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Libya PM Targeted, Russia-Belarus Drills, Gazpacho Tactics

Students of Kolkata's Aliah University protesting against the Hijab ban enforced in a few colleges in the Southern state of Karnataka in India.

Students of Kolkata's Aliah University protesting against the Hijab ban enforced in a few colleges in the Southern state of Karnataka in India.

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Bertrand Hauger and Jane Herbelin

👋 Bonjou!*

Welcome to Thursday, where Libya’s prime minister survives an assassination attempt, Belarus and Russia start joint military drills and a Republican congresswoman spills her gazpacho. Fasten your seatbelts, we’re also looking at the world of private jet travel, a means of transportation that soared during the pandemic.

[*Haitian Creole]


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Russia military drills with Belarus: Belarus and Russia started ten days of joint military drills on Thursday, as tensions remain high over the Kremlin’s buildup of forces along Ukraine’s borders. Moscow has said the aim of the exercises is to “practice suppressing and repelling external aggression.” Around 3,000 Russian troops are believed to be in Belarus, which according to NATO marks the biggest Russian deployment to the ex-Soviet territory since the Cold War. On a visit to NATO’s headquarters, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned that the Ukraine crisis has entered its “most dangerous moment” as the threat of a war looms.

COVID update: The U.S. plans to begin the distribution of COVID-19 shots for children under the age of 5, as early as Feb. 21, according to the U.S. Centers for DIsease Control and Prevention. Paris banned a French “Freedom Convoy” of hundreds of motorists protesting against COVID-19 restrictions from entering the capital city. Meanwhile, UK Prime Minister Jonhson outlined plans to lift all domestic COVID-19 restrictions in England within weeks, including the legal requirement to self-isolate.

Libyan Prime Minister survives assassination attempt: Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah survived an assassination attempt in Tripoli, after gunmen fired on his car as we was returning home early Thursday. The attack came amid intense rival factions over control of the government.

Church sex abuse panel in Portugal reports first 200+ cases: A lay committee investigating historic child sex abuse in the Portuguese Catholic Church announced it had received allegations from 214 people throughout its first month of work.

Olympics drug controversy: The 15-year-old Russian superstar figure skater Kamila Valieva has turned up for training as usual Thursday morning at the Winter Olympics, despite having tested positive for a banned substance. The International Olympic Committee had announced that the medal ceremony for the figure skating event had been suspended. Meanwhile, Austrian Johannes Strolz bounced back from being dropped from his team to winning the gold medal in the men's Alpine combined event on Thursday, following in his father’s footsteps.

Space storm destroys 40 of Space X’s Starlink satellites: Elon Musk's company SpaceX confirmed that a solar storm had destroyed most of the Starlink satellites it launched last Friday, with 40 of its 49 satellites expected to fall back to earth.

Pro Trump representative confuses the Gestapo with gazpacho soup: Controversial Republican U.S. congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene triggered a wave of viral jokes on Wednesday as she accused Democratic leaders of “gazpacho” tactics on Capitol Hill. She apparently confused Hitler’s secret police with the popular Spanish cold tomato soup …


Canadian daily Ottawa Citizen devotes its front page to the “Freedom Convoy” protests that have paralyzed Ottawa’s city center for more than a week. What started as demonstrations against mandatory vaccinations for truckers crossing the U.S.-Canada border has grown into broader dissent against the Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The leader is demanding an end to the protests, which have forced some factories to shut down due to the blockade of Detroit’s Ambassador Bridge on the border.


마늘 소녀들

The South Korean curling team known as the “Garlic Girls” (마늘 소녀들, maneul sonyeodeul), a nod to the iconic produce of their region, starts competing at the Beijing Winter Olympics today in a round-robin match against Canada. The team had gained fame with its first Olympic gold medal at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympic Games, before prompting debates about the mistreatment of athletes in South Korea, when its members denounced their coaches’ harsh training and abuse nine months later.


How the pandemic spread private jet travel beyond the super-rich and powerful

Once the reserve of the super-rich and famous, private jet travel soared during the pandemic. Amid border closures and travel restrictions, private charter flights are sometimes the only option to get people — and their pets!? — home.

✈️ During the pandemic, a surprisingly wide demographic have turned to private jets not because it was a luxury they could afford, but out of desperation, trying to reach a destination in the face of border closures and widespread flight cancellations. Last year, private jet hours were close to 50% higher than in 2020, according to the Global Business Aviation Outlook. While some of the increase can be attributed to more travel in 2021 because of COVID-19 vaccination, it still amounts to 5% more hours than before the pandemic.

🐶 More than just saving time through skipping security lines and long waits at airports, flying private jets also lets the super wealthy, and those desperate enough to break the bank, sidestep other regulations. As part of its zero-COVID policy, Hong Kong has severely limited flights. High cargo rates for animals and flight cancellations are making it very hard for pet owners to leave the island taking their furry friends along. Those desperate enough are spending upwards of $25,665 to privately charter themselves and their pets. Many are pooling their resources to share in the cost.

🧳 In Morocco, private jets were the only way for many to enter the North African kingdom after it suspended all air travel from Nov. 29 until Feb. 7 due to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant. Close to 6,000 Moroccans were stuck abroad. In this case, many weren’t looking for a luxurious travel experience but were just desperate to return to their home country. Traveling in groups was one way to decrease the expense, to as low as $1,400 per passenger for a flight from Europe, but for some this still means relying on family support or finding other ways to raise money.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com


“I didn't kill anyone, and I didn't hurt anyone. Not even a scratch.”

— Salah Abdeslam, the only surviving member of the ISIS cell that targeted Paris in the 2015 attacks, has denied killing or hurting anybody during the trial of the attacks that left 130 people dead. Adbeslam said he supported the Islamic State of Iraq but chose at the last minute not to detonate his explosives, though prosecutors believe his suicide belt malfunctioned. The French-Moroccan is the only defendant, among 20, to be directly accused of murder and hostage taking.


$4.3 million

The Enigma, a 555.55 carat black gem believed to be the world's largest cut diamond, has sold for $4.3 million in an online auction. The gem, known as a “carbonado,” is an extremely rare billion-year-old black diamond which contain osbonite, a mineral found only in meteors — meaning it could originate from space.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet and Jane Herbelin

Garlic curling and gazpacho on the menu? Let us know what’s happening in your corner of the world!


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food / travel

Inside The Search For Record-Breaking Sapphires In A Remote Indian Valley

A vast stretch of mountains in India's Padder Valley is believed to house sapphire reserves worth $1.2 billion, which could change the fate of one of the poorest districts of Jammu and Kashmir.

Sapphire mining in Jammu and Kashmir’s Kishtwar district

Jehangir Ali

GULABGARH — Mohammad Abbas recalls with excitement the old days when he joined the hunt in the mountains of Jammu and Kashmir’s Kishtwar district to search the world’s most precious sapphires.

Kishtwar’s sapphire mines are hidden in the inaccessible mountains towering at an altitude of nearly 16,000 feet, around Sumchan and Bilakoth areas of Padder Valley in Machail – which is one of the most remote regions of Jammu and Kashmir.

“Up there, the weather is harsh and very unpredictable,” Abbas, a farmer, said. “One moment the high altitude sun is peeling off your skin and the next you could get frostbite. Many labourers couldn’t stand those tough conditions and fled.”

Abbas, 56, added with a smile: “But those who stayed earned their reward, too.”

A vast stretch of mountains in Padder Valley nestled along Kishtwar district’s border with Ladakh is believed to house sapphire reserves worth $1.2 billion, according to one estimate. A 19.88-carat Kishtwar sapphire broke records in 2013 when it was sold for nearly $2.4 million.

In India, the price of sapphire with a velvety texture and true-blue peacock colour, which is found only in Kishtwar, can reach $6,000 per carat. The precious stone could change the socio-economic landscape of Kishtwar, which is one of the economically most underdeveloped districts of Jammu and Kashmir.

Between progress and neglect

At 86.07%, the literacy rate in Kishtwar is higher than Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), which stands at 67.16%, according to Census 2011.

The mountainous district has also emerged as a power hub of North India, with nearly a dozen functional and upcoming hydroelectric projects with a cumulative capacity of 6,000 MW.

But Kishtwar faces acute deficiencies in providing basic civic amenities like roads and healthcare. Industries are non-existent, and according to an official report, Kishtwar figures at the bottom among J&K districts in terms of improvements registered by the Commerce and Industry, and Environment sectors.

Kishtwar also lags at 17 out of 20 J&K districts in terms of human resource development, 15 in terms of public health sector, and 16 in terms of public infrastructure and utilities sector ranking, making it one of the most unliveable districts of Jammu and Kashmir, despite being abundant in natural resources.

“Sapphires have been mined by both the government and locals of Kishtwar since 1885 when J&K was under the Dogra rule. But, it hasn’t translated into any developmental benefits for Kishtwar,” said Amar Singh, a Congress leader and a former political leader in Gulabgarh in Kishtwar.

Following the revocation in 2019 of Article 370, which gave J&K some autonomy within the Indian state, the government has shown “keen interest” in exploring the sapphire wealth of Kishtwar, according to an official who didn’t want to be named.

In 2021, the Geological Survey of India, along with officials of the J&K administration, completed a preliminary survey of sapphire mines in Padder Valley and a “comprehensive strategy” was formulated for “scientific exploration” of sapphires.

Panorama picture of Gulabgarh, in Kishtwar, the last stop for workers and officials before their on-foot journey to Padder Valley where the sapphire mines are located.

Gulabgarh, in Kishtwar, the last stop for workers and officials before their on-foot journey to Padder Valley where the sapphire mines are located.

Jehangir Ali/The Wire

Challenging expedition

In June this year, a team of geologists from Mineral Exploration and Consultancy Limited (MECL) along with the officials of J&K’s Geology and Mining Department left Kishtwar for a two-month expedition to explore sapphire mines in the high mountains of Padder Valley.

We found a lot of sapphire stones but it didn’t benefit Kishtwar or its people.

Durgesh Devarshee, a MECL geologist, said that the team will set up a base in Padder Valley and continue their exploration, including geochemical and geological prospecting of sapphire mines.

“We are hopeful of taking the process to the G2 stage which will be followed by G1 stage when the estimate of sapphire in Kishtwar will be prepared and mining will hopefully commence,” Devarshee told The Wire in Gulabgarh town, from where the team departed for Padder Valley.

But the natural challenges in reaching the high-altitude mines, and the difficulties faced by the workers and engineers in adjusting to the tough living conditions there, have so far hampered the government’s plans to explore the mines on an industrial scale.

Mohammad Shafi, a resident of Kijaie village, said that the journey to the sapphire mines is a 40 km, two-day, back-breaking hike from Gulabgarh through difficult mountain passes which ends at Sumcham village of Machail in Padder Valley. Mules are used for ferrying essentials.

“There is no mobile phone connectivity. Two to three camps are set up along the route from Machail around Bilakoth, Dangail, and Kundail for night shelters and stocking of essentials. Mules can’t stay at Bilakoth for the night and they have to be brought down to Dangail,” Shafi, who worked in the sapphire mines from 1998 to 2013, told The Wire.

Abbas, a former sapphire mine worker, said that the weather restricts the mining season to just two months in a year. “When I used to join the sapphire hunt, around a dozen labourers and their mules were selected by the government after police verification. Each labourer was paid Rs 150 ($1.81) per day while a mule earned Rs 1,000 ($12.09). We found a lot of sapphire stones but it didn’t benefit Kishtwar or its people,” he said.

Photo of \u200bMohammad Shafi, who has worked in the sapphire mines of Kishtwar for more than a decade before ailing health forced him to stop.

Mohammad Shafi has worked in the sapphire mines of Kishtwar for more than a decade before ailing health forced him to stop.

Jehangir Ali/The Wire

Sapphire riches could help to develop the region, but residents are skeptical

Jammu and Kashmir’s lieutenant governor Manoj Sinha visited Kishtwar in August. According to an official spokesperson, Sinha “expressed gratitude” to the Indian government and Prime Minister Narendra Modi for “extending the support for survey and geological studies of sapphire mines” in Kishtwar.

“In the next one year, we will be in a position to auction the sapphire mines in a scientific way that will give a boost to the local economy and it will also become one of the major contributors (to the) growth of Jammu Kashmir,” Sinha said in an address to Panchayat representatives and residents of Kishtwar at Gulabgarh, according to the official spokesperson.

The deputy commissioner for Kishtwar, Devansh Yadav, said that the official team is expected to return from the Machail area of Padder Valley by next month. “Once the auction process is started, we will ensure that Kishtwar gets good royalty from the sapphires which will be used for infrastructure development,” he said.

Residents of Kishtwar, however, are not so upbeat about the prospects of sapphire mining. Amar Singh, an activist and a resident of Gulabgarh, told The Wire that the government has ignored the developmental needs of Kishtwar.

“Patients in Kishtwar are forced to visit Jammu or Srinagar for basic medical examinations such as an MRI scan. Most medical emergencies are referred to hospitals outside the district. Kishtwar is the most resourceful district in Jammu and Kashmir but the people here have been deprived of their benefits,” he said.

Abdul Majid Bichoo, who heads the Senior Citizens Forum in Kishtwar, said that the government must use the resources of Kishtwar to improve the public infrastructure like roads and hospitals.

“The resources of Kishtwar should be invested in Kishtwar first. We have already been deprived of the benefits of power projects. If sapphire mining goes the same way and contracts are handed to outsiders, it will be a loss for Kishtwar,” he said.

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Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.

Yet one month on, a quick look at the map shows that many of the worst-hit cities are those where Russian is the predominant language: Kharkiv, Odesa, Kherson.

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