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WASHINGTON: A deadly fire at an aerospace research institute in Tver, northwest of Moscow. Another blaze at a munitions factory in Perm, more than 1,100 kilometres to the east. And fires in two separate oil depots in Bryansk, near Belarus.

Coincidences, or a sign that Ukrainians or their supporters are mounting a campaign of sabotage inside Russia to punish Moscow for invading their country? Since the blaze at the central research institute of the Aerospace Defence Forces in Tver on April 21, which killed 17 people, social media has leapt on every report of a fire somewhere in Russia — especially at a sensitive location — as a sign that the country is under covert attack.

No one is claiming responsibility, but analysts say at least some of the incidents, particularly those in Bryansk, point to a possible effort by Kyiv to bring the war to their invaders.

In a post on Telegram, Mykhaylo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, called the fires “divine intervention”, “Large fuel depots periodically burn... for different reasons,” he wrote.

“Karma is a cruel thing.”
‘We don’t deny’
In a massive country such as Russia, a fire at a remote factory or building would normally not be particularly eyebrow-raising.
But since Russian forces invaded Ukraine, more than a dozen blazes noted by people who document the war have drawn huge attention on social media, amid fears there is a concerted campaign of arson by the Ukrainians.
Even fires late last month in Russia’s far east — at an airbase north of Vladivostok and at a coal plant on Sakhalin — raised suspicions.
And on Wednesday, a massive conflagration struck a chemical plant in Dzerzhinsk, east of Moscow.

“Russian saboteurs against Putin continue their heroic work,” said Igor Sushko, a Ukrainian racecar driver who regularly posts photos and videos on Twitter of alleged acts of sabotage inside Russia, but offers no proof they were deliberate.
Another Zelensky adviser, Oleksiy Arestovych, was equally opaque to The New York Times, noting that Israel never admits its covert attacks and assassinations.
“We don’t confirm, and we don’t deny,” he said.
Part of the strategy?
War analysts believe the infernos in Bryansk, which hit facilities sending oil to Europe, were deliberate and tied to the war.
The anonymous analysts behind “Ukraine Weapons Tracker”, a Twitter account that posts detailed accounts with supporting videos of attacks by both sides, said they received “reliable” information that the Bryansk fires were the result of attacks by Ukrainian Bayraktar drones.
“If accurate, then this story again shows the ability of Ukrainian forces to conduct strikes in Russian territory using long-range assets,” they wrote.
“I think it was probably a Ukrainian attack, but we cannot be certain,” Rob Lee, another war analyst, told The Guardian.
Added to that have been a number of apparent shelling by helicopters and drones and evident acts of sabotage against infrastructure in Kursk and Belgorod Oblast on the Ukrainian border, close to the fighting.
The governors of Belgorod and Kursk have both blamed the fires and destruction of infrastructure such as railway bridges on saboteurs and attackers from Ukraine.
An April 1 attack on a Belgorod fuel depot, Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said on his Telegram channel, was the result of “an air strike from two helicopters of the armed forces of Ukraine, which entered the territory of Russia at a low altitude”.

“Nothing that would confirm Ukrainian sabotage, except for the fact that many of the fires seemed to hit strategic/military targets,” said Phillips O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at the University of St Andrews, Scotland.
Such attacks “certainly seem to be a part of their strategy,” he said.
Pentagon officials have said that Russian forces inside Ukraine are hobbled by weak supply chains, and attacks on their infrastructure would further affect their war effort.

But US officials would not comment on whether, deeper inside Russia, there is an active campaign of sabotage hitting targets not-so-directly related to the invasion.

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz will stay in hospital for some time to rest on doctors’ advice after undergoing colonoscopy on Sunday, the Saudi Press Agency said, citing the royal court.
It said the results of the colonoscopy were fine, and did did not say exactly how long the king would be in hospital.
The king was admitted to King Faisal Specialist Hos­pital, in Jeddah, on Saturday to undergo medical tests.
The king, 86, underwent gallbladder surgery in 2020 and had the battery of his heart pacemaker replaced in March.
King Salman became ruler of the world’s top oil exporter in 2015 after spending more than two years as crown prince and deputy premier.

Peja (Kosovo): Ukrainian women attend a demining training programme in Kosovo, far from their homeland. Ukrainian women are taking intensive demining courses to help their country get rid of a huge amount of explosives that would probably take decades. For now, six women will do the almost three-week training while two others will join them later.—AFP

KYIV: Russia has warned of the “real” threat of World War III breaking out, ahead of a Tuesday meeting between the United States and allies over sending further arms to war-torn Ukraine.

Moscow’s invasion of its neighbour has triggered an outburst of support from Western nations that has seen weapons pour into the country to help it wage war against Russian troops.
But Western powers have been reluctant to deepen their involvement, for fear of sparking a conflict against nuclear-armed Russia.
Speaking to Russian news agencies, Moscow’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned the risk of a World War III “is serious” and criticised Kyiv’s approach to floundering peace talks. “It is real, you can’t underestimate it,” Lavrov said.

‘It’s real, you can’t underestimate it,’ says FM Lavrov
For months, President Volodymyr Zelensky has been asking Ukraine’s Western allies for heavy weapons — including artillery and fighter jets -- vowing his forces could turn the tide of the war with more firepower.

The calls appear to be resonating now, with a host of Nato countries pledging to provide a range of heavy weapons and equipment, despite protests from Moscow.
In a landmark trip to Kyiv over the weekend, Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken met Zelensky and promised $700 million in new aid to Ukraine.

“The first step in winning is believing that you can win,” Austin told a group of journalists after meeting the Ukrainian leader. “We believe that we can win — they can win — if they have the right equipment, the right support.”
And on the invitation of the United States, 40 countries will also hold a security summit in Germany on Tuesday to discuss further arms to Ukraine — as well as to ensure the country’s longer-term security once the war is over.

Among the invited countries are European allies of the United States, but also Australia and Japan — who fear that a Russian victory in Ukraine will set a precedent and encourage the territorial ambitions of China.
Finland and Sweden — traditionally neutral countries that have been considering Nato membership since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — are also on the guest list.

And on the Russian side, President Vladimir Putin is due to hold talks with Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday, his spokesman told RIA Novosti.

TEHRAN: Iran said Monday that the latest round of talks with its regional rival Saudi Arabia was “positive and serious” and voiced hope for further progress soon. Tehran and Riyadh, which severed diplomatic ties in 2016, held four rounds of talks in Iraq between April and September last year, with a fifth meeting last Thursday.

“The fifth round of negotiations between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Baghdad … was positive and serious and saw progress,” foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh told reporters. Iran and the kingdom of Saudi Arabia support rival sides in several conflicts, including in Yemen, where Tehran backs the Houthi rebels and Riyadh leads a military coalition supporting the government.

In 2016, Iranian protesters attacked Saudi diplomatic missions in the Islamic republic after the kingdom executed revered Shiite cleric Nimr Al-Nimr. Riyadh responded by cutting ties with Tehran. Iran’s Nour news agency reported the latest talks were attended by “senior officials from the secretariat of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and the head of the Saudi intelligence service”.

It added that the foreign ministers of the two countries were expected to meet “in the near future”. Khatibzadeh said that “if the negotiations are upgraded to first-class political level, it can be expected that progress can be made swiftly in different sectors of the talks”. The spokesman also said “an agreement was reached to hold the next round of negotiations” between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but he did not specify a date. – AFP

French President Emmanuel Macron is set to begin efforts to unite a deeply divided nation after winning re-election on Sunday in a battle against rival Marine Le Pen that saw the far right come its closest yet to taking power.

Centrist Macron won around 58.6 per cent of the vote in the second-round run-off compared with Le Pen's 41.4pc, according to official results from the Interior Ministry.
Macron is the first French president in two decades to win a second term, but his latest victory over his far-right rival was narrower than their last face-off in 2017, when the margin was 66.1pc to 33.9pc.
The historic gains for the far right dampened the French leader's celebrations on Sunday night.
Addressing supporters in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, he vowed to heal rifts in a deeply divided country.
The 44-year-old president will start his second term with the challenge of parliamentary elections in June, where keeping a majority will be critical to ensuring he can realise his ambitions.
Several hundred demonstrators from ultra-left groups took to the streets in some French cities to protest Macron's re-election and Le Pen's score. Police used tear gas to disperse gatherings in Paris and the western city of Rennes.
In his victory speech on the Champ de Mars in central Paris, Macron promised his next five-year term would respond to the frustrations of voters who backed Le Pen.
“An answer must be found to the anger and disagreements that led many of our compatriots to vote for the extreme right,” he told thousands of cheering supporters.
“It will be my responsibility and that of those around me.”
He also pledged a “renewed method” to governing France, adding that this “new era” would not be one of “continuity with the last term which is now ending”.
In a combative speech to supporters in the capital, in which she accepted the result but showed no sign of quitting politics, Le Pen, 53, said she would “never abandon” the French and was already preparing for the June legislative elections.
“The result represents a brilliant victory,” she said to cheers.
“This evening, we launch the great battle for the legislative elections,” Le Pen said, adding that she felt “hope” and calling on opponents of the president to join with her National Rally (RN) party.
'Count on France' For Le Pen, a third defeat in a presidential poll will be a bitter pill to swallow after she ploughed years of effort into making herself electable and distancing her party from the legacy of its founder, her father Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Critics insisted her party never stopped being extreme-right and racist while Macron repeatedly pointed to her plan to ban the wearing of the Muslim headscarf in public if elected.
The projections caused immense relief in Europe after fears a Le Pen presidency would leave the continent rudderless following Brexit and the departure from politics of German chancellor Angela Merkel.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi called Macron's victory “great news for all of Europe” while German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said French voters “sent a strong vote of confidence in Europe today”.

European Council president Charles Michel said the bloc could now “count on France for five more years” while European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen also congratulated Macron, saying she was “delighted to be able to continue our excellent cooperation”.
In another election on Sunday, Slovenia's three-time Prime Minister Janez Jansa, criticised by opponents as an authoritarian right-wing populist, was at risk of losing power to a party led by political newcomer Robert Golob. 'Ocean of abstention' Macron will be hoping for a less complicated second term that will allow him to implement his vision of more pro-business reform and tighter European Union integration, after a first term shadowed by protests, then the coronavirus pandemic and finally Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
But he will have to win over those who backed his opponents and the millions of French who did not bother to vote.
Polling organisations estimated turnout of just 72pc, the lowest in any presidential election second-round run-off since 1969.
Meanwhile, 6.35pc of voters in the election voted for neither candidate in blank ballots while 2.25pc spoilt their papers.
The third-placed candidate in the first round, hard-left Jean-Luc Melenchon, had refused to endorse Macron.
Melenchon also has his eyes set on the June elections.
While he welcomed Le Pen's defeat as “very good news for the unity of our people”, Melenchon pointed out that the two leading candidates had barely managed to win a third of support from registered voters.

Macron “is submerged in an ocean of abstention and spoilt ballots”, he said.

KUNDUZ: A bomb blast ripped through a mosque during Friday prayers in northern Afghanistan, killing 33 people including children, just a day after the militant Islamic State group had claimed two separate deadly attacks. Meanwhile, Taliban forces have arrested a suspected IS militant who allegedly had planned a bomb attack that killed at least 12 worshippers at a Shia mosque on Thursday, police said. Balkh province’s police spokesman said Abdul Hamid Sangaryar was a key operative of the IS. Since Taliban fighters seized control of Afghanistan last year after ousting the US-backed government, the number of bombings has fallen but IS militants have continued with attacks against targets they see as heretical. A string of bombings rocked the country this week, with deadly attacks targeting a school and a mosque in Shia neighbourhoods. Taliban arrest ‘mastermind’ of attack on Mazar-i-Sharif mosque Taliban government spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted that children were among the 33 dead in the blast on Friday at a mosque in the northern province of Kunduz. “We condemn this crime... and express our deepest sympathies to the bereaved,” he said, adding that 43 more were wounded. An intelligence official said on condition of anonymity that the explosion was caused by a bomb, but it was unclear how it was detonated. An AFP correspondent saw large holes blown through the walls of the Sunni Mawlavi Sikandar mosque, popular with Sufis in Imam Sahib district, north of Kunduz city. One side of the mosque was completely destroyed by the explosion. “The sight at the mosque was horrifying. All those who were worshipping inside the mosque were either injured or killed,” Mohammad Esah, a shopkeeper who helped ferry victims to the district hospital, told AFP. “I saw 20 to 30 bodies,” a local resident said. ‘Shrapnel injuries’ Relatives of victims arrived at the local hospital to look for their loved ones. “My son is martyred,” screamed one man, while a woman accompanied by her four children searched for her husband. A nurse told AFP over the phone that between 30 and 40 people had been admitted for treatment of wounds from the blast. About a dozen ambulances ferried the seriously wounded to the main provincial hospital in Kunduz city. “The shrapnel injuries on the bodies of the wounded show they were caused by a bomb explosion,” a doctor at the provincial hospital told AFP. Friday’s blast was one of the biggest attacks since the Taliban seized power on August 15 last year. The deadliest was just days later when more than 100 Afghan civilians and 13 US servicemen were killed in a suicide attack at Kabul airport as tens of thousands were trying to flee the country. IS claimed responsibility for that attack. The regional IS branch in Sunni-majority Afghanistan has repeatedly targeted Shias and minorities like Sufis, who follow a mystical branch of Islam. IS a Sunni group like the Taliban, but the two are bitter rivals. The biggest ideological difference between the two is that the Taliban sought only an Afghanistan free of foreign forces, whereas IS wants an Islamic caliphate stretching from Turkey to Pakistan and beyond. The Taliban say they have arrested the “mastermind” of the attack on Shia mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif. Shia Afghans, who are mostly from the Hazara community, make up between 10 and 20 per cent of Afghanistan’s population of 38 million. Taliban officials insist their forces have defeated IS, but analysts say the jihadist group is a key security challenge. “Since the Taliban took power, the only achievement that they are proud of is the improvement in security,” said Hekmatullah Hekmat, an independent political and security expert. “If that is not sustained and if they fail to restrain IS, then they will also be a failure like the previous government.”

ISTANBUL: Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu Saturday announced that his country had closed its airspace to military and civilian aircraft on which Russia transports its soldiers to Syria. In statements to reporters on the plane to Uruguay, Cavusoglu said the license granted for three months from Ankara to Moscow to operate these flights expired in April.

Cavusoglu stated that he had discussed this issue last March during his visit to Moscow with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, who pledged to brief President Vladimir Putin on the subject. After a day or two, the Turkish Foreign Minister indicated that the Russian side informed Ankara that Putin had ordered the suspension of these flights.

Cavusoglu stressed that the dialogue between Turkey and Russia on the Montreux Agreement and other urgent issues continues, noting that Ankara’s decision to close the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits due to the conflict Ukraine applies not only to Russian military ships but also to those of NATO. Cavusoglu affirmed the Turkish firm’s position not to join the Western sanctions imposed on Russia over its military operation in Ukraine

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