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Austrian chancellor confronts Putin over Ukraine war crimes

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Austria’s chancellor, Karl Nehammer

Austria’s chancellor, Karl Nehammer, has said he told Vladimir Putin that “all those responsible” for war crimes must be brought to justice and warned that western sanctions would intensify as long as people kept dying in Ukraine.

After becoming the first western leader to hold face-to-face talks with the Russian president since the invasion of Ukraine, Nehammer said his trip to Moscow was not “a visit of friendship” and that the two had had a “direct, open and hard” conversation.

“I mentioned the serious war crimes in Bucha and other locations and stressed that all those responsible have to be brought to justice,” Nehammer said in a statement, after a 75-minute meeting that Vienna described as “tough and direct”.

In the meeting, Nehammer raised Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s readiness for in-person talks with the Russian president, but Putin gave “no reply whatsoever”, ignoring the offer, an Austrian official told the Guardian.

Instead, Putin talked about the “Istanbul track” negotiations, which have failed to produce any progress so far.

“Putin seems to be massively caught up in the ‘logic of war’ and acts accordingly,” the Austrian official said.

Russian media reported that the meeting, which took place at Putin’s official Novo-Ogaryovo residence just outside Moscow, was behind closed doors at Austria’s request.

Speaking before the meeting began, Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, said the two would discuss “the situation around Ukraine” but declined to give further details. Peskov said he could not exclude that gas would be discussed, as this was “very, very relevant for the Austrian side”, according to Russia’s Interfax news agency.

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The meeting came as EU foreign ministers discussed targeting Russian oil in the next round of sanctions, while Joe Biden held talks with Narendra Modi, in which the US president was expected to press India’s leader not to increase imports of Russian crude.

Related: Putin’s war shows autocracies and fossil fuels go hand in hand. Here’s how to tackle both

Hours earlier, Austria’s foreign minister, Alexander Schallenberg, said someone needed to tell Putin the truth.

“It makes a difference to be face to face and tell him what the reality is: that this president has de facto lost the war morally,” Schallenberg said.

“It should be in his own interest that someone tells him the truth. I think it is important and we owe it to ourselves if we want to save human lives.”

Nehammer said Zelenskiy, whom he met on Saturday, had been informed of his Moscow trip, as had the EU leaders Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, and Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Austria, which is not a member of Nato, is calling for humanitarian corridors, a ceasefire and the full investigation of war crimes.

Lithuania’s foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, sounded sceptical about further talks with Putin, after a series of high-profile visits, in the lead-up to the invasion, by EU leaders failed to deter the Russian leader from launching his attack.

He said: “I have seen a lot of effort by many leaders, by Emmanuel Macron, to try to see whether they can talk to the guy. I personally have no reason to believe that he is ‘talkable’.”

Speaking to South Korean lawmakers via video link on Monday, Zelenskiy said “tens of thousands” of people had probably been killed in Mariupol. No independent verification of the death toll in the besieged south-eastern city is possible, but if a figure of this magnitude is confirmed it would be by far the highest death toll in any Ukrainian town or city since the war began.

Forces defending the besieged port city said their ammunition was running out. “Today will probably be the last battle,” the 36th Marine Brigade of the Ukrainian armed forces wrote on social media. “It’s death for some of us and captivity for the rest.”

In a speech on Sunday, Zelenskiy said he had discussed with Scholz how to strengthen sanctions against Russia, adding: “I am glad to note that the German position has recently changed in favour of Ukraine. I consider it absolutely logical.”

Russia said on Monday that it had destroyed air defence systems in Ukraine over the weekend, in what appeared to be a renewed push to gain air superiority and take out weapons Kyiv has described as crucial, before a broad new offensive in the east.

Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said there would be no pause in military action before the next round of peace talks with Ukraine.

In an interview on state TV, Lavrov accused Kyiv of presenting Moscow with an “unacceptable” draft deal that deviated from points they had agreed in the talks.

Lavrov also described recent moves by the EU to boost military support for Ukraine as a “very serious U-turn”, while claiming the bloc was under the control of the US.

Kyiv said Lavrov’s comments were a tactic to divert attention away from war crimes accusations.

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In Luxembourg, Germany’s foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, said there were “massive indications of war crimes”, adding that while “the courts will have to decide”, it was “central to secure all evidence”.

EU ministers met Karim Khan, chief prosector of the international criminal court in The Hague, and Iryna Venediktova, Ukraine’s chief prosector, who is tasked with overseeing nearly 2,000 cases of war crimes committed by Russian occupying forces.

The EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, told reporters later on Monday that “nothing is off the table, including sanctions on oil and gas”, while stressing that crude was worth much more to the Russian state.

The EU paid four times more for Russian oil than gas in 2021, Borrell said, so it is “very much important to start [sanctions] with the oil, which is a heavy bill and easier [for the EU] to replace”.

The former Spanish foreign minister also accused Russia of “provoking hunger in the world” by “sowing bombs on Ukraine’s fields”, blockading Ukrainian ships laden with wheat and destroying grain stores.

While EU ministers again condemned atrocities in Ukraine, it remains unclear how quickly the bloc will move in cutting imports of Russian crude. The EU is banning Russian coal from August, but Germany, joined by Austria, opposes an immediate oil embargo. Hungary’s newly re-elected prime minister, Viktor Orbán, said last week that extending sanctions to oil and gas was “a red line”.

Ireland’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney, confirmed that the European Commission, which is responsible for the sanctions proposals, was “now working on ensuring that oil is part of the next sanctions package”.

“The European Union is spending hundreds of millions of euros on importing oil from Russia, that is certainly contributing to financing this war. We need to cut off that financing,” Coveney said. “The sooner that can happen the better.”

The Swedish foreign minister, Ann Linde, said: “I think we might make progress when it comes to oil. We are constantly developing our positions and more countries are understanding how important this is.”

The bloc, which imports 27% of its oil from Russia, is likely to argue over the phaseout period. Germany has pledged to phase out Russian coal and oil by the end of the year, but said ending dependence on Russian gas would take until at least 2024.

Referring to these plans, Baerbock said: “We need a joint, coordinated plan to completely phase out fossil fuels, to be able to withdraw as a European Union.”

The US, which has been pressing Berlin to sever Russian energy ties, is expected to make the same argument to India later on Monday. India has not imposed sanctions on Russia.

Taking advantage of low prices, India has bought 13m barrels of Russian crude oil since the invasion of Ukraine began, compared with 16m barrels in all of 2021, according to Reuters.

Biden has accused India of being the only “somewhat shaky” country on Ukraine in the Quad group of nations, which includes Japan and Australia.

“President Biden will continue our close consultations on the consequences of Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine and mitigating its destabilizing impact on global food supply and commodity markets,” the White House said in a statement.

As western sanctions continue to bite, a Kremlin spokesperson said there were no objective grounds for a Russian debt default and that such an outcome would occur only if engineered by others.

THE GUARDIAN

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Comoros ex-president Sambi jailed for life for ‘high treason’

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Former Comorian President Ahmed Abdallah Sambi (2nd R), escorted by Gendarmes, arrives at the courthouse in Moroni on November 21, 2022. – Sambi, who served as president from 2006-2011 and is the main opponent of current leader Azali Assoumani, has been held under house arrest since May 2018.
Sambi was originally placed under house arrest for disturbing public order.
Three months later he was placed under pre-trial detention for embezzlement, corruption and forgery, over a scandal involving the sale of Comorian passports to stateless people living in Gulf nations. (Photo by Ibrahim YOUSSOUF / AFP)

A court in the Comoros on Monday handed down a life sentence for high treason to ex-president Ahmed Abdallah Sambi, who was convicted of selling passports to stateless people living in the Gulf.

Sambi, 64, an arch-rival of President Azali Assoumani, was sentenced by the State Security Court, a special judicial body whose rulings cannot be appealed.

“He betrayed the mission entrusted to him by the Comorians,” public prosecutor Ali Mohamed Djounaid told the court last week as he requested a life sentence.

Sambi, who led the small Indian Ocean archipelago between 2006 and 2011, pushed through a law in 2008 allowing the sale of passports for high fees.

The scheme aimed at the so-called bidoon — an Arab minority numbering in the tens of thousands who cannot obtain citizenship.

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The former president was accused of embezzling millions of dollars under the scheme.

The prosecution said the cost was more than $1.8 billion — more than the impoverished nation’s GDP.

“They gave thugs the right to sell Comorian nationality as if they were selling peanuts,” said Eric Emmanuel Sossa, a lawyer for civilian plaintiffs.

But Sambi’s French lawyer Jean-Gilles Halimi said “no evidence” of missing money or bank accounts had been put forward to suggest a crime.

Sambi refused to attend the trial after a brief appearance at the first hearing, as his lawyers said there were no guarantees he would be judged fairly.

He was originally prosecuted for corruption, but the charges were reclassified as high treason, a crime that “does not exist in Comorian law,” Halimi said.

Sambi had already spent four years behind bars before he faced trial, far exceeding the maximum eight months. He was originally placed under house arrest for disturbing public order.

Guardian

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UK university workers begin strike over ‘falling pay, brutal workloads’

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Thousands of university and college staff in the United Kingdom, including lecturers, librarians and researchers, have declared a strike to demand pay increase and improved working conditions.

The University and College Union (UCU), the UK trade union for university staff, said the strike, referred to as the biggest in decades, is to improve quality in the education sector.

The UCU “represents over 120,000 academics, lecturers, trainers, instructors, researchers, managers, administrators, computer staff, librarians, technicians, professional staff and postgraduates in universities, colleges, prisons, adult education and training organisations across the UK”.

“This is the biggest week in our history. Every single university takes strike action on Thursday and Friday. We need every member, student and supporter on our picket lines on Thursday to show the employers that this time is different,” the union said in a statement.

Announcing the strike on Wednesday, Jo Grady, UCU’s general secretary, warned of a “bigger action” unless employers improved their offers.

“Staff are burnt out but they are fighting back and they will bring the whole sector to a standstill,” she said.

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“Vice-chancellors only have themselves to blame. Their woeful leadership has led to the biggest vote for strike action ever in our sector. Students are standing with staff because they know this can’t go on.”

The strike, which began on Thursday, will also hold on November 25 and November 30.

Commenting on the development on Thursday, Grady expressed satisfaction with the turnout of university staff.

“Today’s picket lines are huge. 70,000 university staff have turned out like never before, defying bullying tactics from management to show they will no longer accept falling pay, pension cuts, brutal workloads and gig-economy working conditions,” she was quoted as saying, according to UCL.

“If vice-chancellors doubted the determination of university staff to save our sector, then today has been a rude awakening for them.”

The strike has affected over 2.5 million students, some of who are standing in solidarity with their lecturers.

Lawyers, nurses, postal workers and many others have also protested to seek pay rises that match the soaring inflation in the country.

The latest protests come after the UK’s National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers announced on Tuesday that more than 40,000 rail workers will stage strikes in December and January, disrupting travel for scores of people during the festive season.

The union said members will have demonstrations for four days from December 13 and in the first week of January.

The UK has been battling difficult economic situations due to surging energy costs arising from the Russia-Ukraine war.

Earlier in August, the Bank of England warned that inflation would climb to just over 13 percent in 2022.

It also projected that the country would enter a recession from the fourth quarter of 2022 until late 2023.

In November, the country’s inflation rate jumped in the last 12 months to 11.1 percent in October — up by one percent from August’s inflation rate.

The Cable

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Gunman kills 10 in US Walmart store

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A gunman has killed up to 10 people in a Walmart superstore in Chesapeake, in the US state of Virginia, police say.

Reports say the man, a store manager, opened fire then turned the gun on himself and is now dead.

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The City of Chesapeake tweeted “police confirm an active shooter incident with fatalities at the Walmart”.

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