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Belarus must be held accountable for human trafficking, Baltic states say

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November 15, 2021

By Andrius Sytas

VILNIUS (Reuters) -Belarus is forcing migrants to breach its borders with the European Union, and the government of President Alexander Lukashenko must be held accountable for human trafficking, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia said on Monday.

“We … condemn the actions taken by the Lukashenko regime instrumentalising migrants for political purposes,” the presidents of the three Baltic states said in a joint statement after meeting Polish President Andrzej Duda via video link.

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The European Union has accused Lukashenko of orchestrating an influx of migrants to EU members Poland, Lithuania and Latvia to pressure the EU to back down over sanctions slapped on his government. Belarus has repeatedly denied the accusation.

“Thousands of people who flew into Belarus from Middle Eastern and African countries are being directed, in caravans, to storm the border of the European Union,” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda told a news conference.

He said that “video recordings, pictures and other evidence” proved involvement of Belarus officials, as well as its close ally Russia in stirring up the crisis.

“This is illustrated by the obvious increasing activity of migrants travelling via Moscow (to the EU border), compensating for the loss of flights from Iraq to Minsk,” Nauseda said.

Estonian President Alar Karis, Latvian President Egils Levits and Nauseda called on the European Commission to introduce, “without delay”, changes in EU laws to tighten asylum possibilities.

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They also said the EU should pay for the construction of barriers at the bloc’s external border, such as the one with Belarus.

European Union foreign ministers signed off on Monday on changes to the bloc’s sanctions framework, preparing the way for a new round of sanctions on Belarus.

Lithuania and Latvia would join Poland if it decided to ask for emergency NATO consultation under Article 4 of the defence alliance’s governing treaty, the presidents of the two countries said.

Under Article 4, any ally can request consultations whenever, in the opinion of any of them, their territorial integrity, political independence or security is threatened.

“The integration of Belarus into the Russian military system is now a done deal. NATO needs to change its strategy and military plans accordingly”, Nauseda said.

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(Reporting by Andrius Sytas, editing by Terje Solsvik and Gwladys Fouche; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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One of suspected killers of Saudi journalist Khashoggi arrested in France – RTL

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December 7, 2021

PARIS (Reuters) – One of the suspected killers of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was arrested at the Roissy airport near Paris on Tuesday as he was about to board a flight to Riyadh, French RTL radio reported.

RTL said the person arrested was a former Royal Guard of Saudi Arabia who is believed to have been involved in the killing of Kashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.

(Reporting by Tassilo Hummel, Writing by GV De Clercq, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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Biden, Putin begin talks, RIA says, after U.S. warning of toughest sanctions yet if Russia invades Ukraine

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December 7, 2021

By Steve Holland and Andrew Osborn

WASHINGTON/MOSCOW (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden began a video conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday, Russian state television said, after U.S. officials warned Moscow could be hit with the toughest economic sanctions yet if it invades Ukraine.

The officials said the sanctions, which one source said could target Russia’s biggest banks and Moscow’s ability to convert roubles into dollars and other currencies, were designed to dissuade Putin from using tens of thousands of troops massed near the Ukrainian border to attack its southern neighbour.

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The Kremlin, which said before the meeting it did not expect any breakthroughs, has denied harbouring such intentions and has said its troop posture is defensive.

But Moscow has voiced rising vexation over Western military aid to Ukraine, a fellow former Soviet republic that has tilted towards the West since a popular revolt toppled a pro-Russian president in 2014, and what it calls creeping NATO expansion.

Moscow has likewise questioned Ukrainian intentions and said it wants guarantees that Kyiv will not use force to try to retake territory lost in 2014 to Russia-backed separatists, a scenario Ukraine has ruled out.

“We’re looking for good, predictable relations with the United States. Russia has never intended to attack anyone, but we have our concerns and we have our red lines,” said Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov.

Calling for everyone to keep “a cool head”, Peskov said it was vital that Putin and Biden speak given what he called the extraordinary escalation of tensions in Europe.

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The Russian rouble weakened slightly on Tuesday, with some market analysts predicting the talks would de-escalate tensions and others saying that the U.S. sanctions threat eroded hopes of finding common ground.

Ahead of his first direct talks with Putin since July, Biden discussed the sanctions plan with European allies on Monday, seeking a strong joint stance in support of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.

He spoke to French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

They called on Russia to defuse tensions and return to diplomacy and said their teams would stay in close touch, including in consultation with NATO allies and EU partners, on a “coordinated and comprehensive approach”, the White House said.

Biden’s team has identified a set of economic penalties to impose should Russia launch an invasion, a senior Biden administration official said.

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A separate source familiar with the situation said targeting Putin’s inner circle has been discussed but no decision made. Sanctions against Russia’s biggest banks and curbing the conversion of roubles into dollars and other currencies were also being considered, another source said.

(Additional reporting by Idrees Ali in Washington, Gleb Stolyarov, Dmitry Antonov, Alexander Marrow, Tom Balmforth and Katya Golubkova in Moscow, Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Catherine Evans and Mark Heinrich)

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Britain reports 101 more cases of Omicron coronavirus variant

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December 7, 2021

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain has found a further 101 confirmed cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant, the UK Health Security Agency said on Tuesday, taking the total number of cases to 437.

(Reporting by Alistair Smout; Editing by William Schomberg)

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