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EU members agree more sanctions against Belarus targets

EU diplomats agreed Wednesday to add 28 individuals and bodies to its Belarus sanctions list in response to the alleged channeling of migrants to the bloc's borders.

Brussels accuses strongman Alexander Lukashenko's regime of mounting a “hybrid attack” against EU soil by luring thousands of Middle Eastern migrants to the Polish and Lithuanian borders.

Member states had already decided to slap sanctions on several Belarus targets, and on Wednesday senior envoys approved a list drawn up by the European Commission, diplomats said.

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According to one of the officials, the new targets include 17 officials and 11 companies or official bodies. EU ministers are expected to formally ratify the decision on Thursday.

Also on Wednesday, the US said it too would announce new sanctions against Belarus.

“I think you will very soon see a sanctions package that's been coordinated” between the US and the EU, a senior US state department official said.

Speaking on the sidelines of a visit by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Sweden, the official said the sanctions could be imposed as early as this week.

The EU has already imposed sanctions on 166 people and bodies, including Lukashenko and two of his sons, over a crackdown on protests over his disputed 2020 re-election.

Western capitals have refused to recognize the vote, arguing it was rigged, but Lukashenko has retained the support of Russia's President Vladimir Putin.

In June, Brussels imposed economic sanctions on key sectors of the Belarus economy — potash, oil and tobacco — and it has banned Belarus airlines from its air space.

The regime has allegedly responded by encouraging thousands of migrants — mainly Syrians, Iraqis and Yemenis — to fly to Minsk and head to the EU borders. Lukashenko denies he is responsible for the influx.

Polish police have set up razor wire barriers and turned back hundreds of travelers camped out in freezing, damp forests.

Polish authorities will not allow journalists into the border area, but reports suggest a dozen migrants have died in the chaos and squalid conditions.

Read more:

Belarus does not want migrant ‘conflict’: Lukashenko

Belarus says it has turned back 2,000 migrants

More than 100 migrants mainly from Mideast flown out of Belarus

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Biden-Xi call will come later than the US hoped as China ties fray

US officials now expect that a phone call between President Joe Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping won’t happen as soon as they had hoped, as ties between the world’s two biggest economies continue to fray, according to people familiar with the matter.

China’s leaders still haven’t responded to US requests to set up the call, which American officials had said would take place soon after an annual meeting of the country’s legislature, the National People’s Congress, concluded March 13, said the people, who asked not to be identified discussing private deliberations.

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The US now expects a call won’t happen until after Taiwan’s president passes through the US in early April, the people said. That stop, which Chinese officials have already criticized, may include a meeting with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

The delay isn’t provoking panic but reflects a broader deterioration in the two countries’ relationship after a series of spats, testy exchanges and full-blown crises in recent months, all of which has been accompanied by increasingly aggressive rhetoric on both sides.

Asked to comment about the US assessment on the timing of a call, National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson dismissed it as “idle speculation by an unnamed official.”

“The two leaders will speak at some point in the coming weeks, but we have nothing specific to announce,” Watson said.

The delay fits an emerging pattern: China still hasn’t responded to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s effort to speak with his Chinese counterpart, outreach the US made after Biden deployed US fighter jets to shoot down an alleged Chinese spy balloon that transited the US in February.

The balloon provoked a national uproar and led Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a trip to Beijing. China said the balloon was a harmless weather craft that drifted off course and accused the US of “hyperventilating.”

US officials have said restoring communications is a top priority. Blinken has been looking to reschedule his trip, and others including Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen may visit the People’s Republic of China.

“It’s important that we keep those lines of communication open, particularly now when tensions are so high,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said earlier in the week. “As a matter of fact, we’re having discussions with the PRC right now about a potential visit by Secretary Yellen and Secretary Raimondo to go over there and talk about economic issues.”

Biden has put a particular emphasis on using one-on-one chats with other leaders as a way to smooth relations. He last met Xi in person in November on the sidelines of a Group of 20 meeting in Bali, Indonesia. The two leaders’ pledge to arrest the slide in ties was drowned out by the balloon uproar as well as US accusations that China is moving closer to Russia and may provide it lethal assistance for the invasion of Ukraine.

Tsai’s visit to Central America will be the latest irritant. She’s expected to stop over in New York on March 29 and 30 and then again in Los Angeles a week later.

Such stopovers are normally routine but will draw new scrutiny given how bad the US-China relationship is now.

Lower-level contacts between the US and China have continued, including between the Pentagon and the Chinese military as well as a recent visit to Beijing by the head of the State Department’s new “China House,” Rick Waters.

Read more: TikTok would be tough to ban in the US without a new law, experts say

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US, Saudi Arabia complete first counter-drone exercise at Red Sands testing facility

The US and Saudi Arabia completed their first counter-drone joint exercise last week at a new military testing center in Riyadh, according to the head of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM).

The exercise was the first of its kind between the two militaries, and US officials hope to replicate this with other armies in the region.

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The Red Sands Experimentation Center had been under discussion for some time. The US military said it would serve as an innovative approach to training and readiness between Washington and its Middle East partners.

Last week’s exercises were not highly publicized, but officials have said this was just the beginning of what they hope would be more in-depth and sophisticated drills.

The focus was on small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), an official with knowledge of the exercise said.

On Thursday, CENTCOM chief Gen. Erik Kurilla told lawmakers on the House Armed Services Committee that the counter-UAS drills involved live-fire exercises and allowed for studying complex threats and identifying weaknesses in other areas to counter drone activities.

He also hinted that directed energy weapons could be brought into the region at a later date in what is expected to be for air defense purposes.

Hours after Gen. Kurilla’s testimony on Capitol Hill, a one-way Iranian attack drone targeted US forces in Syria. An American contractor was killed, and five other troops were wounded alongside another US contractor.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said that the US retaliated, striking targets inside Syria linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). He said the US airstrikes were in response to Thursday’s attack as well as a series of recent attacks against US and Coalition forces by groups backed by Iran.

On Thursday, Gen. Kurilla said that US forces had suffered 78 Iranian attacks since January 2021. The US had only responded three times, according to CENTCOM.

Last week’s joint exercise comes at a time when Saudi Arabia and Iran have agreed to normalize ties and restore diplomatic relations.

While Gen. Kurilla was asked several times during his Thursday testimony about the agreement, he repeatedly stated that it still needed to be implemented. Kurilla also said the mere fact that the Chinese-backed deal was reached did not mean that Iran’s malign activity was no longer a concern of regional countries.

Melissa Horvath, a non-resident senior fellow at the Middle East Institute (MEI), said the Red Sands exercises were an important way for the US to show continued commitment to Saudi Arabia and to build regional cooperation among Middle East allies in ways that go beyond traditional security assistance programs such as foreign military sales.

In recent years, the US has been accused of becoming disinterested, disengaged and leaving the Middle East to respond to more acute threats from Russia and China. This narrative has picked up steam since the Biden administration took office and the start of the Russian war on Ukraine.

Further criticism was levied upon the administration following this month’s diplomatic breakthrough between Riyadh and Tehran, which Beijing mediated. Washington said that China came through at the tail end of the negotiations and took the credit for what had been in the works for years.

“While the recent Chinese-brokered Saudi-Iran deal may de-escalate tensions in the region, it’s unlikely to eliminate all threats from small UASs – leaving continued opportunities for regional cooperation, new technologies, experimentation, and innovation,” Horvath told Al Arabiya English.

She pointed to Saudi Arabia establishing a joint venture with a Chinese firm to set up a research and development center focusing on UASs, including anti-drone solutions. “The US should be looking to remain the partner of choice in the region,” Horvath said, adding that the Red Sands drills would go a long way in demonstrating the value of partnering with the US and the superiority of US technology in countering UAS threats.

Read more:

US welcomes China-backed Saudi-Iranian deal to restore ties, White House says

US rejects notion it is disengaged from Middle East after Saudi-Iran deal

Senior US delegation in Riyadh shows commitment to region: Official

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Weekly protests persist in Iran’s southeast amid internet disruption

Weekly protests against Iran’s clerical leaders continued in the southeastern province of Sistan-Baluchistan as thousands took to the streets on Friday, according to footage circulating on social media.

Videos posted on Twitter by Hal Vash, a group that monitors developments in the province, showed protesters in the provincial capital Zahedan shouting slogans against the country’s theocratic leaders, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and the Basij, a paramilitary arm of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) often used in crackdowns on protests.

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Videos on Twitter also showed protesters marching near Zahedan’s Makki Grand Mosque and chanting in support of Molavi Abdolhamid, Iran’s most prominent Sunni cleric.

Protests continue in Zahedan, #Iran today.

— Jason Brodsky (@JasonMBrodsky) March 24, 2023

He has been openly critical of the regime since nationwide protests erupted in Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman who died in police custody on September 16.

Internet blockage observatory NetBlocks reported a “significant disruption” to internet connectivity in Zahedan. “The incident follows an ongoing pattern of network blackouts targeting protests during Friday prayers,” it said on Twitter.

⚠ Confirmed: Network data show a significant disruption to internet connectivity in Zahedan, #Iran; the incident follows an ongoing pattern of network blackouts targeting protests during Friday prayers

— NetBlocks (@netblocks) March 24, 2023

The protests sparked by Amini’s have largely subsided due to a deadly crackdown by authorities. However, they have continued in Sistan-Baluchistan, where they have been taking place weekly after Friday prayers.

Sistan-Baluchistan, which borders Pakistan, is one of Iran’s poorest regions and is mostly populated by Sunni ethnic Baluchis, a minority in predominantly Shia Iran. Human rights groups say they have faced discrimination and repression for decades.

“The clerics must get lost,” one video showed protesters chanting, referring to the country’s clerical leaders.

Amini died after her arrest by the morality police in Tehran for allegedly breaching the country’s strict dress rules for women. Her death triggered months of protests that quickly escalated into calls for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic.

According to the human rights groups, hundreds were killed by security forces during the protests across Iran, with Sistan-Baluchistan having the highest number of fatalities.

Read more:

US looking to strengthen Iran sanctions after less than expected impact: Yellen

Eight pro-Iran fighters killed by US strikes in Syria: Monitor

American forces suffered 78 Iranian attacks since 2021: US general

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