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Putin warns West of harsh response if it crosses Russia’s ‘red lines’

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(Last Updated On: April 21, 2021)

Russian President Vladimir Putin warned the West on Wednesday not to cross Russia’s “red lines”, saying Moscow would respond swiftly and harshly to any provocations and those responsible would regret it.

At a time of acute crisis in ties with the United States and Europe, with Russian troops massed near Ukraine and opposition leader Alexei Navalny on hunger strike in jail, the Kremlin leader used his state of the nation speech to project a message of Russian strength and defiance in the face of outside threats.

“We want good relations…and really don’t want to burn bridges,” Putin told both houses of parliament.

“But if someone mistakes our good intentions for indifference or weakness and intends to burn down or even blow up these bridges, they should know that Russia’s response will be asymmetrical, swift and harsh.”

Russia would determine where its red line lay in each specific case, he said, comparing those who attack it to hyenas led by a tiger.

His comments came at the climax of a speech dominated by Russia’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic hardship. Putin announced new social support measures for families with children ahead of a September parliamentary election.

He adopted a sterner tone when setting out foreign policy.

“In some countries, they have developed a highly unseemly habit of picking on Russia for any reason, and most often for no reason at all – a kind of sport,” said Putin, standing alone on a vast stage flanked by white, blue and red national flags and a backdrop of a giant double-headed eagle.

“Organisers of any provocations that threaten our core security interests will regret what they have done like they’ve never regretted anything for a long time.”

Putin, who is 68 and has dominated Russia for two decades, made no mention of Navalny. The opposition politician is ill in prison after starving himself for three weeks to demand access to his own doctors.

The rouble firmed after Putin’s speech, with markets interpreting it as not escalating tensions with the West.

Recent weeks have seen an intensification of confrontation between Russia and Western countries, which are alarmed by Navalny’s worsening condition and by what they say is the massing of tens of thousands of Russian troops near Ukraine and in Russian-annexed Crimea.

Washington last week tightened sanctions on Russia over accusations of computer hacking and election interference, and the Czech Republic accused Moscow of a role in explosions at an arms depot in 2014. Both expelled Russian diplomats. Russia denied wrongdoing and responded with tit-for-tat expulsions.

Moscow summoned a senior U.S. diplomat on Wednesday and said 10 embassy staff it expelled last week had a month to leave and that it would be disclosing the details of other punitive measures it had promised soon.

Tensions are also strained over the fate of Navalny, whose supporters rallied across Russia on Wednesday in his support.

Two of Navalny’s closest allies were arrested on Wednesday, their lawyers said. Lyubov Sobol, one of the faces of Navalny’s popular YouTube channel, and Kira Yarmysh, his spokeswoman, were both detained in Moscow.

One Navalny aide, Ruslan Shaveddinov, tweeted: “Right now across the whole of Russia they are detaining potential protesters. This is repression. This cannot be accepted. We need to fight this darkness.”

European Council President Charles Michel called the arrests “deplorable” and urged Russian authorities to respect people’s right to assemble.

OVD-Info, a group that monitors protests and detentions, said that nearly 300 people had been detained over the rallies in dozens of different places. The figure was expected to climb.

The Russian government has said the gatherings are illegal. Previous pro-Navalny rallies have been dispersed by force, with thousands of arrests.

Four doctors from outside Russia’s federal prison service visited Navalny on Tuesday and found his health to be satisfactory, Russian human rights commissioner Tatyana Moskalkova said.

In his speech, Putin urged all citizens to get vaccinated and predicted that Russia would achieve collective immunity by the autumn.

On the eve of an online climate summit to be hosted by U.S. President Joe Biden, Putin also called for tougher “polluter pays” rules and set a goal for Russia to cut its greenhouse gas emissions below those of the European Union in the next 30 years.

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Afghan envoy to UN cancels speech amid uncertainty over seat

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(Last Updated On: September 28, 2021)

Afghanistan did not have a representative addressing the annual high-level United Nations General Assembly in New York, after Ghulam Isaczai, the UN envoy under the former government, withdrew on Sunday.

According to UN officials, Isaczai was due to speak on Monday.

Isaczai had been scheduled to address the final day of the general assembly.

Afghanistan’s UN mission in New York posted on Twitter that Isaczai decided not to speak “to preserve the national interests, preserve the seat of Afghanistan in the United Nations and to continue long-term cooperation with United Nations and Security Council on main issues.”

It added that Isaczai would continue “activities as usual” at the global body.

IEA Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi last week asked to address the gathering of world leaders and nominated their Doha-based spokesman Suhail Shaheen as Afghanistan’s new ambassador to the UN.

But Muttaqi was not permitted to do so as the credentials committee has not yet met to discuss the issue.

When the IEA last ruled between 1996 and 2001, the ambassador of the Afghan government they toppled remained the UN representative after the credentials committee deferred its decision on rival claims to the seat.

Eventual UN acceptance of the ambassador of the IEA would be an important step in their bid for international recognition, which could help unlock badly needed funds for the cash-strapped Afghan economy.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said that the IEA’s desire for international recognition is the only leverage other countries have to press for inclusive government and respect for rights, particularly for women, in Afghanistan.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Saturday that international recognition of the IEA was not currently under consideration.

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Pilgrims from around the world gather in Kerbala for Arbaeen

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(Last Updated On: September 28, 2021)

Masses gathered in Kerbala on Tuesday for the religious pilgrimage of Arbaeen and visited the shrines of Imam Hussein and Imam Abbas.

In a normal year, up to 20 million mostly Shi’ite Muslims take part in the Arbaeen pilgrimage in the holy city of Kerbala to commemorate Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, who was slain in battle in 680 by the Muslim Caliph of the day.

In 2020 and due to the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis, Iraqi authorities had barred entry to most foreign pilgrims, including some three million Iranians.

“Last year we were prevented from performing the pilgrimage. But now thank God, it was granted to us”, an Iranian pilgrim, Hamid Muqaddam said in Kerbala.

This year, Iraqi authorities allowed a limited number of pilgrims from abroad to enter Iraq and attend Arbaeen.

On Monday, Iraqi authorities recorded 2,447 new cases of coronavirus infections and 32 deaths.

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Pentagon leaders to face Afghanistan reckoning in Congress

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(Last Updated On: September 28, 2021)

President Joe Biden’s top military leaders are expected to face some of the most contentious hearings in memory this week over the chaotic end to the war in Afghanistan, which cost the lives of U.S. troops and civilians and left the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) back in power.

The Senate and House committees overseeing the U.S. military will hold hearings on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively, where Republicans are hoping to zero in on mistakes that Biden’s administration made toward the end of the two-decade-old war.

That will follow similar questioning two weeks ago that saw U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken staunchly defending the administration, even as he faced calls for his resignation.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is expected to praise American personnel who helped airlift 124,000 Afghans out of the country, an operation that also cost the lives of 13 U.S. troops and scores of Afghans in a suicide bombing outside the Kabul airport.

Austin is expected to “be frank about the things we could have done better,” a U.S. official told Reuters.

That will also certainly include the U.S. military’s last drone strike before withdrawing, which the Pentagon acknowledges killed 10 civilians, most of them children – and not the Daesh (ISIS-K) militants it thought it was attacking.

Ahead of the hearing, Senator James Inhofe, the Senate Armed Services Committee’s top Republican, wrote to Austin with a long list of requests for information, including on the August 26 airport bombing, equipment left behind and the administration’s future counter-terrorism plans.

Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, said lawmakers would also press about “a lack of coordination and a real plan for how we were going to get all the Afghans who helped us out of the country.”

“I don’t know if we’ll get answers. But questions will be raised again about why we got to the point that we did in Afghanistan,” she told Reuters in a telephone interview.

Many of the hardest questions may fall to the two senior U.S. military commanders testifying: Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Marine General Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command.

McKenzie called the drone strike a “tragic mistake,” one that critics say raises hard questions about America’s ability to properly identify counter-terrorism targets in Afghanistan following the U.S. withdrawal.

But McKenzie and other U.S. officials will be under pressure to defend the Biden administration’s plans to address future counter-terrorism threats from groups like al Qaeda and Islamic State by flying in drones or commandos from overseas.

Republicans have accused the Biden administration of downplaying the risks associated with that so-called “over the horizon” capability.

Separately, Milley could face intense questioning over an account in a new book alleging he bypassed civilian leaders to place secret calls to his Chinese counterpart over concerns about former President Donald Trump.

Milley’s office pushed back against the report in the book, saying the calls he made were coordinated within the Pentagon and across the U.S. government.

Senator Marco Rubio has called for his resignation. Senator Rand Paul said he should be prosecuted if the account in the book was true. But some of the greatest concern has come from lawmakers in the House, where Milley will testify on Wednesday.

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