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Russia ‘tightening noose’ on Mariupol; Biden tells China not to fuel assault

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(Last Updated On: March 19, 2022)

Russia said its forces were “tightening the noose” around the besieged Ukrainian port of Mariupol on Friday and concern grew over mass civilian casualties as the United States again warned China against aiding Moscow in its invasion.

Russia’s advance in Ukraine has largely stalled, and its troops, frustrated by fierce Ukrainian resistance, have blasted residential areas to rubble. On Friday, missiles landed near Lviv, a western city where thousands have fled for refuge, Reuters reported.

In Mariupol, the scene of heavy bombardment, officials estimated 80% of the city’s homes had been damaged and that 1,000 people may still be trapped in makeshift bomb shelters beneath a destroyed theatre.

Nearly 5,000 Ukrainians were evacuated from Mariupol on Friday, officials said, and residents reported seeing dead bodies along the roadside as they fled the city.

“We were careful and didn’t want the children to see the bodies, so we tried to shield their eyes,” said Nick Osychenko, the CEO of a Mariupol TV station who fled the city with six members of his family.

“We were nervous the whole journey. It was frightening, just frightening.”

Ukraine said it had rescued 130 people from the basement of a Mariupol theatre that was flattened by Russian strikes two days ago. Russia denied hitting the theatre and says it does not target civilians.

China is the one big power that has yet to condemn Russia’s assault, and Washington fears Beijing may be considering giving Moscow financial and military support, something that both Russia and China deny, Reuters reported.

In a video call that lasted around two hours, US President Joe Biden warned China’s President Xi Jinping on Friday of “implications and consequences if China provides material support to Russia” in Ukraine, the White House said.

The White House later said that sanctioning Beijing, the world’s largest exporter, was an option, though it did not detail what constituted material support, Reuters reported.

The mayor of Mariupol confirmed to the BBC that fighting had reached the centre of the city, where some 400,000 people have been trapped for over two weeks, sheltering from bombardment that has cut electricity, heating and water supply.

Regional Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said around 35,000 people had managed to leave the city in recent days, many on foot or in convoys of private cars, but near-constant shelling was preventing humanitarian aid from getting in.

Jakob Kern, emergency coordinator for the crisis at the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP), said Ukraine’s “food supply chain is falling apart” with insecurity and fear of attack hindering the movement of goods.

WFP buys nearly half of its wheat from Ukraine to feed people in global crisis zones, and Kern said the war could cause “collateral hunger” in poor countries worldwide.

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Turkey earthquake of magnitude 7.9 shakes central region, Syria

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(Last Updated On: February 6, 2023)

A strong earthquake of magnitude 7.9 struck southern Turkey early on Monday and was felt in Cyprus, Lebanon and Syria, collapsing buildings and sending residents into the snowy streets, Reuters quoted witnesses and broadcasters said.

The German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ) said the quake struck at a depth of 10 km (6 miles) near the southern Turkish city of Kahramanmaras, while the EMSC monitoring service said the chance of a tsunami risk was being evaluated.

The tremor lasted about a minute and shattered windows, according to a Reuters witness in Diyarbakir, 350 km (218 miles) to the east, read the report.

Broadcasters TRT and Haberturk showed images of people gathered around wrecked building in Kahramanmaras, seeking survivors.

The governor of Turkey’s southeastern province of Sanliurfa province, Salih Ayhan, said on Twitter, “We have destroyed buildings” and urged people to move to safe locations.

Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) put the magnitude of the quake at 7.4 near Kahramanmaras and the larger city of Gaziantep, close to the Syrian border, Reuters reported.

Syrian state media said a large number of buildings collapsed in the province of Aleppo, while a source in the Hama civil service said several buildings collapsed there.

“Paintings fell off the walls in the house,” said Samer, a resident of Damascus, the Syrian capital. “I woke up terrified. Now we’re all dressed and standing at the door.”

People in Damascus, as well as in the Lebanese cities of Beirut and Tripoli ran into the street on foot and took to their cars to get away from their buildings in case of collapses, witnesses said.

The area is regularly hit by strong earthquakes, read the report.

The head of the Turkish Red Cross said it was mobilising resources for the region as it had received information of serious damage and collapsed buildings, and urged people to evacuate damaged homes.

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Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan martial ruler in 9/11 wars, dies

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(Last Updated On: February 5, 2023)

General Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in a bloodless coup and later led a reluctant Pakistan into aiding the U.S. war in Afghanistan against the Islamic Emirate, has died, an official said Sunday. He was 79.

Musharraf, a former special forces commando, became president through the last of a string of military coups that roiled Pakistan since its founding amid the bloody 1947 partition of India. He ruled the nuclear-armed state after his 1999 coup through tensions with India, an atomic proliferation scandal and an Islamic extremist insurgency. He stepped down in 2008 while facing possible impeachment, AP reported.

Later in life, Musharraf lived in self-imposed exile in Dubai to avoid criminal charges, despite attempting a political comeback in 2012. But it wasn’t to be as his poor health plagued his last years. He maintained a soldier’s fatalism after avoiding a violent death that always seemed to be stalking him.

“I have confronted death and defied it several times in the past because destiny and fate have always smiled on me,” Musharraf once wrote. “I only pray that I have more than the proverbial nine lives of a cat.”

Musharraf´s family announced in June 2022 that he had been hospitalized for weeks while suffering from amyloidosis, an incurable condition that sees proteins build up in the body’s organs.

“Going through a difficult stage where recovery is not possible and organs are malfunctioning,” the family said.

Shazia Siraj, a spokeswoman for the Pakistani Consulate in Dubai, confirmed his death and said diplomats were providing support to his family.

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US fighter jet shoots down suspected Chinese spy balloon

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(Last Updated On: February 5, 2023)

A US military fighter jet shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday, a week after it first entered US airspace and triggered a dramatic — and public — spying saga that worsened Sino-US relations, Reuters reported.

President Joe Biden said he had issued an order on Wednesday to take down the balloon, but the Pentagon had recommended waiting until it could be done over open water to safeguard civilians from debris crashing to Earth from thousands of feet (meters) above commercial air traffic.

“They successfully took it down, and I want to compliment our aviators who did it,” Biden said.

Multiple fighter and refueling aircraft were involved in the mission, but only one — an F-22 fighter jet from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia — took the shot at 2:39 p.m. (1939 GMT), using a single AIM-9X supersonic, heat-seeking, air-to-air missile, a senior US military official said.

According to Reuters China strongly condemned the military strike on an airship that it says was used for meteorological and other scientific purposes, and which it said had strayed into US airspace “completely accidentally” — claims flatly dismissed by US officials.

“China had clearly asked the US to handle this properly in a calm, professional and restrained manner,” China’s foreign ministry said in a statement. “The US had insisted on using force, obviously overreacting.”

The balloon was shot down about six nautical miles off the US coast of the Atlantic Ocean, over relatively shallow water, potentially aiding efforts to recover elements of the Chinese surveillance equipment over the coming days, US officials said.

One US military official said the debris field was spread out over seven miles (11 km) of ocean, and multiple US military vessels were on site.

The downing of the balloon came shortly after the US government ordered a halt to flights in and out of three airports in South Carolina — Wilmington, Myrtle Beach and Charleston — due to what it said at the time was an undisclosed “national security effort.” Flights resumed on Saturday afternoon, Reuters reported.

While Saturday’s shootdown concludes the military dimension to the spying saga, Biden is likely to continue to face intense political scrutiny from Republican opponents in Congress who argue he failed to act quickly enough.

A senior administration official said after shooting down the balloon, the US government spoke directly with China about the action. The State Department also briefed allies and partners around the world, the official said.

Questions remain about how much information China may have gathered during the balloon’s trek across the United States, read the report.

The balloon entered US airspace in Alaska on Jan. 28 before moving into Canadian airspace on Jan 30. It then re-entered US airspace over northern Idaho on Jan. 31, a US defense official said. Once it crossed over US land, it did not return to open waters, making a shootdown difficult.

US officials did not publicly disclose the balloon’s presence over the United States until Thursday, Reuters reported.

“It’s clear the Biden administration had hoped to hide this national security failure from Congress and the American people,” said US Representative Mike Rogers, a Republican who leads the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee.

Biden’s emphasis on Saturday that — days ago — he ordered the balloon shot down as soon as possible could be an effort to respond to such critics.

Former President Donald Trump, Biden’s potential rival in the 2024 election, called earlier this week for the balloon to be shot down, and has sought to portray himself as stronger than Biden on China. The US relationship with China is likely to be a major theme of the 2024 presidential race.

Washington had called the balloon’s appearance a “clear violation” of US sovereignty and notified Beijing about the shootdown on Saturday, a US official said.

Still, officials on Saturday appeared to play down the balloon’s impact on US national security.

“Our assessment — and we’re going to learn more as we pick up the debris — was that it was not likely to provide significant additive value over and above other (Chinese) intel capability, such as satellites in low-Earth orbit,” the senior US defense official said.

A Reuters photographer who witnessed the shootdown said a stream came from a jet and hit the balloon, but there was no explosion. It then began to fall.

The Pentagon assesses that the balloon was part of a fleet of Chinese spy balloons. On Friday, it said another Chinese balloon was flying over Latin America.

“Over the past several years, Chinese balloons have previously been spotted over countries across five continents, including in East Asia, South Asia and Europe,” the US official said.

The suspected spy balloon prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone a visit to China this week that had been expected to start on Friday, Reuters reported.

The postponement of Blinken’s trip, which had been agreed to in November by Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, was a blow to those who saw it as an overdue opportunity to stabilize an increasingly fractious relationship between the two countries.

China is keen for a stable US relationship so it can focus on its economy, battered by the now-abandoned zero-COVID policy and neglected by foreign investors alarmed by what they see as a return of state intervention in the market.

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