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Black Friday Faces Green Backlash in Belgium

Black Friday deals have prompted a backlash in Belgium where some businesses rejected promotions and chose to close for the day or even offered to repair used clothes for free.

At the Xandres clothing store, in the Flemish city of Ghent, a sign on the window read “Green Friday – closed on November 25 – get your clothes repaired for free.”

Signs in the apparel chain’s outlets have invited customers in recent weeks to take torn or worn clothing to the store to get it repaired for free. On Friday company staff were fixing customers’ clothes at the company’s headquarters.

In the coming days, customers can collect their repaired clothing at the company’s stores.

“The idea behind Black Friday is to buy as much clothing as possible at the biggest discount possible. That does not match our sustainability philosophy,” Xandres Chief Executive Patrick Desrumaux, 50, told Reuters.

“You cannot buy anything at all from us today. All our shops are closed, the web shop is closed and instead of selling we are going to grant a longer life to clothes by repairing all the clothes that were brought in,” he said.

Many shoppers in the medieval port city could not agree more.

“If I need something, I’ll buy it when I need it. I don’t believe in Black Friday prices. I’ve always had the feeling we’re being ripped off: first prices go up, then you get a discount on that,” said retired florist Bart Vanderelsken.

Xandres was not the only outlet resisting the Black Friday frenzy.

Home and garden accessories chain Dille & Kamille closed all its shops in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, as well as its web shop, and suggested customers take a nature walk, feed the birds or volunteer at environmental organizations.

“You will find happiness in nature, not in discounts,” read a sign on its Ghent shop.

Tycho Van Hauwaert, a circular economy expert at environmental group BBL, said he expects more stores will join the Green Friday trend as consumers make the link between their purchasing behavior and climate change.

“Black Friday only fans the flame of consumption of throwaway goods … circularity should become the norm, which means products that last longer, products that can be repaired, products that are recyclable,” he said.

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UK: Russia Likely Removing Nukes to Fire Aging, Unarmed Munitions at Ukraine

“Russia is likely removing the nuclear warheads from ageing nuclear cruise missiles and firing the unarmed munitions at Ukraine,” Britain’s Defense Ministry said Saturday in an intelligence update posted on Twitter about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Open source imagery shows wreckage of an apparently shot-down AS-15 KENT air launched cruise missile (ALCM), designed in the 1980s exclusively as a nuclear delivery system. The warhead had probably been substituted for ballast.”

The ministry said, “Although such an inert system will still produce some damage through the missile’s kinetic energy and any unspent fuel, it is unlikely to achieve reliable effects against intended targets. Russia almost certainly hopes such missiles will function as decoys and divert Ukrainian air defenses.”

“Whatever Russia’s intent,” the British agency said, “this improvisation highlights the level of depletion in Russia’s stock of long-range missiles.

Ukrainian authorities have worked to restore power throughout the country, making some progress to repair the electric grid following Russian missile attacks, but are still unable to immediately help millions of Ukrainians in the dark.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly address Friday that workers had managed to halve the number of people whose electricity had been cut off since Wednesday. However, he said 6 million Ukrainians were still without power.

National power grid operator Ukrenergo said on Telegram on Friday, “Repairs crews are working around the clock.”

It said 30% of electricity supplies were still out, and asked people to conserve energy.

Zelenskyy also pleaded with people to cut back on the amount of energy they use.

“If there is electricity, this doesn’t mean you can turn on several powerful electrical appliances at once,” he said.

Russian forces unleashed yet another devastating missile barrage against Ukraine on Wednesday, causing Kyiv’s biggest outages since the invasion began nine months ago.

Ukraine said the attacks are clearly intended to harm civilians, making them a war crime. Russia has said it targets only military-linked infrastructure and has blamed Kyiv for the blackouts.

The weather forecast across much of Ukraine for coming days calls for rain and snow and temperatures in the single digits, Celsius.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said Friday that Russian missile attacks on civilian infrastructure are leaving the country’s population without heat, lights and food in a “horrific start” to the winter.

Speaking in Brussels, Stoltenberg said Russian President Vladimir Putin “is failing in Ukraine, and he is responding with more brutality.”

Stoltenberg said NATO would continue to stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes. He said the members of the alliance have been “providing unprecedented military support” and other aid for Ukraine.

NATO countries have also been delivering fuel, generators, medical supplies, winter equipment and drone-jamming devices, he said, but added that more will be needed as winter closes in, particularly as Russia continues to target Ukraine’s energy infrastructure.

In other developments Friday, missiles struck the recently liberated city of Kherson for the second day.

At least 11 people were killed in the strikes, which began Thursday and continued into Friday, according to The Associated Press.

Russia withdrew its forces from the city two weeks ago, however Russian troops remain on the other side of the Dnieper River, where they can fire missiles at Kherhson.

On the diplomatic front, European leaders pledged more support for Ukraine.

British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly announced a new aid package for Ukraine during his visit to Kyiv on Friday.

The package — worth about $60 million, according to Britain — includes radar and other technology to counter the Iranian-supplied exploding drones that Russia has used against Ukrainian targets, especially the power grid. The aid comes on top of a delivery of more than 1,000 surface-to-air missiles that Britain announced earlier in November.

“Words are not enough. Words won’t keep the lights on this winter. Words won’t defend against Russian missiles,” Cleverly said in a tweet about the military aid. He added that “as winter sets in, Russia is continuing to try and break Ukrainian resolve through its brutal attacks on civilians, hospitals, and energy infrastructure.”

France will send 100 high-powered generators to Ukraine to help people get through the winter, French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna also announced Friday. She said Russia is “weaponizing” winter and plunging Ukraine’s civilian population into hardship.

In addition to European aid, the United Nations humanitarian office said the global body and its partners were sending hundreds of generators to Ukraine to help Kyiv in its efforts to keep people warm and maintain essential services, such as health care. The World Health Organization said it is sending generators to hospitals in Ukraine.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk said Friday he was shocked at the depth of civilian suffering caused by the bombing, amid broader allegations of abuses.

“Millions are being plunged into extreme hardship and appalling conditions of life by these strikes,” Türk said in a statement Friday.

“Taken as a whole, this raises serious problems under international humanitarian law, which requires a concrete and direct military advantage for each object attacked,” he said.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty contributed to this report. Some material for this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.

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At Least 8 Die in Italian Landslide

Italian officials say eight people on the island of Ischia have died in a landslide caused by heavy rains. 

A wave of mud in Casamicciola Terme, one of the island’s six towns, engulfed at least one house and swept several cars out to sea. 

Two occupants of one of the cars were reported to have been rescued. 

Earlier reports said that 13 people were missing, including a newborn.  

Officials have asked residents who live in the island’s other towns, but have not been affected by the landslide, to stay home to avoid hindering the rescue operation. 

Ischia is a volcanic island in the Tyrrhenian Sea, and is about 30 kilometers from Naples, the nearest major city.

Emergency workers from Naples have been dispatched to the island, but the weather conditions are making it difficult to reach the island. 

In 2017, an earthquake in Casamicciola Terme killed two people. 

 

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Ukraine Gradually Restores Power After Russian Strikes

Ukrainian authorities have worked to restore power throughout the country, making some progress to repair the electric grid following Russian missile attacks but are still unable to immediately help millions of Ukrainians in the dark.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly address Friday that workers had managed to halve the number of people whose electricity had been cut off since Wednesday. However, he said 6 million Ukrainians were still without power.

National power grid operator Ukrenergo said on Telegram on Friday, “Repairs crews are working around the clock.”

It said 30% of electricity supplies were still out and asked people to conserve energy.

Zelenskyy also pleaded with people to cut back on the amount of energy they use.

“If there is electricity, this doesn’t mean you can turn on several powerful electrical appliances at once,” he said.

Russian forces unleashed yet another devastating missile barrage against Ukraine on Wednesday, causing Kyiv’s biggest outages since the invasion began nine months ago.

Ukraine said the attacks are clearly intended to harm civilians, making them a war crime. Russia has said it targets only military-linked infrastructure and has blamed Kyiv for the blackouts.

The weather forecast across much of Ukraine for coming days calls for rain and snow and temperatures in the single digits, Celsius.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said Friday that Russian missile attacks on civilian infrastructure are leaving the country’s population without heat, lights and food in a “horrific start” to the winter.

Speaking in Brussels, Stoltenberg said Russian President Vladimir Putin “is failing in Ukraine, and he is responding with more brutality.”

Stoltenberg said NATO would continue to stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes. He said the members of the alliance have been “providing unprecedented military support” and other aid for Ukraine.

NATO countries have also been delivering fuel, generators, medical supplies, winter equipment and drone-jamming devices, he said, but added that more will be needed as winter closes in, particularly as Russia continues to target Ukraine’s energy infrastructure.

In other developments Friday, missiles struck the recently liberated city of Kherson for the second day.

At least 11 people were killed in the strikes, which began Thursday and continued into Friday, according to The Associated Press.

Russia withdrew its forces from the city two weeks ago, however Russian troops remain on the other side of the Dnieper River, where they can fire missiles at Kherhson.

On the diplomatic front, European leaders pledged more support for Ukraine.

British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly announced a new aid package for Ukraine during his visit to Kyiv on Friday.

The package — worth about $60 million, according to Britain — includes radar and other technology to counter the Iranian-supplied exploding drones that Russia has used against Ukrainian targets, especially the power grid. The aid comes on top of a delivery of more than 1,000 surface-to-air missiles that Britain announced earlier in November.

“Words are not enough. Words won’t keep the lights on this winter. Words won’t defend against Russian missiles,” Cleverly said in a tweet about the military aid. He added that “as winter sets in, Russia is continuing to try and break Ukrainian resolve through its brutal attacks on civilians, hospitals, and energy infrastructure.”

France will send 100 high-powered generators to Ukraine to help people get through the winter, French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna also announced Friday. She said Russia is “weaponizing” winter and plunging Ukraine’s civilian population into hardship.

In addition to European aid, the United Nations humanitarian office said the global body and its partners were sending hundreds of generators to Ukraine to help Kyiv in its efforts to keep people warm and maintain essential services, such as health care. The World Health Organization said it is sending generators to hospitals in Ukraine.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk said Friday he was shocked at the depth of civilian suffering caused by the bombing, amid broader allegations of abuses.

“Millions are being plunged into extreme hardship and appalling conditions of life by these strikes,” Türk said in a statement Friday.

“Taken as a whole, this raises serious problems under international humanitarian law, which requires a concrete and direct military advantage for each object attacked,” he said.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty contributed to this report. Some material for this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.

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World Economic Outlook for 2023 Increasingly Gloomy

The outlook for the global economy headed into 2023 has soured, according to a number of recent analyses, as the ongoing war in Ukraine continues to strain trade, particularly in Europe, and as markets await a fuller reopening of the Chinese economy following months of disruptive COVID-19 lockdowns.

In the United States, signs of a tightening job market and a slowdown in business activity fueled fears of a recession. Globally, inflation grew and business activity, especially in the eurozone and the United Kingdom, continued to shrink.

In an analysis released Thursday, the Institute of International Finance predicted a global economic growth rate of just 1.2% in 2023, a level on par with 2009, when the world was only beginning its emergence from the financial crisis.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) agrees with the pessimistic forecast. In a report issued this week, the organization’s interim Chief Economist Alvaro Santos Pereira wrote, “We are currently facing a very difficult economic outlook. Our central scenario is not a global recession, but a significant growth slowdown for the world economy in 2023, as well as still high, albeit declining, inflation in many countries.”

U.S. interest rates

In the U.S., inflation and the Federal Reserve’s efforts to combat it have been the dominant factors in most analyses of the current and future states of the economy.

The U.S has been experiencing its highest levels of inflation in 40 years, with prices beginning to jump significantly in mid-2021. By the beginning of 2022, annualized rates were over 6%, and while fluctuating a bit, touched a high of 6.6% in October.

Beginning in March, the central bank’s Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), which sets base interest rates, has engaged in a dramatic series of increases, raising the benchmark rate from between 0.0% and 0.25% to between 3.75% and 4.0% today.

The idea behind the Fed’s moves is to change consumers’ incentives. By making the interest rates on savings more appealing, and the rates on borrowing less so, the central bank is working to reduce demand and thereby slow the rate of price increases.

In general, the Fed believes that an annual 2% rate of inflation is healthy and considers that its long-term target.

Avoiding a recession

The Fed’s goal is to get inflation under control without plunging the economy into a damaging recession. And while a number of economic signs indicate that efforts to slow demand might be working, the threat of a recession still looms.

Evidence released this week showed that business activity in the U.S. contracted for a fifth consecutive month as companies reacted to decreased consumer demand. Although the economy has continued to add jobs in recent months, applications for unemployment benefits are on the rise, suggesting a potential softening in the labor market.

The Federal Reserve this week released the minutes from the early November meeting of the FOMC. The minutes revealed a pessimistic view among the central bank’s staff economists about the U.S. economy in the coming year.

Among their findings was that they “viewed the possibility that the economy would enter a recession sometime over the next year as almost as likely as the baseline.”

A “substantial majority” of the voting members of the committee indicated that they believe it is time to slow the rate of interest rate increases, suggesting that the FOMC will retreat from its recent 0.75% increases when it meets in December, perhaps raising rates by just 0.5%.

Global struggle

Internationally, governments are facing a difficult challenge: supporting their citizens during a time when prices are rising dramatically, particularly for necessities like food and fuel, which have been deeply affected by the war in Ukraine.

In a report this week, the International Monetary Fund pointed to the difficult balancing act governments must manage, saying, “With many people still struggling, governments should continue to prioritize helping the most vulnerable to cope with soaring food and energy bills and cover other costs — but governments should also avoid adding to aggregate demand that risks dialing up inflation. In many advanced and emerging economies, fiscal restraint can lower inflation while reducing debt.”

According to the Institute of International Finance (IIF), while global growth will be low but net positive in 2023, specific areas will face declines. Chief among them is Europe, where the IIF forecasts a 2.0% decline in cumulative GDP.

Bright spots

To the extent that there are bright spots in the global economy in 2023, they are in areas such as Latin America and China.

Many countries of Latin America, where the export of raw materials, including timber, ore, and other major economic inputs drives many economies, global inflation has proved beneficial insofar as the prices for those goods have risen. The IIF report projects a 1.2% expansion in GDP across the region, even as much of the remainder of the world sees economic contraction.

China has suffered economically as a result of President Xi Jinping’s “zero-COVID” strategy, which has forced massive lockdowns of whole cities and regions, with serious disruption to economic activity. The IFF and other organizations expect significant loosening in China’s policy in the coming year, which will lead to economic growth of as much as 2.0% as the Chinese economy attempts to revive itself.

U.K. to suffer

With the exception of Russia, which is still laboring under crushing sanctions related to its invasion of Ukraine, the United Kingdom faces the gloomiest outlook for the coming year of any of the world’s largest economies.

With inflation running significantly ahead of other countries, annualized price increases are expected to touch 10% by the end of the year, before slowly moderating in 2023.

Among the G-7 countries, the U.K. is the only one in which economic output has not returned to pre-pandemic levels, and it is forecast to shrink further. The OECD projects that the British economy will decline in size by 0.3% in 2023 and will grow at only 0.2% in 2024.

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London to Expand Vehicle Pollution Zone to Cover 9 Million People

Older and more heavily polluting vehicles will have to pay to enter the entire metropolitan area of London starting next August, the British capital’s mayor said Friday.

Sadiq Khan said the ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ) would be expanded beyond its current confines starting August 29 to encompass the entire 9 million people of greater London.

Announcing a parallel expansion of bus services in outer London, he argued that air pollution from older and heavier vehicles was making Londoners “sick from cradle to the grave.”

The ULEZ has proved transformational, the mayor said, and its extension would mean “5 million more people will be able to breathe cleaner air and live healthier lives.”

But the plan has prompted a fierce backlash from political opponents and some residents in the capital, who point to a survey indicating that most Londoners opposed extending the zone.

The two-month outreach exercise was held earlier this year by Transport for London, which runs the capital’s various transport systems. The survey heard from 57,913 people, including nearly 12,000 campaigners on either side of the issue.

Although it found 55% of respondents had “some concern” about their local air quality, the survey also recorded 59% as opposed to the ULEZ being expanded.

That rose to 70% in the outer London areas set to be part of the enlargement.

“Sadiq Khan has broken his promise to listen to Londoners,” the Conservative grouping in London’s lawmaking assembly said on Twitter.

“He must U-TURN on the ULEZ expansion.”

The zone has been expanded once since it was introduced in April 2019 and currently covers a large area within London’s North and South Circular inner ring-roads and the city center.

Unless their vehicles are exempt, drivers entering the zone must pay a daily charge of $15.

Gasoline cars first registered after 2005, and diesel cars after September 2015, typically meet the ULEZ standards for nitrous oxide emissions and are exempt.

Air pollution caused around 1,000 annual hospital admissions for asthma and serious lung conditions in London between 2014 and 2016, according to a 2019 report.

A coroner ruled in 2020 that air pollution made a “material contribution” to the death of a 9-year-old London girl in 2013, the first time in Britain that air pollution was officially listed as a cause of death.

Air pollution is “affecting children before they’re even born, and giving them lifelong health issues,” the campaign group Mums for Lungs tweeted.

“Good news for the health of all Londoners,” it said in response to the ULEZ announcement.

Billionaire businessman Michael Bloomberg, a U.N. climate envoy and former mayor of New York, said Khan was “helping to clean London’s air and set an example for cities around the world.”

But opponents of the ULEZ argue it amounts to a tax on poorer drivers least able to afford to replace their polluting vehicles and has hurt small businesses.

The announcement will be “a hammer-blow for desperate drivers and businesses already struggling with crippling fuel costs” during a cost-of-living crisis, said the head of roads policy for motoring body the RAC, Nicholas Lyes.

All cars and vans entering central London during the daytime also pay a “congestion charge” of 15 pounds, a measure first introduced in 2003.

Similar programs have been set up in several other British towns and cities to reduce emission levels and improve air quality.

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EU Ministers Endorse New Migrant Plan After France-Italy Spat

European interior ministers welcomed Friday an EU plan to better coordinate the handling of migrant arrivals, after a furious argument over a refugee rescue boat erupted between Italy and France.

France has accused Italy of failing to respect the law of the sea by turning away the vessel operated by a non-governmental organization earlier this month, triggering crisis talks in Brussels to head off a new EU dispute over the politically fraught issue.

All sides described the meeting as productive, although Czech Interior Minister Vit Rakusan, whose country holds the EU presidency, later said all participants had agreed that “more can and must be done” to find a lasting solution.

The ministers will gather again at a Dec. 8 meeting to pursue the “difficult discussion,” he said.

European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas, the commissioner charged with “promoting our European way of life,” said Europe could no longer settle for just another ad hoc solution.

“We cannot continue working event-by-event, ship-by-ship, incident-by-incident, route-by-route,” he said.

The numbers of asylum-seekers are still far lower than the levels of 2015 and 2016, but the dispute has undermined a stop-gap pact to redistribute arrivals more evenly around the 27-nation bloc.

Brussels has been struggling for years to agree and implement a new policy for sharing responsibility for migrants and asylum-seekers, but the recent argument has brought the issue to the fore.

Earlier this month, Italy’s new government under far-right leader Georgia Meloni refused to allow a Norwegian-flagged ship to dock with 234 migrants rescued from the Mediterranean.

The Ocean Viking eventually continued to France, where authorities reacted with fury to Rome’s stance, suspending an earlier deal to take in 3,500 asylum-seekers stranded in Italy.

The row undermined the EU’s interim solution and led to Paris calling Friday’s extraordinary meeting of interior ministers from the 27 member states.

“The Ocean Viking crisis was a bit of improvisation,” Schinas admitted, defending the new plan from his commission to better coordinate rescues and migrant and refugee arrivals.

“We have 20 specific actions, we have an important political agreement, everyone is committed to working so as not to reproduce this kind of situation.”

The previous plan was drawn up after Mediterranean countries closer to North African shores, like Italy and Greece, complained that they were shouldering too much responsibility for migrants.

A dozen EU members agreed to take in 8,000 asylum seekers — with France and Germany accepting 3,500 each, but so far just 117 relocations have happened.

On Monday, the European Commission unveiled a new action plan to better regulate arrivals on the central Mediterranean Sea route.

It was not well-received by aid agencies. Stephanie Pope, an expert on migration for aid agency Oxfam, dubbed Brussels’ plan “just another reshuffle of old ideas that do not work.”

And a European diplomat said that plan “contains nothing new, so it isn’t going to solve the migration issue.”

The ministers nevertheless accepted it, and Schinas said it should prevent more crises as Europe once again attempts to negotiate a global migration plan that would have the force of EU law.

The plan would see Brussels work more closely with Tunisia, Libya and Egypt to try to stop undocumented migrants boarding smuggler vessels in the first place.

While France and Italy argue about high-profile cases of dramatic sea rescues in the central Mediterranean, other EU capitals are more concerned about land routes through the Balkans.

Almost 130,000 undocumented migrants are estimated to have come to the bloc since the start of the year, an increase of 160%, according to the EU border force Frontex.

Greek Interior Minister Notis Mitarachi, meanwhile, complained that Turkey is not complying with a 2016 migration agreement that includes taking back migrants who are not entitled to asylum. 

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US Bans Huawei, ZTE Equipment Sales, Citing National Security Risk

The Biden administration has banned approvals of new telecommunications equipment from China’s Huawei Technologies HWT.UL and ZTE 000063.SZ because they pose “an unacceptable risk” to U.S. national security.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said Friday it had adopted the final rules, which also bar the sale or import of equipment made by China’s surveillance equipment maker Dahua Technology Co 002236.SZ, video surveillance firm Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology Co Ltd 002415.SZ and telecoms firm Hytera Communications Corp Ltd 002583.SZ.

The move represents Washington’s latest crackdown on the Chinese tech giants amid fears that Beijing could use Chinese tech companies to spy on Americans.

“These new rules are an important part of our ongoing actions to protect the American people from national security threats involving telecommunications,” FCC Chairperson Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement.

Huawei declined to comment. ZTE, Dahua, Hikvision and Hytera did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Rosenworcel circulated the proposed measure — which effectively bars the firms from selling new equipment in the United States — to the other three commissioners for final approval last month.

The FCC said in June 2021 it was considering banning all equipment authorizations for all companies on the covered list.

That came after a March 2021 designation of five Chinese companies on the so-called “covered list” as posing a threat to national security under a 2019 law aimed at protecting U.S. communications networks: Huawei, ZTE, Hytera Communications Corp Hikvision and Dahua.

All four commissioners at the agency, including two Republicans and two Democrats, supported Friday’s move.

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Putin Decries Media ‘Lies’ at Meeting with Soldiers’ Mothers 

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday criticized what he said were skewed media portrayals of Moscow’s military campaign in Ukraine as he met with mothers of Russian soldiers fighting there. 

“Life is more difficult and diverse than what is shown on TV screens or even on the internet. There are many fakes, cheating, lies there,” Putin said. 

The meeting with more than a dozen women came as uncertainty persists over whether enlistment efforts may resume in the face of recent battlefield setbacks. 

Putin said that he sometimes speaks with troops directly by telephone, according to a Kremlin transcript and photos of the meeting. 

“I’ve spoken to [troops] who surprised me with their mood, their attitude to the matter. They didn’t expect these calls from me … [the calls] give me every reason to say that they are heroes,” Putin said. 

Some soldiers’ relatives complained of not being invited to the meeting, and they have directly criticized Putin’s leadership as well as the recent “partial mobilization” that defense officials said resulted in 300,000 reservists being called up. 

‘We are waiting’

Olga Tsukanova of the Council of Mothers and Wives, a movement formed by relatives of mobilized soldiers, said in a video message on the Telegram messaging app that authorities had ignored queries and requests from her organization. 

“We are here in Moscow, ready to meet with you. We are waiting for your reply,” she said, addressing Putin directly. 

“We have men in the ministry of defense, in the military prosecutor’s office, powerful guys in the presidential administration … and mothers on the other side. Will you start a dialogue or will you hide?” she said in her message.  

Unconfirmed reports by some Russian media outlets suggested that some of the women meeting with Putin on Friday were members of pro-Kremlin social movements, the ruling United Russia party, or local officials backing Putin’s government. 

Valentina Melnikova of the Union of Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers, a Russian rights organization, told the independent Verstka publication earlier this week that its members were also not invited to the meeting. 

Since October, relatives of mobilized soldiers have organized protests in more than a dozen Russian regions, calling on the authorities to release their relatives from front-line duty and ensure they had appropriate food rations, shelter and equipment. 

Reports by the AP, independent Russian media and activists have suggested that many of the mobilized reservists are inexperienced, were told to procure basic items such as medical kits and flak jackets themselves and did not receive proper training before deployment. Some were reported killed within days. 

Concerns persist in Russia about whether the Kremlin may renew its mobilization efforts, as Ukrainian forces continue to press a counteroffensive in the country’s south and east. Moscow has suffered a string of battlefield setbacks, losing territory in the northeastern Kharkiv and southern Kherson regions. 

While Russian officials last month declared the “partial mobilization” complete, critics have warned it could resume after military enlistment offices are freed up from processing conscripts from Russia’s annual fall draft.

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US Official Urges ‘De-escalation’ as Turkey Strikes Syria

A U.S. official in Syria on Friday called for an “immediate de-escalation” following days of deadly airstrikes and shelling along the Syria-Turkey border, saying the actions destabilize the region and undermine the fight against the Islamic State group. 

Turkey this week launched a wave of airstrikes on suspected Kurdish rebels hiding in neighboring Syria and Iraq, in retaliation for a deadly November 13 bombing in Istanbul that Ankara blamed on the Kurdish groups. 

The groups denied involvement in the bombing and said the Turkish strikes had killed civilians and threatened the anti-IS fight. 

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, said that 67 civilians, gunmen and soldiers had been killed in Turkish attacks in northern Syria since the airstrikes began. 

Nikolas Granger, the U.S. senior representative to northeastern Syria, said Washington “strongly opposes military action that further destabilizes the lives of communities and families in Syria and we want immediate de-escalation.” 

The developments are “unacceptably dangerous and we are deeply concerned,” said Granger, who is currently in Syria. He added that the strikes also were endangering U.S. military personnel there. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened a new land invasion of northern Syria targeting Kurdish groups. On Friday, he said Turkey would continue its “struggle against all kinds of terror inside and outside our borders.” 

Turkey and the United States both consider the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a terror group for the decades-long insurgency and attacks the group has staged within Turkey’s borders. 

But they disagree on the status of the main Kurdish militia in Syria, the People’s Protection Units, or YPG. The Syrian Kurdish group has been a key U.S. ally in the fight against IS. 

Turkey has carried out three major incursions into northern Syria since 2016 and its forces still control part of the country. 

Kurdish officials in Syria have been warning that any new Turkish incursion would disrupt the fight against IS, which still has sleeper cells and has carried out deadly attacks in recent months against the Syrian Kurdish-led opposition forces as well as Syrian government forces. 

“We take these threats seriously and prepare to confront any ground attacks,” Siamand Ali, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, told The Associated Press.

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Musk Plans to Relaunch Twitter Premium Service, Again

Elon Musk said Friday that Twitter plans to relaunch its premium service that will offer different colored check marks to accounts next week, in a fresh move to revamp the service after a previous attempt backfired.

It’s the latest change to the social media platform that the billionaire Tesla CEO bought last month for $44 billion, coming a day after Musk said he would grant “amnesty” for suspended accounts and causing yet more uncertainty for users.

Twitter previously suspended the premium service, which under Musk granted blue-check labels to anyone paying $8 a month, because of a wave of imposter accounts. Originally, the blue check was given to government entities, corporations, celebrities and journalists verified by the platform to prevent impersonation.

In the latest version, companies will get a gold check, governments will get a gray check, and individuals who pay for the service, whether or not they’re celebrities, will get a blue check, Musk said Friday.

“All verified accounts will be manually authenticated before check activates,” he said, adding it was “painful, but necessary” and promising a “longer explanation” next week. He said the service was “tentatively launching” Dec. 2.

Twitter had put the revamped premium service on hold days after its launch earlier this month after accounts impersonated companies including pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly & Co., Nintendo, Lockheed Martin, and even Musk’s own businesses Tesla and SpaceX, along with various professional sports and political figures.

It was just one change in the past two days. On Thursday, Musk said he would grant “amnesty” for suspended accounts, following the results of an online poll he conducted on whether accounts that have not “broken the law or engaged in egregious spam” should be reinstated.

The yes vote was 72%. Such online polls are anything but scientific and can easily be influenced by bots. Musk also used one before restoring former U.S. President Donald Trump’s account.

“The people have spoken. Amnesty begins next week. Vox Populi, Vox Dei,” Musk tweeted Thursday using a Latin phrase meaning “the voice of the people, the voice of God.”

The move is likely to put the company on a crash course with European regulators seeking to clamp down on harmful online content with tough new rules, which helped cement Europe’s reputation as the global leader in efforts to rein in the power of social media companies and other digital platforms.

Zach Meyers, senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform think tank, said giving blanket amnesty based on an online poll is an “arbitrary approach” that’s “hard to reconcile with the Digital Services Act,” a new EU law that will start applying to the biggest online platforms by mid-2023.

The law is aimed at protecting internet users from illegal content and reducing the spread of harmful but legal content. It requires big social media platforms to be “diligent and objective” in enforcing restrictions, which must be spelled out clearly in the fine print for users when signing up, Meyers said.

Britain also is working on its own online safety law.

“Unless Musk quickly moves from a ‘move fast and break things’ approach to a more sober management style, he will be on a collision course with Brussels and London regulators,” Meyers said.

European Union officials took to social media to highlight their worries. The 27-nation bloc’s executive Commission published a report Thursday that found Twitter took longer to review hateful content and removed less of it this year compared with 2021.

The report was based on data collected over the spring — before Musk acquired Twitter — as part of an annual evaluation of online platforms’ compliance with the bloc’s voluntary code of conduct on disinformation. It found that Twitter assessed just over half of the notifications it received about illegal hate speech within 24 hours, down from 82% in 2021.

The numbers may yet worsen. Since taking over, Musk has l aid off half the company’s 7,500-person workforce along with an untold number of contractors responsible for content moderation. Many others have resigned, including the company’s head of trust and safety.

Recent layoffs at Twitter and results of the EU’s review “are a source of concern,” the bloc’s commissioner for justice, Didier Reynders tweeted Thursday evening after meeting with Twitter executives at the company’s European headquarters in Dublin.

In the meeting, Reynders said he “underlined that we expect Twitter to deliver on their voluntary commitments and comply with EU rules,” including the Digital Services Act and the bloc’s strict privacy regulations known as General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR.

Another EU commissioner, Vera Jourova, tweeted Thursday evening that she was concerned about news reports that a “vast amount” of Twitter’s European staff were fired.

“If you want to effectively detect and take action against #disinformation & propaganda, this requires resources,” Jourova said. “Especially in the context of Russian disinformation warfare.”

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At 9-Month Mark of Invasion, Zelenskyy Says Russia Won’t ‘Break Us’

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Thursday in his nightly address, nine months to the day into Russia’s full-scale invasion, that the enemy had failed to find a way to “break us, and will not find one,” adding the Ukrainian military was holding “key lines” in all directions.

He said that Ukrainian advances were planned in some unnamed areas.

The grim nine-month milestone came with much of Ukraine still plunged in darkness and without reliable water supplies as a result of a furious series of Russian missile attacks on civilian infrastructure that cut off power all over the country Wednesday.

“Together we have endured nine months of full-scale war and Russia has not found any way to break us, and it will not find one,” Zelenskyy said.

He said Russian forces were heavily bombing the city of Kherson, which occupying forces abandoned earlier this month. It was the only regional capital they have captured so far in the full-scale invasion.

Zelenskyy said “almost every hour” brings reports of new Russian air strikes on the city, and seven people had been killed and 21 more wounded there Thursday, according to local officials.

“Such terror began immediately after the Russian Army was forced to flee from the Kherson region. This is the revenge of the losers,” Zelenskyy said. “They do not know how to fight. The only thing they can do for now is terrorize. Either energy terror, or artillery, or missile terror — that’s all that Russia has degraded to under its current leaders.”

Zelenskyy said Ukrainian troops “are holding key milestones in all directions…and there are directions in which we are preparing to move forward.”

He said the Russian side appeared to be transferring additional forces to certain areas.

RFE/RL was unable to confirm battlefield claims and casualty reports on either side in areas of heavy fighting.

The Ukrainian Army’s General Staff reported that the Russians have “intensified counter-sabotage and policing measures” in the occupied area of Skadovskiy in the Kherson region.

It said Russian troops were also strengthening fortification equipment and logistical support of advanced units in the Kherson, Kryviy Rih, and Kryvorizka areas.

It said Russians were concentrating their main efforts on offensives in the areas of Bakhmut and Avdiyivka.

Some information for this story came from Reuters.

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Twitter, Others Slip on Removing Hate Speech, EU Review Says

Twitter took longer to review hateful content and removed less of it in 2022 compared with the previous year, according to European Union data released Thursday.

The EU figures were published as part of an annual evaluation of online platforms’ compliance with the 27-nation bloc’s code of conduct on disinformation.

Twitter wasn’t alone; most other tech companies signed up to the voluntary code also scored worse. But the figures could foreshadow trouble for Twitter in complying with the EU’s tough new online rules after owner Elon Musk fired many of the platform’s 7,500 full-time workers and an untold number of contractors responsible for content moderation and other crucial tasks.

The EU report, carried out over six weeks in the spring, found Twitter assessed just over half of the notifications it received about illegal hate speech within 24 hours, down from 82% in 2021.

In comparison, the amount of flagged material Facebook reviewed within 24 hours fell to 64%, Instagram slipped to 56.9%, and YouTube dipped to 83.3%. TikTok came in at 92%, the only company to improve.

The amount of hate speech Twitter removed after it was flagged slipped to 45.4% from 49.8% the year before. TikTok’s removal rate fell by a quarter to 60%, while Facebook and Instagram saw only minor declines. Only YouTube’s takedown rate increased, surging to 90%.

“It’s worrying to see a downward trend in reviewing notifications related to illegal hate speech by social media platforms,” European Commission Vice President Vera Jourova tweeted. “Online hate speech is a scourge of a digital age and platforms need to live up to their commitments.”

Twitter didn’t respond to a request for comment. Emails to several staff on the company’s European communications team bounced back as undeliverable.

Musk’s $44 billion acquisition of Twitter last month fanned widespread concern that purveyors of lies and misinformation would be allowed to flourish on the site. The billionaire Tesla CEO, who has frequently expressed his belief that Twitter had become too restrictive, has been reinstating suspended accounts, including former President Donald Trump’s.

Twitter faces more scrutiny in Europe by the middle of next year, when new EU rules aimed at protecting internet users’ online safety will start applying to the biggest online platforms. Violations could result in huge fines of up to 6% of a company’s annual global revenue.

France’s online regulator Arcom said it received a reply from Twitter after writing to the company earlier this week to say it was concerned about the effect that staff departures would have on Twitter’s “ability maintain a safe environment for its users.”

Arcom also asked the company to confirm that it can meet its “legal obligations” in fighting online hate speech and that it is committed to implementing the new EU online rules. Arcom said that it received a response from Twitter and that it will “study their response,” without giving more details.

Tech companies that signed up to the EU’s disinformation code agree to commit to measures aimed at reducing disinformation and file regular reports on whether they’re living up to their promises, though there’s little in the way of punishment.

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France Takes First Step to Add Abortion Right to Constitution

Lawmakers in France’s lower house of parliament on Thursday adopted a bill to enshrine abortion rights in the country’s constitution, the first step in a lengthy and uncertain legislative battle prompted by the rollback of abortion rights in the United States. 

The vote was 337-32 in the 557-member National Assembly. 

To be added into the constitution, any measure must be first approved by majorities in the National Assembly and the upper house, the Senate, and then in a nationwide referendum. 

Authors of the proposal, from a left-wing coalition, argued the measure was aimed at “protecting and guaranteeing the fundamental right to voluntary termination of pregnancy.” 

Abortion in France was decriminalized under a key 1975 law, but there is nothing in the constitution that would guarantee abortion rights. 

Mathilde Panot, head of the hard-left France Unbowed group at the National Assembly and co-signatory of the proposal, said that “our intent is clear: we want not to leave any chance to people opposed to the right to abortion.” 

French Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti said the centrist government supports the initiative. 

He referred to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June, which eliminated the federal constitutional right to abortion and left the decision to the states. 

“The right to abortion we thought was acquired for 50 years [in the U.S.] was in reality not at all acquired,” he said. 

A recent poll showed that more than 80% of the French population supported the right to abortion. The results were consistent with those in previous surveys. The same poll also showed that a solid majority of people were in favor of enshrining it in the constitution. 

Centrists’ proposal dropped

French President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist alliance, Renaissance, on Thursday decided to withdraw a similar proposal that was meant to be debated Monday also in the National Assembly. Centrist and leftist lawmakers agreed instead on supporting a single bill saying that “the law guarantees the effectiveness and equal access to the right to voluntary termination of pregnancy.” 

Success isn’t guaranteed for supporters of the bill. The Senate, where the conservative party, the Republicans, has a majority, rejected a similar bill in September. The Republican senators argued the measure was not needed since the right to abortion was not under threat in France. 

Dupond-Moretti said he was “hopeful” that some senators could change their minds and form a majority in favor. 

He and other proponents of constitutional change argue that French lawmakers should not take any chances on fundamental rights, since it is easier to change the law than the constitution. 

The right to abortion enjoys broad support across the French political spectrum, including from Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally. Yet Le Pen in recent days said she was opposed to the leftist proposal because she thought it could lead to extending or abolishing the time limit at which a pregnancy can be terminated. 

Following the U.S. Supreme Court decision in June, Macron had tweeted that “abortion is a fundamental right for all women. It must be protected.”

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UK Nurses Join Other Striking Staff in 2 December Walkouts

Nurses across most of Britain will next month hold the first strikes in their union’s 106-year history, joining a host of other U.K. workers taking industrial action over pay.

Staff in England, Wales and Northern Ireland — but not Scotland — will walk out on Dec. 15 and 20, after the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) union said the government had turned down an offer of negotiations.

It will be the latest industrial action in Britain, where decades-high inflation and a cost-of-living crisis have prompted staff in various sectors to demand pay increases to keep up with soaring prices.

The nurses’ strike will be sandwiched between the first of a series of two-day walkouts by national railway workers, while postal service employees will stage fresh stoppages in the run-up to Christmas.

Numerous other public and private sector staff, from lawyers to airport ground personnel, have also held strikes this year.

“Nursing staff have had enough of being taken for granted, enough of low pay and unsafe staffing levels, enough of not being able to give our patients the care they deserve,” said RCN head Pat Cullen.

The union, which wants a pay raise significantly above inflation, announced earlier this month that a ballot of its more than 300,000 members had found a majority in favor of strikes.

“Ministers have had more than two weeks since we confirmed that our members felt such injustice that they would strike for the first time,” Cullen said, adding that an offer of formal negotiations was declined.

“They have the power and the means to stop this by opening serious talks that address our dispute.”

The RCN will next week announce which particular arms of Britain’s sprawling state-funded National Health Service (NHS) will be affected by the walkouts.

Amid the waves of industrial action, British inflation has continued its recent surge, reaching a 41-year high of 11.1% in October on jumps in energy and food costs.

Bosses in the NHS said in September that nurses were skipping meals to feed and clothe their children and struggling to afford rising transportation costs.

One in four hospitals had set up foodbanks to support staff, according to NHS Providers, which represents hospital groups in England.

The government says it has accepted independent pay recommendations and given over 1 million NHS workers a pay increase of at least $1,590 this year.

In Scotland, the union has paused announcing strike action after the devolved government in Edinburgh, which has responsibility for health policy, reopened pay talks.

Other U.K. health unions are also balloting workers for industrial action, while ambulance staff in Scotland are due to walk out Monday.

Meanwhile, across the wider economy, numerous sectors are set to continue their strikes into the new year. 

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US Organizations Helping France Reconstruct Notre Dame Cathedral

More than three years since a devastating fire burned parts of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, reconstruction is underway, and organizations from the United States are helping. Karina Bafradzhian has the story.

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Russian Duma Gives LGBTQ ‘Propaganda’ Bill Final Approval 

Russian lawmakers on Thursday gave their final approval to a bill that significantly expands restrictions on activities seen as promoting gay rights in the country, another step in a years-long crackdown on the country’s embattled LGBTQ community.

The new bill expands a ban on what authorities call “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” to minors, established by legislation dubbed the “gay propaganda” law. It was adopted by the Kremlin in 2013 in an effort to promote “traditional values” in Russia.

This year, the lawmakers moved to ban spreading such information to people aged 18 and older.

The bill was approved in the third and final reading on Thursday by the State Duma, the lower house of parliament. It will go next to the upper house, the Federation Council, and then to President Vladimir Putin, whose signature will give it legal force.

The new bill outlaws all advertising, media and online resources books, films and theater productions deemed to contain such “propaganda,” a concept loosely defined in the bill. The 2013 ban was often enacted against any depictions of same-sex unions and used as a tool to crack down on LGBTQ rights groups and activists.

Violations are punishable by fines. If committed by non-residents, they can lead to their expulsion from Russia. The fines range from 100,000 to 2 million rubles ($1,660-$33,000). For some violations, foreigners could face 15 days’ detention prior to expulsion.

The bill does not make violations a criminal offense. Russian law stipulates that the criminal code can be amended only through an independent bill. Some lawmakers have suggested they favor such a measure.

Russia explicitly outlawed same-sex marriages in 2020 by adopting amendments to the country’s Constitution that, among other things, stipulated that the “institution of marriage is a union between a man and a woman.”

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Chinese Refugees in Italy Wary of Beijing Outposts

Chinese refugees in Italy, some of whom are dissidents, are increasingly wary of the presence of what appear to be four outposts of Beijing’s security apparatus operating without official diplomatic trappings, according to experts.

Beijing acknowledges the presence of the so-called “police stations” in Rome, Milan, Florence and Prato, which were first revealed by Safeguard Defenders, a human rights organization based in Spain, in September.

The 110 overseas offices, named after China’s emergency telephone line similar to 911 in the U.S., operate in cities with significant Chinese populations and are affiliated with civic associations in Chinese cities or provinces.

The Chinese government has denied the outposts are police stations, describing them more as service centers for Chinese citizens living overseas.

Italian police have conducted investigations into the offices but found no illegal activities, according to La Nazione, which reported on November 8 that the outposts in Italy were managed by civilians who provided Chinese expatriates with services such as drivers licenses or passport renewals.

The Italian government has not commented on the existence of the 110 offices overseas. In 2019, Italy signed a memorandum of understanding with China as part of its Belt and Road Initiative, a package of deals worth $2.8 billion at the time.

But for Chinese refugees carving out new lives in a country where they often don’t speak the language, the Chinese outposts are reminders of Beijing’s global reach.

“I know for sure that they are very scared about this,” said Marco Respinti, an Italian journalist who has written extensively on China’s human rights record. “There are two main reasons. One is some of them have families in China” who can be pressured by authorities there, so the outposts in Italy are “a very sensitive and dangerous development. Another thing is that technically they are illegal immigrants … so they are even more scared to speak out. They fled China for humanitarian reasons and don’t have all the documents. Many times (the refugees) don’t speak the language.”

The 110 overseas offices in Italy are among more than 50 such operations that China has established overseas in countries, including the U.S., according to Safeguard Defenders. On November 2, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian denied the outposts were “police stations” or “police service centers.” During a daily press briefing, he said the offices are to “assist overseas Chinese nationals who need help in accessing the online service platform to get their driver’s licenses renewed and receive physical check-ups for that purpose.”

Staff in the offices “are not police personnel from China. There is no need to make people nervous about this,” he added.

The 110 overseas offices represent “the latest iteration in [China’s] growing transnational repression, where it seeks to police and limit political expression far beyond its own borders,” said the Safeguard Defenders report.

Since the report’s release, at least 14 governments, including those of the U.S., Britain, Canada and Germany, have opened investigations into the operations, Safeguard Defenders research shows.

On October 26, Ireland ordered the closure of the 110 overseas office doing business in Dublin as the Fuzhou Police Service Overseas Station that opened earlier this year in an office building that had other Chinese organizations as tenants, according to the BBC. The Chinese embassy denied any wrongdoing in Dublin and the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs said no Chinese authority had sought its permission to set up the “police station,” according to the BBC report.

On November 1, the Dutch government ordered the 110 overseas offices in the Netherlands to be closed immediately. The outposts purported to offer diplomatic assistance, but they had not been declared to the Netherlands government, Dutch media reported last month.

On November 17, FBI Director Christopher Wray told a U.S. Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing that the FBI was investigating an unauthorized “police station” that China is running out of New York. The Chinese operation “violates sovereignty and circumvents standard judicial and law enforcement cooperation processes,” Wray said.

Jing-Jie Chen, a researcher at Safeguard Defenders, told VOA Mandarin that European countries have no clear concept of cross-border law enforcement by Chinese police.

Chen said, “Many countries in Europe have signed agreements on mutual criminal assistance or extradition with China, so they may begin to think that there is no big problem in this matter. Only after the report is published and the media follows up, do they feel that this matter involves the internal affairs” of any country with 110 overseas offices.

Daniele Brigadoi Cologna, associate professor of Chinese language and culture at the University of Insubria in Como, Italy, told VOA Mandarin these outposts have been helping Chinese expatriates maintain their Chinese residency renewals during the pandemic when people could not return home. The Chinese government issues to each citizen a permit that details their identity and address. It governs where they can live, attend school and work.

Cologna said, “I am confident that in the coming months, we will get to learn more about the outcome of such investigations, but I doubt that anything of interest will come of it, given that right now the media and the politicians are chasing nonexistent policemen and Chinese migrant spies that are unlikely to exist.”

Chen questioned why the ID renewal services are carried out by operations inside restaurants or grocery stores when the Chinese consulates should provide the same services.

“You don’t know whether the address (for the 110 office) is real, which is the weirdest thing. If you want to serve overseas expats, you should have an organization to run these businesses in an open and honest way. Why hide like this?” he said during a phone interview on November 16.

Respinti, the Italian journalist, said, “We know that bureaucracy and documents are one of the most important tools for controlling people and repressing people, because they have a partial recognition to prosecute people, to recognize them where they, when they move from one place to another.”

Members of the Italian Parliament have raised questions about the so-called police stations to the government.

La Nazione reported on October 29 that Italian Senator Mara Bizzotto wrote Matteo Piantedosi, Italy’s minister of the interior, to say, “Full light should be shed on the case of the Chinese police station in Prato known as Fuzhou Police Overseas Service Station, which turns out to be a real body of agents on duty for Beijing but hidden behind a façade of cultural association.”

According Bizzotto, “The affair presents dangerous profiles of a serious violation of our national sovereignty. And these overseas stations could hide a broader architecture of espionage and control located on Italian territory.”

According to Jiemian News, Chinese news media affiliated with the Chinese-government-owned Shanghai United Media Group, since 2016, China has sent several groups of police to Italy to conduct joint patrols with Italian police in major tourist cities.

A reciprocal arrangement had Italian police officers patrolling in four cities — Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing and Guangzhou — to help local officers address safety concerns of Italian tourists.

The project was suspended after the outbreak of COVID-19.

Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.

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Turkey Pledges Syria Land Offensive to Fight Kurdish Militants

Turkey’s president says his nation’s military will begin a land operation against Kurdish militants in northern Syria ‘at the most convenient time.’ Kurdish separatists have been fighting a decades-long insurgency. There have been global calls for restraint, as Henry Ridgwell reports.

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Analysis: Should Ukraine Negotiate with Russia?

Ukrainian officials are pushing back against growing pressure to enter negotiations with Moscow even as relentless Russian airstrikes take a mounting toll on Ukrainian lives, wealth and infrastructure.

Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser to the Office of the President of Ukraine, dismissed Russian signals of a readiness for talks as simply part of an influence campaign to undermine support for Ukraine among its partners.

“We expect our partners to stop paying attention to Russia’s provocative statements regarding the negotiation process,” Podolyak said in an interview Friday with VOA, speaking from Kyiv.

So far, U.S. administration officials agree. At a November 11 press conference en route to Cambodia, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Russian overtures cannot be taken seriously as long as Moscow seeks to illegally annex Ukrainian territory.

Laying out what he described as “four core elements of consensus” in the U.S. government, Sullivan reiterated that only Ukraine could decide when and on what terms to negotiate. He added that any just peace must be based on the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, and that the U.S. will do all it can to make sure that in any future talks, Ukraine will be able to negotiate from a position of strength.

Nevertheless, Moscow’s state representatives have been increasingly speaking about their openness to negotiations in the wake of Russia’s withdrawal from Kherson — their country’s third major reversal of the war.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said this month that his government is “open to dialogue, without preconditions,” Russian mass media reported. He was quoted as saying that Moscow had been ready to engage in negotiations earlier, but that Kyiv had interrupted the dialogue “at the command of its Western curators.”

Four days after Ryabkov’s remarks, Russian began its heaviest shelling of Ukrainian territory since its invasion in February. On November 15, up to 100 missiles and drones were launched, leaving almost half of Ukraine’s energy system disabled. Another massive attack on Wednesday further crippled the energy infrastructure in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities.

The shelling on November 15 came just hours after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy presented a 10-point “Ukrainian peace formula” to the G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia. It included measures to ensure radiation and nuclear safety, food and energy security, an exchange of prisoners and the return of the deported Ukrainians from Russia, restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and prosecution of war crimes.

Dmitry Peskov, press secretary to Russian President Vladimir Putin, told Russian reporters that the shelling — which left millions of Ukrainians without heat, water or electricity, at least for hours at a time — was due to Ukrainian authorities’ refusal to negotiate.

“The unwillingness of the Ukrainian side to solve the problem, to enter into negotiations, moreover, the actions of the Ukrainian side to abandon the agreed understandings of the text, and so on, these are all the consequences,” Peskov said, according to a Russian news agency.

Podolyak told VOA that Peskov’s statement was “the type of ultimatum that terrorists would issue: Either I kill the hostages — the civilian population of Ukraine — or you do what we say.”

He believes Russia developed the negotiation narrative to improve its reputation worldwide.

“For them, the word ‘negotiations’ does not mean the same as for you and me — sitting down, presenting positions and looking for a compromise,” Podolyak said. “No. They say ‘negotiate,’ meaning ‘meeting their demands’ — for example, not joining European organizations, NATO or any other military alliances and giving away territories.”

He argued that Russia, losing on the battlefield, has resorted to attacks on the Ukrainian population to compel the leaders in Kyiv to comply with its demands.

“There cannot be a negotiation process that says: ‘Yes, you [Ukraine] win the war. Stop, give away the territory, and de facto capitulate to the Russian Federation,” Podolyak said.

He said negotiations can begin once Ukrainian territorial integrity is restored and Russia returns to the framework of international law. Such talks, he suggested, can focus on issues such as prosecuting war crimes and providing compensation for damages.

Media reports have suggested that some U.S. government officials would like to see Kyiv take advantage of its battlefield successes by moving to early negotiations. But Ambassador William Taylor, vice president for Russia and Europe at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said the position outlined by Sullivan is the official stance of the administration.

“Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, spoke for the president and the entire administration,” said Taylor, who served as chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv in 2019. “It is in the U.S. national interest for Ukraine to win this war and for Russia to lose.”

Cease-fire: Who benefits?

Most experts who spoke to VOA believe that a cease-fire at this time would benefit the Kremlin and would not end the war.

Any negotiated cease-fire would allow Russian forces to regroup and rebuild, said Nataliya Bugayova, Russia fellow at the Institute for the Study of War.

“Ukraine has momentum on the ground. A cease-fire would freeze the front lines in the best possible configuration that Putin can hope for in this war. It is one of the few ways for Russia to break the momentum of Ukrainian forces,” she said in a written response to VOA.

David Kramer, executive director of the George W. Bush Institute, believes that Ukraine can prevail on the battlefield and that the only way to end the war is for Ukraine’s allies to help it to win.

“Nobody wants this war to end more than Ukrainians, who are fighting and dying to defend their country and freedom, but they have been remarkably successful so far and think they can prevail. Calling for negotiations now undercuts their momentum,” Kramer said in a written response to VOA.

Taylor said that any cease-fire reached while the Ukrainian military is succeeding in pushing the Russian forces out of the country “would allow the Russians to keep what they now illegally occupy.”

This would put the Russians in an advantageous position for future attacks, said Bugayova.

“Any Russian foothold, especially in the critically strategic south, would constitute a permanent threat to Ukrainian sovereignty because Putin’s maximalist goal of controlling Ukraine has not changed and will most likely outlast Putin — by design. The Kremlin will use any cease-fire to adjust, not scale back, its effort to establish control over Ukraine.”

A fiscal argument

A contrary view was expressed by columnist Katrina vanden Heuvel in an opinion piece for The Washington Post. She argued that it’s time for the U.S. to start setting conditions for a diplomatic solution to the war because of the growing costs for the warring parties, the U.S. and the other countries supporting Ukraine.

“The stakes are too high for us to sit idly by as the catastrophe spreads and the costs — and the risks — keep growing,” she wrote.

The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden received congressional approval for $40 billion in aid for Ukraine for 2022; more than $19 billion has been spent on military defense since February 24.

Economist Timothy Ash acknowledged in an article for the Center for European Policy Analysis that assistance to Ukraine already represents 5.6% of total U.S. defense spending. But, he wrote,

“Russia is a primary adversary of the U.S., a top tier rival not too far behind China, its number one strategic challenger.”

The U.S. National Defense Strategy defines Russia as “an acute threat.”

No-go for any territorial concessions

Kramer said he worries that talk about the need for Ukraine to make concessions will be “deeply demoralizing to the incredibly brave Ukrainian forces fighting for their freedom.” He pointed out that most Ukrainians oppose any territorial concessions in exchange for a cease-fire.

According to the poll done by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology in September, 87% of Ukrainians were not ready to support any territorial concessions for the sake of ending the war with Russia as soon as possible.

Bugayova added that an early cease-fire would leave those Ukrainians still living in the occupied territories subject “to continued Russian atrocities.”

U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice Beth Van Schaack pointed out that that nongovernmental organizations, the media and war crimes investigators have already collected extensive evidence of such atrocities.

“Everywhere Russia’s forces have been deployed, we’re seeing a whole range of different war crimes,” she told VOA Ukrainian.

“This includes everything from bombardments of the civilian infrastructure to interpersonal violence where there are individuals who seem to have been killed execution style, or their bodies show signs of torture.”

She added that there have been “credible reports of women and girls and even men and boys being subjected to sexual violence when they’re in the custody of Russia’s forces.”

Taylor said he believes Kyiv should consider talking to Moscow, but only after Russian troops have left Ukrainian territory. The ambassador said the territory itself should not be the subject of negotiations.

“The topics should include the total withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine; the return of prisoners of war and other Ukrainians, including Ukrainian children, held in or forced into Russia; reparations for war damage; accountability for war crimes and atrocities; and security guarantees for Ukraine,” Taylor said in a written response to VOA.

Kramer agrees but said he can find few topics for discussion with the current government in Moscow.

“It is hard to see what there is to negotiate with a regime in Moscow guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide,” he said in a written response.

Will Pomeranz, director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, sees little likelihood of a diplomatic solution anytime soon.

“President Zelenskyy has outlined an ambitious peace plan that is unlikely to be accepted — or even considered — by the Russian Federation. Ukraine’s recent military successes make it even less likely that Zelenskyy would compromise on any of his demands,” he said to VOA.

He believes the Russians are also unlikely to admit to and compensate for the pain they inflicted on Ukraine.

“Indeed, there can be no peace until Russia confronts its human rights violations in Ukraine and pays considerable reparations for the damage that it has inflicted. Such a concession remains far off,” Pomerantz said in a written response.

At the same time, as Biden administration officials say repeatedly, the war could end at any moment if Putin decides to end it.

“Russia invaded Ukraine. If Russia chose to stop fighting in Ukraine and left, it would be the end of the war. If Ukraine chose to stop fighting and give up, it would be the end of Ukraine,” Sullivan said.

Oleksii Kovalenko, VOA Ukrainian, contributed to this report. Some information came from The Washington Post, CEPA, Kommersant.Ru, Ukrinform and Interfax.Ru.

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