Saudi to host top Arab, EU diplomats for Gaza talks

This morning's top world news, in a nutshell - Saturday, 27th April 2024.

Top Arab and European diplomats are expected to begin arriving in the Saudi capital this weekend for an economic summit and meetings on the war in Gaza, diplomatic officials told AFP. The two-day World Economic Forum special meeting, scheduled to begin in Riyadh on Sunday, includes in its official programme appearances by the Saudi, Jordanian, Egyptian and Turkish foreign ministers.

A Gaza-focused session on Monday is set to feature newly-appointed Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Mustafa, Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly and Sigrid Kaag, the United Nations aid coordinator for Gaza. French Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne is among the European officials travelling to the Saudi capital during the summit for talks on the war, which erupted with Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack on southern Israel. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock is due to arrive on Monday to meet officials including Kaag and Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, said spokesperson Sebastian Fischer. “Discussions with European, American and regional counterparts on Gaza and the regional situation are planned in Riyadh,” a diplomatic source said Friday. “The visit will be about working on the many different flashpoints of the crisis in the Middle East, on de-escalation and on making progress towards a peaceful future,” Fischer told a news conference in Berlin on Friday. “As you all know, the Gulf states also have an important role to play here.”

Saudi Arabia’s neighbour Qatar hosts a Hamas political office and has served as a mediator in talks that have so far failed to secure a durable ceasefire and the release of many hostages seized in the October 7 attack. Saudi Arabia has never recognised Israel, but before the Hamas attack US President Joe Biden’s administration was hoping it would do so as part of a landmark deal that would also see Riyadh and Washington ramp up their security partnership.

Hamas ignited the war with a shock incursion into southern Israel in which militants killed 1,170 people, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures. Hamas is believed to still be holding 129 hostages out of the 253 it took on October 7. The Hamas attack resulted in Israel’s retaliatory military campaign to destroy Hamas that has since killed 34,500 people, mostly women and children, and wounded 77,293, according to the health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza.

Hamas studies Israeli counter-proposal for truce

Meanwhile, Hamas said it has received and is studying the latest Israeli counter-proposal regarding a potential ceasefire in the Gaza Strip and the release of hostages. “Today the Hamas movement received the official response to its ceasefire proposal, which was delivered to Egyptian and Qatari mediators on April 13,” Khalil al-Hayya, deputy head of Hamas’s political arm, said in a brief statement a Gaza. “The movement,” he concludes, “ will study this proposal and, subsequently, present its response”. The statement comes a day after a delegation from mediator Egypt reportedly arrived in Israel in a bid to jump-start the stalled negotiations. The signs of fresh truce talks came alongside ongoing Israeli preparations for a military push into Gaza’s southern city of Rafah and as spillover from the war led to continued attacks across the region.

Erdogan daubs Netanyahu ‘the butcher of Gaza’

Turkish President Recep Erdogan told an inter-parliamentary conference on Palestine in Istanbul, “Like the murderers before him, (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu has shamefully written his name into history as the butcher of Gaza.” During the debate, broadcast by Turkish state TV TRT, Erdogan added, “We must intensify our efforts to ensure that Netanyahu, the butcher, is held accountable to the law.”

 ‘It could take 14 years to clear debris in Gaza’ – UN official

The vast amount of rubble, including unexploded ordnance, left by Israel’s devastating war in the Gaza Strip could take about 14 years to remove, a United Nations official said on Friday. Israel’s military campaign against Gaza’s ruling Palestinian Islamist group Hamas has reduced much of the narrow, coastal territory of 2.3 million people to a wasteland with most civilians homeless, hungry and at risk of disease.

Pehr Lodhammar, senior officer at the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS), told a briefing in Geneva that the war had left an estimated 37 million tonnes of debris in the widely urbanised, densely populated territory. He said that although it was impossible to determine the exact number of unexploded ordnances found in Gaza, it was projected that it could take 14 years under certain conditions to clear debris, including rubble from destroyed buildings. “We know that typically there’s a failure rate of at least 10 per cent of land service ammunition that is being fired and fails to function,” he said. “We’re talking about 14 years of work with 100 trucks.”

US and China should be ‘partners’, Xi tells Blinken

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chinese President Xi Jinping struck a positive note on progress in relations on the last day of the US top diplomat’s China tour Friday, where he stressed that it was important to manage bilateral relations responsibly. He added that difficult issues, like trade or differences over Taiwan, can be worked through.

Blinken told a news conference after meeting Xi Jinping in Beijing, “We are committed to maintaining and strengthening lines of communication to advance that agenda, and again deal responsibly with our differences so we avoid any miscommunications, any misperceptions, any miscalculations.”

Xi told Blinken the two “countries should be partners, not rivals”, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV reported. “There are still a number of issues that need to be resolved, and there is still room for further efforts,” CCTV cited the Chinese leader as having told Blinken. “We hope the US can also take a positive view of China’s development,” Xi said. “When this fundamental problem is solved… relations can truly stabilise, get better, and move forward.” Blinken discussed concerns about “PRC support to the Russian defence industrial base” as well as Taiwan, the South China Sea and the situation in Middle East, according to State Department spokesman Matthew Miller.

Blinken said it was important to ensure healthy competition on economic and technology fronts. China is responsible for one-third of global production but one-tenth of global demand, which leads to a trade mismatch, Blinken said. Chinese goods are sold for lower prices, and that’s something the US “stands against,” he said. China’s multi-billion-dollar trade surplus with the US, along with accusations of intellectual property theft, have long been sources of friction in bilateral relations. It’s not just a US concern, but also one of European partners, Blinken said. Regarding China’s support for Russia’s defence base, Blinken said he was “extremely” clear in expressing US concerns during the visit, adding that China has demonstrated in the past that it can take positive action. European partners are equally wary about the situation. “It is now absolutely critical” that China stops supporting Russia as it has been, Blinken said. The US has said Chinese support comes in the form of arms, but also machines that can be retooled for military purposes. “Russia would struggle to sustain its assault on Ukraine without China’s support,” he added. State Department officials said before the meeting began that Washington was prepared to act against Chinese companies helping to resupply Russia’s defence industry.

EU launches probe into Chinese medical device market

The European Union has announced a probe into China’s public procurement of medical devices, prompting an immediate accusation from Beijing that the bloc was engaging in “protectionism”. Brussels fears China is favouring its own suppliers when it comes to the procurement of medical devices. The EU’s official administrative journal, announcing the probe, set out ways that could be happening, including through a “Buy China” policy. The EU also has concerns that China may have restrictions on imports as well as imposing conditions “leading to abnormally low bids that cannot be sustained by profit-oriented companies,” the notice in the journal said. Beijing lashed out at the investigation, with a foreign ministry spokesman saying it would “damage the EU’s image”. “All the outside world sees is it (the EU) gradually moving towards protectionism,” said the ministry spokesman, Wang Wenbin, calling on Brussels to “stop using any excuse to groundlessly suppress and restrict Chinese business”. China’s medical devices market is the second largest after the United States, worth around €135 billion in 2022, according to a 2023 report by China-focused think tank Merics. The EU probe is the first under the bloc’s International Procurement Instrument which seeks to promote reciprocity in access to international public procurement markets.

MEPs urged to fight far right in European elections

More than 600 MEPs have left Strasbourg urged to use their “strength and patience” to fight the far right and disinformation and return a vote across the bloc for democracy. There were flowers, tears and cheers as Roberta Metsola, president of the European parliament, made her last address and MEPs raced back to their respective countries to launch a six-week campaign for re-election. Holding a red carnation in her hand to mark the 50th anniversary of democracy in Portugal, Metsola said that “the symbolism of today is all the more significant”, wishing MEPs “strength, patience, and success” and urging them to “bring Europe” home. Noting that 25 April was also Liberation day in Italy, the socialist MEP Achille Variati warned that the “kind of oppressions” seen in the “fascist period” were now “hiding around the corner” once again. Philippe Lamberts, the outgoing MEP and Greens co-president, echoed Variati, saying that “dictatorships and authoritarian dangers are once again on the rise”, coming close to tears as he made a valedictory speech after 15 years in parliament. Manfred Weber, leader of the European People’s party (EPP), a centre-right group of MEPs which is the largest in the parliament, urged voters not to be fooled by the extreme right when they go to the polls on 6-9 June. The Green MEP Grace O’Sullivan, whose Ireland South constituency stretches from the tourist and fishing bases of Kerry to the cheese vales of Cork, said that unlike the last European elections in 2019 the Greens would not be able to rely on the youth vote.

Germany, France sign billion euro arms project

French Defence Minister Sébastien Lecornu and his German countgerpart Boris Pistorius ratified an agreement on a new joint tank project called the Main Ground Combat System (MGCS). This formal agreement kick-starts the development of the first phase of the armoured vehicle, dubbed the ‘tank of the future’ – a project worth billions of euros. The new battle tank is set to replace Germany’s Leopard 2 tank and France’s Leclerc. The next-generation tank is expected to be finished by 2040. Analysts say developing a next-generation tank showcases how Europe is expanding its defence industry, attempting to compete with rising military technology from countries like India and China.

US to send more Patriot systems to Ukraine

The US will provide Ukraine additional Patriot missiles for its air defence systems as part of a massive $6 billion additional aid package, Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin announced Friday. The missiles will be used to replenish previously supplied Patriot air defence systems and are part of a package that also includes more munitions for the National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems and additional gear to integrate Western air defence launchers, missiles and radars into Ukraine’s existing weaponry, much of which still dates back to the Soviet era. Ukrainian President Zelensky discussed the need for Patriots early Friday at the Ukraine Defence Contact Group, a coalition of about 50 countries gathering virtually in a Pentagon-led meeting. The meeting fell on the second anniversary of the group, which Austin said has “moved heaven and earth” since April 2022 to source millions of rounds of ammunition, rocket systems, armoured vehicles and even jets to help Ukraine rebuff Russia’s invasion. Ukrainian President Zelenskyy said at least seven Patriot systems are still needed.

Scholz calls for more Ukraine air defence

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Friday again urged European allies to ramp up their commitment towards strengthening Ukraine’s air defence capabilities. Speaking during a joint news conference in Berlin with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Scholz highlighted the importance of Patriot air defence batteries amid Russia’s continued drone and missile attacks on Ukraine’s cities, towns and critical infrastructure. The Patriot guided missile system is capable of shooting down aircraft, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles.

Moscow bombs ‘convoy with Western weapons’

Russia’s Defence Ministry said Moscow’s forces bombed a convoy in Ukraine carrying “weapons and military equipment” from the West. The bombing, the ministry specified, was carried out by aviation, missile forces and artillery in the area of the Udachnoye settlement, in the eastern region of Donetsk.

Biden ‘happy to debate’ Donald Trump; Trump says he’s ready to go

US President Joe Biden said Friday that he was willing to debate his presumptive Republican opponent, Donald Trump, later this fall – his most definitive comment yet on the issue. Trump said he was ready, though he questioned Bidens’s willingness. Biden’s comment came during an interview with the Sirius XM radio host Howard Stern. The two men debated twice during the 2020 general election –and Biden was notably irritated by Trump’s antics in the chaotic first debate that year. Chris LaCivita, Trump campaign senior adviser, quickly responded to Biden’s remarks on the social media site X: “OK let’s set it up!”

Second phase of voting in India election begins

The second phase of voting for India’s 2024 general elections began on Friday, amid intense campaigning by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the opposition India alliance to appeal to voters. Eligible voters in some 88 constituencies across 13 states and Union territories lined up outside polling stations in parts of the country hit by a scorching heatwave. Indian news outlet NDTV reported a 25 per cent voter turnout across the states and union territories as of 11 a.m. local time. India’s 2024 general election, the largest democratic exercise in the world, began on April 19 and ends on June 1. Results are expected by June 4. Nearly a billion people are eligible to vote.

King Charles to resume some public duties

King Charles is to resume public duties after positive cancer treatment. He is said to be “greatly encouraged” at returning to the public facing royal duties following the positive effect of his cancer treatment. Charles has been receiving care as an outpatient since early February, and the announcement will be a boost for the monarchy coming to terms with King and Kate Middleton as cancer patients. A Buckingham Palace spokesperson said: “His Majesty is greatly encouraged to be resuming some public-facing duties and very grateful to his medical team for their continued care and expertise.” Sources have stressed that despite the welcome news King Charles still has cancer and will continue to be treated for the undisclosed form of the disease. The Palace spokesperson said: “His Majesty’s medical team are very encouraged by the progress made so far and remain positive about the King’s continued recovery.”

Photo: John MacDougall JOHN/AFP

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