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Belarus seen preparing attack amid fears of nuclear escalation

Belarus was threatening to send paratroopers to Ukraine on Sunday, in a sign of how the Russian invasion may be dragging other countries into the war just four days after it began.

There was a tougher European Union response too, as EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen announced plans to finance the purchase and delivery of weapons to Ukraine — the first time such a step had been taken.

“This is a watershed moment,” said von der Leyen.

“Another taboo has fallen,” said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who noted with some trepidation that Russia had put forces responsible for nuclear combat on alert.

Russian banks would also be unplugged from the SWIFT international-payments grid, Russian planes would be locked out of Europe, and media outlets Russia Today and Sputnik would be banned in the EU, they said.

Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko had promised Ukrainian president Volodomyr Zelensky by phone Sunday that he would hold back on sending in his forces until the outcome of talks between Russian and Ukrainian officials that are expected in Pripyat, on the Belarusian border.

“We can only hope Lukashenko will stick to his word” and exercise restraint, Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba said in a press briefing from Kyiv on Facebook.

Hours earlier EU and US diplomats were told that “[Belarusian] special operations forces are boarding planes” as part of a note sent by Alina Frolova, Ukraine’s former deputy defence minister, and seen by EUobserver. “An airborne landing is being prepared” for “Landing sites: Kyiv and Zhotimyr [in north-west Ukraine],” the note said.

EU diplomats in Minsk were trying to confirm if the Belarusian soldiers were really preparing to fly out, an EU source, who asked to remain anonymous, said.

But Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko appeared to be laying the groundwork for intervention in Ukraine in a speech he gave in Minsk on Sunday.

“Is he [Zelensky] pushing me to embark on a special operation?” asked Lukashenko, who laced his speech with a litany of bogus accusations: that Ukrainians were beating up Belarusian people in Ukraine; and that Zelensky had trained “bandits from the self-exiled opposition” to attack Belarus.

The direct involvement by a third state in the war, if it went ahead, would mark the largest escalation since Russia invaded Ukraine on Thursday.

Putin, speaking in a TV statement Sunday, dialled up the tension further by threatening a nuclear response to what he described as Nato’s “aggressive statements against our country.”

“I order to move Russia’s deterrence forces to a special regime of duty,” said Putin, putting his nuclear forces in a state of combat readiness.

Reacting to Putin’s warning, Kuleba suggested that a tactical nuclear strike on Ukraine would be a global “catastrophe.” Kuleba also said Putin’s threat was designed to put pressure on Ukraine to surrender in the Pripyat talks.

“There’s nothing bad in talking as such,” Kuleba said. But he added that Ukraine “will not capitulate” and “will not give up a single inch” of its territory.

Nato has repeatedly vowed to stay out of the Ukraine war, but it’s nonetheless sending extra troops to eastern allies to deter Russian aggression.

Nato and EU countries are also shipping arms to Ukraine via Poland, as heavy fighting continues in Kyiv and other cities.

Germany on Sunday announced it was sending anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine, breaking a historical taboo on military intervention in a region associated with some of the Nazi era’s worst crimes.

“We need anti-tank, anti-aircraft, and anti-missile systems,” Ukraine’s Kuleba said.

International legion

Alongside state-level intervention, international volunteer brigades to help the country also appeared to be forming, and Ukraine has created what Kuleba called an “international legion” for Europeans or other foreign fighters who wanted to take part in its “territorial defence.”

Kyiv had already received “many hundreds” of volunteer requests, Kuleba said. “Every embassy and every consulate of Ukraine will help. Their access to Ukraine will be facilitated,” he said.

Sunday’s new EU measures will mark the third wave of sanctions on Russia in almost as many days. But there is still debate on how many Russian banks to strike out of SWIFT — and about how to keep Russian oil and gas imports flowing amid spiralling energy prices that hurt ordinary consumers in Europe.

“Some [EU] countries are trying to create loopholes so they can take some measures with their left hand, but keep on trading with Putin with their other hand,” Kuleba said.

“Stop earning money soaked in our blood,” the foreign minister said. Kuleba called for a “full oil and gas embargo” on Russia. “That oil and gas now contains Ukrainian blood,” he said.

Lukashenko spoke on Sunday after holding a constitutional referendum that entrenched his grip on power and deepened Russia ties. His indirect support for Putin’s war was already leading to extra EU sanctions on Belarus, von der Leyen said Sunday.

Were Belarusian paratroopers to join the fighting, then massive Russia-type EU sanctions on Belarus would also be discussed, diplomatic sources said.

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China plans to send San Diego Zoo more pandas this year, reintroducing panda diplomacy | International

China plans to send a new pair of giant pandas to the San Diego Zoo, renewing its longstanding gesture of friendship toward the United States after a recalling nearly all the iconic bears on loan to U.S. zoos as relations soured between the two nations.

The China Wildlife Conservation Association has signed cooperation agreements with zoos in San Diego and Madrid, the Spanish capital, and is in talks with zoos in Washington, D.C. and Vienna, the Chinese organization said, describing the deals as a new round of collaboration on panda conservation.

San Diego Zoo officials told The Associated Press that if all permits and other requirements are approved, two bears, a male and a female, are expected to arrive as early as the end of summer, about five years after the zoo sent its last pandas back to China.

“We’re very excited and hopeful,” said Megan Owen of the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance and vice president of Wildlife Conservation Science. “They’ve expressed a tremendous amount of enthusiasm to re-initiate panda cooperation starting with the San Diego Zoo.”

Zoos typically pay a fee of $1 million a year for two pandas, with the money earmarked for China’s conservation efforts, according to a 2022 report by America’s Congressional Research Service.

In November, Chinese President Xi Jinping raised hopes his country would start sending pandas to the U.S. again after he and President Joe Biden convened in Northern California for their first face-to-face meeting in a year and pledged to try to reduce tensions.

China is considering a pair that includes a female descendent of Bai Yun and Gao Gao, two of the zoo’s former residents, said Owen, an expert in panda behavior who has worked in San Diego and China.

Bai Yun, who was born in captivity in China, lived at the zoo for more than 20 years and gave birth to six cubs there. She and her son were the zoo’s last pandas and returned to China in 2019.

Gao Gao was born in the wild in China and lived at the San Diego Zoo from 2003 to 2018 before being sent back.

Decades of conservation efforts in the wild and study in captivity saved the giant panda species from extinction, increasing its population from fewer than 1,000 at one time to more than 1,800 in the wild and captivity.

The black-and-white bears have long been the symbol of the U.S.-China friendship since Beijing gifted a pair of pandas to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., in 1972, ahead of the normalization of bilateral relations. China later loaned pandas to zoos to help breed cubs and boost the population.

The U.S., Spain and Austria were among the first countries to work with China on panda conservation, and 28 pandas have been born in those countries, China’s official Xinhua News Agency said. The latest collaboration will include research on disease prevention and habitat protection, and contribute to China’s national panda park construction, it said.

“We look forward to further expanding the research outcomes on the conservation of endangered species such as giant pandas, and promoting mutual understanding and friendship among peoples through the new round of international cooperation,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said in Beijing.

Demands for the return of giant pandas, known as China’s “national treasure,” grew among the Chinese public as unproven allegations that U.S. zoos mistreated the pandas flooded Chinese social media.

Fears over the future of so-called panda diplomacy escalated last year when zoos in Memphis, Tennessee, and Washington, D.C., returned their pandas to China, leaving only four pandas in the United States, all at the zoo in Atlanta. That loan agreement expires later this year.

Many loan agreements were for 10 years and often were extended well beyond. But negotiations last year to extend the agreements with U.S. zoos or send more pandas did not produce results. China watchers speculated that Beijing was gradually pulling its pandas from Western nations due to deteriorating diplomatic relations with the U.S. and other countries.

Then on Nov. 15, 2023, a week after the National Zoo’s pandas departed for China, Xi spoke at a dinner in downtown San Francisco with American business executives and signaled that more pandas might be sent. He said he learned the San Diego Zoo and people in California “very much look forward to welcoming pandas back.”

“I was told that many American people, especially children, were really reluctant to say goodbye to the pandas and went to the zoo to see them off,” Xi said.

The San Diego Zoo continued to work with their Chinese counterparts even after it no longer had any pandas.

Owen said China is particularly interested in exchanging information on the zoo’s successful breeding of pandas in captivity. Giant pandas are difficult to breed in part because the female’s reproductive window is extremely narrow, lasting only 48 to 72 hours each year.

Bai Yun’s first cub, Hua Mei, was also the first panda born through artificial insemination to survive into adulthood outside of China, and would go on to produce 12 cubs on her own after she was sent to China.

Bai Yun, meanwhile, remained at the zoo where she gave birth to two more females and three males. With cameras in her den, researchers monitored her, contributing to the understanding of maternal care behavior, Owen said.

“We have a lot of institutional knowledge and capacity from our last cooperative agreement, which we will be able to parlay into this next chapter, as well as training the next generation of panda conservationists,” she said.

Chinese experts would travel with the bears and spend months in San Diego, Owen said.

She said the return of the bears is not only good for San Diego but the giant panda’s recovery as a species.

“We do talk about panda diplomacy all the time,” Owen said. “Diplomacy is a critical part of conservation in any number of contexts. …. If we can’t learn to work together, you know, in sometimes difficult situations or situations that are completely out of the control of conservationists, then we’re not going to succeed.”

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Cardinal Filoni: ‘Gaza is on the way to becoming a cemetery’ | International

Cardinal Fernando Filoni (Manduria, Italy; 1946) has served as the grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem since 2019. The church official is also a high-level diplomat for the Holy See, with whose structure and inner workings he is intimately familiar, due to his work as substitute for the Vatican’s Secretary of State under Benedict XVI. He was also the nuncio, or diplomatic representative for the Pope, in Jordan and Iraq, where he would later return as a special envoy during difficult years of the conflict with the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Today, he is keeping a close eye on the conflict in Gaza.

Question. You just came back from Jerusalem and Bethlehem. What did you find and how would you describe the current climate there?

Answer. The situation is dramatic now that, in addition to Gaza and the part of Israel in north that are under attacks, there are many families who don’t know how to survive, and who are currently in an extremely difficult situation.

Q. After the declarations of the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin, who referred to Israel’s response to the attack by Hamas as “disproportionate”, we have seen an unprecedented rise in tension with some sectors of Israeli diplomacy. Although the tone has since softened somewhat, how should this diplomatic phase be understood?

A. It’s important to keep in mind that, during tense situations, both sides tend to develop opinions and lean towards one direction or another, whether that’s individuals, governments or institutions. I don’t think that Cardinal Parolin gave a “disproportionate” response [Parolin used the word “carnage” to refer to Israel’s actions], and delivered a calm and serene statement. An incorrect interpretation will only take into account one side. I also believe that diplomacy must learn to exist amid contradictions, and I believe that the Holy See, just like Israeli diplomacy, will understand that it is necessary to avoid polemics in order to adopt a more realistic vision and build relations that seek the common good.

Q. We know that the Pope is extremely concerned about the situation in Gaza and that he regularly connects by videoconference with a Christian church there. How is the Vatican’s diplomacy working on this front?

A. That goes beyond diplomacy, it’s a way of participating in the lives of that population. The Pope is especially sensitive to all those suffering from war. I think that the Vatican’s diplomacy is always open to contributing to peace: Cardinal Parolin has said on various occasions that we are open to contributing our grain of sand. But one has to want peace, work towards it and establish it based on criteria like justice and truth. If that will is lacking, even the most venerable diplomacy will prove impotent. I think that, regarding the tendency to always remain open, those who desire it, whether that be Israel, the Palestinians or any other reality that is in conflict, will benefit from it.

Q. What could be one possibility for a short-term ceasefire, with the potential to be a long-term solution to the conflict? The Pope believes in a two-state solution, how can the Holy See work and provide assistance toward that?

A. An immediate ceasefire is essential. We run the risk of turning it into a cemetery; the reality is, in Gaza there are children, elders, sick people, men and women; right now there is a massive shortage of water and food. A ceasefire means bringing back hope to these people’s lives. And then, there’s the long-term solution. In the long term, one must not stop thinking of the need to establish, as has already been said, a coexistence based on the principles of truth and justice. The truth concerns both Israel and Palestine. And justice must encompass both Israel’s right to exist and live in its land in peace and security, and Palestine’s right to remain in the territories that belong to it, in equal security. The logic of mutual destruction must be renounced. Hamas cannot say that Israel must be destroyed. And Israel cannot demand the destruction of the Palestinian reality; everyone has the right to live in their territory without violent and illegal expropriation.

Q. What would justice mean in this case?

A. Justice would mean recognizing everyone’s rights and renouncing all forms of violence. As head of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, which has shown special attention to the Holy Land since the time of Pope Pius IV (1850), with the knights and dames, members of the order, we work for peace, caring for the lives of the people and supporting, through the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, more than 45 schools, the University of Bethlehem, many poor families and numerous social projects. All this means working concretely, as humble laborers, for peace.

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Congratulations, Privacy Just Took A Great Leap Out the Window!

Your Data Is Being Used Without Your Permission And Knowledge

The Voice Of EU | In the heart of technological innovation, the collision between intellectual property rights and the development of cutting-edge AI technologies has sparked a significant legal battle. The New York Times has taken legal action against OpenAI and Microsoft, filing a lawsuit in Manhattan federal court. This legal maneuver aims to address concerns surrounding the unauthorized use of the Times’ content for the training of AI models, alleging copyright infringements that could potentially result in billions of dollars in damages.

READ: HOW YOUR DATA IS BEING USED TO TRAIN A.I.

This legal tussle underlines the escalating tension between technological advancements and the protection of intellectual property. The crux of the lawsuit revolves around OpenAI and Microsoft allegedly utilizing the Times’ proprietary content to advance their own AI technology, directly competing with the publication’s services. The lawsuit suggests that this unauthorized utilization threatens the Times’ ability to offer its distinctive service and impacts its AI innovation, creating a competitive landscape that challenges the publication’s proprietary content.

Amidst the growing digital landscape, media organizations like the Times are confronting a myriad of challenges. The migration of readers to online platforms has significantly impacted traditional media, and the advent of artificial intelligence technology has added another layer of complexity. The legal dispute brings to the forefront the contentious practice of AI companies scraping copyrighted information from online sources, including articles from media organizations, to train their generative AI chatbots. This strategy has attracted substantial investments, rapidly transforming the AI landscape.

Exhibit presented by the New York Times’ legal team of ChatGPT replicating a article after being prompted

The lawsuit highlights instances where OpenAI’s technology, specifically GPT-4, replicated significant portions of Times articles, including in-depth investigative reports. These outputs, alleged by the Times to contain verbatim excerpts from their content, raise concerns about the ethical and legal boundaries of using copyrighted material for AI model training without proper authorization or compensation.

The legal action taken by the Times follows attempts to engage in discussions with Microsoft and OpenAI, aiming to address concerns about the use of its intellectual property. Despite these efforts, negotiations failed to reach a resolution that would ensure fair compensation for the use of the Times’ content while promoting responsible AI development that benefits society.

In the midst of this legal battle, the broader questions surrounding the responsible and ethical utilization of copyrighted material in advancing technological innovations come to the forefront.

The dispute between the Times, OpenAI, and Microsoft serves as a significant case study in navigating the intricate intersection of technological progress and safeguarding intellectual property rights in the digital age.


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