The New York Times 2024-02-06 06:36:25

Middle East Crisis: Blinken Arrives in Mideast to Rally Support for Cease-Fire Plan

Blinken meets with the Saudi crown prince, hoping to rally support to end the war in Gaza.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken arrived in the Middle East on Monday in the hopes of preventing escalating tit-for-tat attacks with Iran-backed militias from spiraling into a broader regional war, and to rally allies around a proposed cease-fire agreement for Gaza.

Mr. Blinken began his fifth trip to the region since the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel by meeting in Saudi Arabia with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, discussing how to achieve “an enduring end to the crisis in Gaza,” as well as the need to reduce tensions across the region, according to a State Department spokesman, Matthew Miller.

The secretary of state is also scheduled hold meetings with leaders in Egypt, Qatar, Israel and the West Bank — all key players in negotiations over a potential pause in the fighting in Gaza.

The Biden administration and its Arab allies are still awaiting a response from Hamas to a framework for a deal that would involve the exchange of more than 100 Israeli hostages held in Gaza for a pause in fighting and the release of Palestinians detained in Israeli jails.

A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to detail the diplomatic efforts, said Mr. Blinken would tell American allies in the region that the Biden administration’s recent strikes against Iran-backed militias should not be interpreted as an escalation of fighting in the Middle East.

American and British warplanes, with support from allies, have carried out a series of airstrikes against the Iranian-backed Houthi militia in Yemen in an effort to deter the group from attacking ships in the Red Sea.

Mr. Miller said Mr. Blinken and the crown prince discussed the “urgent need to reduce regional tensions,” citing the Houthi attacks from Yemen that are undermining freedom of navigation.

The U.S. has also conducted dozens of military strikes in recent days on targets in Iraq and Syria, in retaliation for the killing of three U.S. service members at a base near the Syrian border in Jordan.

Those strikes prompted Russia to call for an “urgent” meeting of the United Nations Security Council, which was scheduled to convene on Monday afternoon. Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, accused the United States on Saturday of further escalating conflict in the Middle East, saying the strikes demonstrated the “aggressive nature of U.S. policy” in the region.

In his conversation with Prince Mohammed, Mr. Blinken stressed the importance of addressing the humanitarian situation in Gaza, Mr. Miller said. More than 27,000 Palestinians have been killed there since Oct. 7, according to the Gazan health ministry, and nearly two million people have been displaced by the fighting.

Mr. Blinken was expected to convey American concerns about the civilian death toll in Gaza when he visits Israel on this trip.

Mr. Blinken will also discuss what diplomats call the “day-after” plans for governing Gaza after the fighting ends, including a possible role for the Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

The Biden administration is also hoping to make progress toward getting Saudi Arabia to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, a long-term objective that the United States sees as important to stabilizing the Middle East. Under a proposed deal, the United States would offer Saudi Arabia a defense treaty, help with a civilian nuclear program and increase arms sales, while the Saudis and Americans would, in theory, get Israel to accept conditions for concrete steps toward the creation of a Palestinian state in return for Saudi recognition.

Mr. Miller’s account of the meeting between Mr. Blinken and Prince Mohammed did not contain any specific references to such efforts, but said the two had discussed “building a more integrated and prosperous region and reaffirmed the strategic partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia.”

Hamas is still weighing a proposal to halt fighting.

Israel was waiting on Monday for Hamas officials to respond to a proposal to pause the fighting in the Gaza Strip and release the remaining hostages there, as Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken returned to the region seeking to rally support for such a deal.

A broadcaster affiliated with Hamas, Al-Aqsa, reported on Sunday that Hamas was still holding consultations on the proposal, a week after it was formulated. Leaders of the group had previously signaled that substantial gaps remained between the two sides, even as representatives from the United States, Egypt and Qatar sought common ground.

Mr. Blinken, who landed in Saudi Arabia on Monday afternoon, is hoping to advance talks on the framework of an agreement to halt the fighting in Gaza and return hostages that have been held there for nearly four months.

Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, told CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday that “the ball is in Hamas’s court.”

A deal that would release hostages, pause fighting and allow humanitarian aid to reach Gaza is of “paramount” importance, he added.

“We’re going to press for it relentlessly, as the president has done, including recently in calls with the leaders of Egypt and Qatar, the two countries that are our central brokers in this effort,” Mr. Sullivan said.

The Hamas-led attacks of Oct. 7, during which Israeli officials have said about 1,200 people were killed and more than 200 others taken hostage, ignited a war with Israel and touched off a wider crisis in the Middle East. Israel has traded fire with members of Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Houthi militia that controls part of Yemen has fired on ships traveling to and from the Suez Canal.

Other Iran-backed militants have launched attacks against U.S. bases in the region, including one recently that the Biden administration said killed three U.S. soldiers in Jordan.

The United States has responded to the Houthi attacks with repeated strikes, including on Sunday, and to the Jordan attack with a separate series of military strikes this weekend against Iranian forces and the militias they support at seven sites in Syria and Iraq. Top U.S. national security officials said on Sunday that further retaliation against Iran-backed militias was still planned.

But Mr. Sullivan said he believed those efforts were a separate issue from the talks intended to reach a cease-fire deal that has eluded both sides since a one-week pause in November.

“We believe that the steps that we took on Friday and the steps we took against the Houthis last night are not connected to the hostage negotiations,” he told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “And we believe that now, at this point, it’s up to Hamas to come forward and respond to what is a serious proposal.”

Maps: Tracking the Attacks in Israel and GazaSee where Israel has bulldozed vast areas of Gaza, as its invasion continues to advance south.

UNRWA, the embattled aid agency in Gaza, is set to lose $65 million by the end of February, documents show.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the main aid agency in Gaza, is set to lose $65 million by the end of February as donors’ funding cuts begin to kick in, according to internal accounting documents reviewed by The New York Times.

At least 18 states or institutions, including many of the agency’s biggest funders, announced they were suspending their donations to the agency, known as UNRWA, after accusations emerged last month that several employees participated in the Hamas-led attack on Israel on Oct. 7.

Some of those suspensions will take time to take effect. Countries deliver their donations at intervals throughout the year, and some of the countries were not scheduled to make their payments for several months. For example, the United States had already made the first of its three installments in January, and the second U.S. payment is not due until May, according to the documents.

But Finland missed a payment of $5.4 million in January, and three more countries — Germany, Japan and Sweden — are set to miss payments throughout February that are collectively worth almost $60 million.

Because UNRWA has no significant reserves, the shortfall means the agency will have no funds of its own in March to pay its 30,000 workers across the Middle East, of which 13,000 are in Gaza, according to Tamara Alrifai, a spokeswoman for UNRWA.

The agency could bridge the gap by applying for a loan from a centralized U.N. reserve, Ms. Alrifai said.

UNRWA’s operation plays a critical role in the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. More than 80 percent of Gaza’s 2.2 million people have been displaced by the war, and more than half of the population are now sheltering in repurposed schools and centers run by the agency.

UNRWA also oversees the distribution of the meager supplies of aid that arrive each day to Gaza by truck. Already, aid agencies are warning of famine amid profound food shortages and the collapse of the health care system.

Since donor states began suspending their funds, the agency has received an unusually high number of private donations from individual citizens seeking to fill the void. In the five days after the allegations surfaced, Ms. Alrifai said, UNRWA received roughly $5 million from private donors — more than the agency would typically receive from individuals during any single month.

But the donations are not enough to fund the agency for more than a few days: It has an annual budget of more than $1.5 billion, Ms. Alrifai said.

The U.N. names an outside panel to examine the workings of UNRWA.

The United Nations on Monday named the former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna to head an independent investigation into the conduct of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, in the aftermath of Israeli allegations that 12 members of the agency’s staff in Gaza participated in the Hamas-led Oct. 7 attacks.

The independent investigation is to run parallel to the U.N.’s internal investigation into the conduct of the accused workers at UNRWA, which plays a crucial role in providing shelter and aid supplies to displaced Gazans.

Ms. Colonna, who stepped down as foreign minister last month, will work with three Scandinavian groups to examine how UNRWA works and whether it needs to strengthen its methods or adopt new ones for “ensuring neutrality,” according to an announcement by the U.N. secretary general, António Guterres. That is likely to include how it vets and monitors its 13,000 workers in Gaza to be sure they are not combatants.

The agency has said that nine of the employees were fired and two were dead. The U.N. has said the accused could face criminal charges.

The Scandinavian groups are the Raoul Wallenberg Institute in Sweden, the Chr. Michelsen Institute in Norway and the Danish Institute for Human Rights. The investigators, collectively known as the Review Group, are to begin work on Feb. 14 and are expected to deliver an interim report to Mr. Guterres by late March and a final report in late April, which will be made public, the U.N. said.

The accusations against the 12 UNRWA staff members, based on Israeli intelligence gathered from their phones, led the United States, followed by more than a dozen other countries, to announce the suspension of funding to the agency while the U.N. investigated. It is set to lose $65 million by the end of February as funding cuts begin to kick in, according to internal accounting documents reviewed by The New York Times.

Mr. Guterres and other senior U.N. officials, including Philippe Lazzarini, the head of UNRWA, have warned that defunding the agency threatens the delivery of crucial aid to 2.2 million Palestinians in Gaza. They say that most of the population is displaced, at the brink of starvation and living in an active war zone, in what Mr. Guterres described as “one of the largest and most complex humanitarian crises in the world.” UNRWA says that nearly a million people are sheltering in or near its facilities.

Vedant Patel, the deputy State Department spokesman, said that the Biden administration was “looking at what options exist for supporting civilians in Gaza through partners like the World Food Program, UNICEF” and other nongovernmental organizations. Mr. Patel noted that of $10 billion earmarked for humanitarian assistance in a supplemental spending bill crafted by Senate negotiators, the department expected $1.4 billion to be allocated to Gaza.

But eight major international aid agencies, including Mercy Corps, Oxfam and the International Rescue Committee, said in a joint statement on Monday that no other aid agency could “replicate UNRWA’s central role in the humanitarian response in Gaza” and noted that “amid the current crisis, many will struggle to even maintain their current operations without UNRWA’s partnership and support.” The statement urged the donors to resume their funding.

Michael Crowley contributed reporting from Washington.

Amnesty International accuses Israeli forces of killing Palestinians in the West Bank with impunity.

Amnesty International said on Monday that Israeli forces were killing Palestinians in the West Bank with “near total impunity” as the world’s attention focused on Gaza, demanding in a new report that the International Criminal Court step up its investigation into Israel’s conduct in the Israeli-occupied area.

In the West Bank, Israeli forces have used live fire to disperse Palestinian protests, attacked people trying to help the injured and carried out deadly arrest raids that have spread fear throughout Palestinian communities, Amnesty International said in its report. It said the Israeli forces’ actions add to the country’s “well-documented track record of using excessive and often lethal force to stifle dissent and enforce its system of apartheid against Palestinians.”

The human rights organization said that Israel’s use of unlawful force in the West Bank had sharply escalated since Oct. 7, when a Hamas-led attack from Gaza killed more than 1,200 people in Israel, according to Israeli authorities. Israel’s retaliatory campaign has killed more than 27,000 Palestinians in Gaza, according to health officials there.

The Israeli military has described its actions in the West Bank as counterterrorism efforts necessary to prevent further attacks. Israel has strongly denied prior accusations that it has committed the crime of apartheid.

Israeli military operations have raised alarms from several human rights groups, including the United Nations human rights office, which called in December for Israel to “end unlawful killings” of Palestinians in the West Bank and to immediately stop the use of “military weapons and means during law enforcement operations.”

Since Oct. 7, Israeli forces in the West Bank have killed at least 360 Palestinians and injured 4,270, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said on Sunday. Last year was the deadliest for Palestinians in the West Bank since the office began recording casualties in 2005, and about 70 percent of those killings were reported during Israeli military operations, O.C.H.A. has said.

Amnesty’s report detailed its investigations into four incidents that it said were emblematic of the recent escalation, and renewed its call for the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Karim Khan, to take action. In 2021, the I.C.C. opened an investigation into allegations of war crimes committed by Israel and Palestinian militant groups in Israeli-occupied areas, but many Palestinian groups have criticized the pace and focus of the inquiry.

Amnesty’s director for global research and policy, Erika Guevara-Rosas, called for Mr. Khan to investigate the killings in the West Bank as possible war crimes, saying in the report thatan international justice system worth its salt must step in.”

Among the incidents investigated by Amnesty was an Israeli raid that began on Oct. 19 and lasted more than 24 hours in Nur Shams, an area that originated decades ago as a refugee camp for Palestinians displaced in the wars surrounding the founding of Israel. Israeli forces killed 13 Palestinians during the raid, including six children, according to Amnesty and Wafa, the official Palestinian news agency.

One of those killed during the raid, Amnesty said, was Taha Mahamid, an unarmed 15-year-old shot by Israeli forces when he peeked out of his house to see if they had left the area. His father was shot and seriously injured when he went to retrieve Taha’s body, and the family’s home was raided by Israeli forces about 12 hours later, Amnesty said.

One of Taha’s sisters told Amnesty investigators that her brother was shot in the leg, then in his stomach, then in his eye.

“They did not give him a chance,” the human rights group quoted her as saying. “In an instant, my brother was eliminated.”

Russia and China sharply criticize the U.S.-led strikes in Iraq and Syria at the U.N. Security Council.

Russia and China used an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council on Monday to sharply criticize recent U.S.-led retaliatory strikes on Iraq and Syria, calling the military action a violation of the territorial integrity of those countries that would further destabilize the Middle East.

U.S. tensions with Russia have been high since that country’s leader, Vladimir V. Putin, ordered his forces to invade Ukraine almost two years ago. The Security Council has frequently been a platform for U.S. and Russia’s spats over Ukraine, Syria and, most recently, the war in Gaza.

China has sided with Russia on those issues and maintained a consistent policy of denouncing actions that undermine a country’s sovereignty, even as its own territorial aspirations have drawn increasing U.S. opposition. In the conflicts in the Middle East, China has close ties to many of the key actors, including Russia and Iran.

Russia requested the emergency meeting, which focused on three days of American strikes that started on Friday, aimed at what the United States said were targets linked to militias backed by Iran. The U.S. strikes followed what the Pentagon said had been more than 160 attacks on American forces in the region during the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, including one on Jan. 28 that killed three U.S. soldiers at an outpost in Jordan.

Russia’s ambassador to the U.N., Vasily Nebenzya, called the strikes “another unlawful and irresponsible act of the United States in the region of Middle East” and said the country wanted to draw bigger adversaries, like Iraq and Iran, into war. The Biden administration has repeatedly said it is seeking to avoid such an expansion of hostilities, and has forecast its strikes to minimize casualties.

Mr. Nebenzya also sought to connect the strikes to the U.S. election year, saying, “We see in these ‘flex their muscles’ attempts, first of all, a desire to influence domestic political landscape in America, a desire to somehow correct the disastrous image of the current American administration on the international arena as the presidential election campaign is heating up.”

Robert Wood, a U.S. ambassador, defended the military’s actions as “necessary and proportionate” and in line with both international law and the right to self-defense. The killing of American soldiers by Iran-backed militia, he said, “was unacceptable, and attacks like this cannot continue.”

Mr. Wood blamed Iran for enabling the network of militia in the region that has opened fronts against Israel during the war in Gaza, launching near-daily attacks on U.S. soldiers and disrupting shipping in the Red Sea, a key conduit in global trade.

He urged countries with connections to Iran press it to rein in its regional proxy militias. And he said the U.S. strikes on the militias’ command and intelligence bases and logistic and supply chains had successfully degraded their capabilities.

Representatives of Syria, Iraq and Iran also condemned the U.S. strikes, saying that, in contrast to the stated U.S. aims, they had killed civilians.

China backed that criticism. “The security of one country can’t be achieved at the expense of another country,” said Zhang Jun, the Chinese ambassador to the U.N., broadly accusing the United States of using excessive force around the world and manipulating public opinion about its intentions.

And Iran’s ambassador to the body, Saeid Iravani, rejected the idea that Iran has military bases in Iraq and Syria or commands proxy militias, despite significant evidence to the contrary. He eventually took a conciliatory tone, reflecting comments from Tehran that have stopped short of threatening revenge for the strikes.

“Iran has never sought to bring its dispute with the United States into Iraq’s territory,” Mr. Iravani told the Council, reiterating Iran’s stance that it does not seek a war with the United States.

Many Council members repeated their calls for an immediate cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war, which has killed more than 27,000 people, according to the health authorities in Gaza, and has destabilized the region. Efforts to pass a resolution calling for a cease-fire have garnered wide support at the U.N. and at the Council, but have been blocked by the United States, which as a permanent member of the Security Council wields veto power. Algeria, the only Arab member of the Council, has drafted a new resolution calling for a permanent cease-fire in Gaza. Its terms are still under negotiation.

The U.N.’s top political chief, Rosemary DiCarlo, told the Council that, after the Hamas-led attacks on Israel on Oct. 7 set off the war in Gaza, the risk of a wider conflict was obvious. The attacks killed 1,200 people and led to the abduction to Gaza of 240 others, Israeli officials said.

She cautioned all sides “to step back from the brink and to consider the unbearable human and economic cost of a potential regional conflict.”

The strikes in Iraq and Syria on Friday hit most of their targets, the Pentagon says.

American warplanes destroyed or severely damaged most of the Iranian and militia targets they struck in Syria and Iraq on Friday, according to the Pentagon, the first major salvos in what President Biden and his aides have said will be a sustained campaign.

Maj. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, said on Monday that “more than 80” of some 85 targets in Syria and Iraq were destroyed or rendered inoperable. The targets, he said, included command hubs; intelligence centers; depots for rockets, missiles and attack drones; as well as logistics and ammunition bunkers.

It was the first military assessment of the strikes carried out in response to a drone attack in Jordan by an Iran-backed militia in Iraq on Jan. 28 that killed three American soldiers and injured at least 40 more service members.

“This is the start of our response, and there will be additional actions taken,” General Ryder told reporters without elaborating. “We do not seek conflict in the Middle East or anywhere else, but attacks on American forces will not be tolerated.”

But the assessment also shows the limits of the American campaign so far. In particular, U.S. officials acknowledge that the militias targeted still retain the majority of their capability to carry out future attacks.

There were no initial indications that Iranian advisers were killed in the strikes on Friday, military officials said, but General Ryder said there probably were casualties. Syria and Iraq have said that at least 39 people — 23 in Syria and 16 in Iraq — were killed in the Friday strikes, a toll that the Iraqi government said included civilians.

The attacks in the two countries, as well as U.S.-led strikes on Saturday against 36 Houthi targets in northern Yemen, have edged the region closer to a broader conflict even as the administration insists it does not want war with Iran. Instead, U.S. officials say they are focused on whittling away the militias’ formidable arsenals and deterring additional attacks against U.S. troops, as well as merchant ships in the Red Sea.

The militias seem undeterred, however. Hours after the strikes on Friday, an Iran-backed militia fired two rockets at a U.S. military outpost in northeastern Syria where troops are helping stamp out the remnants of the Islamic State. On Sunday, an explosives-laden drone was fired at another U.S. outpost in northeastern Syria. The rockets caused no damage or American injuries, the Pentagon said. On Sunday, the military’s Central Command said U.S. forces destroyed five Houthi land-based and anti-ship cruise missiles that posed an imminent threat.

On Monday, U.S. forces carried out a strike against two explosives-laden naval drones that Central Command said posed an imminent threat to ships in the region.

Overall, Iran-backed militias have carried out at least 166 drone, rocket and missile attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq, Syria and Jordan since the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas that killed 1,200 people in Israel. The Houthis have conducted at least three dozen attacks against ships in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. The militia says its attacks are in solidarity with Palestinians in the war between Israel and Hamas.

National security experts and officials say privately that to truly degrade the capability of the Shiite militias, the United States would have to carry out a yearslong campaign similar to the six-year effort to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Even then, the officials say, the militias, with Iran’s backing, could probably survive longer than the Islamic State, which was pressured by the United States and Iran, and even Russia.

American officials over the weekend and on Monday warned that more strikes were in store in what is emerging as an open-ended campaign not just in Yemen — where the United States and Britain first launched major retaliatory strikes on Jan. 11 — but now also in Syria and Iraq to avenge the deaths of the three Army reservists, who were killed at a remote supply base.

“The president was clear when he ordered them and when he conducted them that that was the beginning of our response and there will be more steps to come,” Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, speaking about the strikes in Iraq and Syria.

Mr. Sullivan said he did not want to “telegraph our punches” by revealing details of future action. But he said that the goal was to punish those targeting Americans without setting off a direct confrontation with Iran.

Analysts say there are already signs that the most recent strikes are having an impact in Tehran, where a widely unpopular government already struggling with a weak economy, outbursts of mass protest and terrorism has little appetite for an all-out war with the United States.

But regional specialists say reining in Iran’s proxies, which rely on Tehran for weapons, intelligence and financing, may prove more difficult.

“Around 2020, Iran began to give blanket clearance to these groups to attack United States positions in Iraq and Syria,” Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., a retired head of U.S. Central Command, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “They have the opportunity to generate these attacks without directly going back to Iran.”

A major question for Mr. Biden and his national security aides is what additional targets in Iraq and Syria could be struck.

On Friday, American B-1B bombers and other warplanes hit targets at four sites in Syria and three sites in Iraq in a 30-minute attack, U.S. officials said. John F. Kirby, a National Security Council spokesman, said the targets at each site were picked because they were linked to specific attacks against U.S. troops in the region, and to avoid civilian casualties.

By avoiding targets in Iran, the White House and Central Command are trying to send a message of deterrence while controlling escalation, U.S. officials said. It is clear from statements from the White House and from Tehran that neither side wants a wider war. But, as the strike in Jordan showed, with any military action comes the chance of miscalculation.

Helene Cooper contributed reporting.

Six Kurdish fighters were killed in a drone attack on a base that also houses U.S. troops.

A drone attacked a base that houses American and allied troops in eastern Syria early Monday morning, killing six Kurdish fighters, according to the official news media outlet of the Kurdish-led group that shares the base with U.S. forces.

Maj. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, said on Monday that there were no reported injuries to American troops in the attack.

The Kurdish-led group, the Syrian Democratic Forces, blamed the attack on a militia group linked to Iran, which would make it the latest in a series of escalatory clashes between Iran-backed militias and the United States and its allies since the start of Israel’s war against Hamas.

Militant groups funded, armed and supported by Iran have carried out dozens of attacks on U.S. military bases and troops in Iraq and Syria over the last few months, as well as on U.S.-owned ships in the Red Sea. The United States and its allies have retaliated with several rounds of airstrikes, including some over the weekend on targets in Yemen related to the ship attacks and Friday on targets in Syria and Iraq in response to a drone attack that killed three U.S. soldiers in Jordan.

U.S. officials say they do not want direct confrontation with Iran, while analysts and American officials have assessed that Iran — which exercises varying degrees of control over the armed groups it supports around the region — is also trying to avoid a war with a much larger power.

“We are not looking for the escalation of tension in the region,” Nasser Kanaani, the spokesman for Iran’s foreign ministry, said on Monday. Iran did not specifically address the drone strike, in keeping with its usual practice over the actions taken by the groups it supports.

But analysts have warned that both sides risk the tit-for-tat attacks spiraling out of control. Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, struck a defiant tone over the recent tensions on Friday, saying that Iran’s strength was deterring outright attacks.

“If the oppressive and bullying force wants to bully, the Islamic Republic will give him a strong answer,” he said during a speech in the Iranian city of Minab, according to state news media.

The Syrian Democratic Forces said that the drone attack on Monday had targeted a training area at a base in the Al-Omar oil field in Deir al Zour, a province in eastern Syria.

For the last decade, the group, which consists of fighters from the local Kurdish ethnic minority, has operated in eastern Syria with support from a U.S.-led international coalition that needed a local partner to battle the Islamic State group. Though ISIS has been largely defeated there, a limited number of American troops remain on the ground.

North Press, the Kurdish group’s official news media outlet, said a number of fighters were injured in Monday’s attack in addition to the six who died.

An Israeli bank freezes accounts belonging to a settler sanctioned by the U.S.

An Israeli bank has frozen two accounts belonging to an Israeli settler targeted by American sanctions for his alleged involvement in violent attacks on Palestinian civilians in the West Bank, the man told Israeli news media on Monday.

The account by the settler, Yinon Levi, 31, prompted outrage from the Israel right after he and three other Israelis were the subject of an executive order by President Biden last week intended to crack down on “high levels of extremist settler violence.” The State Department accused Mr. Levi of assaulting Palestinian civilians, burning fields and destroying property, all of which he denied in a radio interview on Monday.

On Friday, Mr. Levi’s Israeli bank, Bank Leumi, informed him that his accounts had been frozen, he said in the interview with Israel’s public broadcaster. On Sunday, the bank canceled transfers to his brother’s account that Mr. Levi attempted to carry out, he added.

A spokesman for Bank Leumi declined to comment. Israel’s central bank said Israel’s financial system was bound by standard protocols “regarding the use of international sanction lists and national sanction lists of foreign countries.”

“Evading such sanctions regimes can expose the banking corporations to significant risks,” the Bank of Israel said in a statement.

Under Mr. Biden’s order, the four settlers would have their assets frozen, and institutions would be barred from transferring them funds. The order, the Biden administration’s strongest diplomatic response yet to the settlers accused of such attacks, capped years of rising American frustration toward violent action by Jewish extremists in the occupied West Bank.

Politicians in Israel’s right-wing governing coalition — which includes top settler leaders — responded angrily to the freezing of Mr. Levi’s accounts. Israel’s finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, said he was holding talks with regulators intended to ensure that Israeli citizens facing sanctions under the U.S. order would be able to access assets in Israel.

“It cannot be that Israeli banks will have to place sanctions on Israeli citizens because of an American order,” Mr. Smotrich told reporters on Monday, calling it a violation of Israeli sovereignty. “We will not let this slide by.”

Israelis cancel a flower festival near Gaza after residents say, ‘Don’t come.’

The red anemones that carpet the fields and forests of a strip of southern Israel along the Gaza border this time of year usually draw multitudes. Day-trippers typically flock to a monthlong nature festival there known as Red South.

But on Friday, organizers abruptly canceled most of the festival events just as they were about to begin, after criticism from residents of the border communities that were worst hit by the Hamas-led attacks on Oct. 7. Thousands of border residents are still displaced from their homes, many are still in mourning over the attacks that Israeli officials said killed about 1,200 people, and some fear for the fate of relatives who were abducted to Gaza on Oct. 7 and are still being held hostage.

“One could write countless clichés about blood and land, about returning, blooming and growth,” one resident of the border area, Bar Heffetz, wrote in a Facebook post on Jan. 30, days before the decision to cancel. But when he saw the signs and toilets for visitors going up in the forests, he said he had two words to share: “Don’t come.”

“To make a picnic here is like having a party in your neighbor’s home while he is in the hospital in intensive care, like invading a place when the hosts are absent,” he wrote.

The organizers — a local tourism board working with several regional councils and the Jewish National Fund, a forestry and land development organization — had planned a limited, lower-key version of Red South for the weekends of February, mindful of the sensitivities as well as the continued risk of rocket fire from Gaza, where Israel is waging war against Hamas. The military had issued instructions and a map for the public marking the roads closest to the border as off-limits.

One event still scheduled to take place is an organized march through the anemone fields on Feb. 16 in memory of Ofir Libstein, a regional council head and a founder of Red South who was shot and killed on Oct. 7 when he left his house to try to defend his village, Kfar Aza.

“We are attentive to, and share in, the pain of the residents of the area,” the organizers said in a statement on Friday announcing the cancellations. They said that events including guided hikes, a footrace dedicated to the hostages and an agricultural fair had been called off, but added that local businesses that had reopened would still welcome visitors who arrive independently.

Here’s how the latest U.S.-led strikes have unfolded.

The United States has led a major wave of retaliatory strikes in the Middle East, hitting scores of targets belonging to Iranian-backed armed groups since Friday. The strikes are a sharp escalation of hostilities in the region, one that President Biden had sought to avoid since the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza began in October.

Here is how the latest strikes have unfolded.

Jan. 28: Three U.S. service members were killed and dozens of others were injured in a drone attack on their remote military outpost in Jordan, the Pentagon said. They were the first known American military fatalities from hostile fire in the Middle East since October, when regional tensions rose with the start of Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza.

The Biden administration said the drone had been launched by an Iran-backed militia from Iraq, and Mr. Biden pledged to respond. The U.S. has blamed Iranian-backed armed groups for launching more than 150 attacks since October on U.S. troops stationed in the Middle East.

Jan. 30: Mr. Biden said he had decided on a response to the attack in Jordan, but did not say what it would be. Some Republican lawmakers called for a direct strike against Iran, but Mr. Biden’s advisers said he was determined to avoid a wider regional conflict.

Friday: The United States carried out airstrikes on more than 85 targets in Syria and Iraq, aiming at Iranian-backed forces including the group it said was responsible for the Jordan strike. The Pentagon said the strikes targeted command and control operations, intelligence centers, weapons facilities and bunkers used by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force and affiliated militia groups.

Afterward, U.S. officials said that Mr. Biden had not seriously considered striking inside Iran, and that by targeting facilities used by the powerful Quds Force, while not trying to take out its leadership, the United States sought to signal that it did not want all-out war.

Saturday: American and British warplanes, with support from six allies, launched strikes at dozens of sites in Yemen controlled by Houthi militants. A joint statement from the allies said that the targets included weapons storage facilities, missile launchers, air defense systems and radars, and that the strikes were intended to deter the Houthis’ attacks on Red Sea shipping.

Sunday: Shortly after the Houthis said they would respond to the U.S. and British strikes, American forces said they had carried out another attack on the group, destroying a cruise missile that had posed “an imminent threat to U.S. Navy ships and merchant vessels in the region.”

Biden has ordered further retaliation over the killings of U.S. soldiers, officials say.

Top U.S. national security officials said Sunday that President Biden had ordered further retaliation to the killings of three service members by Iran-backed militias, but declined to say when or how it would be carried out.

The officials’ comments followed dozens of military strikes on Friday by U.S. forces on targets in Iraq and Syria. Officials said they were still assessing the effects of those strikes, but they believed they had degraded the ability of the militias to attack U.S. forces.

“The president was clear when he ordered them and when he conducted them that that was the beginning of our response and there will be more steps to come,” Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Mr. Sullivan said he did not want to “telegraph our punches” by revealing details of future action. And, he added, the president was trying to calibrate his responses to avoid a sharp escalation of the fighting in the Middle East.

Iran has repeatedly asserted that it does not want a direct conflict with the United States, but that it would respond if attacked.

“Iran is not seeking to increase the tension and crisis in the region — we don’t support tension and chaos,” the spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, Nasser Kanaani, said on Monday. “Iran has shown that it will react forcefully to any threats against its sovereignty and will not hesitate to deploy all its capabilities for a reply that will bring them regret.”

John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, rejected criticism from Republican lawmakers who have accused the administration of waiting too long — nearly a week — after the three service members were killed by a drone attack at a base in Jordan, near the border with Syria.

“You want to do this in a deliberate way,” Mr. Kirby said on “Fox News Sunday.” “You want to carefully select your targets. You want to make sure that all the parameters are in place to have good effects, including factoring in the weather. I mean, these attacks were using manned aircraft. You want to make sure your pilots can get in and get out safely.”

Mr. Kirby also rejected calls from some lawmakers in both parties for the president to request specific authorization from Congress — which has the constitutional power to declare war — before continuing with military actions in the Middle East.

Mr. Kirby cited the president’s role as detailed in the Constitution.

“The president is acting consistent with his Article Two responsibilities as commander in chief,” he said. “These are self-defense actions that we’re taking to prevent and to take away capability from these groups from targeting our troops and our facilities.”

Farnaz Fassihi contributed reporting.

Zelensky Hints at Major Shake-Up of Ukraine’s Government

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said that a broad overhaul of the country’s military and civilian leadership was needed to reboot the war effort against Russia, suggesting that a major shake-up of his government was imminent.

Mr. Zelensky’s comments, in a broadcast on Sunday night, indicated that his plans would likely go beyond replacing the top military commander, Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhny. And they signaled a search for a new strategy among Ukraine’s leadership at a precarious moment, with depleted Ukrainian forces on the defensive and leaders in Kyiv waiting to see whether the United States will provide much-needed military and financial assistance.

“A reset, a new beginning is necessary,” Mr. Zelensky told the Italian media outlet Rai News. “I have something serious in mind, which is not about a single person but about the direction of the country’s leadership.”

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Tragedy, Resilience and a Miracle at Chile’s Burned Botanical Garden

On Friday afternoon, several hundred people were roaming the idyllic grounds of Chile’s national botanical garden, mostly unaware that, just across some hills and a highway, a raging wildfire was galloping toward them.

The danger quickly became clear. Rangers began racing around the park on motorbikes, shouting for visitors to flee to the exits. But by the time many got there, the fire had already arrived.

“Thick black smoke was billowing above us, so we laid down on the grass just inside the gate,” Alejandro Peirano, the park’s director, recalled Monday morning. “One of my rangers turned to me and said, ‘Director, are we going to die?’”

Wildfires in Chile’s Valparaíso region

Burning in the last day
Previously burned
Source: NASA Notes: Data is as of 2:31 a.m. Chile Summer Time on Feb. 6. Areas marked in red indicate where active burning was detected within 24 hours of the most recent fires reflected on the map. Exact fire boundaries may differ from the map by 500 meters or more. By Madison Dong, John Keefe and Matthew Bloch

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Russian Tech Giant Reaches $5 Billion Deal to Quit Russia

The parent firm of Russia’s most prominent technology company, Yandex, said it has agreed to sell all its assets in the country for about $5 billion, which would be one of the largest corporate exits from Russia since its invasion of Ukraine.

The invasion had roiled Yandex — often referred to as “Russia’s Google” — and turned its attempts to navigate between the Kremlin’s authoritarian policies and a Western blockade of the Russian economy into the most dramatic example of the war’s impact on the country’s once-vaunted tech sector.

The deal announced on Monday came after 18 months of negotiations. It is an attempt by some of the company’s executives to shield Yandex’s new generation of businesses from the war’s fallout and to protect them from potential sanctions.

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British Leader, in Northern Ireland, Relishes a Rare Success

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of Britain took an unaccustomed victory lap on Monday, visiting Belfast to celebrate the restoration of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government. His ministers struck a deal last week that brought the North’s disaffected unionists back into the territory’s assembly.

For Mr. Sunak, who is embattled on so many other fronts, it was a rare unalloyed success — significant not just because it ended two years of political stalemate in Northern Ireland, but also because, some analysts believe, it could shore up a United Kingdom that has seemed in danger of spinning apart since Brexit.

With the revival of self-government in Northern Ireland, diplomats and analysts said, the spotlight will shift away from the tantalizing prospect of uniting the North with the Irish Republic and shine on everyday issues like cutting waiting times at hospitals or giving pay raises to public workers.

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Many Israelis Want Netanyahu Out. But There Is No Simple Path to Do It.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel is on his last legs, it is widely believed, and will be forced to relinquish his post once the war against Hamas in Gaza ends.

He is historically unpopular in the opinion polls and blamed for the governmental and security failures that led to the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas, the killings of an estimated 1,200 Israelis and the difficult war that has followed. He faces a long-running trial on a variety of corruption charges.

And he has defied President Biden on American efforts to create a postwar path to a two-state solution, with a demilitarized Palestine alongside Israel. While opposition to a Palestinian state is popular among Israelis, defiance of Washington is considered risky.

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Parisians Vote to Triple Parking Fees for Big S.U.V.s and Other Hefty Cars

Voters in Paris have approved an effort to drastically increase parking fees for large sport utility vehicles and other heavy cars, the latest move by Mayor Anne Hidalgo to reshape the French capital with environmentally conscious and pedestrian-friendly policies.

The new parking fees are expected to be approved in May by the Paris City Council, where Ms. Hidalgo’s Socialist Party and Green allies have a majority. The new fees are then expected to come into effect in September, Ms. Hidalgo said.

Some car owners have complained that they are being shut out of the capital, but Ms. Hidalgo was unrepentant at a news conference on Sunday night. “Parisians made a clear choice,” she said, adding that, “We are very proud of this result.”

Still, turnout was extremely low. While some 54.5 percent of Parisians voted in favor of the measure, only about 5.7 percent of eligible voters went to the polls.

Although much of the public debate was focused on S.U.V.s, or sport utility vehicles, the new fees will apply to all cars that weigh more than 1.6 metric tons if they have traditional combustion engines or are hybrids, or more than two metric tons if they are electric.

People with those vehicles will have to pay 18 euros, a little more than $19, for the first hour of public parking in central Paris, and 12 euros in the French capital’s outer neighborhoods — triple the normal rate. For additional hours, prices rise sharply, so drivers of S.U.V.-like vehicles will end up paying more than $240 for six hours of parking in central Paris, instead of around $80 for regular cars.

But there are several exemptions, so the measure will mostly apply to outside visitors.

Paris residents who park in their neighborhood will not be affected. Neither will taxis or other professional vehicles, or people who use larger vehicles because of a disability.

The city authorities had argued that big S.U.V.s and other large cars emit more greenhouse gases than average cars and are more dangerous for pedestrians because of their bulkiness, citing a report that suggests that pedestrians are twice as likely to be killed in a collision with an S.U.V. than with a standard vehicle.

The referendum on parking fees was the second time in recent months that Ms. Hidalgo had sought direct popular approval for policies that are intended to make the city more appealing to pedestrians and cyclists.

In April, Parisians voted to ban rental electric scooters from the streets of the French capital, a measure that went into effect in September after complaints that they were essentially taking over the sidewalks.

As mayor since 2014, Ms. Hidalgo has pushed to make the capital less car-centric, closing off roads along some Seine River banks to motorized vehicles and significantly expanding the number of bicycle lanes.

Paris is served by a dense network of subways and buses, although the Olympic Games this summer, which are expected to attract millions of visitors, could seriously test the capital’s transportation.

The city authorities have said before the vote on Sunday that while the number of car owners and cars in the capital had steadily decreased over the past decade, the average car size had increased.

The city cited a 2020 report by the World Wide Fund for Nature that said that the trend toward bigger cars was threatening France’s climate goals.

David Belliard, the deputy mayor in charge of transportation in Paris, said the referendum was proof that despite pushing for “unpopular” measures like higher parking fees, “when you encourage debate, when you try to explain, you end up with decisions that are in favor of the climate, of the environment, and of health.”

S.U.V.s have grown increasingly popular around the world, a trend that experts say is a roadblock toward efforts to fight climate change because they tend to be less fuel-efficient than smaller cars.

The International Energy Agency, the world’s leading energy agency, said in an analysis last year that carbon dioxide emissions from S.U.V.s worldwide had reached nearly one billion metric tons in 2022, despite the growing popularity of electric models.

But Ms. Hidalgo’s opponents — motorist groups, and her centrist and right-wing political opponents on the City Council — complained that the debate was skewed.

On Sunday, voters were asked if they were “against the creation of a specific parking rate for heavy, cumbersome, polluting private cars?”

“Given how biased the question was, the result is a snub for the mayor,” said Philippe Nozière, the president of 40 Million Motorists, a motorist lobbying group.

Mr. Nozière said the new fees would unfairly affect tourists, residents of the capital’s suburbs and Parisian families. Sport utility vehicles and similar crossover cars have only become more popular because of increasing safety norms, he said.

“Ms. Hidalgo doesn’t want any more cars in Paris,” Mr. Nozière said. “In that case, she should just come out and say it.”

The referendum showed a clear divide in Paris between the capital’s wealthier western neighborhoods, which mostly voted against the new parking fees, and the city’s more working-class and socially diverse eastern ones, which mostly voted in favor.

Mr. Belliard, the deputy mayor, said that roughly 10 to 15 percent of the cars that currently circulate in Paris would be affected by the increased parking fees. He acknowledged that some recently manufactured S.U.V.s were less polluting than smaller, older cars. But he argued that automakers should be encouraged to use fewer resources, not more.

“If you build bigger, heavier vehicles, you need more materials and more energy than to build lighter ones,” he said. “You have to look at the issue in its entirety.”

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As Canadian Hockey Players Face Assault Charges, Officials Are on Defensive

The police chief whose department has filed sexual assault charges against five hockey players, all of whom played on National Hockey League teams, apologized on Monday to the victim for the six years it took to bring the case.

Five former members of Canada’s national junior hockey team were charged last week over an episode that followed a celebration of their victory in the 2018 world championships, a marquee event on Canada’s sports calendar.

“I want to extend, on behalf of the London Police Service, my sincerest apology to the victim, to her family, for the amount of time that it has taken to reach this point,” Chief Thai Truong told reporters at a news conference Monday afternoon.

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Chinese-Australian Writer Held by China Given Suspended Death Sentence

An Australian writer and businessman who has been detained in China since 2019 has been declared guilty of espionage and was given a death sentence with two years’ probation on Monday, in a blow to warming relations between Australia and China.

The severe punishment for the businessman, Yang Hengjun, was first revealed by the Australian government, and then confirmed by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a daily briefing in Beijing. If Mr. Yang does not commit any crimes in those probationary two years, the sentence can be commuted to life imprisonment, Penny Wong, the Australian foreign minister, said in a statement. She described the verdict as “harrowing.”

The long detention of Mr. Yang — who is also known by his legal name, Yang Jun — has been one of the sources of tensions between Australia and China. Now the severe sentence may again weigh on relations, which had been improving after the election of a new, center-left Labor government in Australia in 2022. The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, visited Beijing late last year and has pressed for Mr. Yang’s release.

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Fear and Ambition Propel Xi’s Nuclear Acceleration

Nineteen days after taking power as China’s leader, Xi Jinping convened the generals overseeing the country’s nuclear missiles and issued a blunt demand. China had to be ready for possible confrontation with a formidable adversary, he said, signaling that he wanted a more potent nuclear capability to counter the threat.

Their force, he told the generals, was a “pillar of our status as a great power.” They must, Mr. Xi said, advance “strategic plans for responding under the most complicated and difficult conditions to military intervention by a powerful enemy,” according to an official internal summary of his speech in December 2012 to China’s nuclear and conventional missile arm, then called the Second Artillery Corps, which was verified by The New York Times.

Publicly, Mr. Xi’s remarks on nuclear matters have been sparse and formulaic. But his comments behind closed doors, revealed in the speech, show that anxiety and ambition have driven his transformative buildup of China’s nuclear weapons arsenal in the past decade.

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Portraits of Gazans

A bomb burned his body.

A bomb killed his children.

A bomb sent them fleeing.

A bomb paralyzed a toddler.

Portraits of Gazans

Declan Walsh and

Samar Abu Elouf, a photojournalist, spent weeks documenting five Palestinians in Gaza whose lives had been shattered by the war. Declan Walsh is an international correspondent for The New York Times.

A toddler, a 12-year-old, a mother, a photojournalist.

Their lives were ripped apart in one of the deadliest and most destructive wars of the 21st century.

Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, now in its fourth month, is often conveyed in stark numbers and historical comparisons: Some 27,000 Palestinians have been killed, according to the Gaza health ministry. Nearly two million are displaced and more than 60 percent of residential buildings have been damaged or destroyed in a territory smaller than Manhattan.

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After the Quake: One Turkish Family’s Struggle

Ben Hubbard and

Ben Hubbard and Safak Timur were present when four members of the Karapirli family were pulled from their collapsed apartment building in Gaziantep, Turkey. Over the past year, with the photographer Emin Ozmen, they visited the family members repeatedly and interviewed their doctors, relatives and friends to track their recovery.

Read in Turkish

Finally, 106 days after the ambulances rushed their battered bodies to the hospital, the couple were cleared to leave.

Ibrahim Karapirli hobbled back from physical therapy on crutches to protect his aching leg. His wife, Pinar, wrangled their twin toddlers, unsure how she would care for them with her one remaining arm.

The couple were still mourning their two sons who were killed when a powerful earthquake pancaked their six-story apartment building in southern Turkey before dawn last February.

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El Salvador’s President Claims Election Victory in a Landslide

Nayib Bukele, the millennial president who reshaped his country by cracking down on both gangs and civil liberties, claimed a resounding victory in El Salvador’s election on Sunday that would extend his dominion over every lever of government for years.

Official results have not yet been announced, but polls had telegraphed Mr. Bukele’s landslide win for weeks, showing that voters were almost certain to hand him another five-year term and extend his party’s supermajority in the legislature.

Delivering a speech to thousands of supporters who gathered in the central square of San Salvador, the capital, on Sunday night, the president claimed that he won more than 85 percent of the vote and that his New Ideas party had captured almost every seat in the legislature, brushing aside concerns about repressive practices and the deterioration of democratic norms under his watch.

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Discontent and Defiance on the Road to Pakistan’s Election

Christina Goldbaum and

The reporters traveled along a famed highway in Pakistan’s most heated political battleground to understand how Pakistanis are feeling before a national election on Thursday.

The highway is the most politically charged slice of a politically turbulent country. It winds 180 miles from Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, through the fertile plains of Punjab Province to Lahore, the nation’s cultural and political heart.

For centuries, it was known only as a sliver of the Grand Trunk Road, Asia’s longest and oldest thoroughfare, linking traders in Central Asia to the Indian subcontinent. But in Pakistan, this stretch of the smog-drenched highway has become the stage for major rallies and protests led by nearly every famed civilian leader the country has had.

As Pakistan heads into national elections on Thursday, the road is buzzing. Politics dominates the chatter between its vendors and rickshaw drivers, their conversations seeped in a culture of conspiracy, cults of political personality and the problems of entrenched military control.

The map highlights the Grand Trunk Road from Islamabad to Lahore in Pakistan . The towns of Gujar Khan, Jhelum, Wazirabad and Gujranwala along the road are also located.

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Welcome to ‘Dalifornia,’ an Oasis for China’s Drifters and Dreamers

To find the dance circle in the bed-and-breakfast’s courtyard, drive north from the bedsheet factory converted into a crafts market, toward the vegan canteen urging diners to “walk barefoot in the soil and bathe in the sunshine.” If you see the unmanned craft beer bar where customers pay on the honor system, you’ve gone too far.

Welcome to the Chinese mountain city of Dali, also sometimes known as Dalifornia, an oasis for China’s disaffected, drifting or just plain curious.

The city’s nickname is a homage to California, and the easy-living, tree-hugging, sun-soaked stereotypes it evokes. It is also a nod to the influx of tech employees who have flocked there since the rise of remote work during the pandemic, to code amid the picturesque surroundings, nestled between snow-capped, 10,000-foot peaks in southwest China, on the shores of glistening Erhai Lake.

Map locates the city of Dali in southwest China, on the shores of Erhai Lake.

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For New Moms in Seoul, 3 Weeks of Pampering and Sleep at a Joriwon

Four mothers sat quietly in the nursing room around midnight, breastfeeding their newborn babies. As one mother nodded off, her eyelids heavy after giving birth less than two weeks earlier, a nurse came in and whisked her baby away. The exhausted new mom returned to her private room to sleep.

Sleep is just one of the luxuries provided by South Korea’s postpartum care centers.

The country may have the world’s lowest birthrate, but it is also home to perhaps some of its best postpartum care. At centers like St. Park, a small, boutique postpartum center, or joriwon, in Seoul, new moms are pampered for a few weeks after giving birth and treated to hotel-like accommodations.

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An Italian Town Full of the Elderly Wants to Feel Young Again

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As the traveling brass band ended San Giovanni Lipioni’s annual holiday concert with a rendition of Wham’s “Last Christmas,” the gray-haired villagers seated in the old church of the central Italian hill town gazed dotingly at the few young children clapping to the music.

“Today there is a little movement,” Cesarina Falasco, 73, said from the back pew. “It’s lovely. It’s different.”

San Giovanni Lipioni used to be known — if at all — for the discovery in its countryside of a third-century B.C. Samnite bronze head, a rare Waldensian Evangelical community and an ancient annual pageant with pagan roots that venerates a circular cane garlanded in wild cyclamen flowers. (“It represents the female genital organ,” said a tourism official, Mattia Rossi.)

Map locates the the town of San Giovanni Lipioni in the Abruzzo region of Italy, as well as the town of San Salvo, also in Abruzzo. It also locates the region of Molise, south of Abruzzo, and the cities of Bologna, and Ribordone in northern Italy.

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Cleaning Latrines by Hand: ‘How Could Any Human Do That?’

When he came to fully realize exactly what his parents and older brother did for a living, and what it likely meant for his own future, Bezwada Wilson says he was so angry he contemplated suicide.

His family members, and his broader community, were manual scavengers, tasked with cleaning by hand human excrement from dry latrines at a government-run gold mine in southern India.

While his parents had tried hard to hide from their youngest child the nature of their work as long as they could — telling Mr. Bezwada they were sweepers — as a student Mr. Bezwada knew his classmates viewed him with cruel condescension. He just didn’t know the reason.

“In my growing up years, I was made to feel different from the rest in school. I was not allowed to laugh at jokes, and caste slurs were thrown at me,” Mr. Bezwada said in an interview on a recent evening in Delhi. “All I wanted to know then was why was my community different, and how could I make them equal to the others?”

By the time he was 18 or so, the young man of course knew what his community did to put food on the table, but his knowledge was still only theoretical. He wanted to experience the work for himself.

So he urged some manual scavengers to take him on the job. He watched them reach way down into a pit to scrape dried human waste from toilet floors, piling it into iron buckets and then transferring it into a trolley to be dumped on the mining township’s outskirts.

As he observed, one man’s bucket fell into the pit. The man rolled up his pants before dropping down into ankle-deep waste to to pull the bucket out.

“I shouted, cried and implored him to not do so. How could any human do that?” Mr. Bezwada recalled.

The night of that incident, furious about what he had witnessed, he spent hours sitting by a water tank, thinking about jumping in to end his life.

“The sound of the water was consistent. But what I could hear in my mind was a ‘no, don’t die. Live on and fight,’” Mr. Bezwada recalled.

And he has, for the last four decades.

Every morning, Mr. Bezwada, now 57, wakes up with a single-minded mission: to unshackle his community from the centuries-old scourge linked to their caste.

“My community did not realize that this is not what they were born to do,” Mr. Bezwada said, “but were made to do by society and government.”

The movement he founded in 1993, Safai Karmachari Andolan, or Campaign of the Cleanliness Workers, is now one of the largest organizations in India fighting against caste discrimination.

While such discrimination is illegal in India, almost all the country’s sanitation workers who deal with human excrement, including those who clean septic tanks and sewers, are from the lowest caste rung in their communities.

In addition to the social stigma, such work can be extremely dangerous: In enclosed spaces, human waste can create a mix of toxic gases, which can result in loss of consciousness and death for those forced to breathe in the foul air for extended periods.

Mr. Bezwada’s Campaign of the Cleanliness Workers movement has recorded over 1,300 sanitation worker deaths since the early 1990s.

After his own near-death experience at the water tank, Mr. Bezwada kept talking to community members at the Kolar Gold Fields in the state of Karnataka, where 114 dry latrine cleaners and about 1,000 sanitary workers overall were among the approximately 90,000 employees.

He discovered manual scavenging was not a local issue but an all-India problem. So he started writing letters, including to Karnataka’s chief minister and to the prime minister of India. He arranged for a camera through a friend and started documenting the situation at the mine, which was closed in 2001.

Communists were active at the camp, frequently staging demonstrations for higher wages, and Mr. Bezwada said he learned how to protest from them.

There were many days where he was the only one protesting, and his mother urged him to end his activism. “‘Forget it. We will move out,’” he said she told him.

His breakthrough moment came when a journalist contacted him for a story on the continued existence of dry toilets in the gold mining township, which officials claimed were no longer there. After the article ran, Mr. Bezwada found himself all over the news. Government officials wanted to inspect the situation themselves, and Mr. Bezwada was called on to show them around.

In an effort to raise awareness beyond the gold mine, Mr. Bezwada started visiting other cities and towns, traveling by bus at night, trying to mobilize the manual scavenger communities he encountered and talking to them about “how to come out of it,” he said.

A chance meeting with a retired bureaucrat in the early 1990s helped formalize his Campaign of the Cleanliness Workers movement, leading to both donations and volunteers.

Since the campaign started, and especially over the last decade, dry latrines have largely been eliminated in India, although Mr. Bezwada said they can still be found in rural and semi-urban parts of some states like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. He said he won’t be satisfied until there isn’t a single person picking up waste by hand.

In addition to working to eradicate any remaining dry latrines and replace them with flush toilets, Mr. Bezwada’s movement also trains former manual scavengers in other lines of work, like tailoring, gardening and auto rickshaw driving, and it advocates safer working conditions for all waste workers.

In 2023, at least 90 sanitary workers in India died on the job, Mr. Bezwada said. From 2017 to 2022, 373 people are reported to have died cleaning hazardous sewers and septic tanks, according to government data.

Mr. Bezwada said his politics were shaped by the architect of India’s Constitution, Bhim Rao Ambedkar, who himself belonged to Mr. Bezwada’s Dalit caste. It was by reading Mr. Ambedkar, Mr. Bezwada said, that his anger shifted from his community for not resisting, toward society and the government for pushing his caste into inhumane jobs.

“They were doing it to protect the interests of the elite and upper castes,” Mr. Bezwada explained.

Even after nonprofits began supporting his work, Mr. Bezwada still traveled on the cheap, often sleeping at a bus station and covering himself with the newspapers he loved to read during the day for warmth at night.

He mobilized manual scavengers and presented letters to municipalities demanding they demolish the town’s dry toilets. If towns refused, sometimes Mr. Bezwada and his volunteers would take matters into their own hands.

“We would take crow bars and start breaking them,” he said.

In 1993, he and his volunteers started documenting the existence of dry latrines across India and recording each manual scavenger’s death on the job. In 2003, the organization filed a petition in India’s top court asking for strict enforcement of a law passed in the early 1990s that was meant to eradicate manual scavenging in India but was widely ignored.

It wasn’t until 2014 that the court finally acted: It ordered state governments to pay compensation to families of those who had died cleaning sewers and septic tanks; to take stringent measures to stop manual cleaning of dry latrines; and to retrain people engaged in manual scavenging with skills that would give them the means for a more dignified livelihood.

In 2016 he won the Ramon Magsaysay Award, often called the Nobel Prize for Asia.

“I had no proper education. But loads of real-life wisdom,” Mr. Bezwada said, assessing the reasons for his success.

However agonizingly long the wait for the court’s decision, the time was put to good use.

“The community got organized in the process,” Mr. Bezwada said. “That’s the reward. Even if I go quiet, today there are thousands who are speaking up.”

One recent afternoon, a group of volunteers huddled in his Delhi office for a meeting.

Mr. Bezwada was coaching them on the fine art of full-throated sloganeering for the ongoing campaign against sewer worker deaths.

“Nobody can win without putting up a fight,” Mr. Bezwada told them. “Whatever victory has come in the world so far, it is all through the struggle and fight only. But every fight may not yield a result. What’s important is the fight.”

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A Woman Who Shows Age Is No Barrier to Talk Show Stardom

Pushing a walker through a television studio in central Tokyo earlier this week, Tetsuko Kuroyanagi slowly climbed three steps onto a sound stage with the help of an assistant who settled her into a creamy beige Empire armchair.

A stylist removed the custom-made sturdy boots on her feet and slipped on a pair of high-heeled mules. A makeup artist brushed her cheeks and touched up her blazing red lipstick. A hairdresser tamed a few stray wisps from her trademark onion-shaped hairstyle as another assistant ran a lint roller over her embroidered black jacket. With that, Ms. Kuroyanagi, 90, was ready to record the 12,193rd episode of her show.

As one of Japan’s best-known entertainers for seven decades, Ms. Kuroyanagi has interviewed guests on her talk show, “Tetsuko’s Room,” since 1976, earning a Guinness World Record last fall for most episodes hosted by the same presenter. Generations of Japanese celebrities across film, television, music, theater and sports have visited Ms. Kuroyanagi’s couch, along with American stars like Meryl Streep and Lady Gaga; Prince Philip of England; and Mikhail Gorbachev, the former leader of the Soviet Union. Ms. Kuroyanagi said Gorbachev remains one of her all-time favorite guests.

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They Thought They Knew Death, but That Didn’t Prepare Them for Oct. 7

At 76, David Weissenstern has collected the remains of the dead for most of his adult life. But after the Oct. 7 attacks, in which Hamas-led fighters killed about 1,200 people along Israel’s border with Gaza, he can no longer stand the smell of grilled meat. The odor, he says, reminds him too much of burned human flesh.

His son Duby Weissenstern, 48, has lost track of time after working successive days and nights to recover those killed on Oct. 7. He now marks time in relation to that date.

And his son-in-law Israel Ganot, 32, now gags at the smell of food that has turned rotten. He was in the second wave of recovery workers who reached bodies that had been trapped under rubble for weeks.

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The Year in People: Our 12 Favorite Saturday Profiles of 2023

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A teenager jailed in Egypt, determined to bear witness to the abuses he suffered during years of detention. A proponent of peace in Colombia, shadowed by death threats. A father in India, fighting his own patriarchal impulses to give his two daughters a better life.

With reports from six continents and 34 countries, the Saturday Profile in 2023 revealed people making a difference, mostly under the radar. Every week, our correspondents often sought out not the famous nor the powerful, but the unheralded with stories worth hearing.

A Muslim cleric in Ukraine, now a medic on the front lines of the war. An anticorruption whistle-blower in Bangkok, with (he’d be the first to admit) a disreputable past. A scientist and hair salon owner in Paris, dedicated to styling curly hair.

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Russian Skaters Stripped of Olympic Gold, Setting Up New Fight for Medals

International skating’s governing body on Tuesday sought to put an end to a two-year-old controversy by revising the disputed results of a marquee figure skating competition at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. But in stripping Russia of its victory in the team event, awarding the gold medal to the United States and denying Canada the bronze it had been expecting, the sport may have only set the stage for yet another protracted legal fight.

The revised finishes were announced by the skating body, the International Skating Union, one day after the teenage Russian star Kamila Valieva was banned for four years for doping. Disqualifying Valieva, a 15-year-old prodigy who had led Russia to an apparent victory, had the most immediate effect on the Olympic team standings: elevating the U.S. to gold and Japan to silver, while, surprisingly, dropping Russia just enough that it could still claim the bronze.

Within hours, Russia’s Olympic committee, already furious about Valieva’s ban, announced that it would appeal any outcome that denied it the team gold. Canadian officials quickly threatened to appeal the ruling as well. That left skating officials and the International Olympic Committee, which had chosen not to award medals in the team event until Valieva’s doping case was resolved, wondering how they could at last arrange a “dignified Olympic medal ceremony” for an ugly dispute that appeared nowhere near its end.

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FIFA Convictions Are Imperiled by Questions of U.S. Overreach

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Nearly a decade after police officers marched world soccer officials out of a luxury hotel in Zurich at dawn, revealing a corruption scandal that shook the world’s most popular sport, the case is at risk of falling apart.

The dramatic turnabout comes over questions of whether American prosecutors overreached by applying U.S. law to a group of people, many of them foreign nationals, who defrauded foreign organizations as they carried out bribery schemes across the world.

The U.S. Supreme Court last year limited a law that was key to the case. Then in September, a federal judge, citing that, threw out the convictions of two defendants linked to soccer corruption. Now, several former soccer officials, including some who paid millions of dollars in penalties and served time in prison, are arguing that the bribery schemes for which they were convicted are no longer considered a crime in the United States.

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Depardieu Sexual Assault Suit Dropped Over Statute of Limitations

A sexual assault lawsuit filed against Gérard Depardieu by a French actress has been dropped because it was past the statute of limitations, prosecutors in Paris said on Monday, but the French actor is still under investigation in a separate case.

In the lawsuit that was dropped, the actress Hélène Darras had accused Depardieu of groping her on the set of “Disco,” a comedy released in 2008. Her suit had been filed in September but was made public only last month, shortly before she appeared in a France 2 television documentary alongside three other women who also accused Depardieu of inappropriate comments or sexual misconduct.

The documentary, which showed Depardieu making crude sexual and sexist comments during a 2018 trip to North Korea, set off a fierce debate in France that prompted President Emmanuel Macron and dozens of actors, directors and other celebrities to defend Depardieu, splitting the French movie industry.

Depardieu, 75, has denied any wrongdoing, and he has not been convicted in connection with any of the accusations against him.

On Monday, the Paris prosecutor’s office said that Darras’s suit was dropped in late December because the statute of limitations had run out on the alleged assault, an outcome that was widely expected — including by the actress herself. She told Agence France-Presse in December that she still “wanted to respond to the defense that plays down our allegations by saying they’re ‘just’ witness accounts.”

In France, adult victims of sexual assault have six years after an alleged crime to file a lawsuit.

Another lawsuit, filed in Spain by Ruth Baza, a Spanish journalist who has accused Depardieu of kissing and groping her without her consent when she was in Paris in 1995, could face a similar fate.

Depardieu has been charged with rape and sexual assault in a case involving Charlotte Arnould, a French actress who says he sexually assaulted her in Paris in 2018, when she was 22. That investigation is continuing, according to the Paris prosecutor’s office.

While allegations of Depardieu’s sexual misconduct had been growing for years, criticism of the actor resurfaced recently after the France 2 documentary.

Darras was one of 13 women — actresses, makeup artists and production staff — who in April had told Mediapart, an investigative news website, that Depardieu had made inappropriate sexual comments or gestures during film shoots over the years.

In the France 2 documentary, and in interviews with Mediapart and other outlets, Darras said that in 2007, on the set of “Disco,” Depardieu had groped her repeatedly in between takes, touching her hips and buttocks, and had propositioned her, even after she refused.

Darras, who was 26 at the time, had said that no one on set had reacted to the groping because Depardieu was treated like a “king,” and that she had been afraid to speak out because she was just starting her career and was worried about being blacklisted.

In a news conference this month, Macron — who had condemned what he called a “manhunt” against Depardieu — said he had “no regrets about defending the presumption of innocence for a public figure.”

But, he added: “If I have one regret, at that moment, it’s that I didn’t say enough about the importance of the voice of women who are victims of this violence, and how essential this fight is for me.”

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An Olympic Dream Falters Amid Track’s Shifting Rules

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Maximila Imali, a top Kenyan sprinter, did not lose her eligibility to compete in the Paris Olympics because she cheated. She did not fail a doping test. She broke no rules.

Instead, she is set to miss this year’s Summer Games because she was born with a rare genetic variant that results in naturally elevated levels of testosterone. And last March, track and field’s global governing body ruled that Ms. Imali’s biology gave her an unfair advantage in all events against other women, effectively barring her from international competition.

As a result, Ms. Imali, 27, finds her Olympic dream in peril and her career and her livelihood in limbo.

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Luis Rubiales, Ex-Chief of Spanish Soccer, to Face Trial Over World Cup Kiss

Luis Rubiales, Spain’s onetime soccer chief, is due to be tried over his nonconsensual kiss of a star player during the Women’s World Cup medal ceremony last summer after a judge recommended on Thursday that he face a court’s judgment in a high-profile case that has upended the sport in Spain.

The judge also recommended that Mr. Rubiales and three officials with the Royal Spanish Football Federation, soccer’s governing body in the country — including Jorge Vilda, who was fired as the women’s team coach in the wake of the incident — be tried on charges of coercion for exerting pressure on the player, Jennifer Hermoso, to show support for Mr. Rubiales in the immediate aftermath of the kiss.

The judge concluded that the kiss by Mr. Rubiales, after the Women’s World Cup final in Sydney, Australia, “was nonconsensual and was a unilateral and surprise act.” The judge also found that even if the kiss was more celebratory than sexual in nature, Mr. Rubiales’s behavior was within the bounds of the “intimacy of sexual relations” and he should be held to account.

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El rey Carlos es diagnosticado con cáncer. Hay preocupación y pocos detalles

El Times  Una selección semanal de historias en español que no encontrarás en ningún otro sitio, con eñes y acentos.

El rey Carlos III ha sido diagnosticado con un tipo de cáncer y suspenderá sus compromisos públicos para someterse al tratamiento médico, lo que ensombrece un ajetreado reinado que comenzó hace menos de 18 meses tras la muerte de su madre, la reina Isabel II.

El anuncio, hecho por el Palacio de Buckingham el lunes por la noche, se produjo una semana después de que el monarca, de 75 años, fuera dado de alta de un hospital londinense, tras una intervención para tratar un agrandamiento de la próstata.

El palacio no reveló qué tipo de cáncer padece Carlos, pero un funcionario del palacio dijo que no era cáncer de próstata. Los médicos lo detectaron durante la intervención y el rey comenzó el tratamiento el lunes.

La noticia del diagnóstico de Carlos resonó en todo el Reino Unido, el cual, tras siete décadas de reinado de Isabel, ha empezado a sentirse cómodo con su hijo. Carlos esperó más tiempo para ascender al trono que nadie en la historia de la monarquía británica, y ya era una figura conocida: su vida personal fue diseccionada de forma implacable por los medios británicos en el momento en que se convirtió en soberano.

Sin embargo, como rey, Carlos se ha convertido en un veterano estadista seguro de sí mismo, y le ha impreso un sello sutil pero inconfundible a la monarquía. Ha realizado numerosos viajes y se ha pronunciado sobre temas como el cambio climático, los cuales han sido importantes para él desde hace mucho tiempo.

La preocupación por Carlos se mezcló con la esperanza de que pueda recuperarse rápidamente. Pero a falta de detalles sobre su estado, inevitablemente hubo especulaciones mientras los observadores reales analizaban el anuncio de cuatro párrafos del palacio.

“Durante el reciente procedimiento hospitalario del rey por el agrandamiento benigno de la próstata, se notó otro problema digno de preocupación”, declaró el palacio. “Las pruebas diagnósticas subsiguientes han identificado un tipo de cáncer. Su Majestad ha comenzado hoy un calendario de tratamientos regulares, durante el cual los médicos le han aconsejado posponer los deberes públicos”.

Funcionarios del palacio afirmaron que el rey seguirá desempeñando otras funciones, entre ellas su reunión semanal con el primer ministro, así como la montaña diaria de papeleo que completa como jefe de Estado. Los funcionarios dijeron que no había planes para nombrar consejeros de Estado que actuaran en su lugar, una medida que podría indicar que el soberano era incapaz de cumplir con sus obligaciones debido a la enfermedad.

El palacio dijo que Carlos “permanece completamente optimista acerca de su tratamiento” y que esperaba con interés la reanudación de los compromisos públicos. Regresó de su residencia campestre, Sandringham, a Londres para comenzar el tratamiento como paciente externo, dijeron funcionarios del palacio.

Carlos, que ascendió al trono en septiembre de 2022, ha gozado por lo general de buena salud. De niño sufrió de amigdalitis recurrente, pero de adulto practicó deportes vigorosos como el senderismo, el polo y el esquí.

La revelación por parte del rey de la intervención de la próstata, y ahora de su diagnóstico de cáncer, es inusual en la familia real, cuyos miembros suelen decir poco sobre su salud. Tras la muerte de la reina a los 96 años, el palacio emitió su certificado de defunción, en el que figuraba su causa de muerte simplemente como “vejez.

Aun así, los funcionarios de palacio dejaron claro el lunes que no publicarían actualizaciones periódicas sobre el estado del rey y pidieron a los periodistas que no intentaran ponerse en contacto con las personas implicadas en su tratamiento.

El palacio declaró en su comunicado que el rey había decidido compartir su diagnóstico “para evitar especulaciones y con la esperanza de que pueda ayudar a la comprensión pública para todos aquellos en todo el mundo que están afectados por el cáncer”.

El hijo menor del rey, el príncipe Enrique, ha estado en contacto con su padre y tiene planeado viajar al Reino Unido para visitarlo, según la BBC. Enrique ha estado en gran medida alejado de la familia real desde que él y su esposa, Meghan, anunciaron que se retiraban de sus funciones oficiales y se mudaron a California.

Funcionarios del palacio dijeron que la reina Camila seguirá llevando a cabo un cronograma completo de compromisos oficiales durante el tratamiento de su marido. Ella fue una visitante frecuente durante su hospitalización por el tratamiento de la próstata en la Clínica de Londres, un hospital privado de élite en el vecindario de Marylebone de la ciudad.

La enfermedad de Carlos es el colofón de un periodo de noticias preocupantes relacionadas con la salud de la familia real. Catalina, esposa del príncipe Guillermo, estuvo hospitalizada casi dos semanas tras someterse a una cirugía abdominal. Fue dada de alta la semana pasada, pero el palacio de Kensington ha dado pocos detalles sobre su recuperación, que se espera que dure hasta después de las vacaciones de Pascua.

Sarah Ferguson, duquesa de York y exesposa del hermano menor del rey, el príncipe Andrés, declaró recientemente que le habían diagnosticado un melanoma, un tipo grave de cáncer de piel. Fue su segundo diagnóstico de cáncer en un año. Ferguson, de 64 años, había hablado públicamente sobre su decisión de someterse a una mastectomía y cirugía reconstructiva el año pasado, tras el diagnóstico de un cáncer de mama en el verano.

La noticia de la enfermedad del rey suscitó una avalancha de buenos deseos por parte de líderes británicos y mundiales, así como de otras personalidades públicas.

“Le deseo a Su Majestad una completa y rápida recuperación”, publicó el primer ministro Rishi Sunak en las redes sociales. “No me cabe duda de que recuperará toda su fuerza en poco tiempo y sé que todo el país le deseará lo mejor”.

El presidente Joe Biden, de viaje en Las Vegas, dijo a los periodistas: “Estoy preocupado por él. Acabo de enterarme de su diagnóstico”. Biden, que fue recibido en el castillo de Windsor por el rey el pasado mes de julio, dijo que esperaba hablar pronto con Carlos.

Michelle O’Neill, la líder nacionalista irlandesa que acaba de ser nombrada ministra principal de Irlanda del Norte, escribió en X: “Siento mucho enterarme de la enfermedad del rey Carlos y quiero desearle lo mejor para su tratamiento y una completa y rápida recuperación”.

Los observadores de la realeza se mostraron reacios a especular sobre cómo afectaría la enfermedad del rey a la corona, dada la escasez de información sobre su estado. Algunos señalaron con esperanza la optimista caracterización del estado de ánimo de Carlos por parte del palacio.

“Si el rey enferma de gravedad, entonces habrá cuestiones constitucionales que responder”, dijo Ed Owens, historiador de la realeza que publicó recientemente un libro, After Elizabeth: Can the Monarchy Save Itself? (“Después de Isabel: ¿Puede salvarse a sí misma la monarquía?”).

“Del mismo modo, un periodo prolongado fuera de la atención pública exigirá que el resto de la familia real —ya sobrecargada de trabajo— haga más”.

Owens afirmó que la edad del rey hacía inevitable la preocupación por su salud, y añadió: “Son momentos como éste los que ponen de manifiesto las cualidades muy humanas, y potencialmente frágiles, de la Constitución del Reino Unido”.

En su breve estancia en el trono, Carlos ha sido a la vez una figura de continuidad y de cambio: ha llevado una vida muy parecida a la que ha tenido durante décadas, pero ha adoptado un papel más comprometido políticamente que el que nunca tuvo su madre.

El año pasado, recibió en el castillo de Windsor a la presidenta de la Comisión Europea, Ursula von der Leyen, tras la firma de un acuerdo comercial sobre Irlanda del Norte con Sunak. El momento en que se realizó esta actividad suscitó críticas, ya que parecía darle un visto bueno real al acuerdo, en lo que algunos consideraron una intervención indebida del monarca en la política.

El rey realizó con gran éxito dos visitas de Estado a Europa: se dirigió al Parlamento alemán con un servicial empleo del idioma alemán y atrajo a multitudes entusiasmadas durante un paseo con el presidente de Francia, Emmanuel Macron.

En diciembre, Carlos pronunció un discurso en la ceremonia inaugural de la cumbre climática de Naciones Unidas en Dubái, en el que enumeró una letanía de desastres naturales relacionados con el clima que habían azotado al mundo en el último año: incendios forestales en Canadá; inundaciones en India, Pakistán y Bangladés; ciclones en el Pacífico; y una sequía en África Oriental.

“Estamos llevando el mundo natural fuera de normas y límites equilibrados, y a un peligroso territorio inexplorado”, afirmó. “Nuestra elección ahora es más cruda y oscura: ¿Hasta qué punto estamos dispuestos a hacer de nuestro mundo un lugar peligroso?”.

Mark Landler es el jefe de la corresponsalía en Londres del Times. Cubre el Reino Unido así como la política exterior estadounidense en Europa, Asia y Medio Oriente. Es periodista desde hace más de tres décadas. Más de Mark Landler

Nayib Bukele se adjudica la victoria en El Salvador

El Times  Una selección semanal de historias en español que no encontrarás en ningún otro sitio, con eñes y acentos.

Nayib Bukele, el presidente milénial que reconfiguró su país con una serie de medidas enérgicas contra las pandillas y las libertades civiles, se adjudicó una victoria aplastante en las elecciones de El Salvador del domingo, lo que podría extender durante años su control sobre cada área del gobierno.

Si bien no se han dado a conocer los resultados oficiales, las encuestas habían insinuado durante semanas que Bukele ganaría por mucho, mostrando que los votantes casi con certeza le darían otro periodo de cinco años y ampliarían la mayoría absoluta de su partido en la legislatura.

La noche del domingo, el presidente dio un discurso a miles de sus seguidores que se reunieron en la plaza central de San Salvador, la capital, en el que aseguró haber conseguido más del 85 por ciento de los votos y dijo que su partido, Nuevas Ideas, logró casi todas las curules de la Asamblea Legislativa, descartando las preocupaciones de que bajo su mandato se habían efectuado prácticas represivas y deteriorado las normas democráticas.

“Sería la primera vez que en un país existe un partido único en un sistema plenamente democrático” dijo Bukele a la multitud. “Toda la oposición junta quedó pulverizada”.

Los problemas con el registro del recuento de los votos paralizaron la transmisión de los resultados preliminares el domingo por la noche, y el lunes por la mañana los colegios electorales tuvieron que pasar a registrar los votos a mano, según informó la autoridad electoral. La página web con los resultados preliminares mostraba que, con el 70 por ciento de las actas procesadas, Bukele había obtenido el 83 por ciento de los votos.

El lunes por la mañana no se había aclarado el conteo para la legislatura.

Los juristas afirmaron que Bukele violó una prohibición constitucional al buscar un segundo mandato consecutivo, pero los votantes lo respaldaron de todos modos.

Desde que impuso un estado de excepción en la primavera de 2022, el gobierno de Bukele ha encarcelado a miles de personas sin un debido proceso, inundado las calles de soldados y suspendido libertades civiles cruciales. Sin embargo, las pandillas que alguna vez gobernaron el país han sido diezmadas, otorgándole al líder de 42 años una enorme popularidad.

“La mayoría de salvadoreños estamos de acuerdo en que Nayib Bukele siga”, dijo David Lobato, de 38 años, afuera de un centro de votación en San Salvador, la capital. “Ha dado un giro al país, las cosas están distintas”.

Los cinco candidatos presidenciales de la oposición no lograron casi ningún avance en las encuestas. Entre ellos, los contendientes del partido de derecha Arena y del partido de izquierda Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional, o FMLN, que dominaron la política salvadoreña por 30 años.

El lunes, el secretario de Estado de EE. UU., Antony Blinken, felicitó a Bukele en la plataforma de redes sociales X. “Esperamos seguir priorizando la buena gobernanza, la prosperidad económica inclusiva, las garantías de un juicio justo y los derechos humanos en El Salvador”, dijo.

Ricardo Zúniga, que fungió como enviado especial del Departamento de Estado de EE. UU. a Centroamérica durante la presidencia de Joe Biden, dijo que la decisión de Bukele de buscar la reelección “es una demostración de poder”.

“Quieren demostrar que pueden hacerlo”, dijo. “Que tienen el apoyo popular para hacerlo, y quieren que todos simplemente se resignen a ello, sin importar lo que diga la Constitución”.

Los críticos dijeron que les preocupaba que la votación del domingo solo incentivara a Bukele a profundizar sus ataques a los medios de comunicación, los grupos civiles y cualquier otra persona que representara una amenaza a su control.

El compañero de fórmula de Bukele para la vicepresidencia, Félix Ulloa, declaró al Times que ambos estaban “eliminando” un sistema democrático que solo benefició a los corruptos y dejó al país con decenas de miles de personas asesinadas. “A esta gente que dice se está desmantelando la democracia, mi respuesta es sí. No la estamos desmantelando, la estamos eliminando, la estamos sustituyendo por algo nuevo”, dijo Ulloa.

En una conferencia de prensa el domingo, Bukele dijo: “Nosotros no estamos sustituyendo la democracia porque El Salvador jamás tuvo democracia”. Y añadió: “Esta es la primera vez en la historia que El Salvador tiene democracia”.

El argumento más fuerte de la candidatura de Bukele fueron los casi dos años de estado de excepción que su gobierno impuso luego de que las pandillas que dominaban las calles desde hace mucho tiempo cometieron una ola de asesinatos en marzo de 2022.

Las autoridades han arrestado a unas 75.000 personas desde entonces, incluidas 7000 que finalmente fueron liberadas y miles más que no son miembros de pandillas pero siguen tras las rejas, según organizaciones defensoras de derechos humanos. También han presentado informes sobre reclusos que han sido torturados y privados de alimentos.

Pero la transformación de El Salvador ha sido innegable. Las tres pandillas que convirtieron al país en uno de los lugares más violentos del mundo al parecer han perdido todo vestigio de poder.

“El principal pilar sobre el que ha construido este respaldo social es lo que ha hecho el gobierno en materia de seguridad”, afirmó Omar Serrano, vicerrector de Proyección Social de la Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas. “El estado de excepción es lo que la gente más valora”.

Bukele, descendiente de una familia de migrantes palestinos que llegaron a Centroamérica a principios del siglo XX, es uno de 10 hermanos y medios hermanos criados en la Escalón, una colonia de clase media alta en San Salvador, la capital. Bukele estudió en un colegio bilingüe de élite.

Después de trabajar como publicista en varias campañas electorales, Bukele incursionó en la política y rápidamente saltó a la fama. Con 30 años, se convirtió en alcalde de Nuevo Cuscatlán, un pequeño municipio a las afueras de San Salvador, representando al partido de izquierda FMLN. Tres años después se convirtió en alcalde de San Salvador, un cargo que es considerado como un trampolín para la presidencia.

En vísperas de las elecciones presidenciales de 2019, Bukele fundó su propio partido, Nuevas Ideas, pero se postuló como el candidato de un pequeño partido de derecha, GANA, a fin de cumplir con los requerimientos legales para competir. Obtuvo la victoria gracias a la promesa de romper con la política corrupta del pasado.

Sin embargo, una vez en la presidencia, Bukele viró hacia tácticas que muchos percibieron como un retorno al liderazgo autocrático por el que el país había librado una guerra civil de 12 años que terminó en 1992.

Envió soldados a la Asamblea Legislativa para presionar a los congresistas a aprobar financiación para el gobierno y luego reemplazó a un fiscal general que investigaba casos de corrupción en su gestión.

En 2021, tras ganar la mayoría absoluta en el Congreso, su partido reemplazó a los jueces principales de la Corte Suprema, la cual pocos meses después reinterpretó la Constitución para permitirle competir de nuevo por la presidencia.

Hay algunos focos de resistencia hacia Bukele, especialmente entre aquellos que dicen que sus familiares fueron encarcelados injustamente.

“Nosotros como ciudadanos estábamos en la obligación de venir y demostrar que por lo menos hay un porcentaje que no está de acuerdo con las políticas que se están llevando”, dijo Nelson Melara, de 41 años, que votó en la capital el domingo por la tarde.

“Hay cosas buenas con este gobierno, pero también hay cosas malas que merecen muchas interrogantes”, dijo.

Sin embargo, su atractivo apenas ha menguado en el país y entre un notable contingente de admiradores en todo el hemisferio. Políticos de Colombia y Ecuador han prometido emularlo.

“Los de mi generación pensamos que, aunque el poder se esté concentrando en una persona, siento que valdría la pena”, dijo Natalia Pérez, de 27 años, resaltando que por primera vez en mucho tiempo puede caminar de noche y sentirse segura. “Hemos visto acciones y cambios”, añadió.

Natalie Kitroeff es jefa de la corresponsalía del Times en México, Centroamérica y el Caribe. Más de Natalie Kitroeff

Los incendios forestales en Chile consumieron un jardín botánico de 107 años

El Times  Una selección semanal de historias en español que no encontrarás en ningún otro sitio, con eñes y acentos.

El viernes por la tarde, cientos de personas deambulaban por los idílicos terrenos del Jardín Botánico Nacional de Viña del Mar, en Chile, en su mayoría ajenos a que, justo al otro lado de unas colinas y una carretera, un voraz incendio forestal galopaba hacia ellos.

El peligro no tardó en hacerse patente. Los guardaparques empezaron a recorrer el lugar en moto, gritando a los visitantes que huyeran hacia las salidas. Pero cuando muchos llegaron allí, el fuego ya había arribado.

“Un humo negro y grueso se alzaba arriba de nosotros, así que nos tiramos al pasto justo dentro de la reja”, recordó Alejandro Peirano, el director del jardín, el lunes por la mañana. “Uno de mis guardaparques me miró y me dijo: ‘Director, ¿vamos a morir?’”.

En otro lugar, otros tres guardaparques intentaban rescatar a una compañera, Patricia Araya, de 60 años, cuidadora de un invernadero que vivía en el jardín y cuidaba de sus dos nietos y de su madre, de 92 años. Llegaron a la puerta de su cabaña, pero el fuego se acercaba. “Sentía que el calor me quemaba la espalda. Me di cuenta que me caían encima pedazos” de corteza, dijo Freddy Sánchez, de 50 años, el lunes, mientras resguardaba la entrada del parque.

“Tuvimos que volver”, dijo. “Lo único que el cuerpo quiere es buscar cómo escapar del calor”.

La multitud que se apiñó en el jardín delantero sobrevivió. Fue una especie de milagro, dado que el 98 por ciento del jardín de más de 400 hectáreas fue destruido.

Araya, su madre y sus dos nietos no lo hicieron, convirtiéndose en cuatro de las 122 muertes confirmadas en uno de los incendios forestales más mortíferos de la historia moderna.

El lunes, las autoridades continuaron la búsqueda de cadáveres con perros rastreadores en los casi 65 kilómetros cuadrados arrasados por los rápidos incendios del viernes en la provincia de Valparaíso, una popular zona turística cerca de la costa central de Chile.

También hicieron balance de la destrucción general, incluidas unas 15.000 viviendas y una de las joyas nacionales de Chile: el Jardín Botánico Nacional de Viña del Mar, de 107 años de antigüedad.

El jardín botánico, que se extiende a lo largo de unos cuatro kilómetros cuadrados, es uno de los más grandes del mundo, y es también un centro crucial de conservación e investigación para la región. Durante décadas, el personal ha construido y estudiado un jardín diverso, con más de 1000 especies de árboles, entre ellas algunas de las más raras del mundo.

Debido a la aislada geografía de Chile, un país incrustado entre la cordillera de los Andes y el océano Pacífico, el país alberga muchas especies vegetales endémicas, es decir, que no aparecen en ningún otro lugar en estado salvaje.

El jardín ha sido fundamental para preservar esas especies, entre ellas muchos cactus raros. También ha albergado plantas medicinales, plantas exóticas de Europa y Asia, una gran colección de especies de las remotas islas Juan Fernández, en el Pacífico, y algunos de los últimos árboles Sophora toromiro conocidos del mundo, originarios de Rapa Nui, o Isla de Pascua, pero extintos en estado salvaje.

“Es una pérdida terrible. Años y años de investigación que muchísima gente ha hecho en el jardín, cultivando colecciones especiales”, dijo Noelia Álvarez de Román, especialista en América Latina de Botanic Gardens Conservation International, una red mundial de jardines botánicos.

Peirano dijo que el parque había sido dañado por incendios en el pasado, incluyendo en 2013 y 2022, con alrededor de una cuarta parte de los terrenos quemados. Comentó que el personal está habituado y que patrullan diariamente las zonas más susceptibles al fuego, limpiándolas y concientizando a las personas.

“Pero este incendio fue totalmente inesperado”, añadió. “Nunca hemos visto nada de esta magnitud”.

Wildfires in Chile’s Valparaíso region

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Source: NASA Notes: Data is as of 3:31 a.m. Chile Summer Time on Feb. 6. Areas marked in red indicate where active burning was detected within 24 hours of the most recent fires reflected on the map. Exact fire boundaries may differ from the map by 500 meters or more. By Madison Dong, John Keefe and Matthew Bloch

Peirano subrayó que las vidas perdidas eran mucho más devastadoras que los daños físicos. Araya había trabajado en el parque durante unos 40 años, y esta semana había planeado celebrar una nueva ceremonia de matrimonio con su pareja de muchos años para luego irse de vacaciones juntos, dijo Peirano en una entrevista en la televisión.

Ya se había tomado el viernes libre en el trabajo, y sus nietos, de 1 y 9 años, habían llegado a quedarse con ella ese mismo día.

Las autoridades reiteraron el lunes que creían que los incendios habían sido provocados de manera intencional.

El gobernador de la provincia de Valparaíso, Rodrigo Mundaca, declaró a la prensa que las autoridades habían determinado que al menos un incendio de grandes proporciones comenzó hacia las 2 p. m. del viernes en cuatro focos diferentes, a pocos metros unos de otros.

“¿Me parece que eso puede ser espontáneo, natural? No”, dijo, y añadió que los trabajadores de los bosques nacionales habían apagado fuegos provocados intencionadamente un día antes. “Por lo tanto”, añadió, “yo lo he dicho: aquí hay una intencionalidad manifiesta y esperamos que la justicia pueda dar con los responsables”.

Dos personas fueron detenidas el domingo como sospechosas de intentar provocar incendios cerca del jardín botánico, pero posteriormente fueron puestas en libertad porque la policía dijo que no tenía pruebas suficientes. Las autoridades dijeron que mantendrían los toques de queda nocturnos mientras proseguían la investigación y la recuperación de los incendios.

Las altas temperaturas y la sequía que precedieron a los incendios crearon condiciones peligrosas en Chile. El fenómeno climático cíclico conocido como El Niño ha contribuido al calor y la sequía en algunas zonas de Sudamérica, y el cambio climático global también ha provocado un aumento generalizado de las temperaturas.

Los fuertes vientos del viernes hicieron que los incendios se propagaran rápidamente, lo que sorprendió a las autoridades y dejó a muchas personas atrapadas tratando de escapar de los asentamientos en las laderas. El lunes, los bomberos habían controlado en gran medida las llamas.

En el jardín botánico, el humo de los bosques de eucaliptos quemados todavía flotaba en el aire, mientras los trabajadores talaban los árboles caídos con motosierras y helicópteros con enormes cubos de agua sobrevolaban la zona. Peirano estaba claramente entristecido, y calificó los jardines carbonizados que tenía a sus espaldas de “un tesoro para los chilenos”, pero también se mostró decidido a que el bosque volviera a crecer.

“Los bosques nativos volverán a brotar, pero vamos a necesitar que lleguen las lluvias y esas no van a llegar antes de mayo”, dijo. Añadió que algunas de las especies exóticas del jardín también sobrevivieron al infierno, al igual que el histórico baniano de 150 años de Lahaina, Hawái, del cual empezaron a brotar hojas pocas semanas después de que un incendio forestal destruyera gran parte de la ciudad.

Entre las plantas supervivientes se encontraban algunos de los casi extintos árboles Sophora toromiro de Rapa Nui, así como árboles Ginkgo biloba del “Jardín de la Paz” del parque, formado por plantas que sobrevivieron a la bomba atómica de Hiroshima, Japón.

El lunes, en una entrevista en la televisión, dijo que estas plantas habían tenido fuerza “para brotar después de Hiroshima”. Y añadió que, ya que el incendio les pasó por encima, tendrán “doble fuerza si superan esta etapa”, y su significado será doblemente fuerte.

Daniel Politi y Lis Moriconi colaboraron con la reportería.

La primera dama y el bolso Dior: una crisis política sacude Corea del Sur

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El presidente estaba enfrentando una economía en desaceleración, una mortífera avalancha humana y amenazas nucleares de un vecino beligerante. Luego se presentó un escándalo mucho más personal: las imágenes de una cámara oculta que mostraban a su esposa aceptando como regalo un bolso Dior de 2200 dólares.

Se ha convertido, rápidamente, en una de las mayores crisis políticas para el presidente Yoon Suk Yeol de Corea del Sur, quien se ha destacado en la política exterior al alinear su país más estrechamente con Estados Unidos y Japón, pero se ha visto empantanado con controversias en casa. Y muchas de ellas involucran a la primera dama, Kim Keon Hee.

El video de Kim, que se dio a conocer a fines del año pasado, causó una ruptura entre Yoon y uno de sus lugartenientes de mayor confianza. Ha sacudido a su partido político: un miembro de alto rango pidió a Kim que se disculpara y la comparó con María Antonieta. Y, según las encuestas, se ha convertido en un problema significativo antes de unas elecciones parlamentarias cruciales en una atmósfera política cada vez más polarizada.

Durante casi dos años, Kim ha desafiado cómo esta sociedad profundamente patriarcal ve el papel de la cónyuge presidencial. A diferencia de las primeras damas anteriores, que solían permanecer a la sombra de sus maridos, ella ha disfrutado de la atención mediática e incluso ha instado públicamente al gobierno de Yoon a prohibir la cría y el sacrificio de perros para el consumo humano. Ha hablado sobre la devoción de Yoon por ella, diciendo en 2022 que él había prometido cocinar para ella y “mantuvo esa promesa durante la última década”.

Pero Kim también ha cortejado frecuentemente la controversia, a veces de maneras que, según los críticos, ponen de relieve su influencia indebida en el gobierno.

En 2021, cuando Yoon, quien había sido fiscal, estaba en campaña para la presidencia, ella se disculpó por maquillar su currículum para promocionar su negocio de exposiciones de arte. Luego vino la publicación de conversaciones con un reportero, quien grabó secretamente a Kim insinuando que estaba profundamente involucrada en la campaña de su esposo. Llamaba a Yoon “un tonto” que “no puede hacer nada sin mí”. También declaró que se vengaría de los medios de comunicación hostiles “si tomo el poder”.

Kim también ha enfrentado acusaciones de que estuvo envuelta en un esquema de manipulación de precios de acciones antes de la elección de Yoon. En diciembre, el Parlamento controlado por la oposición aprobó un proyecto de ley que hubiera dispuesto que un fiscal especial investigara los dichos. Yoon, de 63 años, quien como Kim, de 51, ha negado las acusaciones, vetó el proyecto de ley.

Yoon, quien ha dicho que su “recuerdo más feliz” fue casarse con Kim en 2012, no ha podido dejar atrás las imágenes relacionadas con la bolsa de Dior.

El video fue tomado en septiembre de 2022 por un pastor coreano-estadounidense llamado Choi Jae-young con una cámara oculta dentro de un reloj de pulsera. Las primeras noticias sobre el episodio surgieron más de un año después, en un canal de YouTube de izquierda llamado la Voz de Seúl, el mismo medio que publicó la charla de Kim con un reportero.

En el video se muestra a Choi de visita en la oficina personal de Kim fuera del complejo presidencial dándole el regalo.

“¿Por qué sigues trayendo estas cosas?”, se le oye decir a Kim. “Por favor, no necesitas hacer esto”.

Choi aboga por relaciones amistosas entre Corea del Norte y Corea del Sur, mientras que Yoon ha adoptado una postura más agresiva hacia el Norte. Dijo que conoció a Kim cuando Yoon estaba en campaña para presidente y recibió una invitación para la toma de posesión de Yoon en mayo de 2022. Un mes después, visitó la oficina de Kim para agradecerle y dijo que le regaló un juego de cosméticos de Chanel de 1300 dólares.

Durante esa reunión, Choi dijo que escuchó una conversación en la que Kim parecía estar desempeñando un papel en el nombramiento de un alto funcionario del gobierno. Dijo que fue entonces cuando decidió “desenmascararla”. Un reportero de la Voz de Seúl le proporcionó la cámara espía y el bolso Dior de piel de ternera azul nube, y Choi envió una foto del bolso Dior a Kim, pidiendo otra reunión.

Choi dijo que aunque había pedido reunirse con la primera dama varias veces, solo se le concedió audiencia en dos ocasiones y únicamente cuando ella sabía de antemano que llevaba regalos caros. A los funcionarios gubernamentales y sus cónyuges se les prohíbe aceptar regalos con valor de más de 750 dólares incluso si no hay un posible conflicto de interés.

“El regalo era un boleto para una audiencia con ella”, dijo Choi.

En el video, Kim también expresó su deseo de “participar activamente en las relaciones Corea del Sur-Corea del Norte”, lo que hace temer que se estuviera extralimitando en su papel.

Mientras que el escándalo causa estragos, Kim ha evitado apariciones públicas durante un mes y medio. Cuando se le preguntó a la oficina de Yoon si el presidente y Kim tenían algún comentario sobre el asunto, respondió que no tenía “nada que compartir”.

Kim no ha comentado públicamente sobre las diversas acusaciones en su contra desde su disculpa de 2021, cuando dijo que se “limitaría al papel de esposa” si Yoon era elegido. Pero durante una inusual entrevista con Artnet News el año pasado, señaló un cambio, al decir que quería convertirse en “una vendedora de la cultura K” y apoyar a Yoon y su gobierno en la “diplomacia cultural”.

En las conversaciones grabadas por Choi y Voz de Seúl, ella parecía negar las acusaciones de irregularidades, calificándolas de campañas de difamación política.

Algunos funcionarios del Partido del Poder Popular de Yoon han acusado a Choi de tender una “trampa” a Kim y programar la publicación del video para influir en las elecciones de abril. También han dicho que Kim no ha usado el bolso, que ha sido almacenado en un depósito presidencial.

En las encuestas, una mayoría de los surcoreanos dicen que fue inapropiado que Kim aceptara el bolso y que quieren una investigación y una explicación de Yoon.

“Este es un asunto explosivo” porque recuerda a los surcoreanos la corrupción recurrente que ha deshonrado a la mayoría de los expresidentes del país, dijo Ahn Byong-jin, politólogo de la Universidad Kyung Hee en Seúl.

Algunos miembros del partido de Yoon han exigido una disculpa de Kim como control de daños. La oposición acusó a Kim de tráfico de influencias y “manipulación de asuntos gubernamentales”. Yoon, agregaron, estaba siendo excesivamente protector de su esposa, en marcado contraste con el enérgico enjuiciamiento de su gobierno por cargos de corrupción contra Lee Jae-myung, el líder de la oposición.

Yoon también ha sido criticado por sus aliados en los medios de comunicación.

“Los conservadores de este país ya no pueden cargar con el ‘riesgo Kim Keon Hee’”, dijo un columnista en el diario conservador Dong-A Ilbo.

El presidente del Partido del Poder Popular, Kim Gi-hyeon, renunció ante la creciente presión,. Yoon lo reemplazó con un aliado cercano, Han Dong-hoon. Pero Han pareció criticar cómo el gobierno gestionó el escándalo y nombró al alto oficial que luego comparó a la primera dama con María Antonieta, una crítica que resonó ampliamente entre el público.

Yoon luego exigió la renuncia de Han, según los medios locales, pero la semana pasada los dos hombres parecían haber llegado a una tregua incómoda.

Su manejo del escándalo ha mostrado cuánta influencia tiene Kim dentro de la oficina de Yoon, dijeron analistas políticos. Es por eso que los surcoreanos bromeaban, a decir de Ahn, con que “hay dos VIP en la oficina de Yoon y la VIP Número 1 es Kim Keon Hee”.

Choe Sang-Hun es el jefe de la corresponsalía de The New York Times en Seúl. Cubre noticias de Corea del Norte y del Sur. Más de Choe Sang-Hun

La censura china busca acallar a las voces que critican sus políticas económicas

Daisuke Wakabayashi y

Reportando desde Seúl

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La principal agencia de inteligencia de China emitió el mes pasado una ominosa advertencia sobre una amenaza creciente para la seguridad nacional del país: los chinos que critican la economía.

El Times  Una selección semanal de historias en español que no encontrarás en ningún otro sitio, con eñes y acentos.

En una serie de publicaciones en su cuenta oficial de WeChat, el Ministerio de Seguridad del Estado pidió a los ciudadanos que comprendieran la visión económica del presidente Xi Jinping y no se dejaran influir por quienes buscan “denigrar la economía de China” mediante “falsas narrativas”. Las autoridades del ministerio dijeron que, para combatir ese riesgo, los organismos de seguridad se centrarán en “reforzar la propaganda económica y la orientación de la opinión pública”.

China intensifica su represión mientras lucha por recuperar el dinamismo y el rápido crecimiento económico del pasado. Pekín ha censurado y ha tratado de intimidar a economistas prestigiosos, analistas financieros, bancos de inversión y personas influyentes en las redes sociales por sus valoraciones críticas de la economía y las políticas del gobierno. Además, se están suprimiendo los artículos periodísticos sobre personas que pasan apuros económicos o sobre el bajo nivel de vida de los trabajadores inmigrantes.

China ha seguido dando unas perspectivas positivas para la economía, señalando que el año pasado superó su previsión de crecimiento económico del 5 por ciento sin recurrir a medidas de estímulo arriesgadas y costosas. Sin embargo, más allá de las cifras, su industria financiera batalla por contener enormes cantidades de deuda de los gobiernos locales, su mercado bursátil se tambalea y su sector inmobiliario está en crisis. El lunes se ordenó la liquidación de China Evergrande, una promotora inmobiliaria ambiciosa que estaba acuciada por una deuda de más de 300.000 millones de dólares.

El alcance de la nueva campaña de información es mayor que el de la labor habitual de los censores gubernamentales, quienes siempre han vigilado de cerca las conversaciones sobre economía en internet. Ahora sus esfuerzos se extienden a los comentarios económicos generales que se permitían en el pasado. La implicación de las agencias de seguridad también evidencia cómo los intereses empresariales y económicos entran en la visión cada vez más grande de Xi acerca de lo que constituye una amenaza para la seguridad nacional.

En noviembre, el Ministerio de Seguridad del Estado, autodenominándose como “firmes guardianes de la seguridad financiera”, afirmó que otros países utilizaban las finanzas como arma en los juegos geopolíticos.

“Algunas personas con segundas intenciones intentan crear problemas y sacar provecho del caos”, escribió el ministerio. “No se trata solo del ‘mercado del oso’ y ‘los vendedores en corto’. Estos agoreros del mercado intentan sacudir la confianza inversora de la comunidad internacional en China y desencadenar una agitación financiera interna en nuestro país”.

En el último año, China ha fijado su atención en las empresas consultoras y asesoras con vínculos en el extranjero mediante redadas, detenciones y arrestos. Estas empresas, que ayudaban a las compañías a evaluar las inversiones en el país, se han convertido en un daño colateral en la campaña de Xi para reforzar la seguridad nacional. Estos esfuerzos por frenar el flujo de información, restringir la publicación de datos económicos desfavorables y limitar el discurso financiero crítico solo parecen aumentar la preocupación de los inversores y las empresas extranjeras sobre el estado real de la economía china.

“En mi opinión, cuanto más suprime el gobierno la información negativa sobre la economía, menos confianza tiene la gente en la situación económica real”, dijo Xiao Qiang, investigador científico de la Escuela de Información de la Universidad de California en Berkeley.

Las nuevas inversiones extranjeras en China cayeron un 8 por ciento en 2023, su nivel más bajo en tres años. El índice chino CSI 300, que sigue a las mayores empresas cotizadas en Shanghái y Shenzhen, cayó un 12 por ciento el año pasado, frente a una subida del 24 por ciento del S&P 500. El índice chino ha bajado otro 5 por ciento este año, hasta mínimos de casi cinco años.

El primer ministro Li Qiang pidió el lunes medidas más eficaces para estabilizar el mercado bursátil, en un contexto de informaciones sobre un posible paquete de rescate del mercado de valores.

Xiao, el investigador académico, dijo que en la segunda mitad de 2023 empezó a notar que los censores chinos retiraban con más rapidez muchos artículos de noticias financieras. Entre ellos: un artículo de diciembre en el sitio de noticias financieras Yicai que citaba una investigación según la cual 964 millones de chinos ganaban menos de 280 dólares mensuales.

Este mes, también se retiró de internet un documental de NetEase News sobre trabajadores inmigrantes que soportaban un nivel de vida extremadamente bajo. Los resultados de la búsqueda del documental titulado Working Like This for 30 Years, también se restringieron en Weibo, un sitio de redes sociales similar a X.

Desde junio, Weibo ha restringido que decenas de cuentas publiquen después de que, según dijo, “publicaran comentarios que hablaban mal de la economía” o “distorsionaran” o “desprestigiaran” las políticas económica, financiera e inmobiliaria de China.

En noviembre, Weibo advirtió a los usuarios que no fueran “maliciosamente pesimistas” sobre la economía ni difundieran sentimientos negativos. El mes pasado, la empresa dijo que esperaba que los usuarios ayudaran a “incrementar la confianza” en el desarrollo de la economía.

Otros servicios de redes sociales también están tomando medidas para censurar el discurso negativo sobre la economía. Douyin, la versión china de TikTok, tiene normas específicas que prohíben la “malinterpretación maliciosa de las políticas relacionadas con el sector inmobiliario”.

A Liu Jipeng, decano de la Universidad China de Ciencias Políticas y Derecho de Pekín, se le prohibió publicar o añadir nuevos seguidores en Douyin y Weibo el mes pasado, después de que dijera en una entrevista que no era el momento adecuado para invertir dinero en acciones. También escribió en Weibo, donde tiene más de 500.000 seguidores, que a la gente le resultaba difícil invertir con seguridad porque había muchas instituciones poco éticas. Su cuenta de Douyin, en la que tiene más de 700.000 seguidores, tiene un aviso que dice que el usuario “tiene prohibido ser seguido debido a una violación de las normas de la comunidad”.

Los bancos y las sociedades de valores también están sometidos a un intenso escrutinio por el contenido de sus estudios económicos. En junio, la Oficina Reguladora de Valores de Shenzhen advirtió a China Merchants Securities, una agencia de valores con sede en Shenzhen, sobre un informe “elaborado descuidadamente” un año antes, en el que se advertía que las acciones nacionales seguirían bajo presión debido a la economía.

En julio, Goldman Sachs provocó una venta masiva de acciones bancarias chinas después de que uno de sus informes de investigación calificara con la etiqueta de “venta” a tres grandes prestamistas y advirtiera que los bancos podrían tener dificultades para mantener los dividendos por las pérdidas derivadas de la deuda de los gobiernos locales. Securities Times, un periódico financiero estatal, contratacó diciendo que el informe se basaba en una “interpretación errónea de los hechos” y que “no es aconsejable malinterpretar los fundamentos de los bancos chinos”.

Un economista de una sociedad de valores extranjera dijo que un funcionario del gobierno chino le había pedido recientemente que fuera “más reflexivo” al redactar informes de investigación, especialmente si el contenido podía interpretarse de manera negativa. El economista pidió no ser identificado por temor a represalias.

Incluso un comentario que antes era aceptable se ha vuelto problemático a la luz de los actuales retos económicos de China.

En una entrevista de 2012, un año antes de que Xi asumiera el poder, Wu Jinglian, un famoso economista chino, advirtió que el país se encontraba en un punto de inflexión. Afirmó que China podía avanzar con una economía de mercado regida por la ley, o podía dejarse influir por quienes buscaban una agenda alternativa de fuerte implicación gubernamental.

Wu dijo en la entrevista que los problemas sociales de China “son fundamentalmente el resultado de unas reformas económicas incompletas, un grave retraso en las reformas políticas y una intensificación del poder administrativo para reprimir e interferir en las actividades económicas privadas legítimas”.

La entrevista se volvió a publicar el año pasado con motivo del 45 aniversario de la apertura de la economía china. Fue ampliamente compartida y es considerada como un reproche a la política económica de Xi —que ha impulsado un mayor control estatal a expensas de las reformas del mercado— antes de que fuera retirada de WeChat.

Pero la campaña de presión se ha intensificado tanto que está convirtiendo en críticos a quienes suelen defender las políticas de Pekín. Hu Xijin, influyente comentarista y exredactor jefe de Global Times, periódico del Partido Comunista, escribió en Weibo que la labor de las personas influyentes era “ayudar constructivamente” al gobierno a identificar los problemas, “en vez de encubrirlos activamente y crear una opinión pública que no es real”.

Daisuke Wakabayashi es corresponsal de negocios en Asia para el Times, con sede en Seúl. @daiwaka

Claire Fu cubre noticias en China continental para The New York Times en Seúl. @fu_claire