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Photo of people throwing color powders and flower petals during celebrations as part of Holi, the “festival of colors” at Gopinath Temple in Gopeshwar, northern India. — Photo:

Holi celebrations in Gopeshwar, northern India.

Rozena Crossman, Bertrand Hauger and Laure Gautherin

👋 ꦲꦭꦺꦴ*

Welcome to Wednesday, where 20,000 manage to flee Mariupol despite sustained Russian shelling, Zelensky and Lavrov offer some hope on talks, and archeologists hit paydirt in Notre Dame rebuilding site. German daily die Welt also looks at Romania’s strategic importance in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and how it could force NATO down the war path.

[*Halo - Javanese, Indonesia]

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🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Ukraine update, battlefield: Russia’s invasion continues to devastate Ukraine, though an estimated 20,000 people managed to escape the besieged city Mariupol after a humanitarian corridor was opened. British intelligence reports that Russian forces continue to struggle to advance, having yet to capture any major cities and reportedly forced to call in reinforcements from as far away as its Pacific fleet.

• Ukraine update, diplomacy: Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky says ceasefire talks with Russia have become “more realistic,” while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said there is “some hope for compromise.” Zelensky is slated to make a historic plea today directly to the U.S. Congress to ask for more military help, a day after having met with the prime ministers of Poland, Slovenia and the Czech Republic who bravely came to Kiev yesterday to show their support for the embattled country. Meanwhile, Turkey’s foreign Minister flies to Moscow today to attempt mediating peace.

• NATO bolsters alliance: European defense ministers — including Ukraine — meet in Brussels today to discuss their response to the Russian invasion. Non-NATO countries such as Finland and Sweden will be present, as recent events have increased their interest in joining the Atlantic alliance. U.S. President Joe Biden announced he will travel to Brussels later this month to reinforce ties and defense efforts.

• COVID cases rise in Europe and plague Asia: Although global cases decreased earlier this month, there’s been a recent Omicron uptick in Europe — in France, the UK, Italy, even nearing record levels in Germany. Meanwhile, the Asia-Pacific is struggling with the variant, as China, New Zealand and South Korea all record surges in cases.

• Protests in Sri Lanka:Tens of thousands of citizens took to the streets yesterday to call for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation as the country’s dire economic crisis rages on. I

• UN finds war crimes in Myanmar: A new UN report on Myanmar, the first of its kind since the country’s February 2021 coup, details evidence for deliberate attacks on civilians that could amount to crimes against humanity.

• Sarcophagus discovered at Notre-Dame: Archeologists in Paris found exceptionally well-preserved remains of what is believed to be the 14th-century sarcophagus of a high dignitary while excavating the Notre-Dame cathedral, which is still under reconstruction after a major fire in 2019.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

Lisbon-based daily Público features scenes of Ukrainian destruction on its front page today, noting that Portugal has received as many refugees in the past 20 days as in the last seven years, due to the war in Ukraine.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

2,173

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, an Iranian-British dual citizen who has been jailed in Iran since April 3, 2016, has reportedly been freed and is on her way home, according to a UK lawmaker. In September, 2016, Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who worked as a project manager with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, was sentenced to five years in prison on charges of plotting to overthrow the Iranian government. Her liberation comes at the same time as that of UK-Iranian businessman Anoosheh Ashoori, detained since August 2017 for allegedly spying for Israel's Mossad and acquiring illegitimate wealth.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Long Neglected, Romania Could Be NATO's Achilles Heel

Since Russia's annexation of Crimea, NATO has reinforced its presence eastward — but the Baltic countries and Poland were the prime beneficiaries. But as Carolina Drüten writes in German daily Die Welt, Romania (which shares the longest border with Ukraine) may be the country most directly in Vladimir Putin's path.

🇷🇴 For many years, NATO has underestimated the importance of Romania. But the war in Ukraine means Romania is taking on a new geopolitical importance, and NATO has been stepping up its military presence in the country due to its strategic position on the Black Sea and its shared border with Ukraine. For Romanians, the Russian invasion of Ukraine ultimately came as no surprise, confirmation of a long-held fear. Professor Armand Gosu, a Romanian expert on Russian geopolitics, puts this down to a “historical fear of Russian imperialism.”

🗺 Of all the NATO countries, Romania has the longest border with Ukraine, longer than Poland, Slovakia or Hungary. Its position on the Black Sea means that it is directly confronted with Russia’s operations there. Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Moscow has maintained a strong naval presence there. Romania has also strongly supported Ukraine’s desire to join NATO.

✈️ NATO has now recognized Romania’s strategic importance, as well as its vulnerable position, and is sending a French-led battalion to the country. Up until now, these multinational units have only been stationed in Poland and the Baltic states. NATO may well have to act on its mutual defense guarantee in Romania. On Sunday, Russia’s defense ministry warned Ukraine’s neighboring countries against allowing Ukrainian fighter jets to be stationed on their territory. It is believed that has already happened in Romania. And if the country crosses what the Kremlin sees as a red line, it would classify Bucharest as a combatant, force NATO to enter the war to defend its member state, something the Alliance wants to avoid at all costs.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

Why are we trapped here?

— As cases of the Omicron variant reach record numbers in China, Reuters reports on changing attitudes of both government officials and the general public about the severe lockdown policies since the COVID-19 pandemic began. One 49-year-old Shenzhen resident said: "I think there is no way to stop Omicron now. The only way is to maintain normalcy and welcome the virus. You see abroad, the coronavirus is like a cold. Many people have recovered and traveled everywhere. Why are we trapped here?"

✍️ Newsletter by Rozena Crossman, Bertrand Hauger and Laure Gautherin


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Society

An End To The Hijab Law? Iranian Protesters Want To End The Whole Regime

Reported declarations by some Iranian officials on revising the notorious morality police patrols and obligatory dress codes for women are suspect both in their authenticity, and ultimately not even close to addressing the demands of Iranian protesters.

photo of women in Iran dressed in black hijabs

The regime has required women cover their heads for the past 41 years

Iranian Supreme Leader'S Office/ZUMA
Kayhan-London

-Analysis-

The news spread quickly around Iran, and the world: the Iranian regime's very conservative prosecutor-general, Muhammadja'far Montazeri, was reported to have proposed loosening the mandatory headscarf rules Iran places on women in public.

Let's remember that within months of taking power in 1979, the Islamic Republic had forced women to wear headscarves in public, and shawls and other dressings to cover their clothes. But ongoing protests, which began in September over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in police custody over her headscarf, seem to instead be angling for an overthrow of the entire 40-year regime.

Che ba hejab, che bi hejab, mirim be suyeh enqelab, protesters have chanted. "With or without the hijab, we're heading for a revolution."

Montazeri recently announced that Iran's parliament and Higher Council of the Cultural Revolution, an advisory state body, would discuss the issue of obligatory headscarves over the following two weeks. "The judiciary does not intend to shut down the social security police but after these recent events, security and cultural agencies want to better manage the matter," Montazeri said, adding that this may require new proposals on "hijab and modesty" rules.

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