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Ukraine war becomes a cudgel in Republican Party’s internal conflict

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The war in Ukraine has opened a new front in the U.S. Republican Party’s civil war, with party primary candidates vying to run in the November midterm elections attacking each other for past comments praising Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In Senate and House of Representatives races in at least three states, Republican candidates have been put on the defensive over comments describing Putin as intelligent, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy as a “thug” and Ukraine as not worth defending. They now face criticism at a time when U.S. public opinion strongly supports Ukraine and its president.

Pat McCrory, a leading Republican Senate candidate in North Carolina’s May 17 primary election, lashed out this week at his Trump-backed Republican rival, Representative Ted Budd, in his first TV ad.

“While Ukrainians bled and died … Congressman Budd excused their killer,” McCrory says in the ad, which is interspersed with video clips from a TV interview showing Budd describing Putin as “a very intelligent actor” with “strategic reasons” for the invasion.

The ad also accused Budd, who has described Putin as “evil,” of casting votes “friendly” to Russia.

Budd’s campaign dismissed the McCrory ad in a statement, saying, “Ted Budd presented the sort of level-headed assessment of a foreign crisis you would expect from a U.S. Senator because he knows these are serious times that require strength and substance, not the empty soundbites.”

Before Russian forces moved on Ukraine on Feb. 24, some Republicans felt comfortable echoing former President Donald Trump’s praise for Putin as a strong leader, while denouncing U.S. policy toward Moscow.

Even after the invasion, two Trump allies in the House – Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar – participated in a white nationalist conference at which participants applauded Russia’s move on Ukraine and chanted Putin’s name.

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Infighting over Putin and Ukraine has exacerbated existing divisions within the party over Trump’s false claims of widespread election fraud in 2020, and a House investigation of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by the former president’s supporters.

Trump has been widely criticized for describing Putin’s actions toward Ukraine as “genius” and “pretty savvy” in a Feb. 22 interview.

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Also in North Carolina, Representative Madison Cawthorn came under fire from his Republican rivals over remarks at a town hall in which he criticized Zelenskiy and Ukraine.

“Remember that Zelenskiy is a thug. Remember the Ukrainian government is incredibly corrupt and is incredibly evil and has been pushing woke ideologies,” Cawthorn said in a video clip aired by WRAL-TV in Raleigh.

“ITS INCOMPREHENSIBLE THAT A MEMBER OF CONGRESS WOULD CALL UKRAINES PRESIDENT A THUG!” tweeted Michele Woodhouse, who is challenging Cawthorn in the Republican primary.

Cawthorn’s office did not respond to a Reuters query seeking comment.

The Republicans are vying to become candidates at the November midterm elections in which control of the U.S. Congress is at stake.

In Utah, independent Senate candidate Evan McMullin, a former CIA officer, attacked Republican Senator Mike Lee in an ad accusing the two-term incumbent of “making us weak and unsafe” in the midst of the current Ukraine crisis by opposing sanctions against Russia and visiting Moscow.

But the actions cited in the ad occurred years before the Ukraine invasion or were mischaracterized, according to the fact-checking website PolitiFact, which judged the ad “mostly false.”

Lee’s office did not respond to a Reuters query seeking comment. But McMullin’s campaign said it stood behind the ad and insisted that Lee has displayed a pattern of appeasing Putin.

(Reporting by David Morgan, Joseph Ax and Jarrett Renshaw; Editing by Ross Colvin and Alistair Bell)

Reuters

International

15 Palestinians killed in Gaza as Israeli military targets opposition fighters

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The Palestinian health ministry says 15 Palestinians have been killed in the Gaza Strip where the Israeli military is targeting members of the Palestinian group Islamic Jihad.

A five-year-old child, two women and several PIJ fighters – including leader Tayseer Jabari – are among the dead.

Some 300 Palestinian rockets and mortars have been allegedly fired at Israel since Friday, an Israeli official said.

Israel says it launched the operations due to “immediate threat” from PIJ.

The latest violence is the most serious flare-up between Israel and Gaza since an 11-day conflict in May 2021 left more than 200 Palestinians and a dozen Israelis dead.

The Israeli military is warning this latest operation – codenamed Breaking Dawn – could last for a week.

As well as air strikes on Gaza, some 19 members of PIJ have been arrested in raids across the occupied West Bank, according to Israel.

Sirens warning of incoming missiles continued to sound in Israeli towns on Saturday, amid more reports of air strikes in Gaza.

Palestinian health officials confirmed a man was killed near Khan Younis, in the south of the strip, on Saturday.

But so far Hamas, the biggest militant group in the area – which has similar ideology to Islamic Jihad and often coordinates its actions with it – does not seem to be firing from its large rocket arsenal.

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As a result, there are no reports of Israeli air strikes targeting Hamas, which would mark an escalation in the violence.

Hamas issued strong statements on Friday night saying that “resistance groups” were united. But because it governs Gaza it has its own practical considerations which may stop it from getting more involved.

The calculations of Hamas could change, if for example the civilian death toll in Gaza rises rapidly.

If it does decide to join the fighting then it would quickly get much more intense.

If things stay like this, Egypt – which often acts as a go-between for Israel and Gaza – could have a better chance of brokering some kind of truce.

Cairo officials were preparing on Saturday to host a potential delegation of PIJ representatives as part of that process, Egyptian media said.

Life in the Palestinian territory has already become much harder in the past week, after Israel closed its crossings with Gaza amid fears that Islamic Jihad would retaliate for the arrest of one of its leaders in the northern West Bank.

On Saturday, Gaza’s only power station closed down because it had not received any fuel deliveries, an electricity company spokesman said. BBC/Eagle

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US kills Al-Qaeda leader Al-Zawahiri in drone strike

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Ayman al-Zawahiri

A United States drone strike killed Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri at a hideout in the Afghan capital, President Joe Biden said Monday, adding “justice had been delivered” to the families of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

In a somber televised address, Biden said he gave the final go-ahead for the high-precision strike that successfully targeted Zawahiri in the Afghan capital over the weekend.

“Justice has been delivered and this terrorist leader is no more,” Biden said, adding that he hoped Zawahiri’s death would bring “closure” to families of the 3,000 people killed in the United States on 9/11.

A senior administration official said Zawahiri was on the balcony of a house in Kabul when he was targeted with two Hellfire missiles, an hour after sunrise on July 31, and that there had been no US boots on the ground in Afghanistan.

“We are not aware of him ever leaving the safe house. We identified Zawahiri on multiple occasions for sustained periods of time on the balcony of where he was ultimately struck,” the official said.

According to the official’s account, the president gave his green light for the strike on July 25 — as he was recovering in isolation from Covid-19. Biden said there were no civilian casualties in the operation.

It was the first known over-the-horizon strike by the United States on an Al-Qaeda target in Afghanistan since American forces withdrew from the country on August 31, 2021.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Monday evening that “by hosting and sheltering” Zawahiri, the Taliban had “grossly violated the Doha Agreement” signed in 2020, which paved the way for America’s withdrawal.

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Zawahiri, an Egyptian surgeon who grew up in a comfortable Cairo household before turning to violent radicalism, had been on the run for 20 years since the 9/11 attacks.

He took over Al-Qaeda after Osama bin Laden was killed by US special forces in Pakistan in 2011, and had a $25 million US bounty on his head.

Over the weekend the Afghan interior ministry denied reports circulating on social media of a drone strike in Kabul, telling AFP a rocket struck “an empty house” in the capital, causing no casualties.

Early Tuesday in Kabul, however, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted that an “aerial attack” was carried out on a residence in the Sherpur area of the city.

“The nature of the incident was not revealed at first. The security and intelligence agencies of the Islamic Emirate investigated the incident and found in their preliminary investigations that the attack was carried out by American drones,” his tweet said.

The news comes a month before the first anniversary of the final withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, leaving the country in the control of the Taliban insurgency that fought Western forces over the preceding two decades.

Under the 2020 Doha deal, the Taliban promised not to allow Afghanistan to be used again as a launchpad for international jihadism, but experts believe the group never broke its ties with Al-Qaeda.

“What we know is that the senior Haqqani Taliban were aware of his presence in Kabul,” the Biden official said.

Taliban interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani also heads the feared Haqqani Network, a brutal subset of the Taliban blamed for some of the worst violence of the past 20 years and which has been described by US officials as a “veritable arm” of Pakistani intelligence.

– Doctor turned jihadist –

Zawahiri, 71, lacked the potent charisma that helped bin Laden rally jihadists around the world, but willingly channeled his analytical skills into the Al-Qaeda cause.

He was believed to be the main strategist — the real mastermind who steered operations, including the September 11 attacks, as well as bin Laden’s personal doctor.

Saudi Arabia, the home country of bin Laden as well as many of the 9/11 hijackers, welcomed the announcement of Zawahiri’s death.

“Thousands of innocent people of different nationalities and religions, including Saudi citizens, were killed,” by terrorists under his leadership, the Saudi foreign ministry said.

Al-Qaeda is believed to have been degraded in the years since the US invasion of Afghanistan, and the White House official said Zawahiri was “one of the last remaining figures who carried this kind of significance.”

The organization, agreed Soufan Center researcher Colin Clarke, is “at a crossroads.”

“Despite Zawahiri’s leadership, which minimized AQ’s losses while rebuilding, the group still faces serious challenges going forward. For one, there’s the question of who will lead al Qaeda after Zawahiri’s gone,” he said.

Zawahiri’s father was a renowned physician and his grandfather a prayer leader at Cairo’s Al-Azhar institute, the highest authority for Sunni Muslims.

He became involved with Egypt’s radical Muslim community at a young age and published several books which came for many to symbolize the radical Islamist movement.

He left Egypt in the mid-1980s, heading for Pakistan’s northwestern city of Peshawar where the resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was based.

It was at that time, when thousands of Islamist fighters flooded into Afghanistan during the 1980s, that Zawahiri and bin Laden met, and in 1998 he became one of five signatories to bin Laden’s “fatwa” calling for attacks against Americans.

Jihadist monitor SITE said some militants were questioning the veracity of the report he had been killed, while others believed Zawahiri had achieved his desire of “martyrdom.”

As for Al-Qaeda’s future without him, SITE said jihadists were bullish, with one writing: “If Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri is dead, there are a thousand Aymans.”

AFP/Punch

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Zelensky accuses Russia of ‘war crime’ after air strike kills 50 Ukrainian prisoners

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Volodymyr Zelensky has accused Russia of committing further war crimes following a deadly missile strike on a prison.

Up to 50 Ukrainian prisoners of war were killed in a missile strike on Friday, with Moscow and Kyiv accusing each other of carrying out the attack.

Russia’s defence ministry said 50 prisoners were killed and 75 wounded in the attack on the prison in the frontline town of Olenivka, in a part of the Donetsk province held by separatists. The Kremlin claimed the attack was carried out by Ukrainian forces using US-made Himars rockets.

Mr Zelensky said, however, the attack was a “deliberate war crime by the Russians”.

“The occupiers’ attack on Olenivka is a deliberate war crime by the Russians, a deliberate mass murder of Ukrainian prisoners of war,” Mr Zelensky said in a statement.

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“There should be a clear legal recognition of Russia as a terrorist state. Russia has proven with numerous terrorist attacks that it is the biggest source of terrorism in today’s world,” the Ukrainian president added.

Many Ukrainian soldiers, including some who were captured after the surrender of the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, have been taken to Olenivka in recent months.

Ukraine’s armed forces denied carrying out the strike. They said Russian artillery targeted the prison to hide inmates’ mistreatment before laying the blame on Ukraine.

Video released by a Russian war correspondent, Andrei Rudenko, shows Russian-backed military personnel sifting through the remains of what he said was the prison.

The smashed roof of the burnt-out building can be seen hanging down and the charred remains of bodies are shown.

The Russian defence ministry said the prison housed Ukrainian prisoners of war and that eight prison staff were also wounded.

The Russian-backed separatist leader Denis Pushilin was quoted as saying that there were no foreigners among the 193 detainees.

It comes as British defence chiefs say that Ukraine has repelled Russian assaults from the front line near Donetsk.

The latest Ministry of Defence (MoD) update also warns that Russian-installed authorities in southern Ukraine are set to hold referendums on formally joining Russia later in the year.

It adds: “Russia currently classes the occupied areas as under interim ‘civil-military administration.’ Local authorities are likely coercing the population into disclosing personal details in order to compose voting registers.”

Evening Standard

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