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Blinken and Austin to visit war-battered Ukraine, Zelensky says

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Anachenko from Chernihiv territorial defense

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken will visit Ukraine on Sunday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said, in what would be the first high-level visit by Biden administration officials since the start of the Russian invasion.

Such a trip would underscore the administration’s emboldened approach to Ukraine in recent weeks, as President Biden has committed additional billions of dollars in weapons and equipment to Ukraine’s military. The Pentagon has also announced training exercises for select groups of Ukrainian officers on U.S.-made weapons systems.

It also highlights the continued disconnect, with Ukraine continuing to step up demands for more military and financial aid and the West’s pledges. “They should not come here with empty hands,” Zelensky warned, speaking from an underground subway station in Kyiv. “We are expecting specific things and specific weapons.”

“Come to us, we’ll be happy to see you. But please bring us the assistance, which we have discussed,” the Ukrainian president added. “That’s why the visit from the U.S. is very important.”

Heavy bombardment continued in several Ukrainian cities in the east of the country over the weekend as fighting appears poised to rage straight through the country’s observance of Orthodox Easter on Sunday despite international appeals for a cease-fire over the holiday.

On Saturday, Russian missile struck Odessa, a strategic southwestern port city that has seen fewer attacks during the war. At least eight people were killed, including a 3-month-old infant, Ukrainian officials said.

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The attacks hit two residential buildings and a military facility, Ukraine’s air force said, rocking a city where life had largely returned to normal after Russia narrowed its military campaign in recent weeks to focus on the eastern regions, where Russia-backed separatists have been fighting Ukraine for several years.

Andriy Yermak, the chief of staff for Zelensky, wrote in a post on the Telegram messaging app that the number of casualties from Saturday’s barrage on Odessa is likely to rise. Zelensky later told reporters that Russian forces were “dirty scumbags” for carrying it out.

“The child was one month old when the war started,” he said. “What is even happening here?”

Two people were rescued from the rubble, and 86 were evacuated from a 16-story apartment building that was hit, Ukraine’s national emergency services office said. A video of the aftermath shared on social media and verified by The Washington Post showed large black plumes of smoke billowing from a tall building near a grassy area.

The Russian defense ministry asserted that its missile strikes had destroyed a logistics terminal in the city where foreign weapons were being stored. The Post could not independently verify that claim.

The strikes were an ominous reminder of a recent warning from a top Russian commander that forces intend to take “full control” of all of the southern port cities of Ukraine so that Russia could have a path to Ukraine’s western landlocked neighbor of Moldova, which has its own breakaway region, Transnistria, aligned with Russia. His comments were condemned by Moldova, where residents have worried since the beginning of the war they could be next in the Kremlin’s crosshairs.

The United States has allocated roughly $3.4 billion in military assistance to Ukraine since the war began in February and has intensified its shipments of weapons and equipment into the country over the past two weeks.

The donations include thousands of missiles that can be used against Russian military aircraft and artillery, long-range artillery cannons, helicopters, armored vehicles, radar defense systems, drones and anti-personnel mines, among other equipment.

The latest $800 million assistance package, announced Thursday, includes two drone systems.

But the Pentagon has remained tight-lipped about the timing and locations of its deliveries and has said that the Ukrainians control the destination of the weapons once they cross into the country.

More than two dozen nations have joined the effort to funnel military support to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion in February.

Numerous foreign dignitaries, including British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, have visited Kyiv in recent months to show their support for Zelensky’s government. He announced Saturday that Britain would reopen its embassy in Kyiv, which diplomats had evacuated at the start of the invasion.

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Biden last month traveled to Poland and visited with Ukrainian refugees and U.S. service members stationed there.

Austin will also be hosting a summit in Germany in the coming days to build support for Ukraine’s defense and security needs, the Pentagon’s top spokesman, John Kirby, said Thursday.

The “Ukraine Defense Consultative Group,” which will meet at Ramstein Air Base in Germany on Tuesday, will focus not just on Ukraine’s short-term military assistance needs and the latest battlefield assessments, but also take “a longer, larger view of Ukraine’s defense needs, going forward beyond the war that they’re facing right now,” Kirby said.

More than 20 countries have agreed to participate that meeting, Kirby said Friday.

But as nations including the United States dispatch heavy weaponry, some cracks are emerging in the coalition of allies. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz cautioned that it was a “top priority” for NATO to “avoid a direct military confrontation between NATO and a highly armed superpower like Russia, a nuclear power.”

In an interview with Der Spiegel published Friday, Scholz said it was not “justifiable for Germany and NATO to become parties to the war in Ukraine.”

Scholz made the comments in response to several questions about the prospect of his country’s delivering heavy weapons to help Ukraine fight Russian attacks. He noted that Germany had already provided 2 billion euros ($2.16 billion) and delivered “defensive weapons,” antitank mines and antiaircraft equipment to Kyiv.

Horrors continue to emerge each day, especially from the bombed-out port city of Mariupol. Civilians evacuated from the city in recent days spoke of bodies in the streets and shelling so relentless that venturing above ground to find water was easily a death sentence.

Russian President Vladimir Putin this week declared Russia’s victory in the battle for Mariupol, even as Ukraine said a contingent of about 1,000 Ukrainian fighters and civilians remain holed up in the steel plant. Putin said in a rare televised address that he had ordered his troops not to storm the steel plant but to blockade it “so that even a fly could not get through.”

Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko on Saturday said that Russian forces had again “thwarted” a coordinated attempt to evacuate civilians from the city.

Boychenko’s office wrote on Telegram that more than 200 people had planned to board buses outside a city shopping center, to evacuate to the southeastern city of Zaporizhzhia.

That plan collapsed, Boychenko alleged, after Russian forces told some of those assembled that “there will be shelling,” and that the buses would only travel as far as Dokuchaevsk, a city currently under Russian control.

The Post was unable to independently verify this claim, or another from Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman who said this week that Russia had taken more than 300 Mariupol civilians, including 90 children, to Russia.

Evacuation plans and other efforts to establish humanitarian corridors in and out of Mariupol have routinely failed, amid relentless shelling and the Russian encirclement of the city, that has left residents largely cut off as food, water and medical supplies have dwindled.

A video released Saturday by Ukrainian forces at their last stronghold at the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works plant in Mariupol appears to show a large number of civilians living in cramped conditions in an underground bunker, including women and children.

The video, if confirmed, would be the most extensive footage to date of life in the plant, where an unspecified number of Ukrainian civilians and fighters are said to be holding out against a much larger and better-equipped Russian forces. The video could not be independently verified.

“We want to go home. We want to see the sun,” said one child in the video, standing in a cramped underground shelter with other women and children, where belongings were suspended on lines above makeshift beds.

A woman in the video said her family had been hiding there since March 2. “My husband works here. So we came here with the whole family,” she said. “Grandmother and grandfather stayed at home.”

Other cities in Ukraine also came under heavy fire. Three people were killed and more than 20 people were wounded in the city of Kharkiv and the region as a result of more than 50 strikes from Russian forces on Saturday, a Ukrainian military governor said Saturday. Oleh Syniehubov, head of the Kharkiv regional military administration, claimed that Russian forces “continue to fire on the civilian infrastructure of Kharkiv and the region.”

The United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights Michelle Bachelet this week described Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine as a “horror story of violations perpetrated against civilians,” as the international human rights monitor has documented growing evidence of war crimes, including the indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas and summary executions.

As Russia has withdrawn from northern cities near Kyiv, where earlier bombardments were heavy, the U.N. said satellite imagery has confirmed the massive destruction of civilian infrastructure there. Nearly 80 percent of the village of Horenka appeared to have been destroyed, Bachelet said.

U.N. Secretary General António Guterres is slated to meet separately with both Putin and Zelensky next week in the latest diplomatic effort to mediate an end to the fighting.

Amid the continuing siege, Zelensky said Ukraine had appealed to Pope Francis to try to help civilians stranded in Mariupol.

During the Saturday news conference, Zelensky proposed that the pope help with negotiations to try “to unblock the humanitarian corridors” into and out of the city, echoing a proposal for the pope to visit the war-torn country.

“It is too early to tell, but we are waiting for him,” Zelensky told reporters. “We are waiting because he has a mission — a mission from God. He is trusted by a large number of people; I think this is important.”

THE WASHINGTON POST

International

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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