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MOSCOW: With the risk of war looming larger, Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden held a high-stakes telephone call on Saturday as a tense world watched and worried that an invasion of Ukraine could begin within days.

Before talking to Biden, Putin had a telephone call with French President Emmanuel Macron, who met him in Moscow earlier in the week to try to resolve the biggest security crisis between Russia and the West since the Cold War. A Kremlin summary of the call suggested that little progress was made towards cooling down the tensions.

The closely watched call between Biden and Putin lasted just over an hour, according to the White House. Biden conducted the call from Camp David. The White House insisted that Russia faces “swift and severe costs” if its troops carry out an invasion. No more details of the discussion were available.

In a sign that American officials were getting ready for a worst-case scenario, the United States announced plans to evacuate its embassy in the Ukrainian capital, and Britain joined other European nations in urging its citizens to leave Ukraine.

Russia has massed well over 100,000 troops near the Ukraine border and has sent troops to exercises in neighbouring Belarus, but denies that it intends to launch an offensive against Ukraine.

The timing of any possible Russian military action remained a key question.

The US picked up intelligence that Russia is looking at Wednesday as a target date, according to a US official familiar with the findings. The official, who was not authorised to speak publicly and did so only on condition of anonymity, would not say how definitive the intelligence was.

The White House publicly underscored that the US does not know with certainty whether Putin is committed to invasion. However, US officials said anew that Russia’s buildup of firepower near Ukraine has reached the point where it could invade on short notice.

A Kremlin statement about the Putin-Macron call referred to provocative speculations about an allegedly planned Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russia has consistently denied that it plans military action against its neighbour.

Putin also complained in the call that the United States and Nato have not responded satisfactorily to Russian demands that Ukraine be prohibited from joining the military alliance and that Nato pull back forces from Eastern Europe.

Biden has said the US military will not enter a war in Ukraine, but he has promised severe economic sanctions against Moscow, in concert with international allies.

MOSCOW: Russia is massing yet more troops near Ukraine and an invasion could come at any time, perhaps before the end of this month’s Winter Olympics, Washington said on Friday.

Moscow, for its part, stiffened its truculent response towards Western diplomacy, saying answers sent this week by the EU and Nato to its security demands showed “disrespect”.

Commercial satellite images published by a private US company showed new Russian military deployments at several locations near Ukraine.

In his starkest warning yet to Americans in Ukraine to get out now, President Joe Biden said he would not send troops to rescue US citizens in the event of a Russian assault.

“Things could go crazy quickly,” Biden told NBC News.

Biden was, meanwhile, due to hold a phone call to discuss the crisis with the leaders of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Poland and Romania, as well as heads of Nato and the EU.

Biden met his national security advisers in the White House Situation Room overnight, a source familiar with the meeting said. US officials believed the crisis could be reaching a critical point, with rhetoric from Moscow hardening, six Russian warships reaching the Black Sea and more Russian military equipment arriving in Belarus, the source said.

“We’re in a window when an invasion could begin at any time, and to be clear, that includes during the Olympics,” said Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The Beijing Games end on Feb 20.

“Simply put, we continue to see very troubling signs of Russian escalation, including new forces arriving at the Ukrainian border,” Blinken added.

Russia’s Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov and US Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley held phone talks on Friday, Interfax news agency reported, citing a Russian defence ministry statement. They discussed international security, the agency added without giving details.

With alarm spreading, Japan and the Netherlands also told their citizens on Friday to leave Ukraine immediately. The Dutch diplomatic mission would be pulled from Kyiv and moved far from the Russian frontier to Lviv in Ukraine’s west.

Russia has already massed more than 100,000 troops near Ukraine, and this week launched joint military exercises in neighbouring Belarus and naval drills in the Black Sea.

Moscow denies planning to invade Ukraine, but says it could take unspecified “military-technical” action unless a series of demands are met, including promises from Nato never to admit Ukraine and to withdraw forces from Eastern Europe.

The West has said those main demands are non-starters. The EU and Nato alliance delivered responses this week on behalf of their member states, which they said had agreed to speak as one.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry said on Friday it wanted individual answers from each country, and called the collective response insulting: “Such a step cannot be seen as anything other than a sign of diplomatic impoliteness and disrespect for our request.”

Several Western countries launched diplomatic pushes this week to persuade Russia to back down, but Moscow brushed them off, yielding no concessions to French President Emmanuel Macron, who visited on Monday, and openly mocking British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss when she came on Thursday.

Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said Russia would soon respond to the Nato and EU letters soon.

Twelve people were injured by falling debris on Thursday when the Saudi military blew up a Yemeni rebel drone targeting an airport close to the border, officials said.

Fragments fell to the ground after the interception of the drone over Abha International Airport, which has previously been targeted in similar assaults.

The Houthis claimed responsibility for the attack in a tweet, saying they had targeted an airport “used for military action against Yemen” and warning citizens to “stay away” from such sites.

The Houthis have been fighting a Saudi-led coalition since 2015 when Saudi Arabia led a group of other Middle East countries to intervene militarily in Yemen's civil war after the Yemen government was pushed from power by the Houthis.

Since then, some estimates say thousands have been killed, many of them civilians, in strikes by the Saudi coalition.

The Houthis have frequently launched drone attacks at targets in the kingdom, including airports and oil installations.

In recent weeks, they have also launched deadly cross-border attacks for the first time against fellow coalition member the United Arab Emirates (UAE), after suffering a series of battlefield defeats at the hands of UAE-trained pro-government forces.

“Saudi defence forces destroyed a drone launched towards Abha International Airport,” the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) said.

The SPA said “12 civilians” were hurt when the unmanned aircraft was intercepted, including citizens of Bangladesh, India, Nepal, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, as well as two Saudis.

In response, the Saudi-led coalition said it would strike positions from which the Houthis launch drones in Sanaa, the rebel-held capital of Yemen.

“We ask civilians in Sanaa to evacuate civilian sites used for military purposes for the next 72 hours,” it said, quoted by SPA.

“As a result of the interception process, some shrapnel of the drone was scattered after its interception inside the internal perimeter of the airport,” coalition spokesperson Brigadier General Turki al Maliki told SPA.

He said Abha was a “civilian airport that is protected under international humanitarian law” and accused the rebels of a “war crime”.

Abha lies in the kingdom's southwestern mountains and is popular, particularly during summer, with Saudis and expatriates desperate to escape the scorching heat.

Pakistan has condemned the Houthi-launched drone attack and called for the immediate cessation of these attacks.

The Foreign Office (FO) said in a statement that such attacks not only violated the international law, but also threatened peace and security of Saudi Arabia and the region.

"Pakistan reaffirms its full support and solidarity with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia against any threats to its security and territorial integrity," the FO said, wishing speedy recovery to those injured.

Meanwhile, the White House said President Joe Biden reaffirmed in a phone call on Wednesday with Saudi King Salman the “US commitment to support Saudi Arabia in the defence of its people and territory” from Houthi attacks.

Border provinces of Saudi Arabia have come under frequent drone or missile attack by the rebels, in what the Houthis say is retaliation for a deadly bombing campaign carried out by coalition aircraft against rebel-held areas.

Most have been safely intercepted by Saudi air defences, but in late December an attack on Jizan province on the Red Sea coast saw two people killed and seven wounded.

In December, the coalition said the Houthis had fired more than 400 ballistic missiles and launched over 850 attack drones at Saudi Arabia in the past seven years, killing a total of 59 civilians.

The UAE has also been on alert since a drone and missile attack killed three oil workers in Abu Dhabi on January 17.

Authorities have since thwarted three similar attacks.

The January 17 attack was the first deadly assault on the UAE claimed by the Houthis, opening a new phase in the Yemeni war and puncturing the Gulf state's image as a regional safe haven.

The UAE-trained Giants Brigades has this year inflicted heavy losses on the Houthis, disrupting their efforts to seize Marib city, the government's last major stronghold in the rebel-dominated north.

Yemen's civil war broke out in 2014 when the Houthis seized Sanaa, prompting the Saudi-led coalition to intervene the following year to prop up the internationally recognised government.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed directly or indirectly in the conflict while millions have been displaced in what the UN calls the world's biggest humanitarian crisis.

On Thursday, the Norwegian Refugee Council said civilian deaths and injuries in the war have almost doubled since UN human rights monitors were controversially removed in October.

“The removal of this crucial human rights investigative body took us back to unchecked, horrific violations,” NRC's Yemen country director Erin Hutchinson said.

KOLKATA: The outrage and resentment over a ban on wearing of hijab at schools in an Indian state is spreading, not just in India itself but abroad as well.

At least one Indian parliamentarian has objected to the ban as has a Nobel laureate. Pakistan’s foreign minister has also weighed in on the matter.

For their part, hundreds of students in Kolkata on Wednesday chanted slogans and blocked roads in protest against the ban.

MP Shashi Tharoor of Congress party said there is no law banning religious forms of dress in India. “(T)here is no law banning religious forms of dress like a Sikh turban or a crucifix around your neck or a tilak on the forehead, all of which are forbidden in France’s government schools but permitted in India’s,” he said in response to a question.

The row also drew in Malala Yousafzai, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who asked Indian leaders in a tweet to “stop the marginalisation of Muslim women”.

“Refusing to let girls go to school in their hijabs is horrifying. Objectification of women persists for wearing less or more,” she said in a tweet late on Tuesday.

Local media reported last week that several schools in Karnataka had denied entry to Muslim girls wearing the hijab citing an education ministry order, prompting protests from parents and students.

Hindu students mounted counter-protests, flocking to schools in recent days in support of the ban, forcing the Karnataka state government to shut schools and colleges for three days to ease tensions between the two communities.

The protesting students in Kolkata on Wednesday were predominantly women wearing hijabs, an eyewitness said, adding the demonstrations were without incident. The students said that they planned to reconvene on Thursday.

Protests have also been planned in New Delhi.

The government of Karnataka, where 12 per cent of the population is Muslim and which is ruled by Hindu nationalist BJP, has said in an order that students should follow dress codes set by schools.

India’s technology hub Bangalore banned protests around schools and other educational institutions for two weeks on Wednesday.

Criticising the ban, Fore­ign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said it was a grave violation of fundamental human rights and urged the international community to take notice of the situation.

“The world must realise that this is part of Indian state plan of ghettoisation of Muslims,” he said in response to an incident in Karnataka where a mob of Hindu extremists heckled a hijab-clad Muslim girl.

The minister said minority communities in India continued to suffer mistreatment, which was a matter of grave concern. India claimed to be a champion of secularism and democracy, while in fact Muslim citizens there were facing restrictions even over their attire.

Hafiz Tahir Ashrafi, special representative to the prime minister on religious harmony and chairman of the Pakistan Ulema Council, announced on Wednesday that Friday would be observed as a day of solidarity with “daughters of India”.

BERLIN: French President Emmanuel Macron said on Tuesday he saw a path forward on easing tensions with Russia over Ukraine, after conducting an urgent round of shuttle diplomacy between Moscow and Kiev.

Macron held talks with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kiev a day after a five-hour meeting at the Kremlin with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, as the West scrambles to defuse fears Moscow could invade its ex-Soviet neighbour.

The French leader said he now saw the “possibility” for talks involving Moscow and Kiev over the festering conflict in eastern Ukraine to move forward, and “concrete, practical solutions” to lower tensions between Russia and the West.

“We cannot underestimate the moment of tension that we are living through,” Macron said at a joint press conference after meeting Zelensky.

“We cannot resolve this crisis in a few hours of talks,” he said. “It will be the day and the weeks and the months to come that will allow us to progress.” Macron said Putin had told him that Russia “would not be the source of an escalation,” in the situation, despite amassing more than 100,000 troops and military hardware on Ukraine’s border.

With the assurances in hand, Macron landed later on Tuesday in Berlin where he is due to debrief Polish President Andrzej Duda and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who himself has just returned from Washington. The European leaders, meeting in the so-called Weimar format, are expected to present a united front.

Zelensky said he hoped separate talks of high-ranking officials in Berlin on Thursday could pave the way for a summit with the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany aimed at reviving the stalled peace plan for Kiev’s conflict with Moscow-backed separatists.

Putin — who has demanded sweeping security guarantees from Nato and the United States — said after his talks with Macron that Moscow would “do everything to find compromises that suit everyone”.

KIEV: Ukraine on Sunday pushed back at “apocalyptic predictions” over a potential Russian invasion, after officials in the United States sounded dire warnings that Moscow had stepped up its preparations for a major incursion.

US officials said the Kremlin has assembled 110,000 troops along the border with its pro-Western neighbour but intelligence assessments have not determined if President Vladimir Putin has actually decided to invade.

The Russian force amassed on the frontier is growing at a rate that would give Putin the firepower he needs for a full-scale invasion — some 150,000 soldiers — by mid-February, US officials have said.

They assess Putin wants all possible options at his disposal: from a limited campaign in the pro-Russian Donbas region of Ukraine to a full-scale invasion. Russia denies that it is planning an incursion into Ukraine.

“Do not believe the apocalyptic predictions. Different capitals have different scenarios, but Ukraine is ready for any development,” Ukra­ine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote on Twitter.

“Today, Ukraine has a strong army, unprecedented international support and the faith of Ukrainians in their country. It is the enemy who should fear us.” Presidency advisor Mykhailo Podolyak insisted that the chances of finding a diplomatic solution to the crisis remained “substantially higher than the threat of further escalation”.

Kiev — backed up by some European allies — has consistently sought to play down fears of an imminent attack as it tries to avoid inflicting further harm on its struggling economy.

Podolyak said the latest Russian moves were “no surprise” as Mos­cow has sought to keep up pressure on Kiev by conducting large-scale troop rotations, manoeuvres and weapon deployments on a regular basis since massing forces at the border last spring.

“How long will such Russian activity last and for what purpose is it maintained? Only the Kremlin can know the exact answer to this question,” he said.

The stark warnings from the US — part of a deliberate attempt from Washington to pre-empt any Russian actions — come as Europe pushes to defuse the crisis.

French President Emmanuel Macron heads to Moscow Monday and Kiev on Tuesday seeking to de-escalate the crisis and push forward a stalled peace plan for the festering conflict with Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will also visit the region for talks with Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky the following week in a bid to further the diplomatic efforts.

US officials said if Moscow does opt for a full-scale attack, the invading force could take the capital Kiev and topple Zelensky in a matter of 48 hours.

Moroccan emergency crews found a five-year-old boy dead at the bottom of a well late Saturday in a tragic end to a painstaking five-day rescue operation that gripped the nation and beyond.

"Following the tragic accident which cost the life of the child Rayan Oram, His Majesty King Mohammed VI called the parents of the boy who died after falling down the well," a statement from the royal court said.

But news of his death sent a chill through the cold mountain air of his home village of Ighrane in the Rif mountains of northern Morocco where thousands of volunteers and well-wishers had gathered this week in a show of solidarity with his family.

AFP correspondents saw the boy’s parents walk down the slope into the cut, visibly crushed, before returning and boarding an ambulance without saying a word.

There was no official word on the boy’s condition until Moroccan media carried the palace statement.

By mid-afternoon Saturday, rescue crews, using bulldozers and front-end loaders, had excavated the surrounding red earth down to the level where the boy was trapped, and drill teams began work on excavating a horizontal tunnel to reach him from the side.

The more time passed, the more fears mounted over Rayan’s condition.

Onlookers applauded to encourage the rescuers, sang religious songs or prayed, chanting in unison "Allahu akbar" (God is greatest).

"We are showing solidarity with this child, who is dear to Morocco and the whole world," said onlooker Hafid El-Azzouz, who lives in the region.

The operation made the landscape resemble a construction site.

Overnight they worked non-stop under powerful floodlights that gave a gloomy air to the scene.

He said earlier in the week that he had been repairing the well when the boy fell in.

One Twitter user paid tribute to rescue workers working around the clock for days, saying, "they are real-life heroes".

The boy’s ordeal echoed a tragedy in Spain in early 2019 when a two-year-old child died after falling into an abandoned well 25 centimetres wide and more than 70 metres deep.

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