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China calls for Gaza peace conference; Hamas to disclose fate of Israeli hostages

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(Last Updated On: January 15, 2024)

China has called for a large-scale and authoritative peace conference on the war in Gaza, while Hamas aired video of three Israeli hostages and said their fate would be disclosed on Monday.

Speaking in Egypt at the weekend, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called for “the formulation of a specific timetable and road map for the implementation of the ‘two-state solution’ and support for the prompt resumption of Israel-Palestinian peace talks”.

Hamas aired a video on Sunday showing three Israeli hostages it is holding in Gaza and urged the Israeli government to stop the offensive against the Palestinian Islamist group and bring about their release,Reuters reported.

The undated 37-second video of Noa Argamani, 26, Yossi Sharabi, 53, and Itai Svirsky, 38, ended with the caption: “Tomorrow (Monday) we will inform you of their fate.”

Of some 240 people seized by Hamas in a cross-border killing spree that sparked the war, around half were released in a November truce. Israel says 132 remain in Gaza and that 25 of them have died in captivity.

Israel also says more than 1,200 people were killed in Hamas’ Oct. 7 assault.

The Gaza health ministry has said almost 24,000 people have been killed in the Israeli offensive that followed with more than 60,000 wounded.

The U.S. military said on Sunday its fighter aircraft shot down an anti-ship cruise missile fired from Houthi militant areas of Yemen toward a U.S. destroyer operating in the Southern Red Sea.

The midair interception is the latest incident in the Red Sea where the Houthis have been attacking international shipping in what they say is a campaign to support Palestinians under siege from Israeli forces in Gaza.

It follows a series of American and British airstrikes on Houthi targets in Yemen last week that have drawn threats of a “strong” response from the Iranian-backed militia.

In the latest fighting in Gaza, Israeli tanks and aircraft hit targets in southern and central parts of the enclave on Sunday. Hamas also launched a fresh salvo of rockets on Sunday at Ashdod, an Israeli town 40 km (25 miles) away. There was no word of any casualties.

The Israeli military said it destroyed several silos used by Hamas to fire missiles at Israel.

NEW PHASE OF WAR
The Israeli military says it has shifted to a new phase of the war focused on the southern end of Gaza, where almost 2 million people are now sheltering in tents and other temporary accommodation, after the initial phase centred on clearing the northern end of the strip, including Gaza City.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has brushed off calls for a ceasefire, saying Israel will keep going until it achieves complete victory over Hamas and recovers the remaining hostages.

The military says, though, the next phase of the war will see months of more targeted operations against the Iranian-backed movement’s leaders and positions.

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15 dead, 44 injured in residential building fire in China’s Nanjing city

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(Last Updated On: February 24, 2024)

At least 15 people were killed and 44 injured in a fire at a residential building in eastern China’s Nanjing city, local authorities said.

The fire broke out early Friday morning, officials said at a press conference, with a preliminary investigation suggesting the blaze started on the building’s first floor, where electric bikes had been placed, The Guardian reported. 

The building is located in the Yuhuatai district of Nanjing, a city of more than 8 million about 260km north-west of Shanghai.

By 6am (2200 GMT) the fire had been extinguished, and a search-and-rescue operation ended about 2pm Friday, authorities said.

The 44 injured people were sent to hospital for treatment, they added.

China has seen a spate of deadly fires in recent months, prompting calls from President Xi Jinping last month for “deep reflection” and greater efforts to “curb the frequent occurrence of safety accidents”.

In January dozens died after a fire broke out at a store in the central city of Xinyu, with state news agency Xinhua reporting the blaze had been caused by the use of fire by workers in the store’s basement.

That fire came just days after a late-evening blaze at a school in central China’s Henan province killed 13 schoolchildren as they slept in a dormitory.

A teacher at the school told the state-run Hebei Daily that all the victims were from the same third-grade class of nine- and 10-year-olds.

Domestic media reports suggested the fire was caused by an electric heating device.

In November, 26 people were killed and dozens sent to hospital after a fire at a coal company office in northern China’s Shanxi province.

The month before, an explosion at a barbecue restaurant in the north-west of the country left 31 dead and prompted official pledges of a nationwide campaign to promote workplace safety.

In April, a hospital fire in Beijing killed 29 people and forced desperate survivors to jump out of windows to escape.

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US targets Russia with hundreds of sanctions over Ukraine war, Navalny death

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(Last Updated On: February 24, 2024)

The United States on Friday imposed extensive sanctions against Russia, targeting more than 500 people and entities to mark the second anniversary of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and retaliate for the death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

President Joe Biden said the measures aim to ensure Russian President Vladimir Putin “pays an even steeper price for his aggression abroad and repression at home,” Reuters reported.

The sanctions targeted Russia’s Mir payment system, financial institutions and its military industrial base, sanctions evasion, future energy production and other areas. They also hit prison officials the U.S. says are linked to Navalny’s death.

“Doesn’t Washington realize that sanctions won’t take us down?” Russia’s ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Antonov, was quoted as saying on his embassy’s channel on the Telegram messaging app.

The United States later on Friday also imposed sanctions on Russia’s leading tanker group, Sovcomflot, accusing it of being involved in violating the G7’s price cap on Russian oil. Also targeted were 14 crude oil tankers in which it has an interest.

“Sovcomflot as a whole, as a parent company, has been implicated in price cap violations in addition to deceptive activity,” a senior Treasury official said.

The Biden administration is seeking to continue supporting Ukraine as the country faces acute shortages of ammunition, with the approval of more U.S. military aid delayed for months in the U.S. Congress. The European Union, Britain and Canada also took action against Russia on Friday.

The U.S. Treasury Department targeted nearly 300 people and entities, while the State Department hit over 250 people and entities and the Commerce Department added over 90 companies to the Entity List.

The United States and its allies have imposed sanctions on thousands of Russian targets since Russia invaded neighboring Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. The war has seen tens of thousands killed and cities destroyed.

However, Russia’s export-focused $2.2-trillion economy has proved more resilient to two years of unprecedented sanctions than either Moscow or the West anticipated.

“We must sustain our support for Ukraine even as we weaken Russia’s war machine. It’s critical that Congress steps up to join our allies around the world in giving Ukraine the means to defend itself,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a statement.

Brian O’Toole, a former Treasury official, said the action, while involving a lot of names, was short on impact, because the majority of the entities targeted are Russian rather than foreign firms, and are easily replaceable as Moscow seeks to skirt sanctions.

But former senior Treasury official Ben Harris said the magnitude of the sanctions imposed by the United States alone was formidable.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Friday’s move was Washington’s largest number of designations in a single Russia action.

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Israeli airstrike kills two people in Damascus, Syrian state TV says

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(Last Updated On: February 22, 2024)

An Israeli airstrike hit a residential building in the Kafr Sousa district in Syria’s capital Damascus on Wednesday, killing two people, Syrian state media and a security source said.

A military source cited by Syrian state TV said the strike at about 9:40 a.m. (0640 GMT) wounded a number of other people, identifying the dead as civilians, Reuters reported.

Images published by Syrian state media showed the charred side of a multi-storey building. The security source said the “attack did not achieve its aims”.

The neighbourhood hosts residential buildings, schools and Iranian cultural centres, and lies near a large, heavily-guarded complex used by security agencies. The district was struck in an Israeli attack in February 2023 that killed Iranian military experts.

Witnesses heard several back-to-back explosions. The blasts scared children at a nearby school and ambulances rushed to the area, the witnesses told Reuters.

There was no immediate comment from the Israeli military.

Iran’s semi-official Student News Network said no Iranian citizens were killed in the strike, read the report.

On Wednesday afternoon, a Reuters witness heard another large blast in the capital that shook the windows of homes. Local Syrian outlet Sham FM said several explosions were heard in the capital without specifying the cause.

Iran has been a major backer of President Bashar al-Assad during Syria’s nearly 12-year-old conflict. Its support for Damascus and the Lebanese group Hezbollah has drawn regular Israeli air strikes meant to curb Tehran’s extraterritorial military power.

Those strikes have ramped up in line with flaring regional tensions since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, with more than half a dozen Iranian Revolutionary Guards officers killed in suspected Israeli strikes on Syria since December.

As a result, the Guards have scaled back deployment of their senior officers in Syria and have planned to rely more on allied Shi’ite militia to preserve their sway there, sources familiar with the matter told Reuters earlier this month.

Iran, a backer of Hamas, has sought to stay out of the conflict itself even as it supports groups that have entered the fray from Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq and Syria – the so-called “Axis of Resistance” that is hostile to Israeli and U.S. interests.

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