Khan After Putin Visit: Pakistan to Import Wheat, Gas from Russia

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan announced Monday that his country will import about 2 million tons of wheat from Russia and buy natural gas as well under bilateral agreements the two sides signed last week during his official trip to Moscow.  

Khan pressed on with his two-day visit and met with President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin on Thursday, hours after Russian forces invaded Ukraine, with Western countries pushing to isolate the Russian leader for his actions. 

On Monday, the Pakistani prime minister defended his trip and responded to critics in a televised speech to the nation, saying Pakistan’s economic interests required him to do so.  

“We went there because we have to import 2 million tons of wheat from Russia. Secondly, we have signed agreements with them to import natural gas because Pakistan’s own gas reserves are depleting,” Khan said.  

“Inshallah (God willing), the time will tell that we have had great discussions,” the Pakistani leader said, referring to his three-hour meeting with Putin. He shared no further details. 

Critics, however, are skeptical about Moscow-Islamabad economic collaboration, citing tougher international sanctions slapped on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine.  

On Thursday, Putin warmly received Khan at the Kremlin in front of cameras, shook hands and sat just next to the visitor for what Pakistani officials said were wide-ranging consultations on bilateral, regional and international issues.  

“The Prime Minister regretted the latest situation between Russia and Ukraine and said that Pakistan had hoped diplomacy could avert a military conflict,” a post-meeting statement quoted Khan as telling Putin. 

Pakistani officials and Khan himself maintained that the Moscow visit was planned long before the Ukraine crisis erupted and was aimed solely at reviewing bilateral trade relations, including energy cooperation. 

Pakistan’s frosty relations with the United States, analysts say, have pushed the South Asian nation closer to its giant neighbors China and Russia in recent years. 

Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who accompanied Khan on the visit, said after the delegation returned to Pakistan that Washington had contacted Islamabad ahead of the Moscow trip. 

“[U.S. officials] presented their position and we explained to them the purpose of the trip and went ahead with it,” Qureshi told reporters when asked whether the U.S. was opposed to the visit. “I’m convinced after the visit that we did the right thing.” 

Speaking on the eve of Khan’s trip to Russia, a U.S. State Department spokesman, when asked about it, said Washington believed that Pakistan, like “every responsible” country, would voice objection to Putin’s actions. 

But Pakistani leaders have avoided criticizing Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine and stressed the need for seeking a negotiated settlement to the crisis.  

Islamabad also has developed close economic and military ties with Ukraine in recent years, with Pakistan being a major importer of Ukrainian wheat.  

Qureshi spoke to Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on Sunday and reiterated Islamabad’s “serious concern at the situation, underscoring the importance of de-escalation, and stressing the indispensability of diplomacy.” 

Pakistan sided with the U.S. during the Cold War and played an instrumental role in arming as well as training Washington-funded resistance to the decadelong Soviet occupation of neighboring Afghanistan in the 1980s.  

While Islamabad’s often uneasy relations with Washington have lately strained over the country’s backing of the Islamist Taliban in Afghanistan, ties between India and the U.S. have solidified in recent years due to shared concerns stemming from China’s growing influence in the region.  

India, Islamabad’s bitter foe, had close ties with Russia during the Cold War, as Moscow was a major arms exporter to New Delhi. 

Moscow has restored ties with Islamabad in recent years, however. The two countries routinely hold joint military exercises and are working to deepen energy cooperation to help Pakistan overcome shortages. 

Khan in his address Monday reiterated that Pakistan’s decision to join the U.S.-led war on terrorism in Afghanistan was an outcome of “the wrong foreign policy” of his predecessors.  

“I maintained from day one that we should not have taken part [in the U.S.-led war],” he said, adding that Pakistan suffered 80,000 casualties because of an Islamist retaliation and incurred billions of dollars in economic losses.  

“The most embarrassing part was that a country was fighting in support of a country that was bombing it,” Khan said, referring to U.S. drone strikes against suspected militant hideouts in Pakistani areas near the Afghan border. 

Khan also announced a cut in fuel and electricity prices to help offset a steep rise in the global oil market because of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. 

He promised to freeze the new prices until the next budget in June. Critics said the move could result from opposition protests over rising inflation that officials blame on the coronavirus outbreak and tough economic reforms the government is undertaking in line with a $6 billion bailout package from the International Monetary Fund. 


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US to Expel 12 Russian Diplomats at UN Mission for Spying

The United States said Monday that it was expelling 12 Russian diplomats based at Moscow’s U.N. mission in New York for engaging in espionage activities.

“The United States has informed the United Nations and the Russian Permanent Mission to the United Nations that we are beginning the process of expelling twelve intelligence operatives from the Russian Mission who have abused their privileges of residency in the United States by engaging in espionage activities that are adverse to our national security,” U.S. Mission to the United Nations spokesperson Olivia Dalton said in a statement. “We are taking this action in accordance with the U.N. Headquarters Agreement. This action has been in development for several months.”  

Russian U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia told reporters that the U.S. gave them until March 7 to leave the country. He said that it is a “hostile action” by the U.S. government and violates Washington’s obligations as the host country of the United Nations.

Nebenzia also called the order “sad news” and said the U.S., the host country, was showing “gross disrespect” to its commitments “both under U.N. Charter and the Host Country Agreement, and Vienna conventions.” The Vienna Convention also applies to the treatment of diplomats.  

Nebenzia received the news in a phone call during a press conference about the Ukraine conflict. He said the U.S. had delivered a letter to Moscow’s New York mission with the decision.  

It is not the first time the U.S. has declared Russian diplomats at the U.N. persona non grata. Most recently, in 2018, the Trump administration expelled a dozen Russian diplomats from the U.N. mission on similar charges as tensions rose over a poisoning attack on a former Russian spy in Britain.  

Nebenzia also informed members of the U.N. Security Council of the development at the start of a meeting on the growing humanitarian crisis.  

“We keep being told about the need for diplomacy, diplomatic solutions. And at the same time, our opportunities to conduct this kind of activity are being restricted,” he said. “We deeply regret this decision and will see how events develop within the context of this decision.”  

U.S. envoy Richard Mills replied that the decision was taken in full accordance with the U.N. Headquarters Agreement.  


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Protesters March on Russian Embassy in Nigeria’s Capital

Parents, relatives and friends of Nigerian students stranded in Ukraine chanted as they marched outside the Russian Embassy in Abuja on Monday, calling for peace in Ukraine and the students’ immediate evacuation from the war-torn country. 

“We need peace because of our children,” said protester Blessing Keri, whose relative is studying in Ukraine. “We don’t want our children there or our sisters or our brothers to go there and perish. We want them to stay in peace and come back to Nigeria in peace.” 

Nigerian authorities have been unable to evacuate thousands of nationals, including some 5,600 students who were in Ukraine when the crisis began. Airport and train service out of Ukraine has been shut down since Russian forces invaded last week. 

Some Nigerians have joined the exodus of people trying to flee Ukraine on foot into Poland and Romania. 

There have been reports that Africans are being blocked from entering Poland while Ukrainians are allowed to cross the border.

On Sunday, an adviser to President Muhammadu Buhari said “it is paramount that everyone is treated with dignity” and “the color of their passport or their skin should make no difference.” 

Poland has denied that Nigerians are being blocked from entering the country. 

Geoffrey Onyeama, Nigeria’s minister of foreign affairs, spoke to the local Arise News station, saying Nigeria is making plans to evacuate the students and nationals willing to leave. 

“Our people are dispersed all over the country, so it has to be something that’s well organized, getting people to go to the closest airports to where they are,” he said. 

The ministry Sunday said some 256 Nigerians have safely passed into Poland. 

Meanwhile, a coalition of Nigerians in Poland are providing relief to their countrymen arriving at the borders and are gathering funds online to help resettle the displaced. 

“So these people that are coming in, we need to shelter them, we need to provide for them, we need to give them food, accommodation, even the transport to take them from the border to the accommodation we’ve provided,” said Rawlings Onyi, one of the online campaigners in Poland. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has attracted criticism from around the globe, including the West African bloc ECOWAS, which has called for an end to the fighting and for all parties to ensure the safety of West Africans living in Ukraine.  


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Vatican Offers to Mediate End to Ukraine War

Pope Francis is suffering from acute knee pain and won’t preside over this week’s Ash Wednesday celebrations after his doctor ordered him to rest. Despite his health issues, the pope has launched efforts to mediate an end to the war in Ukraine.

Pope Francis will not be presiding over the customary mass for the start of Lent at the Basilica of Saint Sabina on Rome’s Aventine Hill this year.

The pope’s knee ailment also forced him to cancel travel plans for the first time in his papacy. Francis was scheduled to celebrate mass Sunday in Florence for the closing of a meeting of bishops and mayors from the Mediterranean region.

But knee pain has not stopped the Pope from repeatedly voicing his concern about the developments in Ukraine.

On Friday, he visited the Russian ambassador to the Holy See, Alexander Avdeev, to express those concerns in person.

The Pope has called for Ash Wednesday this week to serve as a day of prayer and fasting for peace in Ukraine.

His worries were voiced again Sunday when he said his “heart is broken” and called for arms to fall silent.

Referring to those in search of refuge as brothers and sisters, the pope made an impassioned appeal for humanitarian corridors to help refugees leave Ukraine.

The Vatican has now said it is prepared to assist in any negotiation aimed at ending the war in the eastern European country. The Vatican’s No. 2, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, said in interviews published in Italian newspapers Monday that the Vatican is offering to facilitate dialogue with Russia. He said there is always space for negotiation.

Earlier, the head of the Italian Bishop’s Conference, Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, announced the pope would not travel after speaking to the Holy Father on the phone.

Bassetti said the pope had given his strong backing to the “Mediterranean, Frontier of Peace” meeting in Florence and had wanted to attend but the doctor recommended that he take a “period of greater rest” for his leg.

It remains unclear whether the pope’s current knee problem is linked to previous sciatica conditions that have forced him to cancel some of his public appearances in recent times and has also caused him to limp. Only last month, the 85-year-old pontiff complained of a pain in his leg, saying it was worse when he remained standing.

Pope Francis underwent colon surgery in July in what was considered his most serious health issue since he was elected head of the Catholic Church in March 2013. After spending 10 days in a hospital, he appeared to recover well and soon returned to his daily activities.

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Ukraine President Appeals for Immediate EU Accession

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appealed Monday for the European Union to immediately admit Ukraine to the bloc, as the country battled a Russian invasion.

Zelenskyy posted photographs of himself on social media signing an application to join the 27-member nation EU. In a video, he said, “We appeal to the European Union for the urgent accession of Ukraine via a new special procedure.”

“We are grateful to our partners for being with us,” Zelenskyy said. “But our goal is to be together with all Europeans and, most importantly, to be on equal footing. I’m sure it’s fair. I’m sure we earned it. I’m sure it’s possible.”

It usually takes years for any country to officially join the EU, part of a multi-step process that often requires nations to make reforms to reach EU standards.

The head of Zelenskyy’s office, Andrii Sybiha, said on his official Facebook page that the documents requesting EU admission “are on the way to Brussels.”

The EU has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and has offered military assistance to Kyiv as well as imposed tough economic sanctions on Russia and blocked Russian planes from EU skies.

Ukraine’s request comes after European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen told Euronews in an interview Sunday of Ukraine: “They are one of us, and we want them in.”

However, Von der Leyen’s spokesperson, Eric Mamer, clarified Monday that the EU chief did not mean that Ukraine could join immediately.

He said Von der Leyen “specified that there is a process (for joining the EU). And I think that this is the important point.”

The application for Ukraine to join the EU, even if largely symbolic, is likely to anger Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has long accused the West of trying to bring Ukraine under its influence.

Some information in this report came from The Associated Press and Agence France-Presse.

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Women Join Cameroon Militias to Fight Boko Haram

In the last few years, villages along Cameroon’s northern border with Nigeria have formed militias to ward off Boko Haram militants and inform authorities about suspicious activities. These so-called vigilance committees were exclusively male until last year when a number of women joined. Anne Nzouankeu reports from Mora, Cameroon.

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