Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has warned of the consequences of NATO’s military buildup near his country’s western borders, saying the move would provoke conflicts and cause military and political instability in the region.
“New challenges and tasks are emerging in the [Russian] border sphere and other areas,” Putin said at a meeting with members of Russia’ Security Council in Moscow on Friday.
“NATO is building up its military potential near our borders and attempts are being made to halt integration processes with Russia’s participation, provoke new and stir up old conflicts in the post-Soviet space and in regions neighboring on Russia, with all the ensuing consequences —military and political instability, the growth of smuggling and crime and acute humanitarian problems,” he said.
The Russian leader stressed that “a key task in these conditions is to ensure the reliable protection and defense of our frontiers, quickly and effectively neutralize potential threats.”
NATO member states, largely made up of Western European countries, have significantly increased their military activities near Russia’s western borders in recent years.
Russia, realizing that security threat under its nose, has held several military drills to maintain preparedness, and the NATO countries have then pointed to those drills as signs that Russia has aggressive intentions.
Russian warships have been conducting huge live-fire drills near the coast of Latvia in the Baltic Sea since April 4. Four vessels have been taking part in the drills, described by the Russian Defense Ministry as a “show of force.”
Putin sacks nearly a dozen generals weeks after re-election
Separately, the RIA Novosti news agency said in a report on Friday that Putin had removed 11 generals from Russia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Federal Penitentiary Service, the Ministry for Emergency Situations, and the Investigative Committee.
The Russian leader announced new appointments in a decree, according to the agency.
The specific reasons for the reshuffle were not available in early local reports.
Putin scored a landslide re-election victory for the fourth time with 73.9 percent of the votes on March 18.
Putin has seen his approval ratings skyrocket since the last election in 2012, with many attributing the surge in the incumbent’s popularity to his successful policies toward regional issues, particularly the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.
The 65-year-old leader was first elected in 2000 following a handover of power by then-President Boris Yeltsin, who resigned six months before the end of his tenure.
Putin has vowed to use his new term to boost Russia’s defenses against the West and to raise living standards.
The United States placed Pakistan’s Milli Muslim League political party on its list of foreign terrorist organizations on Monday, linking it with militants that the United States and India blame for the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people.
Controlled by Islamist leader Hafiz Saeed, who has a $10 million US bounty on his head, the Milli Muslim League shot to prominence after fielding a candidate in a September 2017 by-election to fill a seat vacated by deposed Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
Saeed is the founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), or Army of the Pure, which is also on the US terrorist list and blamed by the United States and India for four days of shootings and bombings in Mumbai in 2008.
Saeed has repeatedly denied involvement in the attacks.
“These designations seek to deny LeT the resources it needs to plan and carry out further terrorist attacks,” the State Department said in a statement.
“Make no mistake: whatever LeT chooses to call itself, it remains a violent terrorist group. The United States supports all efforts to ensure that LeT does not have a political voice until it gives up violence as a tool of influence,” the statement added.
Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to request for comment.
In October 2017, Pakistan’s electoral commission barred the Milli Muslim League from contesting elections, saying the party had links with militant groups and could not be registered with the commission.
In March 2018 the Islamabad High Court ordered the election commission register the party.
Under pressure from the United States, the United Nations and international institutions to crack down on terrorist financing, Pakistan drew up secret plans last December for a “takeover” of charities linked to Saeed.
Saeed has since taken the government decision to court.
Saeed was placed under house arrest in January 2017 after years of living freely in Pakistan but a court ordered his release in November 2017.
Saeed’s freedom in Pakistan, where he holds public rallies, has been a thorn in Islamabad’s relations with India and the United States.
China has traditionally been secretive North Korea’s closest ally but ties have been frayed by Kim’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and missiles and Beijing’s backing of tough U.N. sanctions in response.
Wang, a State Councillor and China’s Foreign Minister, said there had been positive changes on the peninsula and that all sides were engaging in “sincere exchanges”.
“China hopes all sides can cherish this hard to come by situation, maintain the momentum of contact and dialogue, and create conditions to smoothly restart dialogue,” Wang said during a joint news briefing with visiting Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis.
Wang said he hoped the meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump would “increase mutual understanding”.
“But historical experience tells us that at the moment of easing of the situation on the peninsula and as first light dawns on peace and dialogue, frequently all manner of disruptive factors emerge,” Wang said.
“So we call on all sides to maintain focus, eliminate interference, and firmly follow the correct path of dialogue and negotiation.”
Cassis said that he would discuss with Wang the role that Switzerland could play in the strategic meetings between Kim and “some important partners on the international level”, but he did not elaborate.
Kim pledged his commitment to denuclearization and to meet U.S. officials, China said last month after his meeting in Beijing with President Xi Jinping.
He is scheduled to meet Trump in May to discuss denuclearization, although a time and place have not been set. North and South Korea will hold their first summit in more than a decade on April 27, South Korea has said.
Kim’s predecessors, grandfather Kim Il Sung and father Kim Jong Il, both promised not to pursue nuclear weapons but secretly maintained programs to develop them, culminating in the North’s first nuclear test in 2006 under Kim Jong Il.
North Korea has said in previous, failed talks aimed at dismantling its nuclear program it could consider giving up its arsenal if the United States removed its troops from South Korea and withdrew its so-called nuclear umbrella of deterrence from South Korea and Japan.
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohamad bin Salman has declared that Israel has the right to its own land alongside Palestinians.
In an interview with the US-based The Atlantic magazine, the 32-year-old heir to the Saudi throne declared: "I believe that each people, anywhere, have a right to live in their peaceful nation."
The crown prince - commonly known by his initials, MBS - said that "there are a lot of interests" his country shares with Israel.
"Israel is a big economy compared to their size and it’s a growing economy, and of course there are a lot of interests we share with Israel and if there is peace, there would be a lot of interest between Israel and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and countries like Egypt and Jordan."
MBS also said that while his country has "religious concerns" about the holy mosque in Jerusalem and the rights of Palestinians, it has no objection "against any other people".
"I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land. But we have to have a peace agreement to assure the stability for everyone and to have normal relations."
MBS also said Saudi Arabia "does not have a problem" with anti-Semitism, saying that Islam's Prophet Muhammad "even married a Jewish woman".
Saudi Arabia and Israel have no formal diplomatic relationship.
Riyadh has long maintained that a peace agreement with Israel should be based on the 1967 demarcation line established before Palestinian lands were usurped during the Six-Day War.
Recent developments in Riyadh, however, have indicated that ties between the two countries are warming up.
In March, Saudi Arabia granted India's national carrier a permission to use its airspace to operate a direct flight between New Delhi and Tel Aviv.
The move ends a decades-long ban by Saudi Arabia on the use of its airspace for flights to Israel.
Israel's Communications Minister Ayoub Kara also invited Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti, Abdul Aziz Al Sheikh, to visit Israel.
While visiting the United States, MBS also met with several Jewish groups and pro-Israel lobbies.
Russian and Syrian military officers have told rebels in a besieged area northeast of Damascus they must accept state rule or leave, the spokesman for one rebel group said on Tuesday.
The ultimatum to the rebels of eastern Qalamoun was served to civilians from the area during a meeting with a Russian colonel and an officer from the Syrian Air Force Intelligence, rebel spokesman Said Saif of the Martyr Ahmad Abdo told Reuters.
The area is 40 km (25 miles) outside Damascus and separate from eastern Ghouta, which is directly adjacent to the capital and where Russian-backed government forces have wiped out rebel resistance.
“A clear message was sent to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups in the area: either reconciliation and disarmament - handing weapons to the Syrian government as the Russians describe it - or departing eastern Qalamoun,” Saif said in separate comments to al-Hadath TV.
The Syrian military could not immediately be reached for comment.
The Syrian government is seeking to crush the last few rebel enclaves near Damascus after routing insurgents in eastern Ghouta, which was the last big opposition stronghold near the capital.
The eastern Qalamoun rebel enclave includes a few towns and an expanse of desert territory.
Saif said a proposal had been made under which rebels would withdraw from the towns into the mountains and civilians would stay, and Russia’s response was being awaited. He said the aim was to avoid the “forced displacement” of people that had occurred in other areas recovered by the Syrian government.
In the mean times, Russia’s defense ministry said on Tuesday that more than 40,000 civilians who had fled Syria’s eastern Ghouta have returned, Interfax agency reported.
The government offensive on Ghouta has been one of the deadliest of the war, killing more than 1,600 civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The government says it is restoring security to Damascus, which was regularly shelled from eastern Ghouta during the war.
In the past 24 hours, 1,123 rebel fighters and their families have left the town of Douma in eastern Ghouta, Interfax citied the Russian Ministry of Defence.
China suspended tariff concessions on 128 items of US products including pork and fruits started Monday, according to the Ministry of Finance.
The Customs Tariff Commission of the State Council has decided to impose a tariff of 15 percent on 120 items of products imported from the United States including fruits and related products, and a tariff of 25 percent on eight items of imports including pork and related products from the country, according to a statement published on the ministry website.
The statement said it was a countermeasure in response to a previous US move to slap tariffs on steel and aluminum imports.
Despite worldwide objections, the US administration decided to impose a 25-percent tariff on steel imports and a 10-percent tariff on aluminum, with tariffs on imports from countries including China.
Although in violation of WTO rules, the US measure went into effect in March 23, which has severely undermined China's interests, according to the statement.
China advocates and supports a multilateral trade system, the ministry said, noting that to suspend tariff concession on US imports is a just move to safeguard China's interests using WTO rules.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has slammed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over his comments targeting Turkey's ongoing military operation in the northwestern Syrian region of Afrin.
His remarks on Sunday came in response to Netanyahu's earlier comments rejecting Ankara's "moral lessons" over the Israeli army's killing of Palestinian protesters in Gaza, and labeling Erdogan as someone who "bombs Kurdish villagers".
"He says our soldiers are oppressing people in Afrin. Netanyahu, you are very weak, very poor," Erdogan told the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) congress in the southern Adana province.
"We are dealing with terrorists, but you are not. Because you are a terror state," Erdogan added.
Calling the Israeli prime minister "an occupier" in Palestine, Erdogan said: "You are also a terrorist. History is recording what you have done to all those oppressed Palestinians ... We are not guilty of any act of occupation."
At least 17 Palestinians were killed and more than 1,500 were wounded on Friday when Israeli forces opened fire on "Land Day" protesters near the Gaza Strip's eastern border.
Land Day is an event commemorating six Palestinian citizens of Israel who were shot dead by Israeli forces after protesting the government's confiscation of large swaths of Palestinian land on March 30, 1976.
On Saturday, Erdogan "strongly" condemned "the Israeli government over its inhumane attack" in Gaza.
Friday's rallies were also the start of a six-week protest that culminates on May 15, the day the Palestinians call "Nakba," or the Catastrophe, when Israel was officially declared a state 70 years ago and more than 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes.
The demonstrators are demanding that Palestinian refugees be allowed the right of return to towns and villages which their families fled from, or were driven out of, in 1948.
Turkey - together with the Syrian opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebel group - last month launched an air-and-ground operation into Afrin to vanquish the US-backed Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fighters near its border.
Dalits in India are staging nationwide protests against the Supreme Court's ruling, which activists say will likely dilute the provisions of Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.
Thouands of people have joined peaceful protests and sit-ins as part of the Bharat Bandh, demanding the government to challenge the top court's verdict that banned arrest and registration of cases for alleged harassment of SCs and STs.
Under the Act, passed by the government of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1989, the accused is denied bail.
Rights activists and Dalit organisations say caste-based atrocities involve denigrating the dignity of Dalits - the former untouchables - and hence a special law is required.
Caste discrimination is outlawed but it remains widespread. A young Dalit farmer was beaten to death for owning a horse in western Gujarat state, police said on Saturday.
The body of 21-year-old Pradeep Rathod was found in a pool of blood near Timbi village late on Thursday. Police have arrested three upper caste men as part of the investigation.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, the rate of crimes against Dalits, who number more than 200 million, has risen in recent years.
Dalit organisations say the Supreme Court ruling was shocking even as the conviction rate for such crimes has declined over the years.
The opposition called the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi anti-Dalit. The leader of the main opposition Congress party, Rahul Gandhi, in a twitter post said that it was in the DNA of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), to keep Dalits at the lowest rung of the society.
Under huge political pressure, the government said it would seek review of the Supreme Court order.
The northern Punjab state, with sizable population of Dalits, suspended internet until 11pm on Monday and has requested the army to remain on standby, according to the Indian Express newspaper.
Protests have also been organized in the states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Bihar and Jharkhand.
At least one person was reportedly killed in Morena district of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh as the protest turned violent on Monday morning.
Meanwhile the apex court refused for an urgent hearing on a plea for stay and review of its verdict.
The most powerful Syrian rebel faction on the fringes of Damascus began abandoning its stronghold in the once rebel-held enclave of eastern Ghouta on Monday, setting the stage for the final chapter of the government’s relentless offensive to fully retake the area after seven years of revolt.
The first fighters from the Army of Islam left the town of Douma in the morning hours as part of an evacuation deal that will hand the town to the Syrian government, reported the state SANA news agency.
The rebels were headed to Jarablus, a town in northern Syria where control of the territory is shared between Syrian rebels and Turkish forces.
The Syrian government dispatched more than 50 buses to Douma to take the rebels out, SANA reported. By midday, only a handful had left for the north in three buses.
There was no immediate comment from the Army of Islam. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the civil war through a network of activists on the ground, also reported the evacuation.
Rami Abdurrahman, the Observatory’s director, said some factions within the Army of Islam oppose evacuating and effectively surrendering Douma to the government of President Bashar Assad.
The deal over Douma would mark the end of a weeks-long push by Assad’s forces to consolidate their control over eastern Ghouta, just outside the capital.
Douma was one of the earliest centers of the anti-government demonstrations that swept through the country in March 2011. Syrian government forces responded by putting the town and other suburbs around Damascus under siege, bombing hospitals and residential areas, and blocking the entry of food and medical relief.
Local activists have said that over 100,000 civilians were trapped inside Douma, which suffered devastating damage.
The most recent Syrian air and ground offensive on eastern Ghouta, supported Russia’s military, has killed at least 1,600 people, according to the Observatory. More than 120,000 others have fled their homes and sought safety with the government, according to Russia’s military operation in Syria.
Russia is a key backer of Assad.
Over the past weeks, as Syrian forces reclaimed towns and villages in eastern Ghouta, they gave rebels and all men of fighting age the choice of accepting amnesty and serving in the Syrian military conscription, or leaving to go to the north of Syria. Thousands chose the north, taking with them their families.
More than 40,000 Syrian rebels and their family members have relocated to rebel-held north Syria, according to the Russian military.
Turkey, with support from rebels, is running its own military operations against a US-backed Kurdish militia in northern Syria, which controls territory along the frontier.
On Sunday, the Syrian government-linked Central Military Media outlet said that once the evacuations are completed, a local council for Douma will be formed with the approval of the central government.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova says she thinks the main objective of a recent diplomatic war on Moscow initiated by the United Kingdom is to cancel Russia’s holding of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
The UK has accused Russia of being behind the March 4 poisoning of a former Russian double spy in the British city of Salisbury. Moscow has denied any involvement. Yet, several Western or Western-backed countries have joined the chorus, bashing Moscow over the poisoning, and expelling various numbers of Russian diplomats.
“It’s my impression that all they care about is taking the World Cup out of Russia,” Zakharova told Russia’s Channel 5 TV, as quoted by Sputnik news agency on Sunday.
“I have such an impression that… [some Western countries are only dreaming of] moving the World Cup from Russia… by all means. Everything is focused on that soccer ball, which, heaven forbid, will eventually touch the Russian football field,” she added.
The British royal family has already decided not to attend the event in Russia over the poisoning; and Boris Johnson, the UK foreign secretary, has compared Russia’s hosting of the 2018 FIFA World Cup to Nazi Germany’s hosting of the Olympics in 1936.
British lawmakers have suggested that the FIFA World Cup in Russia be postponed until after an investigation into the Salisbury incident or be moved to another country.
Scores of Russian diplomats have been asked to leave more than 25 countries over the past days in an apparently coordinated attempt against Russia. Britain has expelled 23 Russian diplomatic personnel.
Moscow has been responding in kind, ordering scores of foreign diplomats from more than two dozen “unfriendly” states to leave Russia.
The UK claims the nerve agent allegedly used in the poisoning of Sergei Skripal — the former Russian double agent — was Novichok, which was developed in the former Soviet Union, basing its accusations against Moscow on that assertion.
Moscow says the substance could have originated in the countries studying Novichok, including the UK itself, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Sweden.