MOSCOW: The US and Russian presidents have tentatively agreed to meet in a last-ditch diplomatic effort to stave Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine as heavy shelling continued Monday in a conflict in eastern Ukraine that is feared will spark the Russian offensive.
French President Emmanuel Macron sought to broker a possible meeting between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin in a series of phone calls that dragged into the night.
Macron’s office said both leaders had both “accepted the principle of such a summit,” to be followed by a broader summit meeting also involving other “relevant stakeholders to discuss security and strategic stability in Europe.” It added that the meetings “can only be held on the condition that Russia does not invade Ukraine.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki, said the administration has been clear that “we are committed to pursuing diplomacy until the moment an invasion begins.” She noted that “currently, Russia appears to be continuing preparations for a full-scale assault on Ukraine very soon.”
Macron’s office said that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are set to lay the groundwork for the summit when they meet Thursday.
It followed a flurry of calls by Macron to Putin, Biden and also British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
The Kremlin hasn’t yet commented on the announcement of a possible Putin-Biden summit, but it has said all along that Putin is always open for such a meeting.
The prospective meeting offers new hope of averting a Russian invasion that US officials said could begin any moment with an estimated 150,000 Russian troops amassed near Ukraine.
Adding to fears of an imminent invasion, Russia and its ally Belarus announced Sunday that they were extending massive war games on Belarusian territory that offers a convenient bridgehead for an attack on the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, located just 75 kilometers (less than 50 miles) south of the border with Belarus.
Starting Thursday, shelling also spiked along the tense line of contact between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatist rebels in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland, Donbas, where over 14,000 people have been killed since conflict erupted in 2014 shortly after Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
Ukraine and the rebels have traded blame for massive cease-fire violations with hundreds of explosions recorded daily.
On Friday, separatist officials announced the evacuation of civilians and military mobilization in the face of what they described as an imminent Ukrainian offensive on the rebel regions. Ukrainian officials have strongly denied any plans to launch such an attack and described the evacuation order as part of Russian provocations intended to set the stage for an invasion.
The separatist authorities said Monday that at least four civilians were killed by Ukrainian shelling over the past 24 hours and several others were injured. Ukraine’s military said a Ukrainian soldier was wounded, saying that the separatists were “cynically firing from residential areas using civilians as shields” and insisting that the Ukrainian forces weren’t returning fire.
Moscow denies any plans to invade Ukraine, but wants Western guarantees that NATO won’t allow Ukraine and other former Soviet countries to join as members. It also urges the alliance to halt weapons deployments to Ukraine and roll back its forces from Eastern Europe — demands flatly rejected by the West.
Russian officials have shrugged off Western calls to deescalate by pulling back troops, arguing that Moscow is free to deploy troops and conduct drills wherever it likes on its territory. Last week, Western officials dismissed Russian statements about some of the troops returning to their bases, saying that Moscow was actually beefing up its forces around Ukraine.
A US official said Sunday that Biden’s assertion last week that Putin has made the decision to roll Russian forces into Ukraine was based on intelligence that Russian front-line commanders have been given orders to begin final preparations for an attack. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the sensitive intelligence.
Russia also upped the ante Saturday with sweeping nuclear drills that included multiple practice launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles and cruise missiles that Putin personally oversaw.
Ukraine’s president reaffirmed his call for a quick meeting with Putin to help defuse tensions, but there was no response from the Kremlin.
The European Union’s top diplomat, foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, welcomed the prospect of a Biden-Putin summit but said that should diplomacy fail the 27-nation bloc has finalized its package of sanctions for use if Putin orders an invasion.
“The work is done. We are ready,” said Borrell, who is chairing a meeting of EU foreign ministers. He did not say what kind of red line would trigger the measures, but said that he would call an urgent meeting of foreign ministers when it was crossed “and I will present the sanctions at the right moment.”
Borrell was tasked with drawing up a list of people in Russia to be hit with asset freezes and travel bans. He provided no details about who might be targeted.
The European Commission has prepared other sanctions to “limit the access to financial markets for the Russian economy and (impose) export controls that will stop the possibility for Russia to modernize and diversify its economy,” its president, Ursula von der Leyen, said over the weekend.
In the Ukrainian capital, people prayed for peace as war fears loomed.
Katerina Spanchak, who fled the separatist-controlled east, was among worshippers crowded into the capital’s St. Michael’s monastery, smoky with the candles burned by the faithful, to pray that Ukraine be spared.
“We all love life, and we are all united by our love of life,” Spanchak said, pausing to compose herself. “We should appreciate it every day. That’s why I think everything will be fine.”
SYDNEY: Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said a Chinese naval vessel that pointed a laser at an Australian defense plane was potentially visible from Australia’s mainland, as Canberra demands a “full investigation” by Beijing.
Morrison said on radio on Monday his government had not received an explanation from China over the incident last Thursday, considered by Canberra as a “dangerous and reckless act.”
A Chinese navy vessel within Australia’s exclusive economic zone directed a laser at an Australian military aircraft in flight over Australia’s northern approaches, illuminating the plane and potentially endangering lives, Australia’s defense said on Saturday.
The P-8A Poseidon — a maritime patrol aircraft — detected a laser emanating from a People’s Liberation Army – Navy (PLA-N) vessel, the Defense Department said, releasing photographs of two Chinese vessels sailing close to Australia’s northern coast.
A Chinese guided missile destroyer and an amphibious transport dock were sailing east through the Arafura Sea between New Guinea and Australia at the time of the incident, and later passed through the narrow Torres Strait.
“It’s possible people could even see the vessel from our mainland, potentially,” Morrison told reporters in Tasmania on Monday.
Australia had called through diplomatic and defense channels for “a full investigation into this event,” he said on local radio.
He compared the incident to a hypothetical situation of an Australian frigate pointing a laser at Chinese surveillance aircraft in the Taiwan Strait, adding: “Could you imagine their reaction to that in Beijing?“
The Chinese embassy in Canberra did not respond to a request for comment. Beijing has not commented publicly about the incident.
LONDON: People with COVID-19 won’t be legally required to self-isolate in England starting in the coming week, the UK government has announced, as part of a plan for “living with COVID” that is also likely to see testing for the coronavirus scaled back.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said ending all of the legal restrictions brought in to curb the spread of the virus will let people in the UK “protect ourselves without restricting our freedoms.” He is expected to lay out details of the plan in Parliament on Monday.
“I’m not saying that we should throw caution to the winds, but now is the moment for everybody to get their confidence back,” Johnson told the BBC in an interview broadcast Sunday.
“We’ve reached a stage where we think you can shift the balance away from state mandation, away from banning certain courses of action, compelling certain courses of action, in favor of encouraging personal responsibility.”
But some of the government’s scientific advisers said it was a risky move that could bring a surge in infections and weaken the country’s defenses against more virulent future strains.
Wes Streeting, health spokesman for the main opposition Labour Party, accused Johnson of “declaring victory before the war is over.”
A reminder that the coronavirus remains widespread came with the news that Queen Elizabeth II tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday. Buckingham Palace said the 95-year-old monarch was experiencing mild, cold-like symptoms.
Johnson’s Conservative government lifted most virus restrictions in January, scrapping vaccine passports for venues and ending mask mandates in most settings apart from hospitals in England. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which set their own public health rules, also have opened up, although more slowly.
A combination of high vaccination rates in the UK and the milder omicron variant means easing restrictions didn’t lead to a surge in hospitalizations and deaths. Both are falling, though the UK still has Europe’s highest coronavirus toll after Russia, with more than 160,000 recorded deaths.
In Britain, 85 percent of people age 12 and up have had two vaccine doses and almost two-thirds have had a third booster shot.
Now the Conservative government says it will remove “all remaining domestic COVID regulations that restrict public freedoms” as part of a “move away from government intervention to personal responsibility.”
The legal requirement to isolate for at least five days after a positive COVID-19 test will be replaced with advisory measures, and the coronavirus will be treated more like the flu as it becomes endemic.
The new plan foresees vaccines and treatments keeping the virus in check, though the government said “surveillance systems and contingency measures will be retained” if needed.
“COVID will not suddenly disappear, and we need to learn to live with this virus and continue to protect ourselves without restricting our freedoms,” Johnson said.
The announcement will please many Conservative Party lawmakers, who argue that the restrictions were inefficient and disproportionate. It could also shore up Johnson’s position among party lawmakers, who have been mulling an attempt to oust him over scandals including lockdown-breaching government parties during the pandemic.
But scientists stressed that much remains unknown about the virus, and future variants that may be more severe than the currently dominant omicron strain.
The New and Emerging Virus Threats Advisory Group, which advises the government, said last week that the idea viruses become progressively milder “is a common misconception.” It said the milder illness associated with omicron “is likely a chance event” and future variants could be more severe or evade current vaccines.
Epidemic modelers who advise the government also warned that “a sudden change, such as an end to testing and isolation, has the scope to lead to a return to rapid epidemic growth” if people throw caution to the wind.
Scientists also cautioned against scrapping free rapid coronavirus tests, which have been distributed by the millions during the pandemic. Health officials say the mass testing has played an important role in slowing the spread of the virus.
Scientists are also concerned the government might end the Infection Survey conducted by the Office for National Statistics, which is considered invaluable because it tests people whether or not they have symptoms.
“This is not the time to take risks,” said Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, an umbrella group for state-funded health authorities in Britain. “We need to operate in an evidence-based and incremental way.”
SANTO DOMINGO: The Dominican government on Sunday began building a wall that will cover more than half of the 392-kilometer (244 miles) border with Haiti, its only land neighbor, to stop irregular migration and the smuggling of goods, weapons and drugs.
While the two countries share the island of Hispaniola, they are worlds apart in terms of development. Crime-plagued Haiti is one of the poorest nations in the Americas while the Dominican Republic, a popular Caribbean tourist destination, has prospered in recent decades amid marked political stability.
Many Haitians cross the border clandestinely in search of work in the fields or in the construction industry in the Dominican Republic.
“The benefit for both nations will be of great importance,” said Dominican President Luis Abinader shortly before pushing the button to begin pouring concrete into the foundations of what will be the wall in the province of Dajabón, some 230 kilometers northwest of the capital.
About 500,000 Haitians and tens of thousands of their descendents live in the Dominican Republic, a Spanish-speaking nation of about 11 million people, according to the most recent immigration survey conducted in 2018.
Abinader estimated the border wall will reduce the smuggling of commercial goods, weapons and help fight organized crime in both nations.
He started the project, which aims to build a 164 kilometer wall, ahead of the anniversary of the Dominican Republic’s independence from Haiti on Feb. 27, 1844.
Abinader said the first phase of the project will be completed within nine months at the latest.
The 20-centimeter-thick concrete wall topped by a metal mesh will be 3.9 meters (12.8 ft) high and will have fiber optics for communications, movement sensors, cameras, radars and drones.
The project also includes the construction of 70 watchtowers and 41 access gates for patrolling.
OTTAWA: Canadian police on Sunday secured the downtown core of the capital with fencing as city workers cleaned up trash and snow plows cleared streets after two days of tense standoffs and 191 arrests ended a three-week occupation of Ottawa.
Demonstrators had used hundreds of trucks and vehicles to block the city center since Jan. 28, prompting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to invoke rarely used emergency powers. Seventy-six vehicles had been towed, police said.
Stragglers on Sunday packed up a logistics depot the so-called “Freedom Convoy” had set up in a parking lot near the highway to supply the protesters camped several kilometers away in front of parliament, as police handed out flyers warning them to leave soon or risk arrest and a fine.
“We were running support for the convoy and the people in the downtown core — food, fuel, basic necessities,” said Winton Marchant, a retired firefighter from Windsor, Ontario. “This was the base camp and we are cleaning up.”
The protesters initially wanted an end to cross-border COVID-19 vaccine mandates for truck drivers, but the blockade turned into a demonstration against Trudeau and the government.
On Saturday, police used pepper spray and stun grenades on the die-hard protesters who remained, clearing most of the area in front of parliament. Other demonstrators abandoned their positions in other parts of the downtown area during the night.
Those arrested so far face 389 different criminal charges, including obstructing police, disobeying a court order, assault, mischief, possessing a weapon and assaulting a police officer, Ottawa’s Interim Police Chief Steve Bell told reporters.
“We’re not done with this operation yet,” Bell said. Over the “next several days” police will determine “how we maintain a presence and make sure that nobody returns to occupy our streets again,” Bell said.
For the first time in weeks, there was only snow and silence downtown. The trucks blaring their horns were gone. One resident said he felt relief.
“We seem to have gotten over the hump,” Ottawa resident Tim Abray told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (CBC). But Abray, a communications consultant, said the political division will not go away so easily.
Protesters who were filmed by police and have since left the city will be held to account, Bell said on Saturday.
“We will actively look to identify you and follow up with financial sanctions and criminal charges… This investigation will go on for months to come.”
During the past two days of protests in Ottawa and in British Columbia, where a group temporarily shut down a border crossing south of Vancouver on Saturday, several TV reporters were harassed, insulted, threatened and pushed by demonstrators.
Industry Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said on Twitter that such treatment of journalists was “profoundly disturbing.”
One criminal investigation into the treatment of a member of the media is ongoing, Bell said, adding “the media has been subjected to slurs, to abuse.”
Trudeau on Monday invoked emergency powers to give his government wider authority to stop the protests, including sweeping powers to freeze the accounts of those suspected of supporting the blockades, without obtaining a court order.
So far 206 bank and corporate accounts have been frozen, and one financial institution blocked a “payment processor” account holding C$3.8 million ($2.98 million), police said, adding that they were still collecting information on companies and people.
Parliament continued debate over the use of the emergency powers on Sunday, with a required vote and expected passage of the powers due on Monday. The powers were fundamental in coordinating police to break up the Ottawa protest, Bell said.
Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair, suggested in an interview with the CBC that the extraordinary powers may not be needed much longer.
“We’re tracking it hourly,” he said. “They will only be in place as long as they are needed to get the job done.”
PESHAWAR: A medical university in northwest Pakistan and the country’s top education body have given their initial approval for setting up a campus in Kabul to help to rebuild Afghanistan’s health sector, Pakistani and Afghan officials said on Saturday. Since the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August last year, the group has been making desperate attempts to rebuild key sectors, including health, education and banking.
In December, an eight-member Afghan delegation, led by acting Higher Education Minister Abdul Baqi Haqqani, visited Islamabad for talks on cooperation between the two countries in the fields of education and research.
Last week, officials of the Khyber Medical University (KMU) and a delegation of the Afghan consulate general in Peshawar held a marathon meeting on the proposed KMU campus in Kabul, according to KMU Vice-Chancellor Dr. Ziaul Haq.
“The KMU syndicate has already given approval for the idea of the establishment of an offshore campus in Kabul,” Haq told Arab News.
“Preparations have already been done and we can make the campus operational within four months after approval by Pakistan’s Foreign Office and other concerned departments.”
Thousands of Afghan students have graduated from Pakistani universities, many of them on scholarships, during decades of conflict in the neighboring country. But the exodus of skilled workforce after the withdrawal of foreign forces has left Afghanistan struggling on many fronts.
Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban government, told Arab News that decades of war and turmoil had compounded their problems and damaged his country’s infrastructure, including the health sector.
“We appreciate Pakistan’s consistent support in these hours of turbulence. Afghanistan direly needs its health sector repaired so that my people get treatment at home,” he said.
“This is in its initial stages but the Islamic Emirate will pursue this because we need great support in the health sector. It will bring the two neighbors closer.”
Situated in Peshawar, the KMU is the only public sector medical university in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, playing a lead role in improving the quality of medical education in the northwestern Pakistani province, according to the KMU vice-chancellor.
The university has a thriving research enterprise and is labelled as a “research-intensive” institute by the Higher Education Commission (HEC), which funds, oversees, regulates and accredits higher education institutions in Pakistan. The varsity has 10 constituent institutes and more than a hundred affiliated medical and dental colleges and allied health institutions.
Barrister Mohammad Ali Saif, a provincial government spokesperson, said Pakistan had been striving to build good relations with Afghanistan and take part in rebuilding institutions of the war-battered country.
“This is a really commendable step by the KMU, which will simultaneously help to ensure provision of medical education to Afghan students and health facilities to Afghan patients in their country, instead of their coming all the way to Pakistan,” he said.
He said the provincial government had always extended a helping hand to Afghanistan and the establishment of KMU campus in Kabul would further cement bilateral ties between the two countries.
Haq said about 500-600 Afghan students were studying in different disciplines, including Bachelor of Medicines and Surgery (MBBS), Bachelor of Dental Surgery (BDS), health sciences and physiotherapy, at the KMU.
“We had written to the HEC Islamabad that Pakistan had already established Jinnah Hospital in Kabul, which would help us affiliate the planned campus, which will be helpful for us to realize the idea,” he said.
The 200-bed Jinnah Hospital, one of the largest health facilities in Afghanistan, was funded by the Pakistani government and opened in April 2019.
According to the letter addressed to the HEC, the KMU stated the current circumstances, following the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan and the subsequent exodus of the already thin skilled workforce, have created a human resource vacuum in the neighboring country.
In response, the HEC said it encouraged the initiative of Pakistani higher education institutes to establish their offshore campuses as the internationalization of higher education has become a priority for many universities.
Haq said the KMU would proceed with the establishment of its Kabul campus as per the HEC guidelines and in consultation with the provincial and federal governments.
Behram Jan, a senior project manager at the HEC, said thousands of Afghan students had been enrolled in Pakistani universities under the Allama Iqbal Scholarship program, and the idea of establishing a KMU campus in Kabul was under consideration to facilitate them in their own country.
The AIS program was launched in 2009, and thousands of Afghans have so far benefited from it, gaining degrees in various fields including medicine and engineering. At least 100 seats are reserved for female students as part of the scholarship each year.