are if you’re going to continue to conduct attacks on our people and the Iraqi people,”

U.S. intelligence blames Saudi crown prince for Khashoggi murder

U.S. intelligence blames Saudi crown prince for Khashoggi murder

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FILE – In this Dec. 15, 2014 file photo, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi speaks during a press conference in Manama, Bahrain. Briarcliff Entertainment said Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020, that it has acquired “The Dissident” a documentary about the murdered journalist … more >

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By David R. Sands

The Washington Times

Friday, February 26, 2021

De facto Saudi Arabian leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Sultan gave the green light for the mission to capture or kill American-based Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded, in a case that threatens to strain even further relations between Riyadh and the Biden administration.

The U.S. made public the widely-expected findings Friday about the October 2018 assault on Mr. Khashoggi, who was killed and dismembered after he traveled to a Saudi consulate in Turkey for documents ahead of his planned wedding. From the start, there was widespread suspicion that the large team of Saudi government agents would not have carried out the attack without direct authorization from the crown prince.

“We assess that Saudi Arabia‘s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” the newly declassified U.S. intelligence summary said.

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President Biden has already made clear plans to take a harder line with the oil-rich Middle East kingdom, after former President Trump had made the Saudis a centerpiece of his regional strategy to contain Iran.

The hard-charging crown prince, widely known by his initials MBS, has pushed an aggressive foreign policy and domestic modernization program, while cracking down on dissent both within the Saudi royal family and from civil society.

But the decision to make public the intelligence conclusions, something Mr. Trump declined to do, puts pressure on the Biden White House to act, especially with growing bipartisan unhappiness in Congress over recent Saudi moves.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner, Virginia Democrat, hailed to the release of the findings, noting that Khashoggi was based in Northern Virginia after leaving Saudi Arabia.

“For too long, the United States failed to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for the brutal murder of journalist, dissident, and Virginia resident Jamal Khashoggi,” Mr. Warner said in a statement. “I’m encouraged to see the new administration taking steps to rectify that by releasing this long-overdue congressionally mandated report into his killing.”

After the report was made public, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced what the Biden administration has dubbed a “Khashoggi Ban” — visa restrictions on individuals who, “acting on behalf of a foreign government, are believed to have been directly engaged in serious, extraterritorial counter-dissident activities.”

Mr. Blinken said 76 Saudi nationals will face the visa restrictions, although not all are related to the Khashoggi killing.

“While the United States remains invested in its relationship with Saudi Arabia, President Biden has made clear that partnership must reflect U.S. values,” Mr. Blinken said in a statement. “To that end, we have made absolutely clear that extraterritorial threats and assaults by Saudi Arabia against activists, dissidents and journalists must end. They will not be tolerated by the United States.”

Separately, the private Human Rights Foundation called on both the U.S. and the European Union to sanction the crown prince himself.

The prince “has proven that he is unfit to represent the kingdom on the global stage and we applaud the Biden administration for choosing to engage directly with King Salman,” said HRF President Thor Halvorssen. “Now the United States and the European Union must urgently place sanctions on MBS himself, along with those within his direct chain of command who were involved in the murder.”

Vaccine roll-out gaps a core concern for G-20 countries

Vaccine roll-out gaps a core concern for G-20 countries

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Indian villagers carry their belongings on their heads and walk towards their village on the outskirts of Hyderabad, India, Friday, Feb. 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Mahesh Kumar A.) more >

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By COLLEEN BARRY

Associated Press

Friday, February 26, 2021

MILAN (AP) –

The uneven distribution of vaccines between wealthier and poorer countries is a key concern of Group of 20 nations as leaders consider how to create even footing for recovery from the pandemic both in economic and health terms, Italy’s economic minister said Friday.

Daniele Franco told a virtual news conference after the meeting of finance ministers and central bank chiefs of the G-20 economies that a core priority for the group is “to grant equitable access” to safe vaccines.

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“We will not get back to our normal lives until the virus is eradicated in all countries,” Franco said. He added that the ministers and governors agreed on the necessity of a “bold and global response aimed at curbing the virus diffusion everywhere.”

He said that includes addressing the financing gap in an initiative for equitable distributions of vaccines, diagnostics and treatment for COVID-19. The World Health Organization has put the gap at $22.9 billion.

Franco said the group also addressed the “fragile and uneven” nature of the economic recovery, with a call to strengthen cooperation and coordination among G-20 countries “to put the global economy on a path of stable and sustainable growth.”

“It is essential that we remain vigilant, and learn from previous crises,’’ he said, adding that the participants agreed that “any premature withdrawal of fiscal and monetary support should be avoided.”

Asked about concerns that differences in the vaccine roll-outs even among EU nations and between Europe and the United States might affect the recovery, Franco said the focus was on the clear lag in developing countries, particularly Africa, which will be more difficult to overcome.

The ministers and governors also discussed exploring additional tools to help meet longer-term financing needs in weaker economies, particularly in Africa, that have been more severely hit by the pandemic

Italy last December took over the rotating presidency of the G-20, an international forum bringing together major economies that account for more than 80% of the world’s GDP. Economy and finance ministers will check in on progress on issues in July in Venice, and a global summit is planned for October. Climate change and tax policy are on the agenda for July.

Myanmar’s UN envoy dramatically opposes coup in his country

Myanmar’s UN envoy dramatically opposes coup in his country

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Medicals students display images of deposed Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a street march in Mandalay, Myanmar, Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. In the country’s second-largest city, anti-coup protesters took to the streets Friday. By midday, security forces had … more >

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By EDITH M. LEDERER

Associated Press

Friday, February 26, 2021

UNITED NATIONS (AP) – Myanmar’s U.N. ambassador strongly opposed the military coup in his country and appealed for the “strongest possible action from the international community” to immediately restore democracy, in a dramatic speech to the U.N. General Assembly Friday that drew loud applause from many diplomats in the 193-nation global body.

Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun began his statement saying he represented Aung San Suu Kyi’s “civilian government elected by the people” in November, and supported their fight for the end of military rule.

He urged all countries to issue public statements strongly condemning the Feb. 1 coup, and to refuse to recognize the military regime and ask its leaders to respect the free and fair elections in November won by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party. He also urged stronger international measures to stop violence by security forces against peaceful demonstrators.

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“It is time for the military to immediately relinquish power and release those detained,” Tun said, agreeing with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres that military coup “is not acceptable in this modern world and the coup must cease.”

“We will continue to fight for a government which is of the people, by the people, for the people,” he vowed.

His voice cracking, he ended his statement by addressing people back home in Burmese and raised a three-finger salute that has been adopted by the anti-coup movement.

Tun’s surprise statement not only drew applause but commendations from speaker after speaker at the assembly meeting including ambassadors representing the European Union, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the new U.S. ambassador, Linda Thomas Greenfield. She joined others in describing the speech as “courageous,” “powerful” and “brave.”

In her first appearance at the assembly since presenting her credentials to Guterres in Thursday, Thomas-Greenfield said the United States “stands in solidarity” with the people of Myanmar who are in the streets protesting the coup. And she reiterated President Joe Biden’s warning that “we will show the military that their actions have consequences” and demand to the military “to immediately relinquish power.”

In a tweet later, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken referred to Myanmar by its former name Burma and said “the United States commends the courageous and clear statement” of Ambassador Tun, “and by those in Burma who are making their voices heard. We must all heed their call to restore democracy in Burma.”

The assembly meeting was called to hear a briefing from the U.N. special envoy for Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, who said it is time to “sound the alarm” about the coup and the military pushing democratic processes aside, violating the constitution, reversing reforms instituted by Suu Kyi, and arresting peaceful protesters, civil society representatives and members of the media.

She pointed to restrictions on the internet and communication services and the detention of about 700 people according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Myanmar, and she called “the use of lethal force and rising deaths unacceptable.”

The huge protests in the country are not about a fight between Suu Kyi’s party and the military, she said, “it is a fight without arms.”

Addressing diplomats in the General Assembly chamber by video link, Schraner Burgener urged “all of you to collectively send a clear signal in support of democracy in Myanmar.”

The military takeover in Myanmar shocked the international community and reversed years of slow progress toward democracy. Suu Kyi’s party would have been installed for a second five-year term that day, but the army blocked Parliament from convening and detained her, President Win Myint and other top members of her government.

Myanmar’s military says it took power because November’s election was marked by widespread voting irregularities, an assertion that was refuted by the election commission, whose members have since been replaced by the ruling junta. The junta has said it will rule for a year under a state of emergency and then hold new polls.

Schraner Burgener told the General Assembly that democratically elected representatives were able to be sworn in according to the constitution on Feb. 4 and have formed the Committee Representing Pyidaungu Hluttaw (National Assembly), known as CRPH, and are seeking “to uphold their obligations to serve the people who voted for them.”

Tun began his remarks by reading a statement from CRPH stressing the legitimacy of the election results and declaring that the military overthrew the democratically elected government. He cited the massive opposition by the people, saying “now is not the time for the international community to tolerate the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Myanmar military.”

The CRPH, saying it represented some 80 parliamentarians, asked the U.N., the Security Council and the international community “that aspires to build a peaceful and civilized global society to use any means necessary to take action against the Myanmar military and to provide safety and security for the people of Myanmar.”

China’s U.N. Ambassador Zhang Jun, whose neighboring country has invested billions of dollars in Myanmar and is its biggest trading partner, called on all parties to handle differences through dialogue “under the constitutional and legal framework,” avoid violence, “and continue to promote the domestic democratic transformation process in an orderly manner.”

Never mentioning the military or a coup and describing what happened in Myanmar as “in essence Myanmar’s internal affairs,” he said the international community should help the parties “bridge their differences and solve problems.”

Zhang backed efforts by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which Myanmar belongs to, “in playing an active role in easing the current state of affairs.”

ASEAN countries are discussing holding an informal foreign ministers meeting and “we look forward to its early convening on the basis of consensus, thus providing a useful platform and opportunity for promoting problem solving,” he said.

US urges Tanzania to embrace COVID-19 vaccines, share data

US urges Tanzania to embrace COVID-19 vaccines, share data

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By CARA ANNA

Associated Press

Friday, February 26, 2021

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) – The United States praised Tanzania on Friday for finally acknowledging the resurgence of COVID-19 after claiming for months it had defeated the pandemic through prayer. But the U.S. urged the country to share infection data and accept vaccines.

“It has become clear that the virus variant has arrived in Tanzania,“ U.S. Ambassador Donald Wright, who is also a doctor, said in a statement. “I’ve been encouraged by recent statements from the Ministry of Health acknowledging COVID-19 as a public health priority in Tanzania and urging citizens to take basic precautions.“

Tanzania is one of Africa’s most populous countries, with some 60 million people, and during its long COVID-19 denial the director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that if the continent isn’t united, “it’s doomed.”

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High-profile deaths this month in the East African nation, including that of the vice president of the semi-autonomous island region of Zanzibar, appeared to lead populist President John Magufuli to acknowledge publicly in the past week that COVID-19 was back.

For weeks, Tanzanians had seen a rise in death notices citing breathing difficulties and cases of what health workers called “pneumonia.” But countries such as Oman reported Tanzanians arriving in their countries and testing positive for the virus.

Meanwhile, Tanzania‘s president openly questioned COVID-19 vaccines, without providing evidence. Tanzania is one of the very few countries in Africa that has not signed up for the global COVAX facility to provide vaccines to low- and middle-income countries. Now those vaccines have begun to arrive, in Ghana and Ivory Coast, with more on the way.

The U.S. ambassador’s statement urges Tanzania to “convene its health experts and review the evidence on vaccines.” He also notes “it is critical to collect and report information about testing and cases.“

Tanzania last updated its number of infections last April. That number remains at 509.

Then the ambassador turned to aid: “Here in Tanzania, we dedicated $16.4 million to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic since the first confirmed case was diagnosed in March of 2020. The United States stands ready to ramp up our efforts and we are committed to working side by side with Tanzania to defeat COVID-19.”

An embassy spokesman did not immediately respond to a question about whether further aid depends on Tanzania sharing pandemic data and embracing vaccines.

Tanzania, unlike other African countries, did not lock down during the pandemic and it has promoted that to tourists and others.

In an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday, Tanzania‘s investment minister, Kitila Mkumbo, asserted that COVID-19 “has not been one of the major concerns of investors.” He added that American investors “are waiting for the pandemic to slow down so movement can begin.”

And the minister welcomed the Biden administration, saying he believed that the U.S. will once again “take global responsibility of supporting developing countries like Tanzania in many aspects, like health.”

___

Follow all of AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic, https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-vaccine and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

Russia, ally of Syria, fumes at U.S. airstrike against militia group

Russia, ally of Syria, fumes at U.S. airstrike against militia group

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F-15E Strike Eagle is an all-weather multi-role strike fighter derived from the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle. The F-15E was designed in the 1980s for long-range, high-speed interdiction without relying on escort or electronic-warfare aircraft. United States Air Force (USAF) F-15E … more >

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By David R. Sands

The Washington Times

Friday, February 26, 2021

Russia, a key military ally of the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, on Friday sharply condemned the U.S. airstrike targeting an Iran-allied Iraqi militia group operating in Syria.

President Biden authorized the attack Thursday evening in response to a bombing attack last week on a base in northern Iraq that killed a Filipino contractor working with American forces and wounded six others, including a U.S. National Guardsman. An official with Kataib Hezbollah, the Iraqi-based militia, said one of its fighters had been killed at the Syrian border town of Abu Kamal, but independent reports say the death toll could be as high as 17 fighters.

Russia has been fighting alongside Syrian government forces in the country’s nine-year civil war, clashing repeatedly with U.S. forces and U.S.-allied Kurds who have been battling the terror group Islamic State on the same battlefield.

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“We strongly condemn such actions and call for Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity to be unconditionally respected,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a Friday briefing in Moscow. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the U.S. informed Russia of the strike just minutes before it was carried out.

“This sort of warning — when strikes are already underway — [is worth] nothing,” Mr. Lavrov said in a social media post.

Tim Kaine: Congress needs to be briefed on U.S. airstrikes in Syria

Tim Kaine: Congress needs to be briefed on U.S. airstrikes in Syria

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Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., speaks during a U.S. Senate Budget Committee hearing regarding wages at large corporations on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. (Stefani Reynolds/The New York Times via AP, Pool) more >

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By Mike Glenn

The Washington Times

Friday, February 26, 2021

Sen. Tim Kaine is calling on the Biden administration to brief Congress about the U.S. retaliatory airstrikes on Iranian-backed militia groups in Syria.

The strikes, the first-known combat operation since President Biden took office, were directed at a border control point used by militant groups such as Kait’ib Hezbollah that are supported by Tehran.

“The American people deserve to hear the administration’s rationale for these strikes and its legal justification for acting without coming to Congress,” said Mr. Kaine, Virginia Democrat.

SEE ALSO: U.S. airstrike hits Iran-backed militias in Syria

The airstrikes were a response to rocket attacks within the past two weeks on U.S. personnel in Iraq. The move was praised by Republicans in Congress such as Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas.

“Responses like this are a necessary deterrent and remind Iran, its proxies and our adversaries around the world that attacks on U.S. interests will not be tolerated,” Mr. McCaul said in a Twitter message.

Mr. Kaine has criticized the efforts by presidents to expand the use of military force without congressional authorization. He introduced legislation to repeal the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) against Iraq and replace the “open-ended” 2001 AUMF with one that was more narrowly focused. 

“Offensive military action without congressional approval is not constitutional absent extraordinary circumstances,” Mr. Kaine said. “Congress must be fully briefed on this matter expeditiously.”

EXPLAINER: US airstrike in Syria sends message to Iran

EXPLAINER: US airstrike in Syria sends message to Iran

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FILE – In this Feb. 17, 2021, file photo, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby speaks during a media briefing at the Pentagon in Washington. A U.S. airstrike targeting facilities used by Iran-backed militias in Syria appears to be a message to … more >

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By ZEINA KARAM and BASSEM MROUE

Associated Press

Friday, February 26, 2021

BEIRUT (AP) – A U.S. airstrike targeting facilities used by Iran-backed militias in Syria appears to be a message to Tehran delivered by a new American administration still figuring out its approach to the Middle East.

The strike was seemingly a response to stepped-up rocket attacks by such militias that have targeted U.S. interests in Iraq, where the armed groups are based. It comes even as Washington and Tehran consider a return to the 2015 accord meant to rein in Iran’s nuclear program.

The U.S. appears to have chosen the target, just across the border in Syria rather than in Iraq, carefully. It’s a way for President Joe Biden to signal he will be tough on Iran while avoiding a response that could offset the delicate balance in Iraq itself or trigger a wider confrontation.

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And it’s yet another example of how Syria, mired in civil war for the past decade, has often served as a proxy battlefield for world powers.

WHO ARE THE FORCES TARGETED BY THE US?

The U.S. airstrike – which took place Friday in Syria – targeted one of the most powerful Iran-backed militias in the Middle East known as Kataeb Hezbollah, or the Hezbollah Brigades. The group is part of the Popular Mobilization Forces, which includes an array of Iraqi militias.

The group was founded after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein. It is different from Lebanon’s Hezbollah, but the two groups are strong allies. In recent years, Kataeb Hezbollah has played a major role in the fight against the Islamic State group as well as helping President Bashar Assad’s forces in Syria’s conflict.

The group was founded by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a veteran Iraqi militant who was closely allied with Iran and killed in a U.S. drone attack in Baghdad in January 2020 along with Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force.

The U.S. has hit the group before: In December 2019, an American strike along the SyriaIraq border killed 25 of its fighters and wounded dozens. Washington called it retaliation for the death of an American contractor in a rocket attack that it blamed on Kataeb Hezbollah.

___

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR RELATIONS WITH IRAN?

The attack is likely aimed at sending a message to Tehran that the U.S. will not tolerate attacks against American interests in the region, while leaving the door open for talks.

It comes as the Biden administration faces an uncertain road in its attempts to resurrect the 2015 Iran nuclear deal – which gave Tehran billions of dollars in sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program and that the Trump administration pulled out of.

In the meantime, relations with Iran have been further strained as the country’s proxies become more assertive, with Iran-backed militias increasingly targeting U.S. interests and allies. That has rekindled worries that the standoff relations between the U.S. and Iran could end up being fought out in Iraq.

Already there are signs that Iraq is being used to fight a proxy war. Explosive-laden drones that targeted Saudi Arabia’s royal palace in the kingdom’s capital last month were launched from inside Iraq, a senior Iran-backed militia official in Baghdad and a U.S. official told The Associated Press this week.

___

WILL THIS TRIGGER A WIDER ESCALATION?

That is unlikely at this point.

Biden’s decision to attack in Syria does not appear to signal an intention to widen U.S. military involvement in the region, but rather to demonstrate a will to defend U.S. troops in Iraq while also avoiding embarrassing the Iraqi government, a U.S. ally, by striking on its territory.

Pentagon Spokesman John Kirby said the operation in Boukamal, Syria, sends an unambiguous message: “President Biden will act to protect American and coalition personnel. At the same time, we have acted in a deliberate manner that aims to deescalate the overall situation in eastern Syria and Iraq.”

A Syrian commentator based in Turkey, Abdulkader Dwehe, said the choice of Syria was a wise one.

“Responding in Iraq could open a front that may be hard to close,” he tweeted following the attack. “With the Boukamal strike, a valuable point, and a political message rather than a military one, have been made.”

___

FOLLOWING IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF OTHER US PRESIDENTS

In its first weeks, the new Biden administration has emphasized its intent to put its focus on the challenges posed by China – even as volatility and threats to U.S. interests persist in the Middle East.

But the operation proved the region is never far from a U.S. president’s agenda.

By striking Syria, Biden joins every American president from Ronald Reagan onward who has ordered a bombardment of countries in the Middle East.