1st Ship Carrying Ukrainian Grain Leaves the Port of Odesa

The Sierra Leone-flagged ship Razoni leaves the sea port in Odesa after restarting grain export, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, Ukraine August 1, 2022. (Reuters)
The Sierra Leone-flagged ship Razoni leaves the sea port in Odesa after restarting grain export, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, Ukraine August 1, 2022. (Reuters)
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1st Ship Carrying Ukrainian Grain Leaves the Port of Odesa

The Sierra Leone-flagged ship Razoni leaves the sea port in Odesa after restarting grain export, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, Ukraine August 1, 2022. (Reuters)
The Sierra Leone-flagged ship Razoni leaves the sea port in Odesa after restarting grain export, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, Ukraine August 1, 2022. (Reuters)

The first ship carrying Ukrainian grain set out Monday from the port of Odesa under an internationally brokered deal to unblock the embattled country's agricultural exports and ease the growing global food crisis.

The Sierra Leone-flagged cargo ship Razoni sounded its horn as it slowly departed with over 26,000 tons of corn destined for Lebanon.

"The first grain ship since Russian aggression has left port," Ukrainian Minister of Infrastructure Oleksandr Kubrakov declared on Twitter.

Russia and Ukraine signed agreements in Istanbul with Turkey and the UN on July 22, clearing the way for Ukraine to export 22 million tons of grain and other agricultural products that have been stuck in Black Sea ports because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine more than five months ago. The deals also allow Russia to export grain and fertilizer.

As part of the agreements, safe corridors through the mined waters outside Ukraine's ports were established.

Ukraine and Russia are major global suppliers of wheat, barley, corn and sunflower oil, with the fertile Black Sea region long known as the breadbasket of Europe. The holdup of food shipments because of the war has worsened rising food prices worldwide and threatened hunger and political instability in developing nations.

"Today Ukraine, together with partners, takes another step to prevent world hunger," Kubrakov said.

In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov hailed the ship's departure as "very positive," saying it would help test the "efficiency of the mechanisms that were agreed to during the talks in Istanbul."

Under the agreements, ships going in and out of Ukrainian ports will be subject to inspection to make sure that incoming vessels are not carrying weapons and that outgoing ones are bearing only grain, fertilizer or related food items, not any other commodities.

The Razoni was expected to dock early Wednesday in Istanbul, where teams of Russian, Ukrainian, Turkish and UN officials were set to board it for inspection.

More ships are expected to leave from Ukraine’s ports through the safe corridors. At Odesa, 16 more vessels, all blocked since Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24, were waiting their turn, with others to follow, Ukrainian authorities said.

But some shipping companies are not yet rushing to export food across the Black Sea as they assess the danger of mines and the risk of Russian rockets hitting grain warehouses and ports.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who proposed the grain deal in April, said the Razoni was "loaded with two commodities in short supply: corn and hope."

"Hope for millions of people around the world who depend on the smooth running of Ukraine’s ports to feed their families," he said.

In an interview with Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar warned that the global food crisis threatens to trigger "a serious wave of migration from Africa to Europe and to Turkey."

Lebanon, the corn’s destination, is in the grip of a severe financial crisis. A 2020 explosion at its main port in Beirut shattered its capital city and destroyed grain silos. Lebanon mostly imports wheat from Ukraine but also buys its corn to make cooking oil and produce animal feed.

Kubrakov said the shipments will also help Ukraine’s war-shattered economy.

"Unlocking ports will provide at least $1 billion in foreign exchange revenue to the economy and an opportunity for the agricultural sector to plan for next year," he said.

Hearing the ship sound its horn as it left port delighted Olena Vitalievna, an Odesa resident.

"Finally, life begins to move forward and there are some changes in a positive direction," she said. "In general, the port should live its own life because Odesa is a port city. We live here. We want everything to work for us, everything to bustle."

Yet the resumption of the grain shipments came as fighting raged elsewhere in Ukraine, with Russia pressing its offensive in the east while Ukraine tries to retake territory in the Russian-occupied south.

Ukraine’s presidential office said at least three civilians were killed and 16 wounded by Russian shelling in the Donetsk region over the past 24 hours.

Donetsk Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko repeated a call for all residents to evacuate, emphasizing the need to remove about 52,000 children still in the region.

In Kharkiv, two people were wounded by a Russian strike in the morning. One was struck while waiting for a bus, the other when a Russian shell exploded near an apartment building.

The southern city of Mykolaiv also faced shelling that ruined a building at a hospital and damaged ambulances, according to regional Gov. Vitaliy Kim. Three civilians were wounded elsewhere in the city, he said.

Soon after the grain shipment deal was signed, a Russian missile targeted Odesa. Analysts warned that the continuing fighting could still upend the grain deal.

"The departure of the first vessel doesn’t solve the food crisis; it’s just the first step that could also be the last if Russia decides to continue attacks in the south," said Volodymyr Sidenko, an expert with the Kyiv-based Razumkov Center think tank.

In other developments, Russia announced sanctions against dozens of British public figures, accusing them of supporting the "demonization" and international isolation of Moscow.

The 39 politicians, businesspeople and journalists barred from entering Russia include former Prime Minister David Cameron, senior government ministers, and columnists for newspapers including The Times and The Guardian.



Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico Still in Serious Condition, Officials Say

Pedestrians walk at the main square near the House of Culture (L) in Handlova, Slovakia, on May 18, 2024, where Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico had been shot "multiple times" on May 15. (AFP)
Pedestrians walk at the main square near the House of Culture (L) in Handlova, Slovakia, on May 18, 2024, where Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico had been shot "multiple times" on May 15. (AFP)
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Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico Still in Serious Condition, Officials Say

Pedestrians walk at the main square near the House of Culture (L) in Handlova, Slovakia, on May 18, 2024, where Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico had been shot "multiple times" on May 15. (AFP)
Pedestrians walk at the main square near the House of Culture (L) in Handlova, Slovakia, on May 18, 2024, where Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico had been shot "multiple times" on May 15. (AFP)

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico remains in serious condition and still faces risks of complications but has stabilized, officials said on Saturday, following Wednesday's assassination attempt.

The prime minister, 59, was shot at five times at point-blank range in an attack that sent shockwaves through Europe and raised concerns over the polarized state of politics in Slovakia, a central European country of 5.4 million people.

"We have not won yet, that is important to say," Deputy Prime Minister Robert Kaliniak said, giving an update on Fico's condition in front of the hospital in the town of Banka Bystrica where the prime minister is being treated.

The Slovak Specialized Criminal Court ruled on Saturday that the suspect, identified by prosecutors as Juraj C., would remain in custody after being charged with attempted murder.

Interior Minister Matus Sutaj Estok has said the suspected attacker, who was detained on the spot, acted alone. The suspect had previously taken part in anti-government protests, he said on Thursday.

Kalinak said there was no need to formally take over Fico's official duties while some communication with the premier was taking place.

Fico underwent a two-hour operation on Friday that improved prospects for his recovery.

"We are succeeding in gradually nearing a positive prognosis," Kalinak said.

"In the initial hours, the prognosis was very, very bad, you know that shots into the abdomen are basically fatal, in this case (the doctors) managed to overturn this state and further stabilize the condition."

Fico still faced a "big risk" of complications, Kalinak said. "The body's reaction to a shooting wound is always very serious and brings (the risk of) a number of complications, which lasts for 4-5 days, which is today and tomorrow."

He said it was unlikely Fico could be transferred to the capital, Bratislava, in coming days.

About 100 Fico supporters, some carrying flowers, gathered on Saturday outside the F.D. Roosevelt University Hospital where the premier was being treated.

Local news media say the suspect is a 71-year-old former security guard at a shopping mall and the author of three collections of poetry.

The court ruled he would remain in custody pending an investigation because of the risk of escape or criminal activity. The decision is subject to appeal.

Since returning for a fourth time as prime minister last October, Fico has shifted policy quickly in what opposition critics called a power grab. His government has scaled back support for Ukraine in its war with Russia, and is revamping the public broadcaster amid concern from critics about media freedom.


Gaza War Protesters Temporarily Take over Building on University of Chicago Campus

Demonstrators stand as workers dismantle a pro-Palestinian encampment, as the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas continues, at DePaul university in Chicago, Illinois, US, May 16, 2024. (Reuters)
Demonstrators stand as workers dismantle a pro-Palestinian encampment, as the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas continues, at DePaul university in Chicago, Illinois, US, May 16, 2024. (Reuters)
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Gaza War Protesters Temporarily Take over Building on University of Chicago Campus

Demonstrators stand as workers dismantle a pro-Palestinian encampment, as the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas continues, at DePaul university in Chicago, Illinois, US, May 16, 2024. (Reuters)
Demonstrators stand as workers dismantle a pro-Palestinian encampment, as the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas continues, at DePaul university in Chicago, Illinois, US, May 16, 2024. (Reuters)

A group protesting the war in Gaza and demanding that the University of Chicago divest from companies doing business with Israel temporarily took over a building on the school’s campus.

Members of the group surrounded the Institute of Politics building around 5 p.m. Friday while others made their way inside, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

The brief occupation came as other colleges across the country, anxious to prepare for commencement season, either negotiated agreements with students or called in police to dismantle protest camps.

The Chicago protest follows the May 7 clearing of a pro-Palestinian tent encampment at the school by police. University of Chicago administrators had initially adopted a permissive approach, but said earlier this month that the protest had crossed a line and caused growing concerns about safety.

On Friday, campus police officers using riot shields gained access to the Institute of Politics building and scuffled with protesters. Some protesters climbed from a second-floor window, according to the Sun-Times.

The school said protesters attempted to bar the entrance, damaged university property and ignored directives to clear the way, and that those inside the building left when campus police officers entered.

“The University of Chicago is fundamentally committed to upholding the rights of protesters to express a wide range of views,” school spokesperson Gerald McSwiggan said in a statement. “At the same time, university policies make it clear that protests cannot jeopardize public safety, disrupt the university’s operations or involve the destruction of property.”

No arrests or injuries were reported.

Students and others have set up tent encampments on campuses around the country to protest the Israel-Hamas war, pressing colleges to cut financial ties with Israel. Tensions over the war have been high on campuses since the fall but the pro-Palestinian demonstrations spread quickly following an April 18 police crackdown on an encampment at Columbia University.

The demonstrations reached all corners of the United States, becoming its largest campus protest movement in decades, and spread to other countries, including many in Europe.

Lately, some protesters have taken down their tents, as at Harvard, where student activists this week said the encampment had “outlasted its utility with respect to our demands.” Others packed up after striking deals with college administrators who offered amnesty for protesters, discussions around their investments, and other concessions. On many other campuses, colleges have called in police to clear demonstrations.

More than 2,900 people have been arrested on US campuses over the past month. As summer break approaches, there have been fewer new arrests and campuses have been calmer. Still, colleges have been vigilant for disruptions to commencement ceremonies.

The latest Israel-Hamas war began when Hamas and other gunmen stormed into southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing around 1,200 people and taking an additional 250 hostage. Palestinian fighters still hold about 100 captives, and Israel’s military has killed more than 35,000 people in Gaza, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, which doesn’t distinguish between civilians and combatants.

On Thursday, police began dismantling a pro-Palestinian encampment at DePaul University in Chicago, hours after the school’s president told students to leave the area or face arrest.


Ukraine Struggles to Hold Eastern Front as Russians Advance on Cities

 Ukrainian servicemen of the 21st Separate Mechanized Brigade rest atop of a Leopard 2A6 tank after a military exercise, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, near a front line in Donetsk region, Ukraine May 12, 2024. (Reuters)
Ukrainian servicemen of the 21st Separate Mechanized Brigade rest atop of a Leopard 2A6 tank after a military exercise, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, near a front line in Donetsk region, Ukraine May 12, 2024. (Reuters)
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Ukraine Struggles to Hold Eastern Front as Russians Advance on Cities

 Ukrainian servicemen of the 21st Separate Mechanized Brigade rest atop of a Leopard 2A6 tank after a military exercise, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, near a front line in Donetsk region, Ukraine May 12, 2024. (Reuters)
Ukrainian servicemen of the 21st Separate Mechanized Brigade rest atop of a Leopard 2A6 tank after a military exercise, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, near a front line in Donetsk region, Ukraine May 12, 2024. (Reuters)

For Ukrainian gun commander Oleksandr Kozachenko, the long-awaited US ammunition can't come fast enough as he and his comrades struggle to hold off relentless Russian attacks.

His unit's US-supplied M777 howitzer, which once hurled 100 shells a day at the encroaching enemy, is now often reduced to fewer than 10.

"It's a luxury if we can fire 30 shells."

America says it's rushing ammunition and weapons to Ukraine following the delayed approval of a $61 billion aid package by Congress last month. As of early May, though, two artillery units visited by Reuters on the eastern frontline said they were still waiting for a boost in deliveries and operating at a fraction of the rate they need to hold back the Russians.

Gunners with Kozachenko's 148th Separate Artillery Brigade and the 43rd Artillery Brigade, both in the Donetsk region, said they were desperate for more 155mm rounds for their Western cannons, which had given them an edge over Russia earlier in the war.

Resurgent Russian forces, which significantly outnumber and outgun the Ukrainian defenders, have been mounting multiple attacks across the eastern Donbas region in recent months and along the country's northeastern border last week.

The drive has marked an inflection point in the conflict spawned by Russia's full-scale invasion more than two years ago.

Russia has gained more territory in 2024 than it lost control of during Ukraine's much-hyped counteroffensive in the summer of 2023, according to Pasi Paroinen, an analyst with Black Bird Group, a Finnish-based volunteer group that analyses satellite imagery and social media content from the war.

Moscow's forces have claimed 654 sq km since the beginning of this year, outstripping the 414 sq km lost to Ukraine between June 1 and Oct. 1 last year, Paroinen said. Russia has gained 222 sq km of territory since only May 2, he added.

Russia's defense ministry didn't respond to a request for comment for this article, while Ukraine's military didn't immediately respond.

Colonel Pavlo Palisa, whose 93rd Mechanized Brigade is fighting near the key strategic city of Chasiv Yar, said he believed Russia was preparing a major push to break Ukrainian lines in the east. This echoed the commander of Ukraine's ground forces who said last week he expected the war to enter a critical phase over the next two months as Moscow tries to exploit persistent delays in weapons supplies to Kyiv.

"Without a doubt, this will be a difficult period for the armed forces," said Palisa, adding that he believes the Kremlin wants to capture the entire Donbas industrial region by the end of this year.

CITIES BRACE FOR RUSSIAN ADVANCE

Russian forces are gradually making inroads that could come to threaten several big cities in the east including Kostiantynivka, Druzhkivka, Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, which serve as key military hubs for Kyiv's war effort.

Some gains are striking fear in the heart of the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians living in those Donetsk region cities as the enemy grinds ever closer.

"We live only for today," said 31-year-old school teacher Nina Shyshymarieva, standing with her young daughter outside a church in Kostiantynivka as artillery thundered in the distance.

"We don't know what will happen tomorrow."

Russian cannons are now easily within range of Kostiantynivka; the closest Russian position at the start of 2024 was about 20 km away, according to open-source maps that show shifting positions along the frontline. Now it is 14 km.

Shyshymarieva and the fighters on the frontline were among more than a dozen soldiers, commanders, residents and evacuation volunteers interviewed by Reuters in eastern Ukraine over the last two weeks. They painted a picture of deep uncertainty.

Much of the Donetsk region, which along with Luhansk makes up the greater Donbas area, is under daily bombardment, typically targeted at least a dozen times a day by Russian artillery or air strikes, according to regional governor Vadym Filashkin.

Ruins of homes, apartment blocks and administrative buildings are common sights in towns and cities.

Oleksandr Stasenko, a volunteer rescuer, said his team was receiving more evacuation requests particularly from Kostiantynivka and Kurakhove, another town further south, among other settlements.

Russian forces have encroached toward Kurakhove, too, advancing 2-3 km along the road running east from the town so far this year.

"Wherever the front line is approaching, people in those places are trying to leave as soon as possible," said Stasenko, adding that his group, East SOS, evacuates around two dozen a week, many of them elderly or infirm.

'TIME IS NOT ON OUR SIDE'

Ukraine has roughly 1,000 km of frontlines to defend in the east, north and south.

Some of the fiercest fighting in 2024 has centered on Chasiv Yar, which commands important high ground 12 km away from Kostiantynivka. It lies west of the devastated city of Bakhmut that Moscow seized last year after months of costly combat.

Russian advances near Chasiv Yar, and further south around the village of Ocheretyne, could drive wedges into territory relied upon by Ukraine's war planners for logistics, analysts said, because they would expose key roads to Russian fire.

A major highway leading west out of Kostiantynivka is already under threat. Cutting it off entirely would mean transit hubs further north, including Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, both numbering well over 100,000 people before the war, would lose a crucial supply line.

Russia's fresh assault on the northeastern Kharkiv region, which began on Friday, also risks diverting stretched Ukrainian forces from the eastern front, further compromising their ability to hold the line, according to said Emil Kastehelmi, another analyst at Black Bird Group.

"At the moment, it seems the goal of the (Kharkiv) operation is to cause confusion and tie remaining Ukrainian reserves to areas of lesser importance," he said.

Jack Watling, a senior research fellow at the London-based RUSI think-tank, said Russian forces would likely mount further attacks on northern and southern points of the frontline in order to stretch Kyiv's defenses.

"Once Ukraine commits its reserves in these directions, the main effort will see the expansion of the Russian push in Donbas," he wrote in a May 14 commentary.

A new law strengthening Kyiv's mobilization effort, which has been hobbled by public skepticism, takes effect on May 18. Experts and commanders say it could take several months before fresh recruits reach the front and reinforce exhausted troops there.

Even if Ukrainian forces can hold out until all the American ammunition and weapons get through to the front, the challenge ahead remains daunting, according to many of those fighting.

"I would say that it is unlikely that time is on our side, since a long war requires more resources," said Palisa, the colonel with the 93rd Mechanized Brigade, speaking hours after Russia launched its ground incursion in Kharkiv.

He added that it would be critical to impose as heavy a cost on Russia as quickly as possible.

"The enemy's resources, whether in terms of manpower or the materiel, cannot be compared with ours. It's extraordinarily large. That is why a long war, I think, is not in our favor."


North Korea Confirms Missile Launch, Vows Bolstered Nuclear Force

A photo released by the official North Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) shows a test fire of a tactical ballistic missile at an undisclosed location, North Korea, 17 May 2024 (issued 18 May 2024). (EPA/KCNA)
A photo released by the official North Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) shows a test fire of a tactical ballistic missile at an undisclosed location, North Korea, 17 May 2024 (issued 18 May 2024). (EPA/KCNA)
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North Korea Confirms Missile Launch, Vows Bolstered Nuclear Force

A photo released by the official North Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) shows a test fire of a tactical ballistic missile at an undisclosed location, North Korea, 17 May 2024 (issued 18 May 2024). (EPA/KCNA)
A photo released by the official North Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) shows a test fire of a tactical ballistic missile at an undisclosed location, North Korea, 17 May 2024 (issued 18 May 2024). (EPA/KCNA)

North Korea has test-fired a tactical ballistic missile equipped with a "new autonomous navigation system", state media said Saturday, with leader Kim Jong Un vowing to boost the country's nuclear force.

Kim oversaw the Friday test-launch into the East Sea, also known as the Sea of Japan, on a mission to evaluate the "accuracy and reliability of the autonomous navigation system", Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said.

The launch was the latest in a string of ever more sophisticated tests by North Korea, which has fired off cruise missiles, tactical rockets and hypersonic weapons in recent months, in what the nuclear-armed, UN-sanctioned country says is a drive to upgrade its defenses.

The Friday launch came hours after leader Kim's powerful sister Kim Yo Jong denied allegations by Seoul and Washington that Pyongyang is shipping weapons to Russia for use in its war in Ukraine.

Seoul's military on Friday described the test as "several flying objects presumed to be short-range ballistic missiles" from North Korea's eastern Wonsan area into waters off its coast.

The suspected missiles travelled around 300 kilometers (186 miles) before splashing down in waters between South Korea and Japan, the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Seoul said.

"The accuracy and reliability of the autonomous navigation system were verified through the test fire," Pyongyang's KCNA said Saturday, adding leader Kim expressed "great satisfaction" over the launch.

In a separate report released on Saturday, KCNA said Kim visited a military production facility the previous day and urged for "more rapidly bolstering the nuclear force" of the nation "without halt and hesitation".

During the visit, he said the "enemies would be afraid of and dare not to play with fire only when they witness the nuclear combat posture of our state", according to KCNA.

Pyongyang's nuclear force "will meet a very important change and occupy a remarkably raised strategic position" when its munitions production plan, aimed to be completed by 2025, is carried out, it added.

- Denial -

Seoul and Washington have accused North Korea of sending arms to Russia, which would violate rafts of United Nations sanctions on both countries, with experts saying the recent spate of testing may be of weapons destined for use on battlefields in Ukraine.

North Korea is barred by UN sanctions from any tests using ballistic technology, but its key ally Moscow used its UN Security Council veto in March to effectively end UN monitoring of violations, for which Pyongyang has specifically thanked Russia.

But leader Kim's sister Kim Yo Jong said Friday that Pyongyang had "no intention to export our military technical capabilities to any country", adding that the North's priority was "to make the war readiness and war deterrent of our army more perfect in quality and quantity".

She accused Seoul and Washington of "misleading the public opinion" with their allegations that Pyongyang was transferring arms to Russia.

The Friday launches come as Russian leader Vladimir Putin was in China on Friday, the final day of a visit aiming to promote crucial trade with Beijing -- North Korea's most important ally -- and win greater support for his war effort in Ukraine.

North Korea's latest weapons tests were likely intended to attract the attention of Putin while he was in China, said Ahn Chan-il, a defector-turned-researcher who runs the World Institute for North Korea Studies.

The North would benefit greatly from an expected visit by Putin to Pyongyang, and "they want their country to be used as a military logistics base during Russia's ongoing war (in Ukraine)", he told AFP.

Yang Moo-jin, president of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said: "China and Russia's irresponsible handling of North Korea, riding on the new Cold War dynamics, is further encouraging Pyongyang's nuclear armament."

Inter-Korean relations are at one of their lowest points in years, with Pyongyang declaring Seoul its "principal enemy".

It has jettisoned agencies dedicated to reunification and threatened war over "even 0.001 mm" of territorial infringement.


Trump Campaigns in Minnesota, Predicting He Will Win the Traditionally Democratic State in November

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks to guests at the annual Lincoln Reagan Dinner hosted by the Minnesota Republican party on May 17, 2024 in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Getty Images via AFP)
Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks to guests at the annual Lincoln Reagan Dinner hosted by the Minnesota Republican party on May 17, 2024 in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Getty Images via AFP)
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Trump Campaigns in Minnesota, Predicting He Will Win the Traditionally Democratic State in November

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks to guests at the annual Lincoln Reagan Dinner hosted by the Minnesota Republican party on May 17, 2024 in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Getty Images via AFP)
Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks to guests at the annual Lincoln Reagan Dinner hosted by the Minnesota Republican party on May 17, 2024 in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Getty Images via AFP)

Former President Donald Trump used a day off from his hush money trial Friday to headline a Republican fundraiser in Minnesota, a traditionally Democratic state that he boasts he can carry in November.

Trump took the stage late as he headlined the state GOP’s annual Lincoln Reagan dinner in St. Paul after attending his son Barron's high school graduation in Florida.

Declaring his appearance to be “an official expansion” of the electoral map of states that could be competitive in November, Trump said, “We’re going to win this state."

“This November the people of Minnesota are going to tell Crooked Joe Biden — right? ‘The Apprentice'? ’You’re fired!'” Trump said, referencing his former reality television show and the catchphrase he used on it.

Trump boasted that the steep tariffs he imposed on foreign steel while serving as president bought the Iron Range, the iron mining area of northeastern Minnesota, “roaring back to life.” The area, with a heavy population of blue-collar workers and union workers, used to be solidly Democratic, but the region has been trending Republican in recent elections.

He also made a profane attack on President Joe Biden, calling him “a horrible president” who is “destroying our country” and then adding, “He’s a horrible human being too.”

Trump then shifted to calling the president a “non-athlete” and attacked his golf game, accusing him of inflating his golfing abilities and making other misrepresentations before using an expletive that drew loud laughs and sustained applause.

Trump was using part of the day granted by the trial judge for the graduation to campaign in Minnesota, a state he argues he can win in the November rematch with Biden. No Republican presidential candidate has won Minnesota since Richard Nixon in 1972, but Trump came close to flipping the state in 2016, when he fell 1.5 percentage points short of Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Trump returned to Minnesota several times in 2020, when Biden beat him by more than 7 percentage points.

“I think this is something Trump wants to do. He believes this is a state he can win. We believe that’s the case as well,” David Hann, the chairman of the Republican Party of Minnesota, said in an interview.

Democratic US Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota, a Biden ally, said the Trump campaign is “grasping at straws” if it thinks he can win the state.

“The Biden campaign is going to work hard for every vote,” Smith said in an interview. “We’re going to engage with voters all over the state. But I think Minnesota voters are going to choose President Biden.”

Hann co-hosted Friday's dinner along with Trump’s state campaign chair, House Majority Whip Tom Emmer, who represents a central Minnesota district. Hann said Emmer was instrumental in bringing the former president to Minnesota.

The dinner coincided with the party’s state convention and the roughly 1,400 attendees included former US Sen. Rudy Boschwitz and MyPillow founder Mike Lindell, who has been a prominent promoter of false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.

Tickets started at $500, ranging up to $100,000 for a VIP table for 10 with three photo opportunities with Trump. Hann declined to say how much money he expects it will raise, but he anticipates a full house of around 1,400 people.

All the money from the dinner tickets will go to the state party, Hann said, though he added that some money from photo opportunities may go to the Trump campaign. Ahead of Trump’s remarks Friday night, Emmer and Hann told the crowd that thanks to the fundraiser, the state party was out of debt for the first time in 10 years.

“No sham trial is going to keep President Trump off the campaign trail. And it’s definitely not going to stop us from turning Minnesota red in November,” Emmer said in his remarks.

Experts are split on whether Minnesota really will be competitive this time, given its history and the strong Democratic Party ground game in the state. But Hann said there's “great dissatisfaction with President Biden” in the state, noting that nearly 19% of Democratic voters in its Super Tuesday primary marked their ballots for “uncommitted.” That was at least partly due to a protest-vote movement over Biden’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war that has spread to several states.

Trump on Friday night repeated a false claim that he won Minnesota in the 2020 election, wrongly declaring he won “a landslide in your state.”

There’s no evidence that there were any serious irregularities in the state.

Trump’s youngest son, Barron Trump, graduated Friday morning from the private Oxbridge Academy in West Palm Beach, Florida. The former president, who attended the graduation with his wife, Melania Trump, and her father, Viktor Knavs, had long complained Judge Juan M. Merchan would not let him attend the graduation before Merchan agreed not to hold court Friday.


Philippines to Vigorously Defend Territory, President Says

Philippines' President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. looks on as he meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, at Malacanang Palace in Manila, Philippines, March 19, 2024. (Reuters)
Philippines' President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. looks on as he meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, at Malacanang Palace in Manila, Philippines, March 19, 2024. (Reuters)
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Philippines to Vigorously Defend Territory, President Says

Philippines' President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. looks on as he meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, at Malacanang Palace in Manila, Philippines, March 19, 2024. (Reuters)
Philippines' President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. looks on as he meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, at Malacanang Palace in Manila, Philippines, March 19, 2024. (Reuters)

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said on Saturday the country will "vigorously defend what is ours", in a thinly veiled reference to mounting tensions with China over maritime disputes.

The conduct against intruders disrespecting Philippine territorial integrity will be guided by law and the responsibility as a rules-abiding member of the international community, Marcos said in a speech to graduating military cadets.

"Against intruders who have been disrespecting our territorial integrity, we will vigorously defend what is ours," Marcos said.

He did not identify the intruders, but Manila and Beijing have been in escalating standoffs in the South China Sea, including China's use of water cannon that resulted in injuries and property damage, a military-grade laser directed at Philippine vessels and what the Philippines calls "dangerous maneuvers" in the disputed waterway.

China claims almost all the South China Sea, a conduit for $3 trillion in annual ship-borne trade, including parts claimed by the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam. A 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration found that China's sweeping claims have no legal basis.


Fifty Dead in Heavy Rain, Floods in Central Afghanistan

An Afghan boy walks along a flooded street in Sheikh Jalal, Baghlan province, Afghanistan May 12, 2024. (Reuters)
An Afghan boy walks along a flooded street in Sheikh Jalal, Baghlan province, Afghanistan May 12, 2024. (Reuters)
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Fifty Dead in Heavy Rain, Floods in Central Afghanistan

An Afghan boy walks along a flooded street in Sheikh Jalal, Baghlan province, Afghanistan May 12, 2024. (Reuters)
An Afghan boy walks along a flooded street in Sheikh Jalal, Baghlan province, Afghanistan May 12, 2024. (Reuters)

At least 50 people are dead following a fresh bout of heavy rain and flooding in central Afghanistan, an official said on Saturday.
Mawlawi Abdul Hai Zaeem, the head of the information department for the central Ghor province, told Reuters that there was no information about how many people were injured in the rain spell that began on Friday, which had also cut off many key roads to the area.
Zaeem added that 2,000 houses were completely destroyed, 4,000 partially damaged, and more than 2,000 shops were under water in the province's capital, Feroz-Koh.
Last week, flash floods caused by heavy rains devastated villages in northern Afghanistan, killing 315 people and injuring more than 1,600, authorities said on Sunday.
On Wednesday, a helicopter used by the Afghan air force crashed due to "technical issues" during attempts to recover the bodies of people who had fallen into a river in Ghor province, killing one and injuring 12 people, the country's defense ministry said.
Afghanistan is prone to natural disasters and the United Nations considers it one of countries most vulnerable to climate change.
It has battled a shortfall in aid after the Taliban took over as foreign forces withdrew from the country in 2021, since development aid that formed the backbone of government finances was slashed.
The shortfall has worsened in subsequent years as foreign governments grapple with competing global crises and growing condemnation of the Taliban's curbs on Afghan women.


Taliban Supreme Leader Makes Rare Visit to Kabul

Taliban Supreme Leader Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada. (AP)
Taliban Supreme Leader Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada. (AP)
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Taliban Supreme Leader Makes Rare Visit to Kabul

Taliban Supreme Leader Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada. (AP)
Taliban Supreme Leader Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada. (AP)

Taliban Supreme Leader Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada, who has been rarely seen outside his reclusive compound in Kandahar, made a rare visit to Afghanistan’s capital to meet with the country’s senior officials, a government website said Friday.

The organization's El Emara website published video clips of Akhundzada giving a speech in front of the 34 provincial governors on Thursday at the Interior Ministry.

The leader, of whom only one photo has been publicly circulated, emphasized "unity and harmony," according to the website.

"Obedience was highlighted as a divine obligation," it said, adding that the implementation of Islamic Sharia law and principles "should take precedence over personal interests."

The purpose of the visit was likely about "enforcing internal discipline and unity," a Western diplomat told AFP, adding that it could be motivated by the unrest in Badakhshan in eastern Afghanistan.

Witnesses reported that Taliban forces opened fire to disperse villagers protesting against poppy clearing — a lucrative crop banned by Akhundzada in April 2022.

Experts believe that Akhundzada is creating a rift between the two main Taliban camps in power: Kandahar, the movement's southern stronghold where the supreme commander runs the country by decree, and Kabul, where the supposedly less strict government is based.

"Whenever you see cracks or disagreements, then you have Kandahar stepping in reminding everyone and enforcing that (unity) as well," the diplomat added.

The supreme commander has visited Kabul only once since the Taliban's return to power in mid-August 2021 and has rarely spoken since taking office in 2016.

Last March, the leader of Afghanistan's Taliban government has said it is determined to enforce the Islamic criminal justice system, including the public stoning of women for adultery.


Panama-Flagged Oil Tanker Attacked off Yemen, Security Firm Says

Representation photo: 19 November 2023: A handout photo, made available on 21 November 2023, by the Houthi Military Media Center, depicts Houthi helicopter flying over the cargo ship 'Galaxy Leader' as they seize it in the Red Sea off the coast of Hodeidah. Photo: dpa
Representation photo: 19 November 2023: A handout photo, made available on 21 November 2023, by the Houthi Military Media Center, depicts Houthi helicopter flying over the cargo ship 'Galaxy Leader' as they seize it in the Red Sea off the coast of Hodeidah. Photo: dpa
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Panama-Flagged Oil Tanker Attacked off Yemen, Security Firm Says

Representation photo: 19 November 2023: A handout photo, made available on 21 November 2023, by the Houthi Military Media Center, depicts Houthi helicopter flying over the cargo ship 'Galaxy Leader' as they seize it in the Red Sea off the coast of Hodeidah. Photo: dpa
Representation photo: 19 November 2023: A handout photo, made available on 21 November 2023, by the Houthi Military Media Center, depicts Houthi helicopter flying over the cargo ship 'Galaxy Leader' as they seize it in the Red Sea off the coast of Hodeidah. Photo: dpa

A Panamanian-flagged crude oil tanker was attacked near Yemen's Red Sea port city of Mocha, British security firm Ambrey said on Saturday, in the latest incident in waters where Houthi militias have targeted ships in solidarity with Palestinians.

Ambrey said a radio communication indicated the ship was hit by a missile and that there was a fire onboard about 10 nautical miles southwest of Mokha. It had received assistance and one of its steering units was functional, Ambrey added, citing information it had received but without giving more details.

Yemen's Iran-aligned Houthi militias have been staging attacks on the commercially important waterway for months in opposition to Israel's war in Gaza.

Other vessels in the vicinity were advised to exercise caution, Ambrey added in an advisory note.

Separately, the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) agency said earlier on Saturday that a vessel in the Red Sea was struck by an unknown object and sustained slight damage.

"The vessel and crew are safe and continuing to its next port of call," UKMTO said in an advisory note on the incident 98 nautical miles south of Yemen's Hodeidah port.

Months of Houthi attacks in the Red Sea have disrupted global shipping, forcing firms to re-route to longer and more expensive journeys around Southern Africa.

The United States and Britain have carried out strikes against Houthi targets in response.


Türkiye’s Erdogan Pardons Elderly Generals Imprisoned over 1997 'Postmodern Coup'

FILED - 18 December 2023, Hungary, Budapest: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaks during a press conference in Budapest. Photo: Marton Monus/dpa
FILED - 18 December 2023, Hungary, Budapest: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaks during a press conference in Budapest. Photo: Marton Monus/dpa
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Türkiye’s Erdogan Pardons Elderly Generals Imprisoned over 1997 'Postmodern Coup'

FILED - 18 December 2023, Hungary, Budapest: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaks during a press conference in Budapest. Photo: Marton Monus/dpa
FILED - 18 December 2023, Hungary, Budapest: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaks during a press conference in Budapest. Photo: Marton Monus/dpa

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday pardoned seven former top military officers who were sentenced to life terms in prison over the ouster of an Islamic-led government in 1997.
The former generals, who are in their late 70s and 80s, were pardoned due to health issues and old age, according to a decision published in the country’s Official Gazette overnight.
A court sentenced the generals to life in prison in 2018 for their role in a campaign that was led by Türkiye’s pro-secular military and forced the resignation of the prime minister of the time, Necmettin Erbakan. Their sentences were confirmed by a court of appeals in 2021, The Associated Press said.
The ouster was later dubbed Türkiye’s “postmodern coup” because unlike previous military takeovers in the country, no tanks or soldiers were used. Erbakan’s government was replaced by a coalition that was nominated by the president.
Those released from prison Friday following the decision included Cetin Dogan, 83, who was head of military operations at the time. Former Gen. Cevik Bir, 85, who was deputy chief of military staff, was released along with other officers earlier due to ill-health. The main defendant, former Chief of General Staff İsmail Hakkı Karadayı, died in 2020, while the appeals process was still continuing.
On Feb. 28, 1997, the military-dominated National Security Council threatened action if Erbakan did not back down. He resigned four months later.
The trial was one of several held in the country against military officers as Erdogan pressed ahead with efforts to make generals account for intervening in government affairs.
Türkiye’s military, which had long regarded its role as protector of the country’s secular traditions, staged three coups between 1960 and 1980. In July 2016, Türkiye quashed a coup attempt that the government has blamed on supporters of a US-based Muslim cleric, Fethullah Gulen. The cleric denies involvement.
The pardon comes a week after Erdogan met with main opposition party leader Ozgur Ozel, who raised the issue of clemency. Ozel’s pro-secular Republican People’s Party swept local elections in March.