Sober or bright? Europe faces holidays during energy crunch

VERONA, Italy (AP) — Early season merrymakers sipping mulled wine and shopping for holiday decorations packed the Verona Christmas market for its inaugural weekend. But beyond the wooden market stalls, the Italian city still has not decked out its granite-clad pedestrian streets with twinkling holiday lights as officials debate how bright to make the season during an energy crisis.

In cities across Europe, officials are wrestling with a choice as energy prices have gone up because of Russia’s war in Ukraine: Dim Christmas lighting to send a message of energy conservation and solidarity with citizens squeezed by higher utility bills and inflation, while protecting public coffers. Or let the lights blaze in a message of defiance after two years of pandemic-suppressed Christmas seasons, illuminating cities with holiday cheer that retailers hope will loosen people’s purse strings.

“If they take away the lights, they might as well turn off Christmas,” said Estrella Puerto, who sells traditional Spanish mantillas, or women’s veils, in a small store in Granada, Spain, and says Christmas decorations draw business.

Fewer lights are sparkling from the centerpiece tree at the famed Strasbourg Christmas market, which attracts 2 million people every year, as the French city seeks to reduce public energy consumption by 10% this year.

From Paris to London, city officials are limiting hours of holiday illumination, and many have switched to more energy-efficient LED lights or renewable energy sources. London’s Oxford Street shopping district hopes to cut energy consumption by two-thirds by limiting the illumination of its lights to 3-11 p.m. and installing LED bulbs.

“Ecologically speaking, it’s the only real solution,’’ said Paris resident Marie Breguet, 26, as she strolled the Champs-Elysees, which is being lit up only until 11:45 p.m., instead of 2 a.m. as in Christmases past. “The war and energy squeeze is a reality. No one will be hurt with a little less of the illuminations this year.”

It’s lights out along Budapest’s Andrassy Avenue, often referred to as Hungary’s Champs-Elysees, which officials decided would not be bathed in more than 2 kilometers (1.5 miles) of white lights as in years past. Lighting also is being cut back on city landmarks, including bridges over the Danube River.

“Saving on decorative lighting is about the fact that we are living in times when we need every drop of energy,’’ said Budapest’s deputy mayor, Ambrus Kiss.

He doesn’t think economizing on lighting will dissuade tourists from coming to the city, which holds two Christmas markets that attract hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.

“I think it’s an overblown debate,’’ he said.

Festive lights, composed of LEDs this year, also will be dimmed from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m. in the old city center of Brasov in central Romania and switched off elsewhere, officials said.

The crisis, largely spurred by Russia cutting off most natural gas to Europe, is sparking innovation. In the Italian mountain town of Borno, in Lombardy, cyclists will provide power to the town’s Christmas tree by fueling batteries with kinetic energy. Anyone can hop on, and the faster they pedal, the brighter the lights. No holiday lighting will be put up elsewhere in town to raise awareness about energy conservation, officials said.

In Italy, many cities traditionally light Christmas trees in public squares on Dec. 8, the Assumption holiday, still allowing time to come up with plans for festive street displays. Officials in the northern city of Verona are discussing limiting lighting to just a few key shopping streets and using the savings to help needy families.

“In Verona, the atmosphere is there anyway,’’ said Giancarlo Peschiera, whose shop selling fur coats overlooks Verona’s Piazza Bra, where officials on Saturday will light a huge shooting star arching from the Roman-era Arena amphitheater into the square.

The city also will put up a Christmas tree in the main piazza and a holiday cake maker has erected light-festooned trees in three other spots.

“We can do without the lights. There are the Christmas stalls, and shop windows are decked for the holidays,” Peschiera said.

After two Christmases under COVID-19 restrictions, some are calling “bah humbug” on conservation efforts.

“It’s not Christmas all year round,’’ said Parisian Alice Betout, 39. “Why can’t we just enjoy the festive season as normal, and do the (energy) savings the rest of the year?”

The holiday will shine brightly in Germany, where the year-end season is a major boost to retailers and restaurants. Emergency cutbacks announced this fall specifically exempted religious lighting, “in particular Christmas,’’ even as environmental activists called for restraint.

“Many yards look like something out of an American Christmas film,’’ grumbled Environmental Action Germany.

In Spain, the northwestern port city of Vigo is not letting the energy crisis get in the way of its tradition of staging the country’s most extravagant Christmas light display. Ahead of other cities, Vigo switched on the light show Nov. 19 in what has become a significant tourist attraction.

Despite the central government urging cities to reduce illuminations, this year’s installation is made up of 11 million LED lights across more than 400 streets — 30 more than last year and far more than any other Spanish city. In a small contribution to energy savings, they will remain on for one hour less each day.

The lights are Mayor Abel Caballero’s pet project. “If we didn’t celebrate Christmas, (Russian President Vladimir) Putin would win,” he said.

Caballero says the economic return is vital, both for commerce and for businesses in Vigo. Hotels in the city and the surrounding area were completely full for the launch of the lighting and are expected to be close to 100% every week.

Germany’s Christmas markets have crunched numbers that could make any lighting Grinch’s heart grow at least three sizes.

The market exhibitor’s association said a family Christmas market visit consumes less energy than staying home. A family of four spending an hour to cook dinner on an electric stove, streaming a two-hour film, running a video console and lighting the kids’ rooms would use 0.711 kilowatt-hour per person vs. 0.1 to 0.2 kilowatt-hour per person to stroll a Christmas market.

“If people stay at home, they don’t sit in the corner in the dark,’’ said Frank Hakelberg, managing director of the German Showmen’s Association. “The couch potatoes use more energy than when they are out at a Christmas market.”

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Associated Press reporters Thomas Adamson in Paris; David McHugh in Frankfurt, Germany; Ciaran Gilles in Madrid; Justin Spike in Budapest; Giovanna Dell’Orto in Granada, Spain; Courtney Bonnell in London; and Stephen McGrath in Brasov, Romania, contributed.

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Xi tells Kim China willing to work with N.Korea for ‘world peace’: KCNA

Chinese President Xi Jinping told North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that Beijing was willing to work with Pyongyang for world peace, North Korean state media said Saturday.

The message from Xi came days after North Korea fired an intercontinental ballistic missile in one of its most powerful tests yet, declaring it would meet perceived US nuclear threats with nukes of its own.

North Korea has conducted a record-breaking blitz of missile launches in recent weeks and fears have grown that it is building up to a seventh nuclear test, its first since 2017.

In his message to Kim, Xi said Beijing was ready to work with the North for “peace, stability, development and prosperity of the region and the world,” Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported.

Xi said he was willing to collaborate with Pyongyang as “changes in the world, times, and history are taking place in unprecedented ways,” KCNA said, quoting from the message it said was received in response to congratulations from Kim after the Chinese Communist Party Congress last month handed Xi a third term.

Days before North Korea’s ICBM launch, Xi met on the sidelines of a Group of 20 summit in Bali with US President Joe Biden, who voiced confidence that Beijing does not want to see a further escalation by Pyongyang.

Washington has said it wants China, Pyongyang’s most important ally and economic benefactor, to use its influence to help rein in North Korea.

The November 18 missile launch appeared to be Pyongyang’s newest ICBM with the potential range to hit the US mainland.

The UN Security Council convened an open meeting over the launch, with the United States, Britain, France and India among 14 nations to “strongly condemn” Pyongyang’s actions.

But a Western diplomat told AFP that China and Russia had chosen not to put their names to Monday’s statement.

Earlier this month, the United States accused Beijing and Moscow of protecting Pyongyang from further punishment.

In May, China and Russia vetoed a US-led effort to tighten sanctions on North Korea in response to earlier launches.

Pyongyang is already under multiple sets of international sanctions over its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, and China accounts for more than 90 percent of the impoverished country’s bilateral trade.

cdl/mtp

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Wildlife conference boosts protection for sharks, turtles

PANAMA CITY (AP) — An international wildlife conference moved to enact some of the most significant protection for shark species targeted in the fin trade and scores of turtles, lizards and frogs whose numbers are being decimated by the pet trade.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, known by its initials as CITES, ended Friday in Panama. Along with protections for over 500 species, delegates at the United Nations wildlife conference rejected a proposal to reopen the ivory trade. An ivory ban was enacted in 1989.

“Good news from CITES is good news for wildlife as this treaty is one of the pillars of international conservation, imperative at ensuring countries unite at combatting the global interrelated crises of biodiversity collapse, climate change, and pandemics,” said Susan Lieberman, the vice president of international policy at Wildlife Conservation Society.

“Many of the proposals adopted here reflect there is ongoing over-exploitation and unsustainable trade, and escalating illegal trade, and some are due to complex interactions of other threats reducing species populations in the wild, including climate change, disease, infrastructure development, and habitat loss,” she added.

The international wildlife trade treaty, which was adopted 49 years ago in Washington, D.C., has been praised for helping stem the illegal and unsustainable trade in ivory and rhino horns as well as in whales and sea turtles.

But it has come under fire for its limitations, including its reliance on cash-strapped developing countries to combat illegal trade that’s become a lucrative $10 billion-a-year business.

One of the biggest achievement this year was increasing or providing protection for more than 90 shark species, including 54 species of requiem sharks, the bonnethead shark, three species of hammerhead shark and 37 species of guitarfish. Many had never before had trade protection and now, under Appendix II, the commercial trade will be regulated.

Global shark populations are declining, with annual deaths due to fisheries reaching about 100 million. The sharks are sought mostly for their fins, which are used in shark fin soup, a popular delicacy in China and elsewhere in Asia.

“These species are threatened by the unsustainable and unregulated fisheries that supply the international trade in their meat and fins, which has driven extensive population declines,” Rebecca Regnery, senior director for wildlife at Humane Society International, said in a statement. “With Appendix II listing, CITES Parties can allow trade only if it is not detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild, giving these species help they need to recover from over-exploitation.”

The conference also enacted protections for dozens of species of turtle, lizard and frogs including glass frogs whose translucent skin made them a favorite in the pet trade. Several species of song birds also got trade protection.

“Already under immense ecological pressure resulting from habitat loss, climate change and disease, the unmanaged and growing trade in glass frogs is exacerbating the already existing threats to the species,” Danielle Kessler, the U.S. country director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said in a statement. “This trade must be regulated and limited to sustainable levels to avoid compounding the multiple threats they already face.”

But some of the more controversial proposals weren’t approved.

Some African countries and conservation groups had hoped to ban the trade in hippos. But it was opposed by the European Union, some African countries and several conservation groups, who argue many countries have healthy hippo populations and that trade isn’t a factor in their decline.

“Globally cherished mammals such as rhinos, hippos, elephants and leopards didn’t receive increased protections at this meeting while a bunch of wonderful weirdos won conservation victories,” Tanya Sanerib, international legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “In the midst of a heart-wrenching extinction crisis, we need global agreement to fight for all species, even when it’s contentious.”

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Vladimir Putin tells mothers of Russian soldiers killed in unprovoked Ukraine war: ‘I share your pain’

Vladimir Putin said he empathizes with the mothers of Russian soldiers he sent to die in an unprovoked attack on Ukraine.

With cameras rolling, the embattled Russian leader addressed a carefully curated gathering of more than a dozen grieving moms at the Kremlin Friday.

The 70-year-old president said nothing can take the place of a lost son. “I would like you to know that I personally, and the whole leadership of the country, we share your pain,” he said.

U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley estimates Russia and Ukraine have each lost 100,000 troops in the past ten months of fighting. By most accounts, Russia has greatly underperformed during its invasion, with a cold winter on the way.

Still not calling the fighting in Ukraine a “war,” Putin warned his audience not to believe dispatches from the battle front.

“Life is more difficult and diverse that what is shown on TV screens or even on the Internet,” he said. “There are many fakes, cheating, lies there.”

Putin claimed he’d spoken to Russian troops and found them to be in good spirits, despite reports to the contrary.

U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace told the Daily Beast Russian troops were “demoralized, poorly trained (and) poorly equipped” and urged Ukraine, which has been launching aggressive counter-offenses, to keep up the intensity.

“It would be in the Ukraine’s interest to maintain momentum through the winter,” Wallace said.

Some mothers’ groups took to social media to complain they’d been unable to get an audience with the man who sent their children to war. Sunday is Mother’s Day in Russia.

With News Wire Services

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The Kenyans lured to become unwitting ‘love’ fraudsters

Person tapping on a phone screen

In our series of letters from African journalists, Waihiga Mwaura from Kenya’s Citizen TV looks at how Kenyans are being scammed by trafficking cartels posing as job recruitment agents.

Short presentational grey line

Short presentational grey line

If something looks too good to be true, it probably is. That was the message from Kenya’s foreign affairs ministry when it warned job seekers who were attracted by the promise of greener pastures in south-east Asia.

It follows the rescue of more than 60 Kenyans from Myanmar and Laos over the last few months – after the sales and customer service jobs they applied for in Thailand turned out to be a cover for cyber-crime, prostitution and even organ theft.

“Already one young Kenyan has died as a result of a botched operation by quack doctors operating in the Chinese-run factories in Myanmar,” the ministry said last week.

I spoke to two women about their recent experiences. Requesting anonymity, a 31-year-old, who has a a diploma in hotel management, and a 35-year-old high school graduate told me how they had left for jobs in Thailand in August with a promise of a monthly salary of $800 (£675).

A month before their departure they each had borrowed nearly $2,000 to pay their agents for the trip and underwent a short training session.

Yet upon arrival in Thailand their handlers took them on a long journey by road, eventually crossing a river into neighbouring Laos.

They ended up in a 15-storey building, which became their full-time residence – although they did not know in which town or city they were located.

It was here they learnt that instead of customer service roles, they were there to engage in cyber-crime activities – namely to target Americans by creating enticing profiles on Tinder, Instagram and Facebook.

"It is young and educated Africans who were being targeted by the cartels as they are considered best to able to undertake the cybercrime work"", Source: Waihiga Mwaura, Source description: Kenyan journalist, Image: Waihiga Mwaura

“It is young and educated Africans who were being targeted by the cartels as they are considered best to able to undertake the cybercrime work””, Source: Waihiga Mwaura, Source description: Kenyan journalist, Image: Waihiga Mwaura

“They fall in love with you and you can tell them about crypto-currency. You start stealing from them,” the 31-year-old woman said, describing in Swahili how they were both forced to work in a vast call centre-like hall with hundreds of others made up of a variety of nationalities.

Neither of them received their promised salary and instead were threatened with sex work or organ harvesting if they failed to lure enough victims online.

“As a woman you may be forced into sex trafficking. If that does not work they may harvest your organs and sell them to refund their costs,” she explained, her companion assenting as she spoke.

“They told us: ‘You must pay 1.2m Kenyan shillings ($10,000) to buy your freedom because we own you.”

‘Fraud factories’

Luckily the pair managed to make online contact with Awareness Against Human Trafficking (Haart), a Kenyan charity that helps migrants in trouble, and they were eventually rescued and flown home with the help of UN and Kenyan authorities.

Their story matches that of other Kenyans held in what the foreign ministry has called “fraud factories” and “forced labour camps” where “their passports are normally confiscated and remain under the custody of the criminal gang”.

It said even though many of the recruitment agents were wanted by the police, they were still advertising non-existent jobs in Thailand and Kenyans continued to fall prey to the scams.

Some of those rescued had returned home on crutches with broken limbs “after being severely beaten by up to 20 gang members operating in the factories”.

According to the latest foreign ministry statement, some of the Kenyans in Myanmar appear to be in Kachin state, where rebel separatists are fighting the military – something that was hampering rescue efforts.

Map

Map

“Recent army operations killed over 60 people in the area controlled by rebel groups, who provide protection to the Chinese cartels,” the ministry warned.

In total 76 victims, including 10 Ugandans and one Burundian, have been repatriated since August with the help of officials at Kenya’s embassy in Thailand.

It is young and educated Africans who were being targeted by the cartels as they are considered best to able to undertake the cybercrime work.

This points to the dire lack of employment opportunities on the continent and how successive governments promise jobs to their people but fail to deliver.

The African Development Bank estimates that while more than 12 million young people enter the workforce in Africa each year, only three million formal jobs are created annually.

According to research by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, 80% of Africans who leave the continent – especially those heading towards Europe – do so looking for work.

Those who are lucky enough to find jobs are able to send money home to support family members.

Yet all too frequently they end up in difficult situations. The revelations of the south-east Asia job scams follow continuing reports of the mistreatment of African migrants in the Middle East.

The two young women I spoke to are now left with huge debts – and are in a worse situation than they were five months ago.

The 35-year-old has found work in a hair salon, but her companion has yet to find another job.

More Letters from Africa:

Follow us on Twitter @BBCAfrica, on Facebook at BBC Africa or on Instagram at bbcafrica

A composite image showing the BBC Africa logo and a man reading on his smartphone.

A composite image showing the BBC Africa logo and a man reading on his smartphone.



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Merkel says she lost sway with Russia as a lame duck: ‘For Putin, only power counts’

Former German leader Angela Merkel says her decision to step down as chancellor last year caused her to lose sway with Russia in the months leading up to its invasion of Ukraine.

“The feeling was very clear: ‘In terms of power politics, you are through,’” Merkel said in a recent interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, according to Insider. “For [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, only power counts.”

Merkel stepped down as chancellor in December 2021 after 16 years in the role. Less than three months after she officially retired, Russia invaded Ukraine, initiating a war that has now dragged on for nine months.

“I no longer had the power to push my ideas through because everyone knew ‘she’ll be gone by autumn,’” she said, The Guardian reported.

During her final months in office in the summer of 2021, Merkel said she and French President Emmanuel Macron unsuccessfully attempted to set up talks between the European Union and Putin over tensions with Ukraine.

Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals from BestReviews:

Merkel also noted that Putin chose to include Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in his final meeting with her in August 2021, even though they had previously met one-on-one.

For the latest news, weather, sports, and streaming video, head to The Hill.

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US official urges ‘de-escalation’ as Turkey strikes Syria

BEIRUT (AP) — A U.S. official in Syria on Friday called for an “immediate de-escalation” following days of deadly airstrikes and shelling along the Syria-Turkey border, saying the actions destabilize the region and undermine the fight against the Islamic State group.

Turkey this week launched a wave of airstrikes on suspected Kurdish rebels hiding in neighboring Syria and Iraq, in retaliation for a deadly Nov. 13 bombing in Istanbul that Ankara blames on the Kurdish groups.

The groups have denied involvement in the bombing and say the Turkish strikes have killed civilians and threatened the anti-IS fight.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, said that 67 civilians, gunmen and soldiers, have been killed in Turkish attacks in northern Syria since the airstrikes began.

Nikolas Granger, who is with the U.S. Central Command — or CENTCOM — and is currently in Syria, said Washington “strongly opposes military action that further destabilizes the lives of communities and families in Syria and we want immediate de-escalation.”

The developments are “unacceptably dangerous and we are deeply concerned,” he said, and added that the strikes also endanger U.S. military personnel.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened a new land invasion of northern Syria targeting Kurdish groups. On Friday, he said Turkey would continue its “struggle against all kinds of terror inside and outside our borders.”

Turkey and the United States both consider the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a terror group for the decadeslong insurgency and attacks the group has staged within Turkey’s borders.

But they disagree on the status of the main Kurdish militia in Syria, the People’s Protection Units, or YPG. The Syrian Kurdish group has been a key U.S. ally in the fight against IS.

Turkey has carried out three major incursions into northern Syria since 2016 and its forces still control part of the country.

Kurdish officials in Syria have been warning that any new Turkish incursion would disrupt the fight against IS, which still has sleeper cells and has carried out deadly attacks in recent months against the Syrian Kurdish-led opposition forces as well as Syrian government forces.

“We take these threats seriously and prepare to confront any ground attacks,” Siamand Ali, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces told The Associated Press.

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Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, and Hogir Al Abdo in Qamishli, Syria, contributed to this report.

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Putin tells Russian mothers he shares ‘pain’ of soldier deaths

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday told a group of mothers whose sons are fighting in Ukraine that he shares the pain of those who have lost loved ones in the conflict.

The carefully choreographed meeting at Putin’s residence took place as anger simmers in Russia over a chaotic military draft and deaths of soldiers in Ukraine.

At least one woman at the meeting wore a black headscarf, apparently marking a recent loss.

“I want you to know — I personally and the entire leadership of the country share this pain,” Putin told the group ahead of Mother’s Day, which is celebrated in Russia on Sunday.

“We understand that nothing can replace the loss of a son, a child,” Putin said.

He offered condolences to one of the women saying her son did not die “in vain” and reiterated his pledge to fulfil Moscow’s goals in Ukraine.

Russian authorities have introduced legislation that effectively bans any public criticism of the offensive. Kremlin critics accuse authorities of concealing the real number of dead and wounded Russian troops.

Putin told the 17 women that Moscow was fighting the “neo-Nazi regime” in Ukraine and warned that they should be wary of what they read on the internet.

“It is clear that life is more complex than what is shown on our TV screens or even on the internet, nothing can be trusted there,” he said.

– ‘Answer our questions’ –

He also denounced what he called attempts by “the enemy” to “devalue (and) compromise” Moscow’s tactics in Ukraine.

Anger and concern have built across Russia since September, when the Kremlin announced that hundreds of thousands of well-trained and well-equipped men would be conscripted and sent to the battlefield to bolster Moscow’s struggling campaign in Ukraine.

But chaos ensued, with widespread reports of exempted men — the elderly or infirm — being dispatched to the front or conscripts dying after receiving nearly no training, forcing the Kremlin to concede “mistakes”.

The meeting — the first of its kind since Putin launched the offensive on February 24 — is a sign that the Kremlin takes the growing malaise seriously.

Ahead of Putin’s meeting, some activists said the get-together would not offer a platform for frank discussion.

“The president will meet with some mothers pulled out of his pocket, who will ask the right questions and thank him,” said Olga Tsukanova, an activist mother.

“I’m not alone. Invite us, Vladimir Vladimirovich, answer our questions!” she told AFP ahead of the meeting.

Tsukanova was not invited to meet Putin.

– ‘Muddy trenches’ –

National television broadcast some critical comments from mothers who attended the meeting, however.

One woman, whose husband and two sons went to fight in Ukraine, said there were not enough camouflage robes.

“The uniform becomes unusable very quickly, the trenches are muddy and damp,” she added in televised remarks.

Another mother was shown on TV thanking Putin for “taking care” of the women.

Anger over the fate of mobilised men has put the Kremlin in an uncomfortable position, analysts say.

While authorities have unleashed an unprecedented crackdown on political dissent, the word of mothers appears sacred in Russia.

Imprisoning them is not an option, observers say.

Two wars in Chechnya led to the rise of the mothers’ movement in Russia that became a thorn in the Kremlin’s side.

But this time the climate is different, with no independent media left in the country.

– ‘Not a peace movement’ –

This means there has been little public questioning of the military campaign in Ukraine. But in Russia some are asking questions about the conditions in which their husbands and sons are sent to fight.

Mothers’ and wives’ status as relatives of mobilised men serving the country gives them a form of protection.

“There is a subconscious feeling that women have that right” to hold power to account, sociologist Alexei Levinson of the independent Levada Centre said.

“But this is not a women for peace movement,” he warned.

“They want the state to fulfil its responsibility as a ‘collective father’ towards the mobilised.”

For now, the soldiers’ mothers’ movement is uncoordinated and disparate, mainly consisting of worried relatives posting videos on social media.

In a climate of suspicion not seen since the Soviet era, many women fear that complaining about the offensive could mean trouble and refrain from speaking to the foreign press.

“We have sent letters to authorities,” one woman told AFP anonymously.

“It’s not the journalists that will take our guys out of the trenches and we do not want to harm them even more.”

bur/jm

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Putin decries media ‘lies’ at meeting with soldiers’ mothers

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday hit out at what he said were skewed media portrayals of Moscow’s military campaign in Ukraine as he met with mothers of Russian soldiers fighting there.

“Life is more difficult and diverse that what is shown on TV screens or even on the Internet. There are many fakes, cheating, lies there”, Putin said.

The meeting in the Kremlin with more than a dozen women came as uncertainty persists over whether enlistment efforts may resume in the face of recent battlefield setbacks.

Putin said that he sometimes speaks with troops directly by telephone, according to a Kremlin transcript and photos of the meeting.

“I’ve spoken to (troops) who surprised me with their mood, their attitude to the matter. They didn’t expect these calls from me… (the calls) give me every reason to say that they are heroes,” Putin said.

Some soldiers’ relatives have complained of not being invited to the meeting and have directly criticized Putin’s leadership as well as the recent “partial mobilization” that defense officials said resulted in 300,000 reservists being called up.

Olga Tsukanova of the Council of Mothers and Wives, a movement formed by relatives of mobilized soldiers, said in a video message on the Telegram messaging app authorities have ignored queries and requests from her organization.

“We are here in Moscow, ready to meet with you. We are waiting for your reply,” she said, addressing Putin directly.

“We have men in the ministry of defense, in the military prosecutor’s office, powerful guys in the presidential administration… and mothers on the other side. Will you start a dialogue or will you hide?,” she said in her message. Unconfirmed reports by some Russian media outlets suggested that some of the women meeting with Putin on Friday were members of pro-Kremlin social movements, the ruling United Russia party, or local officials backing Putin’s government.

Valentina Melnikova from of the Union of Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers, a Russian rights organization, told the independent Verstka publication earlier this week that its members were also not invited to the meeting.

Since October, relatives of mobilized soldiers have organized protests in over a dozen Russian regions, calling on the authorities to release their relatives from frontline duty and ensure they had appropriate food rations, shelter and equipment.

Reports by the AP, independent Russian media, and activists have suggested that many of the mobilized reservists are inexperienced, were told to procure basic items such as medical kits and flak jackets themselves, and did not receive proper training before deployment. Some were reported killed within days.

Concerns persist in Russia about whether the Kremlin may renew its mobilization efforts, as Ukrainian forces continue to press a counteroffensive in the country’s south and east. Moscow has suffered a string of battlefield setbacks, losing territory in the northeastern Kharkiv and southern Kherson regions.

While Russian officials last month declared the “partial mobilization” complete, critics have warned it could resume after military enlistment offices are freed up from processing conscripts from Russia’s annual fall draft.

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Malawi’s Vice-President Saulos Chilima arrested for corruption

Vice-President Saulos Chilima came to power in 2020 alongside President Lazarus Chakwera

Malawi’s Vice-President Saulos Chilima has been arrested on allegations that he accepted money in exchange for awarding government contracts, the country’s anti-corruption agency says.

He is accused of receiving $280,000 (£230,000) from a British businessman “and other items”, a statement says.

Mr Chilima has appeared in court but has not commented on the charges.

He had already been stripped of his powers in June when he was first accused by the Anti-Corruption Bureau.

The vice-president faces six charges relating to corruption.

The British businessman, named as Zuneth Sattar, was arrested in the UK in October last year and is now on bail.

He is accused of using connections with senior Malawi government officials and politicians to fraudulently obtain contracts to supply goods and services.

The contracts related to armoured personnel carriers, food rations and water cannons, the Financial Times reported in May.

Mr Sattar has denied all wrong doing.

Mr Chilima came to power in 2020 as the running mate of President Lazarus Chakwera.

He had previously campaigned on an anti-corruption platform, promising to end decades of sleaze in government and ending poverty in one of the worlds most poorest countries.

“Corruption has the power to rupture a country and its people beyond repair. Corruption has the power to make a government lose its legitimacy over its people,” the vice-president is quoted in a 2021 Anti-Corruption Bureau newsletter as saying.

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Kenya profile – Timeline

Cheetahs in Kenya’s Maasai Mara game reserve

A chronology of key events:

c 3.3 million BC – Evidence of some of the earliest human tools have been found in Kenya, suggesting that it was the cradle of humanity from which descendants moved out to populate the world.

600 – Arabs begin settling coastal areas, over the centuries developing trading stations which facilitated contact with the Arab world, Persia and India.

1895 – Formation of British East African Protectorate.

1920 – East African Protectorate becomes crown colony of Kenya – administered by a British governor.

Mau Mau

1944 – Kenyan African Union (KAU) formed to campaign for African independence. First African appointment to legislative council.

1947 – Jomo Kenyatta becomes KAU leader.

1952-53 – Secret Kikuyu guerrilla group known as Mau Mau begins violent campaign against white settlers. State of emergency declared, Jomo Kenyatta jailed, KAU banned.

1956 – Mau Mau rebellion put down.

1960 – State of emergency ends. Britain announces plans to prepare Kenya for majority African rule. Kenya African national Union (Kanu) formed by Tom Mboya and Oginga Odinga.

Independence

1961 – Jomo Kenyatta freed from two years of house arrest, assumes presidency of Kanu.

1963 – Kenya gains independence, with Mr Kenyatta as prime minister.

1964 – Republic of Kenya formed. Jomo Kenyatta becomes president and Oginga Odinga vice-president.

1966 – Mr Odinga leaves Kanu after ideological split, forms Kenya People’s Union (KPU).

1969 – Assassination of government minister Tom Mboya sparks ethnic unrest. KPU banned and Mr Odinga arrested. Kanu only party to contest elections.

1974 – Kenyatta re-elected.

Moi era

1978 – Kenyatta dies in office, succeeded by Vice-President Daniel arap Moi.

1982 June – Kenya officially declared a one-party state by National Assembly.

1987 – Opposition groups suppressed. International criticism of political arrests and human rights abuses.

1991 August – Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (Ford) formed by six opposition leaders, including Oginga Odinga. Party outlawed and members arrested. Creditors suspend aid to Kenya amid fierce international condemnation.

1991 December – Special conference of Kanu agrees to introduce a multi-party political system.

1992 – Approximately 2,000 people killed in tribal conflict in the west of the country.

Multi-party elections

1992 December – President Moi re-elected in multi-party elections. Kanu wins strong majority.

1994 – Oginga Odinga dies. Opposition groups form coalition – the United National Democratic Alliance – but it is plagued by disagreements.

1997 December – President Moi wins further term in widely-criticised elections. His main opponents are former vice-president Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga, son of Oginga Odinga.

Embassy bomb

1998 August – Al-Qaeda operatives bomb the US embassy in Nairobi, killing 224 people and injuring thousands.

2002 July – Some 200 Maasai and Samburu tribespeople accept more than $7m in compensation from the British Ministry of Defence. The tribespeople had been bereaved or maimed by British Army explosives left on their land over the last 50 years.

2002 November – Al-Qaeda attack on Israeli-owned hotel near Mombasa kills 10 Kenyans and injures three Israelis. A simultaneous rocket attack on an Israeli airliner fails.

Kibaki victory

2002 December – Elections. Mwai Kibaki wins a landslide victory, ending Daniel arap Moi’s 24-year rule and Kanu’s four decades in power.

2004 October – Kenyan ecologist Wangari Maathai wins the Nobel Peace Prize.

2005 November-December – Voters reject a proposed new constitution in what is seen as a protest against President Kibaki.

2007 December – Disputed presidential elections lead to violence in which more than 1,500 die.

The government and opposition come to a power-sharing agreement in February and a cabinet is agreed in April.

Constitution approved

2010 July – Kenya joins its neighbours in forming a new East African Common Market, intended to integrate the region’s economy.

2010 August – New constitution designed to limit the powers of the president and devolve power to the regions approved in referendum.

2011 August-September – Somali al-Shabab jihadists raid Kenyan coastal resorts and a refugee camp, targeting foreigners.

Troops in Somalia

2011 October – Kenyan troops enter Somalia to attack rebels they accuse of being behind several kidnappings of foreigners on Kenyan soil. Kenya suffers several reprisal attacks.

2012 January – International Criminal Court rules that several prominent Kenyans must stand trial over the 2007 post-election violence.

2012 March – Oil discovered. President Kibaki hails it as a ”major breakthrough”.

2012 May – More than 30 people are injured in an attack on a Nairobi shopping centre by al-Shabab.

2012 August-September – More than 100 people are killed in communal clashes over land and resources Coast Province.

Five people die in riots by Muslim protesters in Mombasa after the shooting of preacher Aboud Rogo Mohammed, accused by the UN of recruiting and funding al-Shabab Islamist fighters in Somalia.

Kenyatta wins election

2013 March – Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Kenya’s first president, wins presidential election with just over 50% of the vote. A challenge to the results by his main rival, Prime Minister Raila Odinga, is rejected by the Supreme Court.

2013 June – The British government says it sincerely regrets the torture of thousands of Kenyans during the suppression of the Mau Mau insurgency in the 1950s and promises £20m in compensation.

2013 September – Deputy President William Ruto pleads not guilty at the International Criminal Court to crimes against humanity charges over the 2007 post-election violence.

Al-Shabab steps up attacks

2013 September – Somali al-Shabab militants seize the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi and kill more than 60 people, saying they want Kenya’s military to pull out of Somalia.

A relative of a victim of the 2015 Garissa college massacre weeps in a Nairobi morgue

The massacre of 148 students at Garissa college in 2015 horrified Kenya and prompted criticism of the security forces

2014 June – At 48 people die after al-Shabab militants attack hotels and a police station in Mpeketoni, near the island resort of Lamu.

2014 December – Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court drop charges against President Kenyatta over the 2007 post-election violence, citing insufficient evidence.

2015 April – Al-Shabab carry out a massacre at Garissa University College in northwest Kenya, killing 148 people.

2017 February – Government declares a drought affecting a large part of the country to be a national disaster.

2017 May – A new multi-billion-dollar railway line linking Mombasa to the capital Nairobi is opened – the country’s biggest infrastructure project since independence.

2017 August-October – President Kenyatta is declared winner of the presidential election in August as well as the re-run in October.

2020 January – Al-Shabab Somali jihadists attack Camp Simba army base near Lamu, killing three Americans.

2022 August – Deputy President William Ruto narrowly wins the presidential election, beating his main rival Raila Odinga.

#usnews

Far-right Ben-Gvir to be Israel’s national security minister

JERUSALEM (AP) — Extremist politician Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has a long record of anti-Arab rhetoric and stunts, will become Israel’s next minister of national security, according to the first of what are expected to be several coalition deals struck by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party.

Likud announced the agreement with Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power party on Friday.

Negotiations with three other potential far-right and ultra-Orthodox coalition partners are continuing. If successful, Netanyahu would return to the prime minister’s office and preside over the most right-wing and religious government in Israel’s history.

The awarding of the sensitive role to Ben-Gvir raises concerns of a further escalation in Israeli-Palestinian tensions. Ben-Gvir and his allies hope to grant immunity to Israeli soldiers who shoot at Palestinians, deport rival lawmakers and impose the death penalty on Palestinians convicted of attacks on Jews.

Ben-Gvir is the disciple of a racist rabbi, Meir Kahane, who was banned from parliament and whose Kach party was branded a terrorist group by the United States before he was assassinated in New York in 1990.

Ahead of Israel’s Nov. 1 election, Ben-Gvir grabbed headlines for his anti-Palestinian speeches and stunts, including brandishing a pistol and encouraging police to open fire on Palestinian stone-throwers in a tense Jerusalem neighborhood.

Before becoming a lawyer and entering politics, he was convicted of offenses that include inciting racism and supporting a terrorist organization.

In his new role, he would be in charge of the police, among other things, enabling him to implement some of the hardline policies against the Palestinians he has advocated for years.

As part of the coalition deal, the current ministry of internal security would be renamed ministry of national security and would be given expanded powers, Likud said Friday.

As head of the ministry, Ben-Gvir would oversee the police and the paramilitary border police which operate alongside Israeli soldiers in Palestinian population centers.

Likud lawmaker Yaron Levin praised the agreement, which was signed Thursday, as “the first agreement on the way to establishing a stable right-wing government led by Benjamin Netanyahu.”

Ben-Gvir first entered parliament in 2021, after his Jewish Power party merged with the Religious Zionism party. Ben-Gvir’s closest political ally, Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich, is conducting separate negotiations with Likud, which emerged as the largest party in the elections.

Netanyahu has balked at some of the demands, such as Smotrich seeking the defense ministry. Talks currently focus on the terms under which Smotrich would become finance minister.

#usnews

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