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In this file photo taken on February 10, 2022 Elon Musk gestures as he speaks during a press conference at SpaceX's Starbase facility near Boca Chica Village in South Texas. — AFP

Private rocket company SpaceX fired at least five employees after it found they had drafted and circulated a letter criticising founder Elon Musk and urging executives to make the firm's culture more inclusive, two people familiar with the matter said. SpaceX did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment. The New York Times reported on Thursday that SpaceX had fired employees associated with the letter, citing three employees with knowledge of the situation. It had not detailed the number of employees who had been dismissed. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell sent an email saying the company had investigated and “terminated a number of employees involved” with the letter, the New York Times said.

The newspaper said Shotwell's email said employees involved with circulating the letter had been fired for making other staff feel “uncomfortable, intimidated and bullied, and/or angry because the letter pressured them to sign onto something that did not reflect their views”. Reuters could not independently confirm that report. Billionaire Musk is pursuing a $44-billion bid for Twitter and has made clear his support of freer controls on speech on the site. On Thursday, he told Twitter employees the platform should allow “pretty outrageous things” as long as the content is not illegal. The SpaceX letter, headed “an open letter to the Executives of SpaceX,” seen by Reuters, called Musk a “distraction and embarrassment” to the company he founded.

In a list of three demands, it said “SpaceX must swiftly and explicitly separate itself from Elon's personal brand,” “hold all leadership equally accountable to making SpaceX a great place to work for everyone” and “define and uniformly respond to all forms of unacceptable behaviour”. Musk, also head of electric automaker Tesla Inc, has been in the headlines and featured in late-night comedy monologues in recent months, including over his quest to take over Twitter, his criticism of Democrats and a reported allegation of sexual harassment, which Musk has denied in a Twitter post. The open letter at SpaceX, first reported by The Verge, was drafted by SpaceX employees in recent weeks and shared as an attachment in an internal Morale Boosters group chat that brings together thousands of employees, a person familiar with the matter said, asking not to be named.

Musk, also the company's chief engineer, has been viewed as a central figure in many of SpaceX's high-profile successes, such as pioneering the re-use of orbital rocket boosters and bringing back routine human spaceflight from US soil after a nine-year hiatus. Shotwell, who leads much of the company's day-to-day business, has said she will enforce SpaceX zero tolerance standards against employee harassment. Founded by Musk in 2002, SpaceX has played a central role in the US space programme, becoming the only company capable of launching Nasa astronauts into space from US soil and planning to send humans to the moon for the space agency within the next decade. SpaceX is also one of two companies on which the Pentagon depends to launch into space the bulk of US military and spy satellites.

The company tasked with collecting and facilitating applications from prospective Haj pilgrims living in western countries has at least one investor with close ties to India’s government, Middle East Eye reports.

Saudi Arabia’s authorities had last week announced that Haj pilgrims from Australia, Europe and the United States would need to apply for visas via the government portal Motawif, a move intended to crack down on what it called “fake” travel agencies.

The Saudi authorities have issued few statements about why the decision was being implemented so close to this year’s Haj, but an MEE investigation reveals that an individual involved in helping facilitate millions of dollars’ worth of investments into Traveazy — a Dubai-based company that has been exclusively contracted to process the western applications through Motawif — has ties to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Prashant Prakash, the vice president and partner at venture capital firm Accel India, has served on India’s National Startup Advisory Council since 2020, and in 2021 became a policy and strategy adviser to Basavaraj Bommai, the chief minister of the BJP-run government in Karnataka and a key Modi ally.

According to Accel, it was Prakash who led the venture capital firm into partnering with two other operations when they collectively invested $7 million in Traveazy in 2016, as the Indian-owned company began to build its Holidayme subsidiary, and, later in 2018, Umrahme, a company run by Mohammed bin Mahfouz.

According to Forbes, Umrahme is now “one of only three companies authorised by the Ministry of Haj and Umrah to sell Umrah products to global travel agents”.
Accel is a long-time investor in Israeli start-ups, reportedly investing more than $350m in the country between 2002 and 2016.
Several Indian activists said the revelations were concerning. Nabiya Khan, based in New Delhi, told MEE that Saudi Arabia’s decision to outsource the application process to a company with investor linked to the BJP was “outrageous and dangerous”.
“The personal data of those Muslims who applied through the portal could easily end up in wrong hands,” Khan said.
“It is unfortunate that Muslim nations are entrusting such sensitive information and money to people whose money will ultimately abet persecution of Muslims in India,” added Khan.

Syed Abdahu Kashaf, a social and civil rights activist from Hyderabad, told MEE that the allegations meant Saudi Arabia had effectively “invited people who have no right to be involved in a very sacred space for Muslims”.
Neither Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Haj and Umrah nor the Saudi consulate in New York City replied to requests for comment, according to MEE.

BAGHDAD (AP): U.S.-led coalition forces captured a senior leader of the extremist Islamic State group in a military operation in northern Syria on Thursday, the coalition said. A statement from the coalition said the captured IS leader was an experienced bomb maker and operational facilitator, describing him as one of the top leaders of the militant group’s branch in Syria. It said the operation was “successful,” with no civilians harmed and no injuries to the coalition forces.

The coalition did not respond to queries from The Associated Press. An updated statement later in the day identified the captured militant as Hani Ahmed al-Kurdi, known as Salim, and said that he was taken in Syria’s Aleppo province. According to a defense official, al-Kurdi is currently in U.S. custody and was being questioned. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to provide information not yet made public. “The mission to capture al-Kurdi was meticulously planned to minimize the risk of civilian harm or collateral damage,” the updated statement said.

“He was instructing others on making explosive devices, supporting the construction of improvised explosive device facilities, and facilitating attacks on U.S. and partner forces.” Earlier, three Iraqi intelligence officials said al- Kurdi is a Syrian national who rose through militant ranks to become one of the most senior and dangerous IS leaders and an expert on manufacturing booby-traps and explosives. For a while, he was the IS leader in charge of the Syrian city of Raqqa, when it was the de facto capital of the group’s so-called Islamic “caliphate” that stretched across much of Iraq and Syria.

The Iraqi intel officials spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to give out the information. The U.S.-backed forces declared victory over the Islamic State group in March 2019 after retaking the last piece of territory held by IS in Syria. But the militants continue to operate and carry out deadly attacks in both Iraq and Syria through sleeper cells; the group also maintains several affiliates in various countries. A Syria war monitor, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the operation began with two helicopters landing near the targeted area in the village of al-Humaira, about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from the Turkish border. It reported clashes with gunmen hiding in houses in the village in the northern Aleppo countryside as they were chased by members of the coalition. The Observatory has a network of activists on the ground in Syria. Meanwhile, French drone strikes killed nearly 40 Islamic extremists earlier this week who were traveling on motorcycles near Niger’s border with Burkina Faso, France’s military announced Thursday. In a statement, the French military called the strikes a “new tactical success” for France’s counterterrorism efforts in Africa’s Sahel region, named Operation Barkhane.

John Hinckley, who wounded then US President Ronald Reagan and three others in a 1981 assassination attempt, was released without conditions on Wednesday in compliance with a federal judge's order.
He had received full-time conditional release in 2016 after 30 years in a psychiatric hospital in Washington and had lived with his mother in Virginia until her death last year.
A jury had found him not guilty by reason of insanity in his 1982 trial, prompting Congress and some states to pass laws restricting the use of insanity as a defense.
"After 41 years 2 months and 15 days, FREEDOM AT LAST!!!" Hinckley, 67, wrote on his Twitter account on Wednesday afternoon.

Last September, US District Judge Paul Friedman ruled that Hinckley was "mentally stable," had complied with the terms of his conditional release, which had limited his travel and internet use, and that he should be granted unconditional release.

Doctors who examined Hinckley told the court the risk of him committing violence were remote, and federal prosecutors agreed. Reagan's daughter Patti Davis opposed Hinckley's release, saying Hinckley was a narcissist who she did not believe felt remorse.

Reagan quickly recovered after surgery for a punctured lung following Hinckley's attack outside a Washington hotel, but his press secretary Jim Brady was left with permanent disabilities. The first of the six bullets Hinckley fired hit Brady's head, shattering the brain cavity.
The attack helped spur modern efforts to tighten gun laws, with Brady and his wife, Sarah Brady, forming the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
Following the shooting, it was widely reported that Hinckley had become obsessed with Jodie Foster and was trying to impress the "Taxi Driver" actor.
Shortly after Jim Brady's death in 2014, a medical examiner ruled his death a homicide from the shooting more than two decades earlier.
Hinckley has been writing songs and releasing recordings online, but his debut concert at the Market Hotel in New York City this month was canceled on Wednesday after the venue said it had received a volley of violent threats.

The global nuclear arsenal is expected to grow in the coming years for the first time since the Cold War while the risk of such weapons being used is the greatest in decades, a leading conflict and armaments think tank said on Monday.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine and Western support for Kyiv has heightened tensions among the world's nine nuclear-armed states, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) think tank said in a new set of research.

While the number of nuclear weapons fell slightly between January 2021 and January 2022, SIPRI said that unless immediate action was taken by the nuclear powers, global inventories of warheads could soon begin rising for the first time in decades.

"All of the nuclear-armed states are increasing or upgrading their arsenals and most are sharpening nuclear rhetoric and the role nuclear weapons play in their military strategies," Wilfred Wan, director of SIPRI's Weapons of Mass Destruction Programme, said in the think tank's 2022 yearbook.

"This is a very worrying trend."
Three days after Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, which the Kremlin calls a "special military operation", President Vladimir Putin put Russia's nuclear deterrent on high alert.

He has also warned of consequences that would be "such as you have never seen in your entire history" for countries that stood in Russia's way.
Russia has the world's biggest nuclear arsenal with a total of 5,977 warheads, some 550 more than the United States. The two countries possess more than 90 per cent of the world's warheads, though SIPRI said China was in the middle of an expansion with an estimated more than 300 new missile silos.

SIPRI said the global number of nuclear warheads fell to 12,705 in January 2022 from 13,080 in January 2021. An estimated 3,732 warheads were deployed with missiles and aircraft, and around 2,000 — nearly all belonging to Russia or the US — were kept in a state of high readiness.

"Relations between the world's great powers have deteriorated further at a time when humanity and the planet face an array of profound and pressing common challenges that can only be addressed by international cooperation," SIPRI Board Chairman and former Swedish prime minister Stefan Lofven said.

SINGAPORE: US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin on Saturday blasted China’s “provocative, destabilising” military activity near Taiwan, as well as Beijing’s growing aggression across the wider Asia-Pacific region.

Tensions between Washington and Beijing are soaring over democratic, self-ruled Taiwan, which China views as its territory and has vowed to seize one day, by force if necessary.

Beijing has conducted dozens of incursions into Taiwan’s air defence zone this year, and on Friday, Defence Minister Wei Fenghe warned Austin that China was prepared to go to war if the island declares independence.
In an address to the Shangri-La Dialogue security summit in Singapore, Austin took aim at Beijing’s “growing coercion” towards Taiwan, a day after holding his first face-to-face talks with Wei.

“We’ve witnessed a steady increase in provocative and destabilising military activity near Taiwan,” he told the forum, which is attended by defence ministers from Asia and around the world.
“That includes (Chinese military) aircraft flying near Taiwan in record numbers in recent months, and nearly on a daily basis,” he said.
“We categorically oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo from either side,” he added.
But he also stressed the importance of “fully open lines of communication with China’s defence leaders” in avoiding miscalculations. “These are deeply, deeply important conversations.” On Friday, Wei had warned Austin that “if anyone dares to split Taiwan from China, the Chinese army will definitely not hesitate to start a war no matter the cost”, according to Chinese officials.
He also vowed that Beijing would “smash to smithereens any ‘Taiwan independence’ plot and resolutely uphold the unification of the motherland”, according to the Chinese defence ministry. Taiwan’s foreign ministry said it rejects Beijing’s “absurd claims”.
“The Taiwanese people will not bow to the threat of force by the Chinese government,” it said in a statement. The war of words was just the latest between Washington and Beijing.
They have clashed over everything from China’s claims in the disputed South China Sea to trade and human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
Tensions over Taiwan have escalated in particular due to increasing Chinese military aircraft incursions into the island’s air defence identification zone (ADIZ).

Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe said on Sunday that it was up to the United States to improve the bilateral relationship, as ties were at a critical juncture.
Repeating several times at an Asian security meeting that China only sought peace and stability, and was not an aggressor, he called on the United States to “strengthen solidarity and oppose confrontation and division”.
He said China firmly rejected “US smearing, accusations and even threats” in Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin's speech on Saturday.
“We request the US side to stop smearing and containing China. Stop interfering in China's internal affairs. The bilateral relationship cannot improve unless the US side can do that,” Wei, dressed in the uniform of a general in the People's Liberation Army, told the Shangri-La Dialogue.

Also read: US blasts China's 'destabilising' military activity near Taiwan
Austin said on Saturday there had been an “alarming” increase in the number of unsafe and unprofessional encounters between Chinese planes and vessels with those of other countries.
He added that the United States would stand by its allies, including Taiwan.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine has taken centre stage at the meeting, and Wei made a point of saying China supported peace talks and opposed “providing weapons, applying maximum pressure”.
“What is the root cause of this crisis? Who is the mastermind behind this? Who loses the most? And who stands to gain the most? Who is promoting peace and who is adding fuel to the fire? I think we all know the answers to these questions,” he said, without addressing them or stating China's position.
In an address via video link on Saturday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy warned delegates that the invasion of Ukraine threatened the rules-based order and put the entire world in danger of famine and food crises.
Russia calls its actions in Ukraine a special operation that it says is not designed to occupy territory but to destroy its southern neighbour's military capabilities and capture what it regards as dangerous nationalists.
Addressing the issue of Taiwan, Wei said China's position on the island, which Beijing views as a province, was unchanged.
He said the Chinese government sought “peaceful reunification” with Taiwan but reserved “other options”.
“China will definitely realise its reunification,” Wei said. “Those who pursue Taiwan independence in an attempt to split China will definitely come to no good end.”
He noted that China had contributed to global efforts to fight Covid-19, and that the country's efforts to develop the South China Sea were peaceful.
“Countries big and small, weak or powerful, are all equal,” he said. “We should respect each other and treat each other as equals.”

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