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U.S. agrees to send advanced rockets to Ukraine

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(Last Updated On: June 1, 2022)

Russian troops fought to take complete control of the eastern industrial city of Sievierodonetsk on Wednesday as the United States said it will provide Ukraine with advanced rockets to help it force Moscow to negotiate an end to the war.

President Joe Biden said the United States would provide Ukraine with more advanced rocket systems and munitions so it can “more precisely strike key targets on the battlefield”.

“We have moved quickly to send Ukraine a significant amount of weaponry and ammunition so it can fight on the battlefield and be in the strongest possible position at the negotiating table,” Biden wrote in an opinion piece in the New York Times.

A senior Biden administration official said weaponry provided would include the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), which Ukraine’s armed forces chief said a month ago was “crucial” to counter Russian missile attacks.

Addressing concerns that such weapons could draw the United States into a direct conflict with Russia, senior administration officials said Ukraine gave assurances the missiles would not be used to strike inside Russia.

“These systems will be used by the Ukrainians to repel Russian advances on Ukrainian territory, but they will not be used on targets in Russian territory,” the U.S. official told reporters.

Shortly after the U.S. decision was announced, the Russian defence ministry said Russia’s nuclear forces were holding drills in the Ivanovo province, northeast of Moscow, the Interfax news agency reported.

Some 1,000 servicemen were exercising in intense manoeuvres using more than 100 vehicles including Yars intercontinental ballistic missile launchers, it cited the ministry as saying.

There was no mention of the U.S. decision to supply new weapons in the Interfax report.

The latest U.S. pledge of weapons for Ukraine – on top of billions of dollars worth of equipment already provided including anti-aircraft missiles and drones – came as Russia pressed its assault to seize the eastern Donbas region, having abandoned its earlier thrust toward Kyiv from the north.

Russian troops have now taken control of most of the eastern industrial city of Sievierodonetsk in Luhansk, one of two provinces in the Donbas, regional Governor Serhiy Gaidai on Tuesday.

Nearly all critical infrastructure in Sievierodonetsk had been destroyed and 60% of residential property damaged beyond repair, he said. Russian shelling had made it impossible to deliver aid or evacuate people.

A Russian victory in Sievierodonetsk and its twin city of Lysychansk across the Siverskyi Donets river would bring full control of Luhansk, one of two eastern provinces Moscow claims on behalf of separatists.

A pro-Moscow separatist leader said Russian proxies had advanced slower than expected to “maintain the city’s infrastructure” and exercise caution around its chemical factories.

“We can say already that a third of Sievierodonetsk is already under our control,” Russia’s TASS state news agency quoted Leonid Pasechnik, the leader of the pro-Moscow Luhansk People’s Republic, as saying.

Gaidai warned Sievierodonetsk residents not to leave bomb shelters due to what he said was a Russian air strike on a nitric acid tank.

The Luhansk People’s Republic’s police force said Ukraine’s forces had damaged it. Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists traded accusations over a similar incident in April.

Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council aid agency which had long operated out of Sievierodonetsk, said he was “horrified” by its destruction.

Up to 12,000 civilians remain caught in crossfire, without sufficient access to water, food, medicine or electricity, Egeland said.

“The near-constant bombardment is forcing civilians to seek refuge in bomb shelters and basements, with only few precious opportunities for those trying to escape,” he said.

WEAPONS PACKAGE

Ukraine says weapons sent by the United States and other countries since the beginning of the invasion have helped fend off Russian gains.

The high mobility artillery rocket systems are part of a $700 million weapons package expected to be unveiled by the United States on Wednesday.

The package includes ammunition, counter fire radars, a number of air surveillance radars, additional Javelin anti-tank missiles, as well as anti-armour weapons, officials said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has called for more weapons while lambasting the European Union, which agreed on Monday to cut imports of Russian oil, for not sanctioning energy from Russia sooner.

The EU said it would ban imports of Russian oil by sea. Officials said that would halt two-thirds of Russia’s oil exports to Europe at first, and 90% by the end of this year.

Responding to the EU oil embargo, Russia widened its gas cuts to Europe, pushing up prices and ratcheted up its economic battle with Brussels.

Putin launched his “special operation” in February to disarm and “denazify” Ukraine. Ukraine and its Western allies call this a baseless pretext for a war to seize territory.

Ukraine accuses Russia of war crimes on a huge scale, flattening cities and killing and raping civilians. Russia denies the accusations.

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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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