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Syria approves $5 bln budget for 2022 as crisis bites



Syrian lawmakers have approved a draft budget for 2022 of $5.3 billion, down from $6.8 billion this year, as a spiraling economic crisis hits public finances and threatens subsidies on essential goods.

A decade of war, Western sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic have devastated the Syrian economy, pushing most of the population into poverty as the value of the Syrian pound has plummeted.

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Government spending has been cut by more than 40 percent over the past two years, with cuts threatening a critical social support program.

The 2022 budget, which still requires President Bashar al-Assad’s signature, was set at 13.325 trillion Syrian pounds, the official SANA news agency reported late Tuesday.

That is equivalent to $5.3 billion when calculated at a central bank exchange rate of 2,512 pounds to the dollar.

The budget for this year, which was calculated according to a previous exchange rate of 1,250 pounds to the dollar, stood at 8.5 trillion pounds ($6.8 billion).

In 2020, it was estimated at nearly $9 billion.

Finance Minister Kanan Yaghi pledged that “the policy of social protection is a stable one that won’t be tampered with” in the coming year, SANA reported.

He said the 2022 budget set aside 5.53 trillion Syrian pounds ($2.2 billion) for a social support program that includes subsidies on key items such a fuel, wheat, flour, sugar and rice.

Last year, the government set aside 3.5 trillion Syrian pounds ($2.8 billion) for social support.

“The government is in the process of implementing a new formula for support with the aim of delivering it to those who need it most,” SANA quoted Yaghi as saying.

The budget also allocated around 2 trillion pounds for investment and set the projected deficit for next year at 4.1 trillion pounds ($1.6 billion).

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Saudi tourist killed by elephant in Uganda park



A Saudi tourist was trampled to death by an elephant during a game drive at a popular park in Uganda, a wildlife official said Wednesday.

The attack happened on Tuesday at the Murchison Falls National Park when the man left the vehicle he was travelling in with friends, said Uganda Wildlife Authority spokesman Bashir Hangi.

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“They stopped along the way and the deceased went out of the car, an elephant charged at him, killed him on the spot,” Hangi said in a statement.

The victim was identified as Ayman Sayed Elshahany.

Park officials said police will investigate Elshahany’s death as they review security protocols to “avoid repeat of such incidents.”

Animal attacks are not unheard of in the East African country.

In 2018, a leopard snatched and ate the three-year-old son of a female game ranger at another park in the west of the country.

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US responds to Russia’s security demands in Ukraine crisis



The US delivered its response to Russia’s security demands, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, the latest step in the high-stakes diplomacy over Moscow’s buildup of troops on Ukraine’s border.

The response delivered by Ambassador John Sullivan on Wednesday sets out “a serious diplomatic path forward, Blinken told reporters in Washington. “We are open to dialogue, we prefer diplomacy. It remains up to Russia to decide how to respond. We are ready either way.

The report delivered to officials in Moscow largely sticks to points made by Blinken and other US officials: It rejects Russia’s demand that NATO close its door to potential Ukraine membership in the future, but offers suggestions for areas of mutual interest, such as arms control talks and greater transparency over troop movements and military exercises, Blinken said.

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“We will uphold the principle of NATO’s open door, Blinken said, repeating the US and European position that Russia shouldn’t get to dictate which nations join the military alliance.

“We also do lay out areas where we believe that together we could actually advance security for everyone, including for Russia, Blinken said.

The top US diplomat said he expects to speak with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the “coming days, adding that the US response won’t be released publicly.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is expected to speak to reporters soon on the alliance’s response to Russia.

Tensions have soared as Russia masses more than 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s border, though officials in Moscow have repeatedly said they have no intention of invading the country.

Nevertheless, a top official of the pro-Kremlin ruling party who’s also a senior member of the Senate, Andrey Turchak, suggested it could send “certain weapons to the separatists it backs in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. Openly arming the separatists would undermine Russia’s claims — rejected by Ukraine and the West — that it’s not a party to the conflict.

Russia has said it will decide on whether to continue diplomatic efforts with the US and its allies based on the written answers.

The Kremlin has said it wants the US to respond to its key demands — no further expansion of NATO to the east, no deployments of weapons there that can strike Russia and a pullback of alliance forces in the region — even though Washington has made clear those are non-starters.

Moscow has said previously that the talks the US did offer publicly on limiting missiles and reducing risks around military maneuvers were positive, but not sufficient to address its security concerns.

Even as talks continued and Russia awaited the replies in recent days, the Kremlin continued its buildup of troops, tanks and equipment near Ukraine’s borders, with a major deployment to Belarus for exercises. Russia has said the forces aren’t a threat to anyone, but has refused Western calls to reverse the buildup.

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US to shut down Afghan embassy, strip diplomats of immunity: Sources



The US government has informed Afghanistan’s diplomats that they will shut down the embassy in Washington and the consulate missions in Los Angeles and New York, sources familiar with the matter tell Al Arabiya English.

The Afghan diplomats will also be stripped of their diplomatic immunity, according to a memo sent to the Afghan diplomats at the beginning of the week.

– Developing

Read more: Once-bustling Afghan Embassy in US down to few diplomats

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