INDEPENDENT 2024-02-18 22:33:52


Keir Starmer calls on Gaza fighting to ‘stop now’

Keir Starmer has called for the fighting in Gaza to end “now” as Labour faces another difficult week over its stance on the war.

He told Scottish Labour’s conference in Glasgow that his party wants “a ceasefire that lasts” in the beseiged enclave.

“Not just for now, not just for a pause, but permanently. A ceasefire that lasts. That is what must happen now. The fighting must stop now,” he said. as he also reiterated his warning to Israel not to extend its military offensive to the city of Rafah.

His comments came after Labour members north of the border backed calls for an immediate ceasefire and before an expected Commons showdown on the issue next week.

In November 10 of his frontbenchers quit or were sacked after a mass rebellion over a similar ceasefire vote.

In a stance that has created deep divisions within Labour, Sir Keir has refused to back calls for an “immediate” cessation of the fighting, instead backing the government in urging a “sustainable ceasefire”. Labour sources said there had been no change in the party’s position.

Labour has yet to say how it will instruct its MPs to vote this week, saying it needs to see the wording of the SNP motion on a ceasefire.

Earlier, shadow foreign secretary David Lammy said he understood Scottish Labour’s decision to support a motion for a ceasefire but said he wanted to make sure any pause in fighting was “sustainable”.

He told the BBC’s Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg: “I fully understand that Scottish colleagues want the fighting to stop now, we’ve been saying that for weeks, so we agree with them. We want the fighting to stop now.” However, he added: “You can have a ceasefire that lasts for a few days. We want the ceasefire to last and to be permanent and to move towards the diplomatic solution. It will only be a political solution that brings an end to this.”

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar has called on the SNP, which faces losing potentially dozens of seats to Labour at the election, to work with them on the Commons ceasefire motion. The SNP have offered Sir Keir a meeting to discuss the issue.

In his speech, Sir Keir warned Labour could still lose the general election.

He said some communities had found a new “political home” in the SNP and winning them back would be hard.

He added: “No matter what the SNP say, the Tories can win the next election. Of course they can, politics is volatile. It’s ridiculous to say otherwise.

“So I would also say this. Imagine – even if only for a second – what it will feel like if you wake up on the day after the election, and the Tories are back. Encouraged again, emboldened again, entitled again.”

Earlier, former Labour leader Lord Kinnock said he was “convinced now that we’re not going to lose”.

Asked on Sky News whether Sir Keir would be in No 10, he said: “Yes. And I look forward to that very much because I think he would be a mature, honest, dependable leader of a party. And by God, we need all that now.”

Last week Labour was forced to ditch its candidate in the upcoming Rochdale by-election after he claimed Israel had allowed the Hamas massacre that killed 1,200.

Two teens charged after 16-year-old stabbed to death in Bristol

Two teenage boys have been charged with murder after a 16-year-old was stabbed to death in Bristol.

Darrian Williams died after being knifed in Rawnsley Park play area in the Easton area of the city on Wednesday.

Police said he was attacked by two people wearing masks who then fled on bicycles.

After being attacked, the teenager ran to nearby Stapleton Road where he was helped by a motorist before collapsing in West Street, Old Market. He died at the scene.

Avon and Somerset Police said on Sunday that two 15-year-old boys had been charged with murder. The boys will appear before Bristol Youth Court on Monday.

They have also each been charged with possessing a knife in a public place.

Detective Inspector Neil Meade, the senior investigating officer, said: “Our thoughts tonight are with Darrian’s family following this development.

“We continue to deploy significant resources into the investigation and we will keep them fully informed as it progresses.”

He added: “Knife crime destroys lives and we’re committed to working with our partners and the communities we serve to do everything we can to prevent tragic incidents such as this from happening and to educate young people about the consequences of carrying a knife.”

Since Darrian’s death, the force has introduced enhanced stop-and-search powers in parts of Bristol, while a new police operation targeting youth violence has also been launched.

Officers have met with headteachers to discuss how police can provide support and reassurance ahead of pupils returning to school from half term.

There will be additional patrols outside schools next week, while a mobile police station will be in the area over the coming days.

The killing comes weeks after the deaths of Mason Rist, 15, and Max Dixon, 16, who were stabbed in the Knowle West area of the city.

Navalny’s ‘bruised body seen in morgue’ as family demands it is returned

Vladamir Putin believes that he is “untouchable” after years of an iron grip on Russia, the wife of jailed opposition figure Vladimir Kara-Murza has said, as she accused the autocrat of murdering Alexei Navalny.

Speaking to the BBC, Evgenia Kara-Murza said: “All that impunity that lasted for decades has led [Putin] to believe he’s somehow untouchable.”

It comes as an independent Russian newspaper cited an anonymous source claiming that Mr Navalny’s body had been delivered to the Salekhard District Clinical Hospital.

The unnamed source, identified as an experienced paramedic, said the body was bruised and had been transported from the nearby town of Labytnangi.

Some Russian media reported that a special team of investigators had arrived from Moscow. It is unclear when the post-mortem will take place.

Mr Navalny’s mother, Lyudmila Navalnaya, visited the Salekhard morgue on Saturday but was told her son’s body was not there.

The Russian opposition figure’s team have accused authorities of deliberately hiding his body to “cover traces” of what they claim is a clear act of murder.

Adult human bones found in grisly discovery near Birmingham Airport

Human bones have been found by a member of the public in a grisly discovery near Birmingham airport.

Police said the remains, belonging to an adult, were found on land near Digby Drive, Marston Green, at around 5.30pm on Saturday.

The Solihull branch of West Midlands Police said an investigation has been launched and enquiries remain ongoing to identify the deceased.

“This will include specialist forensic tests which will take some time,” the force said.

Digby Drive is a residential street located just a 10-minute drive away from Birmingham Airport.

Solihull Police said in a statement: “We were called to land off Digby Drive, Marston Green, at around 5.30pm yesterday after a member of the public discovered bones.

“They are those of an adult, and enquires continue to identify the deceased.

“This will include specialist forensic tests which will take some time.”

It is not the first time human bones have been found near the airport in Birmingham.

In November 2020 police found remains just off Old Damson Lane, near a Jaguar Land Rover plant, where officers had previously searched for missing boys David Spencer and Patrick Warren.

At the time police suspected former Shropshire agricultural worker and convicted child killer Brian Field of having kidnapped the youngsters.

But West Midlands Police said there was no evidence to link the remains to the missing pair.

David and Patrick were 11 and 13 respectively when they disappeared from their homes in Chelmsley Wood on Boxing Day 1996.

Last major hospital in south Gaza no longer functioning, UN says

The last major hospital in southern Gaza has ceased to function, the UN has said, in the wake of a raid by Israeli forces.

Medics inside Nasser hospital, in Khan Younis, have previously told The Independent about the intense fighting around the hospital, Israeli forces entered the complex on Thursday.

The latest blow to Gaza’s devastated healthcare sector came as Israel prepares for an assault of the southernmost city of Rafah, home now to more than a million Palestinians, many of them having fled other areas of the enclave. It us a move that the international community, including Israel’s biggest ally the United States, has warned would create enormous human suffering.

The head of the UN’s World Health Organisation (WHO), Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: “Nasser hospital in Gaza is not functional anymore, after a week-long siege followed by the ongoing raid.”

“Both yesterday and the day before, the WHO team was not permitted to enter the hospital to assess the conditions of the patients and critical medical needs, despite reaching the hospital compound to deliver fuel alongside partners,” he said in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter. “There are still about 200 patients in the hospital. At least 20 need to be urgently referred to other hospitals to receive health care; medical referral is every patient’s right.”

The Israeli military said its special forces were operating in and around Nasser hospital, and had killed dozens of Palestinian militants and seized a large amount of weapons in fighting across Gaza over the past day. It has consistently accused Hamas of hiding in hospitals and using civilians as shields. accusations denied by hospital staff

The military claimed in a statement that hundreds of militants were hiding in Nasser hospital and some had posed as medical staff. It released images of weapons it said were found along with medications that were transferred from Israel and intended for the more than 100 hostages abducted from Israel and being held by Hamas.

“The packages of medicine that were found were sealed and had not been transferred to the hostages,” the military said. Hamas dismissed the allegations.

Nasser hospital was still sheltering scores of patients suffering from war wounds and from the worsening health crisis in Gaza, but there was no power and not enough staff to treat them all, the spokesperson for the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory, Ashraf al-Qidra, said.

“It’s gone completely out of service. There are only four medical teams – 25 staff – currently caring for patients inside the facility,” he told Reuters.

The Israeli military said the raid occurred “without harming patients and medical staff, and in accordance with international law.

Mr Qidra said water supply to the hospital had halted because generators had been out of action for three days, sewage was flooding emergency rooms and the remaining staff had no way of treating intensive care patients. A lack of oxygen supplies – also a result of having no power – had caused the deaths of at least seven patients, he said.

The Israeli offensive inside Gaza – started in response to a bloody Hamas attack inside Israel during which around 1,200 people were killed and 250 others taken hostage – show no sign of abating. Palestinian health authorities say around 29,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in an aerial bombardment and ground campaign, backed by a blockade.

Israel’s assault on Gaza began in the north and has moved south, with many know ending up in Rafah, the Gaza-Egypt border town which is the only crossing not controlled by Israel.

Israeli planes carried out attacks on two areas in Rafah on Sunday, including an empty building near the border with Egypt, local residents and Hamas media officials said. The second of the two strikes hit an open space where displaced people were sheltering, killing six people, local medics said.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, under pressure to get the remaining hostages released, on Saturday pledged to push on with the military campaign. Mr Netanyahu has rejected internationally-backed attempts to negotiate a ceasefire as Arab and Western countries call for a lasting solution to the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the creation of a Palestinian state in the occupied West Bank and Gaza alongside Israel.

The US, Qatar and Egypt have spent weeks trying to broker a ceasefire and hostage release, but there’s a wide gap between Israel and Hamas’ demands. Qatar said over the weekend that the talks “have not been progressing as expected.”

Mr Netanyahu’s war cabinet on Sunday formalised its opposition to what it called the “unilateral recognition” of Palestinian statehood.

Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this report

Versatile Vienna: from concerts and culture to wild swimming

The elegant city of Vienna, Austria’s capital, perches daintily on the Danube River, and is renowned for being a hotbed of culture. Art and music are woven into Vienna’s very DNA; it has been called the ‘City of Music’ because so many famous musicians, such as Beethoven and Mozart, lived here, and it’s where you’ll find one of the world’s most beautiful paintings – Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss – among a whole host of museums and galleries to lose yourself in. What’s more, it also boasts a wealth of wonderful natural sites and outdoor activities to enjoy, from vast parks, to pretty forests, refreshing pools and stretches of river, all within the city.

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Culturally, you can’t do better than starting with The Kiss. The final painting of what was known as Klimt’s Golden Period, its depiction of two entwined lovers makes use of gold leaf and flakes of gold, silver and platinum, creating a stunning luminous effect that needs to be seen first-hand. Located in the beautiful, 300-year-old Upper Belvedere Palace, the piece rubs shoulders with works by other famous artists, including Monet and Van Gogh. While you’re here, make sure to enjoy a stroll through the landscaped gardens of this elaborate Baroque palace complex.

For even more inspiring artworks and cultural events, head to the MuseumsQuartier Wien, better known as MQ; the area is home to a cluster of museums, galleries and theatres, with dozens of exhibitions that will appeal to adults and children alike.

Finally, immerse yourself in Viennese history with a trip to Hofburg, the former Imperial Palace of the Habsburg dynasty. Once you’ve visited the grand Imperial apartments and the Sisi Museum – dedicated to the Empress Elisabeth, or ‘Sisi’, of Austria – make your way to the Palace’s Spanish Riding School, where you can watch the handsome Lipizzaner horses train, exercise, practice and perform dressage.

You can enjoy all the fun of the fair at the Prater amusement park, from roller coasters to ghost trains, but its standout attraction is the Wiener Riesenrad, or Big Wheel, which sits just by the entrance. Constructed in 1897, it stands 212ft high, and offers incredible views over the city. The iconic structure has even featured in several films, including 1940s film noir The Third Man, and James Bond classic The Living Daylights.

If you’re here in the warmer months, you might be surprised to discover that there are several outdoor swimming spots within the city, perfect for a refreshing dip. Along the Danube you’ll find the likes of Strandbad Gänsehäufel, one of the most popular stretches of the river with locals; An der Unteren Alten Donau, which has piers from which you can dive straight in, comfortable wooden reclining seats and a wide boardwalk; and the lively An der Oberen Alten Donau, known for its pier parties and night swimming.

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Rishi Sunak cannot afford to become consumed by by-election defeats

At a time when Vladimir Putin is asserting his brutal power ever more blatantly, when Ukrainian forces are being pushed back, and when the situation in Gaza is bleaker than ever, the British prime minister cannot afford to be distracted by the protest votes for a minority party in by-elections.

The Reform UK bandwagon may appear to be picking up speed. In Wellingborough, Ben Habib won 13 per cent of the vote and in Kingswood, Rupert Lowe won 10 per cent. This suggests that national opinion polls, putting the party on an average of 10 per cent, are accurate.

The prime minister has responded by launching an appeal for all voters who oppose a Labour government to unite behind the Conservative Party, making the argument that “a vote for anyone other than the Conservatives will just help Starmer”. That this is obviously true does not conceal Rishi Sunak’s desperation.

If Sunak is going to lose, what should he do in the next nine months?

The main significance of this week’s by-elections, for a prime minister hoping for something to turn up, is that nothing turned up. The voters confirmed that the public mood as portrayed by the opinion polls is accurate: people intend to vote Labour; they want the Conservatives out; and a chunk of the core Tory vote has defected to Reform.

Rishi Sunak can try his hardest to minimise Tory losses but his chances of avoiding defeat at the general election now depend on a big and unexpected disruption to national life.

Which means that the working assumption is that he has another nine months in No 10, before the election that he has pencilled in for 14 November – although I still think it could be 12 December, exactly five years after the last.

I noticed, incidentally, that the demand for a “general election now” is not as insistent as Keir Starmer likes to pretend. A We Think opinion poll this week found the cursed ratio: 48 per cent want an election “immediately”, while 52 per cent do not. Most are happy to let Sunak have his last few months in office.

So the big question now is what he should do with the time he has left. To which the obvious answer is that he should do the right things for the country. That is why the headlines this week, about Jeremy Hunt cutting future public spending plans to pay for tax cuts, struck such a discordant note. The last thing he and Sunak should be trying to do is buy votes. It is not going to work, and it is the wrong thing for the country.

There is not enough time now for the voters to feel so much better off by polling day that tax cuts or real pay rises are going to make a difference. In any case, the disaffection with the Conservatives seems to go deeper than numbers in voters’ bank accounts: we are near that cleansing moment in a democracy where the people decide that it is time for change.

Sunak should not be trying to buy votes; nor should he be hankering too hard to leave a legacy. Theresa May did that: because the end of her premiership was also advertised long in advance, she tried to bounce the Treasury into agreeing a big increase in education spending. When Philip Hammond said no, she latched on instead to a promise on the never-never: net zero carbon by 2050.

In a sense, Sunak has already done the right thing by trying to inject some democratic realism into that net zero target but the trouble is that too many people think he was trying to buy core Tory votes. Equally, I think he was right and brave to cancel the rest of HS2, releasing public investment for better use elsewhere. He should do more of that, making decisions that are in the national interest but that a Labour government might find hard to make.

Above all, though, he and Hunt should forget about tax cuts. Every public service is run down and in urgent need of more money. Many of them could do with a strong dose of radical reform too, of course, but the money comes first. The NHS, housing, criminal justice, asylum, defence: the demands are huge. People would always like to pay less tax but at the moment public opinion, faced with a choice between tax cuts and public spending, prefers better public services. The best legacy is to do the right thing.

The same goes for Starmer and Rachel Reeves if Labour wins. They must know that taxes are going to have to rise in the early years of a Labour government. Reeves needs to avoid boxing herself in any further by ruling out tax rises, even if it means that her definition of “closing tax loopholes” is going to have to be broad.

There is an interesting quotation from Angela Rayner, the deputy Labour leader, in the extract from Tom Baldwin’s biography of Starmer published today. She says: “Keir is the least political person I know in politics … His natural instinct is, ‘Forget the politics – is this right or wrong?’”

She obviously thinks this is naive: “There’s lots of grey in politics – it’s not necessarily as clear-cut as that.” But usually, doing the right thing for the country is the best politics. That is why I was struck by something George Osborne said in his podcast with Ed Balls, Reeves’s predecessor as shadow chancellor. He suggested that a Labour government – he did say “if there is one” – should negotiate a customs union with the EU.

This would ease some of the barriers to trade with the EU and reduce the costs of Brexit. Indeed, it was essentially what Theresa May’s compromise withdrawal agreement sought to do. More significantly, Osborne observed that it would trap the Tory party. The Tories would be bound to oppose the policy and to promise to reverse it but this promise would become an albatross around their necks if the customs union was seen as good for jobs and pay.

Again, Labour should be careful not to rule out a customs union too emphatically before the election: ruling out rejoining the EU or its single market is one thing; anything else should fall under the heading of “making Brexit work better”.

Those, then, are my tests for the next nine months and the period immediately after the general election: will Sunak, and Starmer, “forget the politics” and do the right thing?