Biden to Visit near Ukraine Border in Show of Solidarity

President Joe Biden speaks during a meeting on reducing gun violence, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Monday, July 12, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo)
President Joe Biden speaks during a meeting on reducing gun violence, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Monday, July 12, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo)
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Biden to Visit near Ukraine Border in Show of Solidarity

President Joe Biden speaks during a meeting on reducing gun violence, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Monday, July 12, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo)
President Joe Biden speaks during a meeting on reducing gun violence, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Monday, July 12, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo)

US President Joe Biden will travel to a town near the Polish-Ukrainian border Friday, trying to signal Western resolve against a Russian invasion that has increasingly turned to a grinding war of attrition.

Air Force One will jet into the eastern Polish town of Rzeszow -- bringing the US president less than 80 kilometers (50 miles) from a war-torn nation still struggling to repel a brutal Russian invasion, AFP said.

The trip is designed to underscore Washington's willingness to defend NATO allies, as fears rise that the month-old war in Ukraine could spill westward sparking what the US president has called "World War III."

The Kremlin's refusal to rule out the use of nuclear weapons, and a steady flow of Russian disinformation about chemical and biological weapons in Ukraine has left Kyiv and its allies fearful of an even-more serious conflagration.

Russia is already accused of using phosphorus bombs and indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas -- something the United States has branded a war crime.

Against that backdrop, Biden will meet members of the US 82nd Airborne Division, part of NATO's increasingly muscular deployment to its eastern flank.

At an emergency summit in Brussels on Thursday NATO announced the deployment of further troops to Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and Bulgaria, as well as bolstering chemical and nuclear defenses in case Russia expands its attack beyond Ukraine.

In Poland, Biden will also receive a briefing on the dire humanitarian situation in Ukraine, which has seen more than 3.5 million people pour out of the country, mostly to Poland.

The UN believes that more than half of Ukraine's children have already been driven from their homes, "a grim milestone that could have lasting consequences for generations to come," according to Unicef chief Catherine Russell.

"Every day it's 20, 30 times we go to the basement (to shelter)," said a sobbing 37-year-old Vasiliy Kravchuk in the garrison town of Zhytomyr.

"It's difficult because my wife is pregnant, I have a little son."

Biden's trip comes as the West faces urgent questions about what more it will do to help those like Kravchuk withstand the Russian onslaught.

- Plea for help -
Ukraine's embattled president Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday begged NATO for unlimited weapons to help besieged Ukrainian cities like Mariupol cling on in the face of fierce Russian bombardment.

About 100,000 civilians are said to be trapped in the southern port city with dwindling supplies of food, water and power, and with encircling Russian forces slowly grinding the city to dust.

Russia's highly censored media has broadcast aerial footage that appeared to be from Mariupol, showing a hellscape of charred and pocked apartment blocks spread across a singed and blackened wasteland.

Presenters blamed the devastation on Ukrainian "nationalists."

Kremlin-allied Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov on Thursday claimed his forces had pierced Ukrainian defenses to take Mariupol's city hall and hoist Russia's flag.

That claim was not verified, and Ukraine's armed forces said Russia was still trying to sack Mariupol "without success."

The city is a treasured prize for Russia as it would enable a land bridge between Russian-annexed Crimea and regions already controlled by Russian proxy forces in eastern Ukraine.

While some civilians have been able to flee to Ukrainian-controlled territory, local officials said as many as 15,000 Mariupol residents have been forcibly deported to Russia.

- Counterattack -
In recent days Ukraine has also shown its ability to go on the counter-attack, seemingly pushing Russia's military out of towns near Kyiv and hitting valuable Russian targets in the south.

Ukraine on Friday claimed it had destroyed or damaged a small flotilla of Russian warships in the Ukrainian port city of Berdyansk.

According to the Ukrainian armed forces, Russian landing ship the "Saratov" was destroyed, and the landing ships "Caesar Kunikov" and "Novocherkassk" were damaged.

Images from the scene showed a large Russian warship ablaze at dockside, with other vessels steaming away from the inferno.

British military intelligence said the attack on "high-value" targets also destroyed an ammunition storage depot and was part of a broader strategy of Ukraine targeting vulnerable Russian supply lines.

"Ukrainians will continue to target logistical assets in Russian-held areas," the UK Ministry of Defense said.

"This will force the Russian military to prioritize the defense of their supply chain and deprive them of much-needed resupply for forces."

- Summits -
Zelensky wants NATO to help Ukraine go further on the offensive with more advanced fighter jets, missile defense systems, tanks, armored vehicles and anti-ship missiles.

But his plea for the floodgates to open and for the West to provide "all the weapons we need" has so far met a qualified response.

At an emergency summit in Brussels on Thursday, NATO leaders said they were willing to provide more of the Javelin and Stinger missiles that have repelled scores of Russian tanks and fighter jets.

Kyiv's allies are said to be discussing sending anti-ship missiles to Ukraine, although there were "some technical challenges," according to a senior US official.

But the United States has so far ruled out sending fighter jets or other large weapons systems.

Biden has repeatedly said he does not want to cross a line into what he says could pit nuclear-armed Russia against NATO.

For now, the West is content to squeeze Russia's economy and Putin's inner circle.

The European Union and the G7, also meeting in Brussels on Wednesday pledged to block transactions involving the Russian central bank's gold reserves, to hamper any Moscow bid to circumvent Western sanctions.

And a series of countries announced asset freezes and travel bans on more Kremlin-connected individuals.

There was no agreement to halt oil and gas imports from Russia, which fill Moscow's war chest to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars per day.



Somalia Will Defend Itself if Ethiopia Seals ‘Illegal’ Port Deal, President Says 

Somalia's President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud addresses the media inside his office in Mogadishu, Somalia February 21, 2024. (Reuters)
Somalia's President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud addresses the media inside his office in Mogadishu, Somalia February 21, 2024. (Reuters)
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Somalia Will Defend Itself if Ethiopia Seals ‘Illegal’ Port Deal, President Says 

Somalia's President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud addresses the media inside his office in Mogadishu, Somalia February 21, 2024. (Reuters)
Somalia's President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud addresses the media inside his office in Mogadishu, Somalia February 21, 2024. (Reuters)

Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud said his country would "defend itself" if Ethiopia goes ahead with a deal to set up a naval base in the breakaway region of Somaliland and possibly recognize the territory as an independent state.

Landlocked Ethiopia agreed a memorandum of understanding on Jan. 1 to lease 20 km (12 miles) of coastline in Somaliland - a territory that Somalia says it owns, even though the northern region has enjoyed effective autonomy since 1991.

Ethiopia said it wants to set up a naval base there and offered possible recognition of Somaliland in exchange - prompting a defiant response from Somalia and fears the deal could further destabilize the Horn of Africa.

"If Ethiopia insists, Somalia will resist and will refuse," Mohamud told Reuters on Tuesday in an interview at the heavily fortified presidential palace in Mogadishu.

"If they come into the country, Somalia will do everything that it can to defend itself."

He did not go into further detail on what action Somalia might take. The Horn of Africa has experienced repeated conflicts, feeding humanitarian crises in areas prone to drought. Neighboring Ethiopia and Somalia fought over territory in 1977-1978 and 1982.

Mohamud said he would only agree to discuss the matter with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed when the government in Addis Ababa renounces its intention "to take part of our country".

Ethiopia's government spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. Abiy has previously said Ethiopia has no plans to start a conflict with Somalia and is merely trying to address its need for sea access.

Mohamud said he was not considering kicking out the nearly 3,000 Ethiopian soldiers stationed in Somalia as part of an African Union peacekeeping mission fighting militants from al Shabaab, an al-Qaeda affiliate.

Analysts and diplomats fear a withdrawal of Ethiopian troops would further destabilize Somalia, where al Shabaab attacks have killed thousands of civilians and soldiers since 2006.

Somalia and several Western countries, including the United States, which regularly carries out strikes against militants in Somalia, have said Ethiopia's port deal has boosted al Shabaab's recruitment efforts.

Mohamud said his government's estimates showed al Shabaab had recruited between 6,000 and 8,000 new fighters in January alone.

Analysts and diplomats interviewed by Reuters were skeptical of that number, estimating the number of new recruits in the hundreds.


British-born Woman who Joined ISIS Loses Appeal over Citizenship Removal

(FILES) Renu, eldest sister of missing British girl Shamima Begum, holds a picture of her sister while being interviewed by the media in central London, on February 22, 2015. (Photo by LAURA LEAN / POOL / AFP)
(FILES) Renu, eldest sister of missing British girl Shamima Begum, holds a picture of her sister while being interviewed by the media in central London, on February 22, 2015. (Photo by LAURA LEAN / POOL / AFP)
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British-born Woman who Joined ISIS Loses Appeal over Citizenship Removal

(FILES) Renu, eldest sister of missing British girl Shamima Begum, holds a picture of her sister while being interviewed by the media in central London, on February 22, 2015. (Photo by LAURA LEAN / POOL / AFP)
(FILES) Renu, eldest sister of missing British girl Shamima Begum, holds a picture of her sister while being interviewed by the media in central London, on February 22, 2015. (Photo by LAURA LEAN / POOL / AFP)

A British-born woman who went to Syria as a schoolgirl to join ISIS lost her latest appeal on Friday over the removal of her British citizenship.
The British government took away Shamima Begum's citizenship on national security grounds in 2019, shortly after she was found in a detention camp in Syria.
Begum, now 24, argued the decision was unlawful, in part because British officials failed to properly consider whether she was a victim of trafficking, an argument that was rejected by a lower court in February 2023.
The Court of Appeal in London rejected her appeal on Friday following an appeal in October.
Judge Sue Carr said: "It could be argued that the decision in Ms. Begum's case was harsh. It could also be argued that Ms. Begum is the author of her own misfortune.
"But it is not for this court to agree or disagree with either point of view. Our only task is to assess whether the deprivation decision was unlawful.
"We have concluded it was not and the appeal is dismissed."


Putin Says 95% of Russia’s Nuclear Forces Have Been Modernized 

In this pool photograph distributed by Russian state agency Sputnik late on February 22, 2024, Russia's President Vladimir Putin delivers an address on Defender of the Fatherland Day at the Kremlin in Moscow. (AFP)
In this pool photograph distributed by Russian state agency Sputnik late on February 22, 2024, Russia's President Vladimir Putin delivers an address on Defender of the Fatherland Day at the Kremlin in Moscow. (AFP)
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Putin Says 95% of Russia’s Nuclear Forces Have Been Modernized 

In this pool photograph distributed by Russian state agency Sputnik late on February 22, 2024, Russia's President Vladimir Putin delivers an address on Defender of the Fatherland Day at the Kremlin in Moscow. (AFP)
In this pool photograph distributed by Russian state agency Sputnik late on February 22, 2024, Russia's President Vladimir Putin delivers an address on Defender of the Fatherland Day at the Kremlin in Moscow. (AFP)

President Vladimir Putin said on Friday that 95% of Russia's strategic nuclear forces had been modernized and that the Air Force had just taken delivery of four new supersonic nuclear-capable bombers.

Putin made the comments in a statement released to coincide with Russia's annual Defender of the Fatherland Day, which celebrates the army, a day after he flew on a modernized Tu-160M nuclear-capable strategic bomber.

The Russian leader praised soldiers fighting in Ukraine in what he called a "special military operation", hailing them as heroes battling for "truth and justice."

But he devoted much of his speech to what he said were the achievements of the military-industrial complex.

His message: that Russia's nuclear triad - its strategic land, sea and air nuclear capabilities - were up to date, being constantly modernized, and in good order.

"Incorporating our real combat experience, we will continue to strengthen the Armed Forces in every possible way, including ongoing re-equipping and modernization efforts," Putin said.

"Today, the share of modern weapons and equipment in the strategic nuclear forces has already reached 95 percent, while the naval component of the 'nuclear triad' is at almost 100 percent," he added.


Armenia Freezes Participation in Russia-Led Security Bloc 

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan attends a joint press conference with French president (not seen) as part of a meeting on the sidelines of ceremony to admit Missak Manouchian and his resistance comrades to the Pantheon, in Paris, France, 21 February 2024. (EPA)
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan attends a joint press conference with French president (not seen) as part of a meeting on the sidelines of ceremony to admit Missak Manouchian and his resistance comrades to the Pantheon, in Paris, France, 21 February 2024. (EPA)
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Armenia Freezes Participation in Russia-Led Security Bloc 

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan attends a joint press conference with French president (not seen) as part of a meeting on the sidelines of ceremony to admit Missak Manouchian and his resistance comrades to the Pantheon, in Paris, France, 21 February 2024. (EPA)
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan attends a joint press conference with French president (not seen) as part of a meeting on the sidelines of ceremony to admit Missak Manouchian and his resistance comrades to the Pantheon, in Paris, France, 21 February 2024. (EPA)

Armenia has frozen its participation in the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) because the pact had failed the country, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said in an interview broadcast on Thursday.

Pashinyan also said Azerbaijan, with which Armenia has fought two wars over the past three decades, was not adhering to the principles needed to clinch a long-term peace treaty, and suggested Azerbaijan was preparing to launch another attack.

Pashinyan told France 24 television that the CSTO pact, dominated by Russia, had failed Armenia.

"The Collective Security Treaty has not fulfilled its objectives as far as Armenia is concerned, particularly in 2021 and 2022. And we could not let that happen without taking notice," Pashinyan said through an interpreter.

"We have now in practical terms frozen our participation in this treaty. As for what comes next, we shall have to see."

He said there was no discussion for the moment of closing a Russian base in Armenia. That was subject to different treaties.

Pashinyan has in recent months expressed discontent with Armenia's longstanding ties with Russia and said Armenia could no longer rely on Russia to ensure its defense needs. He had suggested its membership of the CSTO was under review.

Other ex-Soviet members of the CSTO include Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Azerbaijan recovered swathes of territory in 2020 in the second war over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, populated mainly by ethnic Armenians but internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.

Last year, Azerbaijan's military took control of the territory, prompting most of its residents to leave for Armenia.

In his remarks, Pashinyan said prospects for clinching a long-term peace treaty were hurt by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's statements which Armenia interpreted as laying claim to large parts of Armenian territory.

"If the principles of territorial integrity and inviolability of borders are not recognized by Azerbaijan, it is simply not possible," he told France 24.

"Azerbaijan is using the situation to feed its rhetoric. That leads one to think that Azerbaijan is getting ready for a new attack on Armenia."

Key elements in securing a treaty are demarcation of borders and the establishment of regional transport corridors often through the territory of each others' territory.

Aliyev has also raised the issue of determining control of ethnic enclaves on both sides of the border.

Pashinyan and Aliyev have discussed moves towards a peace treaty at several meetings, including discussions last week at the Munich Security Conference.


Russian Drone Strike in Ukraine’s Odesa Kills Three, Kyiv Says 

Firefighters work at a site of Russian drone and missile strikes, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Odesa, Ukraine February 23, 2024. (Press service of the State Emergency Service of Ukraine in Odesa region/Handout via Reuters)
Firefighters work at a site of Russian drone and missile strikes, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Odesa, Ukraine February 23, 2024. (Press service of the State Emergency Service of Ukraine in Odesa region/Handout via Reuters)
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Russian Drone Strike in Ukraine’s Odesa Kills Three, Kyiv Says 

Firefighters work at a site of Russian drone and missile strikes, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Odesa, Ukraine February 23, 2024. (Press service of the State Emergency Service of Ukraine in Odesa region/Handout via Reuters)
Firefighters work at a site of Russian drone and missile strikes, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Odesa, Ukraine February 23, 2024. (Press service of the State Emergency Service of Ukraine in Odesa region/Handout via Reuters)

A Russian drone hit a commercial area in Ukraine's Black Sea port of Odesa, killing three people, the Ukrainian military and regional governor Oleh Kiper said on Friday.

The military said Russia launched 31 drones at Ukraine overnight, with air defenses destroying 23 of them.

In a post on the Telegram messaging app, the military's Southern Forces said they had intercepted nine drones, but one struck an area near the port, causing a blaze.

Firefighters recovered one body and said people might still be under the rubble as emergency teams fought to control the blaze. A woman security guard was rescued unharmed from a building, the post said.

"The bodies of two more people were found under the rubble," Kiper, the regional governor, said on Telegram. "In total, three people died as a result of the enemy attack."

The military said missiles were also used in the attack, but failed to hit any targets. Pictures posted by the military show heavy damage to buildings in the area and rescue teams picking their way through debris.

In the central city of Dnipro, a Russian drone hit a multi-storey apartment building, injuring eight people, the regional governor said.

Serhiy Lysak, governor of Dnipropetrovsk region, wrote on Telegram that the search ran through the night and other residents might still be under rubble.

Reuters was unable to verify independently the accounts.


Israeli Defense Firms Make Air Show Return, Tight-lipped on Gaza War

Guests stand next to the Rafael Advanced Defense Systems booth at the Singapore Airshow in Singapore on February 21, 2024. (Photo by Roslan RAHMAN / AFP)
Guests stand next to the Rafael Advanced Defense Systems booth at the Singapore Airshow in Singapore on February 21, 2024. (Photo by Roslan RAHMAN / AFP)
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Israeli Defense Firms Make Air Show Return, Tight-lipped on Gaza War

Guests stand next to the Rafael Advanced Defense Systems booth at the Singapore Airshow in Singapore on February 21, 2024. (Photo by Roslan RAHMAN / AFP)
Guests stand next to the Rafael Advanced Defense Systems booth at the Singapore Airshow in Singapore on February 21, 2024. (Photo by Roslan RAHMAN / AFP)

Israel's military industry was out in force at the Singapore Airshow this week, making its return after being largely absent from the Dubai air show in November in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war, a subject that was off limits at the Asia summit.
The Israeli ministry of defense and 11 of its defense contractors attended Asia's largest aerospace and defense gathering, including Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Elbit Systems.
IAI, Rafael, Elbit and the defense ministry all declined to comment on the war in Gaza, including the performance of their own weapons.
"We don't discuss weapons," Ziv Avni, vice president of business development at Elbit, told Reuters at the unveiling of its latest aerial drone, which a placard said could carry "loitering munitions for covert and precise airstrikes".
Israel has faced criticism and protests over its months-long military campaign in Gaza, which the health ministry there says has killed more than 29,000 Palestinians.
Israel began its military offensive in Gaza after fighters from Hamas-ruled Gaza killed 1,200 people and took 253 hostages in southern Israel on Oct. 7.
The war wasn't brought up by delegates at the Singapore event and didn't dampen appetite for Israel's missiles, spy gear and aerial drones, two Israeli industry officials at the show told Reuters, asking not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.


US: 4 Charged in Transporting Suspected Iranian-made Weapons to Houthis

This image released by the US Department of Justice in an FBI affidavit filed in US District Court, Alexandria, Va., shows what is described as Iranian-made warhead bound for Yemen's Houthis seized off a vessel in the Arabian Sea. (US Department of Justice via AP, File)
This image released by the US Department of Justice in an FBI affidavit filed in US District Court, Alexandria, Va., shows what is described as Iranian-made warhead bound for Yemen's Houthis seized off a vessel in the Arabian Sea. (US Department of Justice via AP, File)
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US: 4 Charged in Transporting Suspected Iranian-made Weapons to Houthis

This image released by the US Department of Justice in an FBI affidavit filed in US District Court, Alexandria, Va., shows what is described as Iranian-made warhead bound for Yemen's Houthis seized off a vessel in the Arabian Sea. (US Department of Justice via AP, File)
This image released by the US Department of Justice in an FBI affidavit filed in US District Court, Alexandria, Va., shows what is described as Iranian-made warhead bound for Yemen's Houthis seized off a vessel in the Arabian Sea. (US Department of Justice via AP, File)

Four foreign nationals were arrested and charged Thursday with transporting suspected Iranian-made weapons on a vessel intercepted by US naval forces in the Arabian Sea last month. Two Navy SEALs died during the mission.

The criminal complaint unsealed Thursday in US District Court in Richmond alleges that the four defendants — who were all carrying Pakistani identification cards — were transporting suspected Iranian-made missile components for the type of weapons used by the Houthis in Yemen in recent attacks.

The flow of missiles and other advanced weaponry from Iran to Houthi militias in Yemen “threatens the people and interests of America and our partners in the region,” Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said in a news release.

US officials said that Navy Special Warfare Operator 1st Class Christopher J. Chambers was boarding the boat on Jan. 11 and slipped into the gap created by high waves between the vessel and the SEALs’ combatant craft. As Chambers fell, Navy Special Warfare Operator 2nd Class Nathan Gage Ingram jumped in to try to save him, according to US officials familiar with what happened.

“Two Navy SEALs tragically lost their lives in the operation that thwarted the defendants charged today from allegedly smuggling Iranian-made weapons that the Houthis could have used to target American forces and threaten freedom of navigation and a vital artery for commerce," Monaco said.
According to The Associated Press, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland pledged that the Justice Department “will use every legal authority to hold accountable those who facilitate the flow of weapons” from Iran to the Houthis, Hamas, and other groups “that endanger the security of the United States and our allies.”

Muhammad Pahlawan is charged with attempting to smuggle advanced missile components, including a warhead he is accused of knowing would be used by the Houthis against commercial and naval vessels in the Red Sea and surrounding waters. He is also charged with providing false information to US Coast Guard officers during the boarding of the vessel.

Pahlawan's co-defendants — Mohammad Mazhar, Ghufran Ullah and Izhar Muhammad — were also charged with providing false information.

Pahlawan's attorney, Assistant Supervisory Federal Public Defender Amy Austin, said Pahlawan had an initial appearance in US District Court Thursday and is scheduled to be back in court Tuesday for a detention hearing. She declined to comment on the case.

“Right now, he’s just charged with two crimes and we’re just at the very beginning stages, and so all we know is what’s in the complaint,” Austin said when reached by phone Thursday.

According to prosecutors, Navy forces boarded a small, unflagged vessel, described as a dhow, and encountered 14 people on the ship on the night of Jan. 11, in the Arabian Sea off the Somali coast.

Navy forces searched the dhow and found what prosecutors say was Iranian-made weapons, including components for medium range ballistic missiles and anti-ship cruise missiles.

All 14 sailors on the dhow were brought onto the USS Lewis B. Puller after Navy forces determined the dhow was not seaworthy. They were then brought back to Virginia, where criminal charges were filed against four and material witness warrants were filed against the other 10.

According to an FBI affidavit, Navy forces were entitled to board the ship because they were conducting an authorized “flag verification” to determine the country where the dhow was registered.

The dhow was determined to be flying without a flag and was therefore deemed a “vessel without nationality” that was subject to US law, the affidavit states.

According to the affidavit, the sailors on the dhow admitted they had departed from Iran, although at least one of the men initially insisted they departed from Pakistan.

The affidavit states that crew members had been in contact multiple times by satellite phone with a member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.


Iran Starts First Election Campaign Since 2022 Mass Protests Over Amini’s Death

Iranians walk next to a symbol of the election ballot box during the first day of Iran's parliamentary election campaigns in a street in Tehran, Iran, 22 February 2024. (EPA)
Iranians walk next to a symbol of the election ballot box during the first day of Iran's parliamentary election campaigns in a street in Tehran, Iran, 22 February 2024. (EPA)
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Iran Starts First Election Campaign Since 2022 Mass Protests Over Amini’s Death

Iranians walk next to a symbol of the election ballot box during the first day of Iran's parliamentary election campaigns in a street in Tehran, Iran, 22 February 2024. (EPA)
Iranians walk next to a symbol of the election ballot box during the first day of Iran's parliamentary election campaigns in a street in Tehran, Iran, 22 February 2024. (EPA)

Candidates for Iran's parliament began campaigning Thursday in the country's first election since the 2022 crackdown on nationwide protests that followed the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody.

Iran's state television said 15,200 candidates will compete for a four-year term in the 290-seat chamber, which has been controlled by hard-liners for the past two decades. It's a record number and more than twice the candidates who ran in the 2020 election, when voter turnout was just over 42%, the lowest since the 1979 revolution, reported The Associated Press.

Amini died in September 2022, after she was arrested by Iran’s morality police for allegedly violating the country’s strict headscarf law that forces women to cover their hair and entire bodies. The protests quickly escalated into calls to overthrow Iran’s clerical rulers. In the severe crackdown that followed, over 500 people were killed and nearly 20,000 were arrested, according to human rights activists in Iran.

On Wednesday, the Guardian Council election watchdog sent the names of the 15,200 qualified candidates to the interior ministry, which holds the election. Any candidate for elections in Iran must be approved by the Council, a 12-member clerical body, half of whom are directly appointed by the supreme leader.

The candidates include 1,713 women, which is more than double the 819 who ran in 2020. The election will be held March 1, and the new parliament will convene in late May.

Large billboards and election posters have sprung up in Tehran and other cities to announce the start of campaigning, urging people to take part.

But the first official day of campaigning did not see a large number of banners erected in favor of individual candidates or their coalitions.

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has urged people to head to the polling stations.

"Everyone should participate in elections," he said on Sunday. "It is important to choose the best person, but the priority is for people to participate."

Large posters have been erected of Khamenei casting a vote at a polling station during a previous election. The few opinion polls that have been held and released in recent weeks showed that more than half the Iranians are indifferent about taking part in the elections.

Public discontent

Some opposition figures in Iran and members of the diaspora have in recent weeks called for a total boycott of the polls.

In the absence of serious competition from reformists and moderates, journalist Maziar Khosravi expected the new parliament would likely continue to be controlled by conservatives.

Only between 20 and 30 of the reformist candidates who submitted applications have been approved to run in the upcoming election, reformist politicians said.

The current parliament, elected in 2020, has been dominated by conservatives and ultra-conservatives after many reformists and moderates were disqualified.

On Monday, former reformist president Mohammad Khatami said Iran was "very far from free, participatory, and competitive elections".

He pointed to growing popular "discontent" among Iranians.

Former moderate president Hassan Rouhani has called on the people to vote "to protest against the ruling minority", but he did not call for a boycott.

Rouhani recently announced that he was barred from seeking re-election to the Assembly of Experts after 24 years of membership.

The Reform Front, a key coalition of reformist parties, has meanwhile said it will not take part in "meaningless, non-competitive, and ineffective elections".

"Most of the candidates, particularly in small constituencies, are doctors, engineers, civil servants, and teachers who are not affiliated with any political group," said the journalist Khosravi.

By allowing such a large pool of candidates to run, the government "wants to create local competition and increase participation" to help attract voters, he added.

Despite the absence of challengers to the conservatives, "the battle is expected to be serious and bloody," he added.

He nonetheless predicted that current MPs would not be re-elected for a new term, especially as "economic conditions have made people unhappy with the current representatives."

Double vote

Current parliament speaker Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf will run for election from his hometown, a constituency in the remote northeast, after winning a seat in the capital of Tehran four years ago.

Such a change in districts usually indicates shrinking popularity. In recent years, his fellow hard-line critics have occasionally accused him of ignoring the rights of other parliament members and disregarding reports of corruption while he was Tehran mayor.

In a separate election on March 1, 144 clerics will compete for the all-cleric 88-seat Assembly of Experts that functions as an advisory body to Khamenei, who has final say on all state matters. Their assembly members' term is eight years.

Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi, who is also an assembly member, will seek reelection for the assembly seat in a remote constituency in South Khorasan province, competing against a low-profile cleric there.

Under the constitution, the assembly monitors the country’s supreme leader and chooses his successor. Khamenei, who will be 85 in April, has been supreme leader for 34 years.


Biden Meets Alexei Navalny's Widow, Daughter in California

President Joe Biden meets Thursday with Yulia Navalnaya, Alexei Navalny’s window, and daughter Dasha Navalnaya in San Francisco (White House X account)
President Joe Biden meets Thursday with Yulia Navalnaya, Alexei Navalny’s window, and daughter Dasha Navalnaya in San Francisco (White House X account)
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Biden Meets Alexei Navalny's Widow, Daughter in California

President Joe Biden meets Thursday with Yulia Navalnaya, Alexei Navalny’s window, and daughter Dasha Navalnaya in San Francisco (White House X account)
President Joe Biden meets Thursday with Yulia Navalnaya, Alexei Navalny’s window, and daughter Dasha Navalnaya in San Francisco (White House X account)

US President Joe Biden met in California on Thursday with the widow and daughter of Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader who died last week in a prison in Russia, the White House announced.
Biden met with Yulia Navalnaya, Alexei's widow, and daughter Dasha Navalnaya in San Francisco to “express his heartfelt condolences,” the White House said.
Biden reaffirmed his intention to impose “major new sanctions” in response to Navalny's death, according to AFP.
The Biden administration is expected to unveil the sanctions Friday.
Navalny, 47, and a vocal critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, died last week in the penal colony in Yamal near the Arctic Circle, where he was serving a 19-year sentence on charges of extremism.
In 2020, the Russian opposition figure was poisoned with the Novichok nerve agent and had blamed the Kremlin for his poisoning.
Western leaders have held Putin directly responsible for the death of the Russian opposition leader in prison.


US Charges Japanese Crime Leader with Trafficking Nuclear Materials to Iran

File photo: Takeshi Ebisawa poses with a rocket launcher during a meeting with an informant at a warehouse in Copenhagen in February 2021. (Reuters)
File photo: Takeshi Ebisawa poses with a rocket launcher during a meeting with an informant at a warehouse in Copenhagen in February 2021. (Reuters)
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US Charges Japanese Crime Leader with Trafficking Nuclear Materials to Iran

File photo: Takeshi Ebisawa poses with a rocket launcher during a meeting with an informant at a warehouse in Copenhagen in February 2021. (Reuters)
File photo: Takeshi Ebisawa poses with a rocket launcher during a meeting with an informant at a warehouse in Copenhagen in February 2021. (Reuters)

US authorities on Wednesday charged the leader of a Japanese crime syndicate with conspiring to traffic nuclear materials from Myanmar for expected use by Iran in nuclear weapons, the Justice Department said.
Takeshi Ebisawa, 60, and co-defendant Somphop Singhasiri, 61, trafficked in drugs, weapons, and nuclear material, "going so far as to offer uranium and weapons-grade plutonium fully expecting that Iran would use it for nuclear weapons," said Anne Milgram, who heads the Drug Enforcement Administration.
“This is an extraordinary example of the depravity of drug traffickers who operate with total disregard for human life,” Milgram added.
Both men have been ordered detained, the department said in a statement.
Ebisawa is accused of conspiring to sell weapons-grade nuclear material and lethal narcotics from Myanmar and to buy military weapons on behalf of an armed insurgent group, Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen said.
"It is chilling to imagine the consequences had these efforts succeeded and the Justice Department will hold accountable those who traffic in these materials and threaten US national security and international stability," Olsen added.
According to the allegations contained in the indictment, beginning in early 2020, Ebisawa informed UC-1 and a DEA confidential source (CS-1) that Ebisawa had access to a large quantity of nuclear materials that he wanted to sell. Later that year, Ebisawa sent UC-1 a series of photographs depicting rocky substances with Geiger counters measuring radiation, as well as pages of what Ebisawa represented to be lab analyses indicating the presence of thorium and uranium in the depicted substances.
In response to Ebisawa’s repeated inquiries, UC-1 agreed, as part of the DEA’s investigation, to help Ebisawa broker the sale of his nuclear materials to UC-1’s associate, who was posing as an Iranian general (the General), for use in a nuclear weapons program.
Ebisawa then offered to supply the General with “plutonium” that would be even “better” and more “powerful” than uranium for this purpose.
With the assistance of Thai authorities, the Nuclear Samples were seized and subsequently transferred to the custody of US law enforcement authorities. A US nuclear forensic laboratory examined the Nuclear Samples and determined that both samples contained detectable quantities of uranium, thorium, and plutonium. In particular, the laboratory determined that the isotope composition of the plutonium found in the Nuclear Samples is weapons-grade.
Ebisawa is facing life in prison; a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years in prison for his conspiracy to acquire, transfer, and possess surface-to-air missiles, and up to 20 years in prison for conspiracy to commit international trafficking of nuclear materials.
The date of the trial hasn’t been announced yet.