Iran Says 2 UN Watchdog Devices at Nuclear Site Turned Off

The Iranian flag waves in front of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) headquarters, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Vienna, Austria May 23, 2021. (Reuters)
The Iranian flag waves in front of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) headquarters, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Vienna, Austria May 23, 2021. (Reuters)
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Iran Says 2 UN Watchdog Devices at Nuclear Site Turned Off

The Iranian flag waves in front of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) headquarters, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Vienna, Austria May 23, 2021. (Reuters)
The Iranian flag waves in front of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) headquarters, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Vienna, Austria May 23, 2021. (Reuters)

Iran turned off two surveillance devices Wednesday used by UN inspectors to monitor the country's uranium enrichment, further escalating the crisis over its atomic program as Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers remains in tatters.

The move appeared to be a new pressure technique as Western nations seek to censure Iran at a meeting this week in Vienna at the International Atomic Energy Agency. The censure deals with what the watchdog refers to as Iran's failure to provide "credible information" over nuclear material found at undeclared sites across the country.

But Iran's latest move, announced by state television, makes it even more difficult for inspectors to monitor Tehran's nuclear program. Nonproliferation experts have warned Iran now has enough uranium enriched close to weapons-grade levels to pursue an atomic bomb if it chooses to do so.

The state TV report, later repeated by other Iranian media, said authorities deactivated the "beyond-safeguards cameras of the measuring Online Enrichment Monitor ... and flowmeter." That apparently refers to the IAEA’s online monitors that watch the enrichment of uranium gas through piping at enrichment facilities.

In 2016, the IAEA said it installed the device for the first time in Iran's underground Natanz nuclear facility, its main enrichment site, located some 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of the capital, Tehran. The device allowed for "around-the-clock monitoring" of the facility's cascades, a series of centrifuges hooked together to rapidly spin uranium gas to enrich it.

"Traditional methods of sampling and analysis can take three weeks or longer, mostly because of the time it takes to ship the sample from Iran to the IAEA’s laboratories in Austria," the agency said at the time.

Iran is also enriching uranium at its underground Fordo facility, though the IAEA is not known to have installed these devices there.

"Iran has so far had extensive cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency," state TV said in its report Wednesday. "Unfortunately, the agency, without considering this cooperation ... not only did not appreciate this cooperation, but also considered it a duty of Iran."

Tehran said its civilian nuclear arm, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, monitored the shutdown of the cameras. It said 80% of the existing cameras are IAEA "safeguard" cameras and they will continue to operate as before. Safeguards refer to the IAEA’s inspections and monitoring of a country’s nuclear program.

However, an Iranian official warned IAEA officials that Tehran was now considering taking "other measures" as well.

"We hope that they come to their senses and respond to Iran’s cooperation with cooperation," said Behrouz Kamalvandi, a spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. "It is not acceptable that they show inappropriate behavior while Iran continues to cooperate."

The Vienna-based IAEA declined to immediately comment. However, Iran's move come after IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi criticized Iran for failing to provide "credible information" about unexplained, man-made nuclear material discovered at three undeclared Iranian sites - long a point of contention between the agency and Tehran.

US Ambassador Laura S.H. Holgate identified the Iranian sites in comments Wednesday to the IAEA's board as Marivan, Turquzabad and Varamin. Iran has denied carrying out nuclear work at these locations.

Holgate urged Iran to cooperate with UN inspectors and said that moving forward with the censure would "hold Iran accountable."

"Restricting IAEA access and attempts to paint the IAEA as politicized for simply doing its job will serve no purpose," she said.

Iran already has been holding footage from IAEA surveillance cameras since February 2021 as a pressure tactic to restore the atomic accord.

Iran and world powers agreed in 2015 to the nuclear deal, which saw Tehran drastically limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. In 2018, then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the accord, raising tensions across the wider Middle East and sparking a series of attacks and incidents.

Talks in Vienna over Iran’s tattered nuclear deal have been stalled since April. Since the deal’s collapse, Iran runs advanced centrifuges and has a rapidly growing stockpile of enriched uranium. Nonproliferation experts warn Iran has enriched enough up to 60% purity - a short technical step from weapons-grade levels of 90% - to make one nuclear weapon should it decide to do so.

Iran insists its program is for peaceful purposes, though UN experts and Western intelligence agencies say Iran had an organized military nuclear program through 2003.

Building a nuclear bomb would still take Iran more time if it pursued a weapon, analysts say, though they warn Tehran’s advances make the program more dangerous. Israel has threatened in the past that it would carry out a preemptive strike to stop Iran - and already is suspected in a series of recent killings targeting Iranian officials.

Russian President Vladimir Putin called Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi on Wednesday and discussed the need to revive the nuclear deal, the Kremlin said.

In a statement Tuesday to the IAEA, France, Germany and the United Kingdom warned the moves taken by Tehran are "further reducing the time Iran would take to break out towards a first nuclear weapon and it is fueling distrust as to Iran’s intentions."

"The IAEA has been without crucial access to data on centrifuge and component manufacturing for a year and half now," the statement warned. "This means that neither the agency, nor the international community, know how many centrifuges Iran has in its inventory, how many were built, and where they may be located."

The countries urged Iran "to stop escalating its nuclear program and to urgently conclude (the) deal that is on the table."

But just before the camera announcement, the head of Iran's nuclear organization insisted the country has no secret nuclear activity and accused the West of making a "political move” by trying to censure Iran.

”Iran has had maximum cooperation with the IAEA," said Mohammad Eslami, according to the state-run IRNA news agency.



UK Conservatives Suspend Lawmaker for Making Islamophobic Statements 

British lawmaker Lee Anderson walks towards 10 Downing Street in December. (Reuters)
British lawmaker Lee Anderson walks towards 10 Downing Street in December. (Reuters)
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UK Conservatives Suspend Lawmaker for Making Islamophobic Statements 

British lawmaker Lee Anderson walks towards 10 Downing Street in December. (Reuters)
British lawmaker Lee Anderson walks towards 10 Downing Street in December. (Reuters)

Britain's Conservative Party suspended one of its lawmakers, Lee Anderson, on Saturday after he said the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, was “under the control of Islamists”.

Khan, the first Muslim to be mayor of London and a member of the opposition Labour Party, is a frequent target of Conservative criticism for his handling of policing in Britain's capital, including regular pro-Palestinian marches.

On Wednesday hundreds of pro-Palestinian protesters gathered outside parliament, during a chaotic vote over whether to call for a ceasefire in Gaza and the exact language to use.

The speaker of the lower house of parliament, Lindsay Hoyle, said he broke with usual parliamentary procedure for the vote because of previous threats of violence some lawmakers had received due to their views on the conflict.

Speaking on Friday to the television channel GB News, Anderson said: “I don't actually believe these Islamists have got control of our country. But what I do believe is they've got control of Khan and they've got control of London. He's actually given our capital city to his mates.”

Khan - who regularly speaks of the importance of fighting antisemitism and misogyny - told reporters that he regarded Anderson's comments as racist and Islamophobic and that they would “pour fuel on the fire of anti-Muslim hatred”.

Amid growing criticism of Anderson's remarks on Saturday, the Conservative Party said it had decided he could no longer represent them in parliament.

“Following his refusal to apologize for comments made yesterday, the Chief Whip has suspended the Conservative whip from Lee Anderson MP,” a spokesperson for Simon Hart, the government minister in charge of party discipline, said.

Anderson, a former Conservative Party vice chairman, said he understood the decision to suspend him.

“I will continue to support the government's efforts to call out extremism in all its forms - be that antisemitism or Islamophobia,” he wrote on his Facebook page.

A survey conducted from Feb. 16-18 by Savanta showed that 29% of Britons believed the Conservatives had a problem with Islamophobia, the most of any major political party.


US Airman Sets Himself on Fire Outside Israeli Embassy in Washington

In this image taken from video, police are deployed outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington, Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024, after an active-duty member of the US Air Force was critically injured after setting himself ablaze outside the diplomatic compound. (AP)
In this image taken from video, police are deployed outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington, Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024, after an active-duty member of the US Air Force was critically injured after setting himself ablaze outside the diplomatic compound. (AP)
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US Airman Sets Himself on Fire Outside Israeli Embassy in Washington

In this image taken from video, police are deployed outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington, Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024, after an active-duty member of the US Air Force was critically injured after setting himself ablaze outside the diplomatic compound. (AP)
In this image taken from video, police are deployed outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington, Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024, after an active-duty member of the US Air Force was critically injured after setting himself ablaze outside the diplomatic compound. (AP)

US military service member set himself on fire, in an apparent act of protest against the war in Gaza, outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington on Sunday afternoon, authorities said, according to Reuters.

The man was transported to an area hospital after the fire was put out by US Secret Service officers, DC Fire and EMS posted online.

The man remains in critical condition, a Metropolitan Police Department spokesperson said Sunday afternoon.

An Air Force spokesperson confirmed that the incident involved a active duty airman.

Local police and Secret Service are investigating the incident.

Israel's embassy has been the target of continued protest against the war in Gaza.

The war in Gaza has led to pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli protests in the United States.

The protests started after Oct. 7 when Hamas, the Palestinian group that rules Gaza, launched a cross-border attacks, that according to Israeli counts have killed 1,200 Israelis and seized 253 hostages.

Since then, Israeli forces have waged a military campaign against the coastal enclave, laying much of it to waste, with nearly 30,000 people dead, according to Palestinian health officials.


31,000 Ukrainian Troops Killed Since Start of Russia's Invasion, Zelenskiy says

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks during 'Ukraine. Year 2024' conference, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine, February 25, 2024. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks during 'Ukraine. Year 2024' conference, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine, February 25, 2024. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko
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31,000 Ukrainian Troops Killed Since Start of Russia's Invasion, Zelenskiy says

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks during 'Ukraine. Year 2024' conference, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine, February 25, 2024. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks during 'Ukraine. Year 2024' conference, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine, February 25, 2024. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Sunday that 31,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed in action in the two years since Russia launched its full-scale invasion.
Zelenskiy said that the number was far lower than estimates given by Russian President Vladimir Putin's government.
“31,000 Ukrainian military personnel have been killed in this war. Not 300,000, not 150,000, not whatever Putin and his deceitful circle have been lying about. But nevertheless, each of these losses is a great sacrifice for us”, Zelenskiy said at the “Ukraine. Year 2024” forum in Kyiv.
The Ukrainian leader said that he wouldn't disclose the number of troops that were wounded or missing. He also said that “tens of thousands of civilians” had been killed in occupied areas of Ukraine, but said that no exact figures would be available until the war was over.
“We don’t know how many of our civilians they killed. We don’t,” he said.
It's the first time that Kyiv has confirmed the number of its losses since the start of Russia’s full-scale war on Feb. 24, 2022.
Russia has provided few official casualty figures. The most recent data from the Defense Ministry, published in January 2023, pointed to just over 6,000 deaths, although reports from US and UK officials put that number significantly higher.
A US intelligence report declassified in mid-December 2023 estimated that 315,000 Russian troops had been killed or wounded in Ukraine. If accurate, the figure would represent 87% of the roughly 360,000 troops Russia had before the war, according to the report.
Independent Russian news outlet Mediazona said Saturday that about 75,000 Russian men died in 2022 and 2023 fighting in the war.
A joint investigation published by Mediazona and Meduza, another independent Russian news site, indicates that the rate of Russia’s losses in Ukraine is not slowing and that Moscow is losing about 120 men a day.


Ukraine Expects $11.8 Bln in US Economic Aid in 2024

In this grab taken from video released by the head of the Russian-controlled Donetsk region Denis Pushilin's telegram channel on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024, Denis Pushilin, head of the Russian-controlled Donetsk region, walks past damaged buildings, after Russian forces completed their takeover of Avdiivka, eastern Ukraine. (Head of the Russian-controlled Donetsk region Denis Pushilin telegram channel via AP)
In this grab taken from video released by the head of the Russian-controlled Donetsk region Denis Pushilin's telegram channel on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024, Denis Pushilin, head of the Russian-controlled Donetsk region, walks past damaged buildings, after Russian forces completed their takeover of Avdiivka, eastern Ukraine. (Head of the Russian-controlled Donetsk region Denis Pushilin telegram channel via AP)
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Ukraine Expects $11.8 Bln in US Economic Aid in 2024

In this grab taken from video released by the head of the Russian-controlled Donetsk region Denis Pushilin's telegram channel on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024, Denis Pushilin, head of the Russian-controlled Donetsk region, walks past damaged buildings, after Russian forces completed their takeover of Avdiivka, eastern Ukraine. (Head of the Russian-controlled Donetsk region Denis Pushilin telegram channel via AP)
In this grab taken from video released by the head of the Russian-controlled Donetsk region Denis Pushilin's telegram channel on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024, Denis Pushilin, head of the Russian-controlled Donetsk region, walks past damaged buildings, after Russian forces completed their takeover of Avdiivka, eastern Ukraine. (Head of the Russian-controlled Donetsk region Denis Pushilin telegram channel via AP)

Ukraine expects to receive $11.8 billion in economic support this year from the United States, its prime minister said on Sunday.

Denys Shmyhal said during a televised conference in Kyiv that he was hopeful that US lawmakers would approve long-awaited economic and military aid.

Russia said on Sunday that its forces had taken more advantageous positions near Avdiivka and Donetsk after President Vladimir Putin ordered the military to push further into Ukraine after two years of full-scale war.
Russia's defense ministry said its troops had pushed back Ukrainian forces near Klishchiivka, Dyleyevka and Kurdiumivka in the Donetsk region and taken better positions near Avdiivka which fell to Russia earlier this month.
"In the Donetsk direction, units of the Southern grouping of troops improved the situation along the front line and defeated formations of the 22nd, 28th and 92nd mechanized brigades of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in the areas of the settlements of Klishchiivka, Dyleyevka and Kurdiumivka," it said.

"In the Avdiivka direction, units of the Center group of forces occupied more advantageous lines and positions, and also defeated manpower and equipment of the 3rd Assault Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the 107th Air Defense Brigade."
The ministry said Russian troops had repelled seven Ukrainian counter-attacks in the area. A total of 77 Ukrainian drones were destroyed, the ministry said.


Ukraine's Top General, Defense Minister Visit Posts Near Front Line

FILE PHOTO: Colonel general Oleksandr Syrskyi, Commander of the Ukrainian Ground Forces, attends an interview with Reuters, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Kharkiv region, Ukraine January 12, 2024. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: Colonel general Oleksandr Syrskyi, Commander of the Ukrainian Ground Forces, attends an interview with Reuters, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Kharkiv region, Ukraine January 12, 2024. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko/File Photo
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Ukraine's Top General, Defense Minister Visit Posts Near Front Line

FILE PHOTO: Colonel general Oleksandr Syrskyi, Commander of the Ukrainian Ground Forces, attends an interview with Reuters, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Kharkiv region, Ukraine January 12, 2024. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: Colonel general Oleksandr Syrskyi, Commander of the Ukrainian Ground Forces, attends an interview with Reuters, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Kharkiv region, Ukraine January 12, 2024. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko/File Photo

Ukrainian army chief Oleksandr Syrskyi and Defense Minister Rustem Umerov visited command posts near the front line to analyze the battlefield and boost defenses, the top general said on Sunday.
Kyiv's military is struggling to stave off Russian forces along the sprawling front line as Moscow's full-scale invasion passes its two-year mark.
"We analyzed the current situation in detail and discussed the necessary further steps, primarily the protection of troops from drones and strikes by aerial bombs as well as the strengthening of certain areas of the front," Syrskyi posted on Telegram along with images of himself and Umerov meeting commanders.
Syrskyi, who did not say when the visit took place, added that "the situation is complex and requires constant monitoring".
Russian forces last week captured the strategic eastern Ukrainian city of Avdiivka after a months-long assault and are pressing on several other areas along the front line, Ukrainian authorities say.

Kyiv's strategic industries minister said on Sunday Ukraine tripled its weapons production last year and 500 companies are now working in the country's defense sector.

Oleksandr Kamyshin said during a televised address that the figure included 100 state and 400 private companies and that Ukraine this year plans "to considerably increase ammunition production."

Ukraine also announced Sunday destroying 16 out of 18 attack drones launched overnight by Russia.

The air force said the Iranian-made drones had been shot down over eight regions across central, western and southern Ukraine, including the capital region.


Trump Wins South Carolina, Beating Nikki Haley in Her Home State

FILE - Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump gestures after speaking Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2023, at Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
FILE - Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump gestures after speaking Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2023, at Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
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Trump Wins South Carolina, Beating Nikki Haley in Her Home State

FILE - Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump gestures after speaking Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2023, at Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
FILE - Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump gestures after speaking Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2023, at Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

Donald Trump easily defeated Nikki Haley in South Carolina's Republican contest on Saturday, extending his winning streak as he marches toward a third consecutive presidential nomination and a rematch with Democratic President Joe Biden.

The former president had been widely favored to win the Southern state, despite his litany of criminal charges and Haley's status as a native of South Carolina who won two terms as governor.

The big win bolstered calls from Trump's allies that Haley, his last remaining challenger, should drop out of the race.

But Haley, who outperformed expectations based on opinion polls, defiantly insisted she would fight on at least through "Super Tuesday" on March 5, when Republicans in 15 states and one US territory will cast ballots.

Trump won with 59.8% support against 39.5% for Haley with 99% of the expected vote tallied, according to Edison Research. Statewide opinion polls before Saturday had given Trump an average lead of 27.6 percentage points, according to the tracking website 538, Reuters reported.

"Forty percent is not some tiny group," Haley said of her vote share. "There are huge numbers of voters in our Republican primaries who are saying they want an alternative."

Trump has dominated all five Republican primary contests thus far - in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, the US Virgin Islands and now Haley's home state - leaving Haley with no evident path to the Republican nomination.

Trump gave his victory speech in Columbia, the state capital, minutes after the polls closed and did not mention Haley, claiming his party's mantle as he looked ahead to November's general election.

"I have never seen the Republican Party so unified as it is right now," he said.

In recent days Haley had notably sharpened her attacks on Trump, questioning his mental acuity and warning voters he would lose the general election to Biden.

But there is scant evidence that a majority of Republican voters is interested in any standard-bearer except Trump.

Immigration, which Trump has made a focus of his campaign, was the number one issue for voters on Saturday, according to an Edison exit poll. Some 39% cited that issue, above the 33% who said the economy was their top concern.

Approximately 84% of voters said the economy is not so good or poor, highlighting a major potential weakness for Biden in November's general election.

Once again, however, exit polls also pointed to Trump's own vulnerabilities. Nearly one-third of voters said he would be unfit to serve as president if he were convicted of a crime.

Trump's first criminal trial is scheduled to begin on March 25 in New York City. He is charged with falsifying business records to conceal hush money payments made to porn star Stormy Daniels during the 2016 campaign.

He faces three other sets of charges, including a federal indictment alleging he conspired to reverse Biden's election victory in 2020. Trump has pleaded not guilty in every case and claimed, with no evidence, that the charges stem from a Democratic conspiracy to derail his campaign.


ECOWAS Lifts Sanctions on Niger

A group photo of the leaders of the ECOWAS countries in Abuja on Saturday. (Reuters)
A group photo of the leaders of the ECOWAS countries in Abuja on Saturday. (Reuters)
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ECOWAS Lifts Sanctions on Niger

A group photo of the leaders of the ECOWAS countries in Abuja on Saturday. (Reuters)
A group photo of the leaders of the ECOWAS countries in Abuja on Saturday. (Reuters)

West Africa's regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, on Saturday said it was lifting some of the sanctions imposed on Niger after last year's military coup.

Niger's president Mohamed Bazoum was ousted in a military coup last July, prompting ECOWAS to impose sanctions.

The lifting of the sanctions followed long hours of deliberations by the regional leaders at an extraordinary summit on the political, peace, and security situation in the sub-region.

Following recent coups in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Guinea, Nigeria's President Bola Ahmed Tinubu - who is also head of ECOWAS – said: "We must re-examine our current approach to the quest for constitutional order in four of our member states."

Multiple crises

ECOWAS finds itself grappling with multiple crises, including the withdrawal of Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso from its membership. Additionally, Senegal is embroiled in a political crisis following President Macky Sall's decision to postpone the presidential elections.

The Alliance of Sahel States (ASS)

The military governments of Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso forged the Alliance of Sahel States in September, signaling a departure from their reliance on French military presence and signaling a shift towards closer ties with Russia.

In mid-Feb, General Abdourahamane Tchiani, Niger's military commander, hinted at the potential creation of a shared currency with Burkina Faso and Mali, aimed at breaking away from colonial legacies. The decision by Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali to withdraw from ECOWAS last week has stirred concern among hundreds of thousands of citizens, mainly traders, across the three nations.

The group ensures free movement for citizens across its fifteen member states, allowing them to travel visa-free and reside or work in any of these countries. However, following the military takeover in Niamey in late July 2023, which ousted Bazoum, ECOWAS imposed stringent economic and financial sanctions on Niger.

These measures included the suspension of financial transactions, border closures, and the freezing of state assets.

Lifting Sanctions

Efforts to broker dialogue between the new military leadership in Niamey and West African nations have hit roadblocks since the coup. The military junta in Niamey remains firm on its stance of not releasing Bazoum, who, along with his wife, has been in detention since July 26.

ECOWAS has repeatedly demanded Bazoum's release as a condition for easing sanctions.

However, there was a notable development in early January when the new regime agreed to release Salem Bazoum, the son of the former president, and transfer him to Togo.

The most recent gathering of ECOWAS members convened on February 9, issuing a call for reconciliation with the military administrations in Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso.

The Nigerian President urged West African leaders to consider the "lifting of all sanctions that have been imposed on Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali, and Niger." He called on Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger to rethink their decision.


Navalny’s ‘Tortured’ Body Handed Over to His Mother

 Candles are laid next to a portrait of late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who died in a Russian Arctic prison, during a candle vigil in downtown Zagreb on February 23, 2024. (AFP)
Candles are laid next to a portrait of late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who died in a Russian Arctic prison, during a candle vigil in downtown Zagreb on February 23, 2024. (AFP)
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Navalny’s ‘Tortured’ Body Handed Over to His Mother

 Candles are laid next to a portrait of late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who died in a Russian Arctic prison, during a candle vigil in downtown Zagreb on February 23, 2024. (AFP)
Candles are laid next to a portrait of late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who died in a Russian Arctic prison, during a candle vigil in downtown Zagreb on February 23, 2024. (AFP)

The body of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who died unexpectedly in prison nine days ago, was handed over to his mother on Saturday in the remote Arctic city of Salekhard, his spokeswoman said.

In a video recorded before the release of the body, Navalny's widow Yulia Navalnaya accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of "torturing" the corpse of a political opponent.

Navalny's allies urged supporters "not to relax" and his spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh, wrote on X there was no certainty that Russian authorities would let the relatives hold a funeral "the way the family wants and the way Alexei deserves."

In her six-minute video published on YouTube, Navalnaya said she would continue the fight against Putin's regime, questioned the president's faith and accused him of holding her husband's body "hostage".

On Friday Navalny's mother Lyudmila said that Russian investigators were refusing to release his body from a morgue in Salekhard until she agreed to lay him to rest without a public funeral.

She said an official had told her that she should agree to their demands, as Navalny's body was already decomposing.

On Saturday, Navalny aides said authorities had threatened to bury him in the remote prison colony where he died unless his family agreed to their conditions.

Since returning to the Russian presidency in 2012, Putin has positioned himself as a defender of traditional, conservative values against what he portrays as corrosive Western liberalism.


West African Bloc Lifts Sanctions on Junta-Led Niger

Senegal President Macky Sall, Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara, President of Economic Community of West African States Commission Omar Touray, Nigerian President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, Togo's President Faure Gnassingbe, Ghana President Nana Akufo-Addo, Vice President of Gambia Muhammad B.S Jallow, Sierra Leone President Julius Maid Bio, Benin Republic President Patrice Talon and Guinea-Bissau President Umaro Sissoco Embalo during the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Extraordinary Session of the Authority of Heads of State and Government on the political, Peace and Security Situation in the ECOWAS sub-region in Abuja, Nigeria February 24, 2024. (Reuters)
Senegal President Macky Sall, Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara, President of Economic Community of West African States Commission Omar Touray, Nigerian President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, Togo's President Faure Gnassingbe, Ghana President Nana Akufo-Addo, Vice President of Gambia Muhammad B.S Jallow, Sierra Leone President Julius Maid Bio, Benin Republic President Patrice Talon and Guinea-Bissau President Umaro Sissoco Embalo during the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Extraordinary Session of the Authority of Heads of State and Government on the political, Peace and Security Situation in the ECOWAS sub-region in Abuja, Nigeria February 24, 2024. (Reuters)
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West African Bloc Lifts Sanctions on Junta-Led Niger

Senegal President Macky Sall, Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara, President of Economic Community of West African States Commission Omar Touray, Nigerian President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, Togo's President Faure Gnassingbe, Ghana President Nana Akufo-Addo, Vice President of Gambia Muhammad B.S Jallow, Sierra Leone President Julius Maid Bio, Benin Republic President Patrice Talon and Guinea-Bissau President Umaro Sissoco Embalo during the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Extraordinary Session of the Authority of Heads of State and Government on the political, Peace and Security Situation in the ECOWAS sub-region in Abuja, Nigeria February 24, 2024. (Reuters)
Senegal President Macky Sall, Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara, President of Economic Community of West African States Commission Omar Touray, Nigerian President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, Togo's President Faure Gnassingbe, Ghana President Nana Akufo-Addo, Vice President of Gambia Muhammad B.S Jallow, Sierra Leone President Julius Maid Bio, Benin Republic President Patrice Talon and Guinea-Bissau President Umaro Sissoco Embalo during the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Extraordinary Session of the Authority of Heads of State and Government on the political, Peace and Security Situation in the ECOWAS sub-region in Abuja, Nigeria February 24, 2024. (Reuters)

The West African regional bloc said on Saturday it would lift strict sanctions on Niger as it seeks a new strategy to dissuade three junta-led states from withdrawing from the political and economic union - a move that threatens regional integration.

Leaders of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) met to address a political crisis in the coup-hit region that deepened in January with military-ruled Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali's decision to exit the 15-member bloc.

After closed-door talks, ECOWAS said it had decided to lift Niger sanctions including border closures, the freezing of central bank and state assets, and the suspension of commercial transactions with immediate effect.

In a communique it said this was done for humanitarian reasons, but the move will be seen as a gesture of appeasement as ECOWAS tries to persuade the three junta states to remain in the nearly 50-year-old alliance. Their planned exit would bring a messy disentanglement from the bloc's trade and services flows, worth nearly $150 billion a year.

The bloc "further urges the countries to reconsider the decision in view of the benefits that the ECOWAS member states and their citizens enjoy in the community," it said.

It also said it had lifted certain sanctions on junta-led Guinea, which has not said it wants to leave ECOWAS but like other junta states has not committed to a timeline to return to democratic rule.

ECOWAS Commission President Omar Touray said some targeted sanctions and political sanctions remained place for Niger, without giving details.

Strategy rethink

Earlier, ECOWAS chairman Bola Tinubu said the bloc had to rethink its strategy in its bid to get countries to restore constitutional order and urged Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea "not to perceive our organization as the enemy".

ECOWAS closed borders and imposed the strict measures on Niger last year after soldiers detained President Mohamed Bazoum on July 26 and set up a transitional government, one of a series of recent military takeovers that have exposed the bloc's inability to halt democratic backsliding.

The sanctions have forced Niger, already one of the world's poorest countries, to slash government spending and default on debt payments of more than $500 million.

In its communique, ECOWAS repeated its call for the release of Bazoum and request for the junta to provide an "acceptable transition timetable".

Niger's coup followed two each in neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso over the past three years, leaving a swathe of territory in the hands of military governments that have also moved to distance themselves from former colonial ruler France and other Western allies. The military also seized power in Guinea in 2021.

ECOWAS also imposed sanctions on Mali in a bid to hasten its return to constitutional order, although they were lifted in 2022.

The three countries have called ECOWAS's sanctions strategy illegal and grounds for their decision to leave the bloc immediately without abiding by usual withdrawal terms.

The three have started cooperating under a pact known as the Alliance of Sahel States (AES) and sought to form a confederation, although it is not clear how closely they plan to align political, economic and security interests as they struggle to contain a decade-old battle with extremist insurgents.


Italy and Canada Sign Security Deals with Ukraine

From left, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Italy's Premier Giorgia Meloni, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo pose for a photo during meeting with media at Mariinsky Palace in Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024. (AP)
From left, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Italy's Premier Giorgia Meloni, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo pose for a photo during meeting with media at Mariinsky Palace in Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024. (AP)
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Italy and Canada Sign Security Deals with Ukraine

From left, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Italy's Premier Giorgia Meloni, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo pose for a photo during meeting with media at Mariinsky Palace in Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024. (AP)
From left, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Italy's Premier Giorgia Meloni, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo pose for a photo during meeting with media at Mariinsky Palace in Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024. (AP)

The leaders of Canada and Italy signed security agreements with Ukraine on Saturday after talks with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy as Kyiv marked the second anniversary of Russia's full-scale invasion.

Canada and Italy join Britain, Germany, France and Denmark in concluding 10-year security deals with Kyiv that are intended to shore up Ukraine's security until it can reach its aim of becoming a member of the NATO military alliance.

"We continue to support Ukraine in what I have always believed is its people's just right to defend themselves," Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said at a news conference.

"This also necessarily means military support, because to confuse the much bandied-about word 'peace' with 'surrender', as some do, is a hypocritical approach that we will never share," she said.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that Ottawa's support for Kyiv remained "unwavering" two years after Russia launched its full-scale invasion.

"Today, standing shoulder to shoulder with our allies and partners, Canada committed to further assistance, including military and humanitarian support, for Ukraine," he said.

Zelenskiy told reporters at the news conference that Saturday had been "a unique day for our country".

The two security agreements were signed at the start of a joint news conference with Zelenskiy, Meloni, Trudeau and the leaders of Belgium and the European Union.

Trudeau's office said Canada would provide more than 3 billion Canadian dollars ($2.22 billion) in financial and defense aid to Ukraine in 2024.