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French President Hosts International Conference to Raise Funds for Lebanon

French President Emmanuel Macron will host a U.N.-backed international donors’ virtual conference Sunday to raise funds for Lebanon following a massive blast at the port of Beirut last week that killed at least 158 people and injured about 6,000 others.U.S. President Donald Trump announced his participation in a tweet Friday, after he talked with Macron and his Lebanese counterpart, Michel Aoun, tweeting that “everyone wants to help!””We will be having a conference call on Sunday with President Macron, leaders of Lebanon, and leaders from various other parts of the world,” he said.In the meantime, the U.S. has delivered emergency aid to Lebanon, starting with food, water, and medical supplies, under Trump’s direction. Initially it has pledged more than $17 million in disaster aid for the country.In other developments, Lebanese security forces fired tear gas Saturday at thousands of demonstrators who gathered in Beirut’s main square to protest the government’s management of the recent explosion that devastated large parts of the city.At the beginning of a planned protest, a small group of men started throwing stones at security forces as they tried to jump over barriers blocking entry to the parliament building. Police responded by firing tear gas at the protesters.A police spokesman said an officer was killed during scuffles. A police officer at the scene said that the officer died after falling down an elevator shaft when he was chased by protesters into a building in the area.The demonstrators also stormed the foreign ministry building while others in Martyrs Square set up symbolic nooses for politicians and chanted “the people want the fall of the regime.”The protesters later set fire to a truck that was reinforcing barriers on a street leading to the parliament building.The Lebanese Red Cross said more than a dozen protesters were hospitalized and scores of others received medical treatment on the scene.The protest, the first significant demonstration since the explosion, occurred amid mounting anger at Lebanon’s political leadership.The country’s leaders have been accused of widespread corruption and incompetence that contributed to Tuesday’s devastating explosion.Prime Minister Hassan Diab said Friday he will draft legislation calling for early elections and is willing to remain in the position for two months to allow political leaders time to implement structural reforms.The head of the Kataeb Party, Sami Gemayal, told mourners at the funeral of party Secretary-General Nazar Najarian Saturday that he was withdrawing three party members from parliament in the wake of the fallout from the explosion.Progressive Socialist Party and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt told Arab media he was calling for early parliamentary elections and that protesters have the right to demand that political leaders resign.Jumblatt said, however, it is up to Christian protesters and Christian political parties to call for an end to the mandate of President Michel Aoun.Christian political leader Samir Geagea has also called for early parliamentary elections but stopped short of withdrawing his party’s members from parliament.The U.S. Embassy in Beirut said Saturday the U.S. government backs the demonstrators’ rights to peaceful protest and is urging them to “refrain from violence.” In a tweet, the embassy also said the Lebanese people “deserved leaders who listen to them and change course to respond to popular demands for transparency and accountability.”

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US Tops 5 Million Coronavirus Infections

The United States has more coronavirus cases than any other country.  There are more than 5 million infections in the U.S., according to a New York Times database. Brazil and India follow as numbers two and three, respectively, in the number of infections.  Brazil has more than 3 million cases and India has more than 2 million.Brazil on Saturday became the second country in the world to pass 100,000 deaths from the coronavirus, second to the United States, which has more than 162,000 deaths.Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, said last week he had “a clear conscience” despite the toll. Bolsonaro himself survived COVID-19 last month and said he had done “everything possible to save lives.” Because of insufficient tests, experts say, the number of Brazilians with the virus could be six times higher.In the U.S., the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation has released a model predicting nearly 300,000 deaths by December 1 if Americans don’t start consistently wearing face masks.IHME Director Dr. Christopher Murray said in a statement that if 95 percent of Americans started wearing masks, more than 66,000 lives would be saved.Naga women, wearing face masks as a precaution against the coronavirus, sit by the side of a road selling poultry on the eve of International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, in Kohima, India, Aug. 8, 2020.Mexico’s health ministry reported nearly 6,500 new COVID infections Saturday and almost 700 deaths. Mexico follows only the U.S. and Brazil in the numbers of COVID deaths.  Mexico has more than 46,000 COVID deaths, according to John Hopkins University data.In France, the government ordered face masks must be worn outside in busy areas — except around some tourist sites, including the Eiffel Tower — starting Monday. The government said the French tourism industry has lost at least $35-$47 billion due to the health crisis.”The French are participating massively in the revival of the tourism sector by favoring France,” and 70 percent of those who have gone on vacation have chosen to stay in their country, Secretary of State Tourism Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne said in an interview with the Journal du Dimanche.New mask mandates went into effect Saturday in Britain, where people are now required to wear masks in most indoor settings. In England and Scotland, masks must be worn in places of worship, banks, libraries and in many other indoor places.Masks were already required in shops and on public transit, but more stringent measures were imposed to contain a surge in coronavirus infections in Britain after easing lockdown requirements.Travelers arriving in Germany from most non-European countries and regions within the European Union with high infection rates must now undergo testing for the coronavirus Travelers from high-risk areas were previously required to self-quarantine for 14 days or until they could produce a negative test.Australia recorded 404 new cases Sunday – 10 in New South Wales and 394 in Victoria.  Seventeen deaths were reported in Victoria.New Zealand reports it has experienced 100 days of zero community transmission of the coronavirus.  

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UK Armed Forces Asked to Help Deal With Migrant Boats Crossing Channel

Britain’s armed forces have been asked to help deal with boats carrying migrants across the Channel from France, the Defense Ministry said Saturday after a spate of arrivals on the southern English coast.Taking advantage of a spell of hot weather and calm seas, hundreds of people including children and pregnant women have made the dangerous 33-km (21-mile) crossing in recent days, many in overloaded rubber dinghies and other small vessels.The Defense Ministry said it had received a formal request from the Home Office, or interior ministry, to assist the UK Border Force with its operations in the Dover Straits.”We are assessing the requirements … and are working hard to identify how we can most effectively assist,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement.A Home Office spokeswoman declined to comment.300-plus arrivalsMore than 200 people arrived on the English coast on Thursday, followed by 130 on Friday, and media reported more arrivals on Saturday as the hot weather persisted.A junior Home Office minister in charge of immigration compliance, Chris Philp, called the rise in arrivals “shameful” and sought to put pressure on France ahead of a meeting with his French counterpart in Paris next week.”The French need to stop these illegal migrants from getting in the water in the first place,” he said in an opinion column published in Saturday’s Daily Telegraph newspaper, adding that Britain would seek to return to France those who made it across.France’s interior ministry said surveillance teams on the northern coast were intercepting migrants daily and it had mobilized extra resources. It said five times as many migrant boats had been caught between January and July as were caught during the same period in 2019.FILE – French gendarmes patrol the beach in Ambleteuse near Calais, northern France, Jan. 18, 2019, looking to halt migrants’ bid to cross the English Channel.”This is a joint problem … which needs a joint operational response,” a spokesman said.The Sunday Telegraph reported that France would ask Britain to pay 30 million pounds ($39.12 million) to police the English Channel and that the UK had not yet decided whether to accept that demand.’Not a crisis’Uncontrolled arrivals of asylum-seekers and migrants from Africa, the Middle East and Asia have long been a source of tension between European countries struggling to find an effective joint response.Britain left the European Union in January and a transition period during which most EU rules and accords are still in force will end December 31, which could further complicate cooperation with EU member France.Immigration has been an especially polarizing issue in Britain since the Brexit referendum in 2016 because “taking back control” of immigration and border policy was presented as one of the key advantages by pro-Brexit campaigners.Home Secretary Priti Patel, an enthusiastic Brexiteer, made the link in a tweet on Friday about the Channel crossings: “I know that when the British people say they want to take back control of our borders, this is exactly what they mean.”Critics such as groups campaigning for the rights of immigrants and refugees accuse the government of stoking some voters’ xenophobic fears by magnifying the issue.”Britain is better than this. The arrival of small numbers of people by boat is not a crisis,” said Stephen Hale, chief executive of Refugee Action, who urged the government to focus on the coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic crisis.The numbers crossing the Channel are tiny compared with the flows of people who try to reach EU countries such as Malta, Greece, Italy and Spain every year by crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa or Turkey, thousands of them dying on the way.

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Russian Far East Keeps up its Anti-Kremlin Protests

Thousands of demonstrators gathered again Saturday in Russia’s Far East city of Khabarovsk to denounce the arrest of the region’s governor a month ago, protests that are posing a direct challenge to the Kremlin.Sergei Furgal was arrested on July 9 on suspicion of involvement in murders and taken to jail in Moscow. The estimated 3,000 demonstrators on Saturday protested the charges, believing them to be politically motivated, and want him returned to the city for trial. Furgal has denied the charges.Furgal, who has been removed from his post, is a popular figure in the region bordering China about 6,100 kilometers (3,800 miles) east of Moscow. Since his arrest, daily demonstrations have been held in the city, with attendance peaking on weekends.Demonstrations in support of the Khabarovsk protesters were held in at least seven other cities in Russia. The OVD-Info organization that monitors political arrests said at least 10 people were arrested in those demonstrations.No arrests were reported in Khabarovsk, where authorities have not interfered with the demonstrations, apparently hoping they will fizzle out. 

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Greek Island Locks Down as COVID-19 Infections Soar Across Country

Three months after easing nationwide restrictions to stem the spread of the coronavirus, the government in Athens has placed the tiny Greek island of Poros into fresh lockdown following a sudden flare-up of infections in scores of locals and tourists. The lockdown comes as the coronavirus pandemic spreads rapidly in Greece, tripling infections in the past 10 days alone and marring the country’s image as a near virus-free summer retreat.With a population of about 3,000, Poros, a one-hour jaunt from the Greek capital, has been a favorite destination this summer, attracting record numbers of tourists seeking a safe summer hideout from the coronavirus.But on Friday, most of Poros’ visitors were seen scrambling onto ferries bound for Athens or other islands.More than 30 people, mainly young Greeks, tested positive for COVID-19 within a 24-hour period, an outbreak officials fear could spread rapidly across the idyllic, pine-cloaked island.Scores of suspected cases are being examined with results likely by the end of the weekend.But authorities, concerned by the rising rates of COVID-19 infections across the country, are not taking any chances. They are taking aggressive action to contain the flare-up in Poros.Bars and nightclubs are barred from operating at late hours. Curfews now have been imposed. All social and religious events have been suspended. And beginning at dawn, text messages from homeland security offices have been ringing across Poros, notifying people to wear masks.It is not clear what exactly caused the Poros outbreak. Authorities have not tracked the infections to “patient zero.”Whatever the reason though, local officials, including Mayor Giannis Dimitriadis, blame authorities for being too lax in monitoring regulations that have been in effect for weeks.In every society, authorities set the example by observing regulations and keeping citizens vigilant, he said. Police here were not enforcing the rules, he said.Dimitriadis said he notified authorities more than a month ago, urging them to act against what he called recurring and serious lapses.But Poros is just one example of what critics are calling state neglect and reckless behavior by locals defying existing regulations across the country.“The rising rate has me extremely concerned,” Manolis Dermitzakis, a Greek professor of medicine in the University of Geneva said. “We’ve seen cases triple in a short period of time in Greece.” And ultimately, he said, it all boils down to the fact that measures are not being fully adhered to.What’s the point, he said, of having a mandatory mask order when most Greeks are wearing them under their noses, beneath their chins or dangling on one of their ears? This half-baked compliance is dangerous, he said.Since the Poros outbreak, authorities have intensified inspections, issuing steep fines against offenders.But if the measures fail to quash Greece’s rise in new coronavirus infections, the government may have no other option than to take tougher, nationwide measures, potentially reimposing a national lockdown.Until then, the U.S. State Department is urging American citizens to reconsider travel plans to Greece.

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Can the Takuba Force Turn Around the Sahel Conflict?

Two years after a pan-European military initiative was first proposed to help tackle the Sahel’s Islamist insurgency, the Takuba task force is finally becoming reality, as its first troops arrive amid the coronavirus pandemic, political turmoil and spreading unrest.A group of roughly 100 Estonian and French special forces are the first on the ground to comprise Takuba, the Tuareg name for a sabre. Some 60 Czech troops are to join them in October, and another 150 Swedish ones by early next year. Estonia, Belgium and more recently Italy count among others to announce troops for the mission intended to help Mali and Niger forces fight extremist groups in the region.But for now, and likely in the future, the main foreign troop contributor in the region is France, analysts say, whose own 5,100-troop Barkhane counterinsurgency operation enters its seventh year.And despite recent military victories, they say, chances of eradicating the conflict are remote, unless the Europeans and Africans offer more holistic, long-term solutions.“If you have a gushing wound on your neck, you don’t put a plaster on it,” said Andrew Yaw Tchie, a senior Africa security expert at the London-based Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, or RUSI.Victory possible?France thinks differently. At a June Sahel summit in Nouakchott, Mauritania, French President Emmanuel Macron urged regional and international governments to intensify their military campaign against the Islamists.”We are all convinced that victory is possible in the Sahel,” Macron said, citing progress in recent months.Emboldening his stance was the early June killing of a key Islamist leader by French forces with the reported aid of a U.S. drone. Abdelmalek Droukdel, headed al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, one of the main groups operating in the region.But other prominent jihadist leaders, including two linked to al-Qaida, remain at large, in a tangled conflict in which Islamist and local extremist groups have fueled and profited from inter-communal violence as well.Overall, the United Nations estimates terrorist attacks against civilian and military targets in three of the most vulnerable Sahel countries — Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger — has increased fivefold since 2016.In a recent interview with VOA, J. Peter Pham, the top U.S. envoy to the Sahel region, noted extremist attacks in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger had increased 40 percent in the first quarter of this year alone.Asked whether counter-insurgency efforts were winning, Pham added, “It depends on what time horizon you use and what definition you use for winning.”While Droukdel’s death might be considered a “specific” success, he noted insecurity was expanding in Burkina Faso and central Mali, which “certainly cannot be counted a success.”Spreading threatExtremist groups are also spreading southward, deeper into sub-Saharan Africa — profiting from north-south ethnic and religious divides within countries, and more recently, analysts say, the coronavirus pandemic.Against this backdrop, there is no unified international military response, says Bakary Sambe, director of the Timbuktu Institute in Dakar.“Today, there are 19 different international strategies in the Sahel and no coordination,” Sambe said. “At a time when terrorist groups are beginning to coordinate, international partners are diverging.”The Takuba task force is intended to facilitate regional coordination, as well as to provide equipment and training to Malian and other G-5 Sahel forces, which also hail from Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Chad.Some observers see it as a test case for Macron’s broader goal of a more unified European Union defense, which a number of other EU member states are lukewarm about.It’s also unclear how many European countries will ultimately commit to the Sahel initiative. Some, including Norway and Germany, have already bowed out for a mix of reasons. Britain, which formally exited the EU last year, plans instead to dispatch 250 forces to beef up the U.N.’s MINUSMA peacekeeping mission in Mali.RUSI’s Tchie, who describes Britain as joining an “unwinnable fight in the Sahel” with its U.N. commitment, has similar reservations about the Takuba troops.“In essence, all you’re doing is saying, ‘Let’s deal with counterterrorism, and at some point, we’ll deal with the other stuff,’” he said, summarizing what he considers the European thinking.Yet such thinking, he added, fails to address interlinking problems, including climate change, corruption, poverty and underdevelopment that are fueling the conflict.Parallels with SomaliaAdding to the challenges is the current political turmoil in Mali, where West African leaders are trying to find an exit plan to a crisis in which protesters are calling for President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to quit.Some regional forces have been accused of civilian abuses. For their part, extremist groups have capitalized on the coronavirus pandemic to further their interests, including staging attacks and recruiting new members, analysts say.France faces its own set of challenges. Its Barkhane force has lost 43 men in its Sahel operations since 2013. It also faces a negative image in some countries, where memories of its colonial presence linger.Takuba is partly intended to send the message that “France is not alone in the Sahel,” the country’s newspaper Le Monde wrote.The Timbuktu Institute’s Sambe sees it another way.“I think that wanting to realize Takuba is in itself an admittance that Barkhane and other foreign interventions have been a failure,” he said. “It’s been years that a purely security and military approach hasn’t functioned to eradicate terrorism.”In London, RUSI’s Tchie draws parallels between the Islamist groups in the Sahel and Somalia, where the al-Shabab terrorist group has grown and spread despite years of U.S. and other military efforts. In both regions, he says, extremist groups have scored points in local communities, he says, in ways national and foreign intervention has not.“It delivers justice, it delivers humanitarian relief to communities, and people feel more secure,” he said of al-Shabab. “It’s not that people want to go to al-Shabab. But when they need security, justice and things to work for them, al-Shabab delivers.”  

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Report: Pompeo Warns Russia Against Taliban Bounties

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has warned Russia’s foreign minister about alleged bounty payments to Taliban militants for killing U.S. troops in Afghanistan, according to The New York Times.The Times reported Friday that Pompeo made the warning to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during a July 13 phone call, citing unidentified U.S. officials.It said Pompeo’s warning was the first known rebuke from a senior U.S. official to Russia over the alleged bounties program.Pompeo has previous declined to say whether he specifically raised the bounty allegations with Russia. However, he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month that he has “raised all of the issues that put any Americans at risk” each time he has spoken to Lavrov.Trump has called the reports of Russian bounties on U.S. troops “another Russian hoax” despite concerns about them from the intelligence community.Trump told reporters in Florida last month, “It was never brought to my attention and it perhaps wasn’t brought because they didn’t consider it to be real. And if it is brought to my attention, I’ll do something about it,” he said.During an interview with “Axios on HBO,” Trump said he had not raised the bounty allegations in a recent phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin.“That was a phone call to discuss other things, and, frankly, that’s an issue that many people said was fake news,” Trump said.White House officials have said that Trump was not briefed on the suspected bounties because the assessment was not conclusive. However, several media outlets, including the Times, have reported that the issue was included in one of the president’s written daily briefings in February. Trump has said he was never personally told about the issue.Russia has denied that it paid bounties to Taliban militants for killing U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

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Lukashenko’s Biggest Election Opponent: the Internet

In the closing days of the Belarus presidential election campaign, opposition candidates are holding mass rallies and incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko is visiting businesses, giving speeches to the Security Council and government – and lashing out at the news media.During a meeting with campaign staff, Lukashenko railed at local and international media, saying the Belarussian edition of Russian daily Komsomolskaya Pravda “will soon turn into a tabloid” and accusing foreign outlets, including the BBC and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, of being biased and calling for riots.Lukashenko, who has been in power for 26 years, asked the Foreign Ministry to intervene.“There is no need whatsoever to wait until the end of the election campaign. Get them out of here if they do not comply with our laws and call people to Maidans,” he said on July 23, referring to mass protests in Ukraine in 2013 over the country’s move away from the European Union.In the months leading up to the August 9 vote, journalists and bloggers in Belarus have been arrested, harassed and even deported as Lukashenko faces an unexpectedly tough election amid discontent with the economy and his poor handling of the coronavirus pandemic.The president, who says he People look at a presidential election information board in Minsk, Belarus, Aug. 7, 2020.Opposition presidential candidates were also A man stands next to an election campaign poster during a rally held by supporters of Svetlana Tikhanouskaya, a candidate in the upcoming presidential election and President Alexander Lukashenko’s main challenger, in Minsk, Belarus, Aug. 6, 2020.Earlier in the campaign, Sergei Tikhanovsky was the main irritant for authorities, said Klaskovsky.“He traveled all over the country,” Klaskovsky said. “In small towns, he would give the microphone to disadvantaged people blasting the authorities. And the authorities felt that it was dangerous, because their biggest fear is the street, since the election commissions are staffed with loyal people and the counting of votes is completely under state control.”On May 6, authorities charged Sergei Tikhanovsky and seven others with “organizing and preparing actions that grossly violate public order.”Boris Goretsky, deputy chair of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, said arrests and oppression of journalists have increased, with over 60 incidents recorded during the campaign.“The authorities are afraid of freely disseminated information, as evidenced by the recent arrests of journalists after rallies,” Goretsky told VOA. “Authorities try to detain the maximum number of journalists so no one is there to provide video coverage and distribute it on the internet.“After all, information is what motivates people to act,” he said.In addition to the arrests, authorities are beating journalists at rallies and obstructing live broadcasts, said Natalya Radina, editor-in-chief of the news website Charter’97.Klaskovsky, of BelaPAN, added that bloggers and administrators of public and Telegram channels working under the “Country to Live In” brand have been hit hard, but the pressure is also felt by independent news websites, news agencies and publications whose editorial offices are abroad.These journalists are often not invited to press conferences or other official events, where the priority is given to state-owned press. And those covering mass gatherings risk being arbitrarily detained, having equipment broken or confiscated and, if they lack accreditation, being fined for “illegal fabrication of mass media products.”“The rest of the press finds itself in an information vacuum,” Klaskovsky said.The Belarus Embassy in Washington told VOA on Friday to send questions via email. The embassy did not respond to VOA’s emailed questions.‘Under supervision’Independent media in Belarus are still tightly controlled. Journalists need accreditation to access official events, and the State Security Committee — still known as the KGB, its Soviet-era name — regularly monitors the press, with officials calling reporters to discuss their work.FILE – Opposition supporters wearing protective masks amid the coronavirus disease outbreak wait in a line to put signatures in support of their potential candidates in the upcoming presidential election in Minsk, Belarus, May 31, 2020.Because of these officials — described by some journalists as “supervisors” — “it is very difficult to determine the degree of independence of a local outlet,” said Irina Khalip, a Belarus correspondent for Novaya Gazeta, an independent Russia paper known for its critical and investigative coverage of Russian political and social affairs.“All foreign journalists need to be accredited with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And this accreditation comes with lines you cannot cross,” Khalip said. “One step over and your accreditation is revoked.”In May, the Foreign Ministry stripped a Channel One correspondent of his accreditation and deported him to Russia. The ministry did not state the reason, but Channel One, a Russian state broadcaster, said it came one day Belarus citizens in Poland demonstrate during a solidarity rally in front of the Belarusian Embassy before the upcoming presidential election, in Warsaw, Aug. 7, 2020. Belarus will hold its presidential election on Aug. 9.The journalist was convicted of rioting after the 2010 election and authorities jailed her husband, Andrew Sannikov, who ran as an opposition presidential candidate.News websites based outside Belarus are a key source of information. Despite attempts by authorities to block the sites, readers are finding ways to access them online.The Charter’97 website has been blocked for over two years, editor-in-chief Radina said. “But people have learned to bypass the blocking via virtual private networks [and] anonymizers, and still read us because they need accurate information.”“It is impossible to completely cut off information, because these days not only journalists but everyone can record videos on their mobile phones and post them on the internet. Information on what happens in Belarus on August 9 and 10 will appear anyway,” Radina said.Goretsky, deputy chair of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, said the internet, along with social media and Telegram channels, makes it faster and easier to share or access objective information.“People no longer watch TV day and night; they watch YouTube channels. This gave birth to the phenomenon of Sergei Tikhanovsky, who created his own channel, which was popular with the older generation as well,” he said.“While the government has been fighting all these years for print runs and compulsory subscriptions, independent publications have de facto taken over the internet,” Goretsky said. “And although many of them do not have accreditation and cannot attend official events, they have several advantages, including the internet.”This article originated in VOA’s Russian service.

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