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Israel-Gaza war: ‘Highly likely’ hostages held by Hamas include Britons, says Defence Secretary Grant Shapps | Politics News

Britons are “highly likely” to be among those held by Hamas in Gaza, Defence Secretary Grant Shapps has told Sky News.

The cabinet minister revealed the UK had also sent additional intelligence personnel to the region as part of efforts to release those captured or assist citizens trapped in the besieged enclave.

His comments came just before Hamas claimed Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip had killed 13 hostages, including foreigners, held by the group.

The UK is sending RAF aircraft and Royal Navy ships to the eastern Mediterranean to support Israel and “send a signal” to the wider region in the wake of the surprise attack by militants on Saturday, which has unleashed a conflict that has already claimed at least 2,700 lives.

Pressed over whether UK citizens were among those kidnapped by insurgents and held in Gaza, Mr Shapps said: “It seems very likely that there are. We don’t have exact data on that for obvious reasons.

“But within Gaza, there will also be Brits, or possibly people with dual nationalities as well.

“The prime minister has spoken to the Egyptian president about using that border to get people out.

“The situation is far from clear.

“It’s one of the reasons, as I mentioned before, we’ve sent additional personnel, intelligence personnel, in order to assist with exactly those types of operations.”

Mr Shapps added: “It is highly likely – no one will know for sure – that there are… either British nationals or people with a joint nationality involved in the hostage situation that has been reported previously.”

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Gaza hospitals ‘risk turning into morgues’

Shapps defends ‘substantial’ UK support

To date, at least 1,300 Israelis have died while 1,417 Palestinians, including 447 children, have been killed in retaliatory strikes in Gaza – where electricity, water and fuel have been cut off.

The Foreign Office said flights have been organised to get British nationals out of Israel, with the first plane for “vulnerable” people expected to depart today.

The military force being deployed by the UK to the region includes P8 surveillance aircraft, two Royal Navy ships – Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) vessels Lyme Bay and Argus – three Merlin helicopters and a company of Royal Marines.

Critics have highlighted the UK force will be a token gesture compared to the support provided by the US.

But Mr Shapps said: “We do in fact have warships in the region if we needed to, but we don’t want to escalate the situation.

“What we want to do is assist and by working with our friends and allies.

“That is exactly what this is intended to do.

“We are also… thickening or bolstering our intelligence gathering with people on the ground throughout the region as well.

“So our input is actually quite substantial and working in hand-in-glove with our allies and particularly the Americans in this case.”

He went on: “It’s intelligence, surveillance and really a signal to the wider region and perhaps those actors who might now try to exploit this terrorist, Hamas situation.”

Read more on this story:
Why Israel is braced for Hezbollah attack
How negotiators will be working to free Hamas hostages

Gaza ground offensive will be ‘high-risk’ for Israel

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Sky News visits site of music festival massacre

‘Israel is doing all it can to warn people’

Mr Shapps also insisted Israel had the right to defend itself when questioned over the evacuation order for more than a million Palestinians to move to the south of Gaza in the next 24 hours, in the face of a possible ground offensive.

He said: “Israel, unlike Hamas – who again, and I saw this at NATO where we had a full briefing on what happened, including seeing some very distressing video of Hamas beheading people, murdering people, showing off the bodies and dragging them through the street, raping people – unlike that terrorist organisation, Israel is doing all it can to provide advance notice and warning in order that they can go after those terrorists who carried out those actions, and by the way have taken hostages as well.

“Hamas can bring all of this to an end, they can release the hostages, they can recognise not just Israel, [but also] remove from their founding charter the principle of eradicating all Jews from the Earth.”

He added: “Israel on the other hand has the perfect right to defend itself. It is doing that in a manner which is giving people warning in advance when they are going to go after areas.”

At home, the government also announced it would provide an extra £3m in funding to bolster security at Jewish schools following reports some had been forced to close over fears of the safety of pupils.

Tobias Ellwood resigns as defence committee chair after controversial Afghanistan video | Politics News

The chair of the Commons’ defence committee, Tobias Ellwood, has resigned from his role after criticism over a video he posted on X, Sky News understands.

The Tory MP, who had been the chair of the cross-party group since 2020, came under pressure to quit after sharing the clip on the platform formerly known as Twitter, where he appeared to praise the Taliban’s leadership in Afghanistan.

Grant Shapps defends new role as defence sec – but admits he lacks knowledge about Army | Politics News

Grant Shapps has defended his appointment as defence secretary – saying the department “needs highly experienced cabinet ministers”.

There was a backlash after Rishi Sunak’s ally was moved into one of the top roles in government amid a war in Europe – despite having no military experience.

Critics claimed the prime minister had chosen appearance over substance.

Politics Hub: First PMQs since recess today

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Who is Grant Shapps?

But Mr Shapps, who has also run the energy, business and transport departments, brushed off criticism that he got his role “because it was a job for the boys” – even as he admitted he lacked knowledge about the Army.

Grilled on how many ranks there are in the Army, he told Sky News he did not know the answer “off the top of my head”.

But he insisted: “Look, what the Ministry of Defence needs is the highly experienced cabinet ministers who can run a complex infrastructure-orientated department.

“I’ve had a lot of experience of running very large budgets and complex departments.”

Mr Shapps added that “only two of the last 15 defence secretaries have had any military background themselves”.

He said: “It’s not usual in democracy where we actually pride ourselves on having civilians run all elements of government, including our military. What I do know is how to run the department.”

Ben Wallace, Mr Shapps’ predecessor and a former Army officer, had played a key role in galvanising international support to arm the Ukrainian military.

He resigned from cabinet last week with a warning that “over the next decade, the world will get more insecure and more unstable”.

In a parting shot to secure his department’s future, Mr Wallace also added: “I know you agree with me that we must not return to the days where defence was viewed as a discretionary spend by government and savings were achieved by hollowing out.”

Read More:
Is Sunak making a mistake with cabinet of allies?
Russia’s Wagner Group to be declared a terrorist organisation by the UK

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‘What do you know about defence Grant Shapps?’

Asked if he would be as vocal as Mr Wallace, Mr Shapps suggested he would lobby for higher defence spending but said he’ll “do it in my own way” – adding: “I’ve spoken before about my desire to see a higher defence budget, well before being in this role.”

He said defence spending is already on the rise, with the aim of it going up to 2.5%.

“I fully support that,” Mr Shapps said. “I think it’s very important that we are protected as a nation, but also that we’re doing our part around the world to help the world be better protected.”

Defence secretary Ben Wallace to stand down at next election | Politics News

Defence secretary Ben Wallace has revealed he will step down from his post at the next reshuffle and quit as an MP at the next election.

Mr Wallace, the longest-serving Conservative to head the Ministry of Defence, said in an interview with The Times: “I’m not standing next time.”

He added that he will not force a by-election by resigning “prematurely” – as fellow allies of Boris Johnson have done.

Mr Wallace further confirmed he would leave the cabinet at the next reshuffle, which the prime minister is expected to hold this September.

Sky News reported that he was considering the move on Saturday.

“I went into politics in the Scottish parliament in 1999. That’s 24 years. I’ve spent well over seven years with three phones by my bed,” he told The Times.

When asked what the devices were for, he replied: “Secret, secret and secret.”

Read more:
Why Ben Wallace’s days were numbered – analysis

Ukraine-Russia war latest: Wagner troops cross border to Belarus, says Kyiv

It comes following controversy last week when the defence secretary told a NATO summit press conference that the UK was not an “Amazon” delivery service for weapons to Ukraine.

He also said Kyiv might be wise to let its supporters “see gratitude”.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak later pushed back against the comments, saying Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had “expressed his gratitude for what we’ve done on a number of occasions”.

Mr Zelenskyy, speaking at the same event in Lithuania, also responded: “I believe that we were always grateful to the UK.”

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PM quizzed on Ukraine gratitude

Following the news of his departure on Saturday evening, Mr Wallace took to Twitter in an attempt to clarify his “Amazon” comments.

In a series of tweets posted in Ukrainian, he said his remarks were “somewhat misinterpreted”.

“I said that Ukraine sometimes needs to realise that in many countries and in some parliaments there is not such strong support as in Great Britain,” he wrote.

“It was a comment not about governments, but more about citizens and members of parliaments.”

He added that he meant to say Britain’s relationship with Ukraine is not “transactional” but more of a “partnership”.

Speculation about the defence secretary’s fate has been mounting for weeks, with officials inside the Ministry of Defence wondering who might replace him.

It also comes following a failed UK bid to make Mr Wallace the next head of NATO.

The 53-year-old last month ruled himself out of the race to replace Jens Stoltenberg after apparently failing to get the backing of the US.

Mr Wallace told The Times that a desire to spend more time with his family, including his three children, was one of his reasons for leaving politics.

Read more on Sky News:
Johnson calls for NATO timetable for Ukraine to join alliance
Thousands of civil service posts to be cut
Liz Truss paid £15,770 an hour for second jobs

Asked what he would do next, he replied: “I’m quite happy to go and work at a bar,” or “just do something completely different.”

Wallace’s career in the corridors of power came after he left school at the age of eighteen – before a “short stint” as a ski instructor in Austria.

He then served as a captain in the Scots Guards and worked in the aerospace industry before entering politics in 1999.

Mr Wallace was once tipped as a potential candidate for Tory leader and prime minister.

But he ruled himself out of the race to replace Boris Johnson last summer and instead backed eventual winner Liz Truss.

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‘UK missiles have been used in Ukraine’

He then said he would not stand in the contest to replace her and revealed he was “leaning towards” backing a return by Mr Johnson to the post.

Mr Wallace had been facing the prospect of effectively losing his constituency of Wyre and Preston North at the next general election under boundary changes – meaning he would have needed to stand in another seat to remain as an MP.

The MP also revealed in his interview with The Times that, on the eve of the war in Ukraine, he discussed Britain supplying weapons to Kyiv – using whiskies as a code.

Referring to secret talks with his counterpart Oleksii Reznikov, he said: “the Nlaw [anti-tank missile] was Glenfiddich and Harpoon anti-ship missiles were Islay.

“I would text him saying ‘I’ve got some whisky for you’ or ‘the whisky is on its way’. We just picked codewords, minister to minister.”

Ben Wallace ‘considering resigning’ as defence secretary in expected autumn reshuffle | Politics News

Ben Wallace – the longest-serving Conservative defence secretary – is considering leaving government in an anticipated autumn reshuffle, Sky News understands.

It follows a failed UK bid to make Mr Wallace, 53, the next head of NATO and as the prime minister reportedly prepares to refresh his top team ahead of next year’s election.

The possible departure of the defence secretary – a close ally of former prime minister Boris Johnson – was first revealed by The Times.

A source told Sky News that Mr Wallace would likely make a decision on whether to stay or go next month. If he chooses to leave then he would also stand down as an MP.

It is thought that any such move would be a personal decision and nothing to do with Rishi Sunak or any issues related to the Conservative Party.

Speculation about the defence secretary’s fate has been mounting for weeks, with officials inside the Ministry of Defence wondering who might replace him.

Anne-Marie Trevelyan, a foreign office minister and former defence minister, Tom Tugendhat, the security minister, and Jeremy Quinn, a cabinet office minister who is also a former defence minister, are among the names being speculated on.

“Not sure who will replace (him) but Jeremy Quinn a strong possibility,” one source said.

The Times said John Glen, chief secretary to the Treasury, was the frontrunner.

Hugely popular within the party, Mr Wallace is the longest, continuously-serving minister in government, having survived five prime ministers since 2014, including as security minister and then – for the past four years – overseeing the Ministry of Defence.

In his current role, he has been a leading voice pushing the UK and its allies to do ever more to support Ukraine.

Mr Wallace is also known for speaking his mind and using colourful language that has on occasion generated unfortunate headlines.

It happened at a major NATO summit this week when he revealed to a group of journalists that he had told Ukraine the UK was not an “Amazon” delivery service for weapons and that people “want to see gratitude”.

It prompted Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian president, to say in a press conference at the summit in Lithuania: “I believe that we were always grateful to the UK.”

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Zelenskyy has ‘expressed gratitude’, Sunak says

Mr Zelenskyy then, rather comically, asked his defence minister, Oleksiy Reznikov, who was sitting in the audience, whether there was a problem with his relationship with Mr Wallace.

“Why don’t you extend words of gratitude to him?” the president said. Breaking into English, he added: “Call him, please, today.”

Yet, the point Mr Wallace had been trying to make had been a valid one – a bit of friendly advice to a country he respects about the need to consider the political reality in certain nations where not everyone is supportive of giving more weapons and money to Ukraine.

The defence secretary has spent much of his time in office battling for more funding for the armed forces at a time of growing threats and after decades of cost-saving cuts.

Read more politics news
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Ben Wallace is said to be considering resigning as defence secretary. Pic: AP
Mr Wallace is the longest, continuously-serving minister in government. Pic: AP

This has on occasion created tensions with Mr Sunak, first when he was chancellor and then as prime minister.

The two men are not known to have a close relationship but the strong support for Mr Wallace within the Conservative Party will make him difficult to sack.

The defence secretary turned down the chance to run for prime minister last year even though he had been the clear favourite to replace Mr Johnson.

Another consideration for Mr Wallace is the fact that he will effectively lose his constituency of Wyre and Preston North at the general election under boundary changes.

It means, to stay on as an MP, he would need to become the Tory candidate in another seat – which could be done should he choose to stay.

Ministry of Defence says leak which claims UK special forces have been operating in Ukraine has ‘a serious level of inaccuracy’ | UK News

The Ministry of Defence says there is “a serious level of inaccuracy” in leaks which claim UK special forces have been operating in Ukraine.

The claims have been widely reported after US classified military documents were allegedly leaked and published online.

A Ministry of Defence spokesperson has warned against taking allegations contained in the reported leak at “face value”.

A spokesperson said in a message posted on Twitter: “The widely reported leak of alleged classified US information has demonstrated a serious level of inaccuracy.

“Readers should be cautious about taking at face value allegations that have the potential to spread disinformation.”

Media outlets have reported that a document, dated 23 March, indicates as many as 50 UK special forces personnel have been deployed to the country alongside other western special forces.

But the document reportedly does not state where the allegedly deployed forces are located or what they are doing.

Chris Meagher, a spokesman for the Pentagon, has urged caution in “promoting or amplifying any of these documents”, adding that “it does appear that slides have been doctored”.

The documents may first have been published in a chatroom on Discord, a social media platform popular with gamers, Associated Press reported.

An unidentified chatroom user shared documents that were allegedly classified, first typing them out with their own thoughts, then, as of a few months ago, beginning to post images of papers with folds in them.

The posts appear to have gone unnoticed outside of the chat until a few weeks ago, when they began to circulate more widely on social media.

Many details shared by the person have not been independently verified and the original chatroom has been deleted.

Asked on Monday if the US government was effectively waiting for more intelligence documents to show up online, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby replied: “The truth and the honest answer to your question is: We don’t know. And is that a matter of concern to us? You’re darn right it is.”

It comes after the US defence department began investigating who is responsible for the potentially damaging leak.

Read more:
Russian ambassador has ‘evidence’ UK special forces involved in attack

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From 5 April: Putin – US-Russia relations ‘in deep crisis’

The New York Times, which first reported the breach, quoted military analysts as saying the files appear to have been modified in certain parts, which could point to an attempt by Moscow to spread disinformation.

Wall Street Journal correspondent Yaroslav Trofimov said Russian propaganda channels appeared to have photoshopped at least one of the documents after the original ones were posted.

Mr Trofimov noted how there was suddenly a significant increase in the number of Ukrainian casualties and equipment losses recorded and a massive decrease in the Russian battle damage.

Ukrainian presidential official, Mykhailo Podolyak, said the leak looked like a Russian disinformation operation, saying that it contained a “very large amount of fictitious information”.

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The act of stealing secret documents and leaking them either with or without modifications is a long-standing weapon of information warfare designed to undermine an opponent.

It would benefit Russia for information about Ukraine’s battle plans and Western support to be leaked online.

The classified files – including one marked “top secret” and another marked “secret” – are dated from late February and early March.

They do not reveal specific dates or details about Ukraine’s anticipated spring offensive in the east and south of the country.

But they do offer clues about the kind of military formations that Western allies are helping their Ukrainian partners build up.

The New York Times said US officials were trying to have the files taken down off the social media sites.

However, as of last Friday morning, versions of the leaks were still being widely shared.

Ben Wallace: Defence secretary orders audit of military flying training as RAF leadership in ‘tailspin’ over leaks | UK News

The defence secretary has ordered an internal inspection of the UK’s military flying training after Sky News revealed the system to generate RAF pilots is in crisis, it can be revealed.

The move by Ben Wallace is an embarrassing blow for Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston, the head of the Royal Air Force (RAF), a defence source said.

Mr Wallace gave his chief of the air staff the task of fixing the RAF’s problem-plagued flying training pipeline as his only priority more than two and a half years ago.

However, leaked documents exposed by Sky News last Friday showed that nearly 350 trainee pilots – more than half of the total pool of RAF, Royal Navy and army trainee aviators – were in limbo as of May.

They are either holding for a slot on a flying training course to open-up or taking a refresher course.

The Royal Air Force's Typhoon Eurofighter jets are made by BAE Systems

It can also be revealed that these so-called “holdies” have effectively been warned the leaking of the documents that shed light on their predicament might even worsen their situation rather than improve it.

A message, which has since been seen by Sky News, was distributed widely throughout the RAF, warning against leaking information to the media.

RAF leadership in ‘tailspin’ over leaks

The author of the official-sounding note said they suspected Air Chief Marshal Wigston and the rest of the senior RAF leadership “are in a total tailspin about this”.

“They will feel let down and disappointed,” the note said.

“They will now be less likely to view the student cohort’s predicament favourably, too.

“Would you, in their position. The military is all about trust, if you betray that knowingly by leaking reams of official information (it’s not exactly a small slip-up in a personal post on social media!), then you can expect that betrayal will have consequences.”

A Ministry of Defence spokesperson confirmed Mr Wallace had instigated the internal inspection, known as a Defence Operational Capability (DOC) audit.

“At the direction of the defence secretary, the MOD is conducting an internal audit of flying training, in recognition of continued challenges with the training pipeline.”

The scope of the audit is still being defined, it is understood.

Four Royal Air Force Typhoon FGR4 have arrived at RAF Akrotiri after transiting from the UK. UK’s substantial contribution to NATO’s uplift in Eastern Europe is strengthening the Alliance’s Defences on land, sea and air, amid ongoing tensions with Russia. Issue date: Wednesday February 16, 2022.

Hundreds of DOC audits taken place in 30 years

The DOC mechanism was set up in 1995 when Malcolm Rifkind was defence secretary.

It is a tool a defence secretary can use to secure what is meant to be impartial analysis on a topic.

The team of personnel that conduct the audit will sit outside the chain of command of whatever is being inspected, giving it more independence.

Some 220 audits of various issues have taken place over the past nearly three decades.

On flying training, the MOD has already acknowledged that there are challenges to the training pipeline and said that the number of pilots being held now is less than in 2019.

The length of the holding time for trainees can vary from months to even years.

The reasons for the delays are multiple, including most recently a fault with the Rolls Royce-made engine on the Hawk aircraft used to train fast jet pilots.

Four Royal Air Force Typhoon FGR4 have arrived at RAF Akrotiri after transiting from the UK. UK’s substantial contribution to NATO’s uplift in Eastern Europe is strengthening the Alliance’s Defences on land, sea and air, amid ongoing tensions with Russia. Issue date: Wednesday February 16, 2022.

Ukraine war has put pressure on RAF pilots

Demands on the RAF to fly more missions to defend NATO allies in the wake of Russia’s war in Ukraine also put pressure on the small pool of pilots that are qualified to fly operationally and to instruct trainees.

In addition, a sweeping review of defence last year made changes to the types of aircraft needed on the frontline, which has reduced the number of places available for trainee pilots.

More broadly, pilot training has been under chronic strain since the mid-1990s as successive governments repeatedly cut chunks out of the size of the armed forces, including the RAF, and contracted out large parts of the flying training system to industry.

Under pressure from the Treasury to make as many efficiency savings as possible, the RAF then designed its contractor-run flying training pipeline to meet a minimal requirement rather than include spare capacity to be able to absorb shocks if things go wrong.

‘Arrogant’ defence chiefs condemned for refusing to review cuts to army numbers | UK News

MPs have challenged a decision to shrink the size of Britain’s army by thousands of soldiers as a war rages in Europe, demonstrating the need for large land forces.

The Defence Select Committee also criticised cost-saving plans to retire dozens of tanks and other armoured vehicles before replacements are ready.

The MPs urged the Ministry of Defence at the very least to review the timelines for any changes to avoid creating capability gaps that could leave the armed forces vulnerable.

And they accused defence chiefs of appearing “arrogant and unwilling to learn lessons” from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or from last year’s disastrous retreat from Afghanistan.

Tobias Ellwood, chair of the committee, called on the next prime minister to commit more funds to defence.

“It is clear that now is not the time for personnel cuts or budget shortfalls in our armed forces,” he said. “We cannot afford for our [armed] services to become poorer and weaker. We need to spend more and spend it wisely.”

The cross-party committee has published a report into a major review of defence, security and foreign policy and accompanying papers released by the government last year.

It criticised commanders and mandarins for a reluctance to look again at the conclusions of their work – which set out the future size, capabilities and priorities of the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force – in the wake of the subsequent Afghan withdrawal and Russian war.

“No strategy should be set in stone nor subject to constant revision,” the committee said.

“However, there is a need for government to be able to respond to major events… rather than downplaying the potential implications of such geopolitical shocks.”

Read more: World entering ‘dangerous new age’ of threats, says UK’s top national security adviser

A move that came in for particular criticism was the plan to reduce the size of the army by almost 10,000 troops, from a target of 82,000 to 72,500, by 2025 – a reduction that would diminish the force to its smallest in more than 300 years.

The MPs said it was a worry given – on top of security threats – the UK’s already over-stretched soldiers are increasingly called upon to help in non-military emergencies such as floods and the response to COVID.

“We are especially concerned about the proposed cuts to personnel numbers and the effective reduction in mass, particularly since that we are seeing defence being used more and more often as an emergency measure to relieve exceptional pressures on public services and perform such tasks that otherwise might be expected to be carried out by others,” the committee said in its report.

At the same time, it noted that General Sir Patrick Sanders, the new head of the army, had described the cuts as “perverse” and that Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, appeared to support a review of the decision.

Separately to the evidence considered by the committee, Mr Wallace told Sky News this week that the army would likely grow rather than shrink if the next prime minister commits to a significant uplift in defence spending at a time of growing threats.