BEIRUT (AP) — Suspected Russian airstrikes pounded villages on the edge of the last rebel enclave in northwestern Syria, sending thousands of civilians fleeing, activists reported Tuesday — scenes unseen in the area since a cease-fire three months ago. The violence at the edge of Idlib province is the most serious breach of the cease-fire in place since early March, when an agreement between Turkey and Russia halted the Syrian government s three-month air and ground campaign into rebel-held Idlib. The Syria Response Coordination Group, a team of aid workers, said the military escalation displaced more than 5,800 civilians in the last 24 hours from areas in southern Idlib and western Hama countryside. Many of the displaced had only recently returned to their villages after the cease-fire, the group said. On Monday, insurgents launched a limited offensive against government-held positions, briefly seizing a couple of villages. Government troops, backed by Russian air support, responded, repelling the insurgents but also widening their area of operations, targeting 10 villages, according to Mohamed Rasheed, a Syrian media activist documenting the offensive. Rasheed reported airstrikes, believed to be carried out by Russia s air force, on a number of villages in southern Idlib. He said he documented 45 airstrikes since Monday. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights recorded 15 airstrikes on Tuesday, also saying they were believed to be Russian. The Observatory and other local networks said at least one civilian was killed in Kansafra village. Meanwhile, Syrian state media said government forces repelled an offensive by the insurgents, and that a soldier was killed. Russia is a main backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey backs opposition fighters trying to remove him from power. Russia and Turkey have become the main power brokers in the war-torn country. Rasheed said the insurgent offensive was led by the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, now the dominant group in the rebel-held northwest.
CAIRO (AP) — Libyan fighters allied with the country’s UN-supported government in Tripoli pressed their advance on Monday, boosted by recent battlefield gains and their rivals’ withdrawal from around the capital, the warring sides reported. The push came despite a unilateral cease-fire proposal over the weekend by Egypt, a backer of the rival Libyan forces commanded by Khalifa Hifter, who has waged a year-long campaign to capture Tripoli from the militias allied with the UN-supported but weak government. The Tripoli forces, backed by Turkey, gained the upper hand last week after retaking the capital’s airport, all main entrance and exit points to the city and a string of key towns near Tripoli, forcing Hifter’s fighters to withdraw — defeats their command painted as a tactical measure to give the UN-backed peace process a chance. Egypt’s proposal, announced by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Saturday, envisaged a cease-fire starting Monday. Hifter accepted it, as did Aguila Saleh, speaker of the country’s east-based parliament. But the militias fighting to defend Tripoli rejected the proposal, instead pushing eastward to take the coastal city of Sirte, a former stronghold of the Islamic State group that Hifter’s forces captured in January. Taking Sirte would open the gate for the Tripoli-allied militias to press even farther eastward, to potentially seize control of vital oil installations, terminals and oil fields that tribes allied with Hifter shut down earlier this year, cutting off Libya’s major source of income. Libya’s Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj urged the Tripoli fighters to “continue their path” toward Sirte, according to a statement posted by Mohamed Gnono, a spokesman for the Tripoli-allied forces. Gnono posted footage of allegedly captured tanks and vehicles. Hifter’s military media unit, however, said his forces destroyed a military company that included Turkish-made Hausers and tanks, along with a bus allegedly carrying Turkish troops and Syrian mercenaries who have been aiding the Tripoli militias. The push on Sirte shows the Tripoli-based government and its main backer, Turkey, are eager to build on their recent victories. Libya’s east-based forces are backed by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, as well as France and Russia. The Tripoli-based government receives aid from Qatar, Italy and Turkey, which stepped up its military support in recent months, helping shift the tide of the conflict. Sirte was the hometown of Libya’s former dictator Moammar Gadhafi, killed in the 2011 uprising. The city was later controlled by Islamic militants who pledged allegiance to IS, until they were defeated in 2016. But Libya’s turmoil continued, and the oil-rich country has since been divided between rival administrations in the east and west, each is backed by foreign countries. ___ By SAMY MAGDY Image: In this Nov. 19, 2019, file photo, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi speaks at the “G20 Investment Summit – German Business and the CwA Countries 2019” on the sidelines of a Compact with Africa (CwA) in Berlin, Germany. Egypt’s president has announced an initiative to end the civil war in neighboring Libya. The move has been accepted by the commander of the eastern Libyan forces, which have suffered heavy defeats in recent weeks. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi declared his initiative in a ceremony in Cairo Saturday, June 6, 2020. (John MacDougall/Pool via AP, File
An unprecedented fuel spill that has polluted huge stretches of Arctic rivers was caused by melting permafrost, Russian officials said Friday, ordering a review of infrastructure in vulnerable zones. The spill — which has colored remote tundra waterways with bright red patches visible from space — has highlighted the danger of climate change for Russia as areas locked by permafrost for centuries thaw amid warmer temperatures. News of the cause of the accident came amid a huge cleanup effort outside the Arctic city of Norilsk which President Vladimir Putin said should be bankrolled by metals giant Norilsk Nickel. A national-level state of emergency was announced after 21,000 tonnes of diesel fuel spilled from a reservoir that collapsed last Friday. Norilsk Nickel owns the reservoir through a subsidiary. Three criminal probes have been launched, and Russia’s prosecutor general’s office said in a statement that preliminary findings indicate sagging ground as the reason for the disaster. “To prevent a similar situation on especially hazardous structures on territories prone to melting of permafrost,” the prosecutor general has “ordered a comprehensive review of such objects,” it said. Norilsk, one of the country’s biggest industrial centers, lies above the Arctic circle and Norilsk Nickel had already said it suspects permafrost thawing. Other factors may be at play too: the country’s technical safety watchdog told TASS news agency that since 2016, it has been unable to check the condition of the 35-year-old reservoir, because the company said it was under repairs. The metals giant tried to contain the damage on its own for two days before specialists were called in from companies and agencies across Russia and managed to stop the spill from spreading further. Speaking with officials at the site by video call, Putin told Norilsk Nickel chief Vladimir Potanin he expected the company to pay for a comprehensive cleanup. “It’s necessary to carry out all the compensatory measures to restore biodiversity and the environment,” he said. Potanin estimated that the operations would cost about 10 billion rubles ($146 million), on top of any fines. “We will spend whatever is needed,” said Potanin. “We will return the ecosystem back to normal.” Russia’s environmental watchdog Svetlana Radionova said the damage was being calculated, and called the accident “unprecedented in scope”. – Worst spill in Arctic history – A vast Arctic state, Russia is warming 2.5 times faster than the world average. Sixty-five percent of the country is covered by permafrost and the environment ministry warned in 2018 that the melt threatens pipes and structures, as well as buried toxic waste, which can seep into waterways. Northern regions have also rung the alarm, with the eastern Arctic Yakutia area for years lobbying Moscow to pass legislation protecting permafrost. Environmentalists said the spill was the worst such accident ever in the Arctic region and the second worst in modern Russian history. The Ambarnaya River, which is affected by the spill, feeds into Lake Pyasino, a major body of water and the source of the Pyasina River that is vitally important to the entire Taimyr peninsula. Satellite images released by the European Space Agency and Russia’s Roscosmos show a large spot of reddish fuel had travelled over 20 kilometres (12 miles) toward the lake from the spill site. Russia’s fisheries agency and some environmentalists have said that the floating barriers erected on the river by responders are unable to stop the majority of the pollution, which can quickly dissolve or sink. JERUSALEM (Reuters) – More than a week after Israeli police shot dead an unarmed and autistic Palestinian in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday called the killing a tragedy and offered his condolences to the family. Iyad al-Halaq, 32, was killed during a police chase in Jerusalem’s Old City on May 30. A police spokesman said at the time officers suspected he was carrying a weapon. The police internal affairs division is investigating the shooting. “What happened to Iyad al-Halaq is a tragedy. This was a man with disabilities, autism, who was suspected – and we (now) know wrongly – of being a terrorist in a very sensitive venue,” Netanyahu said in comments that stopped short of an apology. Palestinians have drawn comparisons between the Palestinian man’s fatal encounter with police and the death in the United States of African-American George Floyd after a police officer in Minneapolis pressed a knee into his neck while detaining him. Hundreds of people attended Halaq’s funeral a week ago. Palestinian officials and Halaq’s family said he suffered from severe autism and panicked and ran after the officers confronted him. “I know that (police) are conducting examinations. We all share in the grief of the family,” Netanyahu said in public remarks to his cabinet. Addressing Internal Security Minister Amir Ohana, who is responsible for police, at the cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said: “I expect your full investigation into this matter.” A police spokesman could not immediately be reached on Sunday to provide information on whether any action had been taken so far against the officers. JERUSALEM (Reuters) – More than a week after Israeli police shot dead an unarmed and autistic Palestinian in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday called the killing a tragedy and offered his condolences to the family. Iyad al-Halaq, 32, was killed during a police chase in Jerusalem’s Old City on May 30. A police spokesman said at the time officers suspected he was carrying a weapon. The police internal affairs division is investigating the shooting. “What happened to Iyad al-Halaq is a tragedy. This was a man with disabilities, autism, who was suspected – and we (now) know wrongly – of being a terrorist in a very sensitive venue,” Netanyahu said in comments that stopped short of an apology. Palestinians have drawn comparisons between the Palestinian man’s fatal encounter with police and the death in the United States of African-American George Floyd after a police officer in Minneapolis pressed a knee into his neck while detaining him. Hundreds of people attended Halaq’s funeral a week ago. Palestinian officials and Halaq’s family said he suffered from severe autism and panicked and ran after the officers confronted him. “I know that (police) are conducting examinations. We all share in the grief of the family,” Netanyahu said in public remarks to his cabinet. Addressing Internal Security Minister Amir Ohana, who is responsible for police, at the cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said: “I expect your full investigation into this matter.” A police spokesman could not immediately be reached on Sunday to provide information on whether any action had been taken so far against the officers. At last week’s cabinet session, Defence Minister Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s centrist partner in Israel’s new unity government, publicly apologized for Halaq’s death. The right-wing Netanyahu, sitting next to him, kept silent at the time. Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; editing by Barbara Lewis Image: FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Alternate Prime Minister and Defence Minister Benny Gantz attend the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem June 7, 2020. Menahem Kahana/Pool via REUTERS
JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has harshly criticized Jewish West Bank settler leaders for disparaging President Donald Trump over what they perceive to be his less than adequate plan allowing Israel to annex parts of the West Bank. Despite what is widely viewed as a pro-Israel peace plan, settler leaders have voiced concern that the maps they have seen leave many settlements as isolated enclaves. They also reject any recognition of a Palestinian state, as outlined in the American plan, and have pressed Netanyahu to make changes. On Wednesday, David Elhayani, chairman of the umbrella Yesha Council representing the settlers, told the Haaretz daily that the plan proved Trump was “not a friend of Israel.” Netanyahu, having just met settler leaders to hear their grievances, lashed back. “President Trump is a great friend of Israel’s. He has led historic moves for Israel’s benefit,” Netanyahu said in a statement Wednesday. “It is regrettable that instead of showing gratitude, there are those who are denying his friendship.” Speaker of Parliament Yariv Levin, who has been involved in implementing the plan, went even further, calling Elhayani’s remarks “rude and irresponsible.” He said they exhibited an ungratefulness that was particularly damaging at a time when there was “an important effort to advance the historic process of applying sovereignty” to parts of the West Bank. Netanyahu has announced that he will annex parts of the West Bank, including the strategic Jordan Valley and dozens of Jewish settlements, in line with Trump’s Middle East plan. He has signaled he will begin moving forward with annexation next month. The US plan envisions leaving about one third of the West Bank, which Israel captured in 1967, under permanent Israeli control, while granting the Palestinians expanded autonomy in the remainder of the territory. The Palestinians, who seek all of the West Bank as part of an independent state, have rejected the plan, saying it unfairly favors Israel. They have already cut off key security ties with Israel and say they are no longer bound to agreements signed. On Thursday, the Palestinians announced they would refuse to accept the tax money Israel routinely collects for them. The moves have raised concerns of a return to violence if the plan is actually carried out. The annexation plan has also come under harsh criticism from some of Israel’s closest allies, who say that unilaterally redrawing the Middle East map would destroy any lingering hopes for establishing a Palestinian state and reaching a two-state peace agreement. ___ Image: Palestinians burn pictures of US President Donald Trump, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a protest against Trump’s Middle East initiative, in the West Bank city of Nablus, Saturday, May 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
BEIRUT (AP) — Russian warplanes carried out early Wednesday the first airstrikes in three months on the last remaining rebel stronghold in northwestern Syria, opposition activists said. There was no immediate word on any casualties. The activists said the strikes on and near Idlib province were the first to be conducted by Russian planes since a truce brought relative calm to the volatile region in early March. The truce, brokered by Turkey and Russia, halted a terrifying three-month air and ground campaign that had killed hundreds and sent one million people fleeing toward the Turkish border. Russia is a main backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces while Turkey supports the opposition. In recent years, Moscow and Ankara have become the main power-brokers in Syria, shattered by a civil war since 2011. Opposition activists said that in recent days, both Turkey and the government in Damascus have been sending reinforcements to northwestern Syria. There have also been repeated violations of the truce on the ground in recent weeks. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitoring group, said Russian warplanes targeted rebel-held areas just south of Idlib province late Tuesday and Wednesday morning. It had no immediate word on casualties in the four airstrikes. Idlib-based activist Taher al-Omar said Russian warplanes fired missiles that caused wide destruction. He also gave no word on casualties. Another Idlib-based activist, Hadi Abdullah, said Wednesday’s strikes hit a mountain region in Latakia province on the edge of Idlib, and a power station on the northern edge of Hama province.
President Donald Trump vowed to order a military crackdown on once-in-a-generation violent protests gripping the United States, saying he was sending thousands of troops onto the streets of the capital and threatening to deploy soldiers to states unable to regain control. The dramatic escalation came a week after the death in Minneapolis of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who was killed when a white police officer knelt on his neck, leading to the worst civil unrest in decades in New York, Los Angeles and dozens of other American cities. In the Midwest, police were early Tuesday trying to bring the city of St Louis under control after a night of looting and violence in which four officers were shot, police chief Colonel John Hayden said, adding their injuries were not life-threatening. “Mr Floyd was killed somewhere else and they re tearing up cities all across the country,” a visibly emotional Hayden said. After being criticized for his silence on the worsening crisis, Trump struck a martial tone in a nationwide address Monday from the White House garden, as police fired tear gas on peaceful protesters outside the fence. “I am dispatching thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel and law enforcement officers to stop the rioting, looting, vandalism, assaults and the wanton destruction of property,” Trump said. He slammed the previous night s unrest in Washington as a “total disgrace” and called on governors to “dominate the streets.” “If a city or state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them,” he said, denouncing “acts of domestic terror.” Despite the president s rhetoric, Monday s protests appeared largely peaceful in major cities, though some looting was reported in New York and Los Angeles. During his address, however, law enforcement including military police used tear gas to clear protesters outside the White House so the president could walk across the street to the two-centuries-old St John s church, hit with graffiti and partially damaged by fire during unrest on Sunday. “We have a great country,” Trump declared as he stood before the church s boarded-up windows, held up a Bible and posed for photographs. The backlash was swift. “He s using the American military against the American people,” tweeted Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden. “He tear-gassed peaceful protesters and fired rubber bullets. For a photo. For our children, for the very soul of our country, we must defeat him,” he said. Washington s Episcopalian bishop, Mariann Budde, said she was “outraged” at the church visit, which she said Trump did not have permission for. Thousands of people have participated in the nationwide demonstrations against police brutality and racism since Floyd s killing. It has been the most widespread unrest in the United States since 1968, when cities went up in flames over the slaying of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Many of the demonstrations have been peaceful and marked by moments of catharsis, such as officers hugging tearful protesters and marching or kneeling alongside them. – Homicide – Others have seen rage-filled clashes between protesters and police, and widespread property damage. One person was shot dead in Louisville, Kentucky. Floyd s agonizing death was caught on bystander cell phone video that shows policeman Derek Chauvin pinning him down with his knee for nearly nine minutes, as the 46-year-old pleaded for his life with the haunting words: “I can t breathe!” “The evidence is consistent with mechanical asphyxia as the cause of death, and homicide as the manner of death,” said Allecia Wilson, a University of Michigan expert who examined his body at the family s request. Hennepin County s medical examiner released its own official autopsy calling the death a homicide caused by “neck compression,” although it had also said he was intoxicated and pointed to heart disease. A memorial for Floyd will take place on Thursday in Minneapolis before his funeral in Houston, where he grew up, on June 9. Floyd, 46, had been accused of trying to buy cigarettes with a counterfeit bill. The autopsy revived demands for the arrest of three other police officers who stood guard for Chauvin as Floyd lay dying. Chauvin has been charged with third degree murder and is due to appear in court June 8. – We ve had enough – More than 40 cities have imposed curfews after consecutive nights of tension. More looting took place in New York on Monday night, an AFP reporter saw, with stores including Best Buy and Nike damaged. Police said they had arrested “hundreds” across the city. After widespread looting in Manhattan, New York mayor Bill de Blasio said a curfew would be imposed from 8:00 pm Tuesday, three hours earlier than Monday s. “We support peaceful protest in this city. But right now it s time to go home,” de Blasio tweeted. In Los Angeles, where the National Guard were deployed at Hollywood landmarks such as the Dolby Theatre, some looting was also reported, though protests were largely peaceful. “Deep down inside us, we ve had enough,” said 30-year-old Jessica Hubbert, a protester. Trump spent most of the weekend inside the White House tweeting attacks on political rivals and the media. In a leaked conference call Monday, he told state governors they were “going to look like a bunch of jerks” if they were too soft. The governor of Illinois, J.B. Pritzker, is heard saying he was “extraordinarily concerned” by the president s “inflammatory” rhetoric. Biden met Monday with black leaders at a church in his home of Wilmington, Delaware and promised to form a police oversight commission in his first 100 days as president.
The Head of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church Pope Tawadros II led on Monday a mass celebrating the entry of Jesus Christ into Egypt without attendees under unprecedented measures undertaken to stem the spread of the coronavirus in the country. According to state run MENA news agency, Pope Tawadros II led the mass on Monday morning from Maadi’s Virgin Mary Church. The mass comes a few days after Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church said on Saturday that it would extend the suspension of prayers and activities in its churches until 27 June due to the spread of the coronavirus. The Church has decided to extend the suspension of prayers, but allowed the celebration of the mass marking the entry of Jesus Christ into Egypt on 1 June and the mass of Pentecost on 7 June with the limited attendance of six monks and deacons. Egypt s Christians make up about 10-14 percent of the country s 100 million-plus population, with the vast majority of Christians in Egypt belonging to the Coptic Orthodox Church. In the past few months, the coronavirus pandemic has interrupted several religious celebrations by the Church, mainly Easter in April. Last April, Pope Tawadros II led Easter mass without attendees at the desert Monastery of Saint Bishoy in Wadi El-Natrun over the virus. The outbreak has forced Copts to celebrate Easter at home, as Egypt continues with its unprecedented measures to stem the spread of the virus, including a nationwide night-time curfew and suspension of prayers and activities at all houses of worship. This is the first time that Easter mass has been held under the current patriarch at a location other than Cairo’s Saint Mark s Cathedral and without attendants or worshippers.
At least 25 people were killed in eastern Burkina Faso on Saturday after militants attacked a cattle market, regional authorities said. The attack in the village of Kompiembiga in Est region was the latest incidence of violence that highlights deep instability in parts of Burkina Faso, which has been battling armed groups with links to al Qaeda and the Islamic State since 2017. "The provisional death toll from this killing is 25 and several wounded," said Saidou Sanou, the governor of Est region, where suspected jihadists have carried out a number of attacks in the past year. No one has claimed responsibility for Saturday s attack. The bloodshed follows the death of at least 15 people on Friday in an attack on a convoy transporting traders in northern Burkina Faso. Hundreds have been killed in the past year in the Sahel nation, and over half a million people have fled their homes due to the violence, which has also fuelled ethnic and religious tensions.
The US military withdrawal from Afghanistan is considerably ahead of schedule, an official said on Wednesday, as President Donald Trump reiterated calls for the Pentagon to bring troops home. The developments came as questions loomed over the next phase of Afghanistan’s long war following a historic, three-day ceasefire that led to a major drop in civilian casualties. The truce, which the Taliban called to mark the Muslim celebration of Eid al-Fitr, ended Tuesday night, leaving Afghans anxious about whether it would be extended, or when the war might come raging back. Violence levels remained low even after the end of the ceasefire, but Afghan security forces conducted air strikes in the south that killed 18 “militants,” police said. Under a deal the US signed with the Taliban in February, the Pentagon was to bring troop levels down from about 12,000 to 8,600 by mid-July, before withdrawing all forces by May 2021. But a senior US defense official said the troop number was already at approximately 8,500, as commanders accelerate the withdrawal over fears of the coronavirus. “The drawdown was accelerated due to COVID-19 precautions,” the official said, noting that the departure of anyone with health concerns or over a certain age was being prioritized. Trump told reporters Tuesday the US force level was “down to 7,000-some-odd soldiers right now.” The next day he returned to a frequent complaint that America should not be acting as a “police force” in Afghanistan. “After 19 years, it is time for them to police their own Country,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Bring our soldiers back home but closely watch what is going on and strike with a thunder like never before, if necessary!” Civilian casualties fall Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Campbell said in a statement the US was adhering to its agreement with the Taliban. Further drawdowns would come “after the US government assesses the security environment and the Taliban’s compliance with the agreement,” he added. Afghans enjoyed a rare respite in the nearly 19-year-old war during the ceasefire, only the second of its type. No major violence was reported until after the pause ended, with air strikes in southern Zabul province on Wednesday. The strikes killed 18 militants in response to an attack on a security forces convoy in Shah Joy district, provincial police spokesman Lal Mohammad Amiri said. Three children were also injured in the operation, he added, without specifying which group the militants belonged to. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said on Twitter that a government air strike had either killed or wounded five civilians, including four children. According to Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission, civilian casualties fell by 80 percent during the ceasefire. It said that on an average, 30 civilians would be killed and wounded every day during the holy month of Ramadan. But this fell to six killed and wounded on each day of the ceasefire, the commission said on Twitter. Calls to extend ceasefire The Afghan government meanwhile said it would continue with the release of Taliban prisoners that had been agreed in the US deal with the insurgents and is seen as key to kickstarting long-delayed peace talks. On Tuesday, the Afghan military freed about 1,000 Taliban inmates, mostly from Bagram jail near Kabul, as part of a pledge to release up to 2,000 insurgents in response to the Taliban-led ceasefire. A senior Taliban member said that in return, the insurgents planned to free up to 100 Afghan security force members as early as Thursday. Top Afghan officials have demanded the Taliban extend the ceasefire and offered to reciprocate. “If the Taliban are ready to extend the ceasefire, we are ready to continue the ceasefire too,” National Security Council spokesman Javid Faisal said Tuesday. The future of talks with the insurgents “depends on the Taliban’s next move”, he added. The prisoner swap is part of a US-Taliban deal, which excluded the Afghan government, that stipulates Kabul would release up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners and the militants would free about 1,000 national security personnel. Kabul had already freed about 1,000 Taliban inmates before the ceasefire, while the insurgents had released about 300 government captives. ___ Image: Some of the Taliban prisoners released from Bagram prison since the ceasefire in Afghanistan started. (AFP / WAKIL KOHSAR)
When the Berlin Cathedral Choir gathered for a rehearsal on March 9, the new coronavirus was still a distant concern, with fewer than 50 confirmed cases in the German capital. But five days later, one of the ensemble s 80 singers contacted choir director Tobias Brommann to say she had tested positive for COVID-19. Within two weeks, around 30 members had tested positive and a further 30 were showing symptoms — including Brommann himself, who was struck down with a headache, cough and fever. “We also can t be sure if those without symptoms were not infected too, as we have not done antibody tests,” Brommann told AFP. Hardly considered an extreme activity up to now, singing — especially choral singing — is quickly earning a reputation in the pandemic as about the most dangerous thing you can do. Similar horror stories have emerged from choirs around the world, including one in Amsterdam where 102 singers are reported to have fallen sick with COVID-19. High-risk activity Though much is not yet understood about how the new coronavirus spreads, anecdotal evidence has been enough to convince German authorities that singing is a particularly high-risk activity. Under new freedoms being gradually introduced across the country s states, Germans can meet friends in the park, dine in a restaurant, play sports, go to church, browse the shops, watch football and even go swimming. But singing remains broadly off limits, and it looks likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future. In recommendations for the resumption of church services published in April, the federal government stated that singing should be avoided “because of the increased production of potentially infectious droplets, which can be spread over greater distances.” Several states have heeded the advice and banned singing from services. Even Germany s revered Robert Koch Institute (RKI) disease control center has warned against singing, with RKI head Lothar Wieler saying that “droplets fly particularly far when singing.” Infectious particles The fears are partly based on the fact that when singing, as Brommann points out, “you inhale and exhale very deeply, so if there are virus particles floating in the air then they can get into the lungs relatively quickly.” But there is also evidence to suggest that singing produces especially high numbers of potentially infectious micro-particles. According to a study published in the Nature journal in 2019, saying “aah” for 30 seconds produces twice as many such particles as 30 seconds of continuous coughing. Indeed, many choirs fear their future looks bleak. Five German boys choirs have written to the government saying their existence is under threat and demanding action to save them from ruin. At the Church of the Twelve Apostles in Berlin s Schoeneberg district, there have been no choir rehearsals since early March. Soprano Heike Benda-Blanck, 59, has been singing there for 10 years. “I do miss it,” she said. “You can still sing in the shower but it s not the same.” Some research has given cause for optimism. The Bundeswehr University in Munich published a study in early May showing that singing only disturbs air flow up to half a meter (1.6 feet) in front of the person. Freiburg University s Institute for Performing Arts Medicine has also published guidelines for singing partly based on a study it carried out in the southern city of Bamberg with similar results. However, institute head Bernhard Richter warns: “Contrary to what was sometimes reported, we did not make any aerosol measurements” — tiny particles that have the potential to circulate much further in a room. The institute published updated guidelines this week that include limiting the number of people in the room and the length of rehearsals, staying two meters apart, keeping rooms ventilated, screening choir members and wearing masks. Work in progress “This is a work in progress,” Richter said. “Of course singers want clear statements, black and white, but then you have to say, maybe we don t know yet.” In proposals to the authorities, Germany s Catholic Church has endorsed “quiet singing” in services, as well as restricting numbers and requiring people to stand 1.5 meters apart, though the Protestant Church continues to advise a complete ban. But the potential dangers of singing became clear once again this month after a virus outbreak at a church service in Frankfurt — where the congregation had been singing and not wearing masks. At least 40 people were infected at the service, with 112 affected overall. It remains to be seen whether singing can be controlled at other events in Germany, such as Bundesliga football matches, which are being played behind closed doors until further notice. Singing could also potentially spread the virus at large events such as rock concerts and the Oktoberfest beer festival, where rowdy singing is an integral of the proceedings — undoubtedly one of the reasons it has been cancelled for 2020. A spokesman for the interior ministry told AFP that since all major events are banned until at least August 31 in Germany anyway, this remains a “hypothetical question”. “It depends on how the infection situation develops,” he said.
BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — Bethlehem s storied Church of the Nativity reopened to visitors on Tuesday, after a nearly three-month closure due to the coronavirus pandemic. The church, built over the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born, was closed on March 5 as the first cases of the virus were reported in the West Bank. The church is one of Christianity s most sacred shrines and the closure came ahead of the busy Easter holiday season that typically draws tens of thousands of visitors and worshipers. Bishop Theophylactos, a Greek Orthodox cleric, called the reopening a day of celebration for Bethlehem since “all the people now can enter the church and pray like before.” The Palestinian Authority has reported some 400 cases of the coronavirus in the West Bank, with two deaths. Most of the cases were traced to Palestinians who worked inside Israel, which has been coping with a much larger outbreak. Israeli authorities have begun to gradually reopen schools, houses of worship and markets as the spread of the novel coronavirus has slowed. Israel s Health Ministry has reported over 16,700 confirmed cases of the disease and 279 deaths. More than 14,000 have recovered.
JERUSALEM (AP) — Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher reopened to visitors on Sunday after a two-month closure due to the coronavirus pandemic. The church, situated in Jerusalem’s Old City, is the site where many Christians believe Jesus was crucified, entombed, and resurrected. The Christian authorities managing the site closed it to visitors in March to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, but clerics maintained prayers inside the shuttered church throughout its closure. On Sunday, church authorities limited entrance to 50 people at a time, and required that those entering the cavernous site maintain social distance and avoid touching any of the church’s stones, icons or other religious items. A typical day before the virus outbreak would bring thousands of faithful who kissed or placed their hands along the church’s surfaces. As priests from the various Christian sects entered the church, a handful of faithful waited outside for the basilica’s church to open for the public. Israeli authorities have gradually reopened schools, houses of worship and markets as the spread of the novel coronavirus has slowed. Israel’s Health Ministry has reported over 16,700 confirmed cases of the disease and 279 deaths. More than 14,000 have recovered. Image: An Orthodox clergyman holds holy fire to transfer to predominantly Orthodox countries from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, traditionally believed by many Christians to be the site of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus Christ, in Jerusalem’s old city after the traditional Holy Fire ceremony was called off amid coronavirus, Saturday, April 18, 2020. A few clergymen on Saturday marked the Holy Fire ceremony as the coronavirus pandemic prevented thousands of Orthodox Christians from participating in one of their most ancient and mysterious rituals at the Jerusalem church marking the site of Jesus’ tomb.(AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) – Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar called on his forces on Saturday to rally against Turkey, which has helped his Tripoli-based rivals turn the tide of a military conflict around the capital. Recent advances by forces aligned with the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), including the seizure of a key air base, have thrown a year-long offensive on Tripoli by Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) into jeopardy. They have also drawn a threat by the LNA, which is backed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russia, to carry out a massive air campaign in retaliation. On Saturday the GNA forces pressed forward in some outlying districts of Tripoli, where they say they have had to pick their way through mines and other explosive devices laid by the LNA. The LNA said it had withdrawn from some areas, but had also staged an ambush at Yarmouk military camp in Tripoli and killed or captured rival combatants. Haftar, in an audio message addressed to his forces, urged them to battle the “colonial” intervention by Turkey until its defeat, in a reference to one-time Ottoman control of Libya. “You are creating glory while fighting the odious colonizer greedy for our wealth,” he said. “And you are waging war on all fronts, a war in which there is nothing but victory.” Haftar’s comments were released as US President Donald Trump appealed for a rapid de-escalation of the conflict in Libya in a call with Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said separately his country had “changed the balance” in Libya and averted a “full-blown civil war.” “The only solution in Libya is a political solution and Haftar needs to understand this,” he said in a TV interview.
CAIRO (Reuters) — The United Arab Emirates believes the only acceptable path forward in the Libyan crisis involves “an immediate, comprehensive ceasefire and a return to the political process”, the UAE s minister of state for foreign affairs said on Tuesday. “The UAE s position on the Libyan crisis has been firm and clear & shared by the majority of the international community,” Anwar Gargash said on Twitter. The UAE and Egypt back the forces of Khalifa Hiftar, based in eastern Libya, which are trying to take the capital Tripoli. Turkey, which backs Libya s internationally recognized government in Tripoli, has accused the UAE of bringing chaos to the region through its interventions in Libya and Yemen.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas says the Palestinian Authority will no longer be committed to any signed agreements with Israel or the United States, following Israel s pledge to annex large parts of the occupied West Bank. It was not immediately clear how the announcement, which was made at a Palestinian leadership meeting late on Tuesday, would be implemented. The Oslo accords and other agreements in the 1990s created the Palestinian Authority and govern its political, economic and security relations with Israel. ``The Palestinian Liberation Organization and the State of Palestine are no longer committed to all signed agreements and understandings with the Israeli government and the American government, including the security commitments,`` Abbas said. He said Israel would now have to ``uphold responsibilities before the international community as the occupying power. He also announced that the Palestinians would step up their campaign to join international organizations as a member state, in defiance of the U.S. There was no immediate reaction from Israel or the United States. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to annex the Jordan Valley and Jewish settlements in the West Bank in line with President Donald Trump s Middle East plan, which overwhelmingly favors Israel and was rejected by the Palestinians. Netanyahu formed a new Israeli government earlier this month with his chief rival, Benny Gantz, following three elections and more than a year of gridlock. The coalition agreement allows Netanyahu to present an annexation proposal to the government as soon as July 1. Israel captured the West Bank, along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians want all three territories for their future state, but the Trump plan would leave them with scattered clusters of enclaves surrounded by Israel. Most of the international community is opposed to annexation, which many fear would make it impossible to create a viable Palestinian state. A two-state solution based on the 1967 lines is still widely seen as the only way of resolving the decades-long conflict. It s unclear whether Abbas, who has made similar threats in the past, will follow through on the latest announcement. The security coordination serves the interests of both Abbas and Israel because it is largely aimed at the Islamic militant group Hamas, his main rival. Israeli forces are deployed across the West Bank and frequently carry out arrest raids in Palestinian cities and towns. They typically coordinate these operations with Palestinian security forces to prevent any clashes with them. Palestinian security forces, as well as senior officials traveling in armed convoys, must also coordinate with Israel in order to move around the West Bank or to enter and exit the territory via the crossing with neighboring Jordan, which is under Israeli control. Security coordination broke down during the 2000-2005 intifada, or Palestinian uprising. But Abbas has always been opposed to violence, and Palestinian forces are likely continue to act against any armed groups, even without formal coordination with Israel. The Palestinian Authority governs and provides basic services to heavily populated areas of the occupied West Bank. Dismantling it would risk chaos and leave tens of thousands of civil servants unemployed. But by referring to the ``state of Palestine, Abbas appeared to leave room for it to continue in its present form under a different, and contested, name. Still, the agreements with Israel govern nearly all its basic functions, including the issuance of passports and other official documents. Israel also collects taxes and customs duties on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, its main source of revenue.
A cabinet committee tasked with legalising the status of unlicensed Christian places of worship has licensed 70 churches and service buildings that had been operating without a permit, the cabinet said in a statement. This brings the total number of unlicensed Christian places of worship and service buildings that have been granted legal status to 1,638 so far, the cabinet said in a statement following a committee meeting on Tuesday. Christians make up around 10 percent of the 100 million population of Egypt, a predominantly Muslim country. In 2016, Egypt s parliament approved a long-awaited law regulating the building and renovation of churches. The committee to legalise the status of unlicensed churches was established in 2017 by the prime minister. The 10-member committee comprises one Christian representative, six government officials from several ministries, representatives from the national security apparatus, the intelligence apparatus, and the administrative control body. During its meeting on Tuesday, the cabinet also reviewed the situation of safety requirements for legalised churches.
The Coptic Orthodox Church said that at three am on Saturday a pedestrian threw a Molotov cocktail at the Virgin Mary and the Martyr St. George Church in Gabriel, Alexandria. No injuries were reported and the church building remained undamaged, the church clarified in a Sunday statement. It added that security services detained the perpetrator and church surveillance cameras recorded the details of the entire incident
CAIRO (AP) — Bombs hit a shelter for displaced people in Libya s capital Tripoli, killing at least seven people including a five-year-old child from Bangladesh, health authorities said Sunday. The shelling of the facility in the city s Furnaj district late Saturday also wounded at least 17 people, including a 52-year-old Bengali migrant and his five-year-old child, Malek Merset, a spokesman for the capital s ambulance services, said. The man is also the father of the dead child. It was the latest attack on civilians in the fighting over Tripoli between eastern-based forces under military commander Khalifa Haftar and an array of militias loosely allied with the UN-supported but weak government in the capital. A fire broke out in parts of the shelter housing people displaced by previous clashes in Tripoli, Merset said. The ambulance services did not say which side was responsible for the shelling. The self-styled Libyan Arab Armed Forces, led by Haftar, launched an offensive to take Tripoli in April last year. In recent weeks, the fighting has intensified as foreign backers of the two sides stepped up their military support. Haftar is backed by France and Russia, as well as Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and other key Arab countries. The Tripoli-allied militias are aided by Turkey, which deployed troops and mercenaries to help shore up their allies earlier this year, as well as by Italy and Qatar. Mercenaries, mainly from the Syria battlefield, are now fighting on both sides and complicating an already complex proxy war. Earlier this year, Tripoli-allied militias took several western towns from Haftar s forces and stepped up their attacks using drones supplied by Turkey on a key military base and the town of Tarhuna. Haftar s LAAF said Saturday it shot down a Turkish drone that was trying to attack the al-Watiya airbase. The Tripoli-allied militias claimed they destroyed a Russian-made anti-aircraft system, a claim dismissed by the LAAF. Libya has been in turmoil since 2011, when a civil war toppled and later killed long-time dictator Moammar Gadhafi. The country has since split between rival administrations in the east and the west, each backed by armed groups and foreign countries. The Tripoli fighting has threatened to push Libya into a major conflagration on the scale of the 2011 civil war.
NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) — The United States publicly threatened on Wednesday to trigger a return of all United Nations sanctions on Iran if the UN Security Council does not extend an arms embargo on Tehran that is due to expire in October under the Iran nuclear deal. US special envoy for Iran, Brian Hook, confirmed the strategy two weeks after a US official, speaking on condition anonymity, said the United States had told Britain, France and Germany of its plan. Hook wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “one way or another” Washington would ensure the arms embargo remains. He said the United States has drafted a Security Council resolution and “will press ahead with diplomacy and build support.” A resolution needs nine yes votes and no vetoes by Russia, China, the United States, France or Britain to be adopted by the 15-member Security Council. Russia has already signaled it is opposed to extending the arms embargo. “If American diplomacy is frustrated by a veto, however, the US retains the right to renew the arms embargo by other means,” Hook wrote, citing the ability of a party to the Iran nuclear deal to trigger a so-called snapback of all UN sanctions on Iran, which includes the arms embargo. Tehran was given sanctions relief under a 2015 deal with the United States, Russia, China, Germany, Britain and France that prevents Iran from developing nuclear weapons. The deal allowed for a return of sanctions if Iran violated the deal. US President Donald Trump quit the agreement in 2018, saying the accord from Barack Obama s presidency as “the worst deal ever.” But Washington argues it can trigger a return of UN sanctions because a 2015 Security Council resolution enshrining the deal still names the US as a participant. “This is ridiculous,” Russia s UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia told reporters on Tuesday. “They are not members, they have no right to trigger.” Diplomats say the United States would likely face a tough, messy battle if it tries to spark a return of sanctions, though it was not immediately clear how or if a Security Council member could stop such a move. Iran has breached several central limits of the deal, including on its stock of enriched uranium, in response to the US withdrawal and Washington s reimposition of sanctions that have slashed Iran s oil exports. Britain, France and Germany are trying to save the deal, but have made little progress.
The Sahel state of Niger, which has been battling a bloody jihadist insurgency, said Wednesday around 75 Boko Haram combatants had been killed in the southeast and in neighbouring Nigeria. Twenty-five "terrorists" were killed on Monday south of Diffa, the main city in southeast Niger, while "about 50... were neutralised" the same day on Nigerian soil in the Lake Chad region, in two operations by a regional anti-jihadist force, the defence ministry said in a statement.
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Militants stormed a maternity hospital in the western part of Kabul on Tuesday, setting off an hours-long shootout with the police and killing 14 people, including two newborn babies, their mothers and an unspecified number of nurses, Afghan officials said. While the battle was underway, Afghan security forces struggled to evacuate the facility, carrying out babies and frantic young mothers, according to images shared by the Interior Ministry. But the day s spasm of violence extended beyond Kabul. A suicide bomber in eastern Nangarhar province — a hotbed of the Islamic State group — targeted a funeral ceremony, killing 24 people and wounding 68. And in eastern Khost province, a bomb planted in a cart in a market killed a child and wounded 10 people. The violence could further undermine a peace process in the wake of a deal signed between the United States and the Taliban in February, which envisages the start of talks among key Afghan figures, including government representatives, and the Taliban. Relentless, near-daily attacks have also left Afghan authorities ill-prepared to face the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected more than 4,900 people in the country and killed at least 127. Soon after the Kabul attack started, black smoke rose into the sky over the hospital in Dashti Barchi, a mostly Shia neighborhood that has been the site of many past attacks by Islamic State militants. The Interior Ministry spokesman, Tareq Arian, said over 100 women and babies were evacuated from the building before it was over. Arian said 15 others, including women, men and children were wounded in the attack. Three foreign nationals were among those safely evacuated, he said, without elaborating. It was unclear why the maternity hospital in Dashti Barchi, a 100-bed facility, was targeted — an attack Arian said was an “act against humanity and a war crime.” No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack in Kabul, where both the Taliban and the IS frequently target Afghan military and security forces, as well as civilians. The Taliban denied they were involved. Photos shared by the Interior Ministry during the Kabul attack show newborn babies and their mothers being carried out of the hospital by Afghan security forces. “The forces are trying to eliminate the terrorists and bring the situation under control,” said Arian while the battle was ongoing. By mid-afternoon, the ministry issued a statement saying three attackers had stormed the hospital and that one was shot and killed while the other two were still resisting arrest. The first floor of the clinic was cleared but the operation was ongoing to secure the rest of the building, the statement said. A few hours later, the ministry released another statement, saying all three attackers were dead and that the operation was over. In the evening hours, husbands, fathers and family members of the hospital s patients gathered around the site in Dashti Barchi, desperate for news of their loved ones. A man read out the names of those who had been evacuated to other hospitals. Neighboring Pakistan condemned the Kabul attack, calling it an “inhuman and cowardly terrorist attack.” The foreign ministry said both the Kabul hospital attack and the one on a funeral in eastern Nangarhar province “are particularly despicable as they take place in the holy month of Ramadan and at a time when Afghanistan is grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic.” In the Nangarhar attack, the suicide bomber targeted the funeral in Khewa district of a local pro-government militia commander and former warlord who had died of a heart attack on Monday night, said Attahullah Khogyani, spokesman for the provincial governor. The Interior Ministry said the final casualty toll included 24 killed and 68 wounded. The casualties were brought to the Nangarhar provincial hospital, said hospital spokesman Gulzada Sangar. Khogyani added that the dead included Abdullah Lala Jan, a provincial council member, while his father Noor Agha, a lawmaker, was wounded in the attack. According to Zabihullah Zemarai, another provincial council member, dozens of people, including, lawmakers, provincial council members and locals had gathered for the funeral of Shaikh Akram, the militia commander. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid tweeted that the Taliban were not involved in the attack. Also, no group claimed responsibility for the attack in Khost, which killed a child and wounded 10 people. The bomb was placed in a cart at a local market and remotely detonated, said Adil Haidari, spokesman for the provincial police chief. The IS, meanwhile, claimed it was behind a spate of attacks on Monday in Kabul when four bombs, one placed under a garbage bin and the other three by the roadside, went off in the northern part of the city, wounding four civilians, including a child. The Afghan intelligence service said in a statement late Monday that the agency has arrested an IS leader in the region, Zia-ul Haq, also known as Shaikh Abu Omer Al-Khorasani.
Some people write on their Facebook pages that George Floyd was a criminal as if they want to silence millions of people who demonstrated in his name. The truth is that nobody said the man was an angel or saint. George Floyd is a victim of hideous racism and brutal killing by a police man representing law and justice who has been killing a man for more than 8 minutes in cold blood as he puts his hand in his pocke