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Sri Lankan factory manager in Pakistan lynched and set on fire over alleged blasphemy

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A Sri Lankan factory manager in Pakistan was on Friday beaten to death and set ablaze by a mob, police confirmed, in an incident local media reported was linked to alleged blasphemy.

Few issues are as galvanizing in Pakistan as blasphemy, and even the slightest suggestion of an insult to Islam can supercharge protests and incite lynching.

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Rights groups say accusations can often be wielded to settle personal vendettas, with minorities largely the target.

Police told AFP that Friday’s incident took place in Sialkot, about 200 kilometers (125 miles) southeast of the capital Islamabad.

Several gruesome video clips shared on social media showed a mob beating the prone victim while chanting slogans against blasphemy.

Other clips showed his body set ablaze, as well as the overturned wreckage of what was said to be his car.

Many in the mob made no attempt to hide their identity and some took selfies in front of the burning corpse.

“I am extremely shocked at the horrific Sialkot incident,” Punjab provincial chief minister Usman Buzdar tweeted.

“No one is allowed to take law in their hands. Rest assured, individuals involved in this inhumane act will not be spared!!”

Local police said they would investigate “all aspects” of the incident.

Punjab government spokesman Hassaan Khawar told reporters in Lahore that “police have arrested 50 people after the incident.”

He said that “CCTV footage is being carefully looked into as we have been directed to complete the inquiry within 48 hours.”

“We are very clear that Islam teaches us peace and tranquility and abhors violence,” Khawar added.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister’s special representative Tahir Ashrafi said that “those involved in this barbarian act have misused blasphemy law and defamed Islam.”

The slogans chanted in the social media videos were the same used by supporters of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) – an anti-blasphemy party.

The TLP has in the past paralyzed the country with protests, including an anti-France campaign after Paris-based satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo last year republished cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed.

On Sunday thousands of people torched a police station in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province after demanding officers hand over a man accused of burning the Koran.

In April 2017 an angry mob lynched university student Mashal Khan when he was accused of posting blasphemous content online.

A Christian couple was lynched then burnt in a kiln in Punjab in 2014 after being falsely accused of desecrating the Koran.

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NATO chief says reaching out to Russia but ‘prepared for worst’

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NATO on Wednesday delivered its proposals to Russia for a diplomatic solution to tensions triggered by Moscow's military build-up near Ukraine, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said, but remained “prepared for the worst”.

“We are now reaching out to Russia once again to try to pursue a path of dialogue and find a political solution,” he said, after the alliance sent Moscow a written response to its security demands.

“But of course while we are hoping for and working for a good solution, de-escalation, we are also prepared for the worst,” he said.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko confirmed to the news agency Interfax that Moscow had received the response from NATO, which was handed to Russia's envoy in Brussels.

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Asked how long Russia could take to study the response, he said: “We'll read it. We'll study it. Our partners had taken nearly a month and a half to study our draft.”

Stoltenberg said US-led NATO was ready for a “real conversation” over Russian concerns — but rejected a key Moscow demand to close the door on Ukraine's hope of joining.

“We cannot and will not compromise on the principles on which the security of our alliances and security in Europe and North America rest,” he said.

The alliance's proposals were handed over the same time as the US delivered its own written response to the Kremlin.

Moscow blindsided the West by publishing two draft treaties for the US and NATO in December that would see Washington's influence rolled back in eastern Europe.

The demands were made as Moscow massed some 100,000 troops on its border with Ukraine, in a move the West warns could be the prelude to a large-scale invasion.

Stoltenberg laid out a raft of areas where he said NATO thought it could engage constructively with the Kremlin, including improving communications, increasing transparency around military exercises, and arms control.

NATO is hoping its offer is enough to convince Moscow to hold further talks with the alliance and de-escalate the tensions on the ground.

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Saudi Arabia, UAE, UK, US condemn Houthi attacks, reaffirm support to Gulf security

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Saudi Arabia, the UAE, UK, US, and Oman condemned the Houthi attacks which targeted civilian sites in the Kingdom and Emirati capital Abu Dhabi, and reaffirmed support to both Gulf countries’ national security, a joint statement issued by the Saudi foreign ministry said on Wednesday.

Senior representatives from the five countries met on Wednesday to discuss Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthis’ attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE recently. The UN envoy to Yemen participated in the meeting.

Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia intercepted missile attacks launched by the Houthis targeting civilian sites in the Gulf countries within the two weeks.

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“The Quint strongly condemned the Houthis’ repeated attacks against civilians within Yemen, including US local staff in Sana’a and their continued heinous terrorist attacks against Saudi Arabia and more recently the UAE. Such actions are obstructing peace efforts and exacerbating suffering,” the statement said.

It added: “The Quint expressed full support for Saudi Arabia and the UAE and their legitimate national security concerns and called for an immediate end to attacks by the Houthis. The Quint acknowledged the legitimate right of Saudi Arabia and the UAE to defend themselves against terrorist attacks as per international law and following international humanitarian law, including taking all feasible precautions to avoid civilian harm.”

The five countries also discussed the “illicit Iranian provision of missiles and advanced weaponry to the Houthis.”

Iran did not comment directly on the recent attacks by the Houthis, but it commented on what it described as “recent Yemen-linked developments” by saying military attacks were not the solution.

Iran has long supplied the Houthis with financial and military support. However, it is not yet clear if Iran sanctioned the attack, or if it was completely a Houthi singular decision.

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Turkey’s Erdogan says Russia would be unwise to invade Ukraine

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Russia would be unwise to attack Ukraine and in that case Turkey would do what is necessary as a NATO member, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday.

In an interview with broadcaster NTV Erdogan said he had invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to Turkey under a proposal to host both sides for diplomacy and a path to peace, adding that he expects a response from Moscow.

Erdogan also said there was a need for comprehensive dialogue that addresses some of Russia's security concerns and that also explains to Moscow that some of its demands are not plausible.

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‘I hope that Russia will not make an armed attack or occupy Ukraine. Such a step will not be a wise act for Russia or the region,’ he said. ‘There is a need for dialogue that will listen to Russia and eliminate their reasonable security concerns.’

Ankara has good ties with both Kyiv and Moscow, but opposes Russian policies in Syria and Libya, as well as its annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014. While forging cooperation with Russia on defence and energy, Ankara has also sold sophisticated drones to Ukraine, angering Moscow.

‘I repeat that we are ready to do whatever is necessary and I conveyed these messages to President Putin and President (Volodymyr) Zelenskiy,’ Erdogan said. ‘I think both countries are aware of the sincerity and good intent of Turkey,’

The crisis should be solved ‘avoiding the use of force,’ he added. ‘We hope the NATO initiative will be successful on this.’

Turkey first floated the mediation offer in November. Last week diplomatic sources said both Russia and Ukraine were open to Turkey playing a role in resolving the crisis.

Erdogan has said he would visit Zelenskiy in Ukraine in early February to discuss the crisis and would also meet or call Putin soon.

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