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Putin says Western military backing of Ukraine threatens Russia

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October 21, 2021

By Vladimir Soldatkin and Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber

MOSCOW (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that the Western-backed military development of Ukraine posed a serious threat to Russia, two days after the U.S. defense secretary staged a show of support for Kyiv and encouraged its aspiration to join NATO.

Putin told a group of journalists and Russia experts that Tuesday’s visit to Ukraine by Lloyd Austin, in which he said no third country had the right to veto its hoped-for NATO membership, had effectively paved the way for Kyiv to join.

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Whether it did or not, Putin said, Russia’s interests were targeted.

“Formal membership (of Ukraine) in NATO may not take place, but military development of the territory is already under way,” Putin told the Valdai Discussion Club. “And this really poses a threat to Russia. We are aware of that.”

The United States has been Ukraine’s most powerful backer since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of a war the same year between Russian separatists and government forces in eastern Ukraine, which Kyiv says has killed 14,000 people.

The Kremlin chief has consistently made clear that NATO membership for Ukraine – which shares close ties with Russia going back to ancient times – would be a red line for Moscow.

Russia this week effectively severed diplomatic relations with NATO after the alliance kicked out eight members of its mission there for alleged spying. NATO defence ministers agreed a new master plan on Thursday to defend against any potential Russian attack on multiple fronts.

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Adding to tensions with Washington, Russia has reported three instances in the past week when it says its forces intercepted a U.S. ship or aircraft on the point of breaching its waters or airspace, though the United States has disputed the details.

In a wide-ranging discussion in southern Russia lasting several hours, Putin was more upbeat, however, on relations with the administration of President Joe Biden.

He said talks between Moscow and Washington on strategic stability and cybersecurity were moving in the right direction, and that a summit between the two men in Geneva in June had been productive.

Putin also said Biden had been right to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, whose new Taliban government sent representatives to Moscow this week for talks on rebuilding the country after the end of the 20-year U.S. troop presence.

He said Afghanistan should get its financial assets unfrozen in the interest of boosting its stability – a position opposed by Washington, which has said it has no plans to release billions in Afghan gold, investments and foreign currency reserves parked in the United States and frozen after the Taliban seized power in August.

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(Additional reporting by Andrey Ostroukh, Oksana Kobzeva, Gleb Stolyarov, Olesya Astakhova, Alexander Marrow, and Anton Zverev Writing by Mark Trevelyan; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

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Poor weather hampers search and rescue efforts at Indonesia volcano

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December 6, 2021

By Willy Kurniawan

SUMBERWULUH, Indonesia (Reuters) – Officials monitoring Indonesia’s Semeru volcano on Monday warned residents to remain vigilant after a deadly eruption over the weekend, as heavy wind and rain brought search-and-rescue efforts to a halt.

The tallest mountain on the island of Java erupted dramatically on Saturday, shooting a towering column of ash into the sky that blanketed surrounding villages. Fourteen people were killed and dozens more injured.

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Aerial footage showed roofs jutting out of an ashen landscape, while on the ground military officers, police and residents dug through mud with their hands to extricate victims.

GRAPHIC-Indonesia Semeru eruption

To view the graphic, click here: https://graphics.reuters.com/INDONESIA-VOLCANO/klvyknzmbvg/INDONESIA-VOLCANO.jpg

On Monday, the head of the Semeru Volcano Observatory, Liswanto, warned people to keep a safe distance from the mountain, amid reports anxious residents had returned to their homes to check on belongings and livestock.

“The status of Mt. Semeru is still at level 2, which means at this level, people need to be more vigilant because the potential threat is still there,” he said.

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More than 50 people had suffered injuries from the eruption, mostly burns. Lava flows destroyed a strategic bridge connecting two areas in the nearby district of Lumajang with the city of Malang.

In the Sumberwuluh area, where two trucks lay half-buried by volcanic ash, recovery efforts came to an abrupt halt because of strong winds, a Reuters witness said.

Public kitchens and health facilities have been set up for more than 1,000 people who have been displaced.

A trauma healing team to work with children affected by the eruption has been dispatched, CNN Indonesia reported, while hundreds of aid packages, including rice, blankets and clothes and other basic necessities have been sent to the area.

Semeru is one of more than 100 active volcanoes in Indonesia, a country that straddles the Pacific Ring of Fire, an area of high seismic activity that rests atop multiple tectonic plates.

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GRAPHIC-The Pacific Ring Of Fire

To view the graphic, click here: https://graphics.reuters.com/INDONESIA-VOLCANO/zjvqkyeamvx/RING-OF-FIRE.jpg

(Writing by Kate Lamb; Editing by Karishma Singh and Gerry Doyle)

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Solomon Islands prime minister faces no-confidence vote after riots

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December 6, 2021

By Kirsty Needham

SYDNEY (Reuters) -Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare faces a motion of no confidence on Monday, after anti-government riots just over a week ago saw dozens of buildings burnt down and shops looted in the capital of the Pacific island nation.

Boats have been banned from Honiara harbour, and more than 200 police and soldiers from Australia, Fiji, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea are on alert, amid fears the vote could trigger another outbreak of violence.

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However, Monday’s motion is not expected to gain enough support from government MPs to pass, even though four of them resigned.

Church leaders called for talks between the national government and the most populous province of Malaita to resolve a range of domestic issues and a dispute over the switching of diplomatic ties to China from Taiwan in 2019.

Sogavare was “in the service of a foreign power,” opposition leader Matthew Wale said in parliament, accusing the prime minister of using money from China in a national fund to prop up his political strength before the vote.

“The prime minister is dependent on the National Development Fund (NDF) money to maintain his political strength,” Wale said. “How can he make decisions only in the interests of the Solomon Islands?”

Sogavare’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Citizens are angry at inadequate healthcare, prime land being taken by foreigners, and logging companies overriding local interests, Wale said.

The looting and violence that erupted November 24 must be condemned, he added, but said, “It pales in comparison to the looting that happens at the top.”

Anti-government protests spiralled into violence that killed four and destroyed large parts of Honiara’s Chinatown after Sogavare refused to speak with protesters who had travelled from Malaita.

The province has a history of disputes with Guadalcanal province where the national government is based, and opposed the 2019 switch.

About 1,000 people gathered in the provincial capital of Auki to listen to a livestream of the parliament session.

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A political aide to Malaita’s premier, Daniel Suidani, told Reuters it appeared the no-confidence motion would be defeated.

Suidani is expected to make an announcement on Tuesday outlining a referendum for independence for Malaita, the adviser, Celsus Talifilu, said by telephone.

Health minister Culwick Togamana backed Sogavare’s leadership amid the COVID-19 pandemic and said he should not resign. There have been 20 cases and no deaths, the World Health Organization (WHO) has said.

China had agreed to upgrade the Solomon Islands’ hospital and universities, said South New Georgia MP Danny Phillip.

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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U.S. condemns militant attack in Mali that killed 31

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December 6, 2021

(Reuters) – The United States “strongly condemns” a militant attack on a bus in central Mali that killed at least 31 people and wounded 17, the State Department said on Sunday.

Unidentified gunmen on Friday opened fire on the bus as it traveled from the village of Songho to a market in Bandiagara, 6 miles (10 km) away.

The villages sit in the heart of the Mopti region, an epicenter of violence in Mali fueled by insurgents linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State.

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“The United States strongly condemns the attack on civilians on Saturday near Bandiagara, Mali, which left 31 dead and 17 injured,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a written statement.

“We extend our deepest condolences to the Malian people and will continue to partner with them in their pursuit of a safe, prosperous, and democratic future,” Price said.

Jihadist attacks have surged across Africa’s Sahel region, killing thousands and displacing millions across Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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