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Belarus forces plane to land, arrests journalist, sparking outrage

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(Last Updated On: May 24, 2021)

Belarusian authorities scrambled a fighter jet and flagged what turned out to be a false bomb alert to force a Ryanair plane to land on Sunday and then detained an opposition-minded journalist who was on board, drawing condemnation from Europe and the United States.

In what was described by some EU leaders as a hijacking, the passenger plane flying from Athens to Lithuania was suddenly diverted to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, escorted there by a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet. On its landing, authorities took journalist Roman Protasevich into custody, Reuters reported.

Protasevich had his head in his hands and was shaking when he realised the flight was headed for Minsk, Lithuania’s Delfi news outlet said, quoting a passenger. Later, as he was led away, according to the report, he remarked: “I’ll get the death penalty here.” Reuters could not verify the report.

The 26-year-old journalist worked for Poland-based online news service NEXTA, which broadcast footage of mass protests against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko last year via the Telegram messenger app at a time when it was hard for foreign media to do so, Reuters reported.

Protasevich who now works for a different Telegram channel called Belamova, is wanted in Belarus on extremism charges and stands accused of organising mass riots and of inciting social hatred, allegations he denies.

Data from the flightradar24.com website showed the plane was diverted just two minutes before it was due to cross into Lithuanian airspace. After seven hours on the ground, the plane took off and finally landed in Vilnius where Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte was waiting to meet the passengers, Reuters reported.

As European officials threatened new sanctions on Belarus, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the forced landing and arrest a “shocking act,” demanded Protasevich’s immediate release and said President Joe Biden’s administration was “coordinating with our partners on next steps.”

EU member state Lithuania, where Protasevich is based, urged the European Union and NATO to respond.

Ursula von der Leyen, head of the EU’s executive European Commission, said Protasevich must be released immediately and that those responsible for “the Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned,” adding EU leaders meeting in Brussels on Monday would discuss what action to take, Reuters reported.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a tweet that the incident was serious and dangerous and required an international investigation.

Simon Coveney, foreign minister of Ireland, where Ryanair is based, said on Twitter: “EU inaction or indecision will be taken as weakness by Belarus.”

Lithuania’s foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, said he discussed the Ryanair plane diversion with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Philip Reeker, urging a strong response from the West.

The United States along with the EU, Britain and Canada have already imposed asset freezes and travel bans on almost 90 Belarusian officials, including Lukashenko, following an August election that opponents and the West say was a sham, Reuters reported.

‘ACT OF PIRACY’

U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez issued a statement with the heads of seven European parliamentary foreign affairs panels denouncing the forced landing as “an act of piracy.” They called for a ban on all overflights of Belarus, including to and from the country, and for NATO and EU states to impose sanctions and suspend Belarus’ “ability to use Interpol.”

Blinken demanded a “full investigation” of an action he said endangered the lives of the passengers, including U.S. citizens.

“Given indications the forced landing was based on false pretenses, we support the earliest possible meeting of the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization to review these events,” he said in a statement.

Lithuanian presidential adviser Asta Skaisgiryte said the operation to force the plane carrying around 170 people from 12 countries to land seemed to be pre-planned.

The Belarusian department for organised crime control reported that Protasevich had been detained, before deleting the statement from its Telegram channel.

About 35,000 people have been detained in Belarus since August, human rights groups say. Dozens have received jail terms.

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Iran urges voters to take part in Friday’s presidential election

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(Last Updated On: June 17, 2021)

Iran’s president appealed to voters to set aside their grievances and take part in a presidential election on Friday that record numbers of people are expected to boycott due to economic hardship and frustration with hardline rule.

Hardline judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi and moderate former Central Bank governor Abdolnaser Hemmati are the main contenders after the hardline Guardian Council disqualified several prominent candidates from running and others quit.

President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, urged Iranians on Thursday, as campaigning ended, not to let the “shortcomings of an institution or a group” keep them from voting, an apparent reference to the Guardian Council.

“For the time being, let’s not think about grievances tomorrow,” Rouhani said in televised remarks.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has already urged people to turn out in large numbers, saying that would help avert foreign pressures on the Islamic Republic.

Official opinion polls suggest turnout could be as low as 41%, significantly lower than in past elections.

In addition to anger over the disqualification of prominent moderates, grievances include economic hardship exacerbated by U.S. sanctions as well as official corruption, mismanagement and a crackdown on protests in 2019 triggered by rising fuel prices.

The accidental shooting down of a Ukrainian plane in Iran in January last year which killed 176 people also undermined public trust.

“Voting would be an insult to my intelligence,” 55-year-old Fatemeh said, declining to give her second name for fear of reprisals. “Raisi has already been selected by the government regardless who we vote for.”

Prominent dissidents inside and outside the country have called on fellow Iranians to snub the election, including exiled former crown prince Reza Pahlavi and opposition leader Mirhossein Mousavi, under house arrest since 2011.

On the other hand, many leading reformists have rallied behind Hemmati, including former President Mohammad Khatami, arguing that a massive boycott would guarantee a Raisi win.

Under the Iranian Constitution, the supreme leader, elected for life and responsible for choosing six of the 12-member Guardian Council, holds most of the powers of the state.

Khamenei has the final say on all matters of state and sets Iran’s foreign and nuclear policies.

The vote would have no impact on indirect talks between Tehran and Washington on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the top Iranian negotiator, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi told Al Jazeera on Thursday.

Polling stations open at 7 a.m. local time and close at 2 a.m. on Saturday. The interior minister told state TV that due to the Covid-19 pandemic, voting will take place outside at 67,000 sites across the country, with social distancing and the donning of face masks. Voters are asked to bring their own pens.

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Erdogan says after Biden talks no Turkey-U.S. problems unsolvable

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(Last Updated On: June 15, 2021)

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan sounded upbeat after his first face-to-face talks with Joe Biden, though he announced no major breakthroughs in the awkward relationship between the two allies, at odds over Russian weapons, Syria, Libya and other issues.

Erdogan characterised his talks with the new U.S. president on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Brussels as “productive and sincere”.

“We think that there are no issues within U.S.-Turkey ties, and that areas of cooperation for us are richer and larger than problems,” he said.

Turkey, with the alliance’s second-largest military, has angered its allies in the Western military alliance by buying Russian surface-to-air missiles and intervening in wars in Syria and Libya. It is also in a stand-off with Greece and Cyprus over territory in the Eastern Mediterranean.

As president, Biden has adopted a cooler tone than predecessor Donald Trump towards Erdogan. Biden quickly recognised the 1915 massacre of Armenians as genocide — a position that angers Turkey — and stepped up criticism of Turkey’s human rights record.

Washington has already removed Ankara from the F-35 fighter jet program and imposed sanctions over Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles.

One area where Erdogan hoped to showcase a central Turkish role in NATO is Afghanistan, where Ankara has offered to guard and operate Kabul airport after U.S. and NATO forces withdraw in coming weeks. NATO head Jens Stoltenberg said Turkey would play a key role but no decision was made at the Monday summit.

At the start of the main leaders’ session at NATO, Biden spoke to Erdogan at length in a small group before they took their seats.

Later in the day, the two leaders and their top aides sat mostly silently on opposite sides of a conference table, ignoring questions shouted to them by journalists briefly invited into the room.

Erdogan also met French President Emmanuel Macron. Ankara and Paris have been at odds over Syria, Libya, and Turkish criticism of the fight against what Macron calls Islamist separatism, among other issues.

“President Erdogan confirmed during our meeting his wish that the foreign mercenaries, the foreign militias, operating on Libyan soil leave as soon as possible,” Macron told a news conference afterwards.

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Israel’s new government begins, Netanyahu era ends

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(Last Updated On: June 14, 2021)

The first Israeli government in 12 years not led by Benjamin Netanyahu got down to business on Monday, with the former prime minister shying away from a handover ceremony with successor Naftali Bennett.

The right-wing leader’s record run in office ended on Sunday with parliament approving, by a razor-thin majority of 60-59, a new administration led by Bennett, a nationalist whose views mirror Netanyahu’s on many issues.

In Tel Aviv, thousands turned out to welcome the result, after four inconclusive elections in two years.

“I am here celebrating the end of an era in Israel,” said Erez Biezuner in Rabin Square.

“We want them to succeed and to unite us again,” he added, as flag-waving supporters of the new government sang and danced around him.

A combative Netanyahu, 71, said he would be back sooner than expected.

“If we are destined to go into the opposition, we will do so with our heads held high until we can topple it,” he told parliament before Bennett was sworn in.

The traditional handover ceremony was not scheduled at the prime minister’s office, where Netanyahu was expected to meet Bennett later on Monday to brief him on state matters.

The last time Netanyahu was unseated as Israel‘s leader, in 1999, he ended his first term in office with a glass of wine in his hand and affable words of welcome to then-Labour party leader Ehud Barak, who defeated him at the polls.

 

“Sour, grumpy, not stately – Trump-like until the final moment,” Yossi Verter, a political affairs commentator, wrote in the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper.

Asked why there would be no such scene now, Topaz Luk, a senior aide to Netanyahu, told Army Radio: “That’s just what happens.”

Netanyahu, he said, was “filled with motivation to topple this dangerous government as quickly as possible”. Luk declined to disclose Netanyahu’s comeback strategy, pointing only to the new administration’s slim margin of support in parliament.

Luk said the incoming government was receiving briefings from Netanyahu’s diplomatic and security advisers to ensure an orderly handover.

After holding its first meeting late on Sunday, Bennett’s new cabinet was invited for a traditional group photograph, showcasing incoming governments, at the official residence of President Reuven Rivlin.

With little in common other than a desire to unseat Netanyahu, the patchwork coalition of right-wing, centrist, left-wing and Arab parties largely plans to avoid sweeping moves on hot-button issues such as policy towards the Palestinians, and to focus instead on domestic reforms.

Palestinians were unmoved by the change of administration, predicting that Bennett, a former defence chief who advocates annexing parts of the occupied West Bank, would pursue the same right-wing agenda as Netanyahu.

Under the coalition deal, Bennett, a 49-year-old Orthodox Jew and high-tech millionaire, will be replaced as prime minister in 2023 by centrist Yair Lapid, 57, a popular former television host.

U.S. President Joe Biden congratulated Bennett and Lapid, saying he looked forward to strengthening the “close and enduring” relationship between the two countries.

Addressing parliament on Sunday, Bennett put Biden on notice that he would follow in Netanyahu’s footsteps in opposing any U.S. return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal abrogated by former President Donald Trump.

Netanyahu was Israel‘s longest-serving leader, and had served consecutive terms as prime minister since 2009.

He used his global stature to resist calls for Palestinian statehood, describing it as a danger to Israel‘s security. He sought to bypass the Palestinian issue by forging diplomatic deals with regional Arab states, on the back of shared fears of Iran and its nuclear programme.

But he was a divisive figure at home and abroad, weakened by repeated failure to clinch a decisive election victory, and by a corruption trial in which he has denied any wrongdoing.

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