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4,400 migrants lost at sea bound for Spain in 2021, double previous year

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(Last Updated On: January 4, 2022)

More than 4,400 migrants, including at least 205 children, were lost at sea trying to reach Spain in 2021, a monitoring group said on Monday – more than double the figure from the previous year and the most since the group began counting in 2018.

The group, Walking Borders, or Caminando Fronteras, blamed increasingly dangerous routes, inferior boats and the fear of some vessels to help migrants at sea for the surge in deaths, Reuters reported. According to Spanish official statistics, 39,000 undocumented migrants successfully reached Spain by sea or land last year, a similar figure to the previous year.

Walking Borders said more than 90% of those missing or dead were lost on 124 shipwrecks en route to Spain’s Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean as of Dec. 20. Since 2020, the islands off the coast of Africa have become the main destination for migrants trying to reach Spain, with a much smaller share trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to the Spanish mainland.

Helena Maleno, founder of Caminando Fronteras, told Reuters the group gathered its data from hotlines set up for migrants on vessels in trouble to call for help, and from family members seeking information.

The group investigates the fate of each boat. It presumes those missing at sea for at least a month to be dead.

Close to 95% of the figures represent people who are missing.

The United Nations International Organization for Migration (IOM) counted 955 people who died or went missing in 2021 trying to reach the Canary Islands by Dec. 22, the highest figure it documented since 2014.

The IOM obtains its data from officials records, media reports and other groups including Walking Borders, but says its numbers are conservative and the real toll is probably higher.

Spain does not keep figures for people who die trying to reach its shores, and an Interior Ministry spokesperson declined to comment on the latest figures.

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Chinese spy balloon flies over the United States, Pentagon says

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(Last Updated On: February 3, 2023)

A Chinese spy balloon has been flying over the United States for a couple of days, U.S. officials said on Thursday, in what would be a brazen act just days ahead of a planned trip to Beijing by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Reuters reported. 

Fighter jets were mobilized, but military leaders advised President Joe Biden against shooting the balloon out of the sky for fear debris could pose a safety threat, advice Biden accepted, U.S. officials said.

The United States took “custody” of the balloon when it entered U.S. airspace and had observed it with piloted U.S. military aircraft, one of the officials told reporters on condition of anonymity.

Separately, Canada’s defense ministry said a “high-altitude surveillance balloon” was detected and that it was monitoring a “potential second incident”, without giving further details, adding that it was in frequent contact with the United States.

The news initially broke as CIA Director William Burns was speaking at an event at Washington’s Georgetown University, where he called China the “biggest geopolitical challenge” facing the United States.

“The United States government has detected and is tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon that is over the continental United States right now,” Pentagon spokesperson Brigadier General Patrick Ryder told reporters. “The balloon is currently traveling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground.”

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said Beijing was “verifying” the situation.

“I would like to emphasize that until the facts are clarified, speculation and hype will not be helpful to the proper resolution of the issue,” she told a regular daily briefing in Beijing on Friday, adding that China abides by international law.

“China has no intention of violating the land territory and airspace of any sovereign country,” Mao said.

U.S. officials said they raised the matter with their Chinese counterparts through diplomatic channels. “We have communicated to them the seriousness with which we take this issue,” a U.S. official said.

One U.S. official said the balloon was assessed to have “limited additive value from an intelligence collection perspective.”

Blinken is expected to travel to China next week for a visit agreed to in November by Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping. It was not clear how the discovery of the spy balloon might affect those plans.

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate intelligence committee, said the spy balloon was alarming but not surprising.

“The level of espionage aimed at our country by Beijing has grown dramatically more intense & brazen over the last 5 years,” Rubio said on Twitter.

Republican Senator Tom Cotton called for Blinken to cancel his trip.

Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said he would request a “Gang of Eight” briefing, referring to a classified national security briefing for congressional leaders and Republican and Democratic leaders of the intelligence committees.

Relations between China and the United States have soured in recent years, particularly following then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August, which prompted dramatic Chinese military drills near the self-ruled island.

Since then, Washington and Beijing have sought to communicate more frequently and prevent ties from worsening.

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India raises defence budget to $72.6 bln amid tensions with China

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(Last Updated On: February 2, 2023)

India proposed on Wednesday 5.94 trillion rupees ($72.6 billion) in defence spending for the 2023-24 financial year, 13% up from the previous period’s initial estimates, aiming to add more fighter jets and roads along its tense border with China, Reuters reported.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman allocated 1.63 trillion rupees for defence capital outlays – an expenditure that would include new weapons, aircraft, warships and other military hardware, as she unveiled nearly $550 billion of total federal spending in the annual budget for 2023-24 starting in April.

She said 2.77 trillion rupees would be devoted to military salaries and benefits in 2023-24, 1.38 trillion on pensions for retired soldiers, and further amounts for miscellaneous items.

itharaman also revised the defence budget for the current financial year ending in March to 5.85 trillion rupees from earlier estimates of 5.25 trillion.

In the past few years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has ramped up spending to modernise the military, while underlining his government’s commitment to boosting domestic production to supply forces deployed along two contentious borders, Reuters reported.

Laxman Behera, a defence expert at government-funded Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, said the hike in the defence budget was “reasonable but not sufficient”, considering requirements for military modernisation.

“The government has tried to allocate reasonable funds for defence forces while balancing other priorities during the pre-election budget,” he said, noting India needed more funds in view of growing friction with China along disputed borders.

The total Indian defence budget, estimated at about 2% of GDP, is still lower than China’s 1.45 trillion yuan ($230 billion) in allocations for 2022, which New Delhi sees as posing a threat to neighbours including India and Japan, read the report.

“The overall increase in the armed forces’ budget is as anticipated, but likely lower than what they asked for to beef up operational capabilities,” said Amit Cowshish, former financial adviser for acquisitions at the Defence Ministry.

India plans to spend near 242 billion rupees ($3 billion) for naval fleet construction and 571.4 billion rupees ($7 billion) for air force procurements including more aircraft, the latest budget document showed.

The South Asian giant employs 1.38 million people in its armed forces, with large numbers deployed along borders with nuclear-armed rivals China and Pakistan.

Although the defence budget allocations fell short of military expectations, they are likely to grow as the economy recovers from two years of pandemic curbs, according to Behera.

India and China share a 3,500-kilometre (2,100-mile) frontier that has been disputed since the 1950s. The two sides went to war over it in 1962.

At least 24 soldiers were killed when the armies of the Asian giants clashed in Ladakh, in the western Himalayas, in 2020 but tensions eased after military and diplomatic talks, Reuters reported.

A fresh clash erupted in the eastern Himalayas in December last year but no deaths were reported.

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Families seek loved ones after Pakistan mosque blast kills 100, all but 3 police

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(Last Updated On: February 1, 2023)

Distraught relatives thronged hospitals in Pakistan’s Peshawar on Tuesday to look for their kin a day after a suicide bombing ripped through a crowded mosque in a heavily fortified area of the city, killing 100 people, all but three of them police, Reuters reported.

The attack, in the Police Lines district, was the deadliest in a decade to hit this restive, northwestern city near the Afghan border and comes amid a surge in violence against the police.

“My son, my child,” cried an elderly woman walking alongside an ambulance carrying coffins, as rescue workers stretchered wounded people to a hospital emergency unit.

At least 170 people were wounded in the blast, which demolished the upper storey of the mosque as hundreds of worshippers performed noon prayers, read the report.

Riaz Mahsud, a senior local government official, said the casualty toll was likely to rise as workers searched through the debris.

“So far, 100 bodies have been brought to Lady Reading Hospital,” a spokesman for the largest medical facility in the city, Mohammad Asim, said in a statement.

Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah told parliament that 97 of the 100 were police officials.

Authorities say they do not know how the bomber managed to breach the military and police checkpoints leading into the Police Lines district, a colonial-era, self-contained encampment in the city centre that is home to middle- and lower-ranking police personnel and their families, Reuters reported.

Given the security concerns in Peshawar, the mosque was built to allow police to pray without leaving the area. Defence Minister Khawaja Asif said the bomber was in the first row in the prayer hall when he struck.

The attack is the deadliest in Peshawar since twin suicide bombings at All Saints Church killed scores of worshippers in September 2013, in what is the deadliest attack on Pakistan’s Christian minority.

Peshawar sits on the edge of the Pashtun tribal lands, a region mired in violence for the past two decades. The most active militant group in the area is the Pakistani Taliban, also called Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an umbrella group for Sunni and sectarian Islamist factions opposed to the government in Islamabad.

No group has officially owned the attack, but Sanaullah said a breakaway faction of the TTP called Khurasani had claimed responsibility.

The TTP denied responsibility, though it has stepped up attacks since withdrawing from a peace deal with the government last year, Reuters reported.

The policy to release militants under a amnesty as part of the deal has resulted in the bombing, Sanaullah said, adding that some of the militants who were set free also included some on death row.

The bombing took place a day before an IMF mission arrived in Islamabad for talks on a stalled $7 billion bailout.

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