Russian Forces Press Ukraine Offensive as EU Weighs Oil Sanctions

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said 156 civilians were successfully evacuated from the besieged Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol. Dimitar DILKOFF AFP
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said 156 civilians were successfully evacuated from the besieged Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol. Dimitar DILKOFF AFP
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Russian Forces Press Ukraine Offensive as EU Weighs Oil Sanctions

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said 156 civilians were successfully evacuated from the besieged Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol. Dimitar DILKOFF AFP
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said 156 civilians were successfully evacuated from the besieged Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol. Dimitar DILKOFF AFP

Russian forces have launched a major assault on the holdout Azovstal steel plant in the devastated port city of Mariupol while pounding sites across eastern Ukraine, as the European Union moves to punish Moscow with oil sanctions.

Three months into the war, Moscow has focused its fresh offensive on Ukraine's east and south, while Western allies continue to provide Kyiv with cash and weapons in a bid to force Russian leader Vladimir Putin to pull back, AFP said.

In one of a series of assaults Tuesday, 21 civilians were killed and another 28 wounded in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region, local authorities said.

Regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said 10 of the 21 dead were killed in the shelling of the Avdiivka coke plant, one of Europe's largest, calling it the highest daily death toll since a Russian strike on a train station in Kramatorsk about a month ago.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenksky, meanwhile, said more than 150 people had been successfully extracted in Mariupol evacuation operations.

"Today, 156 people arrived in (the Ukrainian-held city) Zaporizhzhia. Women and children. They have been in shelters for more than two months," Zelensky said in a daily address.

Further evacuations from the city were to take place Wednesday with the help of the United Nations and the Red Cross, a Mariupol mayoral adviser said.

But Osnat Lubrani, UN humanitarian coordinator for Ukraine, has warned there "may be more civilians who remain trapped" in the immense underground galleries of the Azovstal steelworks.

As Russia's renewed campaign in eastern Ukraine intensified, EU officials on Tuesday handed a draft plan to member states on a new package of sanctions aimed at Moscow.

But several EU officials and European diplomats in Brussels told AFP there were divisions, with at least one member state jockeying to opt out of an oil embargo.

Ambassadors from the 27 European Union countries will meet Wednesday to give the plan a once-over, and it will need unanimous approval before going into effect.

- Civilians reach safety -
Azovstal evacuees who emerged from a caravan of white buses in Zaporizhzhia were met at a makeshift reception center by crying loved ones and dozens of journalists.

"Under permanent fire, sleeping on improvised mats, being pounded by the blast waves, running with your son and being knocked to the ground by an explosion -- everything was horrible," evacuee Anna Zaitseva told reporters.

"We are so thankful for everyone who helped us. There was a moment we lost hope, we thought everyone forgot about us," Zaitseva said, holding her six-month-old baby in her arms.

Elyna Tsybulchenko, 54, who worked at the site doing quality control before the war trapped her there, described days and nights of endless barrages.

"They bombed like every second... everything was shaking. Dogs barked and children screamed," she told AFP. "But the hardest moment was when we were told our bunker would not survive a direct hit."

The Russian army confirmed its forces and pro-Moscow separatists were targeting Azovstal with artillery and planes in the wake of the evacuation, accusing members of Ukraine's Azov battalion and other troops of using the pause in fighting to take up combat positions.

Mariupol was now largely calm elsewhere, AFP journalists saw on a recent press tour organized by Russian forces, with the remaining locals emerging from hiding to a ruined city.

- Battle for democracy -
The war in Ukraine has killed thousands of people and displaced more than 13 million, creating the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.

Western countries have responded by backing Ukraine with cash and increasingly heavy weaponry while imposing unprecedented sanctions against Russia.

US President Joe Biden on Tuesday framed the war as a historic battle for democracy in a speech to workers at a factory producing Javelin missiles, which have wreaked havoc on Russian tanks.

"These weapons touched by the hands, your hands, are in the hands of Ukrainian heroes, making a significant difference," Biden said at the Lockheed Martin facility in Troy, Alabama.

Reprising one of his presidency's core themes, Biden said the fight by democratic Ukraine against Putin's Russia was a front in a wider contest between democracies and autocracies worldwide, including China.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping had told him that democracies can no longer "keep up," Biden said.

Ukraine is the "first" battle to "to determine whether that's going to happen," he said.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday pledged another 300 million pounds ($376 million, 358 million euros) in military aid, as he became the first foreign leader to address Ukraine's parliament since the conflict began.

Speaking via video link, he evoked Britain's fight against the Nazis in World War II in hailing Kyiv's resistance as its "finest hour", and vowed to help ensure "no one will ever dare to attack you again".

- Deadly strikes -
Since abandoning early attempts to capture Ukraine's capital Kyiv, Russian forces have shifted to the east, including largely Russian-speaking areas, and the south.

In the town of Lyman, Ukrainian soldiers told AFP they had rigged with explosives a railway bridge over the Donets river and were awaiting orders to blow it up.

"It's never easy to destroy one of your own pieces of infrastructure. But between saving a bridge or protecting a city, there's no question at all," said one, going by the nom de guerre of "The Engineer".

Russia's defense ministry, meanwhile, said its forces had struck a logistics center at a military airfield in the region around the Black Sea port of Odessa, used for the delivery of foreign-made weapons.

Storage facilities containing Turkey's Bayraktar drones as well as missiles and ammunition from the United States and Europe had been destroyed, it said.

A rocket strike also knocked out power in part of Lviv, the western city near Poland that has turned into a haven for the displaced due to its comparative calm, Mayor Andriy Sadovy said on Twitter.

Missiles also struck far to the country's west in Transcarpathia, a region bordering Hungary that has largely been spared to date, Victor Mykyta, head of the local military administration, said.

Ukrainian prosecutors say they have pinpointed more than 8,000 war crimes carried out by Russian troops and are investigating 10 Russian soldiers for suspected atrocities in the town of Bucha, near Kyiv.

But in a phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday, Putin accused Ukrainian forces of committing war crimes and claimed the EU was "ignoring" them, according to the Kremlin.

The United States warned Monday that Moscow was preparing imminently to annex the eastern regions of Lugansk and Donetsk, planning to "engineer referenda" to join Russia sometime in mid-May.

Pro-Russian separatists in the two regions declared independence in 2014, but Moscow has so far stopped short of formally incorporating them as it did that year with the Crimean peninsula.



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 on Ukrainian Regions Kills Four, 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 on Ukrainian Regions Kills Four, 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)

Russian drone and missile attacks on Ukrainian regions in the south and east killed four people overnight and damaged residential and commercial buildings, officials said on Friday. 

Ukrainian air defenses shot down 23 out of 31 Russian-launched drones over five regions, the air force said. 

"Another difficult night for Ukrainians. The enemy launched three dozen Shaheds and six missiles at peaceful settlements of the country," said Oleksiy Kuleba, deputy head of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's office. 

The attacks killed four people and wounded nine others, Kuleba said. 

Three people were killed in the Black Sea port of Odesa when a Russian drone hit a commercial area, causing a blaze, regional governor Oleh Kiper said. 

In an attack on the Donetsk region near the front lines, one civilian was killed in the town of Myrnohrad, and 21 houses, a school, and a multi-story residential building were damaged, Kuleba said. 

In a post on Telegram, the military's Southern Forces said they had intercepted nine drones in the Odesa region. 

The military said missiles were also used in the attacks, but failed to hit any targets. 

Pictures posted by the military showed heavy damage to buildings in the area and rescue teams picking their way through debris. 

As the war enters its third year, Russia has intensified its bombardments of Ukrainian ports, including Odesa, and grain infrastructure in recent months after Moscow pulled out of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, a wartime deal that enabled Ukraine’s exports to reach many countries facing the threat of hunger. 

Kyiv has since set up an alternative corridor to ship grain and other products via its Black Sea ports near Odesa.  

In the city of Dnipro in the southeast, a Russian drone hit an apartment building, injuring at least eight people and damaging the two top floors. Serhiy Lysak, governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region, wrote on Telegram that the search ran through the night and other residents might still be under the rubble. 


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.