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US President declares disaster in New Mexico wildfire zone

Firefighters slowed the advance of the largest wildfire in the US as heavy winds relented Wednesday, while President Joe Biden approved a disaster declaration that brings new financial resources to remote stretches of New Mexico devastated by fire since early April.

US Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez announced the presidential disaster declaration during an evening briefing by the US Forest Service about efforts to contain the sprawling wildfire in northeastern New Mexico, which has fanned out across 647 square kilometers of high alpine forest and grasslands at the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains.

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“It will help us do that rebuilding and it will help us with the expenses and the hardship that people are facing right now,” the congresswoman said. “We’re glad it happened this quickly.”

Fire bosses said they are seizing upon an interlude of relatively calm and cool weather to keep the fire from pushing any closer to the small New Mexico city of Las Vegas and other villages scattered along the fire’s shifting fronts.

Airplanes and helicopters dropped slurries of red fire retardant from the sky, as ground crews cleared timber and brush to starve the fire along crucial fronts.

Bulldozers for days have been scraping fire lines on the outskirts of Las Vegas, population 13,000, while crews have been conducting burns to clear adjacent vegetation.

Aircraft dropped more fire retardant as a second line of defense along a ridge just west of town in preparation for intense winds expected over the weekend.

An estimated 15,500 homes in outlying areas and in the valleys of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains that border Las Vegas have been affected by mandatory evacuations. The tally of homes destroyed by the fire stands around 170.

The president’s disaster declaration releases emergency funds to recovery efforts in three counties in northeastern New Mexico where fires still rage, as well as portions of southern New Mexico where wind-driven blazes killed two people and destroyed over 200 homes in mid-April.

The aid includes grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses and other relief programs for individuals and businesses, a statement from the White House said.

Local law enforcement officials acknowledged the physical and emotion toll of prolonged evacuations. Las Vegas Police Chief Antonio Salazar said his officers would provide “burglary patrols” of evacuated areas and help maintain order at a local Walmart as people line up to purchase supplies.

“Repopulation, that’s one thing we’re very interested in,” San Miguel County Sheriff Chris Lopez said. “Everybody wants to get back home.”

Dan Pearson, a fire behavior specialist with the federal government, said weather forecasters are anticipating two days of relatively light winds before the return of strong spring gales.

“Our prayers are working because we’ve had advantageous winds throughout the fire area today,” he said. “We’ll take advantage of this fact over the next few days. … What we can do is build resilient pockets.”

The fire was contained across just 20 percent of its perimeter. Its flames on Wednesday were about 1.6 kilometers away from Las Vegas, where schools were closed as residents braced for possible evacuation.

Officials at Los Alamos National Laboratory were warily tracking another wildfire that crept Wednesday within about eight kilometers of facilities at the US national defense laboratory based in Los Alamos.

Fire crews worked to widen a road that stands between the fire and Los Alamos while clearing out underbrush and treating the area with fire retardant.

Wildfires have become a year-round threat in the drought-stricken West — moving faster and burning hotter than ever due to climate change, scientists and fire experts say. Fire officials also point to overgrown areas where vegetation can worsen wildfire conditions.

Nationally, the National Interagency Fire Center reported Wednesday that a dozen uncontained large fires have burned about 1,129 square kilometers in five states.

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Taliban hold gathering of 3,000 Islamic clerics, seek advise on running Afghanistan

Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers held a gathering Thursday of some 3,000 Islamic clerics and tribal elders for the first time since seizing power in August, urging those at the meeting to advise them on running the country.

Women were not allowed to attend.

At one point, gunfire was heard near the heavily guarded assembly venue.

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Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid later told reporters that security forces fired on someone suspected to have a hand grenade, but that “there is nothing of concern.”

The Taliban, who have kept a complete lock on decision-making since taking over the country, touted the gathering in the capital of Kabul as a forum to hear a range of voices on issues facing Afghanistan.

But all those who addressed the assembly – and, it appeared, the overwhelming majority of attendees – were Taliban officials and supporters, mostly Islamic clerics.

Women were not allowed to attend, although media reports suggested that the reopening of the girls’ schools would be discussed.

The Taliban’s supreme leader earlier this year banned girls after sixth grade from attending school and issued a decree requiring women in public to cover themselves completely, except for their eyes.

“The girls’ (school girls) issue is a challenge and needs to be solved by the government, and the government has the responsibility to listen to the people’s demand,” Mujahid said.

The United States and most of the international community have shunned the Taliban government, demanding it be more inclusive and respect women’s rights.

However, the conference seemed less a nod to that pressure than an attempt by the Taliban to bolster their legitimacy as rulers, at a time when the former insurgents are struggling to deal with Afghanistan’s humanitarian catastrophe and are cut off from international financing.

A powerful earthquake earlier this month that killed more than 1,000 people in eastern Afghanistan only further underscored the Taliban’s limited capabilities and isolation.

The gathering was held in the Loya Jirga Hall of Kabul’s Polytechnic University.

A Loya Jirga is a gathering of tribal leaders and prominent figures, a traditional Afghan way for local leaders to have their grievances heard by rulers.

However, the Taliban notably did not call the gathering a Loya Jirga, instead titling it “the Great Conference of Ulema,” the term in Islam for religious scholars and clerics.

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Germany looks to buy Israeli or US missile defense system

Berlin is considering buying a missile defense system from Israel or the United States to defend against threats including Russian Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad, German weekly Welt am Sonntag reported on Saturday.

The Iskander missiles can reach almost all of western Europe and there is no missile shield in place to protect against this threat, Germany’s chief of defense Eberhard Zorn told Welt am Sonntag in an interview published on Saturday.

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“The Israelis and the Americans possess such systems. Which one do we prefer? Will we manage to establish an overall (missile defense) system in NATO? These are the questions we need to answer now,” Zorn said.

He did not specify the names of the systems but was most likely referring to Arrow 3 built by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and the US system THAAD produced by Lockheed Martin.

Russia said in 2018 it had deployed Iskander missiles to its Kaliningrad exclave, a slice of Russia wedged between Poland and Lithuania. A mobile ballistic missile system, the Iskander replaced the Soviet Scud missile and its two guided missiles can carry either conventional or nuclear warheads.

In a landmark speech days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Berlin would hike its defense spending to more than 2 percent of its economic output by injecting 100 billion euros ($110 billion) into the military.

Zorn belongs to a group of high-ranking officials consulting with Scholz on how to spend this money.

“So far, only one thing is clear: We have neither the time nor the money to develop these (missile defense) systems on our own because the missile threat is known to already be there,” Zorn said.

Referring to Germany’s lack of a short-range missile defense, which can be used to protect troops on the move or under threat while deployed, he said Berlin had started looking into the purchase of such systems and it now had to make a decision.

Beyond this, the Bundeswehr will have to invest 20 billion euros by 2032 to replenish its ammunition storages, Zorn added.

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Turkey’s Erdogan threatens to block Sweden, Finland NATO deal if expectations not met

Just two days after agreeing to lift deal-breaking objections to Sweden and Finland’s NATO accession, Turkey’s leader threatened Thursday that Ankara could still block the process if the two countries fail to fully meet his expectations.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at the close of the alliance’s summit in Madrid that Tuesday night’s 10-article agreement with the Nordic pair was a victory for Ankara that addressed all its “sensitivities.”

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He especially stressed Turkey’s demand that Sweden and Finland extradite terror suspects with links to outlawed Kurdish groups or the network of an exiled cleric accused of a failed 2016 coup in Turkey.

But Erdogan added that if the two Nordic states renege on their promises, Turkey’s Parliament could still not ratify the deal. NATO accession must be formally approved by all 30 member states, which gives each a blocking right.

“This business will not work if we don’t pass this in our parliament,” Erdogan said. “First Sweden and Finland must fulfill their duties and those are already in the text … But if they don’t fulfill these, then of course there is no way we would send it to our parliament.”

Erdogan claimed that Sweden had promised to extradite 73 “terrorists” to Turkey and crack down on the financing and recruitment activities of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK — listed as a terrorist group by the US and the European Union — and linked groups.

Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, an extension of the PKK.

The text of the memorandum sets no specific number on extraditions. It says the Nordic countries will address Turkey’s “pending deportation or extradition requests of terror suspects expeditiously and thoroughly, taking into account information, evidence and intelligence provided” by Turkey in accordance with the European Convention on Extradition.

On Wednesday, Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said Sweden and Finland’s justice ministries have files from Turkey on 33 people with alleged links to PKK and the network of US-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen.

Journalists at Thursday’s news conference repeatedly pressed Erdogan about the extraditions and whether Sweden had actually promised the number he quoted.

“Of course what we understand is important from our meetings and talks,” Erdogan said. “Sweden promised to give us these 73 people with this text. They may or they may not, we will follow that through the text and we will make our decision.”

Erdogan also said the number of extraditions had been 60 but was updated to 73. There was no immediate response to requests for comments from the Swedish delegation at the summit in Madrid.

The Swedish government has sought to allay concerns that the deal would lead to extraditions to Turkey without due process.

“I know there are some people who are worried that we’re going to start to hunt people and extradite them and I think it’s important to say that we always follow Swedish laws and international conventions, and we never extradite Swedish citizens,” Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson told public broadcaster SVT on Wednesday.

Finnish President Sauli Niinisto stressed that Helsinki pointed out that the memorandum does not list the names of individuals.

“In the case of extraditions, we will adhere to our own legislation and international agreements. Ultimately, extradition is a legal discretion which politicians have no right to influence,” Niinisto said.

With the joint memorandum signed, NATO moved ahead with inviting the Nordic countries to the military alliance that seeks to enlarge and strengthen in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The most time consuming part of gaining NATO membership is the ratification of the applicants’ accession protocols by the alliance’s 30 member countries. It’s a process that involves national parliaments — and could take months.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Thursday said that Germany will launch the process of ratifying the planned NATO membership of Sweden and Finland this week and will conclude it “very quickly.”

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