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Air Raid Alert in Ukraine as Zelenskyy Calls for Aircraft, Missiles

Ukraine declared an air raid alert over most of the country early Thursday as authorities in Kyiv warned of a possible Russian missile attack while heavy fighting continued unabated in the east, where Moscow’s forces have been increasing pressure on Ukrainian defenders.

Andriy Yermak, the head of Ukraine’s presidential administration, wrote on Telegram, “the first Russian missiles have already been shot down,” without specifying the locations.

Authorities asked citizens not to ignore the danger signal and to remain in shelters.

Electricity firm DTEK said it was performing emergency power shutdowns in Kyiv and the region around the capital as well as in the regions of Odesa and Dnipropetrovsk due to the danger of missile attack.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, speaking just hours after Germany and the United States pledged to provide Kyiv with advanced battle tanks, called on Kyiv’s Western allies to deliver long-range missiles and military aircraft to beef up Ukraine’s air defense.

Zelenskyy said in his regular nightly video address Wednesday that it is now necessary to “go ahead with the supply of aircraft for Ukraine.”

On the battlefield, Ukrainian forces continued to sustain incessant pressure from Russian attacks in the east, mainly in Bakhmut and Avdiyivka in Donetsk region and Chervopopyivka in Luhansk, Ukraine’s General Staff said in its daily report Thursday.

Ukrainian forces destroyed 24 drones, including 15 over Kyiv, that Russia launched in overnight attacks, it said, warning about the danger of more Russian air raids.

“Despite suffering numerous losses, the enemy did not halt its offensive actions,” the General Staff said, adding that Ukrainian defenders also repelled attacks in Lyman, Kupyansk, Zaporizhzhya, and Kherson.

Russia has been “intensifying” its offensive near Bakhmut, where it deployed a “superior number of soldiers and weapons” in what has become a hot spot in the 11-month-old invasion, Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said Wednesda, adding that “the enemy is intensifying pressure in the Bakhmut and Vuhledar sectors” of the front.

Ukrainian officials on Wednesday also acknowledged their loss to Russian forces of the Donetsk-region salt-mining town of Soledar as many military experts are forecasting a Russian spring offensive in the area.

Berlin and Washington agreed to provide the tanks following months of intense debate among NATO allies in the hope of helping stem the expected push by Russia.

Zelenskyy praised the allies’ commitment to deliver advanced tanks and urged them to provide large numbers of tanks quickly.

“The key now is speed and volumes. Speed in training our forces, speed in supplying tanks to Ukraine. The numbers in tank support,” he said. “We have to form such a ‘tank fist,’ such a ‘fist of freedom.'”

“It is very important that there is progress in other aspects of our defense cooperation as well,” Zelenskyy said.

“We must also open the supply of long-range missiles to Ukraine. It is important — we must also expand our cooperation in artillery, we must enter into the supply of aircraft for Ukraine. And this is a dream. And this is the task.”

President Joe Biden on Wednesday said the United States will send 31 of its highly advanced Abrams tanks in a move he said was not a threat to Russia.

Moscow has warned that it regards the Western supply of advanced battle tanks to Ukraine a dangerous provocation.

Speaking from the White House, Biden said the NATO tanks for Ukraine would help “improve their ability to maneuver in open terrain.”

He praised Berlin’s similar announcement as evidence that “Germany has really stepped up.”

Chancellor Olaf Scholz said hours earlier that Germany will supply 14 Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine and will also allow third countries to reexport their own German-made Leopards.

Scholz said the decision, approved Wednesday, was “the right principle” in the face of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of its neighbor.

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius added that the first Leopard tanks could be in Ukraine within three months.

With reporting by Reuters, The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and dpa.


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Experts: Arming Ukraine Via US Could Worsen South Korea’s Ties with Russia

South Korea, with a world-class arms industry, is facing mounting pressure to find a way to get needed arms and munitions to Ukraine without unduly angering Russia, which has hinted that it could resume military cooperation with North Korea.

Experts interviewed by VOA say the most likely solution under consideration in Seoul is for the nation’s commercial arms manufacturers to make private sales to the United States, allowing the U.S to ship more of its own armaments to Ukraine without depleting its stockpiles.

A spokesperson for the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs told VOA Korean Service on Wednesday that the administration in Seoul “has been providing humanitarian support to the people of Ukraine” but “there has not been a change” in its position that it “will not send lethal weapons to Ukraine.”

Depleted stockpiles

Since the Russian invasion, Washington’s military aid to Kyiv has depleted U.S. weapons stockpiles.

The Ukraine Defense Contact Group, a U.S.-led coalition of about 50 countries, has been sending Kyiv weaponry ranging from High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) to howitzers. The U.S. and Germany announced Wednesday that they will send 31 M1 Abrams tanks and 14 Leopard 2 tanks, respectively. Additional tanks have been promised by other NATO countries.

Ukraine is using about 90,000 artillery rounds per month while the U.S. and European countries are producing only half that amount among them, according to The New York Times, citing U.S. and Western officials.

The U.S. has asked the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) to route some of its equipment stockpiled in South Korea to Ukraine, USFK spokesperson Isaac Taylor told the VOA Korean Service on Jan. 19.

And Washington “has been in discussion about potential sales of ammunition” from South Korea’s “non-government industrial defense base,” said Pentagon spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Martin Meiners to the VOA Korean Service on Jan. 18.

“The Republic of Korea has a world-class defense industry which regularly sells to allies and partners, including the United States,” Meiners added. South Korea’s official name is the Republic of Korea (ROK).

South Korea’s arms sales

Experts said arms sales from South Korea’s private defense companies to the U.S. could elevate South Korea’s standing as “a global pivotal state,” a stated foreign policy aspiration of President Yoon Suk Yeol since he took office in May.

Yoon said in August that South Korea’s goal is to become one of the top four global arms sellers. He reiterated the goal of boosting weapons sales in November.

South Korea was the world’s eighth-largest exporter of weapons in 2017-21 according to a 2022 report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) which said the United States, Russia, France, China and Germany are the top five sellers.

“President Yoon has called South Korea a global pivotal state,” David Maxwell, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said. “… Providing support to Ukraine directly or indirectly is an example of that.”

Putin’s warning

Experts said that by allowing the private arms sales to proceed, South Korea could shore up its alliances with Western powers and help to demonstrate to authoritarian neighbors like China and North Korea that the kind of aggression launched by Russia in Ukraine will not succeed.

But the move will likely come at the cost of further deterioration in Seoul’s relations with Moscow, which are already fraying over South Korea’s support of the sanctions the U.S. imposed on Russia after it invaded Ukraine.

“South Korea has the same interest about peace, stability, territorial sovereignty, protecting [against] states that are invading through outright aggression,” said Terence Roehrig, a professor of national security and Korea expert at the U.S. Naval War College.

“It is about South Korea making the decision that it needs to stand with the West on those issues with some degree of hedging by being reluctant to send direct military assistance to Ukraine,” he added.

“You will not see South Korea directly contributing arms to Ukraine. It will only be about backfilling other states who might be doing that.” That, he said, is because of concerns that Russia could “play a role on North Korea” through potential technology transfers and weapons development.

In October, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned South Korea that sending ammunition to Ukraine would ruin their relations.

“We have learned that the Republic of Korea has made a decision to supply weapons and ammunition to Ukraine. This will destroy our relations,” said Putin as reported by Russian state-owned Tass. “How would the Republic of Korea react if we resumed cooperation with North Korea in that sphere?”

Until it collapsed in 1991, the Soviet Union provided military support to North Korea. The Ukraine war has drawn Russia and North Korea closer together. On Friday, the U.S. released a photo of what it said was evidence of North Korea sending weapons to the Wagner Group, a Russian private military organization, via trains to Russia.

VOA Korea contacted the Russian embassy in Washington and Foreign Ministry in Moscow for comment, but they did not respond.

Andrew Yeo, the SK-Korea Foundation chair at Brookings Institution, said the proposed private weapons sales to the U.S. “would suggest greater support for the Ukrainian cause and further sour relations with Moscow, although Moscow has already placed Seoul on its list of hostile countries.”

In March, Russia placed South Korea on a list of countries that commit “unfriendly actions,” according to Tass. According to the Tass report, countries on the list imposed or joined the sanctions imposed on Russia after it invaded Ukraine.

“Seoul is eager to preserve a workable relationship with Moscow, so in some way drawing down U.S. weapons in [its bases in South] Korea is more palatable than selling them directly,” said Patrick Cronin, the Asia-Pacific security chair at Hudson Institute.

“But South Korea also has an abiding interest in ensuring that Russian aggression in Ukraine cannot prevail,” he added. “That would be a bad precedent for South Korea’s neighbors.”


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  Biden Approves 31 Battle Tanks for Ukraine

President Joe Biden announced the U.S. will send 31 Abrams battle tanks to Ukraine just hours after Germany said it will send 14 Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. The moves are part of a united effort to help Kyiv defend itself against invading Russian forces. VOA’s Senior Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine reports.


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Russia, Pakistan Discuss ‘Practical Engagement’ With Afghan Taliban

Russia and Pakistan emphasized in bilateral talks Wednesday the need for “practical engagement” with Afghanistan’s Taliban but ruled out formal recognition of the Islamist rulers until they address international concerns over women’s rights and inclusive governance.

The Russian presidential envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, led his delegation in the talks with Pakistani officials in Islamabad and briefed them on his meetings earlier this month with the Taliban in Kabul.

 

Kabulov said Moscow was continuing to engage with the Taliban but was not considering granting legitimacy to the de facto Afghan rulers “for the time being,” official Pakistani sources privy to Wednesday’s meetings told VOA.

The sources quoted the Russian envoy as saying he “advised” the Islamist Taliban to move toward creating a politically inclusive government and easing curbs on women, saying that otherwise there can be no movement forward on the issue of their legitimacy, nor can Afghanistan get any substantial support from the world.

A brief Pakistani statement posted on Twitter after Kabulov’s meeting with Deputy Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said the two sides “emphasized [the] need for practical engagement with the interim Afghan government.”

The Pakistani side also reiterated that Islamabad was not considering giving the Taliban formal recognition and would do so only collectively with the international community, the sources said.

The foreign ministry in a formal statement issued later offered few details of the meeting and did not mention the issue of recognition of the de facto Afghan authorities.

The statement quoted Khar as urging the international community “to continue extending assistance and support, in order to address urgent humanitarian needs and to provide a sustainable pathway for Afghanistan’s prosperity and development.”

The Taliban reclaimed power in Afghanistan in August 2021 following the end of almost 20 years of U.S.-led foreign military intervention in the conflict-torn South Asian nation.

The world has not yet formally recognized the male-only Taliban government, mainly over human rights concerns and curbs it has placed on women’s access to work and education.

While the United States and Western nations at large shifted their Afghan diplomatic missions to Qatar after the Taliban captured Kabul, several countries, including Pakistan, Russia, China, Turkey and Iran, have kept their embassies open and maintain close contacts with the hard-line rulers.

Chinese support

Last week, newly appointed Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang spoke with his Taliban counterpart, Amir Khan Muttaqi, and reaffirmed Beijing’s support for the group to establish what he called “a broad and inclusive political structure” in Kabul.

Afghan women have been excluded from most areas of the workforce and have been banned from using parks, gyms and public bath houses. The Taliban have refused to reopen secondary schools for girls beyond grade six since returning to power.

The hard-line Taliban reject criticism of their administration, saying the government represents all ethnic and political groups in Afghanistan. They also strongly defend restrictions on women, saying the policies are in line with Afghan culture and Islamic law, or Shariah.

Last month, the Taliban authorities closed universities to female students until further notice, and they forbade women from working for national and international nongovernmental organizations.

The Taliban’s curbs on Afghan female aid workers have forced major international charity groups to halt some of their programs in a country where 97% of the estimated population of 40 million lives below the poverty line and nearly half of them need humanitarian assistance.


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Iran Responds to EU, UK Sanctions With Some of Its Own

Iran imposed sanctions Wednesday on 34 individuals and entities from the European Union and Britain in reaction to similar measures they have taken over Tehran’s response to months-long protests. 

Tehran’s move comes two days after the EU and Britain placed another round of sanctions on the Islamic republic, which has been rocked by protests since the September 16 death of Mahsa Amini. 

Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurd, died in police custody after being arrested for allegedly breaching the country’s strict dress code for women. 

The sanctions imposed by Tehran include the blocking of accounts and transactions in Iran’s banks and the “prohibition of visa issuance and entry” to Iran, the foreign ministry said. 

Iran accuses the people and organizations of “supporting terrorism and terrorist groups, instigating and encouragement to terrorist acts and violence against Iranian people.” 

It also accuses them of “interference in the domestic affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran and fomenting violence and unrest and dissemination of false information about Iran.” 

The EU said “these Iranian measures are purely politically motivated,” insisting the European sanctions were “adopted on clear legal grounds.” 

“The European Union will continue to call on Iranian authorities to ensure accountability and basic freedom for its people,” Peter Stano, spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, told AFP. 

The Iranian sanctions include 25 listed names from the EU and nine from Britain. 

France’s Radio J, the European Friends of Israel group, and 22 individuals including six members of the European Parliament are among those targeted. 

The list also includes the Swedish-Danish right-wing extremist Rasmus Paludan, who burned a copy of the Koran in Sweden on Saturday, sparking strong protests from the Muslim world. 

The EU on Monday imposed its fourth round of sanctions against Iran since the protests started, placing 37 more officials and entities on an asset freeze and visa ban blacklist. 

Britain on the same day sanctioned five more Iranian officials, broadening its blacklist to 50 individuals and organizations it considers to be involved in dealing with the protests. 

The new Iranian list also includes nine French nationals, among them Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and the philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy. 

Also targeted are three members of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which as an entity was on a previous Iranian sanctions list for publishing caricatures of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. 

In Britain, they include Victoria Prentis, the attorney general, army chief Patrick Sanders and the former Defense Secretary, Liam Fox. 

The EU has imposed sanctions on more than 60 Iranian officials and entities over the crackdown on protesters, including the morality police, state media and individual commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. 

But the 27-nation bloc has so far stopped short of blacklisting the IRGC as a whole as a “terrorist” organization, despite calls from Germany and the Netherlands to do so. 

Iran has warned the bloc against sanctioning the Revolutionary Guards, and EU officials are wary it could forever end stalled talks they have been mediating on reviving a 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran. 

The agreement gave Iran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program to guarantee that Tehran could not develop or acquire a nuclear weapon, something it has always denied wanting to do. 


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France to Pull Troops From Burkina Faso Within a Month: Ministry

France has received a request from junta-ruled Burkina Faso to withdraw its troops from the Sahel country and will do so within a month, the foreign ministry said Wednesday.

“On Tuesday … we formally received notice from the Burkinabe government of the termination of the 2018 agreement on the status of French armed forces present in the country,” a ministry spokeswoman said.

“According to the terms of the accord, the termination takes effect a month after reception of written notification. We will respect the terms of the agreement by honoring this request.”

About 400 French special forces are currently based in Burkina Faso in a deployment dubbed “Sabre,” part of a broader military presence to fight jihadists across the Sahel region.

But the country has followed a similar course to neighboring Mali, falling out with Paris after a military coup brought a junta to power and the French presence became increasingly unpopular among the public.

The Burkinabe government has assured Paris it will not follow Mali by turning to Russia’s Wagner to back up its army—although a liaison team from the mercenary group has already visited.

A source familiar with French military plans told AFP that while the troops would be gone by the end of February, their equipment would be picked up by late April.

Paris asked for clarification from Ouagadougou’s transitional president Ibrahim Traore on Monday after the government had said it was asking French forces to leave.

“This does not mean the end of diplomatic relations between Burkina Faso and France,” government spokesman Jean-Emmanuel Ouedraogo told broadcaster RTV following the announcement.

In addition, the government has requested that Paris replace its ambassador after incumbent Luc Hallade commented publicly on the worsening security situation in the country.

The landlocked state, a former French colony, is one of the poorest and most volatile in Africa.

Thousands of troops, police and civilians have been killed and about 2 million people have fled their homes since jihadists launched an insurgency from neighboring Mali in 2015.

More than a third of the country lies beyond the control of the government, and frustration within the army at the mounting toll triggered two coups last year.


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Pope Francis: Homosexuality Not a Crime 

Pope Francis criticized laws that criminalize homosexuality as “unjust,” saying God loves all his children just as they are and called on Catholic bishops who support the laws to welcome LGBTQ people into the church.

“Being homosexual isn’t a crime,” Francis said during an interview Tuesday with The Associated Press.

Francis acknowledged that Catholic bishops in some parts of the world support laws that criminalize homosexuality or discriminate against the LGBTQ community, and he himself referred to the issue in terms of “sin.” But he attributed such attitudes to cultural backgrounds, and said bishops in particular need to undergo a process of change to recognize the dignity of everyone.

“These bishops have to have a process of conversion,” he said, adding that they should apply “tenderness, please, as God has for each one of us.”

Some 67 countries or jurisdictions worldwide criminalize consensual same-sex sexual activity, 11 of which can or do impose the death penalty, according to The Human Dignity Trust, which works to end such laws. Experts say even where the laws are not enforced, they contribute to harassment, stigmatization and violence against LGBTQ people.

In the U.S., more than a dozen states still have anti-sodomy laws on the books, despite a 2003 Supreme Court ruling declaring them unconstitutional. Gay rights advocates say the antiquated laws are used to harass homosexuals, and point to new legislation, such as the “Don’t say gay” law in Florida, which forbids instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade, as evidence of continued efforts to marginalize LGBTQ people.

The United Nations has repeatedly called for an end to laws criminalizing homosexuality outright, saying they violate rights to privacy and freedom from discrimination and are a breach of countries’ obligations under international law to protect the human rights of all people, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Declaring such laws “unjust,” Francis said the Catholic Church can and should work to put an end to them. “It must do this. It must do this,” he said.

Francis quoted the Catechism of the Catholic Church in saying gay people must be welcomed and respected, and should not be marginalized or discriminated against.

“We are all children of God, and God loves us as we are and for the strength that each of us fights for our dignity,” Francis said, speaking to the AP in the Vatican hotel where he lives.

Such laws are common in Africa and the Middle East and date from British colonial times or are inspired by Islamic law. Some Catholic bishops have strongly upheld them as consistent with Vatican teaching that considers homosexual activity “intrinsically disordered,” while others have called for them to be overturned as a violation of basic human dignity.

In 2019, Francis had been expected to issue a statement opposing criminalization of homosexuality during a meeting with human rights groups that conducted research into the effects of such laws and so-called “conversion therapies.”

In the end, the pope did not meet with the groups, which instead met with the Vatican No. 2, who reaffirmed “the dignity of every human person and against every form of violence.”

On Tuesday, Francis said there needed to be a distinction between a crime and a sin with regard to homosexuality.

“Being homosexual is not a crime,” he said. “It’s not a crime. Yes, but it’s a sin. Fine, but first let’s distinguish between a sin and a crime.”

“It’s also a sin to lack charity with one another,” he added.

Catholic teaching holds that while gay people must be treated with respect, homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered.” Francis has not changed that teaching, but he has made reaching out to the LGBTQ community a hallmark of his papacy.

Starting with his famous 2013 declaration, “Who am I to judge?” when he was asked about a purportedly gay priest, Francis has gone on to minister repeatedly and publicly to the gay and trans community. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, he favored granting legal protections to same-sex couples as an alternative to endorsing gay marriage, which Catholic doctrine forbids.

Despite such outreach, Francis was criticized by the Catholic LGBTQ community for a 2021 decree from the Vatican’s doctrine office that the church cannot bless same-sex unions “because God cannot bless sin.”

The Vatican in 2008 declined to sign onto a U.N. declaration that called for the decriminalization of homosexuality, complaining the text went beyond the original scope and also included language about “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” it found problematic. In a statement at the time, the Vatican urged countries to avoid “unjust discrimination” against gay people and end penalties against them.


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European Rights Court Rules Dutch, Ukraine Cases Against Russia Are Admissible

The European Court of Human Rights said cases brought by Ukraine and the Netherlands against Russia over human rights violations in the two breakaway regions of Luhansk and Donetsk in Ukraine, and the shooting down of Flight MH-17, were admissible. 

The decision is procedural and does not rule on the merits of the cases, but it does show the Strasbourg-based court considers Russia can be held liable for alleged human rights violations in the separatist regions. 

“Among other things, the Court found that areas in eastern Ukraine in separatist hands were, from 11 May 2014 and up to at least 26 January 2022, under the jurisdiction of the Russian Federation,” the court said in a ruling on Wednesday. 

The cases will now move on to the merits stage, expected to take another one to two years before a final decision is issued. 

The ECHR ruling opens the doors to at least three other cases by the Ukrainian state against Russia, which had been put on hold pending the decision on jurisdiction. 

The Netherlands filed its case with the ECHR in 2020, saying the shooting down of Flight MH-17 over territory in eastern Ukraine held by Russian-backed separatists breached the European Convention on Human Rights. 

Moscow has repeatedly denied any involvement in the destruction of the aircraft as fighting raged between the separatists and Ukrainian government forces. 

The two Ukrainian cases, which date from 2014, pertain to what Kyiv says were administrative practices by Russia in eastern Ukraine in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as the abduction of three groups of Ukrainian orphan children and children without parental care, and a number of adults accompanying them.

All were returned home one day or, in the third case, five days after their abduction, the ECHR said. 


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