18 countries urge Hamas to release hostages, end crisis

This morning's top world news, in a nutshell - Friday, 26th April 2024.

Eighteen countries, including the United States, on Thursday issued an appeal for Hamas to release sick, elderly, and wounded hostages as a pathway to end the crisis in Gaza. According to Reuters, a statement by the countries said: “We call for the immediate release of all hostages held by Hamas in Gaza now for over 200 days,” in what a senior US official called an extraordinary display of unanimity. The 18 countries all have citizens held by Hamas six months after the Palestinian militant group launched its 7th October assault on southern Israel and killed 1,200 people. The signatories were the leaders of the United States, Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Spain, Thailand, and Britain. “We emphasise that the deal on the table to release the hostages would bring an immediate and prolonged ceasefire in Gaza, that would facilitate a surge of additional necessary humanitarian assistance to be delivered throughout Gaza, and lead to the credible end of hostilities,” the statement said. A senior US official, briefing reporters about the statement, said there were some indications that there might be an avenue for an agreement on the hostage crisis but that he was not totally confident. He did not elaborate but said the resolution was dependent on “one guy” – Hamas leader, Yahya Sinwar.

‘Israeli army amasses tanks at Rafah crossing’

The Israeli army has massed dozens of tanks and armoured vehicles along the border with the southern Gaza Strip in what appears to be preparations for an invasion of the border town of Rafah. This was reported by an Associated Press journalist who saw the movement of military vehicles Thursday near the Israeli Kerem Shalom crossing, near Rafah. After Thursday’s two war cabinet meetings, a senior official told Ynet that “there is no contradiction between an operation in Rafah and an agreement for the return of hostages”. “The closer we get to Rafah, the more Egyptian involvement naturally increases. They have a direct connection with the Gaza Strip and are crucial to the future of the Strip. We are headed to Rafah without a doubt. There is hope that the Egyptian road will develop in positive directions. We will have to try in every way. Egyptians have been participating in mediation for a long time. Now they are very motivated, because they want an agreement.” According to Israeli officials, quoted by Ynet, Egypt fears Palestinian “war refugees” could enter Sinai following the assault on Rafah, and therefore the Egyptian authorities are in a hurry to propose an agreement to Hamas believing that this could lead to the postponement of the operation in the southern city, as revealed by the Cairo media themselves. Meanwhile, the Israeli negotiating team is said to have received the “green light” from the war cabinet with a specific mandate: “Flexibility in Israel’s position so that, if there is a change due to military pressure, it will be possible to move forward quickly with an agreement”. The Israeli official’s revelations come as media reports that Israel has abandoned its earlier demand that at least 40 hostages be released as part of a possible deal.

US university cancels graduation ceremony as anti-war protests grow

The University of Southern California cancelled its main graduation ceremony Thursday and dozens more college students were arrested at other campuses nationwide as protests against the Israel-Hamas war continued to spread. College officials across the US are worried the ongoing protests could disrupt plans for commencement ceremonies next month. Some universities called in police to break up the demonstrations, resulting in ugly scuffles and arrests nationwide, while others appeared content to wait out student protests as the final days of the semester ticked down. Schools such as Columbia University continued to negotiate with protesters, while others are rewriting their rules to ban encampments and moving final exams to new locations. But encampments and protests continued to spring up Thursday. A tent encampment popped up at Indiana University Bloomington before police with shields and batons shoved into a line of protesters, arresting an unknown number. Students protesting the war are demanding schools cut financial ties to Israel and divest from companies enabling the conflict. Some Jewish students say the protests have veered into antisemitism and made them afraid to set foot on campus.

Police used tear gas and also fired rubber bullets at protesters to disperse a pro-Gaza protest on the campus of Emory University in Atlanta. Videos shot by students show policemen pushing protesters to the ground with their hands tied behind their backs. The students, about 10 of whom were stopped, had attempted to set up a camp on the model of what was done in Columbia and other US universities.

NATO nukes in Poland would be ‘primary target’ says Kremlin

Russia will make NATO nuclear weapons in Poland one of its primary targets if they are deployed there, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov declared Thursday in the latest escalation of tensions between Moscow and Europe. The comments came after Polish President Andrzej Duda on Monday said his nation would be ready to host Western nukes, given Russia’s decision to station intercontinental ballistic missiles in neighbouring Belarus late last year. “Our patience is not limitless,” Ryabkov said. “If Poland takes the path of further escalation – these verbal games with nuclear weapons – then it means there will be a further round of tension. This game is very dangerous, and its consequences may be unpredictable.” Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov also responded to Duda’s declaration, stating that Russia’s defence ministry will ‘analyse the situation… and take all the necessary retaliatory steps to guarantee our safety’.

‘Dozens’ of Russian nukes stored in Belarus

For the first time since the Soviet era, Russia has stored nuclear missiles in a foreign country. Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko said “several dozen” of the Russian nuclear weapons are on Belarusian territory, according to Belarusian state media and Russia’s TASS news agency. In May 2023, Russia and Belarus signed documents on the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory. Last June, Belarus had started taking delivery of the weapons. Lukashenko also warned of “apocalypse” if Russia uses its nuclear weapons ‘in retaliation for Western actions’. The Belarusian leader called the probability of military incidents on the border very high, the Russian state news agency RIA reported.

Macron outlines vision of Europe as a global power

French President Emmanuel Macron outlined his vision for Europe to become a more assertive global power against a backdrop of war in Ukraine and other security and economic challenges, in a speech on Thursday ahead of pivotal European Parliament elections in June. The French president’s plans focus on strategic and geopolitical issues in Europe, including defence, the economy, protecting the environment and safeguarding democracy. Russia’s war in Ukraine, now in its third year, was the main theme of his speech delivered at Paris’ Sorbonne University. France has been an firm supporter of Ukraine in its fight against Russian aggression, and Macron has often clashed with other Western leaders as he has insisted that Europe must stand by the country at any cost. Last month, the French president alarmed European leaders by saying that sending Western troops into Ukraine to shore up its defenses shouldn’t be ruled out.

Macron, a staunch European, is also expected to rally support for his centrist Renaissance party ahead of the June 6-9 elections for the European Parliament. The French president lost his majority in France’s most influential house of parliament, the National Assembly, after the 2022 election to the far-left coalition and the far-right National Rally party.

Macron said Russia’s behaviour is “uninhibited” following its invasion of Ukraine and advocated Europe must do more to defend itself and be less reliant on the US. He named actions of Russian aggression as “existential threat” to Europe, adding that for the security of European countries it is crucial that Russia “does not win the war of aggression in Ukraine”. He said that invading Ukraine Russia behaved itself “uninhibited” and it was no longer clear where Moscow’s “limits” are. Macron emphasised the need for Europe to develop a credible defence strategy that is less dependent on the United States: “Our Europe, today, is mortal and it can die. Europe was not armed against the risks we face.”

Scholz congratulates Macron for suggesting ‘a strong Europe’

“France and Germany together want Europe to remain strong. Your speech contains good ideas on how we can achieve this,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz wrote this on X, directly tagging French President Macron. “Together we take the EU forward: politically and economically. For a sovereign and innovative EU”, adds Scholz in his comment on the speech on Europe held by Macron at the Sorbonne University in Paris. “Vive l’Europe!” concludes, in French, the German chancellor.

Russian ship with North Korean weapons for Moscow is docked in China

A Russian cargo ship sanctioned by the United States and implicated in North Korean weapons transfers to Russia is docked in China, according to satellite images obtained by Reuters, as US concerns grow over Beijing’s support for the war of Moscow in Ukraine. The British think tank Royal United Services Institute (Rusi) says the Russian ship Angara, which has transferred thousands of containers believed to contain North Korean munitions to Russian ports since August 2023, is anchored at a Chinese shipyard in the eastern province of Zhejiang since February. The presence of the ship in the Chinese port, writes Reuters, highlights the challenges facing the United States and its allies in trying to stem military and economic support for Russia. The dossier is at the top of the agenda of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s present visit to Beijing. A US State Department spokesperson said they were aware of “credible, open source reports” that the Angara was currently docked in the Chinese port and had raised the matter with Chinese authorities.

Violent clashes break out in Venice over €5 ‘entrance fee’ for tourists

Venice was rocked by violent clashes Thursday between police and protestors rallying against a contentious new ‘tourist tax’ on short-stay visitors. Vibrant photos from the historic canals and narrow alleyways of the Italian city showed demonstrators armed with signs and banners expressing contempt towards the unique new policy aimed at clamping down on over-tourism in busy periods. Amid the furore, it was business as usual for Venice’s gondoliers, pictured ferrying groups of tourists through the city as they snapped photos of the burgeoning protests around them. Critics maintain that the €5 fee, in effect from yesterday until May 5, and on weekends until July 14, is unlikely to put a significant dent in the 30 million trips made to Venice each year – and could backfire by tarnishing the city’s public image.

Over 281 million people faced acute hunger in 2023, says UN

More than 281 million people in 59 countries experienced high levels of food insecurity, requiring urgent assistance, according to a UN report. The Global Report on Food Crises found that war-torn Gaza was the territory with the largest number of people facing famine. There were 24 million more people facing an acute lack of food than in 2022, the report said. This was due to the sharp deterioration in food security, especially in the Gaza Strip and Sudan. Máximo Torero, chief economist for the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, said 705,000 people in five countries are at the highest level on a scale of hunger determined by international experts. This was the highest number since the global report began in 2016 and quadruple the number that year. Over 80 per cent of those facing imminent famine were in Gaza, Torero said. South Sudan, Burkina Faso, Somalia and Mali each host many thousands also facing catastrophic hunger.

According to the report’s future outlook, around 1.1 million people in Gaza, where the Israel-Hamas war is now in its seventh month, and 79,000 in South Sudan are projected to be facing famine by July. It said conflict will also continue to drive food insecurity in Haiti, where gangs control large portions of the capital. Additionally, while the El Nino phenomenon peaked in early 2024, “its full impact on food security – including flooding and poor rain in parts of east Africa and drought in southern Africa, especially Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe – are likely to manifest throughout the year”. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the report is “a roll call of human failings,” and that “in a world of plenty, children are starving to death”.

More than 150 killed as heavy rains pound Tanzania

At least 155 people have died in floods and landslides in Tanzania following heavy rains caused by El Niño, prime minister Kassim Majaliwa has said, warning that the rains might continue into May, and urged families to leave flood-prone areas. About 200,000 people and more than 51,000 households were already affected by the disaster, he added. Heavy rains have also swept through neighbouring Kenya and Burundi, causing a humanitarian crisis in the region. Giving a report to Tanzania’s parliament on the situation in his country since January, Mr Majaliwa said apart from loss of life, there was destruction of crops, homes, citizens’ property, and infrastructure such as roads, bridges, and railways.

Heatstroke kills 30 in Thailand

Thailand issued fresh warnings about scorching hot weather as the government said heatstroke has already killed at least 30 people this year. City authorities in Bangkok gave an extreme heat warning as temperatures were expected to rise above 52OC. Temperatures in the concrete sprawl of the Thai capital hit 40.1OC. A wave of exceptionally hot weather has blasted parts of South and South-east Asia this week, prompting schools across the Philippines to suspend classes and worshippers in Bangladesh to pray for rain.

Court overturns Harvey Weinstein’s 2020 rape conviction

New York’s highest court on Thursday overturned Harvey Weinstein’s 2020 rape conviction. It found the judge at the landmark #MeToo trial prejudiced the ex-movie mogul with “egregious” improper rulings. “We conclude that the trial court erroneously admitted testimony of uncharged, alleged prior sexual acts against persons other than the complainants of the underlying crimes,” the court’s 4-3 decision said. “The remedy for these egregious errors is a new trial.” One of the key issues the court found was a decision to let women testify about allegations that were not part of the case. The state Court of Appeals ruling re-opens a chapter in America with sexual misconduct allegations against powerful figures being exposed. The #MeToo era began to gain widespread momentum in 2017, with a flood of allegations against Weinstein and other big names in Hollywood. Actress Ashley Judd said the court’s decision was “unfair to survivors”.

Police nab gang stealing antique books across Europe

European authorities say they have rounded up a criminal gang which stole rare antique books worth €2.5 million from libraries across Europe. Europol announced they had arrested four Georgian nationals in Georgia and Lithuania who are thought to have collaborated in the plot, in which at least 170 rare books were stolen from national and historical libraries in Czechia, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Switzerland, The swoop on the gang involved more than 100 officers across 27 different locations, and the investigation was backed by authorities from 10 different countries. More than 150 books were recovered – their provenance is now being established.

Photo: Andrea Renault / STAR MAX / IPx via Getty Images

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