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The government is “simply not in a position to pay inflation pay rises”, the transport secretary has told Sky News before a meeting with the boss of the sector’s biggest union tomorrow.

Mark Harper told The Take with Sophy Ridge that he understands why “people facing these cost-of-living pressures want more pay”, but said if ministers were to grant this wish, “the danger is that we would embed inflation”.

Rail unions must “understand” the importance of getting inflation down to get the economy back on track, he said.

Mr Harper was speaking before a meeting with Mick Lynch, the general secretary of the RMT union, on Thursday.

This week Mr Lynch insisted he’s “not the Grinch” as he announced four 48-hour strikes over Christmas and New Year.

Mr Lynch said on Tuesday that there had been no improved offer on jobs, pay and conditions, so more walkouts would go ahead.

About 40,000 staff from Network Rail and 14 train companies are set to strike on 13, 14, 16 and 17 December and 3, 4, 6 and 7 January.

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It means disruption for travellers, workers and shoppers in the run-up to Christmas and for people returning home after the festive break.

There could also be problems on other days because the RMT said an overtime ban would run from 18 December to 2 January.

The transport secretary warned Sky News that the upcoming strikes are going to be “really disruptive” and will have “a very significant cost”.

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RMT boss: ‘I’m not the Grinch’

But he said he will not negotiate with Mr Lynch over the fresh round of strikes in tomorrow’s meeting.

“I would urge them to call off the strikes, get back round the table with the employers, try and hammer out some of those reforms that are necessary, and which deliver the savings that then can then help pay for the pay rises for his members and deliver a better service,” Mr Harper said.

Asked if it is fair for rail workers to expect their wages to match inflation, he said the most important issue for the whole country is that “we get inflation under control”.

Embedding inflation is not in anyone’s interest, he said.

“What is in people’s interest is that we get inflation driven out of the system so that it comes back down to a lower level, we see interest rates then falling – that is how we get a long-term sustainable position.”

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More rail strikes at Christmas

Mr Harper added that he wants “the dispute to be settled” through “a sensible conversation” tomorrow, adding: “We absolutely do not want this to go on to New Year.”

The Christmas action will be the latest in a series of rail strikes that began in June and follows RMT members last week voting to continue striking for another six months.

Train drivers who belong to the Aslef union are staging a separate strike this Saturday, hitting services run by 11 operators, including Great Western and Southeastern.

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Ukraine War Diaries: Fighting the Smart war against Russia




Ukraine War Diaries: Fighting the Smart war against Russia

At first, Ukrainians used their smartphones to warn others of air raid alerts.

Now, they’ve changed tack, instead using a suite of apps to track Russian missiles heading towards their nation.

Since the start of the war, Russia has attacked Ukraine’s power grid with more than 1,000 missiles. The country’s power network has now been reduced by up to 50%, according to government officials.

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But, speaking in the latest episode of the Sky News Ukraine War Diaries podcast, Kyiv resident Ilyas Verdiev explains why internet connectivity is now sometimes even more coveted than light and heat for besieged residents.

“I had a blackout a week-and-a-half ago, I didn’t have electricity,” he explains. “But more important is that I didn’t have a stable Internet connection.

“That means I didn’t get the information from the different sources of how the situation is at the moment.

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“Telegram is basically an instant messenger [app] where you can post any kind of information to different ‘channels’. I have a few channels.

“One of them gives you an information of how and when the air forces of Russia are moving, whether they bring the missiles, whether the missiles were launched. They can even post the interceptions of pilots from the Russian side.

Ilyas Verdiev, Ukraine War Diarist pictured October 10, 2022
Ilyas Verdiev is one of a handful of Ukrainians documenting their experience for Sky News’ Ukraine War Diaries

On 5 December, Russia attacked Kyiv with yet another barrage of missiles. Ilyas, like many Kyiv residents, used apps to track the attack from point of origin to eventual execution.

“Today [5 December] they have warned in advance that this air raid is dangerous and there is a massive take-off of their planes which were bringing the missiles on board,” Ilyas continues.

“The other application is the air raid map. It’s a map of Ukraine and each region turns red when the air raid is on in that particular region. We had an air raid starting from the eastern parts of Ukraine. And gradually all of the regions from the east to west to the north and to the south, all over were getting red… if an air raid is growing and covers most of the regions on the map, I will start packing things…and get ready to go to the basement. Sooner or later it will come to Kyiv.

A screen grab of a regional heat map application which illustrates real-time Russian air attacks across Ukraine
Ilyas uses a heat map app to follow real-time Russian air attacks across Ukraine

“Simultaneously, you can hear the actual siren outside your apartment, and the same time, you have a notification which sounds exactly like a siren on your mobile.

“I can actually make some plans – how to act, what to do, where to go. I can warn my parents in advance – they should be ready to go to the corridor or to a safer place.”

From the creators of Sky News’ award-winning StoryCast, Ukraine War Diaries is a weekly podcast following those living on Europe’s new frontline, and those who have escaped it.

Producer: Robert Mulhern

Digital promotion and additional writing: David Chipakupaku

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‘It’s terrifying to live like this’: Ukrainians under relentness bombardment in one of the world’s most dangerous places




'It's terrifying to live like this': Ukrainians under relentness bombardment in one of the world's most dangerous places

A middle-aged woman with a bright yellow hat stepped out of a white van close to the frontline Ukrainian town of Bakhmut, one of the most dangerous places on the planet.

Smiling cheerfully, Liudmyla Bila handed out a jumble of supplies – from woollen socks and metal pans to dried noodles and cans of beans – to a small group of grateful soldiers.

She even gave them periscopes – useful to peer over the top of a trench – and heart-shaped biscuits.

“The guys are helping us [the troops gave her fuel] – and we are helping them”, Liudmyla, 45, said, before jumping back into her van, with two other companions, and heading into Bakhmut.

Liudmyla Bila hands out supplies to grateful Ukrainian soldiers

The trio is among a band of volunteers that braves the treacherous journey to distribute aid to the few thousand residents who are still living in the town despite months of relentless bombardments by Russian forces that have prompted most people to flee.

As well as providing supplies, the volunteers try to convince remaining residents to be evacuated, offering to drive them out to safety themselves.

There is no electricity or running water in Bakhmut and the threat of death from incoming rounds is constant.

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Russia is desperate to take the town, in Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, after suffering humiliating defeats elsewhere.

Ukrainian troops are defending hard but the bloody battle – one of the fiercest of the war – has been dubbed a “meat grinder” because of the huge and growing number of casualties.

A local resident leaves his home after Russian shelling destroyed an apartment house in Bakhmut, Donetsk 
A resident leaves his home after Russian shelling destroyed an apartment building in Bakhmut. Pic: AP

For local people caught in the middle, there is an added danger as winter falls and temperatures drop below freezing.

The active combat means even entering the town is high risk.

But Liudmyla said her only son, 22, is a soldier fighting around Bakhmut. She said she wanted to be nearby, adding: “I am not afraid.”

Her voluntary group of some 20 people is called Wings of Liberty, based in the city of Dnipro, about a five hour drive from Bakhmut.

Ukrainian soldiers in a shelter in the frontline near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022. (AP Photo/LIBKOS)
Ukrainian soldiers in a shelter in the frontline near Bakhmut. Pic: AP/LIBKOS

She makes the round trip to the town every week.

Sky News followed her and her team – 35-year-old Olha Ekzarkhova, whose brother was killed on the frontline two months ago, and Ian Boiko, 39, who drives the van – into Bakhmut on Wednesday morning.

They stopped in a residential area, surrounded by large, concrete apartment blocks.

Glass was shattered across the ground – evidence of past blasts having blown out windows.

The volunteers had to work quickly – wanting to minimise their time on the ground. The sound of distant explosions and gunfire could be heard.

“People!” shouted Liudmyla as she and Olha darted from the van to one of the blocks, carrying bottles of water, candles, blankets and food.

No one immediately appeared.

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‘Ferocious’ battle for Bakhmut

They left the aid at the top of a short flight of steps leading down to a shelter in the basement. Liudmyla said people are living in there.

We knocked on the door to the shelter but there was no reply. It turned out they had gone to another spot in town where it is still possible to pick up mobile phone signal.

A tired-looking man was shuffling around the entrance of the apartment block next door.

Sky News approached him, but he did not want to speak and said no one else was around.

Aid delivered, Liudmyla and her team headed further into town.

We peeled off to speak with people in a small crowd on the side of a main road.

Desperate and weary, they queued at a window to try to receive stoves to heat their homes.

Read more:
Eyewitness | Ukrainians fight Russian mercenaries and plummeting temperatures in the Battle for Bakhmut

One woman moved away from the window empty handed.

Asked how life is in Bakhmut, Oksana, 75, said: “Very difficult. Very difficult.”

Then her face crumpled and her voice broke.

It is “impossible, cold – without blankets”, she said.

“This is bad. We are freezing. The temperature is only 3 to 5 degrees inside our home.

“We are waiting here for a stove. They told us to put your names on a list and wait. When will it end? When will it end? Oh God.

“Why are they [Russians] so stubborn when it comes to our Bakhmut? And here: war, war, war. They have been hitting us all the time for more than half a year already.”

The Ukrainian service members fight and stay warm in the Donetsk region
Sergiy, 35, an operator for a self propelled artillery vehicle with the 24th Mechanized Brigade of King Danylo of the Ukrainian Army heats up water for coffee while waiting for coordinates to strike a Russian military target as Russia’s invasion on Ukraine continues near Bakhmut in Ukraine, December 3, 2022. REUTERS/ Leah Millis
Ukrainian service members fight and stay warm close to Bakhmut

She explained that she lived with her husband who is 82 and too frail to be evacuated.

“How can I leave him? There are no doctors here. No nurses. Nothing is here.”

Oksana said she was worried about having to live through the winter. As she spoke booms from incoming rounds could be heard, again in the distance.

“We are in the Stone Age. It is terrifying to live like this in the 21st century. And no one in the world can help us. How can it be?”

With the sound of explosions growing louder, we decided to leave.

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On the way out of town, an artillery round or some other form of munition exploded up ahead. We did not see the impact but could see the smoke.

Suddenly, there was a loud blast and our vehicle shook.

A second round had smashed into the ground to the right of us, sending shrapnel across the road. It narrowly missed a small car that was just ahead of ours – a reminder of the reality and the randomness of this war.

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‘They beat the hell out of us and stripped us naked’: Asylum seekers ‘abused in cage’ by Bulgarian forces




'They beat the hell out of us and stripped us naked': Asylum seekers 'abused in cage' by Bulgarian forces

They call it the “cage” or the “jail”. Tucked away in the small Bulgarian town of Sredets is a crumbling outbuilding on the edge of a compound where border forces are stationed.

The floor is often covered with litter, there are no proper beds and at one side are metal bars.

The squalid room is no ordinary prison. People who say they’ve been held inside deny they’re criminals.

Instead, they are asylum seekers who claim they were detained in a makeshift jail by Bulgarian border forces before being forced back to Turkey.

15 October
15 October

“When they caught us, they beat the hell out of us… they stripped us naked… shaved our brows with a Gillette razor,” said Nackman, a 34-year-old refugee who claims he was detained for several hours in the cage.

“Then there was this wooden room that could only fit 20 people, but they forced 60 people into it; even an animal couldn’t survive in that wooden room. It has the worst odour ever, so if you need to use the toilet, you’ll just go to the side. They won’t look at you with human eyes.”

As part of joint investigation by Sky News, Lighthouse Reports, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, Monitor, Domani, SRF and RFE/RL Bulgaria, we filmed the outbuilding five times in October and November 2022.

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Every time there were people inside. On one occasion, a Bulgarian border force officer is recorded opening the door and leading the people out.

24 October
24 October

We showed the video of the outbuilding to refugees near the Turkish-Bulgarian border. Kenan, 31, instantly recognised it.

“We slept in this jail for three days. They insulted us. When we asked them for bread, they pushed us back, cursed us and I didn’t know what they said. They hit us,” he recalled.

23 November
23 November

‘They unleashed the dogs’

Another man said he was held there before being pushed back over the border to Turkey.

“After they threw me in the container, they unleashed the dogs. It was me and a young child. He was 12 years old. He was bitten by the dogs and so was I,” he said.

Claims of abuse at the border by Bulgarian authorities are common. A Syrian refugee named Shaddi said on one occasion he was caught by authorities trying to cross through Bulgaria to Serbia.

“They took off our clothing and they put us in very cold water, maybe 10 minutes. And they threw sticks… and they shoot us by plastic shoot revolver. It’s plastic shot,” he said. “It’s unhuman I think… because we are human. We are not animals. We are not terrorists.”

Read more: Refugee shot near Bulgarian border

Asylum seekers claim they were detained in the squalid jail known as the 'Cage'
25 November

As part of the investigation, reports of illegal pushbacks and abuse were recorded at several EU borders. In Hungary, refugees reported being held for hours tied up outside or in containers.

Speaking anonymously, one man said he was badly beaten by Hungarian police and detained for two days. Similar reports have been told to aid workers at Doctor Without Borders.

“What we started hearing more and more is that people were kept inside such containers up to 12 hours just before being forcibly returned to Serbia. Often kept up to 60 people in such a contained space, in a standing position or in physical stressing positions,” said Alessandro Mangione from the medical NGO.

Asylum seekers near the Turkish-Bulgarian border
Migrants walk near Serbia’s border with Hungary. Pic: Aleksandar Milanovic

Hungary ‘utterly rejects allegations’

He said aid workers regularly treat refugees for beating injuries caused by officials.

In response to the allegations, the Hungarian authorities issued a statement saying its officials carry out their duties lawfully, professionally, humanely and proportionately.

“The government of Hungary utterly rejects allegations which are once more seeking to discredit personnel on duty at the border. Hungarian police officers and soldiers are protecting the EU’s Schengen borders lawfully and in compliance with EU and Hungarian regulations,” it added.

The Bulgarian government denied any wrongdoing by border officials and said it followed international and domestic laws. It said officials were facing increasing attacks from people trying to cross illegally into Bulgaria.

The European Commission said it took all allegations of wrongdoing at the European external borders seriously, that violence and loss of life was unacceptable, and it expected national authorities to investigate any allegations and to follow up swiftly and effectively.

But the revelations are concerning; people seeking protection are reporting abuse and detention in clandestine prisons – alleged black sites in Europe.

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