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Ukrainian minister remanded in custody after corruption allegations

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Kyiv, April 26 (IANS/DPA) Ukraine’s highest anti-corruption court has ordered the pre-trial detention of Agriculture Minister Mykola Solskyi on suspicion of misappropriation of state land worth millions.

The preventive measure is initially set to run until June 24, media in Kyiv reported on Friday, citing the court. There is a possibility that Solskyi will be released on bail, the reports said. The minister had previously submitted his resignation but continued to deny any guilt.

Parliamentary Speaker Ruslan Stefanchuk published the handwritten letter of resignation on Facebook on Thursday. Parliament will decide on the dismissal soon, Stefanchuk wrote.

Investigators from the National Anti-Corruption Bureau had handed Solskyi a notice of suspicion on Tuesday. The minister is alleged to have brought a total of 1,250 plots of land totalling almost 2,500 hectares into the possession of his agricultural holding between 2017 and 2021.

According to the investigators, this involved a value of 291 million hryvnia ($7.34 million). The law enforcement authorities said they also thwarted the attempt, which is said to have involved further plots of land worth 190 million hryvnia.

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The minister denied the allegations. “There was no corruption. Nobody took any money,” Solskyi wrote in a statement broadcast by public television.

“Furthermore, none of the suspects had signed over land to themselves or relatives,” he added.

Solskyi, a lawyer by profession, had previously admitted that in 2017, he had represented several private individuals in a dispute over land against state-owned companies in the Sumy region in question.

In 2019, Solskyi was elected to the unicameral parliament, the Supreme Council or Rada, via the presidential party list in the early elections initiated by President Volodymyr Zelensky.

He chaired the agriculture committee from 2019 until he was appointed minister of agriculture in March 2022.

–IANS/DPA

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The Third Eye: Raisi had built Iran as a key player in the Middle East

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New Delhi: Reactions of the world community to the demise of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and some other Iranian dignitaries in a helicopter crash near the Azerbaijan border on May 19, threw light on the importance of Iran as a prime mover behind the recent developments in the Middle East and the geopolitical alignments that are shaping up in the region around the increasing polarisation between the US on one hand and the Russia-China axis on the other.

Raisi a hardliner conservative was appointed President of Iran in 2021 — he had earlier succeeded over his pragmatic rival Hassan Rouhani in 2017 in a controlled election.

He soon became the driving power behind the execution of thousands of dissidents at home in 2022, the enforcement of strict rules of the Hijab and Chastity for women and the pursuit of a strong anti-Israel policy.

Raisi was very close to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme leader of Shiite Iran — who at 85 was not keeping well — and was set to succeed the latter. Raisi as a leader had been put by the US under sanction.

Born in a religious family in the Shiite Muslim city of Mashhad, the Iranian President was educated at a religious seminary in the holy city of Qom and was known to have taken part as a student in the protests against the pro-West Shah of Iran in 1979.

Raisi shared with Khamenei a deep antipathy towards the US — part of this being rooted in the ideological rejection of capitalism by the fundamentalist Shiism.

He was an anti-corruption populist who stood for self-sufficiency in the economy and an aggressive foreign policy based on the strategy of using proxy forces across the Middle East.

An advisor of the Iranian regime made it clear that the policy framework of Iran would be maintained after President Raisi’s death.

Iran with the largest army in the Middle East is likely to continue with an assertive posture in the region and beyond in the geopolitical environment created by the Ukraine-Russia military confrontation and the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Raisi pursued a hard line towards Israel and warned that any Israeli aggression against Iran could result in “there being nothing left of the Zionist regime”.

Iran-Israel hostility arises significantly from a faith-based contradiction that added to the political enmity Iran had towards the US-Israel axis. In the polarisation between the US and the China-Russia combine, Iran unsurprisingly supports the latter.

In the long-drawn Ukraine-Russia military confrontation, Iran has actively sided with Russia’s ‘war effort’ by supplying drones for the Russian offensive against Ukraine.

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Iran’s comprehensive backing of Hamas against Israel is as much of an aggressive stand against the US as it is a reflection of the basic religious divide between Islam and Zionism.

Hamas had been radicalised and its attack on Israel on October 7, 2023, was clearly a terrorist act — radicalisation goes with the ‘revivalist’ call of the Wahhabis to return of Muslim world to the Puritan Islam of the ‘Pious Caliphs’ and in the process it would also turn intensely hostile to Shiites because of the historical memory associated with the origin of Shiism as a ‘deviant’ sect in the eyes of the mainstream Sunnis.

In regard to the Taliban Emirate in Afghanistan however, it is said that Pakistan had helped to bring about an adjustment between China and the Taliban on the basis of a ‘give and take’ that enabled China to extend its Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) to Afghanistan and got Taliban to give an assurance of non-interference in the affairs of the Muslim minorities of China.

The reported participation of Taliban leaders of Afghanistan in the last prayers for Raisi in Tehran showed the primacy of the political opposition to the US that put Iran and the Taliban on the same side of the fence.

Iran’s political and ideological hostility towards Israel at the same time, led it to support Hamas and set upon its proxies like Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthis against Israel in the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Responses of major powers to the demise of President Raisi of Iran give an idea of the geopolitical scene around the Middle East and the power play that was evident in the region.

President Xi Jinping of China called the ‘tragic death’ of Raisi a great loss to the Iranian people and added that the Chinese people had lost a good friend.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov offering condolences on the demise of the Iranian President lauded his role in strengthening mutually beneficial Russia-Iran cooperation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin called Raisi an outstanding political leader who had made invaluable personal contributions in taking good neighbourly relations between Russia and Iran to the level of a ‘strategic partnership’.

The US conveyed ‘official condolences’ to Iran and reiterated its support to the Iranian people in their ‘struggle for human rights and fundamental freedoms’. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin clarified that the US had no insight into the cause of the helicopter crash that killed President Raisi.

The EU expressed sincere condolences while Italy’s Prime Minister Georgia Meloni noted that the crash was looked upon as an accident and no conspiracy theories had cropped up. She felt there would be no change in Iran’s internal order and hoped that the future leadership would work for the ‘stabilisation and pacification’ of Iran.

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There was a report that Putin had offered to help Iran in the process of enquiry into the helicopter crash. These reactions amply showed the closeness Iran had developed towards Russia and China while a distinct lack of trust existed between Iran and the US-led West.

The Arab states in the region conveyed their condolences to the people of Iran — considering them more as part of Ummah and rising above the Shia-Sunni divide somewhat — which certainly reflected their desire to keep the Middle East free of violence and check radicalisation.

Saudi Arabia had tense relations with Iran and there were proxy conflicts between them. Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman however, called Iran’s Acting President Mokhber to express his condolences.

UAE Prime Minister Sheikh Mohd. Bin Rashid Al Maktoum told the people of Iran “our hearts are with you in this difficult time” and more in line with the Islamic Brotherhood sentiment expressed that “the deceased would dwell in God’s spacious Paradise”.

Jordan’s King Abdullah conveying his deepest condolences expressed Jordan’s solidarity with “our brothers in Islam” of Iran while Emir Sheikh of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani expressed his condolences to the people of Iran saying “we belong to Allah and to Him we shall return”.

Egyptian President Abdul Fateh Al Sisi expressed solidarity with the Iranian leadership and people on the terrible incident that caused the death of the Iranian President and other leaders.

It is relevant to mention that the US had since 2020 mediated to bring about the Abraham Accord between UAE and Israel with the concurrence of Saudi Arabia and that China took a similar initiative in 2023 to secure the restoration of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The two big powers were apparently trying to strengthen their foothold in the Middle East without precipitating any serious conflict.

Outside the region, it is important to note the reactions of Pakistan, Malaysia and Turkey — countries that have lately shown a marked convergence on accommodating Islamic radical forces and correspondingly striking a posture of independence towards the US.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif recalled the ‘historic’ visit of Iranian President Raisi to Islamabad a month ago, described Iran as a good friend of Pakistan and announced a day of mourning during which Pak flags would fly half-mast as a mark of respect and solidarity with ‘brotherly’ Iran.

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Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim of Malaysia praised President Raisi for his dedication to “justice, peace and upliftment of the Ummah” and said that good Malaysia-Iran relations would lead to the “betterment of Muslim world”.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan at a joint press conference with his Pak counterpart at Islamabad, expressed his condolences and gave credit to Raisi for building good Iran-Ankara relations.

Iran under Raisi’s presidency had apparently reached out to potential friends in the Muslim world who would be sympathetic towards Iran in the latter’s tussle against the US.

Also, since both Iran and Saudi Arabia are members of the OPEC, the world powers were compelled to keep the Middle East from serious conflicts for their economic interests. However, the two major players in the region, Iran and Israel with their differing alignments in the developing Cold War between the US-led West and the Russia-China axis, are likely to continue with their adversarial postures — a close vigil by the international community on the Middle East seemed necessary.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi was among the first to convey his condolences on a personal note saying that he was “deeply saddened and shocked” over Raisi’s death. He stated that Raisi’s contribution to the strengthening of bilateral Iran-India relations will always be remembered and added that “India stood with Iran in this time of sorrow”.

India has done well to independently maintain friendship with the three major players in the Middle East — Saudi Arabia, Israel and Iran. This is consistent with India’s foreign policy of building mutually beneficial bilateral friendships with the US and Russia without prejudicing the cause of world peace.

This is how Prime Minister Modi had reached out to the Presidents of both Russia and Ukraine at the outbreak of military conflict between them and advocated for cessation of hostilities and peaceful negotiations based on an understanding of the ‘security concerns of both sides’.

This independent stand won the approval of the international community and brought recognition to India as the promoter of the ‘sane voice’ of the world. This has enabled India to maintain strategic friendship with the US without giving up on the deep political and economic relations with Russia. There is little doubt that India’s handling of international relations has been a success story so far.

(The writer is a former Director of the Intelligence Bureau. Views are personal)

–IANS

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S. Korea, Japan, China to hold 1st summit since 2019 to discuss cooperation

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Seoul, May 26 (IANS) Leaders of South Korea, China and Japan are set to meet on Sunday and Monday in Seoul for summit meetings, resuming their trilateral dialogue for the first time since 2019.

South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol will have back-to-back bilateral talks with Chinese Premier Li Qiang and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at the presidential office later in the day and hold a trilateral session with the two leaders on Monday, Yonhap news agency reported.

It marks the first three-way summit among the Asian countries since December 2019, after a hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic and strained Seoul-Tokyo relations over historical disputes.

During a bilateral meeting with Li, who is making his first visit since taking office in March 2023, Yoon is expected to discuss ways to promote strategic communication and expand economic cooperation and trade, and exchange opinions on security issues.

In his talks with Kishida, Yoon is likely to exchange opinions on ways to deepen practical cooperation in various areas and bolster trilateral cooperation with the United States to deter North Korea’s threats.

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After the meetings, Yoon plans to host a welcome dinner for delegations of the three countries.

On Monday, the three leaders will discuss six areas of cooperation: economy and trade, sustainable development, health issues, science and technology, disaster and safety management, and people-to-people exchanges. They will adopt a joint statement on the outcome of the summit.

The leaders are expected to explore cooperation in economic, trade and health sectors while aiming to avoid friction, as Seoul and Tokyo have aligned more closely with Washington amid its intensifying rivalry with Beijing.

While their differences over North Korea and regional security issues are not likely to be resolved at the meeting, Seoul officials say it represents a crucial step in reviving trilateral dialogue to avoid conflict and boost collaboration in the economy, technology and health sectors.

Principal Deputy National Security Adviser Kim Tae-hyo said the upcoming summit will serve as a “turning point” for restoring and normalizing the trilateral summit and provide an opportunity to recover “future-oriented and practical cooperation” among the three countries.

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–IANS

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Death toll from Brazil's weather catastrophe rises to 166

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Sao Paulo, May 26 (IANS) The death toll from storms and floods in the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul since April 29 has risen to 166, the Civil Defense agency has said.

According to the agency, more than 637,000 people have been evacuated and 61 are still missing and some 2.3 million people in 469 municipalities were affected.

It added that the state has lost millions of dollars in trade, industry and agribusiness, Xinhua news agency reported.

Rains that have hit Rio Grande do Sul since April 29 have caused damage and traffic disruptions on the state’s roads. In Porto Alegre, the state capital, the situation had improved Monday, but new rains beginning on Thursday have caused renewed flooding.

–IANS

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Mandatory national service for 18-year-olds if Tories win, Sunak vows

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London, May 26 (IANS/DPA) Eighteen-year-olds would be forced to carry out a form of national service if the Tories are voted back in at the July 4 election, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has announced.

The Prime Minister said Britain has “generations of young people who have not had the opportunities they deserve” as he claimed the radical measure would help unite society in an “increasingly uncertain world”.

In future, 18-year-olds would be given a choice between a full-time placement in the armed forces for 12 months or spending one weekend a month for a year volunteering in their community, the Tories said.

In an apparent pitch to older voters, the party said this could include helping local fire, police and National Health Service services as well as charities tackling loneliness and supporting elderly, isolated people.

Sunak is seeking to draw a dividing line with Labour on global security following his pledge to raise defence spending to 2.5 per cent of gross domestic product by 2030.

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Heightening his attack on Saturday, Sunak said voters would be left “at risk” with Keir Starmer in Number 10 because Britain’s enemies would notice that he “doesn’t have a plan”.

Teenagers who choose to sign up for a placement in the forces would “learn and take part in logistics, cyber security, procurement or civil response operations”, the Tories said.

The Conservatives said they would establish a royal commission bringing in expertise from across the military and civil society to design what they described as the “bold” national service programme.

The party said it would work towards the first pilot being open for applications in September 2025, after which it would seek to introduce a new “National Service Act” to make the measures compulsory by the end of the next Parliament.

The Prime Minister said: “This is a great country but generations of young people have not had the opportunities or experience they deserve and there are forces trying to divide our society in this increasingly uncertain world.

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“I have a clear plan to address this and secure our future. I will bring in a new model of national service to create a shared sense of purpose among our young people and a renewed sense of pride in our country.

“This new, mandatory national service will provide life-changing opportunities for our young people, offering them the chance to learn real-world skills, do new things and contribute to their community and our country.”

Earlier on Saturday, Sunak suggested a government led by Keir would be marked by uncertainty and a “more dangerous world.”

“The consequences of uncertainty are clear. No plan means a more dangerous world. You, your family and our country are all at risk if Labour win,” he said.

Keir’s party branded the announcement “another desperate unfunded commitment” and pointed out that David Cameron introduced a similar scheme – the National Citizen Service – when he was prime minister.

Cameron’s announcement had no armed forces component to it, instead encouraging youngsters to take part in activities such as outdoor education-style courses as part of his “Big Society” initiative.

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A Labour spokesperson said: “This is not a plan – it’s a review which could cost billions and is only needed because the Tories hollowed out the armed forces to their smallest size since Napoleon.

“Britain has had enough of the Conservatives, who are bankrupt of ideas, and have no plans to end 14 years of chaos. It’s time to turn the page and rebuild Britain with Labour.”

–IANS/DPA

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British RAF pilot dies after aircraft crash

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London, May 26 (IANS) A British Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot was killed after a Spitfire crashed near an RAF base in Lincolnshire, an RAF spokesperson has said.

“It is with great sadness that we must confirm the death of an RAF pilot in a tragic accident near RAF Coningsby today,” said the spokesperson on Saturday.

Earlier, a Lincolnshire police spokesperson said a “single occupant aircraft” is believed to have crashed and nobody else is thought to have been involved, Xinhua news agency reported.

British media reported that the plane went down shortly before 1220 GMT and the crashed Spitfire was taking part in a Battle of Britain memorial event.

RAF Coningsby is home to the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, a collection of wartime fighter and bomber aircraft that take part in air shows and memorial displays.

–IANS

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