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Blinken, Austin promise Ukraine more aid, return of US diplomats | Russia-Ukraine war News

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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin have met Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv, and announced additional military assistance for and the gradual return of American diplomats to the war-ravaged nation.

In the highest-level US visit to the capital since Russia invaded in late February, Blinken and Austin told Zelenskyy and his advisers on Sunday that Washington would provide more than $300m in foreign military financing and had approved a $165m sale of ammunition.

They also said US President Joe Biden would soon announce his nominee to be ambassador to Ukraine and that American diplomats who left Ukraine before the war would start returning to the country this coming week.

The US Embassy in Kyiv will remain closed for the moment.

Zelenskyy had announced Blinken and Austin’s visit on  Saturday, but the Biden administration refused to confirm that and declined to discuss details of a possible visit even though planning had been underway for more than a week.

Journalists who travelled with the US officials to Poland were barred from reporting on the trip until it was over, were not allowed to accompany them on their overland journey into Ukraine, and were prohibited from specifying where in southeast Poland they waited for the cabinet members to return.

Officials at the State Department and the Pentagon cited security concerns.

Austin and Blinken announced a total of $713m in foreign military financing for Ukraine and 15 allied and partner countries. Of that figure, some $322m is earmarked for Kyiv.

“It will provide support for capabilities Ukraine needs, especially the fight in the Donbas,” said one State Department official who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity. “This assistance will also help Ukraine’s armed forces transition to more advanced weapons and air defence systems, essentially NATO capable systems.”

The remainder will be split among NATO members and other nations that have provided Ukraine with critical military supplies since the war with Russia began, the officials said.

Such financing is different from previous US military assistance for Ukraine.

It is not a donation of drawn-down Defense Department stockpiles, but rather cash that countries can use to purchase supplies that they might need.

Day trips to Lviv

The new money, along with the sale of $165m in non-US made ammunition that is compatible with Soviet-era weapons the Ukrainians use, brings the total amount of US military assistance to Ukraine to $3.7bn since the invasion, officials said.

Zelenskyy had urged Blinken and Austin not to come empty-handed.

US officials said they believed the new assistance would satisfy at least some of the Ukrainians’ urgent pleas for more help.

New artillery, including howitzers, continues to be delivered at a rapid pace to Ukraine’s military, which is being trained on its use in neighbouring countries, the officials said.

On the diplomatic front, Blinken told Zelenskyy that Biden will announce his nomination of veteran diplomat Bridget Brink to be the next US ambassador to Ukraine.

A career foreign service officer, Brink has served since 2019 as ambassador to Slovakia.

She previously held assignments in Serbia, Cyprus, Georgia and Uzbekistan as well as with the White House National Security Council. The post requires confirmation by the US Senate.

Blinken also told Ukraine’s foreign minister that the small staff from the now-shuttered US Embassy in Kyiv, which has relocated to Poland from temporary offices in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, would begin making “day trips” to Lviv in the coming days.

“There’s no substitute for that face-to-face engagement, and of course there is a symbolism to being back in the country,” said the State Department official.

The US has also accelerated its review of security conditions in the capital, the officials said, adding that the State Department will reopen the embassy there as soon as the situation allows.

Biden has accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of genocide for the destruction and death wrought on Ukraine. Just on Thursday, Biden said he would provide a new package of $800m in military aid to Ukraine that included heavy artillery and drones. The US Congress approved $6.5bn for military assistance last month as part of $13.6bn in spending for Ukraine and allies in response to the Russian invasion.

From Poland, Blinken plans to return to Washington while Austin will head to Ramstein, Germany, for a meeting Tuesday of NATO defence ministers and other donor countries.

That discussion will look at battlefield updates from the ground, additional security assistance for Ukraine and longer-term defense needs in Europe, including how to step up military production to fill gaps caused by the war in Ukraine, officials said.

More than 20 nations are expected to send representatives to the meeting.

The Ukrainian officials participating in Sunday’s meeting in Kyiv were Zelenskyy, Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba, Defense Minister Olexiy Reznikov, Ambassador Oskana Markarova, presidential administration head Andriy Yermak, chief of defense Valerii Zaluzhnyi, and Andrii Sybiya of Zelenskyy’s office.

Representing the United States in addition to Blinken and Austin were State Department deputy chief of staff Tom Sullivan, senior military assistant Lieutenant General Randy George and Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary Laura Cooper.



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Voters head to polls open in close-run Australian election | Elections News

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Sydney, Australia – Polls have opened in the Australian election, with a tight contest expected between the incumbent Liberal-National coalition of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the opposition Labor party under Anthony Albanese.

Labor have led opinion polls throughout the campaign, but the gap has narrowed with Morrison’s coalition making up ground ahead of election day.

Morrison is aiming to become the first Prime Minister to win two elections in a row since John Howard in 2004.

Voting is compulsory in Australia and just over 17.2 million people have enrolled to vote according to the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC).

Record numbers of voters have already cast their ballots at early voting centres or via postal votes, and more than half of the total votes had been cast by Friday evening, according to the commission. Polls close across the country at 6pm, which is 08:00 GMT in Sydney and 10:00 GMT on the west coast.  The result could be known as soon as Saturday evening.

Narrowing polls and the emergence of independent candidates has raised the possibility of a hung parliament.

Labor or the Liberal-National coalition require 76 seats in the lower house to form a government, anything less and they would need to negotiate with smaller parties and independents in order to try and form a minority government.

A man in a wetsuit and surf board joins the queue to vote at a Bondi Beach polling station
A strong showing for independents could lead to a hung parliament, amid disatisfaction over the major parties’ positions on climate change [Mark Baker/AP Photo]

The campaign has focused heavily on the rising cost of living, with Australia experiencing its highest inflation rate in 21 years, and the central bank raising interest rates.

Morrison has argued that his handling of the economy is a major reason for voters to back him again, pointing to record low unemployment rates.

He is also proposing a scheme to allow young people early access to their superannuation funds to buy property and get a foot on the housing ladder.

Concerned for future

Labor, meanwhile, has attacked the government’s economic record, highlighting how wages are not growing fast enough to meet the increased cost of living.

“As a recent grandfather I am concerned about the future generations and the economic policies of the major parties aren’t addressing that,” Brian Silver, a teacher voting in Sydney told Al Jazeera.

The rising cost of living is filtering into all areas of life, with voters concerned about the impacts on their everyday expenditure.

“Childcare is a key issue for me. I really need it, I need to know it is available but it is just so expensive”, said Lauren, who preferred only to share her first name, outside a polling station in North Sydney.

Opposition leader Anthony Albanese cuddles a dog and laughs as he meets supporters outside a polling station in Melbourne in M
Opposition leader Anthony Albanese (centre) is hoping voters will back Labor to form the government for the first time since 2013 [Wendell Teodoro/AFP]

Australians have also expressed increasing concern about climate change.

The country has seen its effects first-hand, with Morrison’s time in charge dominated by extreme bushfires in 2019-20 and recent major flooding in Queensland and New South Wales.

Many of the independent candidates in the election have campaigned solely on the basis of climate change, offering different solutions to the problem compared with the two major parties.

“Climate change is something we really need to look at, especially getting electric cars into Australia. We need a fast uptake of them and we need charging stations to be created. That is something the government can do,” Tim, who preferred only to share his first name, told Al Jazeera ahead of voting in North Sydney.

A high number of independent candidates are running in traditionally Liberal seats, with high profile and well funded campaigns raising their profiles.

“I’m voting for the independent here, Kylea Tink”, explained Katie Archer, a voter in North Sydney.

“I really like her policies when it comes to climate change, I think she is really progressive. Whereas Scott Morrison, it just always feels like he is caring for himself and his own back and not putting the population first.”

Attitudes and policies towards Indigenous peoples are also on the agenda at this election, with Aboriginal groups continuing to demand land rights and recognition as the nation’s first people in the constitution.

It is an issue which could also add to the drift away from the two main parties.

“Whilst both Liberal and Labor point fingers at one another over who is doing the least for First Nations people, the minor parties such as The Greens and the newly formed Indigenous Party of Australia are offering more tangible-practical policies and solutions to effect change to our most marginalised and oppressed communities around the country,” said Indigenous activist Lynda-June Coe.

On the eve of election day, a number of high profile Australian newspapers endorsed either Morrison or Albanese.

There was support in the more right-wing and business press for Morrison and his Liberal-National coalition, with both The Australian and The Australian Financial Review calling for the Prime Minister to be re-elected, with the latter describing him as ‘Australia’s best bet’.

Meanwhile, The Age newspaper, based in the second biggest city of Melbourne, gave its backing to Labor in an editorial titled; ‘For integrity’s sake, Australia needs a change of government’.

The Sydney Morning Herald, its sister publication, also backed Albanese, saying that ​​’on balance, the nation needs a change’.



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US judge blocks Biden’s plan to end Title 42 border expulsions | Migration News

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A judge in the United States has blocked the Biden administration’s plan to end a contentious immigration policy that allows US authorities to turn away most asylum seekers arriving at the country’s southern border with Mexico.

US District Judge Robert Summerhays issued a nationwide injunction on Friday barring US President Joe Biden’s administration from lifting the policy known as Title 42. It was expected to be rescinded on May 23.

“That means Title 42 will not end anytime soon,” tweeted Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, senior policy counsel at the American Immigration Council, about the federal judge’s decision.

The ruling comes after two dozen US states sued the Biden administration over its plan, arguing that Title 42 should remain in place because proper consideration was not given to likely increases in border crossings and other issues.

The Justice Department said in a brief statement on Friday evening that it plans to appeal.

Former US President Donald Trump’s administration first invoked Title 42 in March 2020 as COVID-19 swept through the country, arguing it aimed to help prevent the spread of the virus.

But last month, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said the measure was “no longer necessary”, and the Department of Homeland Security said it would end its use at the border.

“CDC has now determined, in its expert opinion, that continued reliance on this authority [Title 42] is no longer warranted in light of the current public-health circumstances. That decision was a lawful exercise of CDC’s authority,” the Justice Department said in Friday’s statement.

More than 1.9 million Title 42 expulsions have been carried out since the restriction was put in place, with the vast majority of asylum seekers quickly expelled back to Mexico or their countries of origin without the chance of applying for asylum in the US.

Rights advocates and immigration experts have been calling on the Biden administration to end the use of Title 42, which they say violates US and international law and puts already vulnerable asylum seekers at risk of kidnapping, torture, rape and other violence in Mexico.

‘Seeking asylum is a legal right’

Human rights groups denounced Friday’s ruling as an affront to the right to seek asylum.

“This lawsuit only serves to prevent vulnerable families and children facing unspeakable violence, persecution, and exploitation from exercising their legal right to seek asylum,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), a resettlement agency.

“Beyond the devastating humanitarian impact of Title 42, the ruling also fails to recognize well-established domestic and international law. Seeking asylum is a legal right, and yet this bedrock of the American legal system is quickly eroding at a time of unprecedented need,” Vignarajah said in a statement.

Asylum seekers hug near the US-Mexico border wall
Rights groups have denounced Title 42 as a violation of US and international law [File: Go Nakamura/Reuters]

Al Otro Lado, a migrant support and advocacy group that works in the southern US and Mexico, also denounced the decision as extending suffering at the border.

“Parents are sending their children across the border alone to save their lives. This is #Title42 + its extension only means indefinite suffering,” the group said on Twitter.

“Title 42 has caused enormous harm to people seeking safety. Continuing to manipulate this public health law is beyond cruel,” the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also said.

For their part, several Republican officials hailed the ruling, painting it as a setback for Biden’s immigration plans, which they said aim to weaken border security.

Senator Bill Cassidy, who represents Louisiana, invoked his support for Judge Summerhays’s nomination under former President Trump in welcoming the decision.

“A Louisiana judge just halted Biden’s disastrous plan to make the border crisis worse by repealing Title 42. We need to give Border Patrol the tools they need to secure the border, not take them away,” he wrote on Twitter. “Proud to say I supported Judge Summerhays’ nomination.”

“Our request to stop the Biden Administration from revoking Title 42 was just granted by a federal judge,” tweeted Jason Miyares, Virginia’s attorney general, adding that it was “a HUGE win for securing our border”.

Political pressure

Biden has faced growing political pressure from Republicans and even some members of his Democratic Party over Title 42, especially as the country prepares for critical midterm elections in November.

Al Jazeera’s Manuel Rapalo, reporting from Mexico City, said that political debate in Washington over immigration “is very much on the minds” of the thousands of migrants and asylum seekers waiting on the Mexican side of the border.

“Just this week there were demonstrations outside of the US consulate in Tijuana [in northern Mexico] by migrants who were pleading to US officials to lift Title 42,” Rapalo said on Friday.

“One thing that is of concern here in Mexico is that … Title 42 has been used as a pretext to interrupt the traditional asylum process in the United States, and while that asylum process remains slowed down … those numbers of migrants and asylum seekers continue to pile up here in Mexico, putting more pressure on the resources available to the Mexican government.”

Meanwhile, rights advocates also have criticised the US president and his Democratic party for failing to overturn some of his predecessor’s hardline, anti-immigration policies – despite holding a slim majority in Congress.

“President Biden could have ended Title 42 and all of Trump’s inhumane and immoral policies as soon as he took office in January 2021,” Tami Goodlette, director of litigation at RAICES, an immigration legal services organisation in Texas, said in a statement shared by the group on Twitter.

“Instead, he surrounded himself with centrist advisors who coddled his fears on immigration reform and embraced deterrence as their central priority on immigration.”





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US urges probe, accountability for Shireen Abu Akleh’s killing | Israel-Palestine conflict News

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Washington, DC – The US State Department has renewed calls for a “thorough and transparent” investigation into the killing of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was fatally shot by Israeli forces last week, but stopped short of calling for an independent probe.

A day after the Israeli military said it will not launch a criminal inquiry into the incident, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Friday that Washington continues to call for a meaningful probe that will lead to accountability.

“Again, we’ve been clear that there must be a transparent and credible investigation of Ms. Abu Akleh’s killing and that any such investigation must include accountability,” he said.

The slain journalist was a US citizen.

Price did not address Israel’s refusal to conduct such an investigation. Last week, he said the Israeli government has the “wherewithal and the capabilities to conduct a thorough, comprehensive investigation” into the killing of Abu Akleh.

The administration of President Joe Biden had condemned the fatal shooting, but its expressed trust in an Israeli investigation into what happened has sparked anger and demands for an independent or US-led probe.

Earlier on Friday, 57 members of Congress sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and FBI Director Christopher Wray urging US involvement in the investigation.

Signatories to the letter – all Democrats – include some vocal supporters of Israel as well as members of the progressive wing of the party.

“Given the tenuous situation in the region and the conflicting reports surrounding the death of Ms. Abu Akleh, we request the State Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) launch an investigation into Ms. Abu Akleh’s death,” the letter reads.

“We also request the US Department of State determines whether any US laws protecting Ms. Abu Akleh, an American citizen, were violated.

“As an American, Ms. Abu Akleh was entitled to the full protections afforded to US citizens living abroad.”

The Pentagon on Friday appeared to rule out the US military’s participation in any investigation into the killing, saying that there is no indication of a need for such involvement.

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met with his Israeli counterpart Benny Gantz on Thursday, and a Pentagon readout describing their talks did not make any mention of Abu Akleh.

“The secretary [Austin] brought up the issue and they discussed it, and he welcomed the Israeli government’s willingness to investigate,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said on Friday, more than 24 hours after the Israeli military said it will not pursue a criminal investigation into the incident.

The killing of Abu Akleh in Jenin in the occupied West Bank has reignited calls for reassessing US military aid to Israel.

The Al Jazeera journalist is the second American citizen to be killed by Israeli forces this year. In January, 78-year-old Omar Assad suffered a stress-induced heart attack after he was arbitrarily arrested, bound, blindfolded and gagged by Israeli forces.

Israel receives $3.8bn in US military aid annually, and this year Washington added another $1bn in assistance to “replenish” Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system after the May 2021 Gaza conflict.

Late on Thursday, progressive Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said US assistance should not fund human rights violations anywhere, including in Palestine.

“It’s really important for us to have eyes on what happened with Shireen Abu Akleh in Palestine. She was killed by Israeli forces – a venerated journalist, a US citizen,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a video broadcast on social media.

The congresswoman rejected accusations of singling out Israel for criticism, highlighting the role of US aid in the conflict.

“We can’t even get health care in the United States, and we’re funding this,” she said of rights abuses against Palestinians. “There has to be some sort of line that we draw; it has to stop at some point.”





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