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Russia planning to bomb port city of Odesa, claims Zelenskyy | Russia-Ukraine war News



No immediate comment by the Russian army after the Ukrainian president says an attack on the city of one million people would amount to ‘war crime’.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has claimed that Russian forces were preparing to bombard the major port city of Odesa on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast.

“They are preparing to bomb Odesa,” Zelenskyy said in a televised address on Sunday.

“Russians have always come to Odesa. They have always felt only warmth in Odesa. Only sincerity. And now what? Bombs against Odesa? Artillery against Odesa? Missiles against Odesa?” he continued, without elaborating. “It will be a war crime. It will be a historical crime.”

There was no immediate comment by Russia, which launched an invasion against Ukraine from air, land and sea on February 24.

Russian forces have since made progress, overrunning the city of Kherson and besieging the port of Mariupol, but Odesa has so far been largely spared.

INTERACTIVE Russia-Ukraine map Who controls what in Ukraine DAY 11
(Al Jazeera)

About a million people live in Odesa, a cosmopolitan harbour on Ukraine’s southern coast with both Ukrainian and Russian speakers and Bulgarian and Jewish minorities.

The Russian advance from occupied Crimea has in part turned east to link up with Russian-backed separatists and to seize the Sea of Azov port of Mariupol.

But a section of the forces has also headed west to Kherson, on the road towards Odesa. The city is also close to the Moldovan border and the disputed region of Transnistria.

“It’s the biggest seaport; 70 percent of our exports go through the sea,” Hanna Shelest, director of security programmes at the Ukrainian Prism think-tank, told Al Jazeera.

Reporting from Lviv, in western Ukraine, Al Jazeera’s Jonah Hull said a potential seizure of Odesa, along with other southern port cities, would “effectively turn Ukraine into a landlocked country”.

“It has been in the air for days now that the possibility is there – that the Russian forces that have been extending their gains north of Crimea, through Kherson and onwards through the town of Mykolaiv, may well try to double back on Odesa and join up with a naval landing from elements of the Black Sea fleet that have been hovering on the horizon there for several days,” he added.

“That’s been talked about – whether Zelenskyy is referring to specific intelligence or not it’s not clear.”

During the first 11 days of the conflict, Russian forces have also advanced on the capital, Kyiv, from the northwest and northeast, while another group bombarded the northern city of Kharkiv.

Several cities have been bombed and shelled and the United Nations says more than 1.5 million civilians have been driven from their homes by the fighting.

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For Russians, flying abroad is a difficult, costly affair | Aviation



When Russian academic Mishaa decided in March to flee his country amid rumours of martial law, his options were limited and expensive.

Cut off from Europe due to the European Union’s ban on Russian aircraft, Mishaa, who comes from the central Russian city of Yekaterinburg, looked further east, where many former Soviet republics offer Russians visa-free entry.

“I booked a flight to Armenia because I have many Armenian friends, I was sure there’d be a community here, and you don’t need a visa,” Mishaa told Al Jazeera, who asked to use a  pseudonym. “Armenians generally think positively of Russians; there’s less historical tensions than with Georgia, for instance.”

Mishaa paid 40,000 roubles ($599), far more than usual, for his one-way flight to the Armenian capital Yerevan, a trip of less than four hours.

“When I bought tickets Russia was still in SWIFT, so I could still use my normal bank cards. The price was huge – I paid around 40,000 rubles [$599] for a one-way trip,” he said. “That’s nonsense, something I would never have done in peacetime. Not everyone could actually book flights at that price – not everyone has spare cash or a steady job – so it’s also a question of a certain privilege.”

Now working remotely from Yerevan, Mishaa transfers his wages to Armenia using cryptocurrency, but for the most part, survives on the cash he managed to take before he left.

INTERACTIVE International flights from Russia

Since Russia launched its war on Ukraine, international travel for Russians has become expensive, difficult and patchy.

Russian aircraft have been banned from European and North American airspace, while the country’s Boeing and Airbus aircraft face the threat of repossession by Western leasing firms if they leave the country.

“The Russian airlines were forced to ‘steal’ them by the Russian government,” said Viktor Berta, vice president of aviation finance at ACC Aviation in London.

AerCap, the world’s largest leasing firm based in Dublin, Ireland, has filed a $3.5bn insurance claim for more than 100 of its jets stranded in Russia, which account for about five percent of its leased aircraft by value.

Domhnal Slattery, chief executive of the Dublin-headquartered aircraft leasing company Avolon, said in a quarterly financial statement that his company was able to repossess four aircraft earlier this year and will make every effort to recover 10 more still in Russia. Meanwhile, the company acknowledged a $304m loss to write down to zero the value of 10 aircraft that it might never get back.

Even so, Russian airlines have been slowly clawing their way back into international operations to countries that will accept flights.

International flights originating in Russia dropped from 1,126 per week when the war in Ukraine began on February 24 to 181 two weeks later, according to FlightRadar24. By the last week in April, international flights recovered to 379 for the week. Of these, 103 were to Turkey, with most of the remainder to a half-dozen former Soviet republics, including Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

INTERACTIVE Where are Russians flying to?

Russian-built Superjets are using Sochi as a hub for departures to destinations including Turkey, Egypt and Israel on a regular basis, according to FlightRadar24.

The 500 or so Western-built aircraft leased by Russian airlines are mostly not leaving the country because they could be repossessed by Western companies that own them, a Russian aviation expert told Al Jazeera, speaking on condition of anonymity.

However, the expert said that Russian airlines own some western aircraft outright and also paid off the loans on some others so they can be used in service outside of Russia. Russian airlines could also resort to grounding aircraft to harvest spare parts to keep other aircraft flying, he said.

Some older model Airbus A320s and Boeing 737-800s are being used in international service, according to FlightRadar24, even though Boeing and Airbus are no longer providing spare parts for aircraft based in Russia. Boeing and Airbus have also halted aircraft deliveries to Russia. Still, Russia’s Aeroflot has managed to keep some Boeing A330s in the air and, earlier this month, announced the resumption of regular flights to New Delhi, which has maintained warm relations with Moscow.

Marina, a 25-year-old IT professional from Moscow with a passion for travel, has managed to fly to Sri Lanka, Greece, Cyprus and the UK since the start of the conflict, although it has been far from straightforward.

Marina, who asked to use a pseudonym, had planned to go to Sri Lanka with her boyfriend on February 25, the day after Russia launched its invasion.

“At first we didn’t understand, but once we understood, we decided to go anyway, so if things got really bad, we’ll stay there,” she told Al Jazeera.

Boeing plane
Boeing and Airbus, the two largest suppliers of aircraft for Russian airlines, have ceased operations in Russia
[File: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg]

While in Sri Lanka, Marina and her partner decided to move to Cyprus, which would require them to travel through Moscow.

Marina and her partner booked tickets to Cyprus, via Bulgaria and Greece, on the same day Russia was kicked out of the SWIFT international payments system, rendering their bank cards practically useless. After turning to a friend at a bank that had not been sanctioned for help, the couple managed to withdraw part of their savings. Since then, they have been carrying around thousands of dollars in cash.

“At the Greek border, they asked us in detail about where we would live and how long we would stay,” she said.

“In Athens itself, there were no particular problems, except for the impossibility of paying by card and walking with ten thousand bucks in your pocket in the dodgy neighbourhood where we were staying, which was not fun.”

Mike Stengel of AeroDynamic Advisory, an aerospace industry management consulting firm in Ann Arbor, Michigan, said Russia’s aviation industry could end up like the one in Iran, “which has been able to maintain a fleet of Western-built aircraft using some back-end measures to keep them flying”.

“Russia has a commercially successful aerospace industry that still employs hundreds of thousands of people,” Stengel told Al Jazeera.

“It has produced aircraft in the past, so there is a history and infrastructure for designing and producing aircraft engines and aircraft components. It won’t be perfect and it would probably result in keeping a skeleton fleet of sorts, but they have a lot of the tools needed to make it work to keep western-built aircraft flying for decades.”

For Russians like Mishaa, who is opposed to the war in Ukraine, the country’s international isolation is at once understandable and troubling.

“The isolation was expected. What did they want? That all the European community will react modestly? I never believed that,” he said.

“I think that sanctions are fair in general, but of course I care about the economic conditions in my home country: how my parents will live there, my brother, my family. Of course sanctions will hit all of society, but it’s a kleptocratic, oligarchical mafia state, and the poor will suffer more.”

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Shireen Abu Akleh: Who said what in US Congress on slain reporter | Freedom of the Press News



Washington, DC – In a United States Congress that is largely unconditional in its support for Israel, many lawmakers have condemned the killing of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was fatally shot by Israeli forces on Wednesday.

Still, few Congress members mentioned Israel by name as the perpetrator of the deadly incident, while some legislators who serve in leading roles on foreign policy and press freedom panels ignored the shooting altogether.

Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat, has been the most outspoken.

The progressive lawmaker, who is of Palestinian descent, called for a moment of silence for the slain journalist on the floor of the House of Representatives on Wednesday and condemned the killing in several statements and media appearances.

“An American journalist clearly marked with press credentials was murdered. Doing and saying nothing just enables more killings,” she wrote in a tweet directed at President Joe Biden, invoking US military aid to Israel, which totals $3.8bn annually.

“Whether you’re Palestinian, American, or not, being killed with US funding must stop,” Tlaib said.

In a TV interview with Al Jazeera later on Wednesday, she also called for a US-led probe into the incident.

“We need to investigate, ourselves, the killing of an American citizen. Somebody that was out there being a guardian of truth and doing her job was murdered by an apartheid government that we continue to fund with unconditional aid,” she said.

Abu Akleh was a US citizen – a fact emphasised by several American officials.

Congressman Mark Pocan, a key House progressive, also suggested restricting US aid to Israel.

“Restrictions on aid may be necessary if human rights and universally acceptable norms can’t be followed,” he wrote on Twitter.

The congressional statements on the killing of Abu Akleh came from Democratic Party lawmakers, most of whom are part of the party’s progressive wing.

Al Jazeera was not able to find any statement by Republican legislators denouncing the killing.

Ilhan Omar, a left-wing, Muslim-American member of the House, was unambiguous in blaming Israel for the Palestinian journalist’s killing.

“She was killed by the Israeli military, after making her presence as a journalist clearly known,” she wrote on Twitter. “We provide Israel with $3.8 billion in military aid annually with no restrictions. What will it take for accountability for these human rights violations?”

Omar’s fellow Muslim lawmaker Andre Carson also called on the US government to “hold the Israeli government accountable for this and all other acts of unjust violence it commits”.

Several top Democrats joined progressive members of the party in paying tribute to Abu Akleh and calling for an investigation, but they did not point the finger at Israel.

“The killing of American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh is an horrific tragedy,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a staunch supporter of Israel, wrote on Twitter.

“A thorough, objective investigation is needed now. Congress is committed to the defense of press freedoms worldwide and protection of every journalist, particularly those in conflict zones.”

Senator Ben Cardin, a senior Democrat and outspoken backer of strong US-Israel ties, said he was “disturbed” by the killing of Abu Akleh.

“Abu Akleh’s death is an attack on a journalist who was wearing her press gear,” he said in a statement. “No journalist should be killed while simply doing their job. I strongly condemn her death and call for an independent and thorough investigation into the incident.”

Senator Chris Van Hollen also urged an independent probe into the incident.

So did Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut. “Veteran American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was simply doing her job when she was shot and killed early this morning,” he said in a statement on Wednesday.

“Her heartbreaking death should be considered an attack on freedom of the press everywhere. There must be a thorough investigation and full accountability for those responsible.”

Adam Schiff, chair of the House Intelligence Committee and co-chair of the Congressional Caucus for the Freedom of the Press, also called the fatal shooting of the Palestinian-American journalist a “terrible tragedy”.

“The Israeli military must conduct a thorough and objective investigation into Abu Akleh’s death, and be transparent about its findings,” Schiff said in a statement. “My prayers are with her family, with her colleague, Ali Al-Samudi, who was also wounded, and with members of the press everywhere who risk their lives to bring us the truth.”

Palestinian rights advocates have rejected calls by US officials for Israel to conduct its own investigation, arguing that the Israeli government should not be trusted to hold itself accountable for alleged war crimes.

Steve Chabot, the Republican co-chair of the Press Freedom Caucus, has not released any formal statement about the killing on his congressional webpage or social media accounts. His office did not return Al Jazeera’s request for comment by time of publication.

Congressman Andy Levin, a Jewish-American representative from Michigan, who is facing off in a primary against fellow Democratic incumbent Haley Stevens after redistricting, said he was “horrified” by the killing of Abu Akleh.

“Globally, in places as diverse as Palestine, Mexico and Russia, the international community must come together to defend the rights of the free press,” he wrote in a series of tweets.

Stevens, who is backed by numerous pro-Israel groups, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), has said nothing about the incident on her social media accounts or on her congressional website.

Debbie Dingell, another Michigan legislator, who represents a large Arab-American community, said press freedom is “paramount in any democracy”.

The chairs of the House and Senate foreign policy panels did not address the incident in formal statements. The House Foreign Affairs Committee shared Pelosi’s post on the killing via its Twitter account.

The fatal shooting of Abu Akleh coincided with a busy week in Washington, which is preoccupied with domestic issues, including a baby formula shortage and a failed attempt to pass legislation protecting abortion rights.

Ro Khanna, a House progressive representing a district in California, wrote in a social media post, “The killing of American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh is devastating and a blatant assault on the freedom of the press.”

New York Representative Yvette Clarke said the killing is “yet another reason why we need a path to a two-state solution in the region”.

Congresswoman Marie Newman, who often criticises Israeli abuses against Palestinians, said she was “extremely concerned by reports that Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh was shot and killed by Israeli forces while wearing a press vest and reporting in the West Bank”.

“We must protect the press and hold those accountable for this heinous crime,” she wrote on Twitter.

Congresswoman Cori Bush, a progressive supporter of Palestinian rights, condemned the “unacceptable attack”.

Congresswoman Betty McCollum, who has championed Palestinian human rights in Congress and introduced bills to restrict US aid to Israel, also said the killing must be “condemned and investigated”.

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‘Terrifying’: Days of terror under Colombia’s Gulf Clan cartel | Drugs News



Bogota, Colombia – “It was terrifying.”

That is how a resident of Tierralta, in Colombia’s northern department of Cordoba, described a days-long siege imposed earlier this month by one of the country’s largest paramilitary groups, the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (AGC), also known as the Gulf Clan.

From the morning of May 5 until midnight on May 9, the armed group enforced a self-declared “armed strike” across the country’s northwest in response to the extradition to the United States of its detained former leader Dairo Antonio Usuga, also known as Otoniel.

The Gulf Clan took control of 11 of Colombia’s 32 departments over the four-day span. It imposed strict lockdowns, shuttered local businesses, closed off roads, disrupted transportation links, and warned residents to stay inside or risk being shot or having their vehicles burned.

Several towns ran out of basic supplies such as food and gas, while local hospitals faced staff shortages. Elsewhere, families were stranded at transport terminals, unable to get home due to blocked roads, local media reported.

“You live with the concern that it could happen again tomorrow,” said another resident of Tierralta, Raul, who also asked to use a pseudonym because of security concerns. “Because the Gulf Clan are showing that they have the power to create fear,” he told Al Jazeera.

Otoniel capture in Colombia
Accused drug trafficker and Gulf Clan leader ‘Otoniel’ was captured in October of last year [File: Colombian President’s Office via AP Photo]

Hundreds of rights violations

The Gulf Clan’s armed strike took place three weeks before Colombians will vote for their next president, raising concerns about the possibility of repeated violence as the population heads to the polls on May 29.

“The government response to this event leaves people more dissatisfied with their ability to express their political ideas or to participate in democracy. This event is very, very detrimental to the quality of democracy in Colombia and to the local perceptions of security,” said Sergio Guzman, director of the Colombia Risk Analysis consultancy group.

During the course of the “strike”, the Gulf Clan committed at least 309 acts of violence, according to the Special Jurisdiction of Peace (JEP) tribunal, which also registered the forced closure of 26 roads, the destruction of at least 118 vehicles and the disruption of 54 transport terminals.

A total of 178 different municipalities in the country were under Gulf Clan control, with 138 of them under strict lockdown rules.

“They wanted to demonstrate their military strength to show that in many areas of the country they are the de facto authority and not the state,” said a JEP representative, who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity in order to speak freely.

The JEP was formed in the wake of a 2016 peace deal between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) group and the government, with a mandate to investigate, prosecute and punish those responsible for the most serious human rights violations.

Twenty-four civilians were killed during the “strike”, the JEP also said, and a further 15 attempted murders were recorded. The Ministry of Defence reported six deaths, while NGO Indepaz recorded 18 over the course of the strike.

The JEP official told Al Jazeera that three social leaders – a term used in Colombia to describe activists, community representatives and rights defenders – were among those killed.

‘Robust failure’

The Colombian government hailed Otoniel’s capture in October of last year and subsequent extradition to the US this month as a success – and a definitive blow to the Gulf Glan’s operations.

However, last week’s armed strike proved the group, which local NGO Pares has said counts as many as 3,260 members, is by no means on shaky ground, analysts said.

Since the 2016 peace agreement under which the FARC demobilised, armed groups such as the Gulf Clan have taken advantage of the power vacuum in much of Colombia’s rural areas. The Gulf Clan operates clandestinely in approximately 109 municipalities across the country, according to rights group Indepaz, but most predominantly in the north. It controls numerous drug trafficking routes and cocaine processing labs, and uses violence to extort and intimidate populations.

“This event underscores how much the government underestimated the nature of the [Gulf Clan’s] threat. This is very complicated for the government to somehow spin this towards anything but a robust failure of their security strategy,” Guzman told Al Jazeera.

Despite the strike being announced early on May 4, no military response from the government was seen until May 7, when troops were deployed to the affected Bolivar, Sucre, Cordoba and Antioquia regions to accompany vehicles and secure the roads. According to Ministry of Defence figures, more than 19,000 troops were deployed across the area.

Colombian President Ivan Duque
Colombia’s President Ivan Duque said the Gulf Clan carried out ‘cowardly attacks’ [File: Nathalia Angarita/Reuters]

“They seek to generate intimidation through isolated events and cowardly attacks, which they seek to maximise online and in the media,” President Ivan Duque told reporters last Saturday. “They are desperately trying to show a strength that they do not have.”

But Guzman said the Gulf Clan will “likely be emboldened by the lack of confrontation with the military”.

“The government doesn’t want to contribute to the ‘we are back to war’ narrative, so escalating the situation could not just have very significant collateral damage concerns, but could also subtract significantly from the government’s narrative that they’re keeping order in the country,” he said.

“The Gulf Clan just ripped a hole through the narrative by making it difficult for the government to assert its authority over one-third of its territory.”

Colombia’s Defence Ministry did not immediately respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

Meanwhile, the JEP representative described the government’s response as “not very efficient” while residents subjected to the four days under Gulf Clan control were equally critical, saying they felt abandoned.

“The state demonstrated that it is a weak institution that does not have the capacity to confront an armed group that has proven to have control of national territory and a great strength at the national level,” said Jose David Ortega, a resident and human rights defender in the city of Monteria, which was besieged by the group.

Raul, the Tierralta resident, added, “What hurts the most is that the state never came out to defend the rights of its citizens.”

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