Indian navy captures Maltese-flagged ship from pirates

This morning's top world news, in a nutshell - Sunday, 17th March 2024

An Indian navy warship on Saturday captured a bulk carrier off the coast of Somalia, rescuing the crew and ending a three-month hijacking. The Maltese-flagged MV Ruen was hijacked by Somali pirates in December near the Yemeni island of Socotra, around 240km off Somalia. Announcing the capture, the Indian navy posted on X that one of its warships had “in the last 40 hours, through concerted actions successfully cornered and coerced all 35 pirates to surrender and ensured safe evacuation of 17 crew members from the pirate vessel without any injury.”

On Friday, the pirates had opened fire on the Indian navy ship in international waters, prompting the navy to urge the pirates to surrender and release the vessel and any civilians they may be holding. Before the hijacking of the Ruen on 14th December, no cargo vessel had been successfully boarded by Somali pirates since 2017. However, at least 17 incidents of hijacking, attempted hijacking, or suspicious approaches have been recorded by the Indian navy since December, Indian officials said.

India deployed at least a dozen warships east of the Red Sea in January to provide security against pirates and has investigated more than 250 vessels. The EU Naval Force warned on Thursday that the Ruen could be used by pirates as a “mothership” to carry out further attacks.

Israel to lead new ceasefire talks

Stalled talks aimed at securing a cease-fire in the war between Israel and Hamas are expected to resume in earnest in Qatar as soon as today, Sunday, according to Egyptian officials. The talks would mark the first time both Israeli officials and Hamas leaders join the indirect negotiations since the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. International mediators had hoped to secure a six-week truce before Ramadan started earlier this week, but Hamas refused any deal that wouldn’t lead to a permanent cease-fire in Gaza, a demand Israel rejected. In recent days, however, both sides have made moves aimed at getting the talks, which never fully broke off, back on track. Hamas gave mediators a new proposal for a three-stage plan that would end the fighting, according to two Egyptian officials, one who is involved in the talks and a second who was briefed on them. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to reveal the contents of the sensitive discussions.

The first stage would be a six-week cease-fire that would see the release of 35 hostages – women, those who are ill and older people – held by militants in Gaza in exchange for 350 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. Hamas would also release at least five female soldiers in exchange for 50 prisoners, including some serving long sentences on terror charges, for each soldier. Israeli forces would withdraw from two main roads in Gaza, let displaced Palestinians return to northern Gaza, which has been devastated by the fighting, and allow the free flow of aid to the area, the officials said. In the second phase, the two sides would declare a permanent cease-fire and Hamas would free the remaining Israeli soldiers held hostage in exchange for more prisoners, the officials said. In the third phase, Hamas would hand over the bodies it’s holding in exchange for Israel lifting the blockade of Gaza and allowing reconstruction to start, the officials said. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the proposal “unrealistic”. However, he agreed to send Israeli negotiators to Qatar for more talks. Netanyahu’s government has rejected calls for a permanent cease-fire, insisting it must first fulfill its stated goal of “annihilating Hamas”. The talks are expected to resume Sunday afternoon, though they could get pushed to Monday, the Egyptian officials said.

Hezbollah launch six rocket attacks against Israel

Al Jazeera quotes Hezbollah saying they had launched six attacks against Israel. The latest attack occurred Saturday evening and targeted “Israeli enemy soldiers” with rockets in an area near the border, the Lebanese armed group wrote on its Telegram channel. The other five attacks, the first of which was launched before noon, targeted military facilities and Israeli soldiers using rockets and mortar shells.

Israeli air strike kills 36 relatives preparing for fasting

Displaced by Israeli bombardment, the Tabatibi family gathered in central Gaza to eat together during the first Friday night of Ramadan, a scene that soon turned into a bloodbath. An air strike hit the building where they were staying as women prepared the pre-fasting meal, killing 36 members of the family, survivors told AFP on Saturday. The health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza, which provided the same death toll, blamed Israel for the strike in Nuseirat, while the Israeli military said it was looking into the incident.  “This is my mother, this is my father, this is my aunt, and these are my brothers,” 19-year-old Mohammed al-Tabatibi, whose left hand was injured in the strike, said through tears at the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in nearby Deir al-Balah. He spoke as bodies were spread out in the hospital courtyard, then stacked on a truck to be driven to a cemetery. Because there were not enough body bags, some of the dead – including at least two children – were wrapped in white cloth stained with blood, AFPTV footage showed.

Russian ballots already exceed 55%

Voters across Russia cast ballots on Saturday on the second day of an election set to formalise six more years of power for President Vladimir Putin, who faces no serious challengers after crushing political dissent over his nearly 25 years of rule. Voting has exceeded 55.10 per cent, according to the Central Election Commission, cited by the state agency Ria Novosti. The same source reports that since yesterday, 160,000 hacker attacks against the electronic voting system had been blocked and that 214 ballot papers had been completely destroyed due to liquid leaks or attempts to set fire to ballot boxes or voting booths. According to the Belarusian opposition media Nexta there were 11 attempts to set fire to polling stations and 19 ballot boxes into which paint was thrown.

The commission estimated that final turnout figure across the country could therefore significantly exceed the 67 pr cent recorded in the 2018 elections, when voting took place on just one day. What stands out are the data relating to the Ukrainian regions partially occupied by Moscow’s troops and annexed to Russia, where voting operations began on February 25. In Zaporizhzhia the figure is 72 per cent. While the data released on Friday evening showed 69 per cent in those of Donetsk and Kherson and 36 per cent in that of Lugansk.

As for the results, commission deputy head Nikolai Bulayev announced the first partial results will begin to be announced after 9pm today, Sunday Moscow time (7pm in Malta), an hour after the closing of the polls in the capital.

The commission has announced that there are at least 29 polling stations in 20 Russian regions where “acts of vandalism” have occurred. Ink was spilled in the ballot boxes in 20 polling stations, attempts to set fire were recorded in eight and a smoke bomb was thrown in one. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova pointed the finger directly at Western countries, accusing them of “inciting people, who are obviously in connection with them, to go to the polls and commit these acts of extremism”. Diplomats from these countries in Russia, the spokeswoman added while speaking at a news conference, “are doing everything they can to interfere in the vote”.

Previously Zakharova had said that the Westerners themselves had been trying for a year to get Russians to boycott the Russian presidential elections, even with the use of “agents of influence or simply mercenaries” from the opposition ranks.

The anti-Kremlin online newspapers Novaya Gazeta and Medusa report that some Moscow residents had recently received mysterious messages on their cell phones accusing them of supporting “the ideas of an extremist organisation” and urging them to “vote in a calm manner, without queues and provocations”. This happens on the eve of “noon against Putin”, the initiative with which the opponents want to make their voices heard by going to the polls on the same day at the same time, that is today Sunday at 12 noon. The Russian prosecutor’s office has already threatened dire consequences for those who participate in the protest.

Meanwhile, Ukraine has claimed responsibility for the bomb that exploded Friday near a polling station in the occupied Kherson region. The National Centre of Ukrainian Resistance, an offshoot of the Army’s Special Forces, claimed responsibility for the attack near a polling station in Skadovsk, in the occupied part of the Kherson oblast, which reportedly injured five Russians soldiers. “Unable to ensure the safety of its staff, the occupation authorities cancelled voting in public spaces, allowing it only in places of residence, according to the centre’s statement.”

Europe needs clear, united strategy against Russia – Crosetto

Italy’s defence minister Guido Crosetto has urged Europe to avoid “grand statements” and contradictions but rather have a clear and unified strategy against Russia with regards to its war in Ukraine, adding that Rome would never send troops to the conflict zone. “The West should avoid grand statements – such as sending Nato to Ukraine trying to make itself look better. Or avoid splitting into meetings of two or three when there are 27 of us in Europe,” he told the daily La Repubblica in an interview, referring to the European Union’s member states.  In order to counter Russia, “a monolith”, Crosetto said Europe needed “a clear, non-contradictory strategy, and perhaps built together as a coalition”. Italy has pledged to supply Kyiv, through 2024, the materials and equipment including weapons that Ukraine needs for its war effort against Russia. It signed a 10-year defence pact in February to support Ukraine, though details of that agreement have not been provided.

Ukrainian drone strikes hit Russian oil refineries

Ukrainian drone strikes have struck two oil refineries in a cross-border attack, igniting an enormous blaze as Kyiv’s forces continue a series of retaliatory strikes inside Russian territory. The governor of Russia’s Samara region said Kyiv’s attack hit two refineries in Syzran owned by oil giant Rosneft. He claimed there were no casualties as emergency services worked to put out the fire. A Ukrainian source told Reuters that Kyiv’s SBU intelligence agency had struck three Samara region Rosneft refineries.

Trump says migrants are not people, they are animals

Former US president Donald Trump has attacked migrants, saying “in some cases they are not people in my opinion, they are animals”. Speaking during a rally in Ohio, he added, “But I can’t say that because the radical left says that’s a terrible thing to say.” Trump also warned that if he is not elected, “it will be a bloodbath for the country.”

Slovakia: Thousands protest against public broadcaster revamp

Thousands of Slovaks have taken to the streets saying that a plan by Prime Minister Robert Fico’s government to revamp the public broadcaster RTVS would threaten press freedom. The demonstrations took place in Sovakia’s two largest cities, Bratislava and Košice.  The two liberal opposition parties Progressive Slovakia (PS) and Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) called for the rallies. The parties accused Fico’s government of wanting to bring the country’s public broadcaster, Radio and Television of Slovakia (RTVS), under its control and threaten press freedom. Demonstrators carried banners with slogans like, “We will not give up RTVS!”

According to the plan drafted by Culture Minister Martina Simkovicova, RTVS is to be formally dissolved and transformed into a new institution called “STaR” (short for “Slovak Television and Radio”). A new seven-member council with members nominated by the government and parliament would select its director, although the current one has a parliamentary mandate until 2027. The council would have a right to dismiss the director without giving any reason. More than a thousand RTVS employees signed a call to protest and the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), to which RTVS belongs, also criticised the plan as a threat to media independence.

33 African countries in need of external food assistance – FAO

A total of 45 countries and regions worldwide are in need of external assistance for food, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has warned. FAO’s latest “Crop Prospects and Food Situation” report, which is published triannually, indicates that due to factors such as regional conflicts and adverse weather conditions, 45 countries and regions worldwide require external food assistance. Among them, 33 are in Africa, nine in Asia, two in Latin America and the Caribbean, and one in Europe. The report mentions that conflicts in Near East Asia, and West and East Africa are exacerbating the alarming levels of food insecurity. Meanwhile, drought conditions are expected to worsen food insecurity in Southern Africa, where the outlook for grain production in 2024 has sharply declined due to sustained high temperatures and low precipitation, with no significant improvement in weather conditions expected in the coming months, the report said.

India to hold marathon national election from April

India has announced that national polls would begin on April 19, with Hindu-nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi strongly favoured to win a third term in the world’s biggest democracy. Nearly a billion people are eligible to cast ballots in what will be the largest exercise of the democratic franchise in human history, conducted over six weeks. Many consider Modi’s re-election a foregone conclusion, owing to both the premier’s robust popularity a decade after taking office and a glaringly uneven playing field. His opponents have been hamstrung by infighting and what critics say are politically-motivated legal investigations aimed at hobbling any challengers to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Dearer Easter for Italians: spending this year rises by a billion

Even if inflation, at 0.8 per cent is lower than in previous years, Italians will still have to shell out a total of one billion euros more this Easter to eat and travel. This was noted by consumer association Assoutenti, which calculated the various items, estimating a total expense of 2.2 billion euros. Food prices increase on average by four per cent on an annual basis, with peaks of 46.2 per cent for olive oil and 11.1 per cent for fresh fruit. An upward trend that also affects some typical Easter food and wine products, such as sheep and goat meat or cured meats, which rise by 3.8 per cent. Bad news also for those who travel to return to their family during the holidays or to treat themselves to a few days of vacation: train fares have increased in the last month by 5.9 per cent on an annual basis, while a plane ticket rises on average by 13.1 per cent, +5.7 per cent if one chooses a European destination, +8.7 per cent for all-inclusive holiday package prices. It will also be more expensive to sleep away from home: the rates of hotels and motels are growing at a rate of +6.9 per cent, and those of other accommodation facilities (b&bs, holiday homes, apartments, etc.) by even +9.1 per cent. To dine at a restaurant, the average expense is now 3.9 per cent more expensive than last year, and 3.9 per cent more is also spent to visit museums and historical monuments. With consumption being equal to 2023, spending on setting tables will reach 2.2 billion euros this year, while 430 million euros will be spent on Easter lunch at restaurants. The real blow, however, will be on travel, with an increase in spending estimated at +700 million euros compared to last year.

Photo: AFP

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