The Guardian 2024-02-02 12:03:22

Middle East crisis: UN agency calls Rafah a ‘pressure cooker of despair’ as Israel says offensive will move into city

The UN humanitarian office on Friday voiced concern about the hostilities in Khan Younis that have forced more people to flee to Rafah in the south of Gaza, describing the border town as a “pressure cooker of despair”, reports Reuters.

“I want to emphasise our deep concern about the escalation of hostilities in Khan Younis, which has resulted in an increase in the number of internally displaced people seeking refuge in Rafah in recent days,” said Jens Laerke, a spokesperson for the UN office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs.

“Thousands of Palestinians have continued to flee to the south, which is already hosting over half the population of about 2.3 million people … Rafah is a pressure cooker of despair, and we fear for what comes next.”

Israeli forces will continue their Gaza military campaign to Rafah, the Israeli defence minister, Yoav Gallant has said, despite the huge numbers of Palestinian civilians there.

West BankBiden issues executive order against Israeli settlers

Joe Biden issues executive order against Israeli settlers in West Bank

Financial sanctions and visa bans imposed on four individuals as US frustration with Israel grows

  • Middle East crisis – live updates

Joe Biden has issued an executive order targeting Israeli settlers in the West Bank who have been attacking Palestinians, amid fast-growing frustration in Washington at Israel’s trajectory in the midst of its war in Gaza.

The order initially imposes financial sanctions and visa bans against four individuals, and US officials said they were evaluating whether to punish others involved in attacks that have intensified during the Israel-Hamas war.

According to at least one report before the executive order, options included the potential to sanction officials.

Palestinian authorities say some Palestinians have been killed, and rights groups say settlers have torched cars and attacked several small Bedouin communities, forcing evacuations.

In the order, Biden said that extremist settler violence in the West Bank had “reached intolerable levels and constitutes a serious threat to the peace, security and stability of the West Bank and Gaza, Israel, and the broader Middle East region”.

He said: “These actions undermine the foreign policy objectives of the United States, including the viability of a two-state solution and ensuring Israelis and Palestinians can attain equal measures of security, prosperity, and freedom.

“They also undermine the security of Israel and have the potential to lead to broader regional destabilisation across the Middle East, threatening United States personnel and interests.”

Biden has been facing growing criticism for his administration’s strong support of Israel as casualties mount in the conflict, which began when Hamas, the militant group that rules Gaza, attacked Israel on 7 October.

The order is a rare step against the US’s closest ally in the Middle East as Biden has pressed Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to show greater restraint in its military operations aimed at rooting out Hamas.

Biden and other senior US officials have warned repeatedly that Israel must act to stop violence by Israeli settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank, which Palestinian authorities and activists say has intensified since the Gaza war started.

The Biden administration had also considered moves targeting two far-right Israeli ministers, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, according to a report on the Axios website.

Last month a US visa ban was announced for any Israeli settlers implicated in attacks on Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.

The new order will give the Treasury department the authority to impose financial sanctions on settlers engaged in violence, but is not meant to target US citizens. A substantial number of the settlers in the West Bank hold US citizenship and they would be prohibited under US law from transacting with the sanctioned individuals.

Israel is facing growing international discontent over its repeated refusal to contemplate the establishment of a viable Palestinian state, amid growing warnings that countries including the US and the UK may be considering unilateral recognition of statehood.

After comments by the UK foreign secretary, David Cameron, last week that the UK might consider recognition on the day after the war in Gaza ends, US officials have indicated that the state department has been ordered to examine options for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with security guarantees for Israel.

The state department’s spokesperson, Matthew Miller, declined to give details on its internal work on the issue but told a news briefing that the effort had been an objective of Biden’s administration.

The US and the UK, among other states, have long held up the goal of a Palestinian state as part of a negotiated peace process but recent moves in the midst of the Gaza war have highlighted the increasing sense of international frustration with Netanyahu, who has long worked to prevent a Palestinian state.

The Israeli prime minister has in recent weeks spoken of an extended period of military security control by Israel in Gaza while rejecting a role for any revitalised Palestinian Authority.

Washington and London appear to have indicated a change in emphasis in the sequencing of a recognition of a Palestinian state, which in the past was seen as the final step.

Miller told a state department briefing that the US was “actively pursuing the establishment as an independent Palestinian state, with real security guarantees for Israel, because we do believe that is the best way to bring about lasting peace and security for Israel, for Palestinians and for the region”.

He added: “There are any number of ways that you could go about accomplishing that. There are a number of sequencing of events that you can carry out to accomplish that objective. And we look at a wide range of options and we discuss those with partners in the region as well as other partners inside the United States government.”

Lord Cameron said the issue of recognising a Palestinian state would be part of a diplomatic process in which the Palestinian people would have to be shown “irreversible progress”.

Axios reported on Wednesday that the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, had asked the state department to conduct a review and present policy options on possible US and international recognition of a Palestinian state after the war in Gaza.

The executive order comes as Biden was due to visit Michigan on Thursday to rally support from union members in a key presidential battleground state. The Democratic president has faced sharp criticism from Arab and Muslim leaders over his handling of the war with Hamas, and the shadow of the conflict has some Democrats worrying that it could have a major effect on the outcome of the November election.

IsraelCampaign in Gaza ‘plausibly’ amounts to genocide, US court finds

Israel’s campaign in Gaza ‘plausibly’ amounts to genocide, US court finds

But federal judge in California says lawsuit aimed at stopping US military support for Israel is outside court’s jurisdiction

  • Middle East crisis – live updates

A federal court in California has ruled that Israel’s military campaign in Gaza “plausibly” amounts to genocide, but dismissed a case aimed at stopping US military support for Israel as being outside the court’s jurisdiction.

“There are rare cases in which the preferred outcome is inaccessible to the court. This is one of those cases,” the US district court in the northern district of California ruled. “The court is bound by precedent and the division of our coordinate branches of government to abstain from exercising jurisdiction in this matter.

“Yet, as the ICJ [the international court of justice] has found, it is plausible that Israel’s conduct amounts to genocide,” the judge in the case, Jeffrey White, said in his ruling, in a case brought by Palestinian human rights groups and individual Palestinians against President Joe Biden, Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, and Lloyd Austin, the defence secretary.

“This court implores defendants to examine the results of their unflagging support of the military siege against the Palestinians in Gaza,” the ruling said.

The judge explained his decision that the matter lay outside the jurisdiction of his court, because the Palestinian groups were asking it to interfere with US foreign policy.

“Because any determination to challenge the decision of the executive branch of government on support of Israel is fraught with serious political questions, the claims presented by plaintiffs here lie outside the court’s limited jurisdiction,” White said.

The Palestinian groups and their lawyers said they might appeal against the dismissal of the case, but welcomed the judge’s judgment on the potential for genocide.

“While we strongly disagree with the court’s ultimate jurisdictional ruling, we urge the Biden administration to heed the judge’s call to examine and end its deadly course of action,” said Katherine Gallagher, the senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights who argued the case before the court.

In his ruling, White referred extensively the genocide case brought against Israel by South Africa in the ICJ in The Hague, which issued “provisional measures” on 26 January calling on Israel to “take all measures within its power” to prevent acts covered by the genocide convention and to ensure “with immediate effect” that its forces do not commit any of the acts covered by the convention.

Israel rejected the ICJ measures as representing a “profoundly distorted” view of the Gaza war that was “barely distinguishable” from that of Hamas.

In his Oakland hearing, White heard evidence from experts on genocide and said in his ruling “the undisputed evidence before this Court comports with the finding of the ICJ and indicates that the current treatment of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip by the Israeli military may plausibly constitute a genocide in violation of international law”.

USDefence secretary orders reprisal strikes against Iranian-backed militia

US orders reprisal strikes against Iranian-backed militia

Strikes expected to take place in Syria and possibly Iraq, after three US soldiers were killed at a base in Jordan

  • Middle East crisis – live updates

The US has ordered a series of reprisal strikes to be launched over more than one day against an Iranian-backed militia, the US defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, has said.

Austin said all drones in the region attacking the US were of Iranian origin. The retaliatory strikes are expected to hit militia in Syria and possibly Iraq, though Austin did not specify the timing or precise location.

“We will have a multi-tier response and we have the ability to respond a number of times depending on the situation,” he said at a Pentagon press conference on Thursday. “We look to hold the people responsible for this accountable and we also seek to take away capability as we go forward.”

Austin insisted that a lot of thought in Washington had gone into ensuring that the US response did not trigger a major escalation.

“There are ways to manage this so it doesn’t spiral out of control, and that’s been our focus throughout,” the defense secretary said.

Three US soldiers were killed and more than 30 injured by a drone strike on a relatively small US base on the border between Jordan, Iraq and Syria on Sunday. They were the first US military deaths by hostile fire since the Israel-Hamas war began on 7 October.

Iran has repeatedly warned the US not to launch any strike on Iranian territory, saying if the US escalates in this way its response will be swift and dramatic.

Austin stressed the US was not at war with Iran and Washington did not know if Tehran was aware of the specific drone strikes on Sunday mounted by what he described as the axis of resistance.

He said in a sense “it did not matter since we do know that Iran sponsors these groups and funds these groups, and in some cases trains these groups”.

Austin said that without Iranian facilitation, these attacks could not be mounted. He sidestepped claims that US delays in responding meant senior Iranian military advisers had left Syria for Iran where they were less likely to face a US attack.

Asked about the announcement by the Iranian-backed militia Kata’ib Hezbollah that it was suspending its attacks on US bases inside Iraq, he said: “We always listen to what people are saying, and we also watch what they do. Actions are everything so we will see what they do.”

The Emirati-based newspaper, the National, reported on Thursday that a senior Iranian commander had travelled to Baghdad and met Tehran-backed militants to urge an immediate de-escalation.

Austin acknowledged that there had been 160 strikes on US bases in Syria and Iraq since the Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October.

He described most of them as ineffective, adding that the US was able to defend itself. “When we conduct a strike we are going to take away capability. This particular attack [on Sunday] was egregious and on the sleeping areas of our base.”

He said: “We will respond at a time and place of our choosing. Iranian proxy groups have been attacking our troops before 7 October.”

He said there was no set formula in meeting the US’s competing objectives of holding the right people accountable, doing everything to protect its troops and avoiding escalation.

The Biden administration is under competing pressures in the wake of the fatal attack on a US base, as the presidential re-election campaign begins in earnest. Republicans are accusing Biden of weakness and of leaving American troops as sitting ducks in the region.

The White House believes it has to elevate its response so as to deter further attacks but to stop short of triggering a major escalation. The president’s priority in the wake of the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war has been to limit the spread of the conflict, and at all cost avert a direct US-Iranian conflict.

US officials believe that if they can broker a ceasefire in Gaza, it will ease the pressure on US forces in the Red Sea and across the region. Qatar claimed on Thursday night that Hamas had given an “initial positive confirmation” of a deal involving a truce and a hostage release.

In his remarks on Thursday, Austin justified the US and UK joint strikes on Houthi positions in Yemen, saying Houthis continued to do things that were very irresponsible and illegal.

“We are going to be serious about freedom of navigation or not. There are others in the world watching us to see how serious we are and we are serious.

“It is costing countries and companies a significant amount of money,” he added, calling on Iran to cease supplying Houthis with advanced weapons to attack commercial shipping.

No evidence existed as yet that China was putting pressure on Iran in turn to direct the Houthis to stop the attacks and end arms supplies, he said.

Three girls die after FGM rituals

Three girls die after FGM rituals in Sierra Leone

Children’s parents and those who performed the procedure are in police custody, according to local reports

Police in Sierra Leone are investigating the deaths of three girls who underwent female genital mutilation (FGM).

Adamsay Sesay, 12; Salamatu Jalloh, 13; and Kadiatu Bangura, 17, died during initiation ceremonies in the country’s North West province last month, according to local reports.

Aminata Koroma, the executive secretary of the Forum Against Harmful Practices (FAHP), an organisation working to end FGM in Sierra Leone, said the girls’ parents and those who cut them were in police custody.

FGM involves the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, and is considered a violation of women’s and girls’ human rights. In 2012 the UN passed a resolution to ban it, but it is still practised in about 30 countries.

Unicef will publish new figures on its global prevalence next month, but current estimates show at least 200 million women and girls have been subjected to FGM.

Despite calls from activists and human rights advocates for the practice to be criminalised – including from the UN special rapporteur on violence against women and girlsit remains legal in Sierra Leone. A national survey in 2019 found that 83% of women had undergone FGM, a slight drop from 90% in 2013.

The procedure is part of a traditional initiation ritual that marks a girl’s entry into womanhood. It is carried out by soweis, senior members of the all-women Bondo secret societies.

FAHP is lobbying for a law that would criminalise FGM, and is working to promote alternative rite-of-passage ceremonies that forgo the practice. Last year, the organisation piloted FGM-free initiation ceremonies in three districts, and it hopes to extend the trial to two more this year. “The results have been very encouraging,” said Koroma.

“There are many positive aspect of the Bondo societies,” she said. “They teach girls about medicinal properties of plants and pass down the history of our culture. Our slogan is, ‘Say yes to Bondo, no to cutting.’”

Research has found that the most effective FGM-free ceremonies are still those facilitated by the soweis.

“When we meet with soweis they often say that FGM is an important source of income for them,” Koroma said. “Families can spend between $300 and $400 on the whole ceremony, which lasts three weeks. We have to be able to replace it with something else.”

She added: “People’s minds about FGM are changing but it is a gradual change. I don’t think I will see FGM completely eradicated in my lifetime, but I am very optimistic about the new generation. They will be the ones to end it.”

In 2021, Maseray Sei, 21, from Bonthe district in southern Sierra Leone died from complications after undergoing FGM. A practitioner was charged with manslaughter but the case was dismissed due to an error in a medical report on Sei’s death.

Divya Srinivasan, who leads on ending harmful practices at the NGO Equality Now, said: “It is completely unacceptable that despite women and girls continuing to die from FGM in Sierra Leone, there remains complete apathy from the government and an unwillingness to take desperately needed action to prevent these deaths or prohibit the practice.”

Gas explosion kills at least three and injures hundreds

Kenya gas explosion kills at least three and injures hundreds

More than 270 taken to hospital and death toll expected to rise after truck blast sets off inferno in Nairobi

A vehicle loaded with gas has exploded and set off an inferno that burned homes and warehouses in Kenya’s capital, killing at least three people and injuring more than 270, with the death toll expected to rise.

Many people were probably inside their homes when the fire reached their houses late in the night in the Mradi area of the Nairobi neighbourhood of Embakasi, said the government spokesperson, Isaac Mwaura.

The truck explosion ignited a huge fireball, and a flying gas cylinder set off a fire that burned down the Oriental Godown, a garments and textiles warehouse, Mwaura said. Several other vehicles and businesses were damaged by the inferno that started at about 11.30pm local time (2030 GMT) on Thursday.

At the scene after daybreak, several houses and shops were burned out. The shell of the vehicle believed to have started the explosion was lying on its side. The roof of a four-storey residential building about 200 metres from the scene of the explosion was broken by a flying gas cylinder. Electric wires lay on the ground. Nothing remained in the burned-out warehouse except the shells of several trucks.

Alfred Juma, an aspiring politician, said he heard loud noise from a gas cylinder in a warehouse next to his house. “I started waking up neighbours asking them to leave,” Juma said.

He said he warned a black car not to drive through the area, but the driver insisted and his vehicle stalled because of the fumes. “He attempted to start the car three times and that’s when there was an explosion and the fire spread into the [warehouse] setting off other explosions.”

He said he grabbed two children and they hid in a sewage ditch until the explosions ended. His family had not been present, but Juma lost everything he owned in the fire.

Another resident, Caroline Karanja, said: “Police were turning away everyone and so it was difficult to access my house and I had to seek a place to sleep until this morning.” She said the smell and smoke were still choking, and she would have to stay away for a while because she had young children.

Police and the Kenya Red Cross reported three deaths. The toll could rise after daybreak, said Wesley Kimeto, the Embakasi police chief.

The government and Red Cross said 271 people with injuries were taken to several hospitals.

The proximity of the industrial company to housing raised questions about enforcement of city plans. Officials at the county government have been accused of taking bribes to overlook building codes and regulations.

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Ex-minister calls for review of how chemical assault suspect gained asylum

Tory ex-minister calls for review of how chemical assault suspect gained asylum

Robert Jenrick says granting of asylum to Abdul Ezedi despite sexual assault conviction raises serious concerns

  • Clapham chemical attack – latest updates

A former immigration minister has called on the home secretary to conduct a “detailed review” of how a refugee who is being hunted over a corrosive substance attack was granted asylum.

Robert Jenrick, who quit the government last year after pushing for a tougher approach to the Rwanda deportation plan, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the case raised “very serious concerns”.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has confirmed the suspect, Abdul Ezedi, was convicted of sexual assault and exposure in 2018.

Ezedi, 35, from the Newcastle area, is on the run after an attack in south London on Wednesday left a girl and her mother with potentially life-changing injuries.

Ezedi, reportedly from Afghanistan, was granted asylum after two failed attempts and after the 2018 convictions. He is understood to have been allowed to stay in the country after a priest confirmed he had converted to Christianity.

Jenrick told the BBC: “It appears, from what little we know of this case, that this is an individual whose asylum or humanitarian protection in the UK was granted by a tribunal, so probably by a judge rather than Home Office officials, despite the fact that he had been convicted of a sexual offence and on the basis of evidence which, we shall have to see, may well be spurious or insubstantial, such as this suggestion that he had converted to Christianity.

“I think we need to investigate the particular circumstances. We shouldn’t jump to conclusions, and I would expect the home secretary to conduct a detailed review of what has happened and what may have gone seriously wrong in this case, and to put that information in the public domain, such is the public interest.”

Ezedi pleaded guilty to one charge of sexual assault and one of exposure, the CPS said. He was sentenced at Newcastle crown court on 9 January 2018 to a nine-week jail term suspended for two years for the sexual assault. For the exposure he was given 36 weeks’ imprisonment to be served consecutively, which was also suspended for two years.

Emergency services were called to Lessar Avenue, in Clapham, at about 7.25pm on Wednesday after a man doused the 31-year-old woman and her two daughters, aged three and eight, with what detectives called an alkaline substance. The victims were taken to hospital, along with passersby and police officers who were injured when they tried to help.

The family were in a stable condition in hospital on Thursday afternoon.

The Metropolitan police have alerted other forces in case Ezedi tries to flee London. Supt Gabriel Cameron said Ezedi was last seen in the Caledonian Road area of north London, and was believed to have travelled from the north-east of England to carry out the attack.

Detectives shared a new photo of Abdul Ezedi on Thursday, calling him “dangerous” and highlighting the maimed right side of his face while appealing for witnesses to come forward.

Chemical assaultsHow common are they and what’s the law

Chemical assaults: how common are they and what’s the law?

As a manhunt is underway for a corrosive substance attack, we look at availability of products and legislation

  • Clapham chemical attack – latest updates

A manhunt is under way for the perpetrator of a corrosive substance attack in south London.

Here we take a look at corrosive substance attacks, what they are, how often they occur and the relevant legislation.

What is a corrosive substance attack?

Acid attacks are a form of violent assault involving the act of throwing acid or a similarly corrosive substance on to someone’s body with the intention to harm or kill, according to the UK charity Acid Survivors Trust International (Asti).

“Given its nature, the effects of an acid attack prompt instant and excruciating pain, and injuries cause life-changing disabilities,” it says.

It is understood an alkaline substance was used in the attack in Clapham.

Where do attackers get the corrosive substances from?

Acids and alkaline-based substances are available from retailers, in store and online. Strong household cleaners contain strong acids and alkalis. Products such as bleach and oven cleaner are alkaline substances.

How common are corrosive substance attacks?

The Metropolitan police chief, Sir Mark Rowley, says they are “exceedingly rare”.

Using freedom of information requests, Asti obtained figures that show the police in England and Wales recorded 710 corrosive substance attacks in 2022, the most recent data available. This was up from 421 in 2021 during the Covid pandemic.

They peaked at 949 in 2017 before new legislation targeting the sale and possession of corrosive substances was introduced.

NHS data for England shows 82 admissions to hospital in 2022-2023, and in earlier years roughly averages about 100 admissions a year. The region with the highest number of admissions in the most recent years was the north-west.

What is the law?

New measures targeting attacks with corrosive substances came into force in 2022.

They were part of the Offensive Weapons Act of 2019, which introduced two new offences: selling a corrosive product (both over the counter and online) to a person under the age of 18; and possessing a corrosive substance in a public place without good reason or lawful authority.

Possession of a corrosive substance in a public place carries a prison sentence of up to four years. It was already a crime under the Offences against the Person Act 1861 to use a corrosive substance with intent to inflict grievous bodily harm. This offence carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Protesting farmers block crossings on Dutch-Belgian border

Local authorities said this morning that several border crossings between Belgium and the Netherlands were blocked as farmers protest.

Protesting farmers block crossings on Dutch-Belgian border

Local authorities said this morning that several border crossings between Belgium and the Netherlands were blocked as farmers protest.

Russian warship believed sunk by sea drones near Crimea

Ukraine thought to have sunk Russian warship near occupied Crimea

Overnight drone attack deals another blow to Moscow’s fleet and demonstrates Kyiv’s expanding power in Black Sea

Ukrainian forces are believed to have sunk the Russian Ivanovets warship near occupied Crimea in a sophisticated overnight attack by multiple sea drones, demonstrating Kyiv’s expanding power in the Black Sea.

Ukraine’s military intelligence published a grainy video showing several sea drones attacking the Russian corvette, ending with three dramatic images showing it listing, exploding and sinking into the water.

Ukraine said the boat had been sunk, as did leading Russian military bloggers. Hours later, western officials said they believed the warship had been destroyed in an attack that used long range uncrewed drones.

The Ukrainian defence ministry said in a statement: “As a result of a number of direct hits to the hull, the corvette was damaged, rolled to the stern, and sank. The value of the ship is approximately $60m-$70m [£47m-£55m].”

The Ivanovets is a small missile warship that usually holds a crew of about 40 people. It was not immediately clear if there were casualties, although it is highly likely given the speed and intensity of the attack.

Russia did not immediately comment on the incident, but a number of pro-Kremlin military bloggers close to Moscow confirmed that the Ivanovets warship was hit.

“During the night, the enemy sank the Ivanovets, a large missile boat,” wrote influential Russian military blogger Anastasia Kashevarova on her telegram channel. A second blogger said it had been hit three times, and the crew “fought to the last” to keep the ship afloat.

Although Ukraine began the war with no navy, scuttling its only frigate to prevent it from falling into Russian hands, Kyiv has gradually pushed back on Moscow’s early dominance of the Black Sea through long range missile attacks and the innovative use of sea drones.

As a result, Moscow has been forced to withdraw the bulk of its Black Sea fleet from its main base in Crimea to Novorossiysk on the Russian mainland – while Ukraine has been able to restart grain exports from Odesa and other nearby ports, bringing them back to prewar levels.

Created by the Ukrainians, the sea drones, based on modified jetskis, cost in the tens of thousands of dollars, operate in swarms and can be controlled remotely. The video released by the defence ministry is based on a selection of live video feeds from the drones, right up to the moment of impact in some cases.

Kyiv has carried out a number of attacks with sea drones, targeting military ships, the base in Sevastopol and Novorossiysk harbour. It has also sunk Russian warships using conventional means, most notably the flagship Moskva, hit with two Neptune cruise missiles in April 2022, forcing its crew of 500 to abandon ship.

Ukraine’s SBU intelligence service also said it used remotely controlled sea drones during an attack last year on the Russian-built Kerch Bridge connecting Crimea to the mainland.

Two “Sea Baby” drones packed with 850kg of explosives each damaged the road bridge, forcing it to be temporarily closed.

Grant Shapps, the UK defence secretary, said last year that Russia had lost up to 20% of its Black Sea fleet during the last four months of the year.

Ukraine’s successes in the Black Sea offer a rare bright spot for the country, whose forces have moved on to the defensive across several fronts after a failed summer counteroffensive.

Valerii Zaluzhnyi, Ukraine’s chief military commander, highlighted the country’s success in drone development in his first public comments since it emerged this week that the president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, had asked him to resign amid a series of political disagreements between the two. Zaluzhnyi declined to go, prompting speculation he would be sacked instead.

In an article for CNN, Zaluzhnyi said that while Moscow enjoyed a “significant advantage” over Kyiv because it had more soldiers and artillery, Ukraine had rapidly developed “new capabilities”, especially in the field of “unmanned weapons systems”.

“They are proliferating at a breathtaking pace and the scope of their applications grows ever wider,” Zaluzhnyi wrote.

“Crucially, it is these unmanned systems – such as drones – along with other types of advanced weapons, that provide the best way for Ukraine to avoid being drawn into a positional war, where we do not possess the advantage.”

The army chief argued that remote technology reduced the level of human losses and made Ukraine’s military less reliant on conventional armoured vehicles or “heavy materiel”.

He added: “It opens up the possibility of inflicting sudden massive strikes against critical infrastructure facilities and communications hubs without deploying expensive missiles or manned aircraft.”

New Zealand steps up interest in military pact as Pacific security concerns grow

New Zealand steps up interest in Aukus as Pacific security concerns grow

Australia to send delegation to NZ ‘very shortly’ to brief on second pillar of Aukus alliance after ministers meet in Melbourne

New Zealand has stepped up its interest in joining the non-nuclear pillar of Aukus, amid China’s growing presence in the Pacific and broader concerns over a “reshaped world”.

New Zealand’s foreign minister Winston Peters – also a deputy prime minister – and the defence minister, Judith Collins, travelled to Melbourne to meet with their Australian counterparts, Penny Wong and Richard Marles, for the inaugural “2+2” Australia and New Zealand foreign and defence ministers’ meeting on Thursday.

Talks between the countries focused on approaches to foreign policy, security and defence, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region.

In a joint press conference, defence minister Marles announced an Australian delegation would travel to New Zealand “very shortly” to brief officials on the second pillar of the Aukus pact – a security partnership between Australia, the UK, and US prompted by China’s growing influence in the region, and which is centred on the Australian navy receiving nuclear-powered submarines.

The second “pillar” of Aukus covers the sharing of advanced military technologies, including quantum computing and artificial intelligence. New Zealand has not been offered the chance to join pillar one, nor would it accept, due to its anti-nuclear position.

Peters said that discussions taking place between the two countries in the current global climate were “of far greater acuity and importance than it’s ever been in the lifetime of anybody in this room”.

In 2022, China struck a security pact with Solomon Islands, alarming Washington and Canberra. In January, the Pacific nation of Nauru switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China, and this week, Papua New Guinea’s foreign minister, Justin Tkatchenko, confirmed the country was in early talks with Beijing on a potential security and policing deal.

Collins hoped Australian officials would travel to New Zealand for an Aukus briefing “as soon as possible”.

“We really want to look at what the opportunities are and whether or not its something we could be part of,” Collins said, adding that New Zealand could offer space and technology expertise.

The ministers hoped to increase “interoperability” and “interchangeability” between the two countries’ defence forces, making it easier for forces to operate alongside each other and exchange similarly trained personnel and equipment.

When asked if joining Aukus – which China has labelled a cold war-era pact that would be dangerous for the region – could sour the relationship with New Zealand’s biggest trading partner, Peters said: “China is a country that practises something I have got a lot of time for – they practise their national interest … and that’s what we’re doing”.

The Chinese embassy in Wellington also issued a statement on Friday saying: “Like all peace-loving countries, China has serious concerns over Aukus.”

“It is hoped that relevant countries will cherish the hard-won environment for peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region, and be prudent with their words and action,” the statement added. 

An editorial published by China Daily, the English-language official state mouthpiece of Beijing, warned that New Zealand was risking its relationship with China.

“Whatever role New Zealand is being solicited to play in joining Aukus, it would no doubt cast a shadow on bilateral ties and even offset what has been achieved in advancing bilateral cooperation,” it said.

Wellington has historically taken a more conciliatory approach towards China than Australia or its other Five Eyes security partners, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom.

But in recent years, New Zealand has become increasingly vocal on issues including human rights, the international rules-based order and potential militarisation of the Pacific. In 2022, China’s activities in the region prompted New Zealand to begin developing its own maritime security “work plans” with Solomon Islands and in 2023, signed a defence agreement with Fiji to strengthen military training and maritime security.

Speaking to SkyNews on Thursday Peters said there had been “external interest” in the Pacific because countries with traditional interests had “neglected” the region.

“When you have a vacuum being formed, it will be filled,” Peters said.

New Zealand seeks to be a positive influence in the Pacific and to treat its neighbours “as equals”, he said.

During the joint press conference, Australia’s foreign affairs minister Wong stressed the importance of Australia and New Zealand’s relationship at a time when the world is being “reshaped”.

“We often speak about having come to this government at a time of the most difficult or challenging strategic circumstances since the second world war – I think we do live in times where the world, the region, is being reshaped,” she said, adding that Australia and New Zealand has a role in ensuring peace, stability and prosperity within the region.

Teenage pair who killed transgender schoolgirl are named

Brianna Ghey’s teenage murderers named ahead of sentencing

Scarlett Jenkinson and Eddie Ratcliffe, both 16, killed trans schoolgirl after developing ‘warped’ obsession with torture

Two teenagers who murdered Brianna Ghey have been named for the first time before sentencing.

Scarlett Jenkinson and Eddie Ratcliffe, both 16 and described by police as “really intelligent kids”, can now be named as the killers after a judge lifted reporting restrictions.

Manchester crown court heard that since her conviction, Jenkinson had admitted taking part in the stabbing of Brianna, 16, an “out and proud” transgender girl with a large TikTok following. Jenkinson had previously blamed Ratcliffe for the murder.

She told a psychiatrist she had stabbed Brianna “repeatedly” and had found it “exciting”, and that she killed her because she thought Brianna would stop being her friend. She murdered Brianna so she would “always be with her”, the court heard.

Deanna Heer KC, prosecuting, said a psychiatrist who had previously assessed Jenkinson went to see her in the secure unit where she has been held since her arrest.

“On that occasion she gave a different account. She said effectively … that at the time of the killing she had in fact administered stab wounds herself. She said she had snatched the knife from Eddie’s hand and stabbed Brianna repeatedly. She said that Eddie had thrown Brianna to the floor and stabbed her three and four times, then he panicked and said he didn’t want to kill her, so she carried on and stabbed her a number of times. When asked how many she said ‘a lot’.

“She said she understood she had stabbed Brianna enough times to kill her and was excited by what she was doing.

“She said she enjoyed thinking about the plan to kill Brianna but her motivation for doing so was because she considered Brianna a friend and anticipated that Brianna was going to leave her and she wanted to kill her so that she would always be with her.”

Jenkinson also admitted to the psychiatrist that she “intended to take parts of Brianna’s body as a token”. She had previously told Radcliffe she wanted to keep Brianna’s “pretty eyes”.

The court heard that Brianna was stabbed 28 times, but there is no evidence that any of her body parts were taken by her killers.

In addition, Jenkinson admitted she had tried to poison Brianna a few weeks before the murder with red ibuprofen tablets “pretending that they would get her high”. The court heard Brianna was very ill around that time, and that her mother, Esther Ghey, thought she had appendicitis. She recalled Brianna being very sick, and there were red blobs in her vomit, which she thought at the time were red grape skins.

Jenkinson and Ratcliffe met, aged 11, at Culcheth high school in Warrington and stayed friends after Scarlett moved to Birchwood high school in autumn 2022, following an incident involving her bringing cannabis edibles into class.

It was at Birchwood that Jenkinson befriended Brianna, who did not attend ordinary lessons because of problems with anxiety and an eating disorder.

Jenkinson, whose mother is a secondary school teacher, told Ratcliffe she had become “obsessed” with Brianna, and she soon put her on a list of children the teenagers wanted to kill. The others were four boys they disliked: one Ratcliffe thought was a “nonce”, another the boy considered a love rival, and two who had been mean to Jenkinson’s boyfriend.

Brianna became their focus after they failed to lure one of the others out via a fake social media profile. She would be “easier” to kill, they agreed, in one of thousands of text messages exchanged in the run-up to the murder on 11 February last year.

The teenagers plotted her murder meticulously at the age of 15, with Jenkinson handwriting a plan for how, where and when they would stab Brianna. They even had a code word – “gay” – to signal the start of the attack in Culcheth Linear Park in Warrington.

They carried it out almost to the letter, stabbing Brianna 28 times before they were disturbed by a couple walking their dogs.

Afterwards, they sent each other a series of media reports about the killing, feigning ignorance about the attack.

But the mask soon slipped, with Jenkinson asking Ratcliffe: “Do you have anxiety about getting caught?” He said: “probably”, to which she replied: “You’re not going to get caught don’t worry. Police are shite here.”

Ratcliffe met Brianna for the first time on the day of the murder. While planning the killing, he repeatedly referred to her not as “she”, but “it” and said he “just wanted to see what size dick it has”. Giving evidence, he insisted he was not transphobic, and blamed the murder on Jenkinson.

But it was his hunting knife, bought on a ski trip to Bulgaria over the 2022-23 Christmas break, that was used to stab Brianna.

Police found it in his bedroom after his arrest, the day after the killing. Brianna’s DNA and his were detected on the knife. Brianna’s blood was also discovered on his shoes and coat.

There was no forensic evidence linking Jenkinson to the weapon, and no spots of blood were found on her clothing. After her arrest, Jenkinson made up a story about Brianna “going off with a lad from Manchester” but then blamed Ratcliffe when confronted with the extent of evidence against the pair.

In the dock, the teenagers never looked at each other and were separated by security guards and intermediaries employed to ensure they understood the court process.

The prosecution told the jury they did not have to decide which teenager killed Brianna, or whether they both stabbed her, because it was a joint enterprise murder.

Ursula Doyle, the deputy chief crown prosecutor for the Crown Prosecution Service, said: “It was never necessary to prove who inflicted what wound upon Brianna. The case was that they planned it together, they attended the scene together. And effectively, one or both of them carried out the actual act.”

Both killers had relatively stable home lives, with their parents sitting in the courtroom during the trial while Brianna’s mother, Esther Ghey, watched from the public balcony.

The teenagers were “both really intelligent kids”, according to DS Mike Evans, the head of crime for Cheshire police.

Though Ratcliffe was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder after his arrest, and Jenkinson with “traits” of autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, both were “quite high-functioning”, said Evans. “I think that’s brought a level of arrogance or certainly confidence,” he added, describing them as “two warped individuals”.

Manchester crown court heard that after he was charged with Brianna’s murder, Ratcliffe stopped talking. He was diagnosed with “selective mutism”, speaking only to his mother. The trial was delayed for months as his legal team struggled to take instructions from him.

When it eventually began, at the end of last year, he was given special dispensation by the judge, Mrs Justice Yip, to type his evidence, telling the jury that science was his favourite subject at school and he had wanted to study microbiology at university.

Giving evidence, Jenkinson admitted to an obsession with what her barrister called “dark materials” but said it was all fantasy that she had never acted on.

She had downloaded a special browser on her phone to watch “real” murders and torture on the dark web, and kept detailed notes about serial killers including Richard Ramirez, the “Night Stalker”.

Days before the murder, Jenkinson said she was “excited AF [as fuck]” and that she wanted “to see the pure horror on [Brianna’s face] and hear her scream in pain”.

The prosecution did not have to offer a motive for the murder. Interviewed by police, Ratcliffe suggested Jenkinson hated Brianna because she “tried to break her and her boyfriend up”, which Jenkinson viewed as “unforgivable”.

Giving evidence, Jenkinson insisted she and Brianna remained friends, and that she found her attractive.

Cheshire police said they did not believe the murder was motivated by transphobia. “I think if it hadn’t been Brianna, it would have been one of the other four children on that list,” Evans said. “It’s just that Brianna was the one who was accessible at that time, and then became the focus of those desires.”

Facebook founder to receive $700m from Meta dividends

Mark Zuckerberg to receive $700m from Meta dividends

Facebook’s parent company to pay out to shareholders as it reports $40bn revenues for final quarter

  • Meta revenue soars as it pivots to AI

Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Meta, the parent company of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, is expected to receive $700m (£549m) a year in dividends.

On Thursday, Meta announced it would pay its first-ever quarterly dividend to investors since Facebook floated on the stock market in 2012, after beating Wall Street expectations with $40bn in revenues for the final quarter last year.

The company reported a tripling of quarterly profits to $14bn as advertising sales rebounded, despite Meta cutting 22% of staff by reducing the total headcount to about 19,000, and it launched a $50bn share buyback.

Zuckerberg also announced that the business, which turns 20 this month, would pay its first dividend as a public company of 50 cents a share. Meta said the $1.25bn to investors would be the first of regular payouts.

Zuckerberg holds about 350m shares, meaning that if Meta makes roughly the same level of dividend payouts each quarter, he stands to take home about $700m over the course of the first year of the policy.

The 39-year-old took home $27m in total compensation in 2022, the most recent year full remuneration figures were available.

Meta came in for criticism at a US Senate judiciary committee hearing on Wednesday, which was convened to interrogate Zuckerberg and other tech executives over their platforms’ impact on young users. The chief executive offered condolences to parents whose children had died after online exploitation.

Throughout the hearing, Congress members touted legislation that could strip Meta and other platforms of legal immunity for content posted on its platforms. This comes months after Meta was hit with a massive lawsuit by the attorneys general of 41 states over its impact on young users.

New Mexico’s attorney general has also sued the company for allegedly failing to prevent child sexual exploitation and trafficking.

Meta has been contacted for comment.

Suspected spy pigeon released after eight months in detention in India

Flight risk: suspected spy pigeon released after eight months in detention in India

The pigeon was found last May with a message that was said to look like it contained Chinese characters

Indian police have cleared a suspected Chinese spy pigeon and released it into the wild after eight months in detention, according to reports in the Press Trust of India.

The pigeon’s ordeal began in May when it was captured near a port in Mumbai with two rings tied to its legs, carrying a message that was said to look like it was in Chinese, local media said. Police suspected it was involved in espionage and took it in, later sending it to Mumbai’s Bai Sakarbai Dinshaw Petit hospital for animals.

Eventually, it was revealed that the pigeon was an open-water racing bird from Taiwan that had escaped and made its way to India. With police permission, the bird was transferred to the Bombay Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, whose doctors set it free on Tuesday.

Mumbai police could not be reached for comment.

It is not the first time a bird has come under police suspicion in India.

In 2020, police in Indian-controlled Kashmir released a pigeon belonging to a Pakistani fisher after a probe found that the bird, which had flown across the heavily militarized border between the nuclear-armed nations, was not a spy.

In 2016, another pigeon was taken into custody after it was found with a note that threatened Indian prime minister Narendra Modi.