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Blinken set to meet Russia’s Lavrov as Ukraine tensions flare

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Thursday during a European security conference, amid escalating tensions over Moscow's build-up of troops near its border with Ukraine.

The meeting is due to take place on the sidelines of the summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Stockholm. Blinken will also meet separately with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.

Speaking in Riga on Wednesday after a meeting of NATO foreign ministers, Blinken expressed US concerns about Russia's large-scale military operations and what he said were its efforts to destabilize Ukraine from within.

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“We don't know whether President (Vladimir) Putin has made the decision to invade. We do know that he's putting in place the capacity to do so in short order, should he so decide,” said Blinken.

The United States is ready to respond with “a range of high impact economic measures that we have refrained from pursuing in the past”, he added, without elaborating.

Blinken is expected to relay to Lavrov the threat of further sanctions if Russia fails to end the troop build-up on Ukraine's border and to remind him that there is a diplomatic solution, a senior State Department official told reporters.

“The dialogue is more important when things are not going well,” the official said. “Beyond making clear the cost of Russian actions, I’m certain that the Secretary is also going to want to make clear that there is a diplomatic off-ramp.”

Flashpoint

Ukraine, a former Soviet republic that aspires to join the European Union and NATO, has become the main flashpoint between Russia and the West as relations have soured to their worst level in the three decades since the Cold War ended.

Ukraine says Russia has deployed more than 90,000 troops near their long shared border.

Moscow accuses Kyiv of pursuing its own military build-up. It has dismissed as inflammatory suggestions it is preparing for an attack on Ukraine but has defended its right to deploy troops on its own territory as it sees fit.

But Putin has also said Russia would be forced to act if NATO placed missiles in Ukraine that could strike Moscow within minutes.

The Kremlin annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and then backed rebels fighting Kyiv government forces in the east of the country. That conflict has killed 14,000 people, Kyiv says, and is still simmering.

As well as Ukraine, other issues including cybersecurity and the Kremlin's treatment of its critics have also helped drive relations between Washington and Moscow to post-Cold War lows.

US Central Intelligence Agency director William Burns earlier this month raised the issue of Russian cyberattacks during a rare visit to Moscow, where he met high-ranking security officials, three sources told Reuters.

Another focal point for East-West tensions has been the refugee crisis on the borders between Belarus, a Russian ally, and NATO members Poland and Lithuania.

Western nations accuse Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko of engineering the migrant crisis in retaliation for sanctions imposed on Minsk over its human rights record. Minsk blames the West for the humanitarian crisis.

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UN peacekeeper killed, another injured in attack on helicopter in DR Congo: UN


A United Nations peacekeeper from South Africa was killed and another wounded in an attack on their helicopter in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo on Sunday, the organization said.

The aircraft came under fire at around 3:00 p.m. (1200 GMT) during a flight to Goma, the provincial capital of Nord-Kivu province, where it was able to land, a spokesman told AFP.

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Militias have plagued the mineral-rich eastern DRC for decades, many of them a legacy of regional wars that flared during the 1990s and the early 2000s.

Since November 2021, the M23 rebel group has seized chunks of territory and come within miles of the east’s main commercial hub Goma.

East African leaders called Saturday for an immediate ceasefire in eastern DRC, at an extraordinary summit called to find ways of calming the raging conflict.

The talks were hosted in Burundi by the seven-nation East African Community (EAC), which is leading mediation efforts to end the fighting in the vast central African nation.

The resurgent M23 has taken control of swathes of land in the mineral-rich east and fighting is continuing despite a peace roadmap hammered out in Angola last July, and the deployment of an East African Community force in November.

The DRC is awash with minerals and precious stones, but the decades of war and chronic mismanagement mean that little of the vast wealth trickles down to the population of some 100 million.

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Colombian military confirms possible balloon flying over its airspace


A day before a US military jet shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the country’s Atlantic Coast on Saturday, Colombia’s military confirmed a sighting of an airborne object similar to a balloon flying over its territory.

Colombia’s air force issued a statement on Saturday providing limited details concerning a possible balloon its air defense system had located Friday morning.

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US military officials on Friday said another Chinese balloon was spotted somewhere over Latin America but did not specify its location.

According to the Colombian air force statement, an “object” was detected over its territory at an altitude of 55,000 feet that had entered the South American country’s airspace to the north moving at an average speed of 25 knots, or roughly 29 miles per hour.

The statement added that the object exhibited “characteristics similar to those of a balloon,” and that the air force monitored it until if left the country’s airspace.

“It was determined that it did not represent a threat to national security,” the statement added.

No other official confirmation of unidentified balloons flying over other Latin American countries has been issued as of Sunday.

In recent days, however, balloon sightings have been made in Venezuela and Costa Rica by multiple social media users.

The saga of the downed Chinese spy balloon off the US coast captivated public attention for days, and was widely seen as worsening US-Chinese relations.

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South Africa records two imported cholera cases


South Africa has recorded two confirmed imported cases of cholera, the health department said on Sunday, as it called for vigilance.

The cases were of sisters who had in January travelled to Malawi, where a cholera outbreak since last year has claimed more than 1,000 lives as of January, the highest on record in the country.

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“Both patients had developed symptoms on their return to Johannesburg,” the health department said in a statement.

“A close contact (household family member) of one of the patients was admitted to hospital on 4 February with diarrhea and dehydration, and is considered a possible case,” it said, adding laboratory test results were pending.

Cholera is an acute diarrheal infection caused by the bacteria Vibrio cholerae and can be deadly if left untreated. It is mainly spread by contaminated food and water.

Cholera is not endemic in South Africa, the health department said. The last outbreak in the country was in 2008/2009 when about 12,000 cases were reported following an outbreak in neighboring Zimbabwe which led to a surge of imported cases and subsequent local transmission.

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