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UN Syria envoy says Ghouta could become ‘second Aleppo’

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Escalating violence in the besieged Syrian enclave of eastern Ghouta could turn into a repeat of the battle for Aleppo, UN Syria envoy has warned.

At least 98 people died following intense Syrian government shelling and airstrikes on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus.

Monday was the deadliest day in the Syrian capital since 2015, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Retaliatory shells raining down on Tuesday killed at least one more person, a monitoring group and paramedics said.

Twenty children and 15 women are believed to be among those killed in the last 36 hours.

When asked for comment on the escalating battle, UN envoy Staffan de Mistura said: “This has a risk of becoming a second Aleppo, and we have learned, I hope, lessons from that.”

Aleppo, once Syria’s largest city, endured months of conflict between rebels and government forces in 2016.

It has become a symbol of the Syrian civil war and its brutality, with hundreds of thousands of people forced to flee and aid agencies calling the world’s attention to the humanitarian crisis.

:: Aleppo under siege: A timeline
:: Meltdown of humanity’ in Aleppo as Assad troops close in

Smoke rises from buildings following government bombardment on the outskirts of the capital Damascus
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The areas around Damascus have been subjected to weeks-long bombardment

The UN children’s agency, UNICEF, condemned the killings in Ghouta, issuing a blank statement under a headline saying: “Do those inflicting the suffering still have words to justify their barbaric acts?”

UNICEF said: “We no longer have the words to describe children’s suffering and our outrage.”

Monday’s bombardment saw the use of war planes, helicopter gunships, missiles and artillery.

The targeted suburbs across an area known as eastern Ghouta have been subjected to weeks-long bombardment that has killed and wounded hundreds of people.

syria damascus ghouta
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Hundreds of people have been injured

Opposition activists say Syrian government forces have brought in more reinforcements in recent days, suggesting a major assault is imminent to recapture Ghouta – the last main rebel stronghold in Damascus.

The opposition-linked Syrian Civil Defence, also known as White Helmets, said the shelling and airstrikes killed 98 people, including one of its members, and some people are still trapped under rubble.

The Observatory and the White Helmets both said rebels continued to hit Ghouta with mortar shells on Tuesday.

A spokesperson from Syria Relief, a Save the Children partner, says the situation is “really awful”.

“The planes haven’t stopped for a second throughout the entire night.

Syrian civilians look at the rubble following government bombing on the outskirts of the capital Damascus
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Ghouta is the last main rebel stronghold in Damascus

“Children have never experienced this much fear. All night you could hear crying, scared children. Their mothers are living in horror, they didn’t get any sleep last night. Ghouta yesterday was full of darkness, there wasn’t a bulb on, there was no light anywhere.

“The people are calling on the UN and other organisations to intervene. We don’t want anything at all except for the shelling and bombardment to stop.”

Meanwhile, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says Turkish troops involved in an offensive to drive out Syrian Kurdish militiamen from a Syrian enclave will soon begin a siege of the city of Afrin.

Mr Erdogan said on Tuesday that the month-long offensive into the northwestern enclave of Afrin has so far been progressing slowly but will commence at a “more rapid rate” in the coming days.

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British Virgin Islands: Inquiry into claims of corruption and political interference – all with the public purse | World News

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Claims of widespread corruption and fraud involving millions of pounds of public money are being investigated on the British Virgin Islands.

The governor of the islands, a British territory, has ordered an independent inquiry into the allegations and is supported by both the prime minister and the foreign secretary.

One of the claims is that $40m (£29m) set aside for struggling families during the COVID pandemic might have been channelled to political allies.

Announcing the Commission of Inquiry, Governor August Jaspert said there were “wide concerns over the possible mismanagement of some public projects”.

He said successive audit reports had set out practices of “political interference, inflated pricing and conflicts of interest” and added: “These may have cost the public purse millions of dollars in recent years, with no sign of improvement.

“In the past months, the community has had many open and honest conversations about this. For the first time, many have felt confident to raise their voice. This is an important conversation for us to have, albeit difficult as those who speak up are too often silenced.”

In a written statement to parliament, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said: “The UK is extremely concerned about the state of good governance in the British Virgin Islands.

“A consistent and deeply troubling array of concerns have been put to the governor by local institutions and the community.

“Successive attempts have been made to address these concerns through local institutions, many of which have done commendable work to bring them to light.

“However, the scope and seriousness of the concerns are now beyond local capacity to address.”

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab wearing a face mask waits for the French and German foreign ministers to arrive for an E3 Ministers meeting at Chevening House in Sevenoaks, Kent.
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Mr Raab said the ‘scope and seriousness of the concerns are now beyond local capacity to address’

It is the first inquiry of its kind in more than 10 years – the last took place in 2008 to investigate corruption on Turks and Caicos.

It was felt that the British Virgin Islands themselves lack the ability to investigate allegations of this breadth, scope and seriousness.

Among the claims are ones of political interference in appointments and the criminal justice system – and the misuse of public money on infrastructure and transport projects including $7m (£5m) to an airline that did not exist and more than a million dollars spent on a school fence.

There have also been claims of intimidation towards people in the media and community leadership.

In November 2020, two tonnes of cocaine with a street value of almost £190m was seized, underlining the extent of criminal behaviour on BVI.

The inquiry is set to formally begin in the coming days and is expected last at least six months.

It will be led by the Right Honourable Lord Justice Gary Hickinbottom, an experienced High Court judge.

He will have the power to seize evidence and force witnesses to give evidence.

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Alexei Navalny: Putin critic urges Russians to ‘take to the streets’ after 30-day detainment order | World News

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Putin critic Alexei Navalny has urged Russians to “take to the streets” after a judge ordered that he be kept in custody for at least 30 days.

In a video clip released after the ruling, Mr Navalny said: “Don’t be afraid, take to the streets. Don’t go out for me, go out for yourself and your future.”

The sentence came following an hour-long, ad-hoc hearing – held in a police station in Khimki, outside Moscow – on Monday afternoon. Mr Navalny described the proceedings as the “highest level of lawlessness”.

The 44-year-old was originally detained on arrival at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on Sunday, after spending five months in Germany recovering from novichok poisoning.

Mr Navalny, who is one of President Vladimir Putin’s most outspoken critics, blames Moscow for the attack that nearly killed him, although the Kremlin denies any involvement.

His detention was widely expected because Russia’s prisons service said he had violated parole terms from a suspended sentence on a 2014 embezzlement conviction.

But it has drawn widespread condemnation from Western leaders, with the UN telling Russia to immediately let Mr Navalny go.

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Moment Navalny is detained after landing in Russia

Boris Johnson called the arrest “appalling” and joined Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab in calling for Mr Navalny’s immediate release.

He said: “It is appalling that Mr Navalny has been detained by the Russian authorities and he must be immediately released.

“Rather than persecuting Mr Navalny, Moscow should fulfil its obligation under international law to investigate and explain the use of a chemical weapon on Russian soil.”

Law enforcement officers stand guard before the expected arrival of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny on a flight from the German capital Berlin at Vnukovo International Airport in Moscow, Russia January 17, 2021
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Crowds of supporters waited to welcome Mr Navalny home

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen further implored Russian authorities to release Mr Navalny and “ensure his safety”.

In a statement shared on Twitter, she added: “Detention of political opponents is against Russia’s international commitments.

“We will monitor the situation closely.”

Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, said Washington “strongly condemns” the decision to arrest Mr Navalny and called his detention “the latest in a series of attempts to silence Navalny and other opposition figures and independent voices who are critical of Russian authorities.”

He added on Twitter that he was “deeply troubled” by the move.

“Confident political leaders do not fear competing voices, nor see the need to commit violence against or wrongfully detain, political opponents,” he said.

President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for national security adviser also called on the Russian authorities to free him.

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‘They tried to kill me,’ says Kremlin critic

“Mr Navalny should be immediately released, and the perpetrators of the outrageous attack on his life must be held accountable,” Jake Sullivan said in a tweet.

Moscow has dismissed the criticism.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said that Western countries’ expressions of outrage were designed to distract their citizens from their own domestic problems.

Meanwhile, foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote on Facebook: “Respect international law, do not encroach on national legislation of sovereign states and address problems in your own country.”

On leaving Berlin on Sunday, Mr Navalny said he didn’t think he would be arrested as he had “every right” to return to his home country.

The arrest raises tensions in Russia as it approaches national parliament elections this year, in which Mr Navalny’s organisation is expected to be active in trying to defeat pro-Kremlin candidates.

“This is a real act of bravery for Alexei Navalny to return to Russia, given that government agents already tried to kill him once,” Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth tweeted.

“But he understandably wants to be part of the pro-democracy movement in Russia, not a dissident in exile.”

Mr Navalny fell into a coma while aboard a domestic flight from Siberia to Moscow on 20 August.

He was transferred to a hospital in Berlin two days later.

Labs in Germany, France and Sweden tested the substance he was exposed to.

It was established he was poisoned with a Soviet-era novichok nerve agent – the same kind of substance used against Sergei and Yulia Skripal, a former Russian double agent and his daughter, in a 2018 poisoning in Salisbury.



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COVID-19: Man ‘lived in Chicago airport in secret for three months’ – as virus made him ‘too scared’ to fly home | US News

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A 36-year-old man lived undetected in a secure section of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport for three months because he was “too scared” to go home due to COVID-19, US prosecutors say.

Aditya Singh is charged with felony criminal trespass to a restricted area of an airport and misdemeanour theft.

According to police, he arrived in Chicago on a flight from Los Angeles on 19 October.

Mr Singh, who survived on food from other passengers, is unemployed and lives in the city of Orange, California. It was unclear why he was in Chicago.

Cook County Judge Susana Ortiz reacted with surprise when a prosecutor set out the allegations, according to the Chicago Tribune.

She reportedly told the court: “So if I understand you correctly, you’re telling me that an unauthorised non-employee individual was allegedly living within a secure part of the O’Hare airport terminal from 19 October 2020 to 16 January 2021 and was not detected? I want to understand you correctly.”

On Saturday, two employees from United Airlines were said to have approached Mr Singh and asked for his identification.

Assistant state attorney Kathleen Hagerty said he lowered his face mask before showing them an airport ID badge, which he had reportedly found, and was “scared to go home due to COVID“.

The badge apparently belonged to an operations manager who had reported it missing on 26 October.

Assistant public defender Courtney Smallwood said Mr Singh does not have a criminal background and has a master’s degree in hospitality – and said the unusual allegations were not violent, reported the Tribune.

If he is able to post the $1,000 (£738) for bail, Mr Singh will be barred from entering the airport.

Judge Ortiz added: “The court finds these facts and circumstances quite shocking for the alleged period of time that this occurred.”

The Chicago Department of Aviation said that while the incident remains under investigation, it had been able to “determine that this gentleman did not pose a security risk to the airport or to the travelling public”.

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