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Thai nationals were the single largest group of foreign nationals held by Hamas in Gaza and the highest number killed in Israel – the fact that 17 were quickly freed is considered a diplomatic achievement.

Behind the scenes, Thailand officials have been quietly working away at trying to get their citizens freed, attending meetings in Qatar and Iran.

At the centre of the Thai negotiating team is Lerpong Sayed, a Thai Muslim who, in an exclusive broadcast interview, told Sky News Hamas was justified in taking hostages.

Dr Sayed in recent weeks has split his time between his home country and Iran, where he spoke to Hamas five times.

“We went there to negotiate as normal people, not politicians. Hamas saw this. They saw us as Thai Muslims,” he told me in an interview that provides a window into his high-level talks.

“They promised that if there was a ceasefire Thai people would be released in the first group.

“Now we can obviously see Thais are among the first citizens freed compared to 20 other nationalities.”

Dr Sayed is part of a small team of three people working on behalf of the Thai House Speaker, Wan Muhammad Noor Matha, and the Shia Muslim leader in Thailand, Syed Sulaiman Husaini.

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Thai hostages arrive at Shamir Medical Centre

Thailand’s population of 70 million people is predominantly Buddhist and has largely peacefully co-existed with its sizeable Muslim minority.

On Tuesday, the Thai foreign minister went to Israel to meet with the hostages who were freed last week – the first group of captives released by Hamas as part of a truce deal with Israel.

The hostages are due to return to Thailand on Thursday.

Most went to Israel to work as farm labourers. On 7 October, when Hamas launched its attack, many were working in farms on the border. Before the war, 30,000 Thai labourers worked in Israel, predominantly in the agricultural sector.

Dr Sayed says the Thai government’s talks with the Qataris partly helped secure the release of Thais, but he firmly believes it was Thailand’s historic relationship with Iran that proved critical.

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“I’d like to thank Iran – both the government and the people who have been supportive in negotiating with Hamas.”

Other analysts have suggested an agreement mediated by Qatar and Egypt was the pivotal factor in securing the release of hostages.

Iran has said it facilitated the release, while Hamas said it was due to the efforts of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan.

For his part, Dr Sayed is confident that the Thai hostages have been treated well.

He says he knows they’ve told their families “they were well taken care of, well looked after, given shelter, clothes, food and water and given mental support”.

Thai hostage piece - Lynch. Thai hostages captured/killed
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Thai hostages taken by Hamas

The negotiator insists there were no conditions from Hamas on what the hostages could or couldn’t say, and dismisses the idea that the group, seen waving at hostages in increasingly highly produced videos, are using the hostage releases as a spectacle.

Controversially, he also says Hamas was justified in taking hostages.

It was, he argues, “to help the Palestinians”, citing the thousands of Palestinians in Israeli prisons and decades of what he sees as Israeli occupation and mistreatment.

From what he has seen and heard from Hamas, he believes the rest of the Thais being held in Gaza will be released. According to the Thai government, there are 15 still being held in Gaza.

But he said Hamas had given him an ominous warning for the Thai people and the Thai authorities: “The border area is disputed land and it’s war time and Hamas will consider anyone who works there is working for the outlaws.”

They will be very alarming words for the many Thais who are now looking to return, and are financially dependent on the considerable extra money they make in Israel.

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Three women killed in brothel in Austria

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Three women killed in brothel in Austria

Police have arrested a man after three women were killed in a brothel in the Austrian capital Vienna.

The women were found with “cuts and stab wounds”, police said.

Police found a fourth woman inside the brothel and she was being questioned by the police as a witness.

A 27-year-old man was arrested in the vicinity of the brothel while carrying a knife, which is suspected to be the weapon.

Police said the suspect is an asylum-seeker from Afghanistan and will be questioned by police later on Saturday.

A witness had discovered traces of blood outside the building, located near the Danube River, and alerted police on Friday evening.

The identities of the three victims remains unclear.

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Brothels are legal in Austria.

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‘Significant progress’ in Paris hostage talks – Israeli media

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'Significant progress' in Paris hostage talks - Israeli media

There has been “significant progress” in hostage talks in Paris, according to Israeli media.

Negotiators have been ramping up efforts to secure a ceasefire in Gaza, in the hope of heading off an Israeli assault on the Gaza city of Rafah where more than one million displaced people are sheltering.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh met Egyptian mediators in Cairo to discuss a truce this week on his first visit since December.

A Hamas official said yesterday that the militant group had wrapped up ceasefire talks in Cairo and were waiting to see what mediators bring back from weekend talks with Israel.

It comes after the Gaza’s health ministry said death toll from the nearly five months of war has risen to 29,606. The total number of wounded rose to nearly 70,000.

Speaking on Friday, Hamas political official Osama Hamdan said the militant group has “dealt positively with the proposals and initiatives of the mediators” but that Israel’s position “poses many obstacles to reaching an agreement”.

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He said the Israelis had refused the main demands put forward by Hamas to “stop the aggression, to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, to return displaced people to the north (of Gaza), and to make a real reciprocal deal” on exchanging the Israeli hostages for Palestinian prisoners in Israel.

Mr Hamdan said his group is sticking to these demands.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called the militant group’s demands “delusional”.

Israel wants open-ended control over security and civilian affairs in Gaza, according to a long-awaited post-war plan drawn up by Mr Netanyahu.

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UK and other NATO allies urged to consider conscription as Ukraine war enters third year

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UK and other NATO allies urged to consider conscription as Ukraine war enters third year

Any move to introduce conscription by Britain and other NATO allies would make a difference to Europe’s defences against Russia, Latvia’s foreign minister has said.

Krisjanis Karins said the larger the country, the bigger the difference.

Asked whether he was advocating such a step, the top diplomat told Sky News that he is “happily sharing” with colleagues the experience of his own nation, which reinstated mandatory military service last year in the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

“We think it’s a very good idea for us,” the foreign minister said, speaking on the sidelines of a recent security conference in Germany.

“I think other NATO allies could consider it as well.”

Follow latest: Sunak and Starmer pledge support ‘for as long as it takes’

Latvia, one of the three Baltic states who are members of the NATO alliance, scrapped conscription almost two decades ago.

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But it decided to reintroduce the draft as part of a plan effectively to double the size of its armed forces – professionals and reserves – to 61,000 by 2032.

“The point of the draft is to beef up capable, equipped and trained reservists,” Mr Karins, a previous Latvian prime minister, said.

“It’s not replacing the professional army. It’s augmenting the professional army.”

Krisjanis Karins said conscription in the UK could be a good idea
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Krisjanis Karins said conscription in the UK could be a good idea

Asked whether he thought it would make a difference if the UK started conscription, the foreign minister said: “I think it would make a difference if any European country [did] – and of course, the larger countries, it would make a bigger difference.”

As for whether this was an idea he was pushing, he said with a smile: “It’s the experience that we have that I’m happily sharing with all of my friends and colleagues.”

But UK Defence Secretary Grant Shapps, who also spoke to Sky News at the Munich Security Conference last week, sounded less than keen about even training citizens voluntarily – an idea the head of the British Army appears to support – let alone mandatory military service.

“We have a professional army of professional armed forces. It’s really important that they are trained to the highest possible standards,” Mr Shapps said in an interview.

“Everyone knows that in a wartime – First World War, Second World War – scenario, of course, countries have to make other arrangements.

“That’s not the position we’re in now. We have absolutely no plans to do that now. And so that’s not something which is on the agenda currently.”

Latvia will train up to 800 conscripts this year
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Latvia will train up to 800 conscripts this year

Yet a Latvian general explained how conscription is about much more than simply generating fresh boots on the ground – it is also about growing a sense of national service and a desire for each citizen to do their bit to help protect the country.

“Everyone has the right to serve – an obligation to serve – the nation,” said Major General Andis Dilans, the Chief of the Joint Staff of the National Armed Forces, Latvia’s second most senior commander.

“This is really the cornerstone of democracy,” he said in an interview in the Latvian capital Riga.

“Therefore, we looked at this not just as a war-fighting force of the conscription, but looking at the connection between the public and the military in case of crisis, in case of war.”

Sky News was invited to visit a training base in southeast Latvia, close to its border with Belarus, a close Russian ally, where a mix of conscripts and other recruits were going through a three-week basic training course with the National Guard.

The National Guard is a branch of the armed forces that is made up of volunteers. At a time of war, they would offer support to the professional military.

“Bam! Bam! Bam!” the recruits shouted, rifles raised, mimicking the sound of gunshots, as they practised a response to an ambush on a muddy shooting range surrounded by forest.

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British Foreign Secretary Grant Shapps says there are 'absolutely no plans' for conscription
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British Foreign Secretary Grant Shapps says there are ‘absolutely no plans’ for conscription

One group of soldiers provided cover, as a second group moved forward, stopped and then took their turn to provide cover as their colleagues advanced.

Edging close to the site where their pretend enemy had launched the ambush, the troops lobbed an imaginary grenade and hit the ground to brace for what would – if done for real – be a deadly impact, before scrambling forward to press on with their counterattack.

Eduard, 18, was one of seven conscripts among the group of about 20 on the range. All seven were voluntary conscripts, rather than being ordered to serve.

“I think that every man in the world needs to at least try military life,” said Eduard.

Conscripts can choose to go through a solid 11 months of training or stretch it out during five years, in between their civilian lives.

Eduard said he had decided to do the latter so he could continue his studies as well.

As for what he would do if Russia attacked, the young man said: “I will defend my country.”

Maxim, 21, a second conscript, was also enthusiastic about his limited time in uniform.

“I’d recommend that everyone samples the emotions and experiences of military life, then – if they like it – maybe they will seek to join the armed forces full time,” he said.

A total of 39 trainees were going through the basic training course at the Meza Mackevici base of 3rd Latgalian Brigade, National Armed Forces

Split into smaller units of nine to 12 people, they train, eat and sleep together.

Each day starts at 6am and ends at 11pm.

Major General Andis Dilans says everyone has an 'obligation' to serve in the military
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Major General Andis Dilans says everyone has an ‘obligation’ to serve in the military

The trainees sleep on bunkbeds in makeshift dormitories that line a one-storey hangar. A canteen is in a second hanger, serving up breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Each morning, they sing the national anthem on a parade ground before three tall flag poles displaying the colours of Latvia, NATO and Ukraine – the war in that country, a constant reminder of why all three Baltic states are doing so much more to mobilise their people.

One instructor, a professional soldier who was sipping soup from a bowl during his lunchbreak, offered his perspective on conscription.

“I think that the most important thing is to awaken the desire to protect and defend your country,” said Staff Sergeant Gunars Brencis, 36.

“[It is] to awaken the patriots in them so that they have the courage to stand up against the enemy if needed.”

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