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Catalan Separatist Leader Puigdemont Arrested in Italy

Exiled former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont was arrested in Italy on Thursday, his lawyer and an aide said, four years after fleeing following an independence referendum that Madrid ruled unconstitutional.

The European MEP was expected to appear in court on Friday at a hearing that could see him extradited to Spain to face sedition charges.

The Catalan leader — who has been based in Belgium since the 2017 referendum — was detained in Alghero, Sardinia, his chief of staff, Josep Lluis Alay, wrote on Twitter.

“At his arrival at Alghero airport, he was arrested by Italian police. Tomorrow (Friday), he’ll appear before the judges of the court of appeal of Sassari, who will decide whether to let him go or extradite him,” Alay said.

Puigdemont’s lawyer, Gonzalo Boye, tweeted that the exiled separatist leader was arrested on his arrival in Italy, where he was travelling in his capacity as an MEP.

He said the arrest was made on the basis of a warrant issued in October 2019 that had since been suspended.

Puigdemont, 58, is wanted in Spain on allegations of sedition over his attempts to have the Catalan region break away from Madrid through the 2017 referendum.

His arrest comes a week after the left-leaning Spanish government and regional Catalan authorities resumed negotiations to find a solution to Spain’s worst political crisis in decades.

In March, the European Parliament rescinded immunity for Puigdemont and two other pro-independent MEPs, a decision that was upheld in July by the EU’s General Court.

However, the European Parliament’s decision is under appeal and a final ruling by the EU court has yet to be made.

Following Thursday’s arrest, Madrid expressed “its respect for the decisions of the Italian authorities and courts.”

“The arrest of Mr Puigdemont corresponds to an ongoing judicial procedure that applies to any EU citizen who has to answer to the courts,” the Spanish government said in a statement.

The statement added Puigdemont should “submit to the action of justice like any other citizen.”

‘Persecution’

New Catalan president Pere Aragones — a separatist but more moderate than his predecessor — condemned what he called the “persecution” of Puigdemont.

“In the face of persecution and judicial repression, the strongest condemnation. It has to stop,” he wrote on Twitter.

He added that “self-determination” was the “only solution.”

Besides Puigdemont, former Catalan regional ministers Toni Comin and Clara Ponsati are also wanted in Spain on allegations of sedition.

The October 2017 referendum was held by Catalonia’s separatist regional leadership despite a ban by Madrid and the process was marred by police violence.

A few weeks later, the leadership made a short-lived declaration of independence, prompting Puigdemont to flee abroad.

Others who stayed in Spain were arrested and tried.

However, Puigdemont did not benefit from the pardon granted in June to nine pro-independence activists who had been imprisoned in Spain. 

 

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French Foreign Minister to US: Repairing Ties Will Take ‘Time’ 

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday that it would take “time” and “actions” to repair ties with the U.S. in the wake of a submarine deal that undercut a French agreement to supply Australia with diesel subs. 

Last week, the United States, United Kingdom and Australia announced a deal under which the U.K. and U.S. will instead supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines. 

The move angered France, which withdrew its ambassadors from the U.S. and Australia. 

Earlier in the week, Le Drian expressed concern about what he characterized as “deceit” by one of its oldest allies. 

He told reporters at the United Nations this week that the United States had gone behind France’s back and had hidden the new deal for months. 

According to State Department spokesperson Ned Price, Le Drian and Blinken “spoke about plans for in-depth bilateral consultations on issues of strategic importance. They discussed the EU strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.” 

On Wednesday, President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron spoke by phone in an attempt to rebuild trust between the NATO allies. 

Some information for this report came from Reuters. 

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Unrest in Myanmar, Belarus Triggers Dramatic Drop in Internet Rights

Belarus and Myanmar registered a significant decline in global internet freedom ratings following political turmoil in which authorities in the two countries arrested journalists and blocked access to the internet.  

 

In its annual Freedom on the Net report, the global nonprofit Freedom House found digital rights had declined globally for the 11th consecutive year, with China ranking the worst for the seventh time, and the U.S. seeing a decline for a fifth year.

 

Freedom on the Net is an annual assessment of digital rights in 70 states, with each country given a score on a 100-point scale based on factors including access, limits to content and violations of users’ rights.

 

As well as new regulations and pressure on internet companies to comply with government demands, Freedom House found an increase in the arrests of social media users.  

 

The most significant declines came in Belarus, Myanmar and Uganda, all of which experienced political unrest. While all three sought to limit access to online communication, Freedom House found that officials in Belarus and Myanmar also targeted media and online reporters.

 

Allie Funk, co-author of Freedom on the Net, told VOA that in Belarus and Myanmar, current events hastened what had been a multiyear decline for both countries.  

 

“Particularly around elections or protests — these really tense political moments — you tend to have a flashpoint for internet freedom restrictions,” said Funk, a senior research analyst at Freedom House.   

 

“Both regimes resorted to very blunt forms of censorship, so just broad-scale internet shutdowns in both countries,” she added.

 

Myanmar fell 14 points in the ratings, the largest decline Freedom House has ever recorded.   

 

The country scored 17 out of 100, categorized as “not free,” after the junta blocked social media, websites and internet access as part of the February 1 coup in which the military seized power and ousted the democratically elected government.

 

The junta initially said it was blocking Facebook temporarily to ensure stability and prevent the spread of false news after the military takeover. But Freedom House found messaging apps, other social media sites and some national media outlets were also blocked.

 

The apparent use of surveillance along with the arrests of journalists, digital activists and others for online activity were also cited in the report.   

 

Freedom House noted an increase in self-censorship and said hundreds of journalists remain in hiding to avoid arrest for their earlier coverage of anti-coup protests.

 

VOA attempted to contact Myanmar’s military for comment, but the spokesperson did not respond to the call or a request sent via messaging app.

 

Analysts and media in Myanmar told VOA the restrictions have not only curtailed reporting on the nation’s political turmoil but also have impacted daily life, from education to access to online health care during the coronavirus pandemic.

 

Myo Naying, a Myanmar-based tech expert, told VOA’s Burmese Service that the military council’s restrictions are damaging across large sectors, including e-commerce, education and health.  

 

Since the coup, many residents have relied on the internet and social media to access news, and have turned away from state-controlled media, Myo Naying said.  

 

In response, the military has tried to block access to independent news and imposed restrictions and surveillance on the internet, the tech expert said. Myo Naying added that security forces often check people’s phones and social media posts. Anyone found to be sharing posts critical of the military is arrested.  

 

As of Thursday, the Thai-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, Burma, had documented 6,718 arrests or charges since the coup. 

 

Freedom House said that surveillance had increased even in the months before the coup, and that in early February, the military circulated a draft cybercrime law that would place private data under the military’s control. Since the coup, security forces have also allegedly seized phones of those arrested and extracted data.

 

A journalist in Yangon, who asked for anonymity for fear of retaliation, told VOA that the surveillance puts reporters at risk.  

 

“The internet surveillance, it made it difficult for journalists to do their work. It created risk and insecure communication through internet and social media, both for journalist and their news sources,” the journalist said.

‘Unprecedented pressure’

 

Media in Belarus have faced similar restrictions and retaliation since Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory in presidential elections in August 2020, resulting in mass protests and arrests.

 

Freedom House, which examined conditions between June 2020 and May 2021, described the time frame as an “unprecedented campaign of repression against Belarusian online journalists, activists and internet users,” with more than 500 arrests.  

 

The country is categorized as “not free” with a score of 31 out of 100.

 

The digital rights group cited internet shutdowns after the election and during protests; amendments to media laws including a ban on reporting live from breaking news events and provisions that made it easier to revoke or reject accreditation; the monitoring of social media; and the diversion of a passenger jet to facilitate the arrest of Raman Pratasevich, the founder of a popular Telegram channel.  

 

The Belarusian Embassy in Washington did not respond to VOA’s email requesting comment.  

 

“What Myanmar and Belarus exemplify is how increased surveillance, increased censorship, increased in-person attacks are really key tactics of digital repression that are here to stay, unfortunately,” said Funk of Freedom House.

 

Natalia Belikova, the head of international projects at the media network Press Club Belarus, told VOA that “unprecedented pressure” was put on independent media last year.  

 

The result, Belikova said, is “an entirely sterile media environment where only state-authorized journalism is allowed.”

 

Nearly all print media are state-controlled and most independent media work online, Belikova said.  

 

The government blocked access to more than 50 websites and issued an order to shut down one of the country’s most popular news sites, Tut.by.

 

“State-authorized journalism means basically propaganda, which works to polarize society and to divide society into those who support the incumbent regime and those who don’t,” Belikova said.

 

The journalist said that while there is little to be optimistic about, “there’s still data that shows that independent sources of information still have a foothold on the Belarusian audience.”

 

Despite a tougher online environment, Funk said there were positive signs, because of the courage of civil society and activists, including a youth movement in Myanmar.

 

Funk said the young people are “going out on the streets and really pushing back [against] the really intense digital oppression and the really egregious violence that they’re facing. Their courage and resilience of pushing back against a brutal military is, I think, really incredible. I think there’s a really tough hill to climb.”

 

Liam Scott and VOA’s Burmese Service contributed to this report.

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Goodbye Merkel: Germany’s ‘Crisis Chancellor’ To Step Down After 16 Years

After 16 years, Germany is preparing to bid farewell to Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is stepping down after elections scheduled for Sunday. As Henry Ridgwell reports from Berlin, Merkel was Germany’s first female chancellor and its first leader to have been raised in the former East Germany.

Camera: Henry Ridgwell Produced by: Jon Spier 

 

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Lava, Smoke, Ash Cover La Palma as Volcano Threatens Banana Crop

Jets of red hot lava shot into the sky on Spain’s La Palma on Thursday as a huge cloud of toxic ash drifted from the Cumbre Vieja volcano toward the mainland and jeopardized the island’s economically crucial banana crops.

 

Walls of lava, which turn black when exposed to the air, have advanced slowly westward since Sunday, engulfing everything in their path, including houses, schools and some banana plantations.

 

Farmers near the town of Todoque raced to save as much as possible of their crop, piling their trucks high with sacks of the green bananas, on which many of the islanders depend for their livelihood.

 

“We’re just trying to take everything we can,” said a farmer who gave his name as Roberto from the window of his pickup.  

 

Some 15% of La Palma’s 140 million kilogram annual banana production could be at risk if farmers are unable to access plantations and tend to their crops, Sergio Caceres, manager of producer’s association Asprocan, told Reuters.

 

“There is the main tragedy of destroyed houses — many of those affected are banana producers or employees — but their livelihood is further down the hill,” he said. “Some farms have already been covered.”

 

Caceres said the farmers already were suffering losses and warned that if lava pollutes the water supply it could potentially cause problems for months to come.

 

The island produces around a quarter of the Canary Islands’ renowned bananas, which hold protected designation of origin status.

 

With more than 200 houses destroyed and thousands of evacuated people unable to return home, the Canary Islands’ regional government said it would buy two housing developments with a combined 73 properties for those made homeless. Spanish banks jointly announced they would offer vacant homes they hold across the Canaries as emergency shelter.

 

Property portal Idealista estimated the volcano had so far destroyed property worth about 87 million euros ($102 million). Experts had originally predicted the lava would hit the Atlantic Ocean late Monday, but its descent has slowed to a glacial pace of around 4 meters per hour and authorities say it may stop before reaching the sea.

 

Volcanologists have said gases from the eruption are not harmful to health. But a plume of thick cloud now extends some 4.2 kilometers (2.6 miles) into the air, raising concerns of visibility for flights. The airport remains open, but authorities have created two exclusion zones where only authorized aircraft can fly.  

 

Prevailing winds are expected to propel the cloud northeast over the rest of the Canary archipelago, the Iberian peninsula and the Mediterranean, according to the European Union’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service.

 

National weather service AEMET said air quality had not been affected at surface level and ruled out acid rain falling over the mainland or the Balearic Islands and was even unlikely in the Canary islands.

 

Local authorities have warned people to clean food and clothes to avoid ingesting the toxic ash.

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Europe’s Governments Set to Spend Billions as Energy Crisis Deepens

Europe is being buffeted by unprecedented recovery-related energy price spikes, prompting rising alarm about whether families will be able to remain warm as the northern hemisphere’s winter approaches.

Politicians are also anxious about the electoral repercussions and how spiking prices will fuel further inflation.

The price jumps in natural gas are due largely to a surge in demand in Asia and low supplies of in Europe, which has seen an astonishing 280% increase in wholesale gas prices. Electricity prices are also soaring because natural gas is used across the continent to generate a substantial percentage of its electricity.

Moscow’s decision to refrain from boosting natural gas shipments via Ukrainian pipelines is worsening the crunch and adding to claims that Russia is using the energy needs of its European neighbors to hold them to ransom.

Some European politicians are accusing the Kremlin of deliberately worsening Europe’s energy crisis as a tactic to pressure the European Union into speeding up certification of the just completed Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which bypasses Ukraine and runs from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea.

The International Energy Agency has called on Russia to boost gas exports. “The IEA believes that Russia could do more to increase gas availability to Europe and ensure storage is filled to adequate levels in preparation for the coming winter heating season,” it said in a statement.

U.S. officials have also called on Moscow to increase gas exports. “The reality is there are pipelines with enough capacity through Ukraine to supply Europe. Russia has consistently said it has enough gas supply to be able to do so, so if that is true, then they should, and they should do it quickly through Ukraine,” Amos Hochstein, senior adviser for energy security at the US Department of State, told Bloomberg TV this week.

 

Europe scrambles 

Some members of the European Parliament want the European Commission to investigate Russia’s majority state-owned energy company Gazprom. “We call on the European Commission to urgently open an investigation into possible deliberate market manipulation by Gazprom and potential violation of EU competition rules,” a group of lawmakers said in a letter.

Moscow aside, Europe would still be faced with an energy price crunch, one that has raised the specter of factories and businesses having to reduce production and prompting warnings of food shortages.

In Britain, ministers have been holding emergency talks with industry representatives about surging wholesale gas and electricity prices, which have been blamed on higher global demand, maintenance issues and lower than expected solar and wind energy output.

Seven British natural gas suppliers have gone bust in the past six weeks, a consequence of wholesale gas prices surging by more than 70% in August alone. There are fears another three suppliers may declare bankruptcy. Suppliers are unable to pass on to customers the full increases because of government-imposed price caps on what consumers can be charged.

Nonetheless, British consumers will face price hikes this winter running into several hundreds of dollars per household. British officials are considering offering some of Britain’s biggest energy retail companies state-backed loans to help them ride out the price tempest.

But there is a reluctance to use taxpayers’ money, and midweek, Britain’s business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, told a parliamentary panel that the energy industry must first “look to itself” for solutions.

Few observers believe Boris Johnson’s ruling Conservative government will stay its hand. It has already intervened and extended emergency state support to avert a shortage of poultry and meat triggered by the soaring gas prices. This week ministers agreed to subsidize a major US company, CF Industries, paying it to reopen one of its two fertilizer plants in Britain which also produce as a byproduct carbon dioxide, vital for the country’s food industry.

CF Industries closed both plants, which supply 60% of the CO2 needed to stun animals for slaughter and used to extend the shelf life of packaged fresh, chilled and baked goods. It is also used to produce carbonated drinks and to keep stored beer fresh. The closure of the plants prompted dire warnings from Britain’s supermarkets of looming shortages.

Even with the emergency intervention running into hundreds of millions of dollars of public money, British ministers warned Wednesday that food producers need to prepare themselves for a 400% rise in carbon dioxide pricing.

 

State intervention

Other European governments are also considering how to intervene in energy markets to keep homes warm and lit, and factories running through the winter. They also fear domestic political fallout from sharp jumps in household costs and are considering billions of dollars in aid. EU energy ministers will meet this week to discuss national responses amid concerns that the energy crisis will severely disrupt the bloc’s post-pandemic recovery.

In Spain and Portugal, average wholesale electricity prices are triple the level of half a year ago at $206 per megawatt-hour. Spain’s government plans to cut taxes on utility bills.

 

Norway this week offered some relief by announcing that its state-owned energy company will boost the production of natural gas from two North Sea fields.

In Italy, ministers have warned of electricity prices jumping by 40% in the final quarter of 2021 and – like their southern European neighbors – are drafting emergency plans to soften the price blow for consumers. Some officials say $5.27 billion is being earmarked to support households with their costs, on top of a $1.17 billion the government has already spent to cushion consumers and businesses from the rising costs of energy imports. Italy imports two-thirds of its energy needs.

Last week, ecological transition minister Roberto Cingolani prompted an outcry from climate action groups when he said carbon taxes have contributed to the higher energy costs for households and businesses. Carbon pricing and taxes are employed to try to dis-incentivize the use of fossil fuels. Faced with rising criticism, Cingolani later stressed the need to “accelerate with the installation of renewables, so that we unhook ourselves as soon as possible from the cost of gas.”

Information from Reuters and Ansa was used in this report

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US, Russian Military Chiefs Meet in Helsinki for Six Hours

The top U.S. military officers from the United States and Russia held six hours of talks in Helsinki, Finland, on Wednesday, the first face-to-face meeting between them since 2019, as both nations adjust to the U.S. pullout and Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. 

General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian General Staff, do not typically disclose the details of their discussions, and statements from both sides were minimal. 

A U.S. military statement, which included details on the length of the meeting but not the agenda, said the talks were aimed at “risk reduction and operational de-confliction.” 

Russia’s RIA news agency reported that the talks were aimed at discussions on risk mitigation. 

The United States and Russia often have competing military interests around the world, including in countries such as Syria, where U.S. and Russian forces have operated in close proximity. How Washington and Moscow navigate next steps in Afghanistan remains to be seen. 

The U.S. military is under pressure from Congress to shore up a counterterrorism strategy to address risks from Afghanistan following the U.S. withdrawal and Taliban takeover in August. 

President Joe Biden’s administration has said it would rely on “over-the-horizon” operations that could strike groups such as al-Qaida or Islamic State in Afghanistan if they threaten the United States. 

But, with no troops on the ground, the extent of Washington’s ability to detect and halt plots is unclear. After 20 years of war, U.S. military officials also have a dim view of the Taliban and note its ties to al-Qaida. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that Moscow needs to work with the Taliban government and that world powers should consider unfreezing Afghanistan’s assets. 

 

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Lava Continues to Bear Down on Spain’s Canary Island

Lava continued to bear down Wednesday on La Palma, one of the Spanish Canary Islands, as residents fled following Sunday’s volcanic eruption. 

More than 6,800 people have been evacuated from the island, one of the archipelago’s smaller and least populated, since Sunday. 

The Associated Press reported that lava has engulfed and destroyed 320 buildings so far.

No fatalities or injuries have yet to be reported. 

A wall of lava as high as 12 meters faced a village on La Palma on Wednesday, and experts predicted that it would continue to spread for the next few days, destroying homes and crops. 

The eruption, the first on the Canary Islands in 50 years, sent lava and smoke spewing into the air as the lava flowed toward the sea. 

In the hours before the eruption, a large increase in seismic activity around the volcano was reported. 

Authorities say the eruption would likely continue for several days. Given the uncertainty about which direction the lava will flow, people with mobility issues have been evacuated from several coastal towns. 

Airspace around the Canaries remains open.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez delayed his trip to the United Nations General Assembly in New York and instead visited the affected area Monday. Speaking from New York on Wednesday, Sanchez said he felt confident about the island’s reconstruction. 

 

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British PM Johnson Meets With US House Speaker Pelosi

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson met with U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol as part of his brief stop in Washington. Johnson met earlier in the day with U.S. senators. 

 

Johson met Tuesday with U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House as part of a brief stop in Washington on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly meetings in New York. 

 

During a photo opportunity with reporters, Pelosi remarked that she had met with Johnson last week when she was in London for the G-7 summit of parliamentary leaders. She credited the British leader for hosting the upcoming climate summit in Glasglow, Scotland, November 1-12 and said they intended to discuss joint efforts on fighting terrorism and ending the COVID-19 pandemic. 

 

Johnson told reporters it was very important for him to go to Pelosi’s office, because all his life, he felt the United States and Capitol Hill stood for all the ideals of democracy and “the principle that the people should choose their government, and the people alone should choose their government.” He told Pelosi the U.S. can count on his support and the support of Britain in upholding that principle. 

 

During her visit to London last week, Pelosi indicated that nullifying the Northern Ireland peace agreement — known as the Good Friday Accords — would likely undermine negotiations for a post-Brexit bilateral trade agreement with the United States.

 

Johnson’s government is seeking to at least renegotiate part of the agreement. The two leaders made no public mention of that potential disagreement. 

 

Some information for this report came from the Associated Press, Reuters, and Agence France-Presse.

 

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