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US President Joe Biden says he is now “convinced” Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to invade Ukraine and assault the capital, an ominous assessment that emerged as the country’s war-torn east saw more attacks that the West said could be designed to establish a pretext for an attack.

After weeks of saying the US was not sure if Putin had made the final decision, Biden said on Friday that his judgment had changed, citing American intelligence.

“As of this moment, I’m convinced he’s made the decision,” Biden said. “We have reason to believe that.” He reiterated that the assault could occur in the “coming days”.

The president’s comments at the White House followed a day of rising violence that included a humanitarian convoy hit by shelling and a car bombing in the eastern city of Donetsk. Pro-Russian rebels began evacuating civilians from the conflict zone with an announcement that appeared to be part of Moscow’s efforts to paint Ukraine as the aggressor instead.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin announced massive nuclear drills to flex its military muscle, and Putin pledged to protect Russia’s national interests against what it sees as encroaching Western threats.

Biden reiterated his threat of crushing economic and diplomatic sanctions against Russia if it does invade and pressed Putin to reconsider. He said the US and its Western allies were more united than ever to ensure Russia paid a steep price for any invasion.

As further indication that the Russians are preparing for a major military push, a US defence official said an estimated 40 per cent to 50pc of the ground forces deployed in the vicinity of the Ukrainian border have moved into attack positions closer to the border. That shift has been underway for about a week, other officials have said and does not necessarily mean Putin has decided to begin an invasion. The defence official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal US military assessments.

The official also said the number of Russian ground units known as battalion tactical groups in the border area had grown to as many as 125, up from 83 two weeks ago. Each group has 750 to 1,000 soldiers.

The US and Russian defence chiefs spoke on Friday. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov agreed to meet next week.

Immediate worries focused on eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces have been fighting pro-Russia rebels since 2014 in a conflict that has killed some 14,000 people. With an estimated 150,000 Russian troops now posted around Ukraine’s borders, the long-simmering separatist conflict could provide the spark for a broader attack.

Fears of such escalation intensified amid Friday’s violence. A bombing struck a car outside the main government building in the rebel-held city of Donetsk, according to an Associated Press journalist there. The head of the separatist forces, Denis Sinenkov, said the car was his, the Interfax news agency reported.

There were no reports of casualties and no independent confirmation of the circumstances of the blast. Shelling and shooting are common along the line that separates Ukrainian forces and the rebels, but targeted violence is unusual in rebel-held cities.

Adding to the tensions, two explosions shook the rebel-controlled city of Luhansk early on Saturday. The Luhansk Information Centre said one of the blasts was in a natural gas main and cited witnesses as saying the other was at a vehicle service station. There was no immediate word on injuries or a cause. Luhansk officials blamed a gas main explosion earlier in the week on sabotage.

Overall, monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe reported more than 600 explosions in the war-torn east of Ukraine on Friday.

Separatists in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions that form Ukraine’s industrial heartland known as the Donbas announced they were evacuating civilians to Russia.

Denis Pushilin, head of the Donetsk rebel government, said women, children and the elderly would go first, and that Russia has prepared facilities for them. Pushilin alleged in a video statement that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was going to order an imminent offensive in the area.

Metadata from two videos posted by the separatists announcing the evacuation show that the files were created two days ago, The Associated Press confirmed. US authorities have alleged that the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign could include staged, prerecorded videos.

Authorities began moving children from an orphanage in Donetsk, and other residents boarded buses for Russia. Long lines formed at gas stations as more people prepared to leave on their own.

Putin ordered the government to offer a payment of 10,000 rubles (about $130) to each evacuee, equivalent to about half of an average monthly salary in the war-ravaged Donbas region.

By Saturday morning, more than 6,600 residents of the rebel-controlled areas were evacuated to Russia, according to separatist officials, who have announced plans to evacuate hundreds of thousands of people.

The explosions and the announced evacuations were in line with US warnings of so-called false-flag attacks that Russia could use to justify an invasion.

Around the volatile line of contact, a United Nations humanitarian convoy came under rebel shelling in the Luhansk region, Ukraine’s military chief said. No casualties were reported. Rebels denied involvement and accused Ukraine of staging a provocation.

Ukraine denied planning any offensive.

“We are fully committed to diplomatic conflict resolution only,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the threat to global security is “more complex and probably higher” than during the Cold War. He told a security conference in Munich that a small mistake or miscommunication between major powers could have catastrophic consequences.

Russia announced this week that it was pulling back forces from vast military exercises, but US officials said they saw no sign of a pullback and instead observed more troops moving toward the border with Ukraine.

In other developments, the White House and the UK formally blamed Russia for recent cyberattacks targeting Ukraine’s defence ministry and major banks. The announcement was the most pointed attribution of responsibility for the intrusions, which barraged websites with junk data to make them unreachable. Russia rejected the accusations.

The Kremlin sent a reminder to the world of its nuclear might, announcing drills of its nuclear forces for the weekend. Putin will monitor the exercise on Saturday that will involve multiple practice missile launches.

Asked about Western warnings of a possible Russian invasion on Wednesday that did not materialise, Putin said: “There are so many false claims, and constantly reacting to them is more trouble than it’s worth.”

“We are doing what we consider necessary and will keep doing so,” he said. “We have clear and precise goals conforming to national interests.”

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei dismissed as “absurd” claims his country wants to acquire atomic weapons, in remarks on Thursday amid signs of a breakthrough in nuclear talks.

The Islamic republic is locked in negotiations with world powers to revive a 2015 deal that offered it sanctions relief in return for curbs on its nuclear programme.

The deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, was designed to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear arsenal — a goal it has always denied pursuing.

Tehran's chief negotiator Ali Bagheri tweeted that “we are closer than ever to an agreement” late on Wednesday, hours after France warned that Iran had just days left to accept a deal.

In comments aired by state television on Thursday, Khamenei said Iran “has to think about tomorrow” and that “sooner or later we will urgently need peaceful nuclear energy”.

“You can notice how the enemy alliance is pressing cruelly our nuclear issue,” the supreme leader said.

“They have imposed sanctions on our nuclear energy, when they know very well that it is peaceful.

“They claim Iran will produce the bomb in some time, absurd words that make no sense and they know it very well themselves,” said Khamenei.

“They know we are not looking for nuclear weapons, but for the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

“They are pushing to prevent the Iranian nation from achieving this significant progress.”

Iran has always denied seeking atomic weapons even though it reneged on some of its nuclear commitments after the United States withdrew from the accord in 2018 under then president Donald Trump.

INDIA: Schools reopened in southern India under tight security yesterday with public gatherings banned following protests over Muslim girls wearing the hijab in classrooms. Tensions have been high in Karnataka state since late last year when at least four schoolgirls were prevented from wearing the Muslim headscarf, sparking protests that have since spread across India.

In an attempt to calm tensions, Karnataka’s state government temporarily closed schools last week. This came as the Karnataka High Court imposed a temporary ban on the wearing of all religious symbols in schools while it considers the headscarf ban. As classrooms reopened in the state on Tuesday and yesterday, police with batons were deployed outside several schools.

Authorities also imposed Section 144 – a law that prohibits gatherings of more than four people – in several districts. There were no reports of disturbances but local media on Monday said several Muslim girls chose not to attend classes or sit exams when asked to remove their headscarves. “We have grown up wearing the hijab since our childhood and we cannot give it up. I will not write the exam, I will go home,” the News Minute media outlet quoted a young girl as saying.

“Hindu students wear vermilion… Christian students wear a rosary, what is wrong if our children wear the hijab?” a parent told broadcaster NDTV. Nasir Sharif, 43, said his 15-year-old daughter was told to take off her hijab at the school gates yesterday in Chikmagalur district. He persuaded school authorities to allow her to remove it only in class. “My daughter has been wearing the hijab since she was five years old. It is to protect her dignity. What they are asking us to do is humiliating,” Sharif told AFP.

A video on social media that could not be independently verified showed around a dozen girls in burqas shouting, “We want justice! Allahu Akbar (God is greatest)”, after being prevented from entering class. The row has heightened fears among Muslims in India, with many saying they feel under attack by the government of Hindu-nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Rashad Hussain, US ambassador at large for international religious freedom, tweeted last week that hijab bans in schools “violate religious freedom and stigmatize and marginalize women and girls”. The Indian government said in a statement that people “who know India well would have a proper appreciation of these realities”. “Motivated comments on our internal issues are not welcome,” it added. – AFP

BERLIN: Foreign ministers of the Group of Seven (G7) most developed nations will hold talks on the Ukraine crisis on February 19 (Saturday) in Munich, a spokesman for the German foreign ministry said on Wednesday.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock will host the talks on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, said the spokesman, adding they will "focus on the crisis that has arisen due to the Russian troop deployment near Ukraine".

Smaller huddles on the issue are also expected between France, Germany and Ukraine, as well as France, Germany, Britain and the United States.

Such talks, including Chancellor Olaf Scholz's visits to Kyiv and Moscow this week, are "closely coordinated and part of a whole offensive of dialogues that Western allies have carried out in the last weeks" to defuse the tensions over Russia´s troop buildup.

Both Scholz and Baerbock are expected to address the Munich Security Conference, which US Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken are also due to attend.

Russia said on Tuesday it was pulling back some of its forces near the Ukrainian border to their bases, in what would be the first major step towards de-escalation in weeks of crisis with the West.

The move came amid an intense diplomatic effort to avert a feared Russian invasion of its pro-Western neighbour and after Moscow amassed more than 100,000 troops near Ukraine’s borders.

Following the announcement, Ukraine said that its joint diplomatic efforts with Western allies have managed to avert a feared Russian invasion.

"We and our allies have managed to prevent Russia from any further escalation. It is already the middle of February, and you see that diplomacy is continuing to work," Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told reporters.

The crisis — the worst between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War — reached a peak this week with US officials warning that a full-scale invasion, including an assault on the capital Kyiv, was possible within days.

In the morning on Tuesday, the Russian defence ministry’s spokesman said that some forces deployed near Ukraine had completed their exercises and were packing up to leave.

“Units of the Southern and Western military districts, having completed their tasks, have already begun loading onto rail and road transport and today they will begin moving to their military garrisons,” the ministry’s chief spokesman, Igor Konashenkov, told Russian news agencies.

It was not immediately clear how many units were involved and what impact the withdrawals would have on the overall number of troops surrounding Ukraine, but it was the first announcement of a Russian drawdown in weeks.

If Western officials confirm that Moscow is taking steps to reduce its forces, it would ease fears of a major war in Europe that have been rising for weeks.

The first reaction could come from German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who was due in Moscow on Tuesday for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Support from Germany, a major economic partner for Moscow and importer of Russian gas, is crucial for the package of crippling sanctions that Western leaders say would be imposed in response to an invasion.

Ahead of Tuesday’s talks, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock warned that “the situation is particularly dangerous and can escalate at any moment.”

“The responsibility for de-escalation is clearly with Russia, and it is for Moscow to withdraw its troops,” she said in a statement, adding that “we must use all opportunities for dialogue in order to reach a peaceful solution”.

Comments from Putin’s foreign and defence ministers on Monday had already offered some hope of a de-escalation.

During a carefully choreographed meeting Monday with Putin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said: “there is always a chance” of reaching an agreement with the West over Ukraine.

He told Putin that exchanges with leaders in European capitals and Washington showed enough of an opening for progress on Russia’s goals to be worth pursuing.

Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu meanwhile told Putin that some Russian military drills launched in December were “ending” and more would end “in the near future”.

The Russian leader and his top aides have consistently argued that the current crisis is the result of the United States and western Europe ignoring Moscow’s legitimate security concerns.

Russia, which has repeatedly denied any plan to invade Ukraine, already controls the peninsula of Crimea that it seized from Ukraine in 2014 and supports separatist forces controlling parts of eastern Ukraine.

The Kremlin insists Nato must give assurances Ukraine will never be admitted as a member and roll back its presence in eastern European countries.

Washington said Russia had strengthened its forces on the Ukrainian border over the weekend, but US officials insisted that “diplomacy continues to be viable”.

US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson agreed in a call late Monday that “a crucial window for diplomacy” remained.

“The leaders emphasised that any further incursion into Ukraine would result in a protracted crisis for Russia, with far-reaching damage for both Russia and the world,” a Downing Street spokesman said.

Amid some claims from US officials that an invasion was being prepared for Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky meanwhile declared it a “Unity Day”, urging Ukrainians to take the streets in peaceful demonstrations of solidarity.

A Taliban fighter walks on a street, in Kabul, Afghanistan, in this Feb 6 file photo. — AP

The Taliban on Monday warned that it would reconsider its policy towards the United States if President Joe Biden did not reverse his "unjustified" decision to return only half of Afghanistan's $7 billion deposited on US soil.

The United States will free up half of the $7 billion in frozen Afghan central bank assets on US soil to help Afghans struggling with a humanitarian crisis and hold the rest to possibly satisfy terrorism-related lawsuits against the Taliban.

"If the United States does not deviate from its position and continues its provocative actions, the Islamic Emirate will also be forced to reconsider its policy towards the country," said a statement from the Taliban released by its spokesman on Monday.

"The Islamic Emirate strongly rejects Biden's unjustified actions as a violation of the rights of all Afghans," it added.

Biden's plan calls for half of the funds to remain in the United States subject to ongoing litigation by US victims of terrorism, including relatives of those who died in the Sept 11, 2001, hijacking attacks.

"The 9/11 attacks had nothing to do with Afghans," the Taliban statement said.

While none of the Sept 11, 2001, hijackers were Afghan, the mastermind of the attacks, Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, was given refuge by the then Taliban government.

The statement said the United States will face "international blame" and damage its relations with Afghans if the decision was not reversed.

Separately, in an interview to the Afghan state media RTA, Mullah Yaqoob — the acting Afghan defence minister and the son of Taliban founder Mullah Omar — also termed the decision "cruel".

"No Afghan was involved in that incident (9/11) at all," said Yaqoob, whose father was the Taliban's supreme leader at the time of the attacks and refused to hand over bin Laden, following which the United States sent in its military to Afghanistan.

The invasion started a 20-year war that ended only last year after the United States and other international militaries pulled out of Afghanistan, leaving the Taliban to take over once again.

Ukraine sees no point closing its airspace amid the tensions with Moscow, a senior Ukrainian official said on Sunday, after the United States warned that Russia could invade the eastern European nation at any time.

Dutch carrier KLM said it would stop flying to Ukraine and Germany's Lufthansa said it was considering suspending flights.

Ukraine's SkyUp said on Sunday it had to divert one flight after the owner of the leased aircraft barred it from entering Ukrainian airspace.

“The most important point is that Ukraine itself sees no point in closing the sky. This is nonsense. And, in my opinion, it somewhat resembles a kind of partial blockade,” said Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian president's chief of staff.

“If particular air carriers decide to reconfigure the flight schedule, this certainly has nothing to do with the decisions or policies of our state,” he told Reuters.

The United States, its Western allies and other nations have been scaling back or evacuating embassy staff and have advised their citizens not to travel to Ukraine amid the standoff.

Washington says the Russian military, which has more than 100,000 troops massed near Ukraine, could invade at any moment.

Moscow denies having any such plan and has described such warnings as “hysteria”.

At Kyiv's Borispil Airport, the largest in Ukraine, there was little sign on Saturday of an exodus. Oksana Yurchenko was travelling back to Australia with her child.

“We were visiting our family here in Ukraine. We were planning to stay a bit longer but this situation is a bit scary,” the chef and a beauty salon owner said.

Australia has advised its citizens to leave Ukraine and said on Sunday it was evacuating its embassy.

Ricky, a Scotsman who lives in Ukraine, said he saw no sign of public anxiety on the streets. “I do not see anyone in fear in Ukraine, everyone is just getting on with their life,” he said at the airport as he waited for a flight to go on holiday.

Ukraine's SkyUp said in a statement that one of its planes, carrying 175 passengers from Portugal, had to land in Moldova on Saturday instead of continuing to Ukraine after the Ireland-based owner of the leased aircraft prevented the aircraft from entering Ukrainian airspace.

It did not give further details.

KLM, part of Air France, said it would stop flying to Ukraine immediately, news agency ANP reported on Saturday, while Lufthansa said it was considering suspending air traffic to Ukraine but had yet to decide.

Two third of the 298 passengers killed when Malaysia Airlines MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine in 2014, as it flew from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, were Dutch citizens.

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