Kyiv asks allies for help against alleged Russian abuse of Ukrainian POWs

Washington — While the debates around the U.S. aid to Ukraine focus on military assistance, Kyiv is asking Washington for support in another crucial area — locating POWs and civilian hostages held in Russia and their rehabilitation after they return home. 

Ukraine has also called on the United States to introduce sanctions against those who abuse Ukrainian captives in Russian prisons.

Tеtiana, who asked her surname be kept confidential for her family’s safety, said her father, a civilian pensioner, was taken during the Russian occupation of his small Ukrainian village in April 2022.

She found out about his fate only after Ukrainian forces liberated the village. Later, she learned more from Ukrainian POWs who had shared jail cells with him before being released in prisoner swaps.

“They are given just enough food to keep them alive. … They are not allowed to sit. They constantly stand,” she told VOA. 

Tetiana said other treatment amounts to psychological torture.

“They may be told that they’re being taken for a [prisoner] exchange and then returned on the same day and told, ‘We wanted to exchange you, but Ukraine doesn’t want you back,’” she said.

Tetіana talked to VOA in March during visits to the U.S. Senate and State Department with other relatives of prisoners and representatives of the Ukrainian Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War (KSHPPV).  

Olha Pylypey, a member of the small delegation of relatives, told VOA about her brother, Yuliy Pylypey, a marine who fought in Mariupol. On April 12, 2022, he, along with other Ukrainian marines, was captured by the Russian forces at the Ilyich Iron and Steel Works plant. 

Released prisoners told her that her brother is jailed in Kursk, Russia. They also told Yuliy’s family that the administrators and guards of Russian prisons treat Ukrainian captives much worse than regular Russian inmates. 

“They line up [Ukrainian prisoners] and release aggressive dogs on them and don’t allow them to defend themselves,” Pylypey said. She is afraid Yuliy may have also been raped.

Officials at the U.N. Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, or HRMMU, interviewed and documented 60 Ukrainian servicemen recently released from captivity and found that most of them had experienced sexual violence.

“Almost every single one of the Ukrainian POWs we interviewed described how Russian servicepersons or officials tortured them during their captivity, using repeated beatings, electric shocks, threats of execution, prolonged stress positions and mock execution. Over half of them were subjected to sexual violence,” said Danielle Bell, who heads HRMMU.   

Russian officials deny accusations of mistreatment of Ukrainian prisoners. On November 30, 2023, Russian Commissioner for Human Rights Tatiana Moskalkova said she visited 119 Ukrainian POWs in Russian prisons and found the prisons adhered to international standards.

Andriy Kryvtsov, head of the Military Medics of Ukraine nongovernmental organization, helped find his sister-in-law, military medic Olena Kryvtsova, who was part of a prisoner swap after six months in Russian captivity.  

“They were tortured, beaten and used as punching bags,” Kryvtsov said. “Russian special forces trained on them. They beat them like meat. She lost a lot of weight. When she came home, she weighed 77 pounds.”

Along with other relatives of prisoners, Kryvtsov asked the U.S. and its partners for sanctions not only against the leadership of Russia but also against prison personnel.

“Putin is not personally torturing these people,” he said. 

Andriy Yusov, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s military intelligence and a member of the KSHPPV, told VOA that Ukrainian officials understand that the U.S. can’t force Russia to comply with the Geneva Convention treaties, which establish standards of humane treatment for people affected by armed conflicts, including POWs. 

But he said the U.S. can help by locating the whereabouts of Ukrainians in Russian prisons so they can be included on the prisoner exchange lists.

The Red Cross has confirmed the identities of 5,000 Ukrainians in Russian captivity. But tens of thousands of people, both civilians and prisoners of war, remain missing, Ukrainian officials say. 

Yusov also emphasized the importance of rehabilitating released prisoners and assisting their families. 

“Thousands of family members of our defenders who ended up in captivity, as well as thousands of Ukrainians who’ve returned from Russian captivity, need social, psychological and medical support, and all this is a subject for our cooperation with partners,” he told VOA.   

Russia does not differentiate between civilians and military captives, considering both to have been “detained for counteracting the SVO,” a Russian abbreviation for special military operation – Moscow’s official designation of its invasion of Ukraine – Ukrainian human rights lawyers told the BBC. 

Lawyers at the Center for Civil Liberties, the Ukrainian organization that received the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, told the BBC that they believe there are about 2,000 Ukrainian civilian prisoners in Russia and the occupied territories.

According to a report by the U.N. Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine published in March, at least 32 Ukrainian servicemen were executed in Russian captivity between December 1, 2023, and February 29, 2024.

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Top US general warns Ukraine on brink of being overrun by Russia

WASHINGTON — The tenacity of Ukrainian troops will soon be no match for Russia’s manpower and missiles should U.S. lawmakers fail to approve additional security assistance for Ukraine, the top American general in Europe told lawmakers, part of a stark warning about the direction of the more than two-year-old conflict.

U.S. military officials have warned repeatedly in recent weeks that Russian forces have been able to make incremental gains in Ukraine and that without renewed U.S. backing, Ukraine’s forces will eventually falter.

Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee Wednesday, the commander of U.S. European Command described the battlefield in blunt terms.

“If we do not continue to support Ukraine, Ukraine will run out of artillery shells and will run out of air defense interceptors in fairly short order,” said General Christopher Cavoli, explaining that Kyiv is dependent on the United States for those key munitions.

“I can’t predict the future, but I can do simple math,” he said. “Based on my experience in 37-plus years in the U.S. military, if one side can shoot and the other side can’t shoot back, the side that can’t shoot back loses.”

Cavoli also said the failure of U.S. lawmakers to approve a $60 billion supplemental security package is already giving Russia a significant advantage.

“They [Ukraine] are now being outshot by the Russian side 5-to-1,” he told lawmakers. “That will immediately go to 10-to-1 in a matter of weeks.

“We are not talking about months. We are not talking hypothetically,” Cavoli said.

Multiple U.S. officials have warned that Ukraine’s military has been forced to ration artillery and air defense capabilities as Kyiv waits for U.S. lawmakers to approve the supplemental assistance.

“We are already seeing the effects of the failure to pass the supplemental,” Assistant Secretary of Defense Celeste Wallander told the panel, testifying alongside U.S. European Command’s Cavoli.

“We don’t need to imagine,” she said, blaming the lack of U.S. provided artillery for why “the Russian attacks are getting through.”

That supplemental defense package passed in the U.S. Senate back in February, but leadership in the House of Representatives has so far refused to bring the legislation to the floor for a vote.

During a press conference on Capitol Hill Wednesday, Republican House of Representatives Speaker Mike Johnson said lawmakers were continuing to “actively discuss our options on a path forward.”

“It’s a very complicated matter at a very complicated time. The clock is ticking on it, and everyone here feels the urgency of that,” Johnson said. “But what’s required is that you reach consensus on it, and that’s what we’re working on.”

House Democrats, however, have voiced frustration with Johnson’s refusal to call a vote.

“The House has waited months now to approve the security package to help protect Ukraine,” said Representative Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. “Weeks ago, we were too late. And now every day is at an extreme cost to our ability to deter Russia.”

Another Democrat on the committee, Representative Elissa Slotkin, scolded Johnson, saying he needs to call a vote despite opposition from a small group of House Republicans.

“We do need to get it over the finish line,” she said. “I accept that he’s at risk of losing his job over that choice, but that’s what leadership is — it’s the big boy pants and making tough choices.”

Some Republicans, though, chastised Democratic lawmakers for what they described as misguided priorities.

“We’ve got hundreds of thousands of Americans who are dying, fentanyl overdoses, child and human sex trafficking, not to mention 178-plus countries that are crossing our border,” said Republican Representative Cory Mills.

“But, oh wait, that’s not the priority. Let’s secure Ukraine’s borders,” he said.

VOA’s Katherine Gypson contributed to this report.

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EU lawmakers approve an overhaul of migration law, hoping to deprive the far right of votes

BRUSSELS — European Union lawmakers approved Wednesday a major revamp of the bloc’s migration laws aimed at ending years of division over how to manage the entry of thousands of people without authorization and depriving the far right of a vote-winning campaign issue ahead of June elections.

The members of the European Parliament voted on the so-called Pact on Migration and Asylum, regulations and policies meant to help address the thorny issue of who should take responsibility for migrants when they arrive and whether other EU countries should be obliged to help.

The proceedings were briefly interrupted by a small but noisy group of demonstrators in the public gallery who wore shirts marked “this pact kills” and shouted “vote no!”

The 27 EU member countries must now endorse the reform package, possibly in a vote in late April, before it can enter force.

The plan was drawn up after 1.3 million people, mostly those fleeing war in Syria and Iraq, sought refuge in Europe in 2015. The EU’s asylum system collapsed, reception centers were overwhelmed in Greece and Italy, and countries further north built barriers to stop people entering.

But few have admitted to being happy with the new policy response to one of Europe’s biggest political crises, and even the lawmakers who drafted parts of the new regulations are unwilling to support the entire reform package.

“I’m not going to open a bottle of champagne after this,” Dutch lawmaker Sophie i’nt Veld, who drew up the assembly’s position on migrant reception conditions, told reporters on the eve of the plenary session in Brussels. She said she planned to abstain from some of the votes.

In’t Veld described the pact as “the bare minimum” in terms of a policy response, but she does not want to torpedo it by voting against. “We will not have another opportunity to come to an agreement,” she said.

Swedish parliamentarian Malin Bjork, who worked on refugee resettlement, said that the pact does not respond to “any of the questions it was set to solve.”

She said the reform package “undermines the individual right to seek asylum” in Europe because it would build on plans that some EU countries already have to process migrants abroad. Italy has concluded one such deal with Albania.

“We cannot have a situation where people systematically, in their thousands, die on their way seeking protection and refuge in Europe,” Bjork told reporters.

The new rules include controversial measures: facial images and fingerprints could be taken from children from the age of 6, and people may be detained during screening. Fast-track deportation could be used on those not permitted to stay.

“The pact will lead to more detention and de facto detention at the EU’s external borders, including for families with children, which is in clear violation of international law,” said Marta Gionco from Picum, a network of migrant rights defense organizations.

Mainstream political parties want to secure agreement on the pact ahead of Europe-wide elections on June 6-9. Migration is likely to be a campaign issue, and they believe the new reforms address concerns about an issue that has been a consistent vote-winner for far-right parties.

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Russia, Kazakhstan evacuate 100,000 people in worst flooding in decades

ORSK, Russia — Russia and Kazakhstan ordered more than 100,000 people to evacuate after swiftly melting snow swelled rivers beyond bursting point in the worst flooding in the area for at least 70 years. 

The deluge of melt water overwhelmed scores of settlements in the Ural Mountains, Siberia and areas of Kazakhstan close to rivers such as the Ural and Tobol, which local officials said had risen by meters in a matter of hours to the highest levels ever recorded. 

Late on Tuesday, levels of the Ural River in Orenburg, a city of around 550,000, reached 9.31 meters (30.54 feet) exceeding the critical level of 9.30 meters (30.51 feet), the regional governor said. He urged residents in areas at risk to evacuate. 

“I am calling for caution and for those in flooded districts to evacuate promptly,” Denis Pasler said on Telegram. 

City residents paddled along roads as though they were rivers. Dams and embankments were being strengthened.  

Upstream on the Ural, floodwaters burst through an embankment dam in the city of Orsk last Friday. 

Regional officials said water levels in Orsk had subsided by 21 centimeters (.68 feet) and now stood at 9.07 meters 29.75 feet), still well over the official danger level of about 7 meters (22.96 feet). Russia’s Emergencies Ministry said water levels had declined in a number of areas but described the situation as “still difficult.” 

The Ural is Europe’s third-longest river, which flows through Russia and Kazakhstan into the Caspian. 

Evacuation order 

Sirens in Kurgan, a city on the Tobol River, a tributary of the Irtysh, warned people to evacuate immediately. Regional officials said floodwaters would continue to rise for three days and predicted a “difficult situation” until the end of April. 

A state of emergency was also declared in Tyumen, a major oil-producing region of Western Siberia, the largest hydrocarbon basin in the world. Russian news agencies said Emergencies Minister Alexander Kurenkov had arrived in the city as part of a regional tour assessing flood danger. 

“The difficult days are still ahead for the Kurgan and Tyumen regions,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. “There is a lot of water coming.” 

Tyumen is about 200 kilometers (124.27 miles) north of Kurgan. 

President Vladimir Putin spoke to President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev of Kazakhstan, where more than 86,000 people have been evacuated because of the flooding. Tokayev said the flooding was probably the worst in 80 years. 

The most severely hit areas are Atyrau, Aktobe, Akmola, Kostanai, Eastern Kazakhstan, Northern Kazakhstan and Pavlodar regions, most of which border Russia and are crossed by rivers originating in Russia such as the Ural and the Tobol. 

Russians beg for help

In Russia, anger boiled over in Orsk when at least 100 Russians begged the Kremlin chief for help and chanted “shame on you” at local officials who they said had done too little. 

The Kremlin said Putin was being updated on the situation but had no immediate plans to visit the flood zone as local and emergency officials were doing their best to tackle the deluge.  

In Kurgan, a region with 800,000 residents, drone footage showed traditional Russian wooden houses and the golden kupolas of Orthodox Churches stranded alongside an expanse of water.  

Russian officials have said some people ignored calls to evacuate. Kurgan Governor Vadim Shumkov urged residents to take the warnings seriously. 

“We understand you very well: It is hard to leave your possessions and move somewhere at the call of the local authorities,” Shumkov said. “It’s better that we laugh at the hydrologists together later and praise God for the miracle of our common salvation. But let’s do it alive.” 

In Kurgan, water levels were rising in the Tobol. Russia said 19,000 people were at risk in the region.  

Rising waters were also forecast in Siberia’s Ishim River, also a tributary of the Irtysh, which along with its parent, the Ob, forms the world’s seventh-longest river system. 

It was not immediately clear why this year’s floods were so severe as the snow melt is an annual event in Russia. Scientists say climate change has made flooding more frequent worldwide. 

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Peter Higgs, physicist who proposed the existence of the ‘God particle,’ dies at 94

LONDON — Nobel prize-winning physicist Peter Higgs, who proposed the existence of the so-called “God particle” that helped explain how matter formed after the Big Bang, has died at age 94, the University of Edinburgh said Tuesday.

The university, where Higgs was emeritus professor, said he died Monday following a short illness.

Higgs predicted the existence of a new particle, which came to be known as the Higgs boson, in 1964. He theorized there must be a subatomic particle of certain dimension that would explain how other particles — and therefore all the stars and planets in the universe — acquired mass. Without something like this particle, the set of equations physicists use to describe the world, known as the standard model, would not hold together.

Higgs’ work helps scientists understand one of the most fundamental riddles of the universe: how the Big Bang created something out of nothing 13.8 billion years ago. Without mass from the Higgs, particles could not clump together into the matter we interact with every day.

But it would be almost 50 years before the particle’s existence could be confirmed. In 2012, in one of the biggest breakthroughs in physics in decades, scientists at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, announced that they had finally found a Higgs boson using the Large Hardron Collider, the $10 billion atom smasher in a 17-mile (27-kilometer) tunnel under the Swiss-French border.

The collider was designed in large part to find Higgs’ particle. It produces collisions with extraordinarily high energies in order to mimic some of the conditions that were present in the trillionths of seconds after the Big Bang.

Higgs won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work, alongside Francois Englert of Belgium, who independently came up with the same theory.

Edinburgh University Vice Chancellor Peter Mathieson said Higgs, who was born in Newcastle, was “a remarkable individual – a truly gifted scientist whose vision and imagination have enriched our knowledge of the world that surrounds us.”

“His pioneering work has motivated thousands of scientists, and his legacy will continue to inspire many more for generations to come.”

Born in Newcastle, northeast England, on May 29, 1929, Higgs studied at King’s College, University of London, and was awarded a doctorate in 1954. He spent much of his career at Edinburgh, becoming the Personal Chair of Theoretical Physics at the Scottish university in 1980. He retired in 1996.

One highlight of Higgs’ career came in the 2013 presentation at CERN in Geneva where scientists presented in complex terms — based on statistical analysis unfathomable to most laypeople — that the boson had been confirmed. He broke into tears, wiping down his glasses in the stands of a CERN lecture hall.

“There was an emotion — a kind of vibration — going around in the auditorium,” Fabiola Gianotti, the CERN director-general told The Associated Press. “That was just a unique moment, a unique experience in a professional life.”

“Peter was a very touching person. He was so sweet, so warm at the same time. And so always interested in what other people had to say,” she said. “Able to listen to other people … open, and interesting, and interested.”

Joel Goldstein, of the School of Physics at the University of Bristol, said: “Peter Higgs was a quiet and modest man, who never seemed comfortable with the fame he achieved even though this work underpins the entire modern theoretical framework of particle physics.”

Gianotti recalled how Higgs often bristled at the term “God particle” for his discovery: “I don’t think he liked this kind of definition,” she said. “It was not in his style.”

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US top military leaders face Congress over Pentagon budget and questions on Israel, Ukraine support

Washington — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Charles Brown Jr. testified on Capitol Hill on Tuesday about the Pentagon’s $850 billion budget for 2025 as questions remained as to whether lawmakers will support current spending needs for Israel or Ukraine.

The Senate hearing was the first time lawmakers on both sides were able to question the Pentagon’s top civilian and military leadership on the administration’s Israel strategy following the country’s deadly strike on World Central Kitchen humanitarian aid workers in Gaza. It also follows continued desperate pleas by Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy that if the U.S. does not help soon, Kyiv will lose the war to Russia.

In their opening statements, both Austin and Brown emphasized that their 2025 budget is still shaped with the military’s long-term strategic goal in mind — to ready forces and weapons for a potential future conflict with China. About $100 billion of this year’s request is set aside for new space, nuclear weapons and cyber warfare systems the military says it must invest in now before Beijing’s capabilities surpass it.

But the conflicts in Ukraine and Israel are challenging a deeply-divided Congress and have resulted in months of delays in getting last year’s defense budget through, which was only passed by lawmakers a few weeks ago.

Austin’s opening remarks were temporarily interrupted by protesters lifting a Palestinian flag and shouting at him to stop sending weapons to Israel. “Stop the genocide,” they said, as they lifted their hands, stained in red, in the air.

The Pentagon scraped together about $300 million in ammunition to send to Kyiv in March but cannot send more without Congress’ support, and a separate $60 billion supplemental bill that would fund those efforts has been stalled for months.

“The price of U.S. leadership is real. But it is far lower than the price of U.S. abdication,” Austin told the senators.

If Kyiv falls, it could imperil Ukraine’s Baltic NATO member neighbors and potentially drag U.S. troops into a prolonged European war. If millions die in Gaza due to starvation, it could enrage Israel’s Arab neighbors and lead to a much wider, deadlier Middle East conflict — one that could also bring harm to U.S. troops and to U.S. relations in the region for decades.

The Pentagon has urged Congress to support new assistance for Ukraine for months, to no avail, and has tried to walk a perilous line between defending its ally Israel and maintaining ties with key regional Arab partners. Israel’s actions in Gaza have been used as a rallying cry by factions of Iranian-backed militant groups, including the Houthis in Yemen and Islamic Resistance groups across Iraq and Syria, to strike at U.S. interests. Three U.S. service members have already been killed as drone and missile attacks increased against U.S. bases in the region.

Six U.S. military ships with personnel and components to build a humanitarian aid pier are also still en route to Gaza but questions remain as to how food that arrives at the pier will be safely distributed inside the devastated territory.

Lawmakers are also seeing demands at home. For months, a handful of its far-right members have kept Congress from approving additional money or weapons for Ukraine until domestic needs like curbing the crush of migrants at the southern U.S. border are addressed. Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson is already facing a call to oust him as speaker by Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene because Johnson is trying to work out a compromise that would move the Ukraine aid forward.

On Israel, the World Central Kitchen strike led to a shift in tone from President Joe Biden on how Israel must protect civilian life in Gaza and drove dozens of House Democrats, including former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to call on Biden to halt weapons transfers to Israel.

Half the population of Gaza is starving and on the brink of famine due to Israel’s tight restrictions on allowing aid trucks through.

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Simon Harris installed as Ireland’s new prime minister

LONDON — Lawmaker Simon Harris was elected Ireland’s prime minister by a vote in parliament Tuesday, becoming at 37 the country’s youngest-ever leader. 

Harris takes over as head of Ireland’s three-party coalition government from Leo Varadkar, who announced his surprise resignation last month. Harris, who served as higher education minister in Varadkar’s government, was the only candidate to replace him as head of the center-right Fine Gael party. 

Lawmakers in the Dáil, the lower house of Ireland’s parliament, confirmed Harris as taoiseach, or prime minister, by 88 votes to 69. 

Harris was first elected to parliament at 24 and has been nicknamed the “TikTok taoiseach” — pronounced TEA-shock — because of his fondness for communicating on social media. He faces challenges including a strained health service, soaring housing costs and an exodus of Fine Gael lawmakers, more than 10 of whom have said they will not run for reelection. 

“I commit to doing everything that I can to honor the trust that you have placed in me today,” Harris said. “As taoiseach I want to bring new ideas, a new energy and a new empathy to public life.” 

Varadkar was the previous youngest-ever premier when first elected at age 38, as well as Ireland’s first openly gay prime minister. Varadkar, whose mother is Irish and father is Indian, was also Ireland’s first biracial taoiseach. 

Varadkar, 45, has had two spells as taoiseach — between 2017 and 2020 and again since December 2022 as part of a job-share with Micheál Martin, the head of Fianna Fáil. 

Varadkar officially stepped down on Monday when he handed in his letter of resignation to President Michael D. Higgins. 

Varadkar told the Dáil on Tuesday that his time in politics had been the “most fulfilling and rewarding time” of his life. 

“But today is the beginning of a new era for my party, a new chapter in my life and a new phase for this coalition government,” he said. 

Harris has said he plans to keep the Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Green Party coalition government going until March 2025, when an election must be held. 

Opposition parties argued that the Irish public deserves an early election. 

“Another Fine Gael taoiseach is the last thing the people need,” said Mary Lou McDonald, leader of left-wing party Sinn Fein. “We need a change of leadership, we need a change of government.”

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Vatican’s top diplomat visits Vietnam, looks to normalize relations

HANOI, Vietnam — The Vatican’s top diplomat began a six-day visit to Vietnam on Tuesday as a part of efforts to normalize relations with the communist nation. 

Richard Gallagher, the Holy See’s foreign minister, met his Vietnamese counterpart Bui Thanh Son and expressed the Vatican’s “gratitude” for the progress that has been made to improve ties. The visit took place after Archbishop Marek Zalewski became the first Vatican representative to live and open an office in the Southeast Asian country. 

“The visit is of great importance,” said Son. 

Gallagher will also meet Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh and visit a children’s hospital in the capital, Hanoi, state-run Vietnam News Agency reported. He will hold Mass in Hanoi, Hue in central Vietnam, and the financial hub of Ho Chi Minh City in the south. 

Gallagher is the Vatican’s No. 2 and his visit to Hanoi was an “important moment” that showed that the relationship was continuing while the sides wait for an upgrade to full diplomatic relations, said Giorgio Bernardelli, the head of AsiaNews, a Catholic Missionary news agency. 

Relations between the Vatican and Vietnam were severed in 1975, after the Communist Party established its rule over the entire country following the end of the Vietnam War. Relations have been strained ever since, although the sides have had regular talks since at least the late 1990s. 

The agreement to appoint the Vatican’s permanent representative in Vietnam was signed in July 2023, during former President Vo Van Thuong’s visit to the Holy See. Thuong also extended an invitation to Pope Francis to visit Vietnam. But Thuong has since resigned, becoming the latest victim of an intense anti-corruption campaign. 

Bernardelli said that the pope’s potential visit was likely to be discussed, adding that it also depended on the political situation in Hanoi following the president’s resignation 

He said that an improvement in ties with Vietnam could also have implications for the Holy See’s ties with communist-ruled China. The relationship with Vietnam had always been a “point of reference, but with important differences,” since unlike China, Vietnam has been keen to improve relations with the Vatican and the West. 

Beijing severed diplomatic ties with the Vatican in 1951, after the communists rose to power and expelled foreign priests. 

Catholicism is officially the most practiced religion in Vietnam, with 5.9 million or 44.6% of the 13.2 million people who identified as religious in a 2019 census saying they were Catholic. That works out to more than 6% of the country’s population. 

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Broken record: March is 10th straight month to be hottest on record, scientists say

WASHINGTON — For the 10th consecutive month, Earth in March set a new monthly record for global heat — with both air temperatures and the world’s oceans hitting an all-time high for the month, the European Union climate agency Copernicus said.

March 2024 averaged 14.14 degrees Celsius (57.9 degrees Fahrenheit), exceeding the previous record from 2016 by a tenth of a degree, according to Copernicus data. And it was 1.68 degrees C (3 degrees F) warmer than in the late 1800s, the base used for temperatures before the burning of fossil fuels began growing rapidly.

Since last June, the globe has broken heat records each month, with marine heat waves across large areas of the globe’s oceans contributing.

Scientists say the record-breaking heat during this time wasn’t entirely surprising due to a strong El Nino, a climatic condition that warms the central Pacific and changes global weather patterns.

“But its combination with the non-natural marine heat waves made these records so breathtaking,” said Woodwell Climate Research Center scientist Jennifer Francis.

With El Nino waning, the margins by which global average temperatures are surpassed each month should go down, Francis said.

Climate scientists attribute most of the record heat to human-caused climate change from carbon dioxide and methane emissions produced by the burning of coal, oil and natural gas.

“The trajectory will not change until concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere stop rising,” Francis said, “which means we must stop burning fossil fuels, stop deforestation, and grow our food more sustainably as quickly as possible.”

Until then, expect more broken records, she said.

Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, the world set a goal to keep warming at or below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times. Copernicus’ temperature data is monthly and uses a slightly different measurement system than the Paris threshold, which is averaged over two or three decades.

Samantha Burgess, deputy director of Copernicus, said March’s record-breaking temperature wasn’t as exceptional as some other months in the past year that broke records by wider margins.

“We’ve had record-breaking months that have been even more unusual,” Burgess said, pointing to February 2024 and September 2023. But the “trajectory is not in the right direction,” she added.

The globe has now experienced 12 months with average monthly temperatures 1.58 degrees Celsius (2.8 degrees Fahrenheit) above the Paris threshold, according to Copernicus data.

In March, global sea surface temperature averaged 21.07 degrees Celsius (69.93 degrees Fahrenheit), the highest monthly value on record and slightly higher than what was recorded in February.

“We need more ambitious global action to ensure that we can get to net zero as soon as possible,” Burgess said.

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Sweden expels Chinese journalist, calling her threat to national security, report says

Copenhagen, Denmark — Sweden has expelled a Chinese journalist, saying the reporter was a threat to national security, Swedish media reported on Monday.

The journalist, an unnamed, 57-year-old woman, was arrested by the Swedish security service in October and expelled by the government in Stockholm last week, Swedish broadcaster SVT reported. She is banned from returning.

The woman arrived in the Scandinavian country some 20 years ago. She held a residence permit and was married to a Swedish man, with whom she has children, according to the broadcaster.

The woman has had contacts with the Chinese Embassy and with people in Sweden who are connected to the Chinese government, SVT said.

Her lawyer, Leutrim Kadriu, told SVT the woman doesn’t believe she poses a threat to Sweden.

“It is difficult for me to go into exact details given that much is shrouded in secrecy, as this is a national security matter,” Kadriu told the broadcaster.

In neighboring Norway, broadcaster NRK said the journalist had also reported from there, and from other Nordic countries including Denmark, Finland and Iceland.

Relations between Stockholm and Beijing have been tense for years.

In 2020, a court in eastern China sentenced Chinese-born Swedish national Gui Minhai to 10 years in prison for selling books that were critical of the ruling Communist Party. He was charged with “illegally providing intelligence overseas.”

China has rebuked Sweden’s demands for Gui’s release.

He first disappeared in 2015, when he was believed to have been abducted by Chinese agents from his seaside home in Thailand.

The case led to an investigation of Sweden’s ambassador to China over a meeting she arranged between Gui’s daughter and two Chinese businessmen whom the daughter said threatened her father. The ambassador, Anna Lindstedt, was eventually cleared.

In 2018, a Swedish court found a man guilty of spying for China by gathering information on Tibetans who had fled to Sweden. Dorjee Gyantsan, a Tibetan who worked for a pro-Tibetan radio station, was found guilty of “gross illegal intelligence activity” and sentenced to 22 months in jail.

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Swapping of the Guard: French, British troops mark Entente Cordiale

Paris — French and British troops on Monday swapped roles to take part in the changing of the guard ceremonies outside the palaces of the other country’s head of state, in an unprecedented move to celebrate 120 years since the Entente Cordiale.

Signed in 1904, the Entente Cordiale accord cemented an improvement in relations after the Napoleonic Wars and is seen as the foundation of the two NATO members’ alliance to this day.

“Even after Brexit and with war back in Europe, “this entente cordiale is somehow the cornerstone… that allows us to maintain the bilateral relationship,” French President Emmanuel Macron said in a video address on X, formerly Twitter.

“Long live the entente cordiale and long live the Franco-British friendship,” he said, switching to English.

Macron and British ambassador to France Menna Rawlings on Monday morning watched British guards taking part in the changing of the guard outside his Elysee Palace.

French guards were to do the same in London outside Buckingham Palace, the official residence of King Charles III.

At the Elysee, 16 members of the Number 7 Company Coldstream Guards of the UK embassy, wearing their traditional bearskin hats, relieved French counterparts from the first infantry regiment.

The French army choir then sang the two national anthems — God Save the King and La Marseillaise.

‘More to defeat Russia’

British Foreign Minister David Cameron and his French counterpart, Stephane Sejourne, celebrated their countries’ “close friendship” in a joint op-ed published late on Sunday.

They said it was key at a time when NATO is mobilized to ensure Ukraine does not lose its fight to repel the Russian invasion.

“Britain and France, two founding members and Europe’s nuclear powers, have a responsibility in driving the alliance to deal with the challenges before it,” the diplomats wrote in Britain’s The Telegraph newspaper.

“We must do even more to ensure we defeat Russia. The world is watching –- and will judge us if we fail.”

A French presidential official said it was “the first time in the history of the Elysee” that foreign troops had been invited to participate in the military ritual.

At the end of 2023, Macron made the changing of the Republican Guard public again, on the first Tuesday of each month, although the ceremony is much less spectacular than its counterpart outside Buckingham Palace.

Two sections of the 1st and 2nd Infantry Regiment of France’s Republican Guard were to participate in the London ceremony alongside guards from F Company Scots Guards and other British forces, the French presidential official said.

It would be watched by the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh — Prince Edward and his wife Sophie — accompanied by the UK chief of the general staff, General Patrick Sanders, and French chief of the army staff Pierre Schill.

The event on the forecourt of Buckingham Palace was to mark the first time a country from outside the Commonwealth — which mostly includes English-speaking former British colonies and possessions — has taken part in the changing of the guard.

Tensions after Brexit

The signing of the Entente Cordiale on April 8, 1904, is widely seen as preparing the way for France and Britain joining forces against Germany in World War I.

While the accord is often used as shorthand to describe the Franco-British relationship, ties have been bedeviled by tensions in recent years, particularly since the United Kingdom left the European Union. 

Migration has been a particular sticking point, with London pressuring Paris to halt the flow of migrants across the Channel.

But a state visit by King Charles last autumn — one of his last big foreign engagements before his cancer diagnosis — was widely seen as a resounding success that showed the fundamental strength of the relationship. 

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