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In Channel, major resources track small boats

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In Channel, major resources track small boats

Fifteen months after 27 migrants drowned in the Channel, the efforts to prevent another tragedy are visible from the bridge of the French navy boat BSAM Rhone as it patrols on a cold February night.

The 70-metre warship is one of two extra vessels ordered late last year by the French government to join monitoring and rescue operations in the busy waters off the port of Calais from where most migrants leave for England.

On the night of February 9, it spent more than three hours shadowing a packed inflatable dinghy as it weaved between container ships and ferries in the inky blackness, heading for the lights of England on the horizon.

“Our job is to make sure it doesn’t get hit,” says Gaspard, the officer on watch, as he keeps an eye on the radar and makes sure his ship is a steady one kilometre (0.6 miles) behind the inflatable and its dozens of passengers.

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A look-out checks regularly on its progress with infra-red binoculars.

Overhead, a surveillance plane from the European Union border force Frontex can be seen doing loops. A grey Belgian navy vessel stands on alert nearby.

Shortly after midnight, after a bone-chilling journey of around five hours in total, the dinghy crosses the international boundary and enters British waters.

Following the instructions passed on to them by people smugglers, someone on board makes an SOS call.

The powerful BSAM Rhone is being used to shadow tiny inflatables

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The Volunteer, a UK Border Force vessel positioned nearby, then swoops in to pick them up, its powerful lights illuminating the gently rolling waves.

It’s a familiar routine for the onlooking French.

“Once they’re in British waters, they’ve reached their target,” says captain Enoal Gabriel. “If they need saving while they’re in French waters, then we’re there and we take them back to France.”

– ‘Stop the boats’ –

Around 46,000 asylum seekers crossed the Channel last year in this way — mostly Afghans, Iranians and Albanians.

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This compared with almost none in 2017, before the seaborne route to Britain became the favoured option for migrants.

Around 8,000 were rescued in French waters.

The surge in numbers has left the British government vowing to stem the flow and the French determined not to see a repeat of the November 2021 tragedy that left 27 dead and a deep well of distrust between the neighbouring countries.

The number of migrants crossing the Channel has soared over the last five years

On that night, a dingy deflated near the international maritime boundary. Overwhelmed coastguard services on both sides passed the buck as people drowned.

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The incident and four more deaths in late 2022 were the backdrop to the deployment of the 3,000-tonne BSAM Rhone, which is big and powerful enough to tow an aircraft carrier but is now being used to shadow tiny inflatables.

One of the 28 crewman on board grumbles privately that he can’t wait until the French state follows through on plans to charter two private vessels to replace the sophisticated navy assets.

“We have lots of other missions we could be getting on with,” he says, asking not to be named.

The monitoring and rescue operations have also drawn crossfire in Britain, where Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is weighing up radical new plans to “stop the boats”.

He reportedly favours mass deportations as a deterrent but has not revived an idea of pushing migrant dinghies back into French waters which was once floated by former interior minister Priti Patel.

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Some right-wing media have accused the French of “guiding” migrants to British waters.

Anti-immigration politicians also regularly describe UK Border Force vessels as acting like “a taxi service” by bringing them ashore.

– Policing –

France presently has six vessels in the Channel around Calais to monitor the dinghies, up from four at the end of last year.

Despite the wishes of hardliners in Britain, their role is not to intercept migrant boats — a task seen as too dangerous because of the risk of accidents.

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French police patrol the rugged coastline around Calais day and night

All the efforts to stop the departures take place on the wide sandy beaches and rugged dunes of the French coast, where hundreds of police equipped with drones and night-vision binoculars run round-the-clock operations.

Improving UK-French relations after years of tensions meant Britain secured a deal in November to send British “observers” to join the French patrols.

London also agreed to pay another 72.2 million euros ($78 million) to cover some of the cost of French security operations and deploy an additional 350 people.

But Pierre Roques, coordinator at Calais migrant support charity Auberge des Migrants, says extra police won’t make a difference to the number of boats.

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“The coast is so huge. It won’t stop people from leaving,” he says. 

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US Coast Guard boards Chinese fishing boats near Kiribati, official says

US Coast Guard boards Chinese fishing boats near Kiribati, official says

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US Coast Guard boards Chinese fishing boats near Kiribati, official says

The US Coast Guard and Kiribati police boarded two Chinese fishing boats during a patrol against illegal fishing in the Pacific Islands nation’s vast exclusive economic zone this month but found no issues aboard, a coast guard official said.

The United States is seeking a bigger role for its coast guard in helping remote Pacific Islands nations monitor millions of kilometres of ocean – a rich tuna fishing ground – a move that also boosts surveillance as a rivalry with China over security ties in the region intensifies.

Reuters reported on Friday that Chinese police are working in Kiribati, with uniformed officers involved in community policing and a crime database program.

Kiribati, a nation of 115,000 residents, is considered strategic despite being small, as it is relatively close to Hawaii and controls a 3.5 million square kilometre (1.35 million square mile) exclusive economic zone. It is also host to a Japanese satellite tracking station.

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Washington has flagged plans to build an embassy in Kiribati to compete with China, but has not yet done so.

Kiribati police officers were on patrol with the US Coast Guard as “ship riders” for the first time in almost a decade, between Feb. 11-16, a US Coast Guard Guam spokeswoman said.

“The two People’s Republic of China (PRC) flagged fishing vessels were boarded as part of routine maritime law enforcement activities to ensure compliance with regulations within the Kiribati Exclusive Economic Zone,” the spokeswoman said in an emailed comments.

No concerns were reported during the boardings, she said.

“Both Kiribati officers from the Kiribati Police Maritime Unit and US Coast Guard officers were involved in the boarding operations. This collaboration underscores the partnership between the two nations in upholding maritime law and good governance,” she added.

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The Kiribati president’s office and Chinese embassy did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.

Kiribati’s acting police commissioner, Eeri Aritiera, told Reuters last week that Chinese police on the island work with local police.

China built a large embassy on the main island, Tarawa, after Kiribati switched ties from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019. 

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Ukraine downs nine Russian drones, three missiles, air force says

Ukraine downs nine Russian drones, three missiles, air force says

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Ukraine downs nine Russian drones, three missiles, air force says

Russia launched 14 attack drones and a barrage of missiles at Ukraine overnight, with air defence systems destroying nine drones as well as three guided missiles over the Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk regions, Ukraine’s air force said on Monday.

Russia also launched two S-300 missiles from anti-aircraft missile systems and one air-to-surface Kh-31P missile, the air force said on the Telegram messaging app.

It was not clear what happened to the missiles and drones that were not downed. 

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Taiwan ally Tuvalu names Feleti Teo as new prime minister

Taiwan ally Tuvalu names Feleti Teo as new prime minister

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Taiwan ally Tuvalu names Feleti Teo as new prime minister

Tuvalu on Monday announced former attorney general and fisheries official Feleti Teo as its new prime minister, after he was elected unopposed by lawmakers in the Pacific Islands nation, officials said.

Former Prime Minister Kausea Natano lost his seat in a general election on Jan. 26 closely watched by Taiwan, China, the US and Australia, amid a geopolitical tussle for influence in the South Pacific.

Tuvalu, with a population of about 11,200 spread across nine islands, is one of three remaining Pacific allies of Taiwan, after Nauru cut ties last month and switched to Beijing, which had promised more development help.

Teo received unanimous support from the 16 lawmakers, two lawmakers told Reuters on Monday.

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Teo, who was educated in New Zealand and Australia, was Tuvalu’s first attorney general. He has decades of experience as a senior official in the regional fisheries organisation and has worked with the Pacific Islands Forum, the region’s major political and economic group. Fishing is a major source of revenue in the Pacific islands.

“Feleti Teo was declared by the Governor General as Prime Minister for Tuvalu,” Tuvalu’s government secretary, Tufoua Panapa, said in an emailed statement.

Tuvalu lawmaker Simon Kofe congratulated Teo in a social media post.

“It is the first time in our history that a Prime Minister has been nominated unopposed,” he said.

The election result in Tuvalu had been delayed by a month as dangerous weather stopped boats from bringing new lawmakers to the capital to vote for prime minister, highlighting why climate change is the top political issue in the Pacific Islands nation.

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Taiwan’s foreign ministry said its ambassador to Tuvalu, Andrew Lin, expressed Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s congratulations to Teo, adding that deputy foreign minister Tien Chung-kwang will visit Tuvalu in the near future.

Teo is a friend of Taiwan’s and has visited many times, and has said relations are stable and that maintaining ties is the widespread consensus in Tuvalu, the ministry added.

Taiwan previously said it was paying close attention to the election after Tuvalu’s finance minister in the previous government, Seve Paeniu, said the issue of diplomatic recognition of Taiwan or China should be debated by the new government.

There had also been calls by some lawmakers to review a wide-ranging deal signed with Australia in November, that allows Canberra to vet Tuvalu’s police, port and telecommunication cooperation with other nations, in return for a defence guarantee and allowing citizens threatened by rising seas to migrate.

The deal was seen as an effort to curb China’s rising influence as an infrastructure provider in the Pacific Islands.

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Teo’s position on Taiwan ties, and the Australian security and migration pact, have not been made public.

Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said on social media he looked forward to working with Teo.

“Australia deeply values our relationship with Tuvalu, in the spirit of the Falepili Union,” he wrote, referring to the migration pact.

Tuvalu’s ministry would be announced at an oath taking ceremony for the new government later this week, Panapa said.

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