‘No Sense of Fatigue’ When It Comes to Support for Ukraine, Blinken Says 

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken attends a press conference following the NATO Foreign Ministers meeting on Ukraine at its Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium November 29, 2023. (Reuters)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken attends a press conference following the NATO Foreign Ministers meeting on Ukraine at its Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium November 29, 2023. (Reuters)
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‘No Sense of Fatigue’ When It Comes to Support for Ukraine, Blinken Says 

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken attends a press conference following the NATO Foreign Ministers meeting on Ukraine at its Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium November 29, 2023. (Reuters)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken attends a press conference following the NATO Foreign Ministers meeting on Ukraine at its Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium November 29, 2023. (Reuters)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday that there was "no sense of fatigue" among NATO allies when it came to helping Ukraine. 

"We must and we will continue to support Ukraine," he said after a NATO-Ukraine meeting in Brussels, adding that NATO allies were unanimous on this position and that he was also hearing continued support for Ukraine in both chambers of the US Congress. 

Kyiv has been concerned that the Israel-Hamas war could divert international attention away from its efforts to defeat Russia, which invaded Ukraine in February 2022. 

Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba urged the West earlier on Wednesday to ramp up arms production. 

The European Union has delivered about 300,000 of its promised 1 million artillery shells to Ukraine so far, he said. 

"We need to create a Euro-Atlantic common area of defense industries," Kuleba said before meeting the NATO foreign ministers, adding this would ensure both Ukraine's security and that of NATO countries themselves. 

Kyiv has recently engaged in a concerted drive to entice leading global arms manufacturers to set up operations in Ukraine, part of a bid to diversify its reliance on weapons and ammunition given by its allies. 

"It is important that our solidarity with Ukraine is not only demonstrated in words but also in deeds," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said, urging allies to do more. "These are concrete actions, we need more of them and we need sustained and stepped up support." 

Russia has amassed a large missile stockpile ahead of winter, Stoltenberg warned. 

Russia "is now weaker militarily, politically and economically," he said. "At the same time we must not underestimate Russia," he added, stressing that Russia had been making new attempts to strike Ukraine's power grid and energy infrastructure, "trying to leave Ukraine in the dark and cold." 



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.


UK to Help Replenish Ukraine’s Artillery Reserves with $311 Mln Package

 Local women stand next to their house heavily damaged by a Russian drone strike, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Odesa, February 24, 2024. (Reuters)
Local women stand next to their house heavily damaged by a Russian drone strike, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Odesa, February 24, 2024. (Reuters)
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UK to Help Replenish Ukraine’s Artillery Reserves with $311 Mln Package

 Local women stand next to their house heavily damaged by a Russian drone strike, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Odesa, February 24, 2024. (Reuters)
Local women stand next to their house heavily damaged by a Russian drone strike, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Odesa, February 24, 2024. (Reuters)

Britain will spend 245 million pounds ($311 million) over the next year to boost Ukraine’s artillery ammunition reserves, the defense ministry said on Saturday - the two year anniversary of Russia's invasion.

WHY IT IS IMPORTANT

Ukraine faces acute ammunition shortages and is seeking more military assistance from Western countries as it battles to hold off Russia. The prospect of further military aid from the United States, its largest donor, hinges on a congressional vote.

KEY QUOTE

"They cannot win this fight without the support of the international community – and that’s why we continue to do what it takes to ensure Ukraine can continue to fight towards victory." British defense minister Grant Shapps said in a statement.

BY THE NUMBERS

Britain has pledged more than $8.8 billion (7 billion pounds) of military assistance to Ukraine since February 2022.

US President Joe Biden's administration has so far provided $44 billion in security assistance to Ukraine and is currently awaiting congressional approval to secure $60 billion.

Germany, the second-largest provider of military assistance to Ukraine, says it has provided and committed to some 28 billion euros ($30.2 billion) of military aid so far.

The European Union has committed around 6 billion euros in military aid through the European Peace Facility.

Several individual Western countries have pledged military aid since February 2022, including Canada committing $2.4 billion.


Australian Authorities Urge Hundreds to Flee Uncontained Bushfire

A kangaroo jumps in a field amidst smoke from a bushfire in Snowy Valley on the outskirts of Cooma. (AFP file photo)
A kangaroo jumps in a field amidst smoke from a bushfire in Snowy Valley on the outskirts of Cooma. (AFP file photo)
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Australian Authorities Urge Hundreds to Flee Uncontained Bushfire

A kangaroo jumps in a field amidst smoke from a bushfire in Snowy Valley on the outskirts of Cooma. (AFP file photo)
A kangaroo jumps in a field amidst smoke from a bushfire in Snowy Valley on the outskirts of Cooma. (AFP file photo)

A bushfire in Australia's Victoria state raged out of control on Saturday, with authorities issuing a fresh evacuation alert at the highest danger rating for hundreds of residents in the state's west.
The emergency warning followed the downgrading on Saturday of another bushfire, sparked earlier this week, that has killed livestock, destroyed properties and forced more than 2,000 people to leave western towns and head to the city of Ballarat, 95 km (59 miles) west of state capital Melbourne.
The new blaze was threatening the rural town of Amphitheatre, population 223.
"Leaving immediately is the safest option, before conditions become too dangerous," Vic Emergency said on its website, adding that the fire was "not yet under control".
The Australian Broadcasting Corp reported on Saturday that three homes and several outbuildings had been destroyed this week in Victoria's bushfire emergency.
Around 1,000 firefighters supported by more than 50 aircraft have battled the fires since they started.
Australia is currently in the grips of an El Nino weather pattern, which is typically associated with extreme phenomena such as wildfires, cyclones and droughts.
The last two bushfire seasons in Australia have been subdued compared with the 2019-2020 "Black Summer" when bushfires destroyed an area the size of Turkey and killed 33 people and 3 billion animals.


Ukraine’s Top Diplomat Tells Skeptics at UN His Country Will Win the War

Ukrainian Foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba speaks during the UN General Assembly meeting on the "temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine" marking the second anniversary of the Russian invasion, at the UN Headquarters in New York City on February 23, 2024. (AFP)
Ukrainian Foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba speaks during the UN General Assembly meeting on the "temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine" marking the second anniversary of the Russian invasion, at the UN Headquarters in New York City on February 23, 2024. (AFP)
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Ukraine’s Top Diplomat Tells Skeptics at UN His Country Will Win the War

Ukrainian Foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba speaks during the UN General Assembly meeting on the "temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine" marking the second anniversary of the Russian invasion, at the UN Headquarters in New York City on February 23, 2024. (AFP)
Ukrainian Foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba speaks during the UN General Assembly meeting on the "temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine" marking the second anniversary of the Russian invasion, at the UN Headquarters in New York City on February 23, 2024. (AFP)

Ukraine’s foreign minister on Friday told skeptics who believe Ukraine can’t win the war with Russia that they will be proven wrong: “Ukraine will win the war.”

Dmytro Kuleba, speaking at the United Nations on the eve of the second anniversary of Russia's invasion, urged the world's nations to stand behind Ukraine. If they do, he said, victory will come “sooner rather than later.”

Russia’s UN Ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, countered by repeating Moscow's claim that it didn't start the conflict. He blamed the West for fomenting it, accused Ukraine of being a tool of Western geopolitical ambitions, and vowed that Russia's “special military operation” won’t end until its goals are achieved.

Those goals — stated on Feb. 24, 2022, the day Russian troops crossed the border — include the de-militarization of Ukraine and ensuring its “neutral status.”

The UN General Assembly and the Security Council are marking the anniversary with ministerial meetings as President Volodymyr Zelenskyy pleads for more US military aid and Russian forces make new gains in eastern Ukraine.

The General Assembly has become the most important UN body dealing with Ukraine because the Security Council, which is charged with maintaining international peace and security, is paralyzed by Russia’s veto power. Assembly resolutions are not legally binding, unlike Security Council resolutions, but they serve as a barometer of world opinion.

Addressing the 193-member assembly, Kuleba recalled that over 140 nations supported resolutions backing Ukraine and calling for Russian forces to withdraw. But, he said, “Moscow’s aim is to destroy Ukraine and they’re quite outspoken about it.”

He said countries now saying Ukraine should negotiate with Russia and end the war are either “ill-informed” or didn't follow events after 2014, when Russia seized Crimea and backed an armed rebellion in eastern Ukraine. The two countries, he said, held approximately 200 rounds of negotiations and made 20 cease-fire agreements.

“All of these peace efforts ended two years ago, when Russia tore apart the Minsk process and launched its full-scale invasion,” Kuleba said. “Why would anyone suggest today that following the same logic will bring us to a different result?”

Zelenskyy’s 10-point peace plan is “the only serious peace proposal on the table,” Kuleba said, calling on other countries to add their diplomatic weight to it. The plan calls for expelling Russian forces, establishing a special tribunal to prosecute alleged Russian war crimes and building a European-Atlantic security architecture with guarantees for Ukraine.

When Russia invaded, diplomats and experts didn’t believe Ukraine would survive. Speaking to reporters, Kuleba said he wanted to make one point clear.

“Today, the same people do not believe that Ukraine can win this war,” he said. “They turned wrong once, and they will turn wrong again. Ukraine survived the invasion. Ukraine will win the war. And if we act collectively and jointly this will happen ... sooner rather than later.”

Nebenzia slammed Zelenskyy's plan.

“It is nothing other than an ultimatum to Russia and an attempt to lure as many countries as possible into endless meetings on this utopian project at any price possible,” he said.

At the General Assembly, where representatives of 64 countries are scheduled to speak, there was strong support for Ukraine.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary David Cameron said he recognized that there is a sense of fatigue with the war and a compromise might seem attractive, but he said Russian President Vladimir Putin isn't seeking compromise.

“Rather, this is a neo-imperialist bully who believes might is right,” he said. “If Putin were to eke out some kind of win, the rest of the world would suffer, too. What starts in Ukraine would not end there.”

Poland’s Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski told the assembly: “Only our resolve can deter the neo-imperial delusions that may arise in any part of the world.”

“We need to stay the course until Mr. Putin understands that the days of European imperialism are gone for good,” he said.

Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis said at Ukraine’s request his government will organize a high-level peace conference by the summer. He invited all nations to attend and work “to find common ground for peace” based on the UN Charter, and the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.

Neither the assembly nor the council took any action to mark the anniversary. But before the council meeting, Kuleba read a statement from more than 50 countries, while surrounded by their ministers and ambassadors, condemning Russia’s aggression, its “flagrant violation of international law,” and its attacks on civilians and the infrastructure they need to survive, “which may constitute war crimes.”

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres briefed the council, saying Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine violated the UN Charter and international law and, two years later, “the war in Ukraine remains an open wound at the heart of Europe.”

He called the invasion “a dangerous precedent,” stressing that newly independent countries in Africa didn't change borders established by colonial powers “with the stroke of a pen” because they knew it would open “a Pandora's box.”

The UN chief said the path to peace is respect for the UN Charter's underlying principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, warning that the war is deepening geopolitical divides.

“The danger of the conflict escalating and expanding is very real,” he said.

China’s UN Ambassador Zhang Jun, whose country is a Russian ally, said Beijing respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine and all other countries, and urged stepped-up peace efforts. He also stressed that “the legitimate security concerns of all countries” must be respected, and criticized NATO’s eastward expansion — which Moscow has strongly opposed.

Germany's Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock told the Security Council: “Putin is making clear every day, every hour ... that he does not want to negotiate peace. He wants to complete his conquest.”

And US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said that through all of Russia's “lies, Putin has tried to rewrite history, to justify the unjustifiable, to break the will of the Ukrainian people, and to break the will of the international community.”

“We cannot let that happen,” she said.


Macron Booed by French Farmers Who Blame Him for Not Doing Enough to Support Agriculture

French farmers scuffle with gendarmes (bottom) during a farmers' protest at the Porte Versailles exhibition center, prior to the opening of the 60th International Agriculture Fair (Salon de l'Agriculture), in Paris, on February 24, 2024. (AFP)
French farmers scuffle with gendarmes (bottom) during a farmers' protest at the Porte Versailles exhibition center, prior to the opening of the 60th International Agriculture Fair (Salon de l'Agriculture), in Paris, on February 24, 2024. (AFP)
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Macron Booed by French Farmers Who Blame Him for Not Doing Enough to Support Agriculture

French farmers scuffle with gendarmes (bottom) during a farmers' protest at the Porte Versailles exhibition center, prior to the opening of the 60th International Agriculture Fair (Salon de l'Agriculture), in Paris, on February 24, 2024. (AFP)
French farmers scuffle with gendarmes (bottom) during a farmers' protest at the Porte Versailles exhibition center, prior to the opening of the 60th International Agriculture Fair (Salon de l'Agriculture), in Paris, on February 24, 2024. (AFP)

French President Emmanuel Macron was greeted with boos and whistles at the opening of the Paris Agricultural Fair on Saturday by angry farmers who blame him for not doing enough to support them.

Macron was scheduled to visit the event, which draws crowds of visitors every year. But before the official opening, several dozen protesters forced their way through security barriers and entered the site as the president was arriving.

Farmers have been protesting for months across France, including Paris, to demand better living conditions, simpler regulations and better protection against foreign competition they see as unfair.

Police in full riot gear were deployed at the Paris Agricultural Fair to prevent them from getting close to Macron, who had a planned meeting with the heads of France’s main farmers' unions.

Meanwhile, protesters chanted slogans calling for Macron to “resign” and blew into whistles to show their anger.

“We won’t be able to respond to the farming crisis in a few hours,” Macron said. “It has taken months, years of work for those who came here to present their cattle, their work … This fair must go well and calmly.”

Three weeks ago, farmers lifted roadblocks around Paris and elsewhere around the country after the government offered more than 400 million euros ($433 million) in aid and tax breaks.

“Anger can be expressed,” Macron said, warning against any “violence.”

The French president decided to meet with groups of protesters in a separate room. He promised “floor prices” will be established for each product to “guarantee farmers’ income.” He also said an emergency plan to financially relieve the most struggling farms will start being implemented on Monday.

Macron said a meeting will be held at the Elysee presidential palace in March to build “a plan for the future of farming” with farmers’ unions and other key players in the food industry.

One farmer asked the president to say “in front the cameras you are going to give oxygen to the farmers ... Do that and I guarantee you will calm everyone down.”

Macron answered: “You have grievances. You do not have a government that’s completely deaf ... It’s not true that nothing’s been done.”

He later officially inaugurated the fair, an opening delayed by several hours because of the protest.

Macron then mingled with farmers presenting their cattle and products, starting with Normandy cows and camembert cheese — while protesters could still sporadically be heard loudly whistling.

The move comes as farmers across Europe are protesting against EU agriculture policies, bureaucracy and overall business conditions.

Farmers complain that the 27-nation bloc’s environmental policies, such as the Green Deal, which calls for limits on the use of chemicals and on greenhouse gas emissions, limit their business and make their products more expensive than non-European Union imports.

On Friday, farmers on their tractors staged a demonstration in the streets of Paris before the Agricultural Fair.


Many in Myanmar Consider Fleeing to Thailand to Escape Conscription into an Army they Despise

People queue to receive a token to apply for a visa outside the Royal Thai embassy in Yangon, Myanmar, 16 February 2024. EPA/STRINGER
People queue to receive a token to apply for a visa outside the Royal Thai embassy in Yangon, Myanmar, 16 February 2024. EPA/STRINGER
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Many in Myanmar Consider Fleeing to Thailand to Escape Conscription into an Army they Despise

People queue to receive a token to apply for a visa outside the Royal Thai embassy in Yangon, Myanmar, 16 February 2024. EPA/STRINGER
People queue to receive a token to apply for a visa outside the Royal Thai embassy in Yangon, Myanmar, 16 February 2024. EPA/STRINGER

Thwel, a 25-year-old schoolteacher, saw very few options left to her after Myanmar’s military announced it is implementing conscription to fill its ranks.
“As a person living in this country, I only have two options: to go abroad illegally or die here,” Thwel told The Associated Press by phone while traveling to a border area to try crossing into Thailand with a small group of like-minded people.
Some observers believe a mass exodus of young talent is taking place and could become a social problem, with their exit heightening the instability that followed the military takeover that now amounts to a civil war.
Thwel, whose home in Myanmar’s southern Mon state is the scene of occasional combat between the army and resistance forces, spoke on condition she be called by only one name as protection from the military authorities. Like many professionals, she joined the Civil Disobedience Movement that was formed to oppose military rule after the army’s 2021 seizure of power from the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.
Since then, the army's manpower has been stretched thin by increasing pressure from surprisingly durable pro-democracy resistance forces and ethnic minority armed organizations,
Over the past four months, opposition groups scored significant victories and seized strategically important territory in northern Shan state where Myanmar borders China, and in Rakhine state in the west.
On Feb. 10, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, chair of Myanmar’s ruling military council, ordered the 2010 conscription law be activated to replenish the ranks that have been depleted by the struggle to quash a nationwide pro-democracy insurgency. All healthy men ages 18-35 and women 18-27 are required to register for two years of military service.
Evading conscription is punishable by three to five years in prison and a fine.
Of Myanmar's 56 million people, about 14 million — 6.3 million men and 7.7 million women — are eligible for military service, according to Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun, the spokesperson for the military government. The government will draft 60,000 people a year, with an initial batch of 5,000 to be called up soon after the traditional Thingyan New Year celebration in mid-April, he said.
After an uproar over the initial announcement, Zaw Min Tun said there is no plan to call women into military service yet — meaning schoolteacher Thwel might actually be in the clear for the time being.
But many people are actively looking for ways to escape.
The street in front of Thailand’s embassy in Yangon has been filled with visa applicants queued up to get numbered appointment tickets. Overwhelmed, the embassy announced it would accept only 400 visa appointments per day, and they must be made online. According to the Thai Foreign Ministry, some 7,000 Myanmar nationals have applied for visas, Thailand’s Bangkok Post newspaper reported Thursday.
Each day at the state passport office in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city, 4,000-5000 people were lining up to get one of the 200-250 daily appointment tickets. Two women died and one was injured after they fell into a ditch in a pre-dawn rush to get a coveted early place in line.
A 32-year-old news translator from Yangon said he made a snap decision to leave the country after the conscription announcement, and flew to Thailand a few days later. Like almost all persons willing to discuss their plans, he spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of the legal consequences.
He said he was very concerned because serving in the military is like entering a labyrinth with no way back out, giving the example of his uncle, who joined the army for a five-year enlistment but was not allowed to leave for more than 40 years.
A 26-year-old journalist who has been working covertly in Mandalay, said the conscription law made his situation untenable. He also spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of the legal consequences; more than 150 journalists were arrested after the army sized power, and more than one-third remain locked up, according to the Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders.
“I tried my best to stay inside the country in the past few years while other journalists were fleeing abroad or to areas controlled by ethnic minority armed groups," he said. "But, this time, we can’t hide anywhere. We can’t stay out of sight. There is no choice.”
He is also planning to flee to Thailand.
The Institute for Strategy and Policy, an independent think tank, said conscription could trigger a mass exodus, more widespread violations of human rights and increase corruption and extortion at all levels. It anticipates that young people close to areas where armed conflict is active could join the ethnic minority armed forces and pro-democracy resistance groups.
There were around 160,000 soldiers before the army takeover, the institute said, and there are now fewer than 100,000 due to casualties, desertions and defection.
Like schoolteacher Thwel, a 35-year old doctor from Yangon had joined the Civil Disobedience Movement. He was consequently restricted from treating patients, since activist medical workers are boycotting government hospitals, while private clinics and hospitals risk closure if they hire them. They are also blacklisted by immigration authorities, making them unable to get passports to legally leave the country.
Professionals such as medical doctors and engineers face a higher age limit for conscription — 45 for men and 35 for women — and their term of service is three years.
"For me, the announcement of the law was the impetus to make a decision to go abroad,” said the doctor, who spoke on condition of anonymity for his safety.
The doctor said he was exploring the best ways flee abroad or to border areas controlled by the ethnic armed groups.
Ethnic resistance groups such as the Arakan Army from Rakhine state and the Shan State Progress Party have invited people to take refuge in territory they control. The Karen National Union in Kayin state in the southeast has similarly promised help.
Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government, the leading political body of the pro-democracy resistance, declared that the public is not required to comply with the conscription law, urging them instead to intensify their participation in the fight against army rule.
The Yangon region branch of its armed wing, the People’s Defense Force, announced a recruitment drive and said they received about 1,000 online applications within 12 hours.
More than 1,000 working-age Myanmar nationals are believed to be crossing into Thailand every day since conscription was announced, said Moe Kyaw of the Yaung Chi Oo Workers Association-Thailand, an aid association for Myanmar migrant workers.
“It is not a good sign that human resources and intellectuals leave a country,” he said.
He echoed other aid workers in predicting that with new waves of people entering Thailand, generally illegally, there will be increased human trafficking and related crimes, and there will be friction as the new entrants compete for jobs with as many as 3 million already employed Myanmar migrant workers.


White House Escalates Criticism of US House Speaker

US House of Representatives Speaker Mike Johnson (AFP)
US House of Representatives Speaker Mike Johnson (AFP)
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White House Escalates Criticism of US House Speaker

US House of Representatives Speaker Mike Johnson (AFP)
US House of Representatives Speaker Mike Johnson (AFP)

The White House escalated its criticism of Republican US House Speaker Mike Johnson on Friday, accusing him of benefitting Iran and Russia by not putting a national security bill that gives aid to Ukraine up for a vote.
Iran has provided Russia with a large number of powerful surface-to-surface ballistic missiles, six sources told Reuters this week, deepening the military cooperation between the two US-sanctioned countries.
Iran is “actively enabling Russia's war in Ukraine and its attacks against Ukrainian cities,” deputy press secretary and senior communications adviser Andrew Bates said in a memo viewed by Reuters.
“President Biden is standing up to Iran. But where is Speaker Johnson's supposed commitment not to 'appease Iran' in all this? Nowhere. Instead, his inaction is benefiting Putin and the Ayatollah,” the memo says.
Top Biden administration officials spent last weekend in Europe trying to soothe jitters over the prospect of US military aid to Ukraine ending, assuring counterparts from Paris, Berlin and Kyiv as the war enters its third year that Washington will somehow come through.
The Senate last week approved a $95 billion bill providing assistance for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan by an overwhelming 70-30 vote, with 22 Republicans joining most Democrats in voting in favor.
But Johnson sent the House home for a two-week recess without bringing the measure up for a vote, saying “we're not going to be forced into action by the Senate.”
Johnson says any package of international military and humanitarian assistance must also include measures to address security at the US border with Mexico after Republicans blocked a version of the bill that provided for the biggest overhaul of US immigration policy in decades.
Many senators and White House officials believe the bill would pass the House with bipartisan support if Johnson would allow the chamber to vote.


British Union of Journalists Condemns Iran for Trials against Journalists in Absentia

Britain’s National Union of Journalists (NUJ) demanded on Friday action against Iran after documents revealed secret trials of journalists working for Persian language media abroad. (BBC)
Britain’s National Union of Journalists (NUJ) demanded on Friday action against Iran after documents revealed secret trials of journalists working for Persian language media abroad. (BBC)
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British Union of Journalists Condemns Iran for Trials against Journalists in Absentia

Britain’s National Union of Journalists (NUJ) demanded on Friday action against Iran after documents revealed secret trials of journalists working for Persian language media abroad. (BBC)
Britain’s National Union of Journalists (NUJ) demanded on Friday action against Iran after documents revealed secret trials of journalists working for Persian language media abroad. (BBC)

Britain’s National Union of Journalists (NUJ) demanded on Friday action against Iran after documents revealed secret trials of journalists working for Persian language media abroad.

In a statement, NUJ said Iran has sentenced ten journalists affiliated with BBC Persian in London, along with others associated with Iran International, Manoto TV, Gem TV, Voice of America, and Prague-based Radio Farda (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty).

“Journalists were tried and convicted in absentia, and no one was even aware that the secret proceedings had taken place,” the Union noted.

Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said: “This is yet more evidence of the all-out war on Iranian journalists inside the country and abroad by the Iranian government.”

She said it was deeply shocking that a state can act in this abhorrent way, putting journalists and their families in real danger in a flagrant abuse of press freedom.

Stanistreet affirmed that the Union we will be contacting the UK’s government and the UN and “ask that the wider international community speak out against this outrageous weaponizing of journalists.”

“Particularly worrying is the use by the regime of red notices through Interpol which can inhibit the movement of these journalists, as they travel abroad for work or to meet with family in third countries,” she added.

The secret trials were revealed after the hacking group, Edalat-e Ali, published a database of Tehran Judiciary's criminal cases, which includes some details of three million public and secret cases.

None of those “convicted” journalists knew about this case until the documents were hacked and published which showed they were tried in absentia, without legal representation or access to the indictment, according to NUJ.

Earlier this week, on the eve of the launch of campaigning for Iran’s legislative elections, hackers from Edalat-e Ali announced they confiscated millions of files and documents after breaching the servers of the Iranian judiciary.

Weeks prior, the group had hacked the website of the Iranian parliament.

Edalat-e Ali had previously hacked the surveillance cameras of Iranian prisons, as well as government websites, including the website of the Iranian President.