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Vladimir Putin has visited the occupied Ukrainian city of Mariupol, according to Russian media reports.

The president made what state media described as a “working trip” to the port city, which he annexed in September last year following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Mr Putin, who arrived in a helicopter, travelled around several districts of the city, making stops and talking to residents, according to Russia’s TASS state-owned news agency, citing the Kremlin.

It is believed to be his first trip to Ukrainian territory occupied by Russia since its invasion last year.

The visit follows the widely-condemned annexation of the regions of Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia in September.

The visit also comes as Mr Putin visited Crimea to mark the ninth anniversary of the Black Sea peninsula’s annexation from Ukraine in 2014.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Governor of Sevastopol Mikhail Razvozhayev visit the Children's Art and Aesthetic center, part of Chersonesos Taurica historical and archeological park in Sevastopol, Crimea, Saturday, March 18, 2023. Putin has traveled to Crimea to mark the ninth anniversary of the Black Sea peninsula's annexation from Ukraine. (Sputnik, Kremlin Press Service Pool Photo via AP)
Mr Putin, right, and Governor of Sevastopol Mikhail Razvozhayev, during his visit to Crimea on Saturday

Most of the world considers Russia’s annexations to be illegal, while Ukraine has said it will fight to get the regions back.

Mariupol, a strategically important port city located in the Donetsk Oblast and beside the Sea of Azov, was the site of some of the fiercest fighting in the early part of the war.

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Ukrainian forces holed up in the city’s Azovstal steelworks for a last-stand defensive, which ended in surrender in May after a three-month siege of the facility by Russia.

A view shows Azovstal steel mill destroyed in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict in Mariupol, Russian-controlled Ukraine, November 16, 2022. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko
The Azovstal steel mill in Mariupol

More than 2,500 buildings sustained damage in the siege of Mariupol – nearly half of everything that stood in the city.

Sky News reported in February how Russia had been remodelling the city in its own image since its capture, including turning the ruined steelworks, once one of the biggest metallurgical plants in Europe, into a “tech and eco park”.

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Mariupol: Russia’s new model city

Read our report from April 2022: How the Azovstal steelworks turned into the final outpost in the brutal battle for Mariupol

Alongside the visit, Russian media reported that Mr Putin met with the top command of his military operation in Ukraine, including Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov.

The meeting is said to have taken place at the Rostov-on-Don command post, in southern Russia, near to the Ukrainian border, according to TASS.

On Saturday, the Russian president made a 1,132-mile plane journey from Moscow to Sevastopol – Crimea’s largest city – a day after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for him.

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Vladimir Putin visits Crimea

The court says he is responsible for the abduction of hundreds of Ukrainian children since Russia’s full invasion of the country began in February last year.

In Crimea, he was greeted by Mikhail Razvozhayev – the Russian-installed governor of Sevastopol – before visiting an art school and a children’s centre.

Mr Putin’s remarks were not broadcast by state media but as recently as Friday, he was talking about the importance of holding on to Crimea.

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“Obviously, security issues take top priority for Crimea and Sevastopol now,” he said.

“We will do everything needed to fend off any threats.”

Mr Putin has not commented publicly on the International Criminal Court’s arrest warrant, but his spokesman called it “null and void” on Friday.

Russia does not recognise the jurisdiction of the court, which is based in The Hague.

It also does not extradite its citizens to face the court’s justice, meaning Mr Putin is unlikely to ever face trial there.

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Israel v Iran – Is escalation inevitable?




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Vietnam: Property tycoon Truong My Lan sentenced to death after country’s biggest fraud trial




Vietnam: Property tycoon Truong My Lan sentenced to death after country's biggest fraud trial

A property tycoon has been sentenced to death in Vietnam after the biggest fraud trial in the country’s history.

Truong My Lan was sentenced on Thursday by a court in Ho Chi Minh City after being found guilty of embezzlement, bribery and violations of banking rules following a month-long trial, state media reported.

The 67-year-old chair of the company Van Thinh Phat (VTP) was accused of fraud amounting to $12.5bn – nearly 3% of the country’s GDP in 2022.

Lan and her accomplices were charged with illegally controlling the Saigon Joint Stock Commercial Bank (SCB) between 2012 and 2022 to siphon off funds through thousands of ghost companies and by paying bribes to government officials.

From early 2018 to October 2022, when the state bailed out SCB after a run on its deposits, Lan appropriated large sums by arranging unlawful loans to shell companies, investigators said.

The start of the trial featured prominently in state media, which showed pictures and footage of Lan in the courtroom surrounded by dozens of police officers.

Truong My Lan
Pic: AP
Lan was sentenced after a month-long trial. Pic: AP

“Lan didn’t plead guilty and didn’t show remorse,” Thanh Nien newspaper cited the prosecutors as saying last month, while demanding the death penalty on the charge of embezzlement.

“The consequences are extremely serious and irreparable, and therefore, there must be a strict punishment for Truong My Lan and remove her from society,” it added.

The harsh sentence was due to the seriousness of the case, with the court saying Lan was at the helm of an orchestrated and sophisticated criminal enterprise that had serious consequences – with no possibility of the money being recovered, state media VnExpress reported on Thursday.

“We will keep fighting to see what we can do,” a family member told Reuters news agency, speaking on condition of anonymity. Before the verdict was issued, he had said Lan would appeal against the sentence.

A total of 84 defendants in the case received sentences ranging from probation to life imprisonment, reported Thanh Nien.

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VTP was among Vietnam’s richest property firms, with projects including luxury residential buildings, offices, hotels and shopping centres.

Lan’s arrest in October 2022 was among the most high-profile in an ongoing anti-corruption drive in Vietnam.

The crackdown, dubbed “blazing furnace”, has led to hundreds of senior state officials and high-profile business leaders facing prosecution or being forced to step down.

Former President Vo Van Thuong resigned in March after being implicated in the campaign.

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Nguyen Phu Trong, leader of the ruling Communist Party, has pledged for years to stamp out corruption in the country.

In November, he said the anti-corruption fight would “continue for the long term”.

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Risks of bigger war rising as Iran intends to hit back over suspected Israeli embassy strike – but Biden knows he can’t blink




Risks of bigger war rising as Iran intends to hit back over suspected Israeli embassy strike - but Biden knows he can't blink

The risks of the Gaza war expanding into a much bigger regional conflict had seemed to have subsided. Not any longer.

Comments from Iranian and American leaders in the last 24 hours may be entirely predictable but they raise the prospects of escalation.

Iran knows it’s been directly attacked in the airstrike on its embassy in Damascus and unless it retaliates it is weakened.

And in this region that is dangerous.

So on Wednesday, celebrating the end of Ramadan, Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei issued a stern warning that Israel must be punished and will be.

Middle East latest:
Iran attack on Israel could be imminent

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during a meeting with members of the Air Force in Tehran, Iran 
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Piv: WANA/Reuters

The US president knows the attack presumed by most to have been the work of its ally Israel violated international law which declares embassies ‘inviolable’.

And Biden’s relations with the man who almost certainly ordered it, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are rock bottom.

But the US president also knows any sign of weakness on his part is dangerous, too.

It would only embolden Iran to do its worst and that in turn would provoke Israel to do the same – potentially setting the entire region alight.

Joe Biden during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Pic: AP
Relations are strained between Biden and Netanyahu. Pic: AP

So Joe Biden has declared his ironclad support for Israel and raised the prospect of America becoming directly involved if war were to break out between its ally and Iran.

It is exactly the same calculus that led the US president to send two naval carrier groups to the waters off Israel in the wake of the 7 October attacks by Hamas to warn Iran – ‘don’t get involved’.

That move was successful. This time Biden may need to do more.

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Biden: ‘We want to address Iranian threat’

Iran has shown remarkable restraint holding back in this war despite frequent attacks by Israel on its assets and allies in Syria and Lebanon.

It has done so by claiming those attacks were not direct strikes on Iran itself.

The logic is clear. The ayatollahs are weak at home after the biggest uprising against its rule since its revolution and a regional war would be devastating.

But a direct attack on an embassy can’t be overlooked. The Iranians have made that clear.

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They believe they have to retaliate.

But by the same logic, they may try to calibrate their response to avert a regional conflagration.

The region watches and waits.

The balance of stability in the Middle East hangs on Tehran’s decision.

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