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Duterte defies Beijing, says he won’t withdraw vessels from disputed waters — RT World News From “RT World News”



The president of the Philippines has vowed not to withdrawal his country’s ships from waters contested by China as a long-running dispute between the two nations over sovereignty of South China Sea territory heats up.

Speaking in a televised address aired on Friday, President Rodrigo Duterte said he would not heed Chinese demands and would continue to push for sovereignty over islands and reefs in the South China Sea. “We have a stand here and I want to state it here and now again that our ships there… we will not move an inch backward,” Duterte said, adding “I will not withdraw. Even if you kill me. Our friendship will end here.”In April, China demanded the Philippines remove its vessels from the contested waters and called on Manila to “stop actions complicating the situation and escalating disputes.”On Friday, Duterte said he respected China’s position, but said he didn’t want trouble or to go to war.The president has been widely criticized for his close relationship with Beijing but has maintained Manila’s claims to islands and reefs in the South China Sea, announcing in April that he would send naval vessels to the area. 

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Manila claims nearly 300 Chinese militia vessels have swarmed Philippines-held islands in latest incursion

On Wednesday, the Philippines taskforce for the South China Sea reported incursions into its maritime territory by 287 Chinese militia vessels. This year, Manila has frequently called on Beijing to remove its vessels in accordance with a 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which threw out China’s claims to the territory and the islands within it. Last week, Duterte caused a stir when he suggested that the ruling didn’t mean anything, and that it was just a “piece of paper” that he could throw out.Islands and reefs in the South China Sea are not only contested by China and the Philippines. Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, and Brunei also lay claim to overlapping areas of the potentially resource rich sea.If you like this story, share it with a friend!







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Iran-backed PMFs are destabilising Iraq’s disputed regions | Middle East From “Al Jazeera – Breaking News, World News and Video from Al Jazeera”



On April 15, a drone laden with explosives targeted military facilities hosting US troops in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), but resulted in no casualties. On the same day, rocket fire on a Turkish military base in Mosul’s Bashiqa region killed one Turkish solider.
The attacks, attributed to pro-Iran factions based in Iraq, have been widely seen in the context of the US-Iran and Turkey-Iran rivalries in the region. However, such analysis ignores an important development linked to these incidents: the attempt of Iranian-backed paramilitaries in northern Iraq to consolidate their power in territories disputed between the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
The presence and growing strength of these groups have profound implications not only for the future of Baghdad-Erbil relations, but also for inter- and intra-communal relations in these ethnically-diverse regions. Since their arrival, Iran-backed paramilitaries have transformed the nature of the dispute over these territories from a conflict between two governments, to a very complex situation characterised by deep militarisation of ethno-religious and sectarian identities in Nineveh and Kirkuk governorates.
Militarisation of ethno-religious and sectarian groups
The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 gave an opportunity to Iran to massively expand its influence on the internal affairs of its neighbour. Apart from developing a network of supporters within civilian power structures, Iran also trained and armed a number of paramilitaries, including the Badr Organisation, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Hezbollah, and Saraya al-Khorasani.
With the expansion of ISIS into Iraqi territory in 2014 and the fatwa to initiate a popular mobilisation issued by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest religious authority among Iraqi Shia, these armed groups became part of the so-called Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Forces, PMFs). They spearheaded the fight against ISIS and enjoyed quite a bit of popularity.
The PMFs arrived in the disputed areas of the north in October 2017, after they, along with regular Iraqi forces, attacked the Kurdish Peshmerga in the aftermath of the independence referendum conducted by the KRG. Although allegedly acting under orders from Baghdad in the beginning, Iran-backed PMFs have since pursued their own political and military goals.
The pro-Iranian armed groups have sought to establish themselves more permanently in Nineveh and Kirkuk thus extending the military reach Tehran has over Iraqi territory. By recruiting fighters from local communities and creating new factions, the PMFs have militarised and politicised ethno-religious and sectarian identities.
In Nineveh’s district of Hamdaniah, Telkaif and Bashiqa, they established the 30th Brigade, dominated by members of the Shabak community, an ethnic and religious minority, which follows the Twelver Shia-ism. They also set up the 53rd Brigade for Shia Turkmens in Telafar, which includes a Yazidi Lalish unit for Yazidis in Sinjar. They also created the 50th Brigade for Assyrians in Hamdaniah district.
In Sinjar in the western Nineveh province, pro-Iranian PMF factions have also supported the Sinjar Resistance Units, formed during the fight against ISIS and initially equipped and trained by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). They formally joined the PMF’s al-Nasr al-Mubeen Brigade in 2018.
In the provinces of Kirkuk, there has been a similar proliferation of local armed groups. In Taza district, the Iran-backed paramilitaries set up the 16th Brigade by arming and training local Shia Turkmens. They have also recruited Shia Turkmens for the 52nd Brigade. The pro-Iran PMFs have also tried to create a faction for the Kaka’i community, a religious Kurdish-speaking minority based in Daquq and Kirkuk, but have not been fully successful yet.
Other political and military forces, including the KRG, armed groups associated with Sistani and Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and some local Sunni politicians, have also tried to establish and support their own factions in the disputed territories.
Apart from gaining influence over local communities through military presence and recruitment, pro-Iranian PMFs have deployed shadow administrations, building security, social, political and economic structures that rival and undermine formal ones. They have engaged in not only the control of the movement of people and goods but also in “taxing” local businesses. They have also gotten involved in religious affairs, controlling Sunni religious sites and endowments and supporting newly created Shia endowments.
These activities by the pro-Iranian groups have exacerbated intra- and inter-communal tensions. For example, in Kirkuk city, Sunni Turkmens outnumber Shia Turkmens, but backing from the PMFs has emboldened Shia Turkmens, who have become more politically assertive. This may lead to new intra-Turkman fractures as the Shia consolidate power in the centre of Kirkuk. A similar dynamic is playing out in the district of Telafar among Turkmens.
Among the Yazidis, intra-communal divisions are also growing deeper. Areas that fall under the influence of pro-Iranian PMFs and the PKK have challenged the traditional power structures of the community. This was reflected in the tensions over the election of a new Yazidi leader after the passing of Tahsin Said Beg in 2019.
In July that year, following months of debate that reflected deep internal divisions within the community, Yazidis in Sheikhan, backed by the Kurdistan Democratic Party, appointed his son, Hazim Tahsin Beg, as the new prince. In response, PKK and PMF-affiliated Yazidis in Sinjar threatened something akin to secession, vowing to appoint a leader of their own choosing.
Undermining government power
The dispute between Baghdad and KRG over territories goes back to the constitution-drafting process initiated after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime as a result of the 2003 US invasion. The constitution outlined the borders of the semi-autonomous KRI, but left the status of the province of Kirkuk and many districts of Nineveh, Salahaddin and Diyala, where Kurdish communities live, unresolved. Referendums to decide on the fate of these disputed territories were never carried out.
Throughout the years, this dispute has been complicated by a number of factors, including disagreements over budget and persistent insecurity. The presence of Iran-backed PMFs, however, has put more strain on Baghdad-Erbil relations and directly undermined efforts to make progress on this key issue.
When Adel Abdul Mahdi headed the Iraqi government in 2018, there was a renewed push to resolve disputes with the KRG. The central government negotiated with Erbil the creation of joint coordination centres in many areas in Kirkuk and Nineveh provinces. But Iran-backed PMFs actively sought to undermine these efforts.
In October 2019, the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior and the KRG Ministry of Peshmerga reached a final agreement to create five joint coordination centres in Kirkuk, Mosul, Makhmour, Khanaqin and Kask. Days later, the Ministry of the Interior, under the influence of PMFs, reneged on the agreement. Under the current government of Mustafa al-Kadhimi, only two such centres in Baghdad and Erbil have been created.
Iran-backed paramilitary groups also tried to sabotage the Sinjar Agreement, signed in October 2020 between Erbil and Baghdad with the support of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq. The deal was meant to jumpstart the stabilisation process for Sinjar by addressing two key issues: the existence of multiple armed actors and two rival administrations for the district. But seven months on, no progress has been made on the ground to implement the agreement.
Some have attributed the failure of the agreement to the lack of engagement and inclusion of all sectors of Sinjar and Yazidi society. The truth, however, is that the major barrier is the Iranian-backed militias’ rejection of the essence of the agreement – the establishment of government monopoly over the use of force – and refusal to withdraw.
It is not in the interest of pro-Iran groups for the KRG and the central Iraqi government to re-establish control over Sinjar because they stand to lose not only politically, but also economically. PMFs present in Sinjar directly profit from cross-border smuggling by imposing a taxation system on imports from Syria including animals, agricultural products, etc.
The recent attacks against US and Turkish forces are likely a result of the Iran-backed groups’ intransigence in the face of growing pressure for them to withdraw from the north and west of the country. There is also growing anxiety among them that their popularity is shrinking – something that became apparent during the popular anti-government protests in 2019-2020 in Baghdad and Shia-majority cities of the south.
The Iran-backed PMFs are, therefore, desperately looking for “new enemies” in the face of US-allied KRG and Turkey in order to continue justifying their presence in the disputed regions and sustain the current security and power structure.
By undermining efforts to conclude and implement agreements between Erbil and Baghdad on the disputed areas, the Iran-backed armed groups are precluding the re-establishment of strong civilian power centres that could pave the way for stabilisation and reconstruction of these areas. This corresponds with Iran’s overall strategy for Iraq – to keep it in a constant state of uncertainty, with weak state institutions and control.
As long as the Iraqi government is unable to rein in these powerful non-state actors, it will not be able to steer the country towards stability and socio-economic development. Their continuous presence in disputed areas is causing tensions that in the near future could result in renewed conflict.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.







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South Africa's royal scandal: New Zulu king's claim disputed From “World”




A new Zulu king has been named in South Africa amid scenes of chaos as members of the royal family questioned a prince’s claim to the title







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Lebanon and Israel talks resume over disputed maritime border | Business and Economy News From “Al Jazeera – Breaking News, World News and Video from Al Jazeera”



Lebanon and Israel are resuming US-mediated talks regarding a dispute over their Mediterranean Sea border that has held up hydrocarbon exploration in the potentially gas-rich area.
The talks, between countries still technically at war, kicked off at the UN base in the town of Naqura in southern Lebanon, the National News Agency reported on Tuesday.
Lebanon and Israel took part in indirect talks to discuss demarcation last year. But they stalled after Lebanon demanded a larger area, including part of the Karish gas field, where Israel has given exploration rights to a Greek firm.
The talks last year were supposed to discuss a Lebanese demand for 860sq km (330 square miles) of territory in the disputed maritime area, according to a map sent to the United Nations in 2011.
However, Lebanon then said the map was based on erroneous calculations and demanded 1,430sq km (552 square miles) more further south, including part of Karish.
“The discussion will start from where we left it off,” a source at the Lebanese presidency told AFP news agency on Tuesday. He said both Israel and Lebanon demanded a different demarcation line.
“We don’t accept the line they’ve proposed, and they don’t accept ours, so we’ll see what the mediator suggests.”
Last month, Lebanese President Aoun demanded Israel halt all exploration in Karish until the dispute was settled [File: Reuters]Last month, Lebanese President Michel Aoun demanded Israel halt all exploration in Karish until the dispute was settled.
In February 2018, Lebanon signed its first contract for offshore drilling for oil and gas in Blocks 4 and 9, with a consortium comprising energy giants Total, ENI and Novatek.
Lebanon in April said initial drilling in Block 4 had shown traces of gas but no commercially viable reserves.
Washington said on Friday the discussions would be brokered by US diplomat John Desrocher, and called the resumption of talks “a positive step towards a long-awaited resolution”.
Desrocher arrived in Beirut on Monday night to take part in the talks, according to The Associated Press news agency.
Lebanese politicians hope that commercially viable hydrocarbon resources off Lebanon’s coast could help lift the debt-ridden country out of its worst economic crisis in decades.
But Lebanon’s government stepped down after a enormous blast at Beirut’s port in August 2020, and deeply divided politicians have been unable to form a new cabinet ever since.







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War and doubts slow COVID vaccination in disputed Yemen city | Coronavirus pandemic News From “Al Jazeera – Breaking News, World News and Video from Al Jazeera”



Many Yemenis seem reluctant to get inoculated either on religious grounds, due to distrust of the vaccine or because of the dangers of war.In al-Thawra hospital in the disputed Yemeni city of Taiz, a nurse with no face mask or protective gear inoculates the few people who have shown interest in the COVID-19 vaccine.
She picks an AstraZeneca vial from a cooler box, warms it with her hands and invokes the name of God before injecting the shot into a man’s left arm.
Yemen has received 360,000 doses from the global COVAX vaccine-sharing scheme, yet many Yemenis seem reluctant to get inoculated on religious grounds, due to distrust of the vaccine, or because of the dangers of war.
“We have received 70,000 doses in Taiz and we started the vaccination campaign on April 21,” Rajeh al-Maliki, head of Yemen’s health ministry in Taiz.
“We can fairly say that there is very little interest … we have distributed around 500 shots since we started, it is less than we expected,” Maliki said.
There has been a dramatic spike in infections in Yemen this year, straining a health system already battered by war, economic collapse and a shortfall in aid funding.
The Iranian-aligned Houthi movement, which controls most of northern Yemen and parts of Taiz, has been battling the Saudi-backed government since 2014. Tens of thousands have been killed and millions rely on aid to survive.
A man receives the AstraZeneca vaccine against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at a medical centre in Taiz [File: Anees Mahyoub/Reuters]Al-Maliki and other doctors said many Yemenis, including medical staff, believe the vaccine would break their fast during the holy month of Ramadan.
Checkpoints and snipers in the heavily militarised city make it impossible for many residents to reach hospitals, they said.
People living in Houthi-controlled neighbourhoods have to travel about 50km (30 miles) to avoid front lines and reach the main government-controlled hospital.
“I got infected by coronavirus, I took natural herbs and spices that our ancestors used. I was well again,” said Ali Abdou, a 55-year-old Taiz resident.
“We work very hard with our bodies and it gives us strong immunity, one of us dies only when his time has come. Those rare diseases only affect the rich and we are not among them,” Abdou said.
Mohammed Muthana, another resident, said he will wait until officials and doctors take the vaccine before he can trust it.
In al-Thawra hospital, doctor Sarah Damaj has been trying to convince Yemenis the vaccine is safe and does not break the fast.
“People are afraid because there is a lot of misinformation out there, especially on social media,” she said.







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Beijing sends aircraft carrier group to disputed South China Sea, vows to ‘uphold national sovereignty & security’ — RT World News From “RT World News”



China has dispatched an aircraft carrier strike group into the disputed South China Sea for “routine” drills. The deployment comes shortly after another Chinese carrier group left the troubled region.

The group, led by the country’s second aircraft carrier, the Shandong, is to take part in “routine” training scheduled in its annual work plan, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy said in a statement on Sunday.“It is completely legitimate and beneficial in improving the country’s ability to uphold national sovereignty and security,” a spokesman for the navy, Gao Xiucheng, has said.The Shandong is the newer of two currently operational Chinese aircraft carriers. Launched in 2017, it entered service in late 2019. The deployment of the carrier strike group is its first major exercise this year.The deployment comes shortly after another Chinese carrier group, led by the Liaoning aircraft carrier, left the region. The group held exercises in both the Western Pacific and South China Sea.

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‘Do Chinese warships go to the Gulf of Mexico?’: Beijing blames Washington’s aggression for Taiwan tensions

On Thursday, China’s military revealed that the group has been pestered by a US Navy destroyer, USS Mustin, for some three weeks. The ship conducted “persistent close-range reconnaissance” and “severely disrupted” their exercises, it said, describing its conduct as “very vile in nature.” According to Beijing, the activities of the USS Mustin had threatened the “vessels and crew” of the strike group, and a formal diplomatic complaint has been launched.The highly contested region has seen a lot of foreign military activity this year, with US aircraft carriers and other vessels visiting it several times already. In mid-April, the US also held joint two-week-long drills with the Philippines as part of Exercise Balikatan. They took place in the South China Sea near the Philippine-held island in the disputed Spratly archipelago, as well as around the contested Scarborough Shoal.Washington has been very active in the South China Sea in the past few years, repeatedly sending aerial and naval missions there. According to the US, such activities are needed to uphold the so-called “freedom of navigation” principle in the region. However, these endeavors have repeatedly resulted in run-ins with the Chinese military. Beijing opposes the missions, insisting they only create further tensions in the disputed waters.

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‘Britain’s deployment is not to be provocative,’ says defence sec as UK sends aircraft carrier and other warships towards China

The resource-rich South China Sea is the subject of overlapping maritime and territorial claims by multiple nations, including China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei, as Beijing has claimed almost the entire sea for itself. The region is also an important waterway, with multiple trade routes and trillions of dollars’ worth of goods flowing through it each year.Think your friends would be interested? Share this story!







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