Category Archives: World

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Train Gunman Tells French Court His Target Was Only US Soldiers

The gunman charged over a foiled 2015 train attack told a French court Wednesday that he had targeted only American soldiers, after refusing instructions from an Islamic State ringleader to kill members of the European Commission he was falsely told were in the train car.Ayoub El Khazzani, who had been armed with an arsenal of weapons including a Kalashnikov assault rifle, said the attack on the fast train from Amsterdam to Paris was planned as an act of vengeance for bombings of civilians in Syria, which he saw during a brief stay there.The monthlong trial for attempted terrorist murder opened Nov. 16. El Khazzani risks life in prison if convicted. Three accomplices, who were not on the train, sat beside him in the heavily guarded Paris courtroom.El Khazzani, a Moroccan, wounded a French-American who managed to briefly yank the Kalashnikov from his hands before the three vacationing Americans — who were long-time friends — took him down. Two of the three men were in the military but wearing civilian clothes.The Aug. 21, 2015, attack was allegedly planned by terrorist mastermind Abdelhamid Abaaoud with whom he traveled back to Europe. Abaaoud was killed by French special forces shortly after the Nov. 13 Paris massacre at a music hall and restaurants that left 130 people dead, just months after the foiled train attack.Abaaoud was thought to be the coordinator of the November attacks and was portrayed in court as the man behind the plot to carry out an attack on the train. One passenger, Mark Moogalian, who wrenched the Kalashnikov from the attacker as he emerged from a toilet, was injured in the back. El Khazzani told the court he had only meant to shoot him in the hand.The drama on the train is portrayed by investigators as one of a series of IS-linked attacks in Europe.”He put hate in my heart,” El Khazzani said of Abaaoud.He said Abaaoud told him there were to be members of the European Commission in car 12 and three to five American soldiers.The defendant could not explain how he was expected to recognize them or other targets. There were no known European officials in the first-class car. He said that in any event “I changed my mind” about killing anyone else on his mission. Asked whether he had repented, he said yes.

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Diego Maradona’s Career Had Its Share of Highs, Lows

Diego Maradona was football’s archetypal troubled genius, a world-beating player whose life and career scaled the most dazzling heights but also plumbed the darkest depths. Maradona, who died Wednesday at the age of 60, became a global icon after leading Argentina to the 1986 World Cup, but he was not a squeaky-clean idol like Pele, and made little attempt to hide his fiery personality and many vices. “I am black or white, I’ll never be gray in my life,” he once said. Maradona was short, powerful and quick. He was also a ferocious and astute competitor who refused to be intimidated even though many opponents tried. Above all, he was sublimely and imaginatively skillful. “No ball ever had a better experience than when it was at his left foot,” said his Argentina teammate Jorge Valdano. Fans of Argentine soccer great Diego Maradona wave an Argentina flag as they gather to mourn his death, at the Obelisk of Buenos Aires, Argentina, Nov. 25, 2020.However, while Maradona is remembered for his masterly composure on the ball, he was also famous for his frequent lack of control both on the field and off. He struggled with addiction, notably to cocaine, and with his weight. Diego Armando Maradona was born on Oct. 30, 1960, in Lanus, just outside Buenos Aires, and grew up in one of the poorest areas of the Argentine capital. He made his debut for Argentinos Juniors just before his 16th birthday and his debut for Argentina at age 16 in February 1977. His career is defined by the World Cup, the four he played in and the one he missed. “I have two dreams,” Maradona told Argentine television at the age of 17. “My first dream is to play in the World Cup. And the second dream is to win it.” Manager Cesar Luis Menotti omitted “El Pibe de Oro” (the golden kid) from his squad in 1978. Argentina, the hosts, went on to win the competition for the first time. The following year, under Menotti, Maradona led Argentina to victory in the under-20 World Cup in Japan, winning the Golden Ball for the tournament’s best player. His senior World Cup debut in 1982 in Spain went badly. Maradona was treated brutally by defenders and ended his tournament with a red card for retaliation as Argentina, already eliminated, lost to Brazil. ‘Hand of God’ He atoned four years later, propelling his country to victory in Mexico and making the tournament his own.    In the final, Maradona set up the 86th-minute winner against West Germany. He scored twice in the semi-final against Belgium, beating four defenders for the second. FILE – Argentina’s Diego Maradona scores against England in the quarter final of the FIFA World Cup, Azteca Stadium, Mexico City, June 22, 1986. (Action Images via Reuters)But the match that defined his tournament, and possibly his international career, was the 2-1 quarter-final win over England, in which he scored two goals that will be remembered forever – for very different reasons. In the 51st minute, as Peter Shilton reached to catch the ball, Maradona, some seven inches shorter, jumped alongside him and with a deftness that fooled the eye, flicked the ball through the England goalkeeper’s arms and into the net. After the game, Maradona said he scored “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God.” Four minutes later, Maradona picked up the ball in his own half, beat six England players, including Shilton, before squeezing home. FIFA later named it the “Goal of the Century.” In 1990 in Italy, almost immobile because of an injury to his much-kicked left ankle, Maradona steered a defensive and limited Argentine team back to the final even though they won just two games and scored only five goals. In a dire final, it took Andreas Brehme’s 85th-minute penalty for West Germany to this time get the better of Maradona.  Four years later in the United States, Maradona seemed restored to health. He scored against Greece and celebrated by racing to scream into a TV camera, a disturbing mixture of joy, relief and rage. But he ended his last World Cup like his first, prematurely. After Argentina beat Nigeria in their second group game, Maradona failed a test for ephedrine and was thrown out of the tournament. A similar pattern of wild highs and lows marked Maradona’s club career. A fan reacts while mourning the death of soccer legend Diego Armando Maradona, outside the Diego Armando Maradona stadium, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Nov. 25, 2020.Maradona moved to the club he supported, Boca Juniors, in 1981 and won his sole Argentine league title the following season. He left for Barcelona for a world record fee in 1982. He won the Copa Del Rey in his first season, but the club finished only fourth in the league. He missed much of the following campaign after Athletic Bilbao’s Andoni Goikoetxea broke his ankle, and when Barca lost to Bilbao in that year’s cup final, Maradona started a spectacular mass brawl, flooring four opponents. Facing a ban in Spain, Maradona moved to Napoli, becoming the first player to break the world transfer record twice. His dazzling play transformed a club from a poor, much-mocked city and led them to their only two Serie A titles. In a whirlwind seven years he fathered an illegitimate child, made friends with the local mafia and enemies of the tax collectors. He also fell deep into cocaine addiction. His tempestuous time in Italy effectively ended in April 1991 when he tested positive for cocaine and was banned for 15 months. He wound down his playing career with one season at Sevilla, one at Newell’s Old Boys and two at his beloved Boca. Player of the Century Over the next two and a half decades he had six short and unsuccessful stints managing clubs in Argentina, the United Arab Emirates and Mexico, and also two fiery years as Argentina coach, 2008-10. Even though Argentina suffered a record 6-1 defeat by humble Bolivia in qualifying, and Maradona was banned for two months at the end of 2009 for an obscene tirade at journalists, he still led the team to the World Cup in South Africa where they won their group before being thrashed 4-0 by Germany in the quarter-finals. All the while, Maradona’s off-field problems continued. He went into drug rehab on several occasions. When he quit cocaine, he binged instead on drink, cigars and food and ended up in hospital in 2007.  He was a strident supporter of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, whose image he had tattooed on his leg, and Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez. FILE – Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona, then in Cuba undergoing rehabilitation for cocaine abuse, shows Cuban President Fidel Castro a tattoo on his leg, inside Revolution Palace in Havana, Oct. 29, 2001.In 2000, FIFA ran an online Player of the Century poll. Maradona received 54% of the vote, Pele was second with 18%. FIFA declared them joint winners. Maradona married his longtime girlfriend, Claudia Villafane, in 1984. They had two daughters, Dalma and Gianinna, and divorced in 2004. He also had a son, Diego Junior, born in Naples in 1986, although he only acknowledged paternity in 2004. 
  

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Iran Swaps Jailed British-Australian Academic for 3 Iranians Held Abroad

Iran has released a British-Australian academic who had been detained in Iran in exchange for three Iranians who were held in another country, according to Iranian state TV. Kylie Moore-Gilbert, a University of Melbourne lecturer on Middle Eastern studies when she was detained, was sent to a Tehran prison more than two years ago after receiving a 10-year sentence for espionage.  She is among several people from Western countries who were detained in recent years in Iran on espionage charges that rights groups and their families maintain are groundless. State TV has described the detained Iranians as “economic activists,” while a state TV-affiliated website described them as a businessman and two citizens who were detained “on baseless charges.” The Young Journalist Club news website provided little information about the Iranians, but it reported they were held for trying to avoid U.S. sanctions that were imposed on Iran two years ago when the U.S. withdrew from the Iran nuclear agreement.  Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have arrested dozens of dual nationals in recent years, primarily on espionage charges. Rights activists contend that Tehran has detained dual nationals to secure concessions from other countries. Iran has denied holding people for political reasons and accused many of the detainees of espionage. The British government did not immediately comment on Moore-Gilbert’s release. 
 

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Football Legend Diego Maradona Dead at 60 

Argentina’s Diego Maradona, one of the greatest football (soccer) players of all time, has died at the age of 60. The attacking midfielder died of a cardiorespiratory issue, according to reports in the Argentine press.  The legend underwent what was described as successful surgery to remove a blood clot from his brain earlier this month, according to the BBC. Maradona had long battled alcohol and drug addiction. In 1986, Maradona, who came from humble roots, led the Argentine side to a World Cup title in Mexico.During the tournament, he scored what many consider one of the all-time greatest goals against England when he sliced through the English defense. In that same game, he scored the controversial “hand of God” goal when he got away with what appeared to be a handball leading to a score. In 1990, he led his team to the final, but lost to West Germany. He was set to captain the Argentine team in the 1994 World Cup, but failed drug tests. Playing for his home country, he scored 34 goals in 91 appearances. He appeared in four World Cups. During the peak of his club career, he played for European powerhouses Barcelona and Napoli, during which he helped the Italian side win two Serie A titles. Maradona retired from professional soccer in 1997 after a stint with Argentine club team Boca Juniors. In 2008, he was named head coach of the Argentine national team but left after the team was beaten in the quarter finals by Germany in the 2010 World Cup.  

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NGOs, Journalists Concerned French Bill Would Restrict Liberties

A controversial security bill that is drawing protests from journalists and rights groups has cleared the lower chamber of France’s National Assembly.The so-called Global Security bill has sparked street protests and drawn angry criticism from media and rights groups that accuse the government of Emmanuel Macron of pushing illiberal measures akin to those of less developed democracies.   The law aims to improve regulations for the use of drones and dash cams by security forces. It also creates new rules for private security companies and new prerogatives for local police. But to some human rights activists, parts of the text are concerning.   Nicolas Krameyer, Amnesty International’s France program manager, said it is concerning that the bill would enable vast surveillance against citizens, with police officers equipped with dash cams and the use of drones to monitor civilians during protests.  FILE – Masked protesters attend a demonstration as French parliament begins to discuss a proposed law that would make it a crime in some circumstances to circulate an image of a police officer’s face, in Nantes, France, Nov. 17, 2020.NGOs, including the press freedom group Reporters Without Borders, expressed concerns about the bill, especially Article 24, which would make it a criminal offense for anyone to disseminate images that — according to the text — might “harm the physical or mental integrity” of police officers. Those found guilty could be punished by a year in prison or a fine of up to $53,000. In a rare rebuke, the European Commission declared earlier this week that news media must be able to work freely.  France’s Prime Minister Jean Castex discussed those concerns in a speech to French lawmakers this week. Castex said the intent was not to restrain freedom of the press and freedom of expression, and no one would be prevented from shooting and sharing videos involving policemen. Article 24, Castex said, is meant to protect security forces.  French media professionals remain skeptical about the bill, which many of them believe could prevent them from reporting cases of police abuse.  Krameyer said that with this law, contrary to what the government says, any journalist and citizen would be in trouble if they report, shoot and share videos involving the police. He said he fears the law opens the door for arbitrary procedures by security forces. The French Senate will vote on the Global Security bill in January. Castex has promised to ask France’s high court to review — and possibly strike down — the bill.  
 

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Duchess of Sussex Reveals She Had Miscarriage During Summer

The Duchess of Sussex has revealed that she had a miscarriage in July, giving a personal account of the traumatic experience in hope of helping others.
Meghan described the miscarriage in an opinion piece in the New York Times on Wednesday, writing that “I knew, as I clutched my firstborn child, that I was losing my second.”
The former Meghan Markle and husband Prince Harry have an 18-month-old son, Archie.
The duchess, 39, said she was sharing her story to help break the silence around an all-too-common tragedy. Britain’s National Health Service says about one in eight pregnancies in which a woman is aware she is pregnant ends in miscarriage.
“Losing a child means carrying an almost unbearable grief, experienced by many but talked about by few,” Meghan wrote.
“In being invited to share our pain, together we take the first steps toward healing.”
In a startlingly intimate account of her experience, the duchess described how tragedy struck on a “morning that began as ordinarily as any other day: Make breakfast. Feed the dogs. Take vitamins. Find that missing sock. Pick up the rogue crayon that rolled under the table. Throw my hair in a ponytail before getting my son from his crib.
“After changing his diaper, I felt a sharp cramp. I dropped to the floor with him in my arms, humming a lullaby to keep us both calm, the cheerful tune a stark contrast to my sense that something was not right.”
Later, she said, she “lay in a hospital bed, holding my husband’s hand. I felt the clamminess of his palm and kissed his knuckles, wet from both our tears. Staring at the cold white walls, my eyes glazed over. I tried to imagine how we’d heal.”
Sophie King, a midwife at U.K. child-loss charity Tommy’s, said miscarriage and stillbirth remained “a real taboo in society, so mothers like Meghan sharing their stories is a vital step in breaking down that stigma and shame.”
“Her honesty and openness today send a powerful message to anyone who loses a baby: this may feel incredibly lonely, but you are not alone,” King said.  
Meghan, an American actress and star of TV legal drama “Suits,” married Harry, a grandson of Queen Elizabeth II, in a lavish ceremony at Windsor Castle in May 2018. Their son was born the following year.
Early this year, the couple announced they were quitting royal duties and moving to North America, citing what they said was the unbearable intrusions and racist attitudes of the British media. They recently bought a house in Santa Barbara, California.
The duchess is currently suing the publisher of Britain’s Mail on Sunday newspaper for invasion of privacy over articles that published parts of a letter she wrote to her estranged father after her wedding.
Last month a judge in London agreed to Meghan’s request to postpone the trial from January until fall 2021. The decision followed a hearing held in private, and the judge said the reason for the delay request should be kept confidential.

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Scotland First in the World to Make Sanitary Products Free

Scotland on Tuesday made sanitary products free to all women, becoming the first nation in the world to take such a step against “period poverty.”   The measure makes tampons and sanitary pads available at designated public places such as community centers, youth clubs and pharmacies, at an estimated annual cost to taxpayers of $32 million U.S. The Period Products (Free Provision) Scotland Bill passed unanimously, and First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon called it “an important policy for women and girls.”   “Proud to vote for this groundbreaking legislation, making Scotland the first country in the world to provide free period products for all who need them,” Sturgeon posted on Twitter. During the debate, the bill’s proposer, Scottish Labour MP Monica Lennon, said: “No one should have to worry about where their next tampon, pad or reusable is coming from.   “Scotland will not be the last country to consign period poverty to history, but we have the chance to be the first,” she said.   In 2018, Scotland became the first country to provide free sanitary products in schools, colleges and universities. Some 10% of girls in Britain have been unable to afford sanitary products, according to a survey by the children’s charity Plan International in 2017, with campaigners warning many skip classes as a consequence.   Sanitary products in the United Kingdom are taxed at 5%, a levy that officials have blamed on European Union (EU) rules that set tax rates on certain products.   Now that Britain has left the EU, British Finance Minister Rishi Sunak has said he would abolish the “tampon tax” in January 2021. 

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Russian Influence Peddlers Carving Out New Audiences on Fringes

After four years of warnings and preparations, the 2020 presidential election did not see a repeat of 2016, when intelligence officials concluded Russia meddled using a combination of cyberattacks and influence operations.  
 
But according to current and former U.S. intelligence officials, as well as analysts, the good news ends there.   
 
The Russians, they warn, have been busy laying the foundation for future success.
 
Instead of relying on troll farms and fake social media accounts to try to sway the thoughts and opinions of American voters, they warn the Kremlin’s influence peddlers have instead gained a new foothold, establishing themselves as part of the United States’s news and social media ecosystem, ingratiating themselves to U.S. audiences on the far right and the far left.
 
“A lot of these campaigns are getting engagement in the millions,” Evanna Hu, chief executive officer of Omelas, told VOA. “They are pretty good at inducing the type of sentiment, a negative sentiment or a positive sentiment in the audience, from their posts.”
 
Omelas, a Washington-based firm that tracks online extremism for defense contractors, has been studying Russian content across 11 social media platforms and hundreds of RSS feeds in multiple languages, collecting 1.2 million posts in a 90-day period surrounding the November 3 election.
 
It found the most prolific Russian outlets included state-backed media outlets like RT, Sputnik, TASS and Izvestia TV.FILE – Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen on the screen of a camera viewfinder in a studio of Russia’s RT television channel in Moscow, Russia, June 11, 2013.“We only look at active engagements, so you have to physically click on something or retweet it,” said Hu, admitting that the estimate for the millions of engagements is still “pretty rough.”
 
Also, Omelas determined that only about 20% of the posts pumped out by Russia’s propaganda and influence machine are in English. Forty percent of the content is in Russian, with the rest going out in Spanish, Arabic, Turkish and a handful of other languages.
 Russian-backed media
 
U.S. officials have been reluctant to speak publicly about the impact these efforts have had on American citizens, in part because there is no easy way to measure the effect.   
 
After the 2016 election, for example, intelligence officials repeatedly said while they were able to conclude Russian efforts expressed a preference for then-candidate Donald Trump, they could not say whether any Americans voted differently as a result.
 
Still, multiple officials speaking to VOA on the condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the subject said it was unlikely that Russia would continue to spend money on these media ventures if the influence operations were not producing results.
 
An August 2020 report by the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, while not sharing a figure, concluded Moscow “invests massively in its propaganda channels, its intelligence services and its proxies.”
 
U.S. election security officials have likewise repeatedly voiced concerns about Russia’s efforts to stake out space in the news and social media ecosystem.
 
“I’m telling you right now, if it comes from something tied back to the Kremlin, like RT or Sputnik or Ruptly, question the intent,” Christopher Krebs, the former director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, told a cybersecurity summit in September. “What are they trying to get you to do? Odds are, it’s not a good thing.”FILE – The main newsroom of Russia’s Sputnik news is seen in Moscow, April 27, 2018.Senior CISA officials again called out Russian-backed media while briefing reporters on Election Day (November 3), begging Americans to treat any information coming from Russian-linked sources with a “hefty, hefty, hefty dose of skepticism.”  
 Disinformation payoff
 
To some extent, the repeated warnings about Russian-supported outlets like RT and Sputnik have paid off, at least when it comes to this month’s presidential election.
 
“They (RT and Sputnik) aren’t prominent domains in any of the analyses that we’ve done on false narratives of voter fraud,” Kate Starbird, a University of Washington professor and lead researcher with the Election Integrity Partnership, told VOA via email.
 
“They do sometimes amplify disinformation that is already spreading,” she added. “But they typically come in late and rarely change the trajectory of that disinformation.”
 
Some intelligence officials and researchers warn, though, that for now, that could very well be enough.
 
“You still see people sharing their (Russian) content in America,” said Clint Watts, a former FBI special agent who has been studying Russian disinformation efforts for years. “The reach of Russian news inside the U.S. … is exponentially higher than in other countries. So, they can see a return on it.”
 Redfish red herring
 
To help grow that return even more, and to avoid labels that identify the content as Russian, outlets like RT and Sputnik have also begun pushing content through the social media accounts of some of their most popular hosts, added Watts, currently a non-resident fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy. Then there is the Redfish channel on Instagram, which Watts said has allowed Russia to gain “significant traction.”“They put up a heavy rotation on George Floyd protests, and that is now where you see Americans sharing it routinely, millions and millions of shares,” Watts told VOA. “They dramatically raised their profile, particularly with the political left in the United States and African Americans, who I’m convinced have no idea that Redfish is a Russian outfit.”
 Far-right appeal
 
Russia is also finding ways to resonate with the far right.
 
According to the August report by the Global Engagement Center, Russian proxy websites like Canada’s Global Research website or the Russian-run Strategic Culture Foundation amplify conspiracy theories about subjects like the coronavirus.
 
Researchers like Watts say that propaganda then sometimes finds its way onto far-right websites such as ZeroHedge or The Duran, where it gets amplified again.
 
Another researcher warned that Russian efforts are also resonating with far-right conspiracy theorists, some of whom will pick up propaganda from proxy sites, or more mainstream sources like RT.
 
“All of these Q(Anon)-driven accounts — they love the Russian stuff,” the researcher told VOA on the condition of anonymity, given the sensitivity of the work.
 Into the mainstream
 
Not all Russian propaganda efforts circulate on the fringes of American politics. Some of the narratives hang around and are repeated often enough that they become difficult to ignore.
 
“So then, they can get somebody else from the American far right or far left to pick up on that story and then eventually snowball that so mainstream picks up on it … coopting the American media in a sense,” said Omelas’s CEO, Hu.  
 
Other times, Russia’s influence peddlers have found their contributors thrust into the spotlight.
 
For example, on November 20, U.S. President Trump repeatedly retweeted Wayne Dupree, who regularly writes opinion pieces for RT.We have great support on the Election Hoax! https://t.co/ChpkuZvc4s— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 20, 2020 
Just days earlier in a RT opinion piece, Dupree slammed what he described as “the fraudulent and brazen behavior of these Democrats to destroy the election’s integrity.”“They are all going to fall hard, along with the major news networks that have sought to brainwash the American people,” Dupree added. “The entire system is coming down, folks. Get ready.”
 
A number of researchers and U.S. counterintelligence officials say the incident falls into what has become an all-too familiar pattern.It’s actually quite a bit worse than that, the whole convergence of Kremlin media and conservative media…. https://t.co/dlJsUeeZOo— Clint Watts (@selectedwisdom) November 20, 2020In June, U.S. officials and lawmakers warned that RT purposefully courted outspoken, local U.S. police officers and union officials, attempting to use their reactions to protests sweeping across the country to further inflame tensions.
 
“They know they no longer need to do their own work,” National Counterintelligence and Security Center Director William Evanina told Hearst Television in October.  
 
“They’re now taking U.S. citizens’ information, and they are taking it and amplifying it,” he said. “Whether it be conspiracy theorists or legitimate folks who have wrong information, they get amplified consistently.” 

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Scotland’s COVID-19 Infections Stabilize, Hospitalizations Fall

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told Parliament Tuesday that the number of new COVID-19 cases has stabilized and hospitalizations are down, but the COVID-19 alert levels in the country will remain as they are.”We now have grounds for cautious optimism,” Sturgeon told lawmakers.  She said current restrictions would remain in place and unchanged until December 11.Scotland has a five-tiered alert system, with Level 0 being nearly normal and the most restrictions at Level 4. The government reviews the alerts every Tuesday.  Sturgeon said except for East Lothian, which moved from Level 3 to Level 2, the government was not proposing any changes to restrictions that currently apply to each local authority. She said recent developments in vaccines meant there was “light at the end of the tunnel,” but she stressed the importance of continuing to observe restrictions during what was likely to be a “difficult winter ahead.” The first minister said there were plans to extend asymptomatic testing, adding that the government was working with regional authorities to develop and deliver targeted geographical testing to communities in alert Level 4. Meanwhile, Sturgeon announced on Tuesday that Scotland was joining the rest of Britain in allowing a relaxation of some COVID-19 restrictions over the Christmas holiday. From December 23 to December 27, three households will be allowed to gather inside a private home, a place of worship or outdoors to observe the holiday. The first minister was quick to point out that the virus does not take time off and urged people to be cautious. 

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