Category Archives: World

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Scottish Voters Remain Split Over Independence After Fresh Referendum Bid 

Voters in Scotland remain evenly split over supporting independence from the rest of Britain, a poll published by the Sunday Times showed, days after the Scottish government set out plans for a referendum on the subject next year.

Last week, Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon announced plans for a second independence referendum to be held in October 2023 and vowed to take legal action if the British government blocks it.

The Panelbase survey showed 48% of respondents were in favor of independence, 47% were opposed and 5% did not know. A previous online Panelbase poll in April had 47% in favor and 49% against.

The latest results were based on a sample size of 1,010 people.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his ruling Conservative Party strongly oppose a referendum, saying the issue was settled in 2014 when Scots voted against independence by 55% to 45%.

Other polls in 2022 vary, with some showing a similar split to the 2014 result, and others showing the gap narrowing.

 

 

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Russia Says Blasts in Russian Border City Kill 3 

Blasts Sunday in a Russian city bordering Ukraine have killed at least three people, Russian officials said.

Dozens of residential buildings were damaged in the explosions in Belgorod. Russian lawmaker Andrei Klishas has called for a military response to the blasts.

“The death of civilians and the destruction of civilian infrastructure in Belgorod,” Klishas posted on Telegram, “are a direct act of aggression on the part of Ukraine and require the most severe — including a military — response.”

Ukrainian officials have traditionally said very little about attacks on Russia.

Meanwhile, the mayor of the occupied Ukraine city of Melitopol, Ivan Fedorov, said on Telegram that Ukraine had hit one of four Russian military bases in the occupied territory.

Heavy fighting raged in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region Saturday as Russian forces increased their bombardment of the city of Lysychansk. Russia is targeting the area as its military looks to push deeper into the industrial region, which has become the focus of its latest offensive since failing to capture Kyiv after its Feb. 24 invasion.

Ukrainian separatists backed by Russia said they had encircled the city.

“Today the Lugansk popular militia and Russian forces occupied the last strategic heights, which allows us to confirm that Lysychansk is completely encircled,” Andrei Marotchko, a representative for the separatist forces, told Tass.

Hours after that statement, the Ukrainian army denied Lysychansk had been surrounded, but said heavy fighting was ongoing on the outskirts of the city.

“Now there are fierce battles near Lysychansk, however, fortunately, the city is not surrounded and is under the control of the Ukrainian army,” Ukraine National Guard representative Ruslan Muzychuk told Ukrainian national television, according to Reuters.

“Definitely they are trying to demoralize us,” a Ukrainian soldier returning from Lysychansk told Reuters. “Maybe some people are affected by that, but for us it only brings more hatred and determination.”

Russian forces seized Lysychansk’s sister city, Sievierodonetsk, last month, after some of the heaviest fighting of the war.

In his nightly television address on Saturday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged Ukrainians to maintain their resolve and inflict losses on the “aggressor … so that every Russian remembers that Ukraine cannot be broken.”

“In many areas from the front, there is a sense of easing up, but the war is not over,” he said. “Unfortunately, it is intensifying in different places, and we mustn’t forget that. We must help the army, the volunteers, help those who are left on their own at this time.”

Along with the Lysychansk and Bakhmut areas, the Kharkiv region is seeing some of the front line’s worst fighting. Four people were killed, and three others were wounded in shelling in Izium and Chuguiv, two districts of the northeastern Kharkiv region, according to Oleg Synegubov, Kharkiv chief of district. Russian rockets also struck residential properties in Sloviansk, killing a woman in her garden and wounding her husband, according to a neighbor who spoke with Agence France-Presse.

In Kharkiv, missiles hit some railway infrastructure, but no casualties were reported. The strike damaged railroad tracks and knocked down high voltage power lines.

“After Russian rockets hit at 4 in the morning, the power grid and three high-voltage lines powering traffic lights and [a] substation are damaged,” Pavlo Svistelnikov, manager of the regional power grid, told Reuters. Russian forces have been pounding the city for over a week, killing civilians and hitting apartment buildings and schools, regional authorities said.

The mayor of the southern region of Mykolaiv, which borders the vital Black Sea port of Odesa, reported powerful explosions in the city.

Russia later said it had hit army command posts in the area, but Reuters could not independently verify that report.

After a missile struck an apartment building in Odesa on Friday, Zelenskyy accused Russia of state terror.

“I emphasize, this is an act of deliberate, purposeful Russian terror and not some kind of mistake or an accidental missile strike,” Zelenskyy said. The death toll in that Odesa strike has risen to 21.

Ukrainian military officials said at least 50 civilians have been killed by Russian rocket and missile attacks this week, including 19 killed Monday in a mall in Kremenchuk.

Zelenskyy’s comments came as Ukrainian authorities released video Saturday of Russian fighter jets bombing Snake Island a day after Russia said it had retreated from the island on humanitarian grounds.

Russia also launched new bus service from Crimea to newly seized cities in the eastern sections of Ukraine.

As the war continues the United States announced details of $820 million in additional military aid for Ukraine, including new surface-to-air missile systems and counter-artillery radar.

The 14th U.S. package of military aid includes two air defense systems, known as NASAMS, which can help Ukrainian forces defend against cruise missiles and aircraft.

The latest aid package is designed to help Ukraine counter Russia’s use of long-range missiles and follows calls by Ukrainian officials for Western countries to send more advanced weapons systems that can better match Moscow’s equipment.

A senior U.S. official said the systems are NATO-standard defense systems and are part of an effort to update Ukraine’s air defenses from a Soviet-era system to a modern one.

Among other things, the latest military aid package provides Ukrainians with medium-range rocket systems the United States provided Ukraine in June.

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

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Report: Dozens of Russian Weapons Tycoons Have Faced No Western Sanctions

As Russia’s military continues to pound Ukraine with missiles and other lethal weapons, Western nations have responded in part by targeting Russia’s defense industry with sanctions. The latest round came on Tuesday, when the United States issued new sanctions on some arms makers and executives at the heart of what it dubbed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “war machine.”

But a Reuters examination of companies, executives and investors underpinning Russia’s defense sector shows a sizable number of players have yet to pay a price: Nearly three dozen leaders of Russian weapons firms and at least 14 defense companies have not been sanctioned by the United States, the European Union or the United Kingdom. In addition, sanctions on Russia’s arms makers and tycoons have been applied inconsistently by these NATO allies, with some governments levying penalties and others not, the Reuters review showed.

Among the weapons moguls who have not been sanctioned by any of those three authorities is Alan Lushnikov, the largest shareholder of Kalashnikov Concern JSC, the original manufacturer of the well-known AK-47 assault rifle. Lushnikov owns a 75% stake in the firm, according to the most recent business records reviewed by Reuters.

The company itself was sanctioned by the United States in 2014, the year Russia invaded and annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. The EU and UK leveled their own sanctions against Kalashnikov Concern this year.

The company accounts for 95% of Russia’s production of machine guns, sniper rifles, pistols and other handheld firearms, and 98% of its handheld military machine guns, according to its website and most recent annual report. Its weapons include the AK-12 assault rifle, an updated version of the AK-47, some of which have been captured from Russian forces by Ukrainian soldiers. The Kalashnikov Concern also produces missiles that can be fired from aircraft or on land.

A former Russian deputy transport minister, Lushnikov once worked for commodities tycoon Gennady Timchenko, a longtime friend of Putin. The United States sanctioned Timchenko in 2014 following Russia’s invasion of Crimea, naming him as a member of the Kremlin’s “inner circle.”

Neither Lushnikov, Timchenko or the Kalashnikov Concern responded to requests for comment.

It’s the same pattern with Almaz-Antey Concern, a Moscow-based defense company specializing in missiles and anti-aircraft systems. The company has been sanctioned by the United States, EU and UK, but CEO Yan Novikov has not been punished.

Almaz-Antey’s website displays the motto “Peaceful Sky is Our Profession.” The company makes Kalibr missiles, which Russia’s Ministry of Defense has credited with destroying Ukrainian military installations. In a statement last month, the ministry said Russia had fired long-range Kalibr missiles at a Ukrainian command post near the village of Shyroka Dacha in eastern Ukraine, killing what the ministry claimed were more than 50 generals and officers of the Ukrainian military.

Reuters was unable to independently verify that claim.

Neither Almaz-Antey nor CEO Novikov responded to requests for comment.

In response to a list of questions submitted by Reuters about Western sanctions aimed at Russia, a Kremlin spokesperson said “the consistency and logic of imposing sanctions, as well as the legality of imposing such restrictions, is a question that should be put directly to the countries that introduced them.”

The Reuters findings come as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said that current Western sanctions against Russia “are not enough” as Russian troops make gains in their assault on Ukraine’s eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk.

The Ukrainian military has been outgunned by Russian artillery in places such as the industrial city of Sievierodonetsk, which it ceded to Russian forces last week after weeks of intense fighting.

Putin has portrayed his military’s assault on Ukraine as a “special military operation” aimed at demilitarizing and “denazifying” its democratic neighbor. On Tuesday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry announced it would bar Jill Biden and Ashley Biden, the wife and daughter of U.S. President Joe Biden, from entering Russia indefinitely in what it said was a response to “constantly expanding U.S. sanctions against Russian politicians and public figures.”

U.S. National Security advisor Jake Sullivan said on Tuesday that Russia’s action was not surprising because “the Russian capacity for these kinds of cynical moves is basically bottomless.”

The Russian invasion has killed thousands of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians, but the exact number is unknown. The United Nations human rights office said, as of Monday, that 4,731 civilians had been killed in Ukraine since Russia’s invasion began on Feb. 24, including more than 300 children, with another 5,900 civilians injured in the conflict. The agency said most of the casualties were caused by the use of “explosive weapons with a wide impact area, including shelling from heavy artillery and multiple launch rocket systems, and missile and air strikes,” and that the actual number of dead and wounded was likely far higher.

The West has levied sanctions on a swath of Russia’s economy to punish Moscow, an effort that so far has done little to deter the Russian offensive. Like the bans on other Russian firms, sanctions on weapons companies are meant to hamper their ability to sell to foreign customers. These penalties limit their access to imported components and generally make it more costly and time-consuming to produce weaponry. Levying sanctions on the people behind those firms goes a step further to make the pain personal. It allows Western nations to go after any mansions, yachts and other offshore wealth of those who supply Russia’s military, and it limits where they can travel abroad.

“You’re demonstrating that being a regime collaborator comes with a cost,” said Max Bergmann, a former State Department official during the Obama administration who worked on U.S. arms transfers and safeguarding U.S. military technology. “They feel it very personally. You’re creating a disgruntled class of people that are tied to the Kremlin,” said Bergmann, now director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based national security think tank.

Ammunition makers unscathed

Other companies in Russia’s defense industry identified by Reuters that have not been sanctioned by the United States, EU or UK include the V.A. Degtyarev PlantZDEGI.MM, a facility 165 miles northeast of Moscow that makes machine guns, anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons that are sold to the Russian military. Its weapons include the Kalashnikov PKM and PKTM machine guns, as well as Kord rifles and machine guns, some of which are mounted on armored vehicles.

The Degtyarev Plant did not respond to a request for comment.

Also not sanctioned is the Klimovsk Specialized Ammunition Plant, south of Moscow, where “world-famous cartridges” for pistols and Kalashnikov assault rifles are produced, according to an archived version of its website. Neither is the Novosibirsk Cartridge Plant, an ammunition manufacturer that calls itself “one of the leading engineering enterprises of the military-industrial complex of Russia.”

Neither ammunition plant responded to requests for comment.

Last month, Reuters sought comments from sanctions officials in the UK, EU and United States regarding the news agency’s findings that they had failed to punish a raft of Russian defense firms and tycoons fueling Putin’s war effort. As part of that process, Reuters provided those Western authorities with a detailed list of more than 20 companies and more than three-dozen people that had escaped sanctions.

The UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, which levies sanctions for Britain, said it could not comment on future sanctions. It added that London and its allies had levied “the largest and most severe economic sanctions that Russia has ever faced, to help cripple Putin’s war machine.” The European Commission and the U.S. Treasury Department, which handle sanctions for Brussels and Washington respectively, declined to comment on the specifics of Reuters’ findings. Elizabeth Rosenberg, assistant secretary for terrorist financing and financial crimes at the Treasury Department, said in a statement that sanctions have “made it harder for Russia to obtain what it needs to procure and produce weapons.”

On Tuesday, in conjunction with a meeting of leaders of the G7 nations in the German Alps, the Treasury Department released a new round of defense-related sanctions that included eight of the weapons firms and two of the executives on the list provided earlier by Reuters.

One of those newly sanctioned executives, Vladimir Artyakov, has played key roles in Russia’s weapons industry for decades, and serves as the No. 2 executive at Rostec, a military-industrial giant with hundreds of subsidiaries employing more than half a million people, according to its website and annual reports. Artyakov is also the chairman of at least five Russian weapons firms, among them Russian Helicopters JSC, which builds several lines of military helicopters including the Ka-52 “Alligator,” some of which have been shot down and documented in Ukraine.

He has not been sanctioned by the EU or UK.

Artyakov and Russian Helicopters did not respond to requests for comment.

Rostec has been sanctioned by Washington since 2014. On Tuesday the United States targeted the company again, levying sanctions on more than 40 Rostec subsidiaries and affiliates. Among those hit was Avtomatika Concern, a company linked to cyber warfare. It was on the list of Russian defense firms that Reuters had submitted to the Treasury Department last month seeking an explanation as to why the companies had not been sanctioned.

Rostec and Avtomatika Concern did not respond to requests for comment.

Other firms on Reuters’ list that were sanctioned just this week by the Treasury Department include PJSC Tupolev, a maker of fighter jets such as the Tu-22M3 bomber. The Ukrainian military said Tu-22M3 bombers were responsible for a missile strike at a crowded shopping center in the central Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk on Monday, which killed at least 18 people and injured about 60.

PJSC Tupolev and another firm on Reuters’ list, JSC VNII Signal, have not been sanctioned by the EU or UK. JSC VNII Signal is a producer of mechanical and navigational systems that power Russian military tanks and some of the country’s most advanced missile systems.

PJSC Tupolev and JSC VNII Signal did not respond to requests for comment.

Top brass untouched

Executives at a host of Russian weapons firms, meanwhile, have largely escaped sanctions from Western authorities.

Nearly three months after a Tochka-U ballistic missile hit a train station in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk on April 8, Russian weapons executives linked to the company that makes those missiles have yet to pay a price. The strike killed more than 50 people, including children, and injured more than 100 others.

The Russian firm JSC Research and Production Corporation Konstruktorskoye Byuro Mashynostroyeniya, known as KBM, has been the primary manufacturer of Tochka-U missiles, according to a U.S. Army database of worldwide military equipment. Neither Washington, Brussels or London have sanctioned Sergey Pitikov, KBM’s chief executive.

The three Western allies have likewise spared Alexander Denisov, the CEO of NPO High Precision Systems, KBM’s parent company. High Precision Systems oversees production of a wide range of missiles, artillery, grenade launchers and machine guns used by Russian troops and outfitted on military helicopters, aircraft, tanks and warships.

Sanctions on Russia’s arms companies and tycoons have been applied inconsistently by the Western allies. The United States and EU have sanctioned High Precision Systems, for example, while the UK has not. The United States has sanctioned KBM, but the EU and UK have not.

High Precision Systems, Pitikov and Denisov did not respond to requests for comment. KBM confirmed that Pitikov is its chief executive, but did not respond to additional questions submitted by Reuters.

Europe and the United States have failed to coordinate sanctions even on makers of banned weapons.

Since the outset of Russia’s invasion in late February, Western governments and human rights groups have decried its use of cluster munitions: small bombs delivered by missiles or rockets, which scatter and explode over an area as large as a city block. A 2008 international treaty bans their use or production under any circumstances because of the devastating effects on civilians.

Russia used a Uragan – which translates to “Hurricane” – rocket launcher system to fire cluster bombs in Kharkiv on March 24, killing eight civilians and injuring 15 others, according to the U.N. human rights office and Ukrainian officials.

The Uragan is made by JSC Scientific and Production Association Splav, a Russian firm whose systems have been sold abroad to countries including India. The company has been sanctioned by the United States, but not by the UK or EU. Its CEO, Alexander Smirnov, has escaped sanctions altogether.

Splav and Smirnov did not respond to requests for comment.

It’s much the same for Splav’s parent company, NPK Techmash. The United States and the EU have sanctioned the firm, but the UK has not. Techmash CEO Alexander Kochkin has not been targeted by American or European authorities.

Techmash and Kochkin did not respond to requests for comment.

In a June 10 statement, the European Commission said there is an effort to align sanctions lists “as much as legally possible” among allies to achieve “the maximum cumulative effect of the sanctions with all our like-minded partners.” In cases where the lists do not align, the Commission statement said, people and companies not currently on the EU’s sanctions list could be added later if there is sufficient evidence.

“Nothing is off the table,” the statement said.

Western connections

One of the highest-profile Russian firms to escape Western sanctions is VSMPO-Avisma CorpVSMO.MM, which is the world’s largest titanium supplier and 25% owned by Rostec. It supplies Russia’s defense industry, but also counts major Western aerospace companies among its clients.

Based in Verkhnyaya Salda, in central Russia, VSMPO-Avisma has subsidiaries with facilities in the United States, Switzerland and the UK, as well as sales and distribution staff in the United States, Europe and Asia, according to its website and annual reports. That’s no doubt a factor that has allowed the company to escape punishment, according to three sanctions and Russian defense experts who spoke with Reuters.

VSMPO-Avisma’s vice chairman and majority shareholder, Russian billionaire Mikhail Shelkov, ranked by Forbes this year as Russia’s 59th-richest person, likewise has not been sanctioned.

According to past press releases, VSMPO-Avisma has long-term contracts to supply titanium to United Aircraft Corp, a Rostec subsidiary that oversees production of Russian fighter jets such as the Su-34 that have been shot down in Ukraine. United Aircraft has been sanctioned by the United States, EU and UK.

VSMPO-Avisma also sells to Europe’s AirbusAIR.PA, and it supplied U.S. aerospace behemoth Boeing CoBA.N up until March, when the Arlington, Virginia-based company said it stopped purchasing titanium from Russia. Boeing had announced just months earlier, in November 2021, that VSMPO-Avisma would be its largest titanium supplier “for current and future Boeing commercial airplanes.”

VSMPO-Avisma and shareholder Shelkov declined to comment. Boeing said in a statement that it has worked since 2014 to diversify its sources of titanium around the world, and that its current inventory and sources “provide sufficient supply for airplane production.”

Airbus did not answer specific questions about its relationship with VSMPO-Avisma. But in an emailed statement it said potential sanctions on Russian titanium “would massively damage the entire aerospace industry in Europe” while doing little to harm Russia because those sales are but a small portion of that nation’s overall exports.

In 2020, foreign sales accounted for about two-thirds of VSMPO-Avisma’s $1.25 billion in revenue, according to the company’s most recent annual report.

That puts Western officials in a tough spot, said Richard Connolly, director of Eastern Advisory Group, a UK consultancy that advises governments and businesses on the Russian economy and its defense industry. Slapping sanctions on VSMPO-Avisma would curtail its lucrative export trade, but it would also force major players in global aviation to switch suppliers or risk sanctions themselves.

“That’s the classic sanctions conundrum: If you want to hurt somebody, you’re going to hurt yourself,” Connolly said.

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Norwegian Anti-Islam Extremist in Car Crash After Burning Quran

The leader of an extremist Norwegian anti-Islamic group was in a spectacular car chase and collision Saturday, minutes after burning a Quran on the outskirts of Oslo.

Norwegian police said they arrested two people, including the driver of a car accused of deliberately ramming the SUV of Lars Thorsen, leader of the radical group “Stop the Islamization of Norway” (SIAN).

The five passengers in the SUV were slightly injured, with one requiring hospital treatment, police said.

A video posted on Facebook showed Thorsen and other activists first drove to Mortensrud, a suburb of Oslo with a large Muslim community.

The handful of activists then placed a burning Quran in the middle of a small intersection, initially managing to push back local people who tried to put out the flames.

An angry crowd gathered, including one woman who grabbed the charred book before climbing into a gray Mercedes.

The SUV of the anti-Islam activists, painted in camouflage livery, then left the scene. But seconds later, it was overtaken by the Mercedes, which first hit it lightly and eventually hit it at speed, overturning the vehicle.

The whole episode was filmed by someone following the car.

The incident came a week after a gunman killed two people and wounded 21 others in central Oslo.

Norway’s domestic intelligence service has described the attack as “an act of Islamist terrorism.”

Scandinavian far-right anti-Islam activists have made a specialty of burning Qurans in neighborhoods with large Muslim populations in recent years.

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London Pride Parade Marks 50 Years, Looks Back on Progress

London Saturday celebrated the 50th anniversary of its first Pride parade, marking half a century of progress in the fight for equality and tolerance but with warnings that more still needs to be done. 

Several hundred people took part in the first march July 1, 1972, just five years after homosexuality was decriminalized in the U.K. 

Fifty years on, more than 600 LGBTQ+ groups danced, sang and rode floats along a similar route to the original protest, in the first Pride since the coronavirus pandemic, watched by huge cheering crowds. 

London Mayor Sadiq Khan told reporters the event, which organizers said was the “biggest and most inclusive” in its history, was a celebration of community, unity and progress. 

But he said it was also a reminder of the need to “campaign and never be complacent” and the need for “an open, inclusive, accepting world.” 

“We saw this time last week an attack in Oslo just hours before that parade, where two people lost their lives and more than 20 were injured,” he said. 

“So, we’ve got to be conscious of the fact that there’s still a danger to this community of discrimination, bias and violence.” 

Khan’s predecessor as mayor, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, said it gave him “the greatest pride to lead a country where you can love whomever you choose to love and where you can be free to be whoever you want to be.” 

The 50th anniversary was a “milestone,” he said, paying tribute to the bravery of those who did it first. 

Peter Tatchell, a veteran gay rights campaigner who took part in the 1972 march, said some from the original event have boycotted the modern-day sponsored version as “depoliticized and commercialized.” 

Campaigning 

In 1972, “Gay Pride,” as it was then known, was a demand for visibility and equality against a backdrop of lingering prejudice, discrimination and fear among many gay men and women about coming out. 

In the 1980s, Pride became a focal point for campaigning against legislation by prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government against the “promotion of homosexuality” in schools. 

It also helped to raise awareness and support for people with HIV/Aids. 

Now, with the rainbow flag of inclusion and tolerance spread ever more widely over the spectrum of human sexuality and gender, Pride in London is more celebration than protest. 

Tatchell said that despite victories such as same-sex marriage, “we are still fighting to ban LGBT+ conversion practices which seek to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.” 

“We’re still fighting to secure trans people’s right to change their legal documents with ease by a simple statutory declaration. And of course, we are standing in solidarity with a global LGBT+ movement,” he told AFP. 

Julian Hows, now 67, was at the first march. He said, “progress is always incremental,” criticizing curbs on LGBTQ+ rights around the world. 

“We have to be vigilant. The price of liberation and to keeping people’s human rights intact is vigilance,” he added. 

 

Visibility 

Padraigin Ni Raghillig, president of Dykes on Bikes London, a motorcycle club for gay women, said the event retained part of its original campaigning spirit. 

“It’s still important, I think, to at least once a year to be out and about, and to say, ‘we’re here, we’re queer, and we’re not going shopping,'” said Ni Raghillig, astride a Harley Davidson. 

Among those marching was a contingent from Ukraine, who criticized homophobia in Russia.  

This year’s Pride saw warnings for people with monkeypox symptoms to stay away, after public health officials said many cases in the U.K. were reported among gay and bisexual men. 

LGBTQ+ campaign group Stonewall said everyone had a part to play to stop the spread of monkeypox, which is passed through close contact regardless of sexual orientation.  

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Foreign Firefighters Arrive in Greece for Summer Wildfire Season

Several dozen Romanian and Bulgarian firefighters took up their posts in Greece on Saturday, the first members of a European force being deployed to the country to provide backup in case of major wildfires during the summer.  

More than 200 firefighters and equipment from Bulgaria, France, Germany, Romania, Norway and Finland will be on standby during the hottest months of July and August in Greece, where a spate of wildfires caused devastation last summer. A group of 28 Romanian firefighters with eight vehicles, and 16 firefighters from Bulgaria with four vehicles, were the first to arrive for the two-month mission, financed and coordinated  under the European Union’s civil protection mechanism.

“We thank you very much for coming to help us during a difficult summer for our country, and for proving that European solidarity is not just theoretical, it’s real,” Greek Civil Protection Minister Christos Stylianides said Saturday as he welcomed the members of the Romanian mission in Athens.

“When things get tough, you will be side by side with our Greek firefighters so we can save lives and property.”

The Bulgarian firefighters have been stationed in Larissa, in central Greece.

Last summer’s wildfires ravaged about 121,000 hectares of forest and bushland in different parts of Greece as the country experienced its worst heatwave in 30 years.

Following sharp criticism of its response to the fires, the Greek government set up a new civil protection ministry and promised to boost firefighting capacities.

In Greece’s worst wildfire disaster, 102 people were killed when a blaze tore through the seaside town of Mati and nearby areas close to Athens during the summer of 2018.

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US Announces $820 Million Military Aid Package for Ukraine

The United States announced details Friday of $820 million in additional military aid for Ukraine, including new surface-to-air missile systems and counter-artillery radar.

The latest aid package is designed to help Ukraine counter Russia’s use of long-range missiles and follows calls by Ukrainian officials for Western countries to send more advanced weapons systems that can better match Moscow’s equipment.

The Pentagon said Friday the Biden administration has now sent $7.6 billion in security assistance to Ukraine, including nearly $7 billion since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at the end of February.

U.S. President Joe Biden said at a news conference during this week’s NATO summit in Madrid that the United States is “going to support Ukraine as long as it takes.”

The 14th U.S. package of military aid for Ukraine include two air defense systems, known as NASAMS, which can help Ukrainian forces defend against cruise missiles and aircraft.

A senior U.S. official said the systems are NATO-standard defense systems and are part of an effort to update Ukraine’s air defenses from a Soviet-era system to a modern one.

“The Ukrainians are doing a magnificent job of employing their existing air defense systems, but we all know that Soviet-type systems means that it’s Russian made … so over time it will be harder to sustain with the spare parts,” the official said.

The latest military aid package also provides Ukrainians with up to 150,000 rounds of 155-millimeter artillery ammunition as well as additional ammunition for medium-range rocket systems the United States provided Ukraine in June.

On the battlefront Friday, at least 21 people were killed and dozens injured in Russian missile strikes in Ukraine’s Odesa region. At least one of the sites that were hit was a residential building. Ukrainian military officials said two children were among the dead, and the search for survivors is ongoing.

The missile struck the nine-story building in the town of Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi, according to a Ukraine Defense Ministry statement.

Serhiy Bratchuk, spokesperson for the Odesa regional administration, said on Ukrainian state television that a rescue operation continues to free people buried under the rubble after a section of the building collapsed.  Another missile hit a resort facility, Bratchuk said, wounding several people.

Russia has denied targeting civilians in the attack.

“I would like to remind you of the president’s words that the Russian Armed Forces do not work with civilian targets,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s chief of staff accused Russia of waging a war on civilians.

In his nightly video address Friday, Zelenskyy called the strikes “conscious, deliberately targeted Russian terror and not some sort of error or a coincidental missile strike.”

Friday’s missile attack in Odesa came hours after Russia said it had pulled its forces from Ukraine’s Snake Island on Thursday. The strategic island had become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance since Moscow’s invasion four months ago.

Russia had used the Black Sea island near Odesa as a staging ground after seizing it in the early stages of the war, launching attacks on Ukraine from it and monitoring shipments from Ukrainian ports.

Ukraine confirmed Russian forces had pulled out after Ukrainian forces hit the island with missile and artillery strikes overnight, leaving the remaining Russian forces to escape in two speedboats.

The Russian Defense Ministry claimed it had left the small island “as a symbol of goodwill” after completing its mission there.

A senior U.S. official said the United States does “not believe there is any credence to what Russia is saying, that this is a gesture of goodwill.” The official said the retreat was more about Ukraine’s efforts to defend the island and Kyiv’s use of weapons like harpoon missiles.

“The Ukrainians made it very hard for the Russians to sustain their operations there, made them very vulnerable to Ukrainian strikes,” the official said.

In other developments, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told Ukraine’s parliament that EU membership was “within reach” but urged them to press forward with anti-corruption reforms.

“You have created an impressive anti-corruption machine,” she told the lawmakers by video link Friday. Von der Leyen stressed that Brussels and the EU member states were firmly behind Ukraine in both its battle with the ongoing Russian invasion and the quest to be “reunited with our European family.”

For his part Zelenskyy said Ukraine and the European Union were starting a new chapter of their history after Brussels formally accepted Ukraine’s candidacy to join the 27-nation bloc.

“We made a journey of 115 days to candidate status and our journey to membership shouldn’t take decades. We should make it down this road quickly,” Zelenskyy said.

At the NATO meeting in Madrid, Western leaders, including Biden, proclaimed their continued military and humanitarian support for Ukraine.

Norway announced $1 billion in aid to Ukraine over two years, as Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Store visited the country.

The fund is for “humanitarian aid, reconstruction of the country, weapons and operational support to the (Ukrainian) authorities,” the Norwegian government said in a statement Friday.

“We stand together with the Ukrainian people,” Store said in the statement.

“We help support the Ukrainians’ struggle for freedom. They are fighting for their country, but also for our democratic values.”

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

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Monkeypox Cases Triple in Europe, WHO Says; Africa Concerned

The World Health Organization’s Europe chief warned Friday that monkeypox cases in the region have tripled in the past two weeks and urged countries to do more to ensure the previously rare disease does not become entrenched on the continent.

And African health authorities said they are treating the expanding monkeypox outbreak as an emergency, calling on rich countries to share limited supplies of vaccines to avoid equity problems seen during the COVID-19 pandemic.

WHO Europe chief Dr. Hans Kluge said in a statement that increased efforts were needed despite the U.N. health agency’s decision last week that the escalating outbreak did not yet warrant being declared a global health emergency.

“Urgent and coordinated action is imperative if we are to turn a corner in the race to reverse the ongoing spread of this disease,” Kluge said.

To date, more than 5,000 monkeypox cases have been reported from 51 countries worldwide that don’t normally report the disease, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Kluge said the number of infections in Europe represents about 90% of the global total, with 31 countries in the WHO’s European region having identified cases.

Kluge said data reported to the WHO show that 99% of cases have been in men — the majority in men who have sex with men. But he said there were now “small numbers” of cases among household contacts, including children. Most people reported symptoms including a rash, fever, fatigue, muscle pain, vomiting and chills.

Scientists warn that anyone who is in close physical contact with someone who has monkeypox or their clothing or bedsheets is at risk of infection. Vulnerable populations such as children and pregnant women are thought more likely to suffer severe disease.

About 10% of patients were hospitalized for treatment or to be isolated, and one person was admitted to an intensive care unit. No deaths have been reported.

Kluge said the problem of stigmatization in some countries might make some people wary of seeking health care and said the WHO was working with partners including organizers of gay pride events.

In the U.K., which has the biggest monkeypox outbreak beyond Africa, officials have noted the disease is spreading in “defined sexual networks of gay, bisexual, or men who have sex with men.” British health authorities said there were no signs suggesting sustained transmission beyond those populations.

A leading WHO adviser said in May that the spike in cases in Europe was likely tied to sexual activity by men at two rave parties in Spain and Belgium.

Ahead of gay pride events in the U.K. this weekend, London’s top public health doctor asked people with symptoms of monkeypox, like swollen glands or blisters, to stay home.

Nevertheless, in Africa the WHO says that according to detailed data from Ghana monkeypox cases were almost evenly split between men and women, and no spread has been detected among men who have sex with men.

WHO Europe director Kluge also said the procurement of vaccines “must apply the principles of equity.”

The main vaccine being used against monkeypox was originally developed for smallpox and the European Medicines Agency said this week it was beginning to evaluate whether it should be authorized for monkeypox. The WHO has said supplies of the vaccine, made by Bavarian Nordic, are extremely limited.

Countries including the U.K. and Germany have already begun vaccinating people at high risk of monkeypox; the U.K. recently widened its immunization program to mostly gay and bisexual men who have multiple sexual partners and are thought to be most vulnerable.

Until May, monkeypox had never been known to cause large outbreaks beyond parts of central and west Africa, where it’s been sickening people for decades, is endemic in several countries and mostly causes limited outbreaks when it jumps to people from infected wild animals.

To date, there have been about 1,800 suspected monkeypox cases in Africa, including more than 70 deaths, but only 109 have been lab-confirmed. The lack of laboratory diagnosis and weak surveillance means many cases are going undetected.

“This particular outbreak for us means an emergency,” said Ahmed Ogwell, the acting director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control.

The WHO says monkeypox has spread to African countries where it hasn’t previously been seen, including South Africa, Ghana and Morocco. But more than 90% of the continent’s infections are in Congo and Nigeria, according to WHO Africa director, Dr. Moeti Matshidiso.

Vaccines have never been used to stop monkeypox outbreaks in Africa; officials have relied mostly on contact tracing and isolation.

The WHO noted that similar to the scramble last year for COVID-19 vaccines, countries with supplies of vaccines for monkeypox are not yet sharing them with Africa.

“We do not have any donations that have been offered to (poorer) countries,” said Fiona Braka, who heads the WHO emergency response team in Africa. “We know that those countries that have some stocks, they are mainly reserving them for their own populations.”

Matshidiso said the WHO was in talks with manufacturers and countries with stockpiles to see if they might be shared.

“We would like to see the global spotlight on monkeypox act as a catalyst to beat this disease once and for all in Africa,” she said Thursday.

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