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India-Nepal relations are unshakeable like the Himalayas: Modi

KATHMANDU, May 16: Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his speech at the Buddha Jayanti event in Lumbini, said India and Nepal relations are unshakeable like the Himalayas. He also said that India and Nepal’s ever-strengthening friendship will benefit the entire humanity in the emerging global situation.

Modi and Nepalese Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba Monday held bilateral talks in Lumbini after laying the foundation stone of the India International Centre for Buddhist Culture and Heritage.

Ministry of External Affairs spokesman Arindam Bagchi called it an “opportunity to strengthen ongoing cooperation and develop new areas in our multifaceted partnership.”

Earlier, Modi had offered prayers at the Maya Devi temple. Sharing images from the visit, Modi tweeted, “I feel blessed to have prayed at the Maya Devi Temple on Buddha Purnima.”

The Prime Minister was received by his Nepalese counterpart Monday morning as he arrived in Lumbini.

The construction of the Buddhist Centre comes decades after most foreign nations, including the US, China, Canada, France, Germany and Thailand, among others, built their centres in Lumbini as an instrument of promoting Buddhist philosophy. It is expected to cost Rs. 1 billion and take three years to complete.

Sri Lanka out of petrol, economy in a precarious condition: Wickremesinghe

COLOMBO, May 16: Crisis-hit Sri Lanka has run out of petrol and is unable to find dollars to finance essential imports, the new prime minister said Monday in an address to the nation.

"We have run out of petrol... At the moment, we only have petrol stocks for a single day," Ranil Wickremesinghe said, warning his bankrupt country could face more hardships in the coming months.

He said the government was also unable to raise dollars to pay for three shipments of oil, with the ships awaiting outside the Colombo harbour for payments before discharging their cargoes.

Sri Lanka is in the throes of its worst-ever economic crisis with its 22 million people enduring severe hardships to secure food, fuel and medicines while facing record inflation and lengthy power blackouts.

Wickremesinghe assumed office Thursday after his predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa was forced out after weeks of protests over the government's handling of the economic crisis turned deadly.

"The next couple of months will be the most difficult ones of our lives," Wickremesinghe said. "I have no desire to hide the truth and to lie to the public."

However, he urged people to "patiently bear the next couple of months" and vowed he could overcome the crisis.

He said the government had also run out of cash to pay the 1.4 million civil servants their salaries in May, and he will turn to money printing as a last resort.

"Against my own wishes, I am compelled to permit printing money in order to pay state-sector employees and to pay for essential goods and services," he said

He also warned that fuel and electricity tariffs will be raised substantially and his government will also sell off its loss-making national carrier to reduce losses.

Sri Lanka has sought an IMF bailout and one of the key demands of the international lender is for Colombo to divest loss-making state enterprises, including Sri Lankan Airlines whose carried-forward losses exceed a billion dollars.

In North Korea's Covid Outbreak, Over A Million Cases Of 'Fever', 50 Dead

SEOUL, May 16: Kim Jong Un slammed North Korea's pandemic response and ordered the army to help distribute medicine, state media said Monday, as the country said 50 people had died since first reporting an outbreak of COVID-19.

More than a million people have been sickened by what Pyongyang is referring to as "fever", state media said, despite leader Kim ordering nationwide lockdowns in a bid to slow the spread of disease through the unvaccinated population.

In a sign of how serious the situation may be, Kim "strongly criticised" healthcare officials for what he called a botched response to epidemic prevention -- specifically a failure to keep pharmacies open 24/7 to distribute medicine.

He ordered the army to get to work "on immediately stabilising the supply of medicines in Pyongyang", the capital, where Omicron was detected last week in North Korea's first reported cases of Covid-19.

Kim has put himself front and center of North Korea's disease response, overseeing near-daily emergency Politburo meetings on the outbreak, which he has said is causing "great upheaval" in the country.

The failure to distribute medicine properly was "because officials of the Cabinet and public health sector in charge of the supply have not rolled up their sleeves, not properly recognizing the present crisis," state media KCNA reported Kim said.

Kim, who visited pharmacies to inspect first hand, "strongly criticised the Cabinet and public health sector for their irresponsible work attitude," KCNA said.

He also criticised lapses in official legal oversight, flagging "several negative phenomena in the nationwide handling and sale of medicines."

North Korea has one of the world's worst healthcare systems, with poorly-equipped hospitals, few intensive care units, and no covid treatment drugs or mass testing ability, experts say.

"While visiting a pharmacy, Kim Jong Un saw with his eyes the shortage of medicines in North Korea," said Cheong Seong-jang, researcher at the Sejong Institute.

"He may have guessed but the situation may have been more serious than he had expected."

KCNA said that as of May 15, a total of 50 people had died, with 1,213,550 cases of "fever" and over half a million currently receiving medical treatment.

North Korea had maintained a rigid coronavirus blockade since the pandemic began, but with massive Omicron outbreaks in neighbouring countries, experts said it was inevitable Covid would sneak in.

Kim's public criticism is a sign that the situation on the ground is grim, said Yang Moo-jin, professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

"He is pointing out the overall inadequacy of the quarantine system," he said.

Kim has previously said the country will "actively learn" from China's pandemic management strategy, according to KCNA.

China -- the world's only major economy still maintaining a zero-covid policy -- is battling multiple Omicron outbreaks with lockdowns in some major cities, including financial hub Shanghai, sparking increasing public frustration.

North Korea has previously turned down offers of covid vaccines from China and the World Health Organization's COVAX scheme, but both Beijing and Seoul have issued fresh offers of aid since the outbreak was announced.

North Korea is likely to need international assistance to get through the massive Omicron surge, Yang said.

"If China's assistance is not enough to overcome the outbreak, North Korea will ask the South, the United States or international organisations in the end," he said.

US President Joe Biden is set to visit Seoul later this week, with discussions of Pyongyang's weapons programs and COVID-19 outbreak likely to top the agenda.

Despite the public health crisis, new satellite imagery indicates North Korea has resumed construction at a long-dormant nuclear reactor.

The United States and South Korea have warned that Kim is preparing to conduct another nuclear test -- the regime's seventh.

Analysts have warned Kim could speed up testing plans to distract the population from the disastrous coronavirus outbreak.

Taking pandemic help from South Korea would both hurt North Korea's "ego" and force it to hold off on its nuclear testing plans, said researcher Cheong.

"If Kim Jong Un is determined to conduct a test, he will not accept South Korea's help," he said.

Ranil Wickremesinghe Returns As Sri Lankan PM

COLOMBO, May 12: Sri Lanka's veteran political leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has been appointed the next Prime Minister of the crisis-hit island nation by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The 73-year-old was administered the oath of office by the President, who in an address to the nation yesterday, declared that a Prime Minister and his cabinet will be put in place this week.

With the country's largest opposition party refusing to join a government headed by a member of the Rajapaksa clan, Wickremesinghe -- a four-time Prime Minister of the country -- appeared the only option.

Wickremesinghe heads the United National Party. The breakaway SJB faction of the party currently forms the principal opposition party.

Already struggling with the most devastating economic crisis since Independence, Sri Lanka was plunged into chaos on Monday as Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa stepped down from his post, nulling the elected government.

Anti-government protesters also want President Rajapaksa to step down and the Lankan parliament is expected to debate a no-confidence motion against the President on May 17, the Speaker's Office has said.

With widespread shortages of food and fuel, soaring prices of essential commodities and hours-long power cut, there have been massive protests over the government's handling of the situation.

On Monday, groups of pro and anti-government activists clashed in Colombo, triggering curfew and a state of emergency across the island.

In his address yesterday, President Rajapaksa had said to "control the current situation, and prevent the country from heading towards anarchy", he would appoint a Prime Minister and cabinet "that can command a majority in Parliament and can gain the confidence of the people of the country".

Ties with India will be much better: Wickremesinghe

COLOMBO, May 12: Ranil Wickremesinghe, in his first comments after swearing-in as the new Prime Minister of Sri Lanka on Thursday, said the island nation's relations with India will be “much better” than the previous government. Wickremesinghe also said he has taken on the challenge of uplifting the economy and will fulfill it.

“I have taken on the challenge of uplifting the economy and I must fulfill it,” news agency ANI quoted Wickremesinghe as saying in Colombo.

When asked about the India-Sri Lanka relations, he replied, "It will become much better."

His statement comes even as India said it looks forward to working with the new Sri Lankan government formed in accordance with the democratic processes and New Delhi's commitment to the people of the island nation will continue.

"India's commitment to the people of Sri Lanka will continue," the High Commission said in a tweet.

The 73-year-old United National Party (UNP) leader was appointed as the prime minister by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa after they held closed-door discussions on Wednesday.

Sri Lanka is facing its worst economic crisis since independence from Britain in 1948. Clashes broke out on Monday after government supporters attacked peaceful anti-government protest sites in Colombo and elsewhere, killing at least 8 people and leaving over 200 others injured in the violence.

When asked about the protest, Wickremesinghe said, “They should stay. We want them to stay. If they want to talk, yes.”

Wickremesinghe, who has served as the country’s prime minister four times, was in October 2018 ousted from the post of prime minister by then-President Maithripala Sirisena. However, he was reinstalled as the prime minister by Sirisena after two months.

"High Commission of India hopes for political stability and looks forward to working with the Government of Sri Lanka formed in accordance with democratic processes pursuant to the swearing-in of Hon'ble @RW_UNP as the Prime Minister of SriLanka," it said.

Lanka Prez to Appoint PM, Cabinet This Week

COLOMBO, May 11: Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa today declared that he will appoint a new Prime Minister and cabinet this week in the country, which was plunged into chaos after Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse stepped down from his post on Monday, nulling the elected government.

Struggling with a mammoth economic crisis for weeks, the island nation of 22 million people is currently under curfew. The army and the police have been allowed to shoot at sight those violating curfew.

In an address to the nation this evening, President Rajapakse said to "control the current situation, and prevent the country from heading towards anarchy", he would appoint a Prime Minister and Cabinet this week "that can command a majority in Parliament and can gain the confidence of the people of the country".

"Thereafter, a constitutional amendment will be moved to enact the content of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which will vest more powers with the parliament. The new government's Prime Minister will be awarded the opportunity to produce a new programme and take this country forward," he added.

President Rajapaksa has apparently held talks today with the country's former Prime Minister and current member of parliament, 73-year-old Ranil Wickremesinghe. There is a buzz that he might be the next Prime Minister as an interim measure.

While the largest opposition party has refused to join any government headed by a member of the Rajapaksa clan, Wickremesinghe heads the United National Party. The present members of principal opposition in Sri Lanka was with UNP before breaking and forming SJB (currently the opposition) before the 2020 general elections.

Acknowledging that the country is passing through a "very serious crisis", Rajapaksa said he has conducted discussions with various parties and accepted the common proposal for the creation of a new government.

"When appointing the recent cabinet, several senior ministers, and all Rajapaksa's were omitted. A new cabinet with young faces was appointed. I also reached an agreement to dismiss the Prime Minister, and the Cabinet and allow to appoint a new Prime Minister and Cabinet. However, on the 9th of May, an unfortunate event unfolded," he added, referring to the nation's biggest violence that took place on Monday.

As supporters of the Rajapaksa family went on rampage, attacking the anti-government protesters, they hit back, unleashing violence across the country.

"Within a matter of hours, nine people including an MP were inhumanely beaten and killed. Approximately 300 people were hospitalized. Many houses were set on fire. Looting was reported across the country. Curfew was imposed and before the three-armed forces were deployed, the events took place in a very organised manner," the Lankan President said.

The country was placed immediately under curfew, which is expected to be lifted tomorrow.

Sri Lanka has suffered months of blackouts and dire shortages of food, fuel and medicines in its worst economic crisis since independence, sparking weeks of overwhelmingly peaceful anti-government demonstrations.

Al-Jazeera journalist killed by gunfire in West Bank

WEST BANK, May 11: An Al-Jazeera journalist was shot and killed while covering an Israeli raid in the occupied West Bank town of Jenin early Wednesday, the Palestinian health ministry said.

It said Shireen Abu Akleh, a well-known Palestinian reporter for the broadcaster's Arabic language channel, was shot and died soon afterward.

Another Palestinian journalist working for the Jerusalem-based Al-Quds newspaper was wounded but in stable condition.

The health ministry said the reporters were hit by Israeli fire. The military did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Israel has carried out near-daily raids in the occupied West Bank in recent weeks amid a series of deadly attacks inside Israel, many of them carried out by Palestinians from in and around Jenin.

Lanka Ex-PM, Family Flee To Naval Base, Surrounded By Protesters: Sources

COLOMBO, May 10: Sri Lanka's former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and his family have taken shelter at a naval base in Trincomalee in the north-east part of the island nation, according to sources, as lethal protests continue amid the country's worst ever economic crisis.

The former Prime Minister and his family were flown in a helicopter to the naval base, people with direct knowledge of the matter said. They said protests have broken out outside the naval base too, some 270 km from the capital Colombo.

Sri Lanka deployed thousands of troops and police today to enforce a curfew after five people were killed in the worst violence in weeks of protests over the unprecedented economic crisis. Nearly 200 were also wounded yesterday as Rajapaksa resigned, but that did little to calm public anger.

He had to be rescued in a pre-dawn operation by the military today after thousands of anti-government protesters poured into his official residence in Colombo overnight, with police firing tear gas and warning shots to keep back the crowd.

"At least 10 petrol bombs were thrown into the compound," a news agency reported.

The Rajapaksa clan's hold on power has been shaken by months of blackouts and shortages in Sri Lanka, the worst economic crisis since it became independent in 1948. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa remains in office, however, with widespread powers and command over the security forces.

Sri Lanka's main opposition party Samagi Jana Balawegaya, or SJB, today rejected the President's offer to form interim government under him. Instead, the SJB has demanded the President's resignation.

Yesterday's violence started when Mahinda Rajapaksa's supporters -- bussed into the capital from the countryside -- attacked protestors with sticks and clubs.

Outside Colombo, ruling party lawmaker Amarakeerthi Athukorala shot two people - killing a 27-year-old man - after being surrounded by a mob of anti-government protestors, police said. "He then took his own life with his revolver," a police officer said, adding Athukorala's bodyguard was also found dead at the scene.

At least 41 homes of top ruling party politicians were torched overnight despite curfews. Hundreds of motorcycles parked in those homes were also burnt.

"This is something we should have done earlier," an unidentified man in front of a burning home of a minister told a local media network. "We are sorry we couldn't burn it sooner."

The protests came after the coronavirus pandemic hammered the island's vital income from tourism and remittances, which starved the country of foreign currency needed to pay off its debt. This forced the government to ban many imports, leading to severe shortages, inflation and lengthy power blackouts. In April, Sri Lanka announced it was defaulting on its $51 billion foreign debt.

Lanka PM Quits, Rajapaksa Family Home Set On Fire Amid Clashes

COLOMBO, May 9: Sri Lanka was placed under curfew as loyalists of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and anti-government protesters clashed today. A ruling party MP died and many were injured. Rajapaksa has resigned, leading to the collapse of the government.

The hugest clashes since the economic crisis hit the island nation, started this morning when supporters of the Rajapaksa family went on the rampage. The loyalists attacked unarmed protesters camping outside the President's office in downtown Colombo since April 9.

By evening, the protesters hit back, setting fire to buses, destroying the memorial built for the parents of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa and setting ablaze their family home in Hambantota, around 250 km from Colombo. The houses of three former ministers and two MPs were also torched.

MP Amarakeerthi Athukorala opened fire and critically wounded two people blocking his car in Nittambuwa, and was later found dead after trying to take refuge in a nearby building, officers said.

The police fired tear gas shells and water cannon and declared an immediate curfew in Colombo, which was later widened to span the country of 22 million people. At least 100 injured people have been hospitalised.

President Rajapaksa said the curfew will be in place till 7 am on Tuesday.

In a first, the riot squad was called in to reinforce the police. Earlier, soldiers were pressed into service to protect deliveries of fuel and other essentials but never to prevent clashes.

Mahinda Rajapaksa, 76, had sent his letter of resignation to his younger brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, clearing the way for a "new unity government". At least two cabinet ministers have also stepped down.

"I am resigning with immediate effect so that you will be able to appoint an all-party government to guide the country out of the current economic crisis," the Prime Minister said in the letter.

The cabinet now stands dissolved. The largest opposition party has refused to join any government headed by a member of the Rajapaksa clan.

Sri Lanka has suffered months of blackouts and dire shortages of food, fuel and medicines in its worst economic crisis since independence, sparking weeks of overwhelmingly peaceful anti-government demonstrations.

US first lady Jill Biden makes unannounced visit to Ukraine

KYIV, May 8: United States' first lady Jill Biden made an unannounced trip to Ukraine on Sunday to show support for its people amid Russia's invasion, visiting a school that is serving as a temporary shelter and meeting Ukraine's first lady, Olena Zelenska, according to a pool report.

A report quoted her as saying: "I wanted to come on Mother's Day. I thought it was important to show the Ukrainian people that this war has to stop and this war has been brutal and that the people of the United States stand with the people of Ukraine."

Biden met the nation's first lady Olena Zelenska at a school in a village near Ukraine’s border with Slovakia.

A US official on the visit also said it was Zelenska's first public appearance since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.

Zelenska thanked Biden "for this very courageous act".

"Because we understand what it takes for the US First Lady to come here during a war when the military actions are taking place every day, where the air sirens are happening every day even today," she told Biden.

Zelenska stressed the symbolism of Biden's Mothering Sunday visit.

"We also feel your love and support during such an important day," the Ukrainian First Lady said.

Following a meeting behind closed doors, the first ladies joined local children in a classroom crafting cardboard and tissue paper bears as presents for their mothers.

Biden and Zelenska both crafted their own bear, using white and yellow tissue paper.

After the unannounced visit to Ukraine, Jill Biden returned to Slovakia.

'Surrender Is Not An Option': Ukraine Troops In Azovstal Steel Plant

KYIV, May 8: Ukraine forces holed up in the sprawling Azovstal steel works in the Russian-controlled city of Mariupol said Sunday they would not surrender and vowed to fight as long as needed.

"We, all of the military personnel in the garnison of Mariupol, we have witnessed the war crimes performed by Russia, by the Russian army. We are witnesses. Surrender is not an option because Russia is not interested in our lives," said Ilya Samoilenko, an Azov regiment intelligence officer.

The Azovstal steel mill is the last pocket of Ukrainian resistance in the devastated port city and its fate has taken on a symbolic value in the broader battle since Russia's invasion.

"All our supplies are limited. We still have water. We still have munitions. We will have our personal weapons. We will fight until the best resolution of the situation," Samoilenko said.

Ukraine has said that all women, children and elderly civilians have been allowed to flee from Azovstal as part of a humanitarian mission coordinated by the United Nations and the Red Cross.


32 killed in Cuba hotel explosion: Reports

HAVANA (Cuba), May 7: The death toll from the gas explosion at the Saratoga Hotel in Havana has risen to 32, with 19 people missing, news agency Prensa Latina reported on Saturday, citing Gloria Bonnin, the provincial head of the family reconnection front of the Red Cross.

Earlier in the day, the reported casualties included 25 dead and more than 60 hospitalized people.

On Friday, a powerful explosion destroyed the Saratoga hotel, located in front of the National Capitol building in Cuba’s Havana. The hotel was scheduled to reopen after the pandemic on May 10 and no visitors were staying there at the time of the blast.

The explosion severely damaged the front part of the building up to the fifth floor and several neighboring buildings. The authorities said the explosion was an accident, stressing that the hotel’s gas equipment and contractors had all necessary permits and licenses.

Video captures powerful blast at Cuba’s Saratoga Hotel; Death toll climbs to 22

At least 22 people have been killed after a powerful explosion tore the façade from Saratoga hotel in the Cuban capital of Havana. Video on Twitter has captured the moment when the hotel blew off, sending plumes of dust into the air and leaving rubble strewn across the street in the historic centre of Havana. Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel has said that the explosion at Hotel Saratoga appears to have been caused by a gas leak. More than 70 people were injured in the powerful explosion. International singers Madonna and Beyoncé have both stayed at the five-star hotel back in 2013.

Taliban Order Afghan Women To Cover Fully In Public

KABUL, May 7: The Taliban on Saturday imposed one of the harshest restrictions on Afghanistan's women since seizing power, ordering them to wear the all-covering burqa in public.

The militants took back control of the country in August last year, promising a softer rule than their last stint in power between 1996 and 2001, which was dominated by human rights abuses.

But they have already imposed a slew of restrictions on women -- banning them from many government jobs, secondary education, and from travelling alone outside their cities or Afghanistan.

On Saturday, Afghanistan's supreme leader and Taliban chief Hibatullah Akhundzada announced a strict dress code for women when they are in public.

"They should wear a chadori (head-to-toe burqa) as it is traditional and respectful," said a decree in his name released by Taliban authorities at a ceremony in Kabul.

"Those women who are not too old or young must cover their face, except the eyes, as per sharia directives, in order to avoid provocation when meeting men who are not mahram (adult close male relatives)," it said.

The order was expected to spark a flurry of condemnation abroad. Many in the international community want humanitarian aid for Afghanistan and recognition of the Taliban government to be linked to the restoration of women's rights.

Akhundzada's decree also said that if women had no important work outside it was "better they stay at home".

During their first regime, the Taliban had made the burqa compulsory for women.

Since their return to power, their feared Ministry for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice has issued several "guidelines" on what women should wear but Saturday's edict was the first such national order.

The hardline Islamists triggered an international outrage in March when they ordered secondary schools for girls to shut, just hours after reopening for the first time since they seized power.

Officials have never justified the ban, apart from saying the education of girls must be according to "Islamic principles".

That ban was also issued by Akhundzada, according to several Taliban officials.

Women have also been ordered to visit parks in the capital on separate days from men.

Some Afghan women initially pushed back strongly, holding small demonstrations and protests where they demanded the right to education and work.

But the Taliban cracked down on these unsanctioned rallies and rounded up several of the ringleaders, holding them incommunicado while denying they had been detained.

In the 20 years between the Taliban's two reigns, girls were allowed to go to school and women were able to seek employment in all sectors, though the country remained socially conservative.

In a deeply conservative and patriarchal Afghanistan, many women already wear the burqa in rural areas.

Sri Lanka Under State Of Emergency Again Amid Its Worst Economic Crisis

COLOMBO, May 6: Sri Lanka President Gotabaya Rajapaksa today declared a state of emergency giving security forces sweeping powers for the second time in five weeks to deal with escalating anti-government protests.

A spokesman for the President said he invoked the tough laws to "ensure public order" after trade unions staged a nationwide strike Friday demanding his resignation over a worsening economic crisis.

Earlier today, the police again fired tear gas and water cannon at students trying to storm Sri Lanka's parliament as the country was brought to a halt by a trade union strike demanding the government step down.

Months of blackouts and acute shortages of food, fuel and pharmaceuticals have caused widespread suffering across the island nation of 22 million people.

Public anger has sparked sustained protests demanding the government's resignation over its mismanagement of the crisis, Sri Lanka's worst since independence in 1948.

Thousands of student protesters had been camped on the road leading to the legislature, which is on a man-made island on a lake in the capital Colombo, since Thursday.

Officers fired a barrage of tear gas followed by water cannon from two trucks, but the crowd quickly reassembled behind police barricades set up to block access to the parliament.

It was the second time police tried to disperse the crowd with tear gas, after an earlier unsuccessful attempt on Thursday afternoon.

Millions of workers stayed off the job today in a strike organised by the country's trade union movement, with all but one scheduled train service cancelled. Privately owned buses were off the roads while industrial workers demonstrated outside their factories and black flags were hung across the country in an expression of anger against the government.

"We can pinpoint the policy blunders of the President that led to this very sorry state of our economy," said trade union leader Ravi Kumudesh. "He must go."

Private buses, which account for two-thirds of the country's fleet, were also off the road, Private Bus Operators Association chairman Gemunu Wijeratne said. "We are not providing services today, but if groups of people want to join the anti-government protests within a radius of 20 kilometres, we will give our buses free of charge," Mr Wijeratne told reporters in Colombo.

Rajapaksa has insisted he will not step down despite escalating demonstrations across the island, including a protest that has been camped outside his seafront office for nearly a month.

Sri Lanka's economic crisis took hold after the coronavirus pandemic hammered income from tourism and remittances.

Unable to pay for fuel imports, utilities have imposed daily blackouts to ration electricity, while long lines of people snake around service stations for petrol and kerosene. Hospitals are short of vital medicines and the government has appealed to citizens abroad for donations.

Last month Sri Lanka announced it was defaulting on its $51 billion foreign debt, and finance minister Ali Sabry warned this week that the country will have to endure its unprecedented economic hardships for at least two more years.

Modi thanks Macron for 'brief but fruitful' France visit

PARIS, May 5: Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday thanked France President Emmanuel Macron and the French government for the “warm hospitality”. Mentioning that his visit to France was “brief but a very fruitful one”, Modi said that the two leaders spoke on various subjects, including “bilateral as well as global issues".

Modi further added that “India and France are proud developmental partners” with their partnership being “spread across different sectors”.

The French president also took to Twitter and shared the topics of discussions with Modi. “Tonight, with @NarendraModi, we discussed the different ongoing international crises as well as our strategic partnership. We also talked about food security issues and the FARM initiative, in which India will play a key role,” he wrote.

Modi, who was on a three-day Europe visit, met French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris during the final leg of his tour. He held extensive talks with Macron - who was re-elected to the top post over a week back.

The two leaders focused on several bilateral and mutual interests along with regional and global developments. India and France have also issued a joint statement on Russia's aggression against Ukraine.

While the two countries condemned the civilian deaths in the war-torn country and called for an immediate cessation of hostilities, India and France said that they are committed to enabling a coordinated, multilateral response to address the risk of aggravated food crisis because of the conflict in Ukraine.

"India and France express deep concern about the current aggravation of global food security and nutrition, already impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, and especially in developing countries," the joint statement read.

The statement further said that the two countries are committed to addressing the risk of an aggravated food crisis, "including through initiatives such as the Food and Agriculture Resilience Mission (FARM), which aims at ensuring well-functioning markets, solidarity, and long-term resilience."

During his visit, Modi held several high-level engagements with the leadership of Germany, Denmark and France. The Prime Minister also held interactions with the business leaders in Germany and Denmark during the course of his visit.

Nordic PMs Condemn Russian Aggression In Ukraine At Summit With Modi

COPENHAGEN, May 4: The Nordic Prime Ministers strongly condemned the "unlawful and unprovoked aggression" against Ukraine by Russian Forces, the joint statement of the 2nd India-Nordic Summit said on Wednesday.

This statement was issued after Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended a summit with prime ministers of Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Finland, and Denmark.

During the Summit, the Prime Ministers pledged to continue to deepen cooperation between the Nordic countries and India and focused their discussions on key issues related to international peace and security, including the conflict in Ukraine, multilateral cooperation, green transition and climate change, the blue economy, innovation and digitalisation.

The Prime Ministers reaffirmed the importance of free trade as a driver for achieving inclusive growth and realising the Sustainable Development Goals.

"The Nordic Prime Ministers reiterated their strong condemnation of the unlawful and unprovoked aggression against Ukraine by Russian Forces," the joint statement read.

According to the statement, the Prime Ministers expressed their serious concern about the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Ukraine. "They unequivocally condemned civilian deaths in Ukraine. They reiterated the need for an immediate cessation of hostilities," it added.

They discussed the destabilizing effect of the conflict in Ukraine and its broader regional and global implications. Both sides agreed to remain closely engaged on the issue.

Moreover, the Prime Ministers affirmed their strong commitment to multilateralism and international cooperation.

"The leaders agreed that pressing challenges such as tackling climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, biodiversity loss and increasing food and energy insecurity across the world required international cooperation, a collective response and global solidarity," the statement read.

Modi In Denmark Says Come Invest In India

COPENHAGEN, May 3: Prime Minister Narendra Modi today explained to international business leaders why investing in India would be a good move for them. During his visit to Denmark, PM Modi told investors that the only way to avoid "FOMO", or fear of missing out - a popular expression on the internet - is to invest in India.

"These days the term FOMO or fear of missing out is gaining traction on social media. Looking at India's reforms and investment opportunities, I can say that those who don't invest in our nation will certainly miss out," the Prime Minister's Office said in a tweet quoting him.

Modi, who is on official visit to the Nordic nation, told a gathering there is great scope of investing in green technology. He said the businesses from India and Denmark have often worked together in the past.

"The strengths of our nations complement each other," Modi said.

Later, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi tweeted pictures of Modi and his Danish counterpart Mette Frederiksen participating in the India-Denmark Business Forum with top business leaders from the two countries, and also a video of the two leaders being greeted after the meeting by Indian community members.

"Enriching conversations on ways to combine Denmark's skill and India's scale, especially in areas of clean energy and climate friendly technologies," Bagchi said about the business forum meeting.

Modi arrived in Denmark from Germany, and was received by his Danish counterpart at the airport as a special gesture.

China sends aircraft carrier, warships to seas near Japan

BEIJING, May 3: Led by People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy’s aircraft carrier Liaoning, eight Chinese warships passed between southern Japan’s Okinawa island chain on Monday in a passage that state media described as “preparation for missions that include a potential military conflict across the Taiwan Straits”.

The warships sailed between the main Okinawa island and Miyakojima, the Japanese defence ministry and Chinese state media reports said, adding while there was no incursion into Japan’s territorial waters, helicopters on board the Liaoning carrier took off and landed.

In Chinese naval doctrine, these islands are part of the “first island chain” and sailing past these means a projection of power by the Chinese navy.

The Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force dispatched the Izumo, a helicopter carrier, as well as P-1 maritime patrol aircraft and P-3C anti-submarine aircraft to monitor the passage of the Chinese vessels, Japan’s defence ministry said in the press release.

The US 7th Fleet, which is stationed in Japan, is also expected to monitor the passage of the Chinese warships.

Consisting of at least eight warships, including destroyers, the aircraft carrier group is the largest to head out to far sea , “marking a significant combat capability boost in preparation for missions that include a potential military conflict across the Taiwan Straits”, the state-run Global Times said, quoting experts.

China currently has two aircraft carriers, Liaoning and Shandong, and a third one is expected to be commissioned this year as the PLA Navy rapidly expands.

According to the news report, based on previous voyages, after sailing through the Miyako Strait, the Chinese warships are expected to sail further east into the Pacific Ocean, or they could transit through the Bashi Channel south to the island of Taiwan and conduct exercises in the South China Sea.

The aircraft carrier was accompanied by guided missile destroyers, a guided missile frigate and the Type 901 comprehensive supply ship Hulunhu.

It was the first time that a Chinese aircraft carrier was confirmed to have passed through the area since December last year, according to Japanese national broadcaster NHK.

The Chinese aircraft carrier group had gone through a similar passage late last year when the warships crossed the Yellow Sea, East China Sea and entered the Western Pacific via the Miyako Straits, conducting comprehensive exercises in various fields geared towards enhancing the carrier group formation concept, a PLA release had said.

China claims Taiwan as a renegade region and has never ruled out using force to reunify it with the mainland.

In recent months, the PLA has frequently deployed warships and flown fighter aircraft in the Taiwan Strait as part of real combat-like drills, considered a show of strength to the self-ruled democracy.

China already has the largest navy in the world and, according to a 2021 US department of defence report, Beijing plans to increase the size from 355 to 460 ships by 2030.

No country can emerge victorious in Ukraine conflict, says Modi in Germany

BERLIN, May 2: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in Germany on the first leg of his visit to three European nations on Monday and met German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

After his meet, he said that among democratic nations, India, Germany share several common values and the holding of the Inter Governmental Consultations shows how much importance the two countries place in their strategic ties.

Talking about the crisis in Ukraine, he said, “No country can emerge victorious in Ukraine conflict. We are for peace, appeal to end the war.”

Modi met German Chancellor Olaf Scholz signed the green and sustainable energy partnership in Berlin.

In an interaction with Indian diaspora in Berlin, Modi said in today’s India it is not government but people who are the driving force.

Targeting Congress regime, Modi said the voters in India ended political instability of three decades with the press of a button. “Aspiration for positive change and quick development were reasons why Indians elected a govt with full majority after 30 years in 2014,” he said.

Modi on Monday arrived in Germany on the first leg of his visit to three European nations and met German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. After the meet, Modi said that among democratic nations, India, Germany share several common values and the holding of the Inter Governmental Consultations shows how much importance the two countries place in their strategic ties.

During his trip to Europe, Modi will head to Denmark and meet Danish PM Mette Frederiksen in Copenhagen —and also participate in the Second India-Nordic Summit with the prime ministers of Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Sweden and Norway on Tuesday.

On the way back on Wednesday, Modi will make a brief stopover in Paris for a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron. His first foreign trip this year comes at a time when a war in the heart of Europe has upended seven decades of global order.

Vladimir Putin to undergo cancer surgery, will hand over power to ex-KGB chief temporarily

MOSCOW, May 1: Russian President Vladimir Putin may be forced to give up control of the war in Ukraine for days as he is set for cancer surgery, and will reportedly nominate hardline former FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev to take temporary control of the invasion while he is under the knife, a Kremlin insider has claimed.

Patrushev, the 70-year-old incumbent Secretary of Russia's Security Council, is seen as a key architect of the war strategy so far, and the man who convinced Putin that Kyiv is awash with neo-Nazis, said a Daily Mail report.

The extraordinary claims appeared on popular Telegram channel General SVR, which says its source is a well-placed figure in the Kremlin, the report added.

"I don't know for exactly how long (Putin will be incapacitated after the surgery)... I think it'll be for a short time," the insider source was quoted as saying.

Putin was "unlikely to agree to transfer power" but was ready to put in place a "charge d'affaires" to control Russia and the war effort. "So, while Putin has the operation and comes to his senses, likely two or three days, the actual control of the country passes only to Patrushev," the source added.

Such a move would be surprising since under the Russian constitution, power should pass solely to the Prime Minister, the Daily Mail reported. General SVR reported that Putin has abdominal cancer and Parkinson's 18 months ago.

He has reportedly delayed surgery, which will now not take place before the Victory Day commemoration of Russia's World War Two victory in Red Square on May 9, Daily Mail reported.

The news comes amid speculation that Putin will launch an all-out war across Ukraine and order mass mobilisation of military-age men, a considerable political risk.

The surgery had been scheduled for the second half of April but was delayed, SVR claimed.

"Putin was recommended to undergo surgery, the date of which is being discussed and agreed," the outlet stated. "There seems to be no particular urgency, but it cannot be delayed either."

He also suffers from "Parkinson's disease and schizoaffective disorder", which carries symptoms of schizophrenia including hallucinations and mania.

The Kremlin has always strongly denied Putin has medical problems and portrays he is in robust health, even as he has been mysteriously absent in recent years, the Daily Mail reported.

In a video detailing General SVR's claims, the outlet's source, supposedly an anonymous former high-ranking Kremlin military figure, said: "Putin has discussed that he will be undergoing medical procedures."

Pakistan Secures $8 Billion Saudi "Package" During Shehbaz Sharif Visit: Report

ISLAMABAD, May 1: Pakistan, which is grappling with an economic slump, has secured a "sizeable package" of around $8 billion from Saudi Arabia during the visit of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, reported local media.

The $8 billion package includes a doubling of the oil financing facility, additional money either through deposits or Sukuks, and rolling over of the existing $4.2 billion facilities, reported The News International.

"However, technical details are being worked out and will take a couple of weeks to get all documents ready and signed," the media outlet quoted the top official sources privy to the development as saying.

Notably, Shehbaz Sharif and his official entourage have left Saudi Arabia but Pakistan Finance Minister Miftah Ismail is still staying there to finalize the modalities of the increased financial package.

"Just said goodbye to Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and other colleagues at Jeddah Airport, who are on their way to Islamabad after a brief stopover in Abu Dhabi to meet Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Zayed. I remain in SA to meet Saudi officials and start technical-level talks," tweeted Ismail.

According to the official, Pakistan's proposal of doubling the oil facility from $1.2 billion to $2.4 billion was accepted by Saudi Arabia, which also agreed that the existing deposits of $3 billion would be rolled over for an extended period up to June 2023.

"Pakistan and Kingdom of Saudi Arabia discussed an additional package of over USD 2 billion either through deposits or Sukuk and it is likely that even more money will be provided to Islamabad," the media outlet quoted the official sources which added that the size of the total package would be determined after additional money was finalized.

Earlier in December 2021, Saudi Arabia had provided $3 billion deposits to the State Bank of Pakistan and also provided Pakistan with $100 million to procure oil after the Saudi oil facility was operationalized in March 2022.

Under the Imran Khan government, Saudi Arabia provided Pakistan a package of $4.2 billion, including $3 billion deposits and a $1.2 billion oil facility for one year.

Meanwhile, amid a combination of internal and external challenges of unpredictable tenure in Pakistan, the Ministry of Finance on Friday forecasted tough days ahead -- including rising inflation, expanding current account deficit, higher fiscal deficit and dampening economic growth prospects.

According to the Finance Ministry, high international commodity prices not only keep inflation elevated, but they are also a burden on Pakistan's external account and hence on its foreign exchange reserves, Dawn reported.

Moreover, economic activities in Pakistan's main trading partners continue to remain slightly above the trend as some slowdown has been observed due to geopolitical uncertainty and a surge in commodity prices. If these tensions continue, the country's growth may be affected as well.

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