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Israel urges hard line against Iran at nuclear talks

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Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Sunday urged world powers to take a hard line against Iran in negotiations to curb the country’s nuclear program, as his top defense and intelligence officials headed to Washington amid the flailing talks.

Israel has been watching with concern as world powers sit down with Iran to jump-start talks on the tattered nuclear deal. Iran last week struck its own hard line as talks resumed in Vienna, suggesting everything discussed in previous rounds of diplomacy could be renegotiated. Iran also isn’t slowing down the advances in its atomic program, further raising the stakes in the talks, which are crucial to cooling years of tensions boiling in the wider Mideast.

Talks in Vienna aimed at re-imposing curbs on Iran’s nuclear program restarted last week after a more than five-month hiatus.

Israel has long opposed the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, saying it didn’t go far enough to halt the country’s nuclear program and doesn’t address Iran’s military involvement in countries bordering Israel.

“I call on every country negotiating with Iran in Vienna to take a strong line and make it clear to Iran that they cannot enrich uranium and negotiate at the same time,” Bennett told a meeting of his Cabinet. “Iran must begin to pay a price for its violations.”

Israel is not a party to the negotiations but it has made a point of keeping up lines of communication with its European and American allies during the talks, which are set to resume this week.

Israeli spy chief David Barnea headed to Washington late Saturday on a previously unannounced trip and Defense Minister Benny Gantz leaves Wednesday for meetings with his US counterpart Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid was in London and Paris last week to discuss the talks with Israel’s European allies.

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UN: Philippine typhoon destruction ‘badly underestimated’

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The United Nations said destruction caused by Typhoon Rai in the Philippines had been “badly underestimated” in initial assessments, tripling the number of people “seriously affected” to nine million.

A UN campaign to raise $107.2 million in aid for victims was launched a week after the storm ravaged southern and central regions of the archipelago on December 16, leaving 406 people dead and hundreds of thousands homeless.

But UN Resident Coordinator in the Philippines Gustavo Gonzalez said Thursday the target would be revised after more than 66 field assessments showed the destruction was far worse than initially thought.

“One month since the first landfall of Super Typhoon Rai we realize that we have badly underestimated the scale of devastation,” Gonzalez told a virtual briefing.

More than 1.5 million houses were damaged or destroyed in the storm — almost a third more than in 2013’s Super Typhoon Haiyan — Gonzalez said, adding more resources were “badly needed.”

Only 40 percent of the funds had been received, Gonzalez said, calling for solidarity with the Philippines to avoid the typhoon becoming a “forgotten crisis.”

Typhoon-hit areas already struggling with COVID-19, poverty and malnutrition had seen their economies “literally flattened.”

“This is a very fragile region,” he said.

Humanitarian groups have been working with the government to distribute food packs, drinking water, tents and materials to rebuild houses.

But the scale of the disaster, lack of power and communications in some areas, and depleted government coffers after the COVID-19 response have hampered efforts to distribute aid.

An omicron-fueled surge in infections is also forcing relief workers into isolation and making travel more difficult.

Persistent rain in the region was adding to the misery, Gonzalez said.

“We are talking about a crisis within a crisis,” he said.

Rai, the strongest typhoon to hit the Philippines last year, intensified faster than expected, officials said previously.

Scientists have long warned that typhoons are strengthening more rapidly as the world becomes warmer because of human-driven climate change.

The Philippines — ranked among the most vulnerable nations to its impacts — is hit by an average of 20 storms every year.

In 2013, Typhoon Haiyan was the strongest storm ever to have made landfall, leaving over 7,300 people dead or missing.

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Iran, Russia and China begin joint naval drill

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Iran, Russia and China on Friday began a joint naval drill in the Indian Ocean aimed at boosting marine security, state media reported.

Iran’s state TV said 11 of its vessels were joined by three Russian ships including a destroyer, and two Chinese vessels. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard will also participate with smaller ships and helicopters.

The report said the maneuvers would cover some 17,000 square kilometers, or 10,600 miles, in the Indian Ocean’s north, and include night fighting, rescue operations and firefighting drills.

This is the third joint naval drill between the countries since 2019. It coincided with a recent visit by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to Russia that ended on Thursday.

“Improving bilateral relations between Tehran and Moscow will enhance security for the region and the international arena,” Raisi said upon returning from Russia on Friday, the official IRNA news agency reported.

Tehran has sought to step up military cooperation with Beijing and Moscow amid regional tensions with the United States. Visits to Iran by Russian and Chinese naval representatives have also increased in recent years.

Iran has been holding regular military drills in recent months, as attempts to revive its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers flounder.

Russia is also at loggerheads with the US and the West over its neighbor Ukraine, where it has sent some 100,000 troops that Washington, Kiev and their allies fear will be used to invade the country.

Russia on Thursday announced sweeping naval maneuvers in multiple areas involving the bulk of its naval potential — over 140 warships and more than 60 aircraft — to last through February. The exercises will be in the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, the northeastern Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean, in addition to the joint exercise with Iran in the Indian Ocean.

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Four people including baby freeze to death near US-Canada border

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Canadian authorities found the bodies of four people including a baby who apparently froze to death in a blizzard a few meters from the US border along a route used by migrants, officials said Thursday.

The temperature Wednesday when the bodies were found amid vast snowdrifts, taking into account the wind, was minus 35 degrees Celsius (minus 31 degrees Fahrenheit).

“At this very early stage of the investigation, it appears that they all died due to exposure to the cold weather,” the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said in a statement.

The bodies of two adults and a baby were found about 12 meters (yards) from the US border about 10 kilometers (six miles) from the town of Emerson in central Manitoba province.

The body of a fourth person who appeared to be a teenage boy was found later, police said.

Earlier in the day, border agents on the US side detained a group of people who had just crossed over and had baby items with them but no baby. This triggered a search on both sides of the border.

The first bodies were found after four hours of searching.

The US Department of Justice said Thursday they had arrested a man along the same route, charging him with human smuggling.

The 47-year-old Florida native was found driving a van with two undocumented Indian nationals inside less than one mile south of the Canadian border, the Department said, near where the group of migrants was arrested.

The nationalities of the deceased were not given, though the US Department of Justice said they were “tentatively identified” to be separated members of the same group that was arrested.

Manitoba Assistant Commissioner Jane MacLatchy told an earlier press conference she considered these people “victims.”

“We’re very concerned that this attempted crossing may have been facilitated in some way and that these individuals including an infant were left on their own in the middle of a blizzard when the weather had hovered around minus 35 degrees Celsius, factoring the wind,” she said.

“These victims face not only the cold weather, but also endless fields, large snowdrifts, and complete darkness,” she added.

Police used snowmobiles and other all-terrain vehicles to search the area.

Emerson is along a route which migrants use to travel between the United States and Canada.

Crossing attempts have been down for a year because the border has been closed due to the pandemic, said MacLatchy.

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