Kyiv: Russia's Presidency of UN Security Council 'a Bad Joke'

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. AFP file photo
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. AFP file photo
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Kyiv: Russia's Presidency of UN Security Council 'a Bad Joke'

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. AFP file photo
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. AFP file photo

Ukraine on Thursday said Russia's upcoming presidency of the United Nations Security Council this week was "a bad joke".

"Russian UN Security Council presidency on April 1 is a bad joke. Russia has usurped its seat; it's waging a colonial war; its leader is a war criminal wanted by the ICC for kidnapping children," Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote on Twitter.
"The world can't be a safe place with Russia at UNSC," he added.

The presidency rotates every month between the 15 member states.

Russia would hold little influence on the decisions but be in charge of setting the agenda.

Ukraine has called for Russia to be removed from the Security Council over its invasion launched in February last year.

Russia last chaired the council in February 2022 when the Kremlin ordered troops to Ukraine.



One Dead, Two Missing in Japan after Heavy Rain

A general view shows a flooded street in Koshigaya, Saitama Prefecture on June 3, 2023, after heavy rains caused by passing Tropical Storm Mawar hit much of the country the day before. (AFP)
A general view shows a flooded street in Koshigaya, Saitama Prefecture on June 3, 2023, after heavy rains caused by passing Tropical Storm Mawar hit much of the country the day before. (AFP)
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One Dead, Two Missing in Japan after Heavy Rain

A general view shows a flooded street in Koshigaya, Saitama Prefecture on June 3, 2023, after heavy rains caused by passing Tropical Storm Mawar hit much of the country the day before. (AFP)
A general view shows a flooded street in Koshigaya, Saitama Prefecture on June 3, 2023, after heavy rains caused by passing Tropical Storm Mawar hit much of the country the day before. (AFP)

Heavy rain across parts of Japan has killed one person, left two missing and injured dozens more, authorities said Saturday, with thousands of residents issued evacuation warnings.

The inundation has been caused by the remnants of former Typhoon Mawar, now downgraded to a tropical storm.

A rescue team in central Aichi region's Toyohashi, where the country's highest-level evacuation alert was issued Friday, "found a man approximately in his 60s in a submerged car, but he was later confirmed dead," a city official told AFP.

In western Wakayama, where several rivers burst their banks, officials told AFP that they had resumed the search for one man and one woman missing in the region.

A total of six people were seriously injured and 24 suffered minor injuries as of Saturday morning, the Fire and Disaster Management Agency said.

In central and western Japan, many evacuation orders -- which are non-compulsory, even at the highest level -- were being downgraded as rains eased.

But new warnings were issued in areas close to Tokyo in the early morning due to flooding risks.

With several cities including Aichi's Toyohashi and Koshigaya near Tokyo reportedly seeing the highest 24-hour rainfall on record, the Japan Meteorological Agency urged residents to "be on high alert for landslides, overflowing rivers, and flooding of low-lying areas".

Some 4,000 households in regions close to Tokyo suffered power outages early Saturday, the Tokyo Electric Power Company said, but the issue was mostly resolved several hours later.

Shinkansen bullet trains were temporarily suspended between Tokyo and Nagoya, but Japan Railway said they resumed operations around noon.

Scientists say climate change is intensifying the risk of heavy rain in Japan and elsewhere, because a warmer atmosphere holds more water.

Strong rain in 2021 triggered a devastating landslide in the central resort town of Atami that killed 27 people.

And in 2018, floods and landslides killed more than 200 people in western Japan during the country's annual rainy season.

Earlier this week, Mawar -- then a typhoon -- passed just north of the Pacific island of Guam, uprooting trees and leaving tens of thousands of homes temporarily without power.


US Defense Chief Tells China Talks Essential to Avoid Crisis

Attendees watch a livestream of US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaking during a plenary session on a screen outside the main hall during the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-La Dialogue at the Shangri-La hotel in Singapore, 03 June 2023. (EPA)
Attendees watch a livestream of US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaking during a plenary session on a screen outside the main hall during the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-La Dialogue at the Shangri-La hotel in Singapore, 03 June 2023. (EPA)
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US Defense Chief Tells China Talks Essential to Avoid Crisis

Attendees watch a livestream of US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaking during a plenary session on a screen outside the main hall during the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-La Dialogue at the Shangri-La hotel in Singapore, 03 June 2023. (EPA)
Attendees watch a livestream of US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaking during a plenary session on a screen outside the main hall during the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-La Dialogue at the Shangri-La hotel in Singapore, 03 June 2023. (EPA)

United States Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said on Saturday he was deeply concerned by China's unwillingness to engage on military crisis management, warning that talks are key to avoiding conflict.

The relationship between the United States and China is at its lowest point in decades, as they remain deeply divided over everything from the sovereignty of Taiwan to espionage and territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia's top security summit, Austin said that open lines of communication between US and Chinese defense and military leaders were essential to avoid conflict and bolster stability in the Asia-Pacific.

"I am deeply concerned that the PRC (People's Republic of China) has been unwilling to engage more seriously on better mechanisms for crisis management between our two militaries," Austin told the meeting in Singapore.

"The more that we talk, the more that we can avoid the misunderstandings and miscalculations that could lead to crisis or conflict."

China's Minister of National Defence Li Shangfu had this week declined an invitation to meet Austin at the security summit. Li, a general who has been sanctioned by the US, delivers his own speech on Sunday.

On Friday, the two shook hands on the sidelines of the conference but did not hold detailed talks, the Pentagon said.

"A cordial handshake over dinner is no substitute for a substantive engagement," Austin said.

Dialogue between the two countries has stalled since

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken cancelled a visit to China

in February after a suspected Chinese spy balloon was tracked flying across the United States.

Liu Pengyu, spokesperson at the Chinese embassy in Washington, said on Friday in an emailed statement that communication between China and the US was conducive to a greater mutual understanding.

"However, now the US says it wants to speak to the Chinese side while seeking to suppress China through all possible means and continue imposing sanctions on Chinese officials, institutions and companies," the statement said.

China will have bilateral talks with defense chiefs from a dozen countries at the summit, Lieutenant General He Lei, former vice president of the Academy of Military Sciences, said in comments published by state-backed Chinese newspaper the Global Times on Saturday.

Taiwan tensions

One of the thorniest security issues between the two superpowers is over the future of Taiwan, a democratically governed territory which Beijing wants to bring under its rule.

There are increasing concerns that China could invade Taiwan with the US drawn into any conflict.

Austin pointed to Russia's invasion of Ukraine as an example of "how dangerous our world would become if big countries could just invade their peaceful neighbors with impunity".

He said the US was "deeply committed" to preserving the status quo in Taiwan and opposes unilateral changes from either side.

"Conflict is neither imminent nor inevitable. Deterrence is strong today and it’s our job to keep it that way," Austin said.

Chinese Senior Colonel Zhao Xiaozhuo told reporters on the sidelines of the meeting that Austin's comments risk creating confrontation in the Asia-Pacific region, including over Taiwan.

"It (US) wants instability in Taiwan so that it can bring its soldiers to Taiwan, and earn money from selling military weapons to Taiwan," said Zhao, a researcher at China's Academy of Military Sciences.

US military officials have previously said that Chinese President Xi Jinping has called on his armed forces to develop the capabilities for a possible invasion of Taiwan by 2027.

"It doesn't mean that he's made a decision to do that," Austin said in response to a question about Xi's plans.

Under President Joe Biden, the US has been strengthening its ties with allies in Asia, including Australia, Japan, India, the Philippines and Taiwan.

Beijing has criticized a deal announced by Australia in March to buy US nuclear-powered submarines.

Australia is set to spend A$368 billion ($250 billion) over three decades on the submarine program, part of a broader security pact with the US and Britain known as AUKUS.

"(AUKUS) promotes greater stability and security," Austin said.


Zelenskiy Says Ukraine Ready to Launch Counteroffensive

Local resident Aran stands inside the shop he rents, which was destroyed by recent shelling in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict, in Makiivka (Makeyevka) outside Donetsk, Russian-controlled Ukraine, June 2, 2023. (Reuters)
Local resident Aran stands inside the shop he rents, which was destroyed by recent shelling in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict, in Makiivka (Makeyevka) outside Donetsk, Russian-controlled Ukraine, June 2, 2023. (Reuters)
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Zelenskiy Says Ukraine Ready to Launch Counteroffensive

Local resident Aran stands inside the shop he rents, which was destroyed by recent shelling in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict, in Makiivka (Makeyevka) outside Donetsk, Russian-controlled Ukraine, June 2, 2023. (Reuters)
Local resident Aran stands inside the shop he rents, which was destroyed by recent shelling in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict, in Makiivka (Makeyevka) outside Donetsk, Russian-controlled Ukraine, June 2, 2023. (Reuters)

Ukraine is ready to launch its long-awaited counteroffensive to recapture Russian-occupied territory, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in an interview published on Saturday.

"We strongly believe that we will succeed,” Zelenskiy told the Wall Street Journal.

"I don’t know how long it will take. To be honest, it can go a variety of ways, completely different. But we are going to do it, and we are ready."

Kyiv hopes a counteroffensive to reclaim territory will change the dynamics of the war that has raged since Russia invaded its smaller neighbor 15 months ago.

Zelenskiy said last month Ukraine needed to wait for more Western armored vehicles arrived before launching the counteroffensive. He has been on a diplomatic push to maintain Western support, seeking more military aid and weapons, which is key for Ukraine to succeed in its plans.

Russia holds swaths of Ukrainian territory in the east, south and southeast.

A long spell of dry weather in some parts of Ukraine has driven anticipation that the counteroffensive might be imminent. Over the past several weeks Ukraine has increased it strikes on Russian ammunition depots and logistical routes.

On Saturday Ukraine's military said in a daily report that Mariinka in the Donetsk region in the east was the focus of fighting. Ukrainian forces repelled all 14 Russian troops' attacks there, the report said.


India Train Crash Kills over 280, Injures 900 in Country's Deadliest Rail Accident in Decades

Rescue workers search for survivors at the site of a three-train collision near Balasore, India, on June 3, 2023. Dibyangshu Sarkar, AFP
Rescue workers search for survivors at the site of a three-train collision near Balasore, India, on June 3, 2023. Dibyangshu Sarkar, AFP
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India Train Crash Kills over 280, Injures 900 in Country's Deadliest Rail Accident in Decades

Rescue workers search for survivors at the site of a three-train collision near Balasore, India, on June 3, 2023. Dibyangshu Sarkar, AFP
Rescue workers search for survivors at the site of a three-train collision near Balasore, India, on June 3, 2023. Dibyangshu Sarkar, AFP

Rescuers waded through piles of debris and wreckage to pull out bodies and free people on Saturday after two passenger trains derailed in India, killing more than 280 people. Hundreds of others were trapped inside more than a dozen mangled rail cars overnight in one of the country's deadliest train crashes in decades.

The accident, which happened about 220 kilometers (137 miles) southwest of Kolkata on Friday night, led to a chaotic scene as rescuers climbed atop the wrecked trains to break open doors and windows using cutting torches to free survivors, The Associated Press said.

About 900 people were injured in the accident in Balasore district in the eastern state of Odisha, said P.K. Jena, the state's top administrative official. The cause was under investigation.

At least 280 bodies were recovered overnight and into Saturday morning, Sudhanshu Sarangi, director of Odisha's fire department, told The Associated Press. He said more than 800 injured passengers were taken to various hospitals with many in critical condition.

Rescuers were cutting through the destroyed rail cars to find people who may still be trapped. Sarangi said it was possible that people were stuck underneath but that it was unlikely they would still be alive.

“By 10 p.m. (on Friday) we were able to rescue the survivors. After that it was about picking up dead bodies,” he said. “This is very, very tragic. I have never seen anything like this in my career."

Ten to 12 coaches of one train derailed, and debris from some of the mangled coaches fell onto a nearby track, said Amitabh Sharma, a railroad ministry spokesperson. The debris was hit by another passenger train coming from the opposite direction, causing up to three coaches of the second train to also derail, he added.

A third train carrying freight was also involved, the Press Trust of India reported, but there was no immediate confirmation of that from railroad authorities. PTI said some of the derailed passenger coaches hit cars from the freight train.

The death toll rose steadily throughout the night as footage showed shattered carriages that had overturned completely. Scores of dead bodies, covered by white sheets, lay on the ground near the train tracks as locals and rescuers raced to help survivors.

Teams of rescuers and police continued sifting through the ruins on Saturday morning as the search operation carried on, amid fears that the death toll is likely to rise further. Scores of people also showed up at a local hospital to donate blood.

Officials said 1,200 rescuers worked with 115 ambulances, 50 buses and 45 mobile health units through the night at the accident site. Saturday was declared as a day of mourning in Odisha as the state's chief minister, Naveen Patnaik, reached the district to meet injured passengers.

Villagers said they rushed to the site to evacuate people after hearing a loud sound created by the train coaches going off the tracks.

“The local people really went out on a limb to help us. They not only helped in pulling out people, but retrieved our luggage and got us water,” PTI cited Rupam Banerjee, a survivor, as saying.

Passenger Vandana Kaleda said that inside the train during the derailment people were “falling on each other” as her coach shook violently and veered off the tracks.

“As I stepped out of the washroom, suddenly the train tilted. I lost my balance. ... Everything went topsy turvy. People started falling on each other and I was shocked and could not understand what happened. My mind stopped working," she said, adding she felt lucky to survive.

Another survivor who did not give his name said he was sleeping when the impact woke him up. He said he saw other passengers with broken limbs and disfigured faces.

The derailed Coromandel Express was traveling from Howrah in West Bengal state to Chennai, the capital of southern Tamil Nadu state, PTI said.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said his thoughts were with the bereaved families.

"May the injured recover soon,” tweeted Modi, who said he had spoken to the railway minister and that “all possible assistance” was being offered.

Despite government efforts to improve rail safety, several hundred accidents occur every year on India’s railways, the largest train network under one management in the world.

In August 1995, two trains collided near New Delhi, killing 358 people in one of the worst train accidents in India.

In 2016, a passenger train slid off the tracks between the cities of Indore and Patna, killing 146 people.

Most train accidents are blamed on human error or outdated signaling equipment.

More than 12 million people ride 14,000 trains across India every day, traveling on 64,000 kilometers (40,000 miles) of track.


Erdogan to Be Sworn in for Third Term as Turkish President

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses the annual general meeting of the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges after winning Sunday's presidential election runoff in Ankara, Türkiye, May 30, 2023. REUTERS/Umit Bektas/File Photo
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses the annual general meeting of the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges after winning Sunday's presidential election runoff in Ankara, Türkiye, May 30, 2023. REUTERS/Umit Bektas/File Photo
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Erdogan to Be Sworn in for Third Term as Turkish President

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses the annual general meeting of the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges after winning Sunday's presidential election runoff in Ankara, Türkiye, May 30, 2023. REUTERS/Umit Bektas/File Photo
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses the annual general meeting of the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges after winning Sunday's presidential election runoff in Ankara, Türkiye, May 30, 2023. REUTERS/Umit Bektas/File Photo

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is set to be sworn in on Saturday as head of state after winning a historic runoff election to extend his two-decade rule for another five years as Türkiye’s economic woes worsen.

The inauguration in parliament will be followed by a lavish ceremony at his palace in the capital Ankara attended by dozens of world leaders, said AFP.

Türkiye’s transformative but divisive leader won the May 28 runoff against a powerful opposition coalition, and despite an economic crisis and severe criticism following a devastating February earthquake that killed more than 50,000 people.

Erdogan won 52.18 percent of the vote while his secular rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu 47.82 percent, official results show.

Türkiye’s longest-serving leader faces immediate and major challenges in his third term driven by a decelerating economy and foreign policy tensions with the West.

"From a geopolitical point of view, the election will reinforce Türkiye’s recent pursuit of an independent foreign policy," said Matt Gertken, chief geopolitical strategist at BCA Research.

"This policy aims to extract maximum economic and strategic benefits from eastern and autocratic states while still preventing a permanent rupture in relations with western democracies," he said.

"Tensions with the West will likely increase again, within that framework, now that Erdogan has a new mandate."

Biting economy

Addressing the country's economic troubles will be Erdogan's first priority with inflation running at 43.70 percent, partly due to his unorthodox policy of cutting interest rates to stimulate growth.

Late on Saturday the president is due to unveil his new cabinet with media speculating that former finance minister Mehmet Simsek, a reassuring figure with international stature, could play a part.

A former Merrill Lynch economist, Simsek is known to oppose Erdogan's unconventional policies.

He served as finance minister between 2009 and 2015 and deputy prime minister in charge of the economy until 2018, before stepping down ahead of a series of lira crashes that year.

"Erdogan's government looks like it will pursue an orthodox stabilization program," said Alp Erinc Yeldan, professor of economics at Istanbul's Kadir Has University.

"What we see now is that the news about Mehmet Simsek and his team is greeted with enthusiasm by the markets," he told AFP.

Türkiye’s new members of parliament started being sworn in on Friday in a first session after the May 14 election, also attended by Erdogan.

His alliance holds a majority in the 600-seat parliament.

Erdogan's victory came against a unified opposition coalition led by Kilicdaroglu, whose future as leader of the CHP party remains in doubt following the defeat.

NATO chief visits

NATO allies are anxiously waiting for Ankara to green-light Sweden's drive to join the US-led defense alliance, before a summit in July.

Erdogan has been dragging his feet in approving the application, accusing Stockholm of sheltering "terrorists" of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) which is listed as a terror group by Ankara and its Western allies.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg will attend Erdogan's inauguration at the weekend and hold talks with him, the alliance said Friday.

Sweden's foreign minister Tobias Billstrom said on Twitter that "a clear message" emerged at a NATO meeting in Oslo for Türkiye’s and Hungary to start the ratification process.

His Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu responded: "A crystal clear message to our Swedish Friends! Fulfill your commitments arising from Trilateral Memorandum & take concrete steps in the fight against terrorism.

"The rest will follow."


US, Allies Clash with Russia, China over North Korea's Failed Military Spy Satellite Launch

FILE - In this undated photo provided by the North Korean government on March 11, 2022, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground in Tongchang-ri, North Korea. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP, File)
FILE - In this undated photo provided by the North Korean government on March 11, 2022, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground in Tongchang-ri, North Korea. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP, File)
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US, Allies Clash with Russia, China over North Korea's Failed Military Spy Satellite Launch

FILE - In this undated photo provided by the North Korean government on March 11, 2022, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground in Tongchang-ri, North Korea. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP, File)
FILE - In this undated photo provided by the North Korean government on March 11, 2022, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground in Tongchang-ri, North Korea. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP, File)

The United States and its allies clashed with Russia and China on Friday over North Korea’s failed launch of a military spy satellite this week in violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions, which Moscow and Beijing refused to condemn.

The confrontation was the latest over the North’s escalating nuclear, ballistic missile and military programs, which US deputy ambassador Robert Wood warned are threatening international peace and security. The failed launch “not only disrupted maritime and air traffic in the region, but it also caused alarm for its neighbors in Japan and the Republic of Korea,” he said.

Pyongyang is threatening another launch soon, The Associated Press said.

The Security Council imposed sanctions after North Korea’s first nuclear test explosion in 2006 and tightened them over the years in a total of 10 resolutions seeking — so far unsuccessfully — to rein in its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and cut off funding. In the last sanctions resolution adopted by the council in December 2017, members committed to further restricting petroleum exports to North Korea if it conducted a ballistic missile launch capable of reaching intercontinental ranges.

China and Russia vetoed a US-sponsored resolution in May 2022 that would have imposed new sanctions, including on petroleum exports, over a spate of intercontinental ballistic missile launches. Since then, they have blocked any council action including press statements.

UN political chief Rosemary DiCarlo told the council the last time North Korea conducted a similar satellite launch to Wednesday’s failed attempt was on Feb. 7, 2016 and it was condemned by the Security Council.

“The lack of unity and action in the Security Council does little to slow the negative trajectory on the Korean Peninsula,” she said, and North Korea “is unconstrained, and other parties are compelled to focus on military deterrence.”

But North Korea’s neighbor and ally China and Russia, which has drawn closer to Pyongyang since the war in Ukraine, blamed the West and especially the United States for the current tensions.

China’s deputy UN ambassador Geng Shuang said the situation on the Korean Peninsula is a remnant of the Cold War. He accused the United States of failing to respond to North Korea’s attempts at dialogue over the years and instead resorting to sanctions and pressure on Pyongyang, missing an opportunity to resolve the nuclear issue.

“By incorporating the (Korean) Peninsula into its Indo-Pacific strategy, the US has continued its military activities and significantly increased its military presence both on the peninsula and in its surrounding areas, seriously undermining the strategic security interests of the peninsula and its neighboring countries,” Geng said

He also pointed to the recent US-South Korea Washington Declaration, including plans to send strategic nuclear submarines to the peninsula.

Geng claimed US policies are “driven by geopolitical self-interest” and told the council that blaming one party “will only exacerbate conflicts, provocations and inject new uncertainties into the already tense situation on the peninsula.”

He urged the council to adopt a resolution circulated by China and Russia in November 2021 that would end a host of sanctions on the North, saying this would be a starting point “to promote de-escalation, mutual trust and unity” among the 15 members.

Russia’s deputy ambassador Anna Evstigneeva blamed increased pressure on North Korea by the US and its allies for “the spiral of tension we’re witnessing now.” And she criticized growing military activity by the US, Japan and South Korea, especially recent large-scale US-South Korean military exercises, saying they are destabilizing not only for northeast Asia but for the Asia-Pacific region as a whole.

Russia is against “the dead end and inhumane policy of increasing sanctions pressure,” Evstigneeva said, stressing that UN resolutions that imposed sanctions also back efforts to resolve the situation on the Korean Peninsula by political and diplomatic means.

Russia calls on the United States to take steps to lower tensions and resume dialogue, instead of trying to shift responsibility “to other countries,” she said, also backing council action on the China-Russia resolution.

Wood, the US envoy, countered that the Washington Declaration was a response to North Korea’s destabilizing nuclear and ballistic missile activities.

“It’s hard to imagine we would ease sanctions” as called for in the China-Russia draft resolution and reward Pyongyang while it continues to violate Security Council resolutions, he said.

As for diplomacy, Wood said the United States on many occasions has stated it is prepared to have an unconditional dialogue, but North Korea “has rejected our interventions on many occasions.”

He stressed that US-South Korean military exercises are lawful efforts to defend against Pyongyang’s escalating activities that are allowing the country to advance its unlawful weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs – and to “continue to choose ammunition over nutrition” for its people.


CIA Director Burns Met Chinese Leaders in Beijing as Washington Tries to Thaw Tensions

William Burns, center, enters a car after arriving at Capital International Airport in Beijing, May 1, 2012. (AP)
William Burns, center, enters a car after arriving at Capital International Airport in Beijing, May 1, 2012. (AP)
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CIA Director Burns Met Chinese Leaders in Beijing as Washington Tries to Thaw Tensions

William Burns, center, enters a car after arriving at Capital International Airport in Beijing, May 1, 2012. (AP)
William Burns, center, enters a car after arriving at Capital International Airport in Beijing, May 1, 2012. (AP)

CIA Director William Burns went to Beijing in May to meet with Chinese counterparts, a US official said on Friday, in what is the highest level visit by a Biden administration official since a suspected Chinese spy balloon was shot down by American forces.

Burns' visit, first reported by The Financial Times, comes as Washington tries to cool tensions with Beijing over the balloon and other recent conflicts between the world's two largest economies and geopolitical rivals.

US officials have long warned that China rejects their efforts at outreach. That raises the possibility of miscommunication spiraling into conflict, they say.

“Last month, Director Burns traveled to Beijing where he met with Chinese counterparts and emphasized the importance of maintaining open lines of communication in intelligence channels,” said a US official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss Burns' schedule, which is classified.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also spoke “briefly” Friday with Li Shangfu, China's minister of national defense, at the opening dinner of a security forum in Singapore. China had earlier rejected Austin's request for a meeting on the sidelines of the forum.

President Joe Biden has often sent Burns on sensitive trips to meet US adversaries. Burns went to Moscow in late 2021 to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin about indications that Russia was gearing up to launch a new invasion of Ukraine.


Russia: Chechen Special Forces Waging Offensive in East Ukraine

A Ukrainian soldier fires a mortar at Russian positions on the frontline near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Sunday, May 28, 2023. (AP)
A Ukrainian soldier fires a mortar at Russian positions on the frontline near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Sunday, May 28, 2023. (AP)
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Russia: Chechen Special Forces Waging Offensive in East Ukraine

A Ukrainian soldier fires a mortar at Russian positions on the frontline near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Sunday, May 28, 2023. (AP)
A Ukrainian soldier fires a mortar at Russian positions on the frontline near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Sunday, May 28, 2023. (AP)

Russia's Defense Ministry said on Friday that the "Akhmat" group of Chechen special forces were waging an offensive near the town of Mariinka, in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk.

Together with the Wagner mercenary group led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, troops from Russia's Chechen Republic have been one of the main driving forces behind Moscow's offensive in Ukraine.

Akhmat commander Apti Alaudinov said on Thursday that his forces were being moved to "another area" in preparation for a counter-offensive, but did not say where the troops were or where they were going.

Unlike Prigozhin, who has repeatedly lambasted Russia's military leadership, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has recently refrained from echoing criticism of the defense ministry.

Members of the two groups have since openly sparred, with one of Kadyrov's close allies on Thursday casting Prigozhin as a blogger who yells all the time about problems.


Iran Releases 1 Danish, 2 Austrian Citizens in Operation Involving Oman, Belgium

The Iranian flag flutters outside the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) headquarters in Vienna, Austria, March 6, 2023. (Reuters)
The Iranian flag flutters outside the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) headquarters in Vienna, Austria, March 6, 2023. (Reuters)
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Iran Releases 1 Danish, 2 Austrian Citizens in Operation Involving Oman, Belgium

The Iranian flag flutters outside the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) headquarters in Vienna, Austria, March 6, 2023. (Reuters)
The Iranian flag flutters outside the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) headquarters in Vienna, Austria, March 6, 2023. (Reuters)

Iran has released one Danish and two Austrian citizens, the European countries said Friday, thanking Oman and Belgium for their help in getting the trio freed.

Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg said he was “very relieved” that Kamran Ghaderi and Massud Mossaheb were being brought home after “years of arduous imprisonment in Iran."

Denmark’s foreign minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, said that he was “happy and relieved that a Danish citizen is on his way home to his family in Denmark after imprisonment in Iran." He didn't name the person, saying their identity was “a personal matter” and he couldn't go into details.”

Schallenberg thanked the foreign ministers of Belgium and Oman for providing “valuable support,” without elaborating on what form it took. Løkke Rasmussen also thanked Belgium and said that Oman “played an important role.”

There was no immediate word on what, if anything, Iran obtained in return for the prisoners’ release.

Last week, a prisoner exchange between Belgium and Iran returned to Tehran an Iranian diplomat convicted of attempting to bomb exiles in France, Assadollah Assadi. Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele, looking visibly gaunt, headed back to Brussels as part of the swap.

On Friday, Belgian Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib tweeted that her country was “unwavering in our dedication to advocating for other Europeans who are being arbitrarily detained” and had “successfully secured the release of two Austrians and one Dane who were unjustly held in detention in Iran.”

Iranian state media and officials did not immediately acknowledge a release on Friday, which is part of the weekend in the country.

Oman often serves an interlocutor between Tehran and the West and brings released captives out of Iran. An Oman Royal Air Force Gulfstream IV, which had been on the ground in Tehran for several days, took off shortly before news of the European trio's releases came out.

The releases also come after Oman’s Sultan Haitham bin Tariq visited Iran on his first trip there since ascending the throne in 2020.

Ghaderi is an Iranian-Austrian businessman who was arrested in 2016 and later sentenced to 10 years in prison for allegedly spying for the US, charges strongly rejected by his supporters. His family had criticized Austria for being silent on his case in recent years.

Mossaheb, also an Iranian-Austrian businessman, was arrested in 2019 and received a 10-year prison sentence after what Amnesty International called “a grossly unfair trial for vague national security offenses.”

Amnesty had said Mossaheb suffered from heart failure and diabetes, making his imprisonment that much more dangerous for him.

Iran has detained a number of foreigners and dual nationals over the years, accusing them of espionage or other state security offenses and sentencing them following secretive trials in which rights groups say they have been denied due process.

Critics have repeatedly accused Iran of using such prisoners as bargaining chips with the West.

Iran, facing Western sanctions over its rapidly advancing nuclear program, has experienced protests in recent months and economic strain. However, the International Atomic Energy Agency dropped two inquiries into the country's nuclear program.


White House Wants to Engage Russia on Nuclear Arms Control in Post-treaty World

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan speaks at a press briefing at the White House in Washington, April 24, 2023. (AP)
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan speaks at a press briefing at the White House in Washington, April 24, 2023. (AP)
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White House Wants to Engage Russia on Nuclear Arms Control in Post-treaty World

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan speaks at a press briefing at the White House in Washington, April 24, 2023. (AP)
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan speaks at a press briefing at the White House in Washington, April 24, 2023. (AP)

The Biden administration is ready to talk to Russia without conditions about a future nuclear arms control framework even while taking countermeasures in response to the Kremlin's decision to suspend the last nuclear arms control treaty between the two countries, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Friday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced in February he was suspending Russia’s cooperation with the New START Treaty's provisions for nuclear warhead and missile inspections, a move that came as tensions worsened after Moscow's invasion of Ukraine. Russia did say it would respect the treaty's caps on nuclear weapons.

Sullivan said at the Arms Control Association's annual meeting said that the United States is committed to adhering to the treaty if Russia also does, and that Washington wants to open a dialogue on a new framework for managing nuclear risks once the treaty expires in February 2026.

"It is in neither of our countries’ interest to embark on opening the competition in the strategic nuclear forces," Sullivan said. "And rather than waiting to resolve all of our bilateral differences, the United States is ready to engage Russia now to manage nuclear risks and develop a post 2026" agreement.

The US is willing to stick to the warhead caps until the treaty's end. Figuring out details about a post-2026 framework will be complicated by US-Russia tension and China's growing nuclear strength.

China now has about 410 nuclear warheads, according to an annual survey from the Federation of American Scientists. The Pentagon in November estimated China's warhead count could grow to 1,000 by the end of the decade and to 1,500 by around 2035.

The size of China's arsenal and whether Beijing is willing to engage in substantive dialogue will affect the future US force posture and Washington's ability to come to any agreement with the Russians, administration officials said.

US-Chinese relations have been strained by the shooting down a Chinese spy balloon this year after it crossed the continental United States; tensions about the status of the self-ruled island of Taiwan, which China claims as its own; US export controls aimed at limiting China's advanced semiconductor equipment; and other issues.

"Simply put we have not yet seen the willingness from the PRC to compartmentalize strategic stability from broader issues in the relationship," Sullivan said using he acronym for the People's Republic of China.

The White House push on Moscow on nuclear arms control comes the day after the administration announced new steps in response to Russia suspending participation in the treaty.

The State Department said it no longer would notify Russia of any updates on the status or location of "treaty-accountable items" such as missiles and launchers, would revoke US visas issued to Russian treaty inspectors and aircrew members, and would cease providing telemetric information on test launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

The United States and Russia earlier this year stopped sharing biannual nuclear weapons data required by the treaty.

The treaty, which then-Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev signed in 2010, limits each country to no more than 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads and 700 deployed missiles and bombers and provides for on-site inspections to verify compliance.

The inspections have been dormant since 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Discussions on resuming them were supposed to have taken place in November 2022, but Russia abruptly called them off, citing US support for Ukraine.