adams: New York shootings an early test for former cop-turned-mayor – Times of India


NEW YORK: Gun violence has rocked the first three weeks of Eric Adams‘ tenure as New York mayor, piling pressure on the former cop to deliver on his promise to improve public safety in America’s largest city.
A shooting in the neighborhood of Harlem Friday left one police officer dead and another in critical condition.
It was the latest flashpoint of the Democratic mayor’s nascent rule, in which he has yet to present a comprehensive plan to rein in the crime he has decried.
“It is our city against the killers,” said Adams, a retired police captain, on Friday night at Harlem Hospital, where the officers — who had been responding to a domestic disturbance — were taken following the incident.
The recent shootings also include a shocking incident in which an 11-month-old girl was hit in the cheek by a stray bullet in the Bronx as she was in a parked car with her mother.
They are seen as part of a broader trend of gun violence fueled by the accessibility of firearms, against the backdrop of the social and economic toll of the Covid-19 pandemic.
And they’re testing the new mayor’s tough-on-crime campaign message, while setting up a potential showdown with the left flank of his party over police funding and crime reduction strategies.
On Friday Adams urged federal action on gun control while calling on New Yorkers to work with cops to stem violence.
“No matter how painful this moment is, don’t give up on these people in this city,” he said.
“Twitter and Instagram and social media — they’re not the people you’re protecting,” he continued in an apparent rebuke of his leftist critics, many of whom are vocal online and have pushed to “defund” the New York Police Department, the nation’s largest.
Now that call may be coming to a head as Adams, whose position on policing has long rankled New Yorkers on the left, prepares to negotiate a new city budget.
He said this week he would consider exempting the police force, with a budget exceeding $5 billion, from citywide cost-cutting measures.
Politicians who use “defund the police” as a rallying cry appear unlikely to give Adams, who has already aggravated progressives over issues including remote learning, any leeway.
Kristin Richardson Jordan, a leftist city council member, won her Harlem district on a “defund” platform, which advocates replacing policing with alternative public safety systems.
She expressed sadness over the killing of the police officer Friday, but added: “To be clear, the death of police officers is not what abolition is. Abolition is an end to violence altogether.”
Last year police recorded 488 homicides in the city of nine million people, up 4.3 percent from 2020 — though Jeffrey Butts, director of the research and evaluation center at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, points out that 25 years ago the number of homicides in New York was quadruple what is seen today.
While he said he disagrees with the notion of “defunding the police,” he also told AFP “more police funding is not an appropriate response.”
“How are those resources used? To what end? What’s the strategy?” Butts said. “The foundation of our approach has to be economic well-being, health and the well-being of communities, which is a much broader public policy conversation.”
Adriano Espaillat, a congressman whose district includes Harlem and parts of the Bronx, said Saturday “the federal government must play a pivotal role” in stemming the violence, citing a need for legislation mandating stronger background checks and accountability of gun manufacturers.
Ken Sherrill, a professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College, expressed surprise that Adams has not yet unveiled his pitch to tackle crime — but said this is the moment to “mold public opinion.”
“This hands the mayor an immense opportunity and if he doesn’t seize it I’m sure he will regret it,” Sherrill told AFP.
On Saturday, Adams told journalists he was putting “final touches” on an as-yet unscheduled speech that would present a detailed vision on public safety.
“We need a concerted, organized effort and you’re going to see how we’re going to accomplish that when we give my overall blueprint for safety,” Adams said.
Key to his plan would be “addressing the flow of guns.”
Without that, he said, “we’re wasting our time.”





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IS prison break in Syria sparks days of clashes



More than 70 people have been killed in the fighting between militants and Kurdish-led forces.



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The day the world went dark: Survivor recalls disaster in Tonga


“There it came on the radio – a tsunami warning issued for all of Tonga. We’re sitting in my car in the longest queue… completely overwhelmed. It literally feels like an apocalyptic horror movie but worse, much worse. I can’t describe the feeling. Seeing my daughter huddled in the passenger’s seat crying asking if we’ll be alright, asking about the rest of our family.”

For Tevita Fukofuka, who was in the capital Nuku’alofa on the fateful day of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcanic eruption, it was a moment seared into his memory for life. A young father and local government worker, Tevita took to Facebook this weekend to post an emotional diary entry he had penned last week, 24 hours after his country’s harrowing ordeal.

At approximately 6pm local time (0400 GMT), the first audible explosion rang out from the now infamous volcano.

“I thought it was a big lorry’s blown tyre or something,” Tevita recalled. “I looked around the road confused, then a second bang; I thought it sounded like canons going off close by. But the third explosion was much louder and sounded like it was just above my head; I knew it was that damn volcano and something was very wrong.”

Scores of cars had already begun forming long queues as people rushed to move inland, away from the coast. But Tevita could not join them just yet. Putting his car in reverse, he was probably one of the few vehicles moving counter to the traffic as he sped to pick up his young daughter, Lote si’i, who had just been dropped off at a relative’s place.

“I was so confused though because that volcano is all the way in Ha’apai; far away,” Tevita later recalled to Al Jazeera. The volcano is about 66km (41 miles) across the sea from the main island of Tongatapu.

 

“Just as I reached my daughter, there came the loudest ‘bang’. It felt like the heavens had cracked open and the world exploded inside my ear. I’ve never heard a louder noise in all my life.”

“If death had a sound, that would be it.”

As the sound reverberated through his head, everything around him shook violently.

“The car, house, earth – everything was shaking. I looked up at the sky and saw hundreds of birds flying in every direction. I felt afraid but tried not to show it. My daughter jumped into the car, trembling and crying. As I rushed to the gas station, I tried to reassure her that everything would be fine.”

Sulphur ash rain

There was no way for Tevita and his fellow Tongans to know at that moment that NASA would later go on to estimate the volcanic explosion to be equivalent to five to six million tonnes of TNT – and 500 times as powerful as the nuclear explosion in Hiroshima.

Nor could they imagine that the eruption would send a tsunami racing across the Pacific Ocean, or unleash a sonic boom that would zip around the world twice.

As Tevita and Lote finally joined the sea of cars snaking through the city bumper to bumper, the only thought rushing through their heads was ‘survival’.

“Then came a deafening sound of sulphur ash rain in the form of pebbles, ash and dust,” recalled Tevita.

“We could hear it pelting the roof of our car and the houses along the road. The sky turned completely dark. The density of the ash clouds emanating from the volcano turned day into night.”

Between the storm of pebbles and ash, the sound of volcanic explosions and a tsunami warning ringing over the radio, the entire scenario felt surreal.

Tevita tried to remain calm; if he could just reach Tofoa or Pea, he would be far enough inland, he thought. Through a series of frantic calls from other family members, he learned that their vehicle was still trailing very far behind him – caught in the vehicular surge of an entire country on the move.

Spotting two car accidents along the way, Tevita decided to pull into a parking area next to a home goods store. The store had a verandah with a roof that he and his daughter could shelter in if the downpour of ash got any worse.

“My friend, Jonathan, called me just as I had parked my car and told me to drive to the Tonga Water Board, which was on a hill close by. I quickly began moving again. Our fuel tank was almost at empty and I prayed that we would make it. The distance from the base to the top of the hill is only about 120 metres [394ft], but it took us an hour in the long queue. Everyone’s car wipes were moving at full speed, trying to clear enough of the falling ash to see. It felt like we were going blind.”

NASA had estimated that the volcano’s plume of ash and gas shot into the stratosphere some 30.5km (19 miles) high, with some parts reaching as far as 55km (34 miles) up.

With no internet connectivity, Tevita tried to keep in contact with family through text messages and calls. The local radio station, 90FM, was miraculously still on the air. At the top of Water Board hill, young men were directing hundreds of cars in the windy, dusty darkness. They wore improvised t-shirt masks and hats in an attempt to breathe.

“One boy in particular wore a plastic wash tin on his head. The sight of him finally made my daughter smile, and I felt somewhat relieved as we found a parking spot.”

‘The whole city looks grey’

 

One by one, Tevita’s relatives contacted him to tell him they were safe. However, nobody had heard from his parents yet. Fear rising in his chest, he asked little Lote if she would be OK to get out of the car with him so they could go search for grandma and grandpa.

“She put on a brave face and said ‘yes’. Then she made herself a mask from a dress she found in the car. I covered my head with a jacket as we held hands and stumbled into the dark. My parents were not at the shelter, but we saw about a hundred women and kids inside. Thankfully, my sister finally made contact with my parents later that night.”

As the evening wore on, Tevita saw his friend Jonathan approaching his car with masks, apples for Lote and cigarettes for him – small luxuries that felt like a godsend in a world turned upside down.

“We tried to settle in to sleep with the hundreds of people around us in their cars. We heard people singing hymns in the shelter. Lote insisted on keeping the radio on to keep us company. I worried about the car battery, but 90FM was keeping us updated – and it made us feel safer, calmer.”

Locked in their car, they were still uncertain if the eruptions were over.

In the distance, the ancient volcano continued to rumble loudly through the night. After a few hours of troubled sleep, Tevita woke just after sunrise to find about half of the vehicles gone.

“I noticed that the falling ash had stopped, so I woke my daughter up and tried to scrape as much ash off the car’s windshield to be able to drive home. The radio station was saying that the volcanic activity had decreased in the previous three hours, but the tsunami warning was still in place. There was also a shortage of drinking water in a lot of areas.”

“We slowly made our way home in disbelief. The whole city was grey from the ash fall.”

In the days leading up to the January 15 blast, the Tonga Geological Services had been warning of impending eruptions and a potential tsunami, instructing locals to stay away from the beaches. Volcanologists now believe that it was this preparedness that probably resulted in thousands of lives being saved.

For now, Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai seems to have fallen silent. Tongans have been helping each other pick through the damage and clean up the streets, with international aid from Australia, New Zealand and Japan beginning to land in the country.

NASA estimates that the volcanic explosion in Tonga was equivalent to five to six million tonnes of TNT – and 500 times as powerful as the nuclear explosion in Hiroshima [NASA/NOAA via AFP]





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Twitter Suspends 300 Accounts Supporting Son Of Ex Philippines Dictator In Elections


Over 300 accounts were removed “for violating our platform manipulation and spam policy,” said Twitter.

Manila:

Twitter has suspended hundreds of accounts reportedly linked to supporters of Philippine presidential frontrunner Ferdinand Marcos Jr, which the social media giant said had violated its rules on manipulation and spam.

The son and namesake of the country’s former dictator is drawing support from a massive social media campaign seeking to get him elected in May, which critics say is attempting to rewrite the family’s history.

Twitter said it had reviewed the accounts and hashtags identified in a recent article by Philippine news site Rappler.

More than 300 accounts had been removed “for violating our platform manipulation and spam policy,” Twitter said in a statement sent to AFP Saturday.

Most of them had been taken down before the Rappler article was published on Tuesday and an investigation was ongoing, it said.

Filipinos are among the world’s heaviest users of social media and the country has become a key battleground for fake news.

“With the Philippine elections taking place this May, we remain vigilant about identifying and eliminating suspected information campaigns targeting election conversations,” Twitter said.

Marcos Jr’s spokesman Vic Rodriguez said there was “no certainty” that all the suspended accounts belonged to supporters of the presidential hopeful.

Election victory for Marcos Jr would mark the ultimate political comeback for the family, which was chased into exile in the United States after its patriarch’s humiliating downfall in 1986.

Marcos Sr and his wife Imelda were accused of massive corruption while in power.

Recent voter surveys show Marcos Jr holding a huge lead over his nearest rival and nemesis Leni Robredo, who is the incumbent vice president.

Rappler said Marcos Jr supporters were “looking to dominate Twitter” and that many of the accounts it investigated were created around the time he announced his bid for the presidency in October.

The accounts pushed the narrative that the Marcoses were “victims” of the 1986 revolt and their return to Malacanang presidential palace is “long overdue”, it added.

Twitter said sharing political content on an account or rallying people do so via hashtags was allowed, “unless the accounts are inauthentic, compensated or automated, which we see no clear evidence of in this case.”

Last Monday, the social media giant said it was expanding a test feature that will allow users in Brazil, Spain and the Philippines to report misleading content.

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)



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https://www.rt.com/news/546860-school-children-mask-rules/School children told cloth masks no longer good enough


Los Angeles school children will be forced to wear non-cloth masks ‘at all times’

The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) has implemented even stricter mask rules for school children, now requiring students to wear surgical and other high-grade face coverings over more comfortable cloth masks.

The school district announced that from Monday, “masking will be required at all times, indoors and outdoors,” and children will be required to wear “well-fitting, non-cloth masks with a nose wire.”

Shannon Haber, a spokeswoman for the district, told the Los Angeles Times that though Covid-19 rates in schools had dropped, the district is “continuing to be diligent and agile in creating the safest learning environment.”

Haber also claimed the change in mask rules was guided by California health authorities, who have ranked cloth masks as the “least effective” against Covid-19.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has introduced other strict policies for the Spring season, including weekly Covid-19 testing for students and employees “regardless of vaccination status,” daily health screenings, and the requirement for all children to be fully vaccinated and boosted.

“Vaccinations remain a key element in reducing the impact of COVID-19 on individuals and communities, and will be required for students 12 and older at the start of the Fall 2022 semester,” the district declared, noting that “anyone 5 years or older is eligible for the two-dose Pfizer vaccine” and that “booster shots are available for anyone 12 and older.”

While states and cities with Democrat governments have been largely in favor of masks for school children, several Republican states have banned them outright.

Last week, Virginia’s newly sworn-in Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin rescinded a mandate from his predecessor that required children to wear masks in schools, while some school districts across the US have given parents the opportunity to ‘opt out’ from child mask policies.

The state of Texas has been in a continuous fight to ban school mask policies, battling in court with federal judges who have attempted to reinstate them.



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‘Miserable and Dangerous’: A Failed Chinese Promise in Serbia


ZRENJANIN, Serbia — Seeking escape from grinding poverty in northern Vietnam, the 43-year-old farmer labored for years on construction sites in Kuwait and Uzbekistan before being offered a ticket to what he was told would be “the promised land” — Europe, and a job with a good salary.

“I wanted to go to the West to change my life,” the farmer, a father of three who asked that his name not be used to avoid retribution from his employer, recalled in an interview.

His life certainly changed: It got much worse.

The job turned out to be in Serbia, one of Europe’s poorest nations, with a Chinese company whose gigantic tire factory now under construction in the northern city of Zrenjanin has become a symbol of the chasm between the alluring promise of investment from China and the sometimes grim reality on the ground.

Touted as China’s biggest industrial investment in Europe, the $900 million Ling Long Tire factory is now a magnet of criticism for a Serbian government that opponents accuse of no-questions-asked subservience to China. Workers and activists say problems like human trafficking, prisonlike working conditions and environmental abuse are endemic.

About 400 Vietnamese work in Zrenjanin, along with hundreds more Chinese, who get higher salaries and better living conditions, according to the workers and local labor activists. The former farmer from Vietnam described his work conditions in Serbia as “miserable and dangerous,” and said he was housed in a decrepit shack crammed with other Vietnamese workers and bullied by Chinese supervisors.

The Ling Long Tire project first took shape in September 2018 during meetings in Beijing between Serbia’s populist president, Aleksandar Vucic, and Xi Jinping, China’s leader.

Mr. Xi, who has looked to Serbia as China’s most dependable European friend at a time when other nations are souring on his country, praised the Balkan nation as a “good, honest friend and good partner.”

Mr. Vucic predicted that the tire factory, which plans to produce more than 130 million tires a year in Zrenjanin, and other planned ventures would make Serbia “the port for Chinese investments throughout the region.”

Serbia says Chinese investment has helped it achieve economic growth of over 7 percent last year, among the highest in Europe.

But the furor over working conditions has set back Serbia’s yearslong effort to join the European Union, whose view of China has become increasingly jaundiced. The European Parliament last month demanded an investigation into treatment of Vietnamese laborers in Zrenjanin and voiced alarm “over China’s increasing influence in Serbia and across the Western Balkans.”

It has also aggravated what has become Mr. Vucic’s biggest political headache: public anger over damage to the environment widely blamed on the government’s drive to juice the economy at all costs. Tens of thousands of people gathered late last year for weeks of street protests across Serbia against the development of a lithium mine project by the Anglo-Australian company Rio Tinto. The protests forced a rare retreat by the government, which on Jan. 20 canceled licenses for the project.

Chinese ventures in Serbia, which include a smoke-belching steel works near Belgrade, the capital, and a copper mine and smelter in the southern town of Bor, have helped stoke this anger. Despite gushing praise of Beijing in the pro-government Serbian media, they have made China synonymous in the minds of many Serbs with environmental degradation.

But unlike Rio Tinto, highly vulnerable because of its links to Australia, a country widely reviled in Serbia after the recent expulsion of the tennis star Novak Djokovic, Chinese companies have enjoyed unwavering support from Mr. Vucic as indispensable for the creation of jobs and economic growth.

But Marina Tepic, a leader of the main opposition party, said in an interview that the tire factory would “provide a few jobs to Serbs but kill many more with its pollution.”

Strong support from the leaders of both Serbia and China, she added, has put the project largely off limits for government regulators and allowed construction workers there — deprived for a time of their passports, housed in squalor and fearful of retribution — to be kept in “modern slavery.”

The government denies protecting the Chinese project from scrutiny, with the construction minister, Tomislav Momirovic, declaring on a recent visit to Zrenjanin that the Chinese factory was Serbia’s most closely monitored building site. Officials say that Vietnamese workers have all been given their passports back and are now free to leave if they want.

A few of the workers have fled. But for most of them, leaving would mean breaking their contracts and leaving family members in Vietnam in hock to labor brokers and loan sharks who paid their way to Serbia, the workers say.

A statement from Ling Long Tire cited in Serbian media said the company was “committed to full respect for and a humane and dignified approach to all employees.” Yet it stressed that none of the construction workers are employees, and work for subcontractors. Ling Long said it had asked the contractors to provide better accommodations. The tire company did not immediately respond to requests for comment at its head office in China.

The Serbian government, which granted 240 acres of farmland free of charge to Ling Long Tire for its factory and pledged $85 million in state subsidies, says the factory will eventually generate 1,200 jobs. It declared the venture a “project of national importance,” a classification that critics see as a move to shield the venture from environmental and other inspectors.

“They behave as if the Chinese factory were a military site,” said Ivan Zivkov, a member of a network of activist groups in Zrenjanin that has been pressing the authorities, mostly unsuccessfully, to release information about the factory and its likely impact on the environment.

Zoran Dedic, a retiree in Zrenjanin who attended a recent public meeting hosted by Mr. Zivkov, said he did not object to foreign investment. But he expressed alarm that so much information about the Chinese tire factory, particularly future levels of pollution, had not been made public and that Ling Long, while donating money to send local children to soccer camp, had not engaged in serious discussion with residents.

“We know nothing about what is going on over there,” he said.

Marija Andjelkovic, the head of Astra, an independent group in Belgrade that monitors and lobbies against human trafficking, said she visited the construction site late last year and found Vietnamese workers sleeping in hovels without heat or clean water. “It was like a prison camp,” she said.

Labor contracts signed by Vietnamese workers with China Energy Engineering Group, a Ling Long subcontractor overseeing construction, commit each worker not to engage in trade union activities, and to “refrain from anything that would detract from his reputation or the reputation” of the Chinese company.

Even more restrictive are the terms set by recruitment agencies in Vietnam. One agency, Song Hy Gia Lai International, demanded that all workers going to Europe sign a document pledging never to go on strike or protest.

The document appears to have been copied and pasted from agreements originally drafted for laborers recruited in Vietnam for work in the Middle East: It warns that workers going to Serbia risk having their hands cut off if they steal.

Danilo Curkic, program director for A11, a Belgrade research group, said contracts signed by Vietnamese workers were “far away from anything that is legal under Serbian law” and left them in indentured servitude. “It is impossible that Serbian state authorities did not know what was happening,” he said.

One Vietnamese worker who spoke to a Serbian TV station in November about what he described as inhumane living conditions was taken in for questioning by the Serbian police — and released after signing a statement asserting that he had no complaints. Another who spoke to a Serbian media outlet was fired.

“This is all part of the process of intimidation,” Mr. Curkic said.

Vietnamese workers who agreed to be interviewed by The Times through an interpreter said they had lived for months in squalid barracklike shelters previously used by a local farm to raise pigs and chickens.

The former farmer from northern Vietnam said conditions had improved somewhat in recent weeks. Many workers now live in a two-story concrete block surrounded by a metal fence and watched over by Serbian security guards who bar entry to outsiders.

One resident, a 40-year-old Vietnamese construction worker who requested anonymity, said he shared a tiny room with seven others and that their kitchen was crawling with rats. Salaries of about $900 per month, higher than what he could earn in Vietnam, were often paid late and slashed for days not worked because of sickness or inclement weather, he said.

He previously worked for different Chinese companies for 15 years in Korea, Kuwait, Malaysia and Taiwan, but said he had never endured conditions as bad as at the Ling Long Tire construction site in Serbia.

“It’s like hell on Earth here,” he said.

Vo Kieu Bao Uyen contributed reporting from Hanoi, Vietnam.



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ICICI Bank Q3 profit rises 25%

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Batra said the bank made recoveries worth Rs 4,200 crore in Q3. “Amongst this Rs 4,200 crore, most of the recoveries have been from the retail side. We had about Rs 3,700 crore of recoveries from retail and about Rs 482 crore from the corporate and SME book,” he said.

Private-sector lender ICICI Bank on Saturday reported a 25.4% year-on-year (y-o-y) rise in standalone net profit to Rs 6,193.81 crore in the December quarter of FY22 on the back of a 23.4% y-o-y rise in net interest income (NII) to Rs 12,236 crore. The net interest margin (NIM) – a key measure of profitability – stood at 3.96%, down four basis points (bps) from 4% in the previous quarter. 

ICICI Bank’s total advances increased 16% y-o-y to Rs 8.14 lakh crore. The retail loan portfolio grew 19% y-o-y and constituted 61.3% of the total loan portfolio as on December 31, 2021. The domestic wholesale banking portfolio grew 13% y-o-y. Total deposits increased 16% y-o-y to Rs 10.17  lakh crore and the bank’s average current account savings account (CASA) ratio stood at 44.9%, up from 41.8% a year ago. Term deposits increased 12% to Rs 5.37 lakh crore. 

The bank’s management said it does not see the ongoing third wave of the pandemic as a threat. Sandeep Batra, executive director at the bank, said as things stand, the third wave may have created local disruptions. “We do not anticipate, at this point of time, any significant economic disruptions to the portfolio that we have. Anyway, from our perspective, we have a Covid provision which is about Rs 6,400 crore, which we have not released during the quarter. We will just wait for the third wave to probably subside,” Batra said.

Provisions fell 27% y-o-y to Rs 2,007 crore. The total fund based outstanding to all borrower accounts undergoing resolution under various regulatory schemes stood at Rs 9,684 crore, or 1.2% of total advances as on December 31, 2021, a similar level compared to September 30, 2021. The bank held provisions amounting to Rs 2,436 crore against these borrowers under resolution, as of December 31, 2021.

Additions to gross non-performing assets (NPA) fell to Rs 4,018 crore in the December quarter from Rs 5,578 crore in the September quarter. Retail slippages were at Rs 3,853 crore and that for corporate and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) stood at Rs 165 crore. ICICI Bank’s gross NPA ratio at the end of December stood at 4.13%, 69 bps lower than 4.82% at the end of September, while the net NPA ratio decreased 14 bps sequentially to 0.85%. 

Batra said the bank made recoveries worth Rs 4,200 crore in Q3. “Amongst this Rs 4,200 crore, most of the recoveries have been from the retail side. We had about Rs 3,700 crore of recoveries from retail and about Rs 482 crore from the corporate and SME book,” he said.

The bank’s total capital adequacy as on December 31, 2021 was 19.79% and the tier-1 capital adequacy was 18.81%, compared to the minimum regulatory requirements of 11.7% and 9.7%, respectively. ICICI Bank shares on the BSE closed at Rs 804.60 on Friday, down 0.66% from their previous close.

Financial Express Telegram Financial Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel and stay updated with the latest Biz news and updates.





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Kiribati and Samoa implement rare lockdowns after travelers test positive

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Tarawa atoll, Kiribati, is pictured in 2004. The Pacific island nations of Kiribati and Samoa have announced rare COVID-19 lockdowns after dozens of international travelers tested positive for the virus.

Richard Vogel/AP


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Richard Vogel/AP

Tarawa atoll, Kiribati, is pictured in 2004. The Pacific island nations of Kiribati and Samoa have announced rare COVID-19 lockdowns after dozens of international travelers tested positive for the virus.

Richard Vogel/AP

Kiribati and Samoa both implemented COVID-19 lockdowns on Saturday after international arrivals brought the virus with them, a rarity for the remote Pacific island nations.

This is the first pandemic lockdown in Kiribati, which had previously reported only two COVID-19 cases — both were people on a fishing ship in May 2021 who isolated on board. The country reopened its borders to international travel earlier this month for the first time in nearly two years.

Its government announced on Tuesday that 36 out of 54 passengers on a flight from Fiji had tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival, despite being vaccinated and testing negative three times during the pre-departure quarantine period. They were escorted to a quarantine center for further monitoring and testing. One of the frontline workers stationed outside the quarantine center also tested positive.

On Friday, the government confirmed a new case, this time from someone uninvolved with the quarantine center.

Based on the newest case, “there is now an assumption that COVID-19 is now spreading in the community on South Tarawa and Betio,” the government wrote on Facebook.

South Tarawa is part of Kiribati’s capital and home to about half of its population, or some 63,000 people.

A 24-hour curfew went into effect on Saturday and it’s not clear how long the lockdown will last.

Residents can only leave their homes to access emergency or essential services including hospitals, police departments, grocery stores and banks. Essential providers can only operate during certain hours, public transportation will not run, social gatherings are banned and travel between the outer islands is prohibited.

The government also urged residents to get vaccinated. Only about 53% of adults had received two doses as of late December, according to Radio Kiribati.

In Samoa, officials announced a 48-hour lockdown after 15 out of 73 passengers who arrived on a Wednesday flight from Brisbane, Australia, tested positive.

Samoa had previously confirmed just two COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic, according to the World Health Organization. Some 62% of its population is fully vaccinated.

Between Saturday and Monday, all residents except for essential workers are required to stay at home and off the roads. Businesses, schools and restaurants will be closed, travel is prohibited and mass gatherings are banned.

Agafili Tomaimano Shem Leo, the chairman of the National Emergency Operation Center, said that the “day dreaded by authorities for COVID-19 to invade Samoa is here,” according to the government statement.

“Our country is in a national emergency and our security is under siege from COVID-19,” he said, urging members of the public not to be complacent.

The government said that failure to comply with lockdown restrictions could result in a $2,000 fine.



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russia: US ‘lethal’ aid starts arriving in Ukraine – Times of India


US military aid to help Ukraine defend against a possible invasion by Russia has began arriving on Friday night, according to the American Embassy in Kyiv. The embassy, in a Twitter post, said the material “includes close to 200,000 pounds of lethal aid, including ammunition for the frontline defenders of Ukraine.” “The shipment — and $2.7 billion since 2014 — demonstrates U.S. commitment to helping Ukraine bolster its defenses in the face of growing Russian aggression,” the embassy said in another tweet.
Photos with the tweets showed large green containers being unloaded at an airport. The embassy did not elaborate, or indicate what else was included, but said it was a first shipment of “assistance recently directed by” President Joe Biden. The announcement was made at the end of an anxious week in which an assault on Ukraine by Russia seemed more likely.
A meeting in Geneva led by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov didn’t yield an agreement, though both sides agreed to continue talks. “If Russia wants to begin to convince the world that it has no aggressive intent toward Ukraine, a very good place to start would be de-escalating,” Blinken said Friday at the end of a three-day European trip.
Russia has assembled a large armed force on its border with Ukraine and sent troops and armour to Belarus, to Ukraine’s north, for joint military drills scheduled to begin Feburay 10. Putin has demanded security guarantees that would prevent Ukraine from ever joining the Nato and require the alliance to roll back its forces to positions they held in 1997, before Central and Eastern European nations joined Nato.
The US and its Nato allies have rejected those demands. Putin has said he has no plans to invade Ukraine.
With tens of thousands of Russian troops positioned near Ukraine, the Kremlin has kept the US and its allies guessing about its next moves in the worst security crisis to emerge between Moscow and the West since the Cold War. Amid fears of an imminent attack on Ukraine, Russia has further upped the ante by announcing more military drills in the region. It also has refused to rule out the possibility of military deployments to the Caribbean, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has reached out to leaders opposed to the West.





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Britain Says Moscow Is Plotting to Install a Pro-Russian Leader in Ukraine


KYIV — The British government said Saturday that the Kremlin was developing plans to install a pro-Russian leader in Ukraine — and had already chosen a potential candidate — as President Vladimir V. Putin weighs whether to order the Russian forces amassed on Ukraine’s border to attack.

The highly unusual public communiqué by the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, issued late at night in London, comes at a moment of high-stakes diplomacy between the Kremlin and the West. Russia has deployed more than 100,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders that could, according to American officials, attack at any moment.

“The information being released today shines a light on the extent of Russian activity designed to subvert Ukraine, and is an insight into Kremlin thinking,” Liz Truss, Britain’s foreign secretary, said in a statement. “Russia must de-escalate, end its campaigns of aggression and disinformation, and pursue a path of diplomacy.”

The British announcement was the second time in just over a week that a Western power publicly accused Russia of meddling in Ukraine’s internal affairs. The United States previously accused the Kremlin of sending saboteurs into eastern Ukraine to create a provocation that could serve as a pretext for invasion.

Saturday’s communiqué provided few details about how Russia might go about imposing a new government on Ukraine, and did not say whether such plans were contingent on an invasion by Russian troops. British officials familiar with the situation, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the intent was both to head off the activation of such plans as well as to put Mr. Putin on notice that this plot had been exposed.

In Washington, officials said they believe the British intelligence is correct. Two officials said it had been collected by British intelligence services. Within the informal intelligence alliance known as “Five Eyes,” Britain has primary responsibility for intercepting Russian communications, which is why it played a major role in exposing Russian interference in the 2016 elections.

Emily J. Horne, the spokeswoman for the U.S. National Security Council, said in a statement that “this kind of plotting is deeply concerning. The Ukrainian people have the sovereign right to determine their own future, and we stand with our democratically-elected partners in Ukraine.”

But the Russian foreign ministry denied the British accusation.

“The spread of disinformation by the British foreign ministry is one more piece of evidence that NATO countries, led by the Anglo Saxons, are escalating tensions around Ukraine,” it said in a statement. “We call on the British foreign ministry to stop its prevocational activities.”

Ukraine is in a state of high anxiety. In recent weeks several reports have emerged about plots and schemes aimed at destabilizing the government and tipping the country into war.In addition to warnings about Russian warmongering from the United States and Britain, Ukraine’s military intelligence agency recently said Russia had sent hundreds of mercenaries into two rebel eastern Ukrainian regions, and last November President Volodymyr Zelensky said Ukrainian intelligence had uncovered a Russian-backed coup plot involving a prominent Ukrainian oligarch.

At a security conference in Kyiv on Saturday, participants, most of them high ranking members of Ukraine’s political opposition, spoke darkly of fifth columnists and enemy collaborators.

“We are not just talking about large-scale aggression by Russia,” said Pavlo Klimkin, a former foreign minister. “We are talking about the wish of Russian officials, including Putin, to destroy Ukraine as such.”

The British communiqué provided no evidence to back up its assertion that Russia was plotting to overthrow the Ukrainian government. The communiqué also named four other Ukrainians, accusing them of maintaining ties to the Russian intelligence services, including Russian intelligence officers involved in the planning for an attack on Ukraine.

Of the five Ukrainians named, four fled Ukraine for Russia in 2014 following a popular uprising that ousted the Russian-backed government in Kyiv and touched off the separatist war in Ukraine’s east that continues today.

According to the British assessment, Russian planners were considering installing a former member of the Ukrainian Parliament named Yevgeniy Murayev as leader of a pro-Kremlin puppet government in Kyiv. Once a member of the Russian-backed Party of Regions, Mr. Murayev is now head of a political party called Nashi, part of a constellation of opposition parties opposed to Ukraine’s pro-Western parties. Last September, a massive banner with his photograph was hung on the facade of Federation of Trade Unions building on Kyiv’s Independence Square with the slogan “This is our Land.”

In a recent Facebook post he accused the current government in Kyiv of selling out to the United States, which he said was whipping up war hysteria to reap financial rewards from the sale of weapons.

“The hawks are looking forward to a feast,” he wrote.

It is not clear from the British statement whether Russia had informed Mr. Murayev that he was being considered as a possible future leader of Ukraine. But after a journalist with a British newspaper tipped him off about the revelations, he posted a photo of himself to Facebook posing as James Bond with the comment, “Details tomorrow.”

Russian spies maintain extensive networks of agents in Ukraine and contacts between Ukrainian officials and intelligence officers are not uncommon, according to Ukrainian and Western security officials

All four of the other Ukrainians named in the communiqué once held senior positions in the Ukrainian government and worked in proximity to Paul Manafort, former President Donald J. Trump’s campaign manager, when he worked as a political adviser to Ukraine’s former Russian-backed president, Viktor F. Yanukovych. After Mr. Yanukovych’s government fell in 2014, they fled to Russia.

One of those named, Vladimir Sivkovich, was among four Ukrainians targeted last week with sanctions by the United States Treasury Department for their ties to Russian efforts to destabilize Ukraine.

If the British assessment is accurate, it would not be the first time the Kremlin tried to install a pro-Russian leader or interfere in Ukraine’s government. In 2004, Russian efforts to fraudulently sway a presidential election set off what became known as the Orange Revolution, which forced a redo election that led to the defeat of Mr. Yanukovych, who was the Kremlin’s favored candidate.

In 2013, when the Kremlin pressured Mr. Yanukovych, who eventually was elected president, to back out of a trade pact with the European Union, Ukrainians again poured into the streets. Mr. Yanukovych was eventually driven from power, prompting Mr. Putin to order the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and instigate a separatist war in eastern Ukraine.

Russian officials have repeatedly denied any intention of launching an attack against Ukraine, dismissing such accusations as “hysteria” and claiming without providing evidence that it is the government in Kyiv that is seeking to escalate tensions. Even so the buildup of Russian troops on the border has continued. At least 127,000 soldiers now surround Ukraine to the north, east and west, Ukraine’s military intelligence service says, with additional troops from Russia’s Eastern Military District now pouring into neighboring Belarus.

The standoff is redolent of an old-fashioned Cold War showdown between Moscow and the West, with both sides trading accusations of war mongering and jockeying for geopolitical advantage. Though the confrontational tone was muted when Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken met his Russian counterpart for the latest round of talks in Geneva on Friday, there is as yet no end in sight.

Britain’s unusual disclosure comes at a time when it is trying to assert itself in the crisis on military and diplomatic fronts. It has delivered shipments of antitank weapons to the Ukrainian military, dispatched its senior ministers to NATO countries under threat from Russia and begun to engage directly with Russia.

Britain’s defense secretary, Ben Wallace, accepted an invitation from his Russian counterpart, Sergei K. Shoigu, to meet in Moscow, while the foreign secretary, Liz Truss, may meet with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov.

The disclosure also comes amid a swirling political scandal over Downing Street garden parties in 2020 that violated lockdown restrictions, which has mushroomed to such a degree that it threatens Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s hold on power.

Critics have suggested that Mr. Johnson may try to exploit the tensions with Russia — and Britain’s more assertive diplomatic and military role — as a way to deflect attention from his political woes.

Kenneth P. Vogel contributed reporting from Washington and Maria Varenikova reported from Kyiv.



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