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Nigeria's Zamfara school abduction: More than 300 Nigerian girls missing
BBCSandals sit in the dirt following an attack on a Nigerian school

Hundreds of schoolgirls have been kidnapped in the north-western state of Zamfara, the BBC has been told.

A teacher said that at least 300 learners were taken during the Friday morning attack.

A spokesman for the state's governor has confirmed the attack but did not give details.

This is the latest mass abduction targeting schools in recent weeks. Armed gunmen often take schoolchildren for ransom.

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 5:36 pm
White House climate czar to AP: Texas storm 'a wake-up call'
Associated PressFILE - In this Jan. 27, 2021 file photo, National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy speaks during a press briefing at the White Housein Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)ARCHIVO - En esta imagen del 11 de enero de 2017, la administradora de la Agencia de Protección Medioambiental de Estados Unidos (EPA), Gina McCarthy, habla durante una rueda de prensa en la Departamento de Justicia en Washington. (AP Foto/Manuel Balce Ceneta, Archivo)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The deadly winter storm that caused widespread power outages in Texas and other states is a “wake-up call” for the United States to build energy systems and other infrastructure that are more reliable and resilient in the face of extreme-weather events linked to climate change, President Joe Biden's national climate adviser said Friday.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Gina McCarthy said the storm that devastated Texas and other states “is not going to be as unusual as people had hoped. It is going to happen, and we need to be as resilient and working together as much as possible. We need systems of energy that are reliable and resilient as well.''

McCarthy said the scientific evidence is clear that more frequent and more dangerous storms are likely, “and if we really care about keeping our people working and keeping our kids healthy and giving them a future we’re proud of, then we’re not going to ignore these wake-up calls. We’re going to take action.''

McCarthy's comments came as Biden and his wife Jill were in Texas to survey damage caused by the storm, which caused millions of homes and business to lose heat and running water. At least 40 people in the state died.

"We need to envision a future and an optimistic way of giving people hope again — that we are building back better,'' she said, using Biden's slogan for a plan costing at least $2 trillion to rebuild the nation's infrastructure and create clean-energy jobs.

“It is a catchy phrase, but it also is a kind of optimistic rallying cry and I think we ought to heed it,″ McCarthy said.

McCarthy said she expects an “after-action” report on the Texas crisis and ways it can be avoided in the future. Many people were caught in frigid homes that lacked heat for days in subfreezing temperatures.

Texas is not connected to the rest of the nation's power grid, and McCarthy said the storm may be reason to rethink that.

“You know, now’s not the time for me to be pointing fingers, but clearly the United States has always done best when it’s worked together and relied on one another,'' she said. “And I think Texas might ... have a real opportunity and probably ought to think about making sure they join with their neighbors in an interstate grid system that allows them flexibility, and that helps them help their neighbors when the time comes.''

While Oklahoma, Louisiana and other neighboring states also were hit hard by the storm, they were able to rely on each other, she said.

McCarthy said Biden is committed to an all-of-government response to climate change, which she said was “part and parcel of a strategy to strengthen our economy and grow jobs” amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Biden has set a goal of eliminating pollution from fossil fuel in the power sector by 2035 and from the U.S. economy overall by 2050, speeding what is already a market-driven growth of solar and wind energy and lessening the country’s dependence on oil and gas. The aggressive plan is aimed at slowing human-caused global warming that is magnifying extreme weather events such as the Texas storm and deadly wildfires in the West.

Biden also wants to ensure that efforts to address climate change include “workers that have been left behind” by closed coal mines or power plants, as well as communities located near polluting refineries and other hazards, McCarthy said.

“We're going to push the clean energy, we're going to push for better cars, but it’s also going to be about capturing the will of the public to actually face the challenges we’re facing today and meet them in a way that’s going to be beneficial to them,'' she said.

For example, Biden's plans to provide 500,000 charging stations for electric cars and invest in battery technology are intended to make it easier for the public to participate in a clean-energy economy. “If we can lower that cost, and everybody knows they can get where they need to go when they need to get there" in an electric car, "we'll get the kind of demand on the auto-sector side that we need,'' she said.

Similarly, if utilities are given the right incentives, they can meet Biden's goal to have net-zero carbon emissions by 2035, McCarthy said. The head of a lobbying group for electric utilities said earlier this month that the 2035 date would be “an incredibly difficult situation to handle" for most U.S. providers.

While she respects the group and individual utilities, 2035 is Biden's goal "and I think we will get there,'' McCarthy said.

On coal, McCarthy convened a working group Friday to discuss ways to help communities affected by coal-mine closures and shuttering of coal-fired power plants.

The working group is intended to "bring a high level of representation from every single agency ... to come around the table and start thinking about ways in which we can really address communities that may be having difficult transitions,'' she said.

One idea, endorsed by West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, the chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, is to ramp up a program to seal and clean abandoned coal mines in his state and across the country. Former coal miners and power plant workers “have a terrific skill set that could be used in the same areas to start closing some of the mines,'' she said. “We can provide significant resources to keep people working in those areas ... and it’s going to reduce methane emissions'' that are now spewing virtually uncontrolled.

Similar challenges exist in the oil and natural gas industry, McCarthy said.

“From a climate perspective, we can address a dangerous problem,'' she said, while also “investing in ways that continue to build up opportunities for workers to work.''

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 5:26 pm
Gulf Stream is weakest it's been in more than 1,000 years, study says

This Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020, satellite image made available by NOAA shows Tropical Storm Eta at 10:40 a.m. EST in the Gulf of Mexico, Theta, right, and a tropical wave to the south that became Tropical Storm Iota. An overheating world obliterated weather records in 2020 - an extreme year for hurricanes, wildfires, heat waves, floods, droughts and ice melt - the United Nations' weather agency reported Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020. (NOAA via AP)

A group of scientists from Europe presented new research this week claiming that the Gulf Stream is weaker now than it's been at any point over the last 1,000 years. The Gulf Stream is an Atlantic Ocean current that plays a largely hidden role in shaping weather patterns in the United States. Much has been researched and learned about the influential current over the past 500 years, particularly due to the expertise of one of America's Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin.

But in recent decades, a shift in the Gulf Stream's circulation has become weaker than any other time over the last millennium, according to a recently published study by scientists from Ireland, Britain and Germany. The weakening of the Gulf Stream, formally known as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), can be mostly pinned to one catalyst, the researchers said: human-caused climate change.

The Gulf Stream current moves a massive amount of water across the Atlantic Ocean. According to Stefan Rahmstorf, one of the study's authors, it moves nearly 20 million cubic meters of water per second, acting like a giant conveyor belt.

How strong of a current is that? "Almost a hundred times the Amazon flow," he told the Potsdam Institute.

The Gulf Stream location in the Global Real-Time Ocean Forecast System model (RTOFS) from 2016. (Image via NOAA)

The main function of the Gulf Stream is to redistribute heat on Earth by way of the ocean current. The ocean circulatory system plays a crucial role in many weather patterns around the world, particularly along the U.S. East Coast.

Rahmstorf said that his team's research was groundbreaking for being able to combine previous bits of research to piece together a 1,600-year-old picture of the AMOC evolution.

"The study results suggest that it has been relatively stable until the late 19th century," he said. "With the end of the little ice age in about 1850, the ocean currents began to decline, with a second, more drastic decline following since the mid-20th century."

An original mapping of the Gulf Stream from Timothy Folger and Benjamin Franklin from 1768. (Image via Library of Congress)

So what are the implications of this decline in the ocean currents? AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Bob Smerbeck said it could plausibly lead to rising sea levels if water levels are warmed this year. However, Smerbeck added that it is tricky to know just how warm the waters could get.

Previously, studies have shown that rising water temperatures and higher sea levels can lead to more extreme weather events such as stronger tropical storms, a higher likelihood for extreme heat waves or a decrease in summer rainfall.

However, other researchers have also come out with contrasting data, suggesting that the Gulf Stream hasn't actually declined over the past 30 years. Using a different data modeling system, researchers from the United Kingdom and Ireland pieced together data from climate models that they said in a study published earlier this month showed "no overall AMOC decline."

"Our results reinforce that adequately capturing changes to the deep circulation is key to detecting any anthropogenic climate-change-related AMOC decline," the authors write in their study, which was written just days before Rahmstorf's team published its research on the topic.

Smerbeck, who has been a meteorologist at AccuWeather for nearly 25 years, urged caution in how to interpret the new research claims.

"One possible repercussion discussed in article 1 [the first study mentioned above] about warming waters along the east coast from an AMOC slowdown could lead to rising sea levels due to thermal expansion of the seawater. This seems plausible," Smerbeck said. But, he added that the amount of seawater rise would depend on how warm that waters could get and he wasn't ready to speculate on that.

This undated engraving shows the scene on July 4, 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was approved by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Pa. The document, drafted by Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Philip Livingston and Roger Sherman, announces the separation of 13 North American British colonies from Great Britain. The formal signing by 56 members of Congress began on Aug. 2. (AP Photo)

How was the Gulf Stream as we know it today discovered? Well, the discovery was fueled by a need for increased efficiency with the mail service and was inspired by the empiricism of whalers.

In 1768, Benjamin Franklin was working in London as deputy postmaster, according to The Smithsonian Magazine, responsible for overseeing the arrival of mail to and from the American colonies. His cousin, Timothy Folger, worked as a captain of a merchant ship at that same time.

One day, Franklin asked Folger why his merchant ships arrived at the colonies much faster than Franklin's mail ships made it back to England. Folger explained to his cousin that merchant captains followed the advice of whalers, who followed a "warm, strong current" to track and kill whales.

While Franklin said mail captains were too prideful to follow the advice of "simple American fishermen," sailing against the current was costing precious time, according to author Laura Bliss.

So Folger sketched out a general location of the current for Franklin, dubbing it the "Gulph Stream." However, Franklin's mail carriers refused to follow the directions.

A chart of the Gulf Stream, published in 1786 in the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society. (Image via Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division)

But when Franklin switched allegiances to the burgeoning United States during the Revolutionary War, he mapped out a more precise route of the AMOC and gave it to French allies, providing them a key advantage in the battle of European Maritimers, according to The Smithsonian. The combination of Folger's whaling knowledge and Franklin's mapping would become crucial in later understanding the importance of the current, even if they originally were just trying to figure out how to deliver mail faster.

While knowledge of the AMOC may only go back a few hundred years, Smerbeck said the dating of the currents can be done in a variety of different ways. Direct measurements with deep-ocean instruments only go back to 2004, he said, but other methods can help piece together the puzzle, such as analysis of coral and historical data from ship logs.

"Tree rings can tell how wet or dry the nearby land climate was in the past, which can be linked to sea surface temperatures," Smerbeck explained. "Ice cores can pretty much tell the same thing as well as how warm or cold it was in the past," he said. "Ocean sediments can show if there were high or low runoff periods from nearby precipitation over land, which could be linked to how warm or cold sea surface temperatures were in the past." Researchers have used all of these clues to inform the understanding, which stretches back more than a millennium, they've developed of the Gulf Stream.

Keep checking back on and stay tuned to the AccuWeather Network on DirecTV, Frontier, Spectrum, Fubo, and Verizon Fios.

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 5:03 pm
Things to Know: $1.9T package heads toward House approval
Associated PressHouse Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., arrives for a news conference where he criticized Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and the Democratic $1.9 trillion COVID relief package, during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., leads the panel in preparation for debate and vote on the Democrats' $1.9 trillion COVID relief package for debate and a vote, at the Capitol in Washington, Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)Wax statues of Audrey Hepburn and Michael Strahan occupy one of the tables at Peter Luger Steakhouse on Friday, Feb, 26, 2021, in New York. Five statues, on loan from Madame Tussauds, will occupy unused tables during COVID-19 occupancy restrictions. (AP Photo/Kevin Hagen)This July 2020 photo provided by Johnson & Johnson shows a vial of the COVID-19 vaccine in Belgium. The nation is poised to get a third vaccine against COVID-19, but health officials are concerned that at first glance the Johnson & Johnson shot may not be seen as equal to other options from Pfizer and Moderna. (Johnson & Johnson via AP)

Here’s what’s happening Friday with the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S.:


— A $1.9 trillion package aimed at helping the country rebuild from the coronavirus pandemic seems headed toward House passage. Now, Democrats are also searching for a way to revive their drive to boost the minimum wage. The relief bill embodies President Joe Biden’s drive to flush cash to individuals, businesses, states and cities suffering from the pandemic. But Democratic progressives are adamant that the party keep trying to pass legislation that would boost the federal minimum wage to $15 hourly. The Senate parliamentarian says that provision must come out of the relief bill, so Democrats are discussing other steps.

— Tennessee has asked federal law enforcement to investigate the alleged theft of coronavirus vaccine doses in the state’s most populous county. In a Friday news conference, health officials also said a volunteer improperly vaccinated two children despite the shot not being cleared for minors. The details come after the state previously announced that roughly 2,400 COVID-19 vaccine doses had been wasted in Shelby County over the past month due to miscommunication and insufficient record-keeping inside the local health department. The county had also built up nearly 30,000 excess vaccine doses in its inventory.

— Two U.S. Navy warships operating in the Mideast have been struck by coronavirus outbreaks. That’s according to Cmdr. Rebecca Rebarich, a spokeswoman for the Bahrain-based 5th Fleet. A dozen troops aboard the USS San Diego, an amphibious transport dock, tested positive for COVID-19. The commander says there also have been sailors afflicted aboard another vessel, the guided-missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea. The San Diego sails with nearly 600 sailors and Marines aboard, while the Philippine Sea carries 380 sailors. The 5th Fleet patrols the waterways of the Mideast and often has tense encounters with Iran.

THE NUMBERS: According to data through Thursday from Johns Hopkins University, the seven-day rolling average for daily new cases in the U.S. did not increase over the past two weeks, going from about 101,749 on Feb. 11 to nearly 67,880 on Thursday. Over the same period, the seven-day rolling average for daily new deaths in the U.S. fell from nearly 2,493 on Feb. 11 to about 2,155 on Thursday.

QUOTABLE: “I’d be very disappointed if people think that this is a new model because that would move us away completely from the essence of town meeting, which is the opportunity to assemble with our fellow voters, to hear from our elected officials directly, to question, to challenge them, to debate a budget and public questions in an assembled meeting.” — Former Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas, commenting on the postponement and cancellation of New England town meetings during the pandemic.

ICYMI: It’s a promotion that could be straight out of the “Mad Men” Don Draper playbook. The iconic Peter Luger Steak House in New York City has teamed with Madame Tussauds to have celebrity wax figures, including Jon Hamm in Draper mode, mingle with patrons on Friday to promote the easing of indoor dining restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic. The gimmick coincides with a recent decision by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to expand restaurants' indoor dining capacity to 35%, up from 25% in response to a downturn in coronavirus infections. In business for more than 130 years, Peter Luger will keep the mannequins until Monday.

ON THE HORIZON: The U.S. is poised to get a third vaccine against COVID-19, and health officials are girding for questions about which one is best. If cleared for emergency use, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine would offer a single-dose option that could help speed vaccinations. The challenge will be explaining how protective the J&J shot is after the astounding success of two-dose vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna. Those shots were found to be about 95% effective against symptomatic COVID-19. The numbers from J&J are not that high, but they are not an apples-to-apples comparison. Regulators say it strongly protects against serious illness.


Find AP’s full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic:

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 4:44 pm
Named, shamed but unscathed: Saudi crown prince spared by US realpolitik
The Guardian<span>Photograph: Amr Nabil/AP</span>People displaced by conflict receive food aid donated by a Kuwaiti charity organisation in the village of Hays, near the conflict zone in Yemen’s western province of Hodeida, this week.

Friday was the day that Joe Biden’s vaunted drive to put human rights back at the centre of US foreign policy slammed, as such drives usually do, into the brick wall of great power realpolitik.

As it had promised, the new administration obeyed the law laid down by Congress and ignored by its predecessor. It published an unclassified summary of the intelligence assessment that the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, “approved” the murder and dismemberment of the Saudi reformer and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Related: US finds Saudi crown prince approved Khashoggi murder but does not sanction him

For all the claims by the Trump administration that it could not publish for fear of revealing CIA “sources and methods”, the brief assessment was a logical inference from publicly available material. The 15-member murder squad included seven drawn from the prince’s own bodyguard, in an absolutist monarchy demanding absolute obedience. It was not a great work of sleuthing.

However, the crown prince was not on the list of 76 Saudis sanctioned under the new Khashoggi ban unveiled by the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, imposing visa restrictions at foreigners “conducting serious, extraterritorial counter-dissident activities, including those that suppress, harass, surveil, threaten, or harm journalists, activists, or other persons perceived to be dissidents for their work”.

Used to the full, the Khashoggi ban could lead to wholesale expulsions of diplomats and other operatives, not just from Saudi Arabia but also from dictatorships like China, which have been heavily involved in intimidation of Chinese nationals and Chinese Americans living in the US.

The ban, though, is a general response to a very specific crime, in which the mastermind has gone without punishment, apart from naming and shaming.

The treasury froze the assets of the former deputy head of Saudi intelligence and blocked all dealings with the Rapid Intervention Force, known as the Tiger Squad, but its royal patron and commander, the crown prince, was left unscathed.

Furthermore, as Kristin Diwan, senior resident scholar at the Gulf States Institute observed, with the ban the Biden administration “is making a distinction between domestic suppression and its pursuit abroad”, explicitly punishing only the latter.

The intelligence assessment and the punitive measures were a one-two punch, in which the second punch was pulled, a compromise born of the cold reality that any dream that King Salman would somehow demote Mohammed in the line of succession for the good of the kingdom was fanciful. The crown prince is too well entrenched for that, and being in his mid-30s, has good prospects for being Saudi leader for a generation or more.

US officials point out that every administration does business in the national interest with leaders with blood on their hands, starting with Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. What makes Prince Mohammed different is that he is supposed to be a key strategic ally in the Middle East.

The US runs five bases in Saudi Arabia. While seeking to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran (known as the JCPOA), the Biden administration is seeking to show it is not a pushover in the region. Thursday night’s airstrike on Tehran-backed militiamen in Syria is demonstration of that. And like Barack Obama before him, he will need to seek Saudi acquiescence at least or risk the monarchy joining forces in the region and in Congress to sabotage any future deal.

“If we’re going to get the Saudis out of Yemen, we’re going to need their cooperation, and we need to work with them on the JCPOA,” Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations said. “It’s a big important country that’s just super hard to avoid.”

Obama bought off the Gulf monarchies with record arms sales, a tactic many US officials at the time, now in the current administration, came to regret as complicity in the mass killings of Yemeni civilians.

The Biden team has sought to put that right by announcing an end to US military involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, but here again there is a grey area. The US will sell defensive weapons but not offensive ones, but in reality the distinction is open to interpretation.

In the same week the Khashoggi ban was unveiled, the Saudi monarchy launched this year’s Future Investment Initiative, known as “Davos in the Desert” and by all accounts, the investment bankers and private equity moguls who stayed away in the years following Khashoggi’s slaughter, are back in force. This week may be looked back on as the one in which the effort to make Prince Mohammed a pariah finally failed.

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 4:40 pm
Algeria pro-democracy marchers try to revive Friday protests
Associated PressPeople demonstrate with Algerian flags for a second time this week in Algiers, Algeria, Feb. 26, 2021. Algerians turned out on Friday in the streets of the capital and scattered cities around their North African country to demonstrate in the pro-democracy movement, four days after tens of thousands of marchers marked Hirak's second anniversary. (AP Photo/Anis Belghoul)People demonstrate for a second time this week in Algiers, Algeria, Feb. 26, 2021. Algerians turned out on Friday in the streets of the capital and scattered cities around their North African country to demonstrate in the pro-democracy movement, four days after tens of thousands of marchers marked Hirak's second anniversary. (AP Photo/Anis Belghoul)People demonstrate with Algerian flags for a second time this week in Algiers, Algeria, Feb. 26, 2021. Algerians turned out on Friday in the streets of the capital and scattered cities around their North African country to demonstrate in the pro-democracy movement, four days after tens of thousands of marchers marked Hirak's second anniversary. (AP Photo/Anis Belghoul)People demonstrate with an Algerian flag for a second time this week in Algiers, Algeria, Feb. 26, 2021. Algerians turned out on Friday in the streets of the capital and scattered cities around their North African country to demonstrate in the pro-democracy movement, four days after tens of thousands of marchers marked Hirak's second anniversary. (AP Photo/Anis Belghoul)People demonstrate with Algerian flags for a second time this week in Algiers, Algeria, Feb. 26, 2021. Algerians turned out on Friday in the streets of the capital and scattered cities around their North African country to demonstrate in the pro-democracy movement, four days after tens of thousands of marchers marked Hirak's second anniversary. (AP Photo/Anis Belghoul)

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — Protesters took to the streets of Algiers and other cities around Algeria Friday in a bid to restart weekly pro-democracy demonstrations.

It was the first Friday since the Hirak movement was forced to suspend a year of peaceful weekly protests due to COVID-19, and came four days after the movement flooded streets for Monday’s second anniversary of the movement.

Hirak protesters helped force long-time President Abdelaziz Bouteflika from power in 2019. They are not satisfied with reforms to the governing system proposed by the current president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune.

Activists are pressing for a full makeover of the opaque system governing Algeria, with the military in the shadows. The powerful army has been at the helm since Algeria won its independence war against France in 1962.

Friday was a test to see if the Hirak movement can resume its weekly marches despite the pandemic.

Security forces stood at the ready as protesters moved into the center of Algiers and numerous other towns around the North African country after Friday prayers. The National Committee for the Liberation of the Detained reported scattered arrests in several cities, according to the online news site TSA.

In a conciliatory gesture, Tebboune pardoned more than 30 jailed protesters last week, but dozens more remain behind bars.

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 4:09 pm
Biden said 'Diplomacy is back!' Then he started dropping bombs
The Guardian<span>Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters</span>

“Diplomacy is back!” President Joe Biden declared at the Munich Security Conference last week. But so is bombing Syria, apparently. Biden has only been president a bit more than a month, but he has already ordered his first bombing campaign. (It took Trump four months to do the same.) The target was facilities in eastern Syria used by Iran-backed militia in retaliation for rocket attacks against US troops in Iraq earlier this month.

Presumably, Biden wanted to signal to Iran that it would pay a heavy price if it ordered attacks against US troops in order to pressure Washington to return to the Iran nuclear deal. But by bombing Syria for this reason, Biden proved how failing to rejoin the nuclear agreement endangers US national security – Iran’s nuclear program continues to advance while the US and Iran glide closer to a military confrontation.

Biden knows these arguments quite well. He made them against Donald Trump only a few months ago. His top officials have spent the past years extensively criticizing Trump’s maximum pressure strategy. They were all correct.

Which makes his steps on Iran in his first month all the more perplexing. While Biden’s intent to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) seems unquestionable, good intentions and good strategy are not the same thing. Rather than bringing diplomacy back, Biden appears to be falling back into old patterns where appearing tough trumps being smart and where diplomacy is merely a slogan sprinkled on policies centered on coercion, not a genuine give and take.

Of course, few doubted that reviving the JCPOA would be without challenge. And the lack of priority given to Iran may simply be due to the plethora of domestic and international crises Biden has to attend to with less than a full staff.

Yet, these exonerating circumstances do not explain the many seemingly unnecessary and counterproductive measures the Biden administration has taken on the JCPOA since taking office.

Even before diplomacy has begun, the Biden administration has seemingly initiated a highly unproductive blame game

First, the administration rather unnecessarily decided to create a public feud over whether Iran or the US would have to take the first step towards reviving the JCPOA. Instead of carefully working with the Europeans to design a choreography that would enable both sides to move simultaneously, and by that, avoid a conflict over chronology altogether, Biden officials repeatedly made public demands that Iran had to take the first step before any of Trump’s JCPOA-violating sanctions could be lifted – even though it was the US that left the agreement.

This won’t work. Wendy Sherman, President Barack Obama’s former lead negotiator and Biden’s pick for deputy secretary of state, said as much in September 2019. Sherman said she “would be shocked if Iran agreed to a meeting without some sanctions relief” and that there “are plenty of ways to do this so that everyone’s interests can be met and so that everyone’s face can be saved”. Sherman was right then and she is right now.

Even if Biden calculated that a small public confrontation could serve the administration’s broader purposes, it should not have been over an issue where the US neither has persuasive moral nor legal arguments.

Secondly, even before diplomacy has begun, the Biden administration has seemingly initiated a highly unproductive blame game that has further damaged the atmospherics for diplomacy. The administration’s messaging has been to emphasize that Iran is the party out of compliance with the JCPOA – which is technically false – and that the future of the deal hinges on Iran coming back into compliance. Even though it is the US that left the deal while Iran is still in it. While Iran has reduced its obligations in accordance to paragraph 36 of the JCPOA, that is fundamentally different from the US leaving the deal and imposing sanctions on countries that seek to abide by the nuclear accord.

Biden’s attitude has been that the US simply is not responsible for the actions of the Trump administration. America has a new president now and as a result, it starts off with a clean slate unburdened by the many transgressions of Donald Trump. Consequently, it is Iran that is in the wrong, not America. All the US needed to do to regain the moral high ground was to elect a new president – even though the new president is continuing the policies of the old president.

The blame game is further fought at the International Atomic Energy Agency now. Reports indicate that the US and the EU are seeking to rebuke Iran for reducing its cooperation with the IAEA. Tehran’s actions are certainly worthy of censure. But again, the problem is that the US has abandoned all of its obligations while Tehran has reduced some of its own. If the US returned to the deal and Iran didn’t, rebuking it would be fully justified. But doing so now when the US still remains outside of the deal is simply kafkaesque. It’s not even a clever way of playing the blame game.

Even if the US succeeds in shifting the blame to Iran, the question is what the value of that is at this point. In this early stage of diplomacy, the parties should be seeking to create the best possible atmosphere for talks. They should demonstrate their positive intent and commitment to finding a diplomatic solution. Descending into a public blame game is what the parties do when talks start to break down – it’s not an effective measure to get talks going. All it does, intentionally or not, is to signal insincerity, perhaps even bad intent.

That is certainly how Biden’s maneuvering has been read in Tehran. Whatever advantage Biden thinks he gains through military signaling in Syria and by playing the blame game in the media, if it sabotages what arguably is the final opportunity to revive an accord that is critical to US national security, then Biden may inadvertently achieve what Trump couldn’t: destroying the legacy of Obama’s main foreign policy achievement.

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 4:08 pm
UN urges warring parties to halt fighting for vaccinations
Associated Press

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a resolution Friday demanding that all warring parties immediately institute a “sustained humanitarian pause” to enable the unhindered delivery of COVID-19 vaccines and the vaccination of millions of people in conflict areas.

The British-drafted resolution, cosponsored by 112 countries, reiterated the council’s demand last July 1 for “a general and immediate cessation of hostilities” in major conflicts on the Security Council agenda, from Syria and Yemen to Central African Republic, Mali and Sudan and Somalia.

It expressed concern that an appeal for cease-fires in all conflicts to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, which was first made by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on March 23, 2020, “was not fully heeded.”

Britain’s U.N. Ambassador Barbara Woodward, the current council president, announced the result of the email vote because the council has been meeting virtually, saying the resolution “will help bring vaccines to 160 million people in conflict areas or displaced by conflict.”

“This is a first step,” she stressed, and it will require further international efforts.

But Woodward said the large number of cosponsors and unanimous council approval are “a strong testament to the international commitment to seeing this happen."

“Obviously each of these situations will require further negotiations at country and even at field and local level,” she said. “and we’ve asked the secretary-general to report back where they encounter barriers in this.”

The resolution adopted Friday recognizes “that armed conflicts can exacerbate the COVID-19 pandemic, and that inversely the pandemic can exacerbate the adverse humanitarian impact of armed conflicts, as well as exacerbating inequalities.”

It also recognizes “the role of extensive immunization against COVID-19 as a global public good for health in preventing, containing, and stopping transmission, of COVID-19 and its variant strains, in order to bring the pandemic to an end.”

The Security Council stressed that “equitable access to affordable COVID-19 vaccines” authorized by the World Health Organization or regulatory authorities “is essential to end the pandemic.”

It also stressed “the need for solidarity, equity, and efficacy” in vaccinations.

And it called for donations of vaccines from richer developed nations to low- and middle-income countries and other countries in need, including through the COVAX Facility, the ambitious WHO program to buy and deliver coronavirus vaccines for the world’s poorest people.

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 3:24 pm
WFP: Security protocols, leaks a focus of Congo probe
Associated PressUnited Nations peacekeepers recover bodies from an area near the site where a U.N. convoy was attacked in Nyiragongo, North Kivu province, Congo, on Monday, Feb. 22, 2021. Luca Attanasio, Italian ambassador to the Congo, an Italian Carabineri bodyguard and a Congolese driver were killed in the area that is home to myriad rebel groups, according to the Foreign Ministry and local people. (AP Photo/Justin Kabumba)Carabinieri officers stand by the coffin of Italian ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo Luca Attanasio, in Limbiate, near Milan, Italy, Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. Italy paid tribute to its ambassador to Congo and his bodyguard who were killed in an attack on a U.N. convoy, honoring them with a state funeral Thursday. (Claudio Furlan/LaPresse via AP)Carabinieri officers stand by the coffin of Italian ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo Luca Attanasio, in Limbiate, near Milan, Italy, Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. Italy paid tribute to its ambassador to Congo and his bodyguard who were killed in an attack on a U.N. convoy, honoring them with a state funeral Thursday. (Claudio Furlan/LaPresse via AP)Carabinieri officers stand by the coffin of Italian ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo Luca Attanasio, in Limbiate, near Milan, Italy, Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. Italy paid tribute to its ambassador to Congo and his bodyguard who were killed in an attack on a U.N. convoy, honoring them with a state funeral Thursday. (Claudio Furlan/LaPresse via AP)Zakia Seddiki, wife of the Italian ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo Luca Attanasio, holds one of her children at the end of the state funeral for Attanasio and Italian Carabinieri police officer Vittorio Iacovacci, in Rome, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. Italy paid tribute Thursday to its ambassador to Congo and his bodyguard who were killed in an attack on a U.N. convoy, honoring them with a state funeral and prayers for peace in Congo and all nations Relatives of the Italian ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo Luca Attanasio, including his wife Zakia Seddiki, center, walk out of Santa Maria degli Angeli Church after the state funeral of Attanasio and Italian Carabinieri police officer Vittorio Iacovacci, in Rome, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. Italy is pressing the United Nations for answers about the attack Monday on a U.N. food aid convoy in Congo that left the young ambassador and his paramilitary police bodyguard dead. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)Domenica Benedetto, partner of Italian Carabinieri police officer Vittorio Iacovacci, arrives for the state funeral of Iacovacci and the Italian ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo Luca Attanasio, in Rome's Santa Maria degli Angeli Church, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. Italy is pressing the United Nations for answers about the attack Monday on a U.N. food aid convoy in Congo that left the young ambassador and his paramilitary police bodyguard dead. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)The caskets of Italian ambassador to Democratic Republic of Congo Luca Attanasio and Italian Carabinieri police officer Vittorio Iacovacci are driven away at the end of their funeral, in Rome, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. Italy paid tribute Thursday to its ambassador to Congo and his bodyguard who were killed in an attack on a U.N. convoy, honoring them with a state funeral and prayers for peace in Congo and all nations The casket of Italian Carabinieri police officer Vittorio Iacovacci, draped in the Italian flag, is driven away at the end of the state funeral for Italian ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo Luca Attanasio and Iacovacci, in Rome, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. Italy paid tribute Thursday to its ambassador to Congo and his bodyguard who were killed in an attack on a U.N. convoy, honoring them with a state funeral and prayers for peace in Congo and all nations People attend the funerals of Italian ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo Luca Attanasio and Italian Carabinieri police officer Vittorio Iacovacci, in Rome, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. Italy paid tribute Thursday to its ambassador to Congo and his bodyguard who were killed in an attack on a U.N. convoy, honoring them with a state funeral and prayers for peace in Congo and all nations A Carabinieri officer attends the funeral of the Italian ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo Luca Attanasio and Italian Carabinieri police officer Vittorio Iacovacci, in Rome, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. Italy paid tribute Thursday to its ambassador to Congo and his bodyguard who were killed in an attack on a U.N. convoy, honoring them with a state funeral and prayers for peace in Congo and all nations Italian Premier Mario Draghi leaves at the end of the funeral of Italian ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo Luca Attanasio and Italian Carabinieri police officer Vittorio Iacovacci, in Rome, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. Italy paid tribute Thursday to its ambassador to Congo and his bodyguard who were killed in an attack on a U.N. convoy, honoring them with a state funeral and prayers for peace in Congo and all nations

ROME (AP) — A U.N. investigation into the attack on a humanitarian convoy in Congo that killed the Italian ambassador, his bodyguard and driver will look into whether the long-planned mission's security protocols were followed and whether information might have leaked to the unknown gunmen involved in the ambush.

The deputy communications director of the World Food Program, Greg Barrow, told an online briefing Friday that the Feb. 22 mission to bring Ambassador Luca Attanasio to a WFP school feeding program in eastern Congo had been in the works since 2020.

Advance planning and security meetings as well as security briefings took place up to the moment the seven-member team took off from Goma, in Congo’s east, in a two-car convoy bound for the program in Rutshuru, he said.

“Very careful planning went on ahead of this visit,” he said.

Attanasio, his security escort, Carabiniere paramilitary officer Vittorio Iacovacci, and the WFP’s Congolese driver Moustapha Milambo were killed Monday when an armed group stopped them and ordered them out of their cars. Milambo was killed instantly, and Attanasio and Iacovacci were fatally shot in an ensuing shootout after a nearby ranger patrol arrived on the scene.

There has been no claim of responsibility for the attack. Several armed groups are active in the region.

Italy has formally asked the United Nations for an inquiry into what happened amid questions about whether the U.N. security arrangements were sufficient for the mission. The U.N. has said the road had been declared “green” by the U.N. and cleared for travel without security escorts or armored vehicles.

The WFP says it is cooperating in the Italian, Congolese and U.N. investigations.

Barrow said the U.N. probe would scrutinize the preparatory meetings leading up to the mission itself as well as whether security protocols were followed.

“The main focus of the fact-finding mission will be on what security protocols were undertaken, how they were followed and what steps were taken to minimize any sort of risk to any of those who were on this mission,” he said. “And that would include any access to any advance information or contemporary information about the trips.”

He said that while the attack had prompted an automatic security review, the WFP had no plans to alter its humanitarian efforts in Congo. It wasn't immediately clear why Attanasio was inspecting the food program since Italy wasn't funding it.

One of the survivors of the ambush, WFP’s deputy country director Rocco Leone, said it was incumbent on the surviving four members of the mission to establish the truth of what transpired.

“I am sure that I speak for everyone in saying that I look forward to the facts behind this tragic incident being soon established, and so that the perpetrators of this heinous attack can be brought to justice,” Leone said in a statement read by Barrow. “It is important that humanitarian operations can continue unhampered to save and change the lives of the many needy people whom we are here to serve.”

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 3:11 pm
U.S. should sanction MbS, lead bid for justice in Khashoggi murder- UN expert

GENEVA, Feb 26 (Reuters) - The U.N. human rights expert who led a U.N. investigation into the 2018 death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi on Friday called on the United States to take the lead in ensuring justice is served for his murder.

Agnes Callamard, U.N. investigator for summary executions, in a statement posted on Twitter after a declassified U.S. intelligence assessment was released, urged the U.S. government to impose sanctions on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman "targeting his personal assets but also his international engagements."

The United States should not grant the crown prince, also known as MbS, immunity from civil suits and Saudi Arabia should disclose whether Khashoggi's remains were destroyed at its consulate in Istanbul and how they were disposed of, she said.

The Saudi government did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the report. Riyadh has denied any involvement by the crown prince. (Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Leslie Adler)

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 3:06 pm
A Harvard Professor Called Wartime Sex Slaves 'Prostitutes.' One Pushed Back.
The New York Times

SEOUL, South Korea — The students and the survivor were divided by two generations and 7,000 miles, but they met on Zoom to discuss a common goal: turning a Harvard professor’s widely disputed claims about sexual slavery during World War II into a teachable moment.

A recent academic journal article by the professor — in which he described as “prostitutes” the Korean and other women forced to serve Japan’s troops — prompted an outcry in South Korea and among scholars in the United States.

It also offered a chance, on the Zoom call last week, for the aging survivor of the Japanese Imperial Army’s brothels to tell her story to a group of Harvard students, including her case for why Japan should issue a full apology and face international prosecution.

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“The recent remarks by the professor at Harvard are something that you should all ignore,” Lee Yong-soo, a 92-year-old in South Korea and one of just a handful of so-called comfort women still living, told the students.

But the remarks were a “blessing in disguise” because they created a huge controversy, added Lee, who was kidnapped by Japanese soldiers during World War II and raped repeatedly. “So this is kind of a wake-up call.”

The dispute over the academic paper has echoes of the early 1990s, a time when the world was first beginning to hear the voices of survivors of Japan’s wartime sexual slavery in Asia — traumas that the region’s conservative patriarchal cultures had long downplayed.

Now, survivors’ testimony drives much of the academic narrative on the topic. Yet many scholars say that conservative forces are once again trying to marginalize the survivors.

“This is so startling, 30 years later, to be dragged back, because in the meantime survivors from a wide range of countries found a voice,” Alexis Dudden, a historian of Japan and Korea at the University of Connecticut who has interviewed the women.

The uproar began after an academic journal’s website published an article in December in which J. Mark Ramseyer, a Harvard Law School professor, argued that the women were “prostitutes” who had willingly entered into indenture contracts.

An international chorus of historians called for the article to be retracted, saying that his arguments ignored extensive historical evidence and sounded more like a page from Japan’s far-right playbook. A group of more than 1,900 economists wrote this week that the article used game theory, law and economics as “cover to legitimize horrific atrocities.”

The Korean International Student Association at Harvard has also demanded an apology from Ramseyer, expressing concern that the university’s name “could lend credibility to the argument” that Japan’s wartime government was not responsible for the trafficking and enslavement of women. A petition with similar language has been signed by hundreds of Harvard students.

Several scholars noted that Ramseyer’s argument was flawed because he did not produce any signed contracts with Korean women as evidence — and that focusing on contracts in the first place was misleading because the women, many of whom were teenagers, did not have free agency.

Ramseyer’s paper also ignored a 1996 United Nations report that concluded that comfort women, who came from a number of countries, mostly in Asia, were sex slaves, said Yang Kee-ho, a professor of Japanese studies at Sungkonghoe University in Seoul.

“There are many details in the paper which contradict facts and distort truth,” he added.

The paper, “Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War,” argues that the Japanese army created standards for licensing so-called comfort stations around Asia during World War II as a way of preventing the spread of venereal disease.

Ramseyer, an expert on Japanese law, wrote that “prostitutes” who worked in the brothels signed contracts that were similar to those used in Tokyo brothels, but with shorter terms and higher pay to reflect the danger of working in war zones.

Ramseyer declined an interview request. He has previously argued that relying on survivors’ testimony is problematic because some of the women have changed their accounts over the years. “Claims about enslaved Korean comfort women are historically untrue,” he wrote in Japan Forward, an English-language website affiliated with a right-wing Japanese newspaper, last month.

The International Review of Law and Economics, which published Ramseyer’s recent paper online, posted an “expression of concern” this month saying that it was investigating the paper’s historical evidence. But the journal’s editorial team said through a spokesman that the article would still be published in the March edition and was “considered final.”

Another publication, the European Journal of Law and Economics, said this week that it was investigating concerns that had been raised about a paper by Ramseyer that it published last week about the experiences of Korean migrants in Japan.

Ramseyer’s supporters include a group of six Japan-based academics who told the editors of the International Review of Law and Economics in a letter that the article that caused the recent outcry was “well within the academic and diplomatic mainstream” and supported by work from scholars in Japan, South Korea and the United States. They did not name any specific scholars.

One academic who signed the letter, Kanji Katsuoka, said in an interview that he had only read the abstract of the “Contracting for Sex” article, but felt that the term “prostitute” was appropriate because the women had been paid for their services.

“Harvard University is the top school in the United States,” added Katsuoka, a lecturer at Meisei University and the secretary-general of a right-wing research organization. “If they lose freedom of speech, I have to judge that no freedom of speech exists in the United States.”

Three decades ago, when survivors like Lee began speaking publicly about their sexual slavery for Japan’s troops, they were embraced by a nascent feminist movement in East Asia that prioritized the right of women to claim their own history.

Even though the testimonials prompted an official apology from Japan in 1993, the issue remains deeply contentious.

The governments of Japan and South Korea agreed to resolve it in 2015, when Japan expressed responsibility, apologized anew to the women and promised to set up an $8.3 million fund to help provide old-age care. Some of the survivors accepted a portion of the funds, but Lee and a few others rejected the overture, saying it failed to provide official reparations or specify Japan’s legal responsibility.

More recently, people on Japan’s political right, including former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, have insisted that the Korean women were not sex slaves because there is no proof that they were physically forced into the brothels.

Survivors have long challenged that claim. Lee has said that Japanese soldiers dragged her from her home when she was a teenager, covering her mouth so she could not call to her mother.

Ji Soo Janet Park, a Harvard law student who helped organize the recent Zoom event with Lee, said it was designed to combat “denialists and revisionists” who sought to erase the accounts of wartime sexual slavery.

“We’re the next generation that’s responsible for making sure that this remains a part of history,” said Park, 27, whose undergraduate thesis explored how memorials to former sex slaves shape Korean American identity.

In an interview this week, Lee, the survivor, said that she was dismayed to see people in Japan echo Ramseyer’s “absurd” remarks. She said that she had not given up her campaign to have the issue prosecuted at the International Court of Justice.

“As my last work, I would like to clarify the matter at the ICJ,” she said, referring to the court. “When I die and meet the victims who have already passed away, I can tell them that I resolved this issue.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 2:43 pm
With Strikes in Syria, Biden Confronts Iran's Militant Network
The New York TimesPresident Joe Biden talks during an executive order signing ceremony at the White House in Washington on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

BEIRUT — Since President Joe Biden entered the White House, Iranian-backed militants across the Middle East have struck an airport in Saudi Arabia with an exploding drone, and are accused of assassinating a critic in Lebanon and of targeting U.S. military personnel at an airport in northern Iraq, killing a Filipino contractor and wounding six others.

On Thursday, the world got its first glimpse of how Biden is likely to approach one of the greatest security concerns of American partners in the region: the network of militias that are backed by Iran and committed to subverting the interests of the United States and its allies.

U.S. officials said that overnight airstrikes ordered by Biden hit a collection of buildings on the Syrian side of a border crossing with Iraq on Thursday and targeted members of the Iran-backed militia Kataib Hezbollah and an affiliated group.

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A Kataib Hezbollah official said that one of his group’s fighters had been killed in the airstrikes. But Iranian state television and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a conflict monitor based in Britain, reported that 17 fighters had been killed in the airstrikes, which occurred near Abu Kamal, Syria, just across the border from Iraq.

While the exact death toll remained unclear, Biden appears to have calibrated the strikes, hoping they would cause enough damage to show that the United States would not allow rocket attacks like that on the Irbil airport in northern Iraq on Feb. 15, but not so much as to risk setting off a wider conflagration.

“He is kind of putting his first red line,” said Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

She said the strikes signaled to Iran that his eagerness to return to a nuclear agreement would not lead Biden to ignore other regional activities by Iran and its allies, and particularly attacks on U.S. troops.

“It is sending a message: The bottom line is that we won’t tolerate this and will use military force when we feel you’ve crossed the line,” Yahya said.

Militiamen fled from six of the seven buildings hit in the strikes after spotting what they believed to be a U.S. surveillance aircraft, according to the Sabareen news channel on Telegram, which is used by Iran-backed groups.

In a sign of heightened tensions between the Iraqi government and Iran-backed groups that are also part of Iraq’s security forces, Sabareen said the U.S. strikes had been aided by an Iraqi intelligence official posing as a shepherd.

In an interview with a local television network Thursday, Iraq’s foreign minister, Fuad Hussein, said those calling themselves “the resistance” and launching rocket attacks in Iraq were no more than terrorists.

Sabareen called Hussein’s comments “a green light to the international community to target and eliminate the resistance under the pretext of terrorism.”

“We see these attacks as attacks on the Iraqi government,” Hussein said in a recent interview with The New York Times, referring to attacks on the U.S. Embassy and other American targets. Hussein is one of several Iraqi officials who have traveled to Iran in recent months to try to persuade it to use its influence to rein in militia forces.

“I and others went to Tehran and had a frank and open discussion with the Iranians,” he said. “For a period of time, it stopped these attacks.”

“At the end, the field of conflict is in Iraq,” Hussein said.

Senior Iraqi officials have said they expect a more nuanced policy by the Biden administration toward Iraq. Hussein said Baghdad had no expectations that the administration would make Iraq a foreign policy priority, but said relations would be helped by the long experience of both Biden and key administration officials with Iraq and Iraqi politicians.

Kataib Hezbollah says it maintains a presence at the border crossing to prevent the infiltration of Islamic State fighters into Iraq.

The Iraqi government has struggled to rein in Iran-backed militias that have grown in influence since mobilizing to fight the Islamic State when it took over large parts of Iraq and Syria in 2014. The group lost its last piece of territory two years ago, and many of the Iran-backed paramilitary groups have been absorbed into Iraq’s official security forces.

Iraq has warned that conflict between the United States and Iran playing out on its soil threatens to destabilize the country.

Attacks on U.S. interests in Iraq by suspected Iran-backed militias intensified after the United States killed an Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani, and a senior Iraqi security official, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, in a drone strike in Baghdad in 2020.

“In the last year, Iraq has become a playground and battleground for this type of activity driven by the U.S.-Iran escalation,” said Renad Mansour, the Iraq Initiative director at Chatham House, a London-based policy group. “These groups began to spring up after the killing.”

“There’s one clear message from all of them: that avenging the deaths isn’t over,” he said. “For them, time isn’t an issue.”

Mansour, who tracks armed groups in Iraq, said the newer groups appeared to be made up of fighters armed with weapons connected to the larger Iran-linked paramilitaries.

Some of the Iran-backed paramilitary groups are on the Iraqi government’s payroll as part of the Iraqi security forces but are only nominally under the control of the government.

The tit-for-tat attacks come as the Biden administration begins the daunting task of trying to restore the nuclear agreement with Iran that President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from in 2018. Looming behind the question of the parameters of a new deal is the issue of Iran’s destabilizing activities across the Middle East, which are particularly concerning to U.S. allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Iran has spent decades building a network of partnerships with militia groups across the region that has allowed it to project power far outside its area of influence. These groups include the Palestinian group Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, a number of groups in Iraq and the Houthi rebels in Yemen.

All of these groups have received at least some financing, support and weaponry from Iran over the years, and all share its ideology of “resistance,” or the struggle against Israel and U.S. interests in the region.

The groups have developed numerous, often low-cost ways of creating headaches for the United States and its allies. Hezbollah has grown into Lebanon’s most powerful military and political force, with an arsenal of more than 100,000 rockets pointed at Israel and seasoned fighters who helped turn the tide in Syria’s civil war in favor of President Bashar Assad.

This month, the group’s foes in Lebanon accused the group of assassinating Lokman Slim, a publisher, filmmaker and vocal critic of the group who had close ties with Western officials. Hezbollah officials denied any connection to Slim’s killing.

Days after Slim’s death, the Houthi rebels in Yemen, whom an Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia has been bombing since 2015, targeted an airport in the Saudi city of Abha with an explosive-laden drone, damaging a civilian airliner.

The Irbil rocket attack was claimed by a previously unknown armed group calling itself the Guardians of the Blood. U.S. officials said it appeared to be affiliated with one or more of Iraq’s better-known militias, and Thursday’s strikes in Syria targeted facilities belonging to them.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 2:42 pm
Highlights of the COVID-19 relief bill advancing in Congress
Associated PressHouse Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., speaks during a news conference at the Capitol, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)President Joe Biden, accompanied by Vice President Kamala Harris, speaks with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Whip James Clyburn, right, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, seated second left, and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Or., seated left, and Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., foreground, in the Oval Office of the White House, Friday, Feb. 5, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The House is expected to pass a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package late Friday that includes $1,400 checks for most Americans and billions of dollars for schools, state and local governments and businesses.

Republicans are overwhelmingly against the bill, raising concerns that the spending is vastly more than necessary and designed to advance policy priorities that go beyond helping Americans get through the pandemic. Democrats and President Joe Biden counter that a robust aid package is necessary to prevent a long and painful recovery from the pandemic.

The Democrats' goal is to have COVID-19 relief approved by mid-March, when extra unemployment assistance and other pandemic aid expires. The Senate, which Democrats control by a single vote, will consider the bill next.

A look at some highlights of the legislation:


The legislation provides a rebate that amounts to $1,400 for a single taxpayer, or $2,800 for a married couple that files jointly, plus $1,400 per dependent. Individuals earning up to $75,000 would get the full amount as would married couples with incomes up to $150,000.

The size of the check would shrink for those making slightly more with a hard cut-off at $100,000 for individuals and $200,000 for married couples.

Some Republicans want to cut the size of the rebate as well as the pool of Americans eligible for it, but Biden has insisted on $1,400 checks, saying “that’s what the American people were promised.” The new round of checks will cost the government an estimated $422 billion.


Under current law, most taxpayers can reduce their federal income tax bill by up to $2,000 per child. The package moving through the House would increase the tax break to $3,000 for every child age 6 to 17 and $3,600 for every child under the age of 6.

The legislation also calls for the payments to be delivered monthly instead of in one lump sum. If the secretary of the Treasury determines that isn't feasible, then the payments are to be made as frequently as possible.

Also, families would get the full credit regardless of how little they make in a year, even just a few hundred dollars, leading to criticism that the changes would serve as a disincentive to work. Add in the $1,400 per individual checks and other items in the proposal, and the legislation would reduce the number of children living in poverty by more than half, according to an analysis from the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University.


The legislation would send $350 billion to state and local governments and tribal governments. While Republicans in Congress have largely objected to this initiative, Biden’s push has some GOP support among governors and mayors.

Many communities have taken hits to their tax base as millions of people have lost their jobs and as people stay home and avoid restaurants and stores to prevent getting COVID-19. Many areas have also seen expenses rise as they work to treat the sick and ramp up vaccinations.

But the impact varies from state to state and from town to town. Critics say the funding is not appropriately targeted and is far more than necessary with billions of dollars allocated last spring to states and communities still unspent.


The bill calls for $130 billion in additional help to schools for students in kindergarten through 12th grade. The money would be used to reduce class sizes and modify classrooms to enhance social distancing, install ventilation systems and purchase personal protective equipment. The money could also be used to increase the hiring of nurses, counselors and to provide summer school.

Spending for colleges and universities would be boosted by $40 billion, with the money used to defray an institution’s pandemic-related expenses and to provide emergency aid to students to cover expenses such as food and housing and computer equipment.


The bill provides another round of relief for airlines and eligible contractors, $15 billion, so long as they refrain from furloughing workers or cutting pay through September. It’s the third round of support for airlines.

A new program for restaurants and bars hurt by the pandemic would receive $25 billion. The grants provide up to $10 million per entity with a limit of $5 million per physical location. The grants can be used to cover payroll, rent, utilities and other operational expenses.

The bill also provides another $7.25 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program, a tiny fraction of what was allocated in previous legislation. The loans are designed to help borrowers meet their payroll and operating costs and can potentially be forgiven.


Expanded unemployment benefits from the federal government would be extended, with an increase from $300 a week to $400 a week. That's on top of what beneficiaries are getting through their state unemployment insurance program.


The bill provides money for key elements of the Biden administration’s COVID-19 response, while also trying to advance longstanding Democratic priorities like increasing coverage under the Obama-era Affordable Care Act.

On “Obamacare,” it dangles a fiscal carrot in front of a dozen states, mainly in the South, that have not yet taken up the law’s Medicaid expansion to cover more low-income adults. Whether such a sweetener would be enough to start wearing down longstanding Republican opposition to Medicaid expansion is uncertain.

The bill would also provide $46 billion to expand federal, state and local testing for COVID-19 and to enhance contract tracing capabilities with new investments to expand laboratory capacity and set up mobile testing units.


The bill would gradually raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour by June 2025 and then adjust it to increase at the same rate as median hourly wages. However, that provision is not expected to survive in the final bill. The Senate parliamentarian ruled that it cannot be included in the COVID-19 economic relief package under the process Democrats chose to undertake to get a bill passed with a simple majority.

Biden had predicted such a result. Still, the ruling was a stinging setback for most Democratic lawmakers who had said the higher minimum wage would increase the pay for millions of Americans. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office had projected the new federal minimum wage would lift some 900,000 people out of poverty once it was fully in place. But Republicans said the mandatory wage hikes would make it harder for small businesses to survive and they pointed to the CBO's projection that about 1.4 million jobs would be lost as employers looked for ways to offset their higher personnel costs.

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 2:38 pm
Flexi-apprentices to work for more than one company under Rishi Sunak's £126m jobs boost for young people
The TelegraphRishi Sunak

Rishi Sunak will announce a £126 million cash injection for apprenticeships in next week’s Budget, which will include a programme enabling trainees to work at multiple companies.

In an expansion of his “plan for jobs”, the Chancellor will also boost the cash incentives for firms who hand apprentices a job after their training.

The current £2,000 payment to firms for 16-24 year-olds, as well as the £1,500 reward for over 25s, will be replaced with a simpler incentive of £3,000, which will apply for all age groups.

Mr Sunak will on Wednesday also set out plans for new "flexi-job" apprenticeships, enabling trainees to develop their skills with a range of employers within a particular sector.

Instead of having a single employer, they will be linked to an agency that will place them with various relevant organisations.

The package is expected to help create 40,000 new traineeships.

Mr Sunak also confirmed on Friday that he would create a new-fast track visa route for tech workers in the Budget, as first revealed by The Sunday Telegraph.

The new tech visas will be launched to help fast-growing companies recruit from across the world post-Brexit, and are among a series of recommendations made to bolster Britain's fintech industry.

More details will be set out in July before they become available by March next year.

Meanwhile, the Treasury is also expected to announce the creation of 10 new low-tax free ports, at least seven of which will be based in England, as part of the Government’s levelling up agenda.

The Chancellor met with the Prime Minister on Thursday evening to discuss the applications for the new economic zones, which were first proposed by Mr Sunak as a backbench MP.

Bids from areas across the country were submitted earlier this year, with the successful zones benefitting from a package of tax reliefs, as well as simplified customs procedures and relaxations around planning processes.

Meanwhile, The Daily Telegraph can disclose that Andy Street, the Conservative Mayor of the West Midlands, has asked the chancellor for £95 million to deliver a “major economic zone” for the region.

According to insiders with knowledge of the discussions, the proposals would see “new town” and regional technology hub established close to Solihull and the new Interchange Station being constructed as part of the HS2 high speed rail line.

From July, employers will be able to bid for money from a £7 million fund to create new agencies, with the first flexi-apprenticeships expected to start in January 2022.

Ministers believe the scheme is likely to be picked up in sectors with flexible working patterns such as the television and film industries.

Mr Sunak’s focus on training and opportunities for young people comes after unemployment figures released this week showed that 18-24 year-olds are among the hardest hit from the pandemic.

Commenting on the package on Friday, he said: "Our plan for jobs has spread opportunity and hope throughout the crisis, helping people back into work and harnessing their talents for the future.

"We know there's more to do and it's vital this continues throughout the next stage of our recovery, which is why I'm boosting support for these programmes, helping jobseekers and employers alike."

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 2:17 pm
Rights monitor says 3 dead as protests rage in southern Iraq
Associated Press

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi security forces fired live ammunition into a crowd of anti-government protesters on Friday in southern Iraq, killing three people, a human rights monitor said.

It was the deadliest in five days of protests that have left a total of five protesters dead, the semi-official Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights said.

Protesters also injured security forces in reaction to the use of live fire. Of the 271 injured in protests over the week, 147 were personnel of the Iraqi security forces.

Nasiriya, in the province of Dhi Qar, has seen regular protests since late 2019, even after Iraq's mass anti-government movement waned. The movement brought tens of thousands of Iraqis, mostly youth, to the streets of Baghdad and across the south to decry government corruption, unemployment and poor services.

Ali Akram al-Bayati, spokesman for the commission, said protests in the city never really came to a halt.

“It never stopped, this is because the city has been neglected without the new government achieving any of the promises it made,” he said.

Even when tents were cleared in Baghdad’ Tahrir square, considered the epicenter of the protest movement, those in Haboubi square remained. Protesters were calling for political and economic reforms.

Tensions reached a boiling point in late November when clashes broke out between remaining anti-government protesters in Nasiriya's Haboubi square and followers of firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The incident left several protesters dead.

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 1:42 pm
US implicates Saudi crown prince in journalist's killing
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Saudi Arabia's crown prince likely approved the killing of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, according to a newly declassified U.S. intelligence report released Friday. The finding could escalate pressure on the Biden administration to hold the kingdom accountable for a murder that drew widespread outrage in the U.S. and abroad.

The public blaming of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman amounted to an extraordinary rebuke and was likely to set the tone for the new administration’s relationship with a country President Joe Biden has criticized but which the White House also regards in some contexts as a strategic partner.

The conclusion that the prince approved an operation to kill or capture Khashoggi, a critic of his authoritarian consolidation of power, was based on what intelligence officials know about his role in decision-making inside the kingdom as well as the involvement of one of his key advisers, Saud al-Qahtani, and members of his protective detail, according to the report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Officials also factored in the prince's past support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, the report said.

As Democrats in Congress clamored for aggressive action, the State Department responded by announcing visa restrictions on 76 Saudi individuals involved in threatening dissidents abroad.

“As a matter of safety for all within our borders, perpetrators targeting perceived dissidents on behalf of any foreign government should not be permitted to reach American soil,” said Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

The declassified document was released one day after a later-than-usual courtesy call from Biden to Saudi King Salman, though a White House summary of the conversation made no mention of the killing and said instead that the men had discussed the countries’ longstanding partnership. The kingdom’s state-run Saudi Press Agency similarly did not mention Khashoggi’s killing in its report about the call, rather focusing on regional issues such as Iran and the ongoing war in Yemen.

The milder tone on the call was in contrast to Biden's pledge as a candidate to make Saudi Arabia “a pariah” over the killing.

Once in office, Biden has said he would maintain whatever scale of relations with Saudi Arabia that U.S. interests required. He also ordered an end to U.S. support for the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen and said he would stop the sale of offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia. He’s given few details of what weapons and support he meant.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Friday that the administration has been clear that it will “recalibrate our relationship” with Saudi Arabia.

Democrats, meanwhile, pressed for strong action.

Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, urged the Biden administration to make sure the report leads to “serious repercussions against all of the responsible parties it has identified, and also reassess our relationship with Saudi Arabia.” And Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat and Intelligence Committee member, called for consequences for the prince — such as sanctions — as well as for the Saudi kingdom as a whole.

Khashoggi had gone to the Saudi consulate to pick up documents needed for his wedding. Once inside, he died at the hands of more than a dozen Saudi security and intelligence officials and others who had assembled ahead of his arrival. Surveillance cameras had tracked his route and those of his alleged killers in Istanbul in the hours leading up to his killing.

A Turkish bug planted at the consulate reportedly captured the sound of a forensic saw, operated by a Saudi colonel who was also a forensics expert, dismembering Khashoggi’s body within an hour of his entering the building. The whereabouts of his remains remain unknown.

The prince said in 2019 he took “full responsibility” for the killing since it happened on his watch, but denied ordering it. Saudi officials have said Khashoggi’s killing was the work of rogue Saudi security and intelligence officials. Saudi Arabian courts last year announced they had sentenced eight Saudi nationals to prison in Khashoggi’s killing. They were not identified.


Associated Press writers Ellen Knickmeyer in Oklahoma City and Aamer Madhani in Chicago contributed to this report.

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 1:22 pm
Saudi Crown Prince Is Directly to Blame for Khashoggi Killing: U.S. Intel
The Daily BeastSarah Silbiger via Reuters

An unclassified intel report detailing the heinous assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi has just been released by the Biden administration—and it points the finger directly at Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

“We assess that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” the four-page report, released on Friday, said.

The report, released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence after previously being held back by the Trump administration, is based on a CIA report that concluded in November 2018 that the Saudi crown prince ordered the killing. Biden called Saudi Arabia’s King Salman late Thursday but the White House readout did not mention the report, instead saying the two discussed continued work on “mutual issues of concern.”

How Trump Sided With Saudi Murderers Over Their Victim Jamal Khashoggi

Khashoggi, a 59-year-old Saudi Arabian dissident and columnist who fled his native country in 2017, disappeared after entering the Saudi consulate office in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018, to retrieve documents for his impending marriage.

While there, he was restrained, murdered and at some point dismembered by a doctor who wielded a bone saw, according to audio caught on listening devices inside the consulate. Turkish journalists who heard the surveillance tapes wrote in a book that Saudi agents had planned the killing. “We will first tell him that we are taking him to Riyadh. If he fails to comply, we will kill him here and get rid of the body,” they were overheard saying.

Khashoggi is later heard asking, “Are you going to give me drugs?” His final words were, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.”

A struggle then ensued before a man asked, “Did he sleep?” Another voice commanded: “Keep pushing.”

Later, a doctor is heard describing the dismemberment. “Joints will be separated,” he is heard saying. “If we take plastic bags and cut it into pieces, it will be finished.” His body has never been found.

The Saudi government initially denied he had been killed, but later said rogue agents had carried out the horrific crime. A body double dressed in his clothes was seen leaving the consulate in an effort to cover up the killing.

General Ahmed al-Assiri, a Saudi intelligence agent, later admitted he had formally ordered agents to try to convince Khashoggi to return to Saudi Arabia but had not authorized the use of force if he refused, according to The Washington Post.

How Trump Sided With Saudi Murderers Over Their Victim Jamal Khashoggi

Eight Saudi men were eventually charged and convicted for their role in a questionable trial. All five who were sentenced to death saw their sentences commuted to 20 years. The Saudi court said the Khashoggi relatives had forgiven them, paving the way to a lighter sentence.

Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s fiance, filed a lawsuit in the United States against Bin Salman, who is widely known as MBS, over the murder. It is unclear how this report will impact that suit.

During the presidential campaign, Biden accused MBS of ordering the murder and vowed the U.S. would not sell weapons to Saudis, instead making them “the pariah that they are.” He told reporters earlier this week that he had read the intel report on Khashoggi’s killing and planned to speak to Saudi Arabian King Salman over the phone soon.

By contrast, the Trump administration had refused to release the report, claiming that revealing it would “compromise the national intelligence office’s sources and methods.”

Biden has also ended American support for the Saudi-led conflict in Yemen and discussed resuming talks with Iran—moves the Saudi kingdom adamantly opposes.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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Posted on 26 February 2021 | 1:18 pm
Vaccine roll-out gaps a core concern for G-20 countries
Associated Press


The uneven distribution of vaccines between wealthier and poorer countries is a key concern of Group of 20 nations as leaders consider how to create even footing for recovery from the pandemic both in economic and health terms, Italy’s economic minister said Friday.

Daniele Franco told a virtual news conference after the meeting of finance ministers and central bank chiefs of the G-20 economies that a core priority for the group is “to grant equitable access” to safe vaccines.

“We will not get back to our normal lives until the virus is eradicated in all countries,” Franco said. He added that the ministers and governors agreed on the necessity of a “bold and global response aimed at curbing the virus diffusion everywhere.”

He said that includes addressing the financing gap in an initiative for equitable distributions of vaccines, diagnostics and treatment for COVID-19. The World Health Organization has put the gap at $22.9 billion.

Franco said the group also addressed the “fragile and uneven” nature of the economic recovery, with a call to strengthen cooperation and coordination among G-20 countries “to put the global economy on a path of stable and sustainable growth.”

“It is essential that we remain vigilant, and learn from previous crises,’’ he said, adding that the participants agreed that “any premature withdrawal of fiscal and monetary support should be avoided.”

Asked about concerns that differences in the vaccine roll-outs even among EU nations and between Europe and the United States might affect the recovery, Franco said the focus was on the clear lag in developing countries, particularly Africa, which will be more difficult to overcome.

The ministers and governors also discussed exploring additional tools to help meet longer-term financing needs in weaker economies, particularly in Africa, that have been more severely hit by the pandemic

Italy last December took over the rotating presidency of the G-20, an international forum bringing together major economies that account for more than 80% of the world’s GDP. Economy and finance ministers will check in on progress on issues in July in Venice, and a global summit is planned for October. Climate change and tax policy are on the agenda for July.

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 12:55 pm
Myanmar's UN ambassador calls on world to condemn military coup

Myanmar's Ambassador to the United Nations, Kyaw Moe Tun, on Friday denounced the Feb. 1 military coup, asking member nations to publicly condemn the uprising, The Irrawaddy reports.

What he's saying: "The military detained State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, President U Win Myint and other political leaders and social activists. Since then, people from all strata of life have come out on the streets all over the country and expressed their disappointment with the military coup," Tun said, in prepared remarks.

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"[T]he people in Myanmar still feel helpless ... we still need strongest possible action from the international community to immediately end the military coup."

Tun asked all UN members to denounce the coup, to not recognize the military regime, and take "all strongest possible measures" to stop the attacks by Myanmar law enforcement against protesters and end the coup immediately.

The big picture: On Friday UN special envoy on Myanmar Christine Schraner Burgener called for a collective "clear signal in support of democracy," Reuters reports.

"It is important the international community does not lend legitimacy or recognition to this regime,” Schraner Burgener said.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has promised that the international community to enact pressure "to make sure that this coup fails," per Reuters.

Former U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, commented on Tun's actions, saying, "It is impossible to overstate the risks that Myanmar UN ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun just took in the UN General Assembly when (voice cracking) he just now called on world to oppose the military coup."

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Posted on 26 February 2021 | 12:48 pm
Myanmar's UN envoy dramatically opposes coup in his country
Associated PressMedicals students display images of deposed Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a street march in Mandalay, Myanmar, Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. In the country’s second-largest city, anti-coup protesters took to the streets Friday. By midday, security forces had blocked the main road in downtown Mandalay to prevent the protesters from gathering. (AP Photo)A protester show bullets, shotgun shells and rubber bullets used by security forces during a demonstration against the military coup in Mandalay, Myanmar, Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. (AP Photo)Thousands of students march along main road during an anti-coup street march in Mandalay, Myanmar, Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. Tensions escalated Thursday on the streets of Yangon, Myanmar's biggest city, as supporters of Myanmar's junta attacked people protesting the military government that took power in a coup, using slingshots, iron rods and knives to injure several of the demonstrators. (AP Photo)Police armed vehicles park along a main road after protesters were dispersed in Mandalay, Myanmar, Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. In the country’s second-largest city, anti-coup protesters took to the streets Friday. By midday, security forces had blocked the main road in downtown Mandalay to prevent the protesters from gathering. (AP Photo)

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Myanmar’s U.N. ambassador strongly opposed the military coup in his country and appealed for “the strongest possible action from the international community” to restore democracy in a dramatic speech to the U.N. General Assembly Friday that drew loud applause from diplomats from the world body’s 193 nations.

Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun urged all countries to issue public statements strongly condemning the military coup and refuse to recognize the military regime and ask its leaders to respect the free and fair elections in November won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party.

“It is time for the military to immediately relinquish power and release those detained,” he said. “We will continue to fight for a government which is of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Tun’s surprise statement not only drew applause but commendations from speaker after speaker at the assembly meeting including ambassadors representing the European Union, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the new U.S. ambassador, Linda Thomas Greenfield, who joined others in calling it “courageous.”

She said the United States “stands in solidarity” with the people of Myanmar who are in the streets protesting the coup and reiterated President Joe Biden’s warning that “we will show the military their actions have consequences” and his appeal to the military “to immediately relinquish power.”

The assembly meeting was called to hear a briefing from the U.N. special envoy for Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, who said it is time to “sound the alarm” about the coup, ongoing violations of the constitution and reversal of reforms instituted by Suu Kyi, who was previously the de facto head of government.

She pointed to restrictions on internet and communication services, the detention of about 700 people according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Myanmar.

The huge protests in the country are not about a fight between Suu Kyi’s party and the military, she said, “it is a people’s fight without arms.”

Addressing diplomats in the General Assembly chamber by video link, Schraner Burgener urged “all of you to collectively send a clear signal in support of democracy in Myanmar.”

The Feb. 1 military takeover in Myanmar shocked the international community and reversed years of slow progress toward democracy. Suu Kyi’s party would have been installed for a second five-year term that day, but the army blocked Parliament from convening and detained her, President Win Myint and other top members of her government.

Myanmar’s military says it took power because last November’s election was marked by widespread voting irregularities, an assertion that was refuted by the state election commission, whose members have since been replaced by the ruling junta. The junta has said it will rule for a year under a state of emergency and then hold new polls.

Schraner Burgener told the General Assembly that “democratically elected representatives were able to be sworn in according to the constitution on Feb. 4 and have formed the Committee Representing Pyidaungu Hluttaw known as CRPH" and are seeking “to uphold their obligations to serve the people who voted for them.”

Tun, the Myanmar ambassador, began his remarks to the assembly by reading a statement from CRPH stressing the legitimacy of the election results, declaring that the military overthrew the democratically elected government, citing the massive opposition by the people, and stressing that “now is not the time for the international community to tolerate crimes of the military” and the coup.

“We ask the international community to take action,” the parliamentarians’ statement said.

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 12:25 pm
Tim Kaine demands briefing from Biden administration on legal justification for Syria strike

Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) are among the Democrats criticizing the Biden administration for Thursday night's airstrike against facilities in Syria linked to an Iran-backed militia group, demanding that Congress immediately be briefed on the matter.

Why it matters: The strikes, which the Pentagon and National Security Council say were a response to threats against U.S. forces in the region, constitute the Biden administration's first overt military action.

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What they're saying:

Kaine: "Offensive military action without congressional approval is not constitutional absent extraordinary circumstances. Congress must be fully briefed on this matter expeditiously."

Murphy: "Congress should hold this administration to the same standard it did prior administrations, and require clear legal justifications for military action, especially inside theaters like Syria, where Congress has not explicitly authorized any American military action."

Khanna: "We cannot stand up for Congressional authorization before military strikes only when there is a Republican president. The administration should have sought Congressional authorization here. We need to work to extricate from the Middle East, not escalate."

The other side: The Pentagon said in a statement Thursday that the strike was carried out "in response to recent attacks against American and Coalition personnel in Iraq," and was intended to "de-escalate the overall situation in both eastern Syria and Iraq."

A National Security Council spokesperson said the Pentagon pre-notified Congress, and that the administration is continuing to brief the Hill at the member and staff level.

"As a matter of domestic law, the president took this action pursuant to his Article II authority to defend U.S. personnel," the spokesperson said.

The big picture: All three Democrats have been outspoken against past presidents' attempts to conduct offensive military operations without congressional approval.

Kaine has led the charge in the Senate to repeal the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) against Iraq and to replace the 2001 AUMF — which has been cited repeatedly by presidents to justify U.S. military action all over the world — with a narrower authorization.

Kaine and Khanna also introduced resolutions passed by Congress in 2020 that would have required former President Trump to get congressional approval before taking military action against Iran, but it was vetoed by the president.

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Posted on 26 February 2021 | 12:22 pm
Ethiopia's Tigray crisis: How a massacre in the sacred city of Aksum unfolded
BBCAn aerial view of Our Lady Mary of Zion Church and Aksum in EthiopiaSatellite imagery taken on 13 December 2020 shows new disturbed earth at the Arba'etu Ensessa church in downtown AksumPeople walk next to an abandoned tank belonging to Tigray forces south of the town of Mehoni, Ethiopia - 11 December 2020A residential streek in Aksum, EthiopiaThe Arba'etu Ensessa church in Askum, EthiopiaShops on a street in AksumAksum's Our Lady Mary of Zion Church - Ethiopia

Eritrean troops fighting in Ethiopia's northern region of Tigray killed hundreds of people in Aksum mainly over two days in November, witnesses say.

The mass killings on 28 and 29 November may amount to a crime against humanity, Amnesty International says in a report.

An eyewitness told the BBC how bodies remained unburied on the streets for days, with many being eaten by hyenas.

Ethiopia and Eritrea, which both officially deny Eritrean soldiers are in Tigray, have not commented.

The Ethiopian Human Rights commission says it is investigating the allegations.

BBC Africa Live: Updates from the continent

The Nobel Peace Prize winner who sent his troops to battle

The conflict erupted on 4 November 2020 when Ethiopia's government launched an offensive to oust the region's ruling TPLF party after its fighters captured federal military bases in Tigray.

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, told parliament on 30 November that "not a single civilian was killed" during the operation.

But witnesses have recounted how on that day they began burying some of the bodies of unarmed civilians killed by Eritrean soldiers - many of them boys and men shot on the streets or during house-to-house raids.

Amnesty's report has high-resolution satellite imagery from 13 December showing disturbed earth consistent with recent graves at two churches in Aksum, an ancient city considered sacred by Ethiopia's Orthodox Christians.

A communications blackout and restricted access to Tigray has meant reports of what has gone on in the conflict have been slow to emerge.

In Aksum, electricity and phone networks reportedly stopped working on the first day of the conflict.

Shelling by Ethiopian and Eritrea forces to the west of Aksum began on Thursday 19 November, according to people in the city.

"This attack continued for five hours, and was non-stop. People who were at churches, cafes, hotels and their residence died. There was no retaliation from any armed force in the city - it literally targeted civilians," a civil servant in Aksum told the BBC.

Amnesty has gathered similar and multiple testimonies describing the continuous shelling that evening of civilians.

Once in control of the city, soldiers, generally identified as Eritrean, searched for TPLF soldiers and militias or "anyone with a gun", Amnesty said.

"There were a lot of... house-to-house killings," one woman told the rights group.

There is compelling evidence that Ethiopian and Eritrean troops carried out "multiple war crimes in their offensive to take control of Aksum", Amnesty's Deprose Muchena says.

For the next week, the testimonies say Ethiopia troops were mainly in Aksum - the Eritreans had pushed on east to the town of Adwa.

A witness told the BBC how the Ethiopian military looted banks in the city in that time.

The Eritrean forces reportedly returned a week later. The fighting on Sunday 28 November was triggered by an assault of poorly armed pro-TPLF fighters, according to Amnesty's report.

Between 50 and 80 men from Aksum targeted an Eritrean position on a hill overlooking the city in the morning.

A 26-year-old man who participated in the attack told Amnesty: "We wanted to protect our city so we attempted to defend it especially from Eritrean soldiers... They knew how to shoot and they had radios, communications... I didn't have a gun, just a stick."

It is unclear how long the fighting lasted, but that afternoon Eritrean trucks and tanks drove into Aksum, Amnesty reports.

Witnesses say Eritrean soldiers went on a rampage, shooting at unarmed civilian men and boys who were out on the streets - continuing until the evening.

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A man in his 20s told Amnesty about the killings on the city's main street: "I was on the second floor of a building and I watched, through the window, the Eritreans killing the youth on the street."

The soldiers, identified as Eritrean not just because of their uniform and vehicle number plates but because of the languages they spoke (Arabic and an Eritrean dialect of Tigrinya), started house-to-house searches.

"I would say it was in retaliation," a young man told the BBC. "They killed every man they found. If you opened your door and they found a man they killed him, if you didn't open, they shoot your gate by force."

He was hiding in a nightclub and witnessed a man who was found and killed by Eritrean soldiers begging for his life: "He was telling them: 'I am a civilian, I am a banker.'"

Another man told Amnesty that he saw six men killed, execution-style, outside his house near the Abnet Hotel the following day on 29 November.

"They lined them up and shot them in the back from behind. Two of them I knew. They're from my neighbourhood… They asked: 'Where is your gun' and they answered: 'We have no guns, we are civilians.'"

Witnesses say at first the Eritrean soldiers would not let anyone approach the bodies on the streets - and would shoot anyone who did so.

One woman, whose nephews aged 29 and 14 had been killed, said the roads "were full of dead bodies".

Amnesty says after the intervention of elders and Ethiopian soldiers, burials began over several days, with most funerals taking place on 30 November after people brought the bodies to the churches - often 10 at a time loaded on horse- or donkey-drawn carts.

At Abnet Hotel, the civil servant who spoke to the BBC said some bodies were not removed for four days.

"The bodies that were lying around Abnet Hotel and Seattle Cinema were eaten by hyenas. We found only bones. We buried bones.

"I can say around 800 civilians were killed in Aksum."

This account is echoed by a church deacon who told the Associated Press that many bodies had been fed on by hyenas.

He gathered victims' identity cards and assisted with burials in mass graves and also believes about 800 people were killed that weekend.

The 41 survivors and witnesses Amnesty interviewed provided the names of more than 200 people they knew who were killed.

Witnesses say the Eritrean soldiers participated in looting, which after the massacre and as many people fled the city, became widespread and systematic.

The university, private houses, hotels, hospitals, grain stores, garages, banks, DIY stores, supermarkets, bakeries and other shops were reportedly targeted.

One man told Amnesty how Ethiopian soldiers failed to stop Eritreans looting his brother's house.

"They took the TV, a jeep, the fridge, six mattresses, all the groceries and cooking oil, butter, teff flour [Ethiopia's staple food], the kitchen cabinets, clothes, the beers in the fridge, the water pump, and the laptop."

The young man who spoke to the BBC said he knew of 15 vehicles that had been stolen belonging to businessmen in the city.

This has had a devastating impact on those left in Aksum, leaving them with little food and medicine to survive, Amnesty says.

Witnesses say the theft of water pumps left residents having to drink from the river.

It is said to be the birthplace of the biblical Queen of Sheba, who travelled to Jerusalem to visit King Solomon.

They had a son - Menelik I - who is said to have brought to Aksum the Ark of the Covenant, believed to contain the 10 commandments handed down to Moses by God.

It is constantly under guard at the city's Our Lady Mary of Zion Church and no-one is allowed to see it.

A major religious celebration is usually held at the church on 30 November, drawing pilgrims from across Ethiopia and around the world, but it was cancelled last year amid the conflict.

The civil servant interviewed by the BBC said that Eritrean troops came to the church on 3 December "terrorising the priests and forcing them to give them the gold and silver cross".

But he said the deacons and other young people went to protect the ark.

"It was a huge riot. Every man and woman fought them. They fired guns and killed some, but we are happy as we did not fail to protect our treasures."

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 11:59 am
Lord Frost warned to drop confrontational style before taking up new role on UK-EU relations
The TelegraphThe former Brexit negotiator was promoted to Cabinet minister by Boris Johnson. - Shutterstock

Lord Frost must drop his confrontational style of negotiating if Britain and the EU are to rebuild their strained relationship, Brussels sources have warned.

The rebuke was angrily rejected by the Government, which insisted that former Brexit negotiator Lord Frost was “the best person” to reset UK-EU relations.

Lord Frost, who negotiated the EU trade deal last deal, will oversee thorny talks over the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol from Monday after being promoted to a minister in Boris Johnson’s Cabinet.

During last year’s Brexit trade talks, he ruffled feathers in Brussels with his uncompromising insistence on the EU respecting the UK as a “sovereign equal”.

"The EU and UK relationship is in dire need of more consensus, unfortunately Lord Frost is, so far, better known for confrontation,” an EU diplomat told the Telegraph.

“Putting the relationship on ice is not an option. Britain and the continent are too close, too interlinked and there's too much going on affecting both sides of the English Channel.”

“Based on evidence so far this year, the EU’s efforts can hardly be described as having promoted harmony,” a UK government source said.

The source said that European Commission moves towards a coronavirus vaccine export ban and its short-lived threat to impose a hard border on the island of Ireland to enforce it were “concerning”.

The source added, “We are working at pace to ensure a friendly and productive relationship. The best person to lead that effort is Lord Frost.”

The EU warning came after reports that senior figures in Brussels hoped to “reset” the relationship with Britain.

Relations have been further strained by rows over the implementation of new customs arrangements in Northern Ireland and the status of the EU's ambassador to the UK.

An EU official said, “We know Lord Frost and I’m sure we will be more than capable of working with him and finding solutions.”

Recent meetings between the two sides over the protocol have failed to find agreement on the extension of various grace periods to, for example, ensure continued supermarket supplies to Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

The RTE broadcaster reported that the reset could be a meeting between Boris Johnson and senior EU figures such as European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen.

The EU is due to ratify the new trade deal, which has been provisionally applied, in April. This would be a good moment to draw a line under past disagreements, especially if new agreements on the grace periods on the protocol can be agreed in time

The EU official said, "This would be a nice thing to happen but we are not holding our breath. The timeline sounds about right. I’m not so sure if a ‘reset’ is possible, but I think it’s admirable that we’re at least trying."

The reset would be aimed at drawing a line under the tetchy relations that have bedevilled London and Brussels since the UK left the Brexit transition period at the end of last year.

A UK government spokeswoman said, “The deal we struck with the EU is the beginning of our new partnership in Europe, with new stability and certainty around our future relationship.

“It will build on our shared history of friendship and cooperation, but as sovereign equals, with greater democratic autonomy and a clear, independent voice to speak and act on our priorities.”

Britain and the EU were reported as nearing an agreement on a memorandum of understanding on financial services on Friday, which could be a small step to securing access to the Single Market for some UK firms.

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 11:54 am
Russians push rail trolley across border to leave North Korea
CBS NewsA group of Russian citizens, including a diplomat and his family, used a hand-pushed rail trolley to cross North Korea's border back into Russia. / Credit: Russian Foreign Ministry

Moscow – A group of Russian citizens, including a diplomat and his family, used a hand-pushed rail trolley to cross North Korea's border back into their home country, Russia's Foreign Ministry said. North Korea closed its borders about a year ago, suspending transportation links with its neighbors due to the spread of COVID-19.

North Korea shares a border with Russia in the far eastern part of the isolated rogue nation, but there are no trains running between the countries at the moment. This didn't stop the group of Russians, who used the trolley to cross the border with their many suitcases and little children.

The group of eight included the embassy's third secretary, Vladislav Sorokin, and his family, including 3-year-old daughter Varvara, the Foreign Ministry said in a post on Twitter Thursday.

They had to travel "32 hours by train, then another two hours by bus to the border and, finally, the most important part of the route — walking on foot to the Russian side," the post said.

The trolley had been made specifically for that journey in advance and placed on the tracks. Sorokin was the main "engine" who had to push the loaded trolley for more than half a mile. The Foreign Ministry posted a video of the group crossing a bridge over the Tumen River, which separates the two countries.

On the Russian side, they were greeted by local Foreign Ministry officials. The party had to take another bus ride to the nearest airport in Vladivostok. State news agency RIA Novosti reported Friday they went to Moscow.

In the past, the railroad was used by the North's leader, Kim Jong Un, and his father, Kim Jong Il, for their visits to Russia on the family armored train.

Despite months of negotiations with the North Korean government, the trolley was the only approved direct way for the Russians to return home, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told Kommersant FM radio station on Friday.

The only other option would be to return through China, which includes a three-week quarantine there, she said.

"Diplomatic service is very thorny, it can be very difficult," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, a former diplomat himself, told reporters on Friday.

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Posted on 26 February 2021 | 11:47 am
UPDATE 2-Myanmar's U.N. envoy makes emotional appeal for action to stop coup

(Adds details, quotes throughout)

By Michelle Nichols

NEW YORK, Feb 26 (Reuters) - Myanmar's U.N. Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun, speaking for the country's elected civilian government ousted in a military coup on Feb. 1, appealed to the United Nations on Friday "to use any means necessary to take action against the Myanmar military" to restore democracy to the Southeast Asian country.

He addressed the 193-member U.N. General Assembly after Secretary-General Antonio Guterres' special envoy on Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, warned that no country should recognize or legitimize the Myanmar junta and all efforts must be made to restore democracy.

"We need further strongest possible action from the international community to immediately end the military coup, to stop oppressing the innocent people, to return the state power to the people and to restore the democracy," Kyaw Moe Tun said to applause and praise from Western and Islamic counterparts.

Schraner Burgener pushed for a collective "clear signal in support of democracy" as she sounded the alarm over the coup, urging "influential" countries to push the military to allow an independent assessment of the situation.

Myanmar has been in turmoil since the army seized power and detained civilian government leader Aung San Suu Kyi and much of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party after the military complained of fraud in a November election.

"Regrettably, the current regime has so far asked me to postpone any visit. It seems they want to continue making large-scale arrests and have been coercing people to testify against the NLD Government. This is cruel and inhumane," Schraner Burgener said.

The country has been largely paralyzed by weeks of protests and a civil disobedience campaign of strikes against the military. While military chief General Min Aung Hlaing says authorities are using minimal force during the protests, three protesters and one policeman have been killed.

"If there is any escalation in terms of military crackdown – and sadly as we have seen this before in Myanmar – against people exercising their basic rights, let us act swiftly and collectively," Schraner Burgener said.

The army has promised an election, but has not given a date. It has imposed a one-year state of emergency.

The question of an election is at the center of a diplomatic effort by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Myanmar is a member. Indonesia has taken the lead, but coup opponents fear the efforts will confer legitimacy on the junta.

"It is important the international community does not lend legitimacy or recognition to this regime," Schraner Burgener said. "The result of the election of November 2020 was clear with 82 percent of the votes for the NLD."

Guterres has pledged to mobilize enough international pressure "to make sure that this coup fails." The Security Council has voiced concern over the state of emergency, but stopped short of condemning the coup.

Schraner Burgener expressed concern for the Rohingya Muslims and other minorities.

A 2017 military crackdown in Myanmar's Rakhine State sent more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims fleeing into Bangladesh, where they are still stranded. Guterres and Western states have accused the Myanmar army of ethnic cleansing, which it denies.

"We must ask, how can we rely on a military regime when the very same led the security operations leading to the human rights violations and forced displacement of Rohingya people and others from their homes?" Schraner Burgener said.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Dan Grebler)

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 11:23 am
UPDATE 1-U.N. human rights boss urges Saudi Arabia to allow free speech, assembly

(Adds EU speech in new paragraphs 5-6)

GENEVA, Feb 26 (Reuters) - United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet, in rare public comments on Saudi Arabia, said on Friday that people were unlawfully held in the kingdom and urged it to uphold freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly.

Bachelet, addressing the U.N. Human Rights Council where Saudi Arabia has observer status, welcomed the release earlier this month of women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, adding: "although I regret that others continued to be unjustly detained".

Hathloul campaigned for women's right to drive and to end Saudi Arabia's guardianship system that requires women to obtain permission of a male relative for certain decisions and travel. She spent nearly three years behind bars in a case that drew international condemnation, and remains forbidden to leave Saudi Arabia for five years.

Bachelet did not refer to the expected release by the Biden administration of a sensitive U.S. intelligence report on the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The European Union, in a speech by Portugal's ambassador Rui Macieira, voiced concern at Saudi Arabia's use of anti-terrorist and security bodies to try civilians and activists subjected to prolonged detention, including solitary confinement.

"Noting reforms to the penal system and a significant decrease in the use of capital punishment, the EU calls for further attention to the rights of migrant workers, to women’s rights and to the freedom of expression and of religion or belief," he said.

Bachelet welcomed plans announced by Saudi authorities to adopt new legislation on family law and personal status.

"I urge the authorities to also establish legislative frameworks to uphold the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association for everyone in the Kingdom," she said. (Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay Editing by John Revill and Peter Graff)

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 11:12 am
Report questions claim Palestinian was shot in self-defense
Associated PressFILE - In this June 23, 2020, file photo, Israeli policemen stand around the body of a Palestinian at a checkpoint near Jerusalem. Israeli police previously said that Ahmed Erekat, a 27-year-old print shop owner, rammed his car into a checkpoint in a terrorist attack and later died of wounds following gunfire from police. Earlier this week, Forensic Architecture, a London-based group that investigates state violence, and Palestinian human rights group Al Haq said its analysis raises major questions in the Israeli army’s claim about Ahmad’s killing and calls for further investigation. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean, File)In this Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, file photo, visitors wearing face masks to help curb the spread of the coronavirus the famed shopping area of Dihua Street market in Taipei, Taiwan, Wednesday, Feb 10, 2021. Taiwan says it will begin slightly easing restrictions on foreign visitors coming to the island beginning Monday. (AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying, File)

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — An international research group examining the fatal shooting of a Palestinian motorist challenged Israeli self-defense claims, saying the man had emerged from his car after it crashed into a checkpoint, did not approach troops and was instantly shot six times. It says the last three rounds were fired while he lay curled up on the ground.

Israel has said 27-year-old Ahmad Erekat intentionally rammed his car into a guard booth at a military checkpoint in the occupied West Bank, and that troops killed him in self defense.

The London-based group Forensic Architecture, working with the Palestinian human rights group Al Haq, reviewed the June 23 shooting at the request of the Erekat family and released its findings this week. “Our analysis raises major questions about Ahmad’s killing that raise doubts in the Israeli army’s claims and calls for further investigation,” the group said in a statement.

In recent years, Palestinian assailants have carried out a series of shootings, stabbings and car ramming attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians. Human rights groups have accused Israeli troops of repeatedly using excessive force and in some cases opening fire at cars that merely lost control.

An outside investigation of such a shooting is rare. Ahmad Erekat was a nephew of the late Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

Forensic Architecture, which investigates human rights violations, used security camera footage, 3D analysis and other techniques to review the June 23 events from the time of Erekat's shooting to when his body was removed from the scene.

The video shows Erekat’s car slowly approaching the checkpoint, veering left and then abruptly pivoting to the right, colliding with the booth.

After the car hits the booth, a female officer can be seen flying through the air and quickly stands up. Erekat steps out of the car with at least one hand raised, taking no steps toward the checkpoint and Israeli officials. He is immediately shot and falls to the ground.

Shortly after, his arm can be seen moving, suggesting he might have still been alive. Later, an officer can be seen passing closely by the still figure without pausing to check on it.

The group said its evidence shows that the Israeli forces did not give Erekat medical treatment and even turned away a Palestinian ambulance. Erekat likely died during that time, the analysis says.

Investigators later can be seen flipping Erekat’s body over from the exact position in which he fell. At one point, the analysis claims his body was stripped before it was removed from the scene, but that footage is blurred, the group said, out of respect for Erekat’s family.

The Israeli police did not return a call seeking comment Friday.

In a response carried by the Israeli daily Haaretz, Israeli authorities insisted troops acted in self-defense. Police described the incident as “a documented terrorist attack that almost took the lives of the fighters at the checkpoint.”

Forensic Architecture said in its report that Erekat's car hit the guard booth at a steady slow speed, rather than accelerate. Israeli police disputed that finding, saying the car suddenly accelerated. It said a female police officer was injured in the incident.

Police said Erekat's body was kept at the scene for an examination by a bomb disposal expert, and that “when he was done, the medical forces were able to work.”

In its initial response in June, police had claimed that Erekat moved toward the officers after getting out of the car - a claim not backed up by the video.

Erekat's family cast doubt on the police account, saying he had rented the car as he prepared for his sister’s wedding party later that day, and that his own wedding was scheduled the following week.

“There is no way on earth he would attempt to carry out an attack,” his cousin, Hiba Erekat, said at the time.

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 11:05 am
Angela Merkel faces lockdown rebellion as German regions loosen Covid restrictions
The TelegraphGerman Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives for a press conference following the EU leaders' videoconference in Berlin on February 25, 2021. (Photo by John MACDOUGALL / various sources / AFP) (Photo by JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP via Getty Images) - JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFPHesse's State Premier Volker Bouffier wears a face mask as he attends the 1000th session of the upper house of Parliament, the Bundesrat, on February 12, 2021 in Berlin. (Photo by FABRIZIO BENSCH / POOL / AFP) (Photo by FABRIZIO BENSCH/POOL/AFP via Getty Images) -  FABRIZIO BENSCH/AFP

Angela Merkel is facing a rebellion over Germany’s coronavirus lockdown as regional governments move to ease restrictions.

Garden centres, florists and nail parlours are among businesses that will be allowed to reopen in several German states from Monday as regional leaders defied Mrs Merkel’s calls to extend the lockdown.

Clothes shops will be allowed to reopen in the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate, but customers will have to make an appointment in advance.

The move comes as a new poll released on Friday showed more than half of Germans support easing restrictions. The survey for ZDF television found 56 per cent of Germans now favour easing the lockdown, while only 41 per cent are opposed.

Mrs Merkel is set to hold talks with regional leaders on the lockdown next week. She has repeatedly warned against lifting restrictions over fears Germany could face a third wave caused by new variants on the virus.

But under Germany’s federal system it is regional leaders who have the final say on lockdown, and a clear sign they are no longer prepared to go along with Mrs Merkel’s tough line several pre-empted the talks by announcing their own plans in advance.

Crucially, they include Markus Söder, the Bavarian regional leader who has been Mrs Merkel’s staunchest ally on lockdown.

Mrs Merkel signalled she is ready to compromise in an interview this week, telling Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper: “There cannot be a single plan with exact data straight from the drawing board. We always have to be flexible.”

At the last round of talks in early February Mrs Merkel dashed hopes of early reopening by introducing new infection targets. Just as the weekly national infection rate was nearing the previous target of 50 per 100,000 people she lowered it to 35.

That move has proved deeply unpopular and regional governments are now under pressure to loosen restrictions even though the rate has begun to rise again slightly. Several regional leaders are facing elections this year and say they cannot afford to ignore public opinion.

One of Mrs Merkel’s key allies made the anger among the states clear in unguarded remarks at an online conference this week.

“We are destroying livelihoods. And by the way also the state finances ”, said Volker Bouffier, the regional leader of Hesse, home to Germany’s financial capital Frankfurt.

Losing his temper, Mr Bouffier predicted next week’s talks will be “a mess, wild yapping from the chancellery to Bavaria and back, and in the end the people will be driven insane”.

Mrs Merkel and Jens Spahn, the health minister, are promising to introduce free rapid testing so some restrictions can be eased.

The idea was championed as long ago as last autumn by a controversial mayor who has been one of the German lockdown’s most outspoken critics.

“For weeks all I heard from Berlin was that the rapid tests weren’t approved yet,” Boris Palmer, the mayor of Tübingen said. “I'm not waiting for permission to pick my nose.”

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 10:57 am
UN says Paris carbon-cutting plans fall far short

Nations' formal emissions-cutting pledges are collectively way too weak to put the world on track to meet the Paris climate deal's temperature-limiting target, a United Nations tally shows.

Driving the news: This morning the UN released an analysis of the most recent nationally determined contributions (NDCs) — that is, countries' medium-term emissions targets submitted under the 2015 pact.

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By the numbers: The UN said the combined effect of the targets, if achieved, would lead to a 1% drop in global greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 compared to 2010 levels.

Yet a pathway to limiting long-term temperature rise to 1.5°C — the most ambitious goal of the deal — would require a roughly 45% cut by then.

Why it matters: It's no secret that combined efforts are falling short.

But the analysis both tallies the gap and highlights the importance of the big UN climate summit in Scotland late this year and nations' actions in the runup.

"Today’s interim report ... is a red alert for our planet," UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in a statement.

Yes, but: It's not as grim as the headline numbers suggest. Patricia Espinosa, the UN's top climate official, emphasized in a statement that the analysis is a "snapshot, not a full picture."

The report tallies new or revised NDCs from 75 parties that account for about 30% of global emissions.

Many large nations, including China, the biggest emitter, have not yet submitted their revised targets.

The U.S. plans to unveil a 2030 target ahead of a summit Biden is convening on April 22.

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Posted on 26 February 2021 | 10:11 am
"Crimea is Ukraine": Biden condemns Russian aggression on 7th anniversary of annexation

President Biden reaffirmed U.S. support for the people of Ukraine and vowed to hold Russia accountable for its aggression in a statement on Friday, the 7th anniversary of Russia's 2014 invasion of Crimea.

Why it matters: The statement reflects the aggressive approach Biden is taking to Russia, which he classified on the campaign trail as an "opponent" and "the biggest threat" to U.S. security and alliances.

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It's also a departure from his most recent predecessors, who avoided direct confrontation with the Kremlin.

Former President Trump reportedly told G7 leaders in 2018 that Crimea is Russian because the people who live there speaks Russian, and frequently blamed former President Obama for being "outsmarted" by Putin during the 2014 invasion.

What they're saying: "The United States continues to stand with Ukraine and its allies and partners today, as it has from the beginning of this conflict. On this somber anniversary, we reaffirm a simple truth: Crimea is Ukraine," Biden said in a statement.

"The United States does not and will never recognize Russia’s purported annexation of the peninsula, and we will stand with Ukraine against Russia’s aggressive acts," he continued.

"The United States still believes in the promise of Ukraine and we support all those working towards a peaceful, democratic, and prosperous future for their country."

The big picture: Biden held his first call with Russian President Vladimir Putin last month, using the conversation as an opportunity to press the Russian leader on the arrest of opposition leader Alexey Navalny and the Russia-linked hack on U.S. government agencies.

Beyond Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine, Biden must also confront the Kremlin on a range of issues, including its interference in U.S. elections and allegations of bounties on U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is hoping to reset the U.S.-Ukraine relationship under the new administration and with President Biden — whom he has yet to meet. Biden was in charge of the Obama administration's Ukraine policy as vice president and championed anti-corruption forms.

Go deeper: Biden's Russia challenge

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Posted on 26 February 2021 | 9:46 am
Kaspersky shares state of stalkerware in 2020

Woburn, MA, Feb. 26, 2021 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- Today Kaspersky released “The State of Stalkerware 2020” report, which captures the incidence of the secret surveillance software often used in cases of domestic violence. The report found that 53,870 mobile users were affected globally by stalkerware in 2020. The figure is a slight drop from the year before, when 67,500 mobile users were affected, but the yearly curve began to rise again in the second half of 2020, after some lockdown measures were lifted.

Global prevalence

Stalkerware is a form of cyberviolence, affecting people in countries regardless of size, society, or culture. Russia, Brazil, the United States, India and Mexico were the top five countries where users were most impacted in 2020. The U.S. passed India, rising on the list from fourth in 2019 to third, with 4,745 users affected.

Germany was the top European country, occupying sixth place in the global rankings. Iran, Italy, the United Kingdom and, lastly, Saudi Arabia complete the ten most affected nations.


Affected users


Russian Federation






United States of America


















United Kingdom



Saudi Arabia


2020 Top ten most affected countries by stalkerware - globally

“We see the number of users affected by stalkerware has remained high and we detect new samples every day,” said Victor Chebyshev, research development team lead, Kaspersky. “It’s important to remember that there is somebody’s real life story behind all these numbers, and sometimes there is a silent call for help. Therefore, we are sharing our part of the picture, with the community working to end the use of stalkerware in order to have a better understanding of the issue. It is clear that we all need to share what we are finding so we can further improve detection and protection for the benefit of those affected by cyberviolence.”

Action against cyberviolence

In 2021, Kaspersky joined forces with four partners to work on the EU-wide “DeStalk” project, which the European Commission chose to support with its Rights, Equality and Citizenship Program.

In 2019, Kaspersky co-founded, along with nine other organizations, the Coalition Against Stalkerware, which now has 30 members from five continents. The Coalition aims to improve industry detection of stalkerware, mutual learning from non-profit organizations and companies, and raise public awareness.

"The member organizations in the Coalition Against Stalkerware have made tremendous strides in the last year, including awareness-raising, detection of stalkerware, and research into the daily lives of survivors of domestic abuse,” said Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity, electronic frontier foundation, in comments on the Coalition’s first anniversary. “The Coalition has enabled us to take a holistic approach to a complex problem. There is no simple solution and we must keep pushing forward on many fronts."

Additionally, in November 2020, Kaspersky released a free anti-stalkerware tool, called TinyCheck, in order to help non-profit organizations support victims of domestic violence and protect their privacy. Its unique feature enables those organizations to detect stalkerware and inform affected users without making the perpetrator aware. The tool is supported by the IT security community and constantly updated with their help.

Users can check if their mobile device has stalkerware installed by looking for the following signs:

Check permissions in installed apps: Stalkerware applications may be disguised under a fake app name with suspicious access to messages, call logs, location, and other personal activity. For example, an app called “Wi-Fi” that has access to your geolocation is a suspicious candidate.

Delete apps that are no longer being used. If the app has not been opened in a month or more, it is probably safe to assume it is no longer needed. If this changes in the future, it can always be reinstalled.

Check "unknown sources" settings on Android devices. If "unknown sources" are enabled on your device, it might be a sign that unwanted software was installed from a third-party source.

Check your browser history. To download stalkerware, the abuser will have to visit some web pages the affected user does not know about. Alternatively, there could be no history at all if the abuser wiped it.

Use proven cybersecurity protection, such as Kaspersky Internet Security for Android, which protects you against all kinds of mobile threats, including stalkerware, and runs regular checks on your device.

Before removing stalkerware from a device:

Do not rush to remove stalkerware, since the abuser may notice. It is very important to consider that the abuser may be a safety risk. In some cases, the person may escalate their abusive behaviors in response.

Contact local authorities and service organizations supporting victims of domestic violence for assistance and safety planning. A list of relevant organizations in several countries can be found on

Consider whether you want to preserve any evidence of the stalkerware prior to removal.

Trust your gut instinct and do what feels safest to you.

About Kaspersky

Kaspersky is a global cybersecurity company founded in 1997. Kaspersky’s deep threat intelligence and security expertise is constantly transforming into innovative security solutions and services to protect businesses, critical infrastructure, governments and consumers around the globe. The company’s comprehensive security portfolio includes leading endpoint protection and a number of specialized security solutions and services to fight sophisticated and evolving digital threats. Over 400 million users are protected by Kaspersky technologies and we help 250,000 corporate clients protect what matters most to them. Learn more at

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 9:02 am
EMEA Access Control Market Forecast to 2027 - COVID-19 Impact and Regional Analysis by Component and Application

The EMEA access control market was valued at US$ 2,849. 4 million in 2019 and is projected to reach US$ 8,327. 5 million by 2027; it is expected to grow at a CAGR of 14. 0% from 2020 to 2027. Presently, the access control solutions are increasingly being integrated for including other services and systems.

New York, Feb. 26, 2021 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- announces the release of the report "EMEA Access Control Market Forecast to 2027 - COVID-19 Impact and Regional Analysis by Component and Application" -
Further, increase in building automation and smart homes is opportunistic for the market.
Several companies, including Gemalto, Suprema Inc., and ATOS, are expanding and exploring ways for authenticating an individual using biometric-related information. Several hardware and software providers are teaming up to offer enhanced access control systems. For instance, Suprema Inc. formed new facility with the launch of Suprema Europe SARL to expand their presence and customer reach in the France market. Also, Allegion Middle East introduced their comprehensive portfolio of access control product to the UAE and across the Middle East countries. Further, Vanderbilt and 6SS formed partnership in the Middle East & Africa region to provide training and strengthen their product offering for market with high-quality certification.
Moreover, several players are investing into innovation, research and development activities. Recently, dormakaba Group introduced new Keyscan Aurora 1.0.21 access-control management software to manage the flow and security efficiently through a building. Further, rise in number of SMEs adopting security systems has created growth avenues, especially in the developing economies of the world. Also, growing demand for the cloud technology in businesses, owing to remote working and enormous data management, is augmenting the market growth. For instance, Atos introduced Evidian—a cloud-based Identity-as-a-Service—for the enterprises to securely govern digital identities with a subscription-based pricing model.
Honeywell Security Group; Siemens Building Technologies; ASSA ABLOY AB; ATG Access Ltd; Johnson Controls International plc; AMAG Technology, Inc.; Schneider Electric SE; Gallagher Group Ltd.; and Identiv, Inc. are among the key EMEA access control market players profiled in this research study.
Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on EMEA Access Control Market
The COVID-19 outbreak, which began in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, has spread across the globe.It has badly affected China, Italy, Iran, Spain, the Republic of Korea, France, Germany, and the US in terms of confirmed positive cases and reported deaths as of March 2020.
The COVID-19 outbreak has affected economies and industries in various countries due to lockdowns, travel bans, and business shutdowns. The overall market breakdown due to COVID-19 is also affecting the growth of the EMEA access control market due to factory shutdowns, disrupted supply chain, and downturned global economy.
Overall size of the EMEA access control market has been derived in accordance to primary and secondary sources.To begin the research process, exhaustive secondary research has been conducted using internal and external sources to obtain qualitative and quantitative information related to the market.
Also, multiple primary interviews have been conducted with industry participants and commentators to validate the data, as well as to gain more analytical insights into the topic. The participants who typically take part in such a process include industry experts, such as VPs, business development managers, market intelligence managers, and national sales managers, along with external consultants, such as valuation experts, research analysts, and key opinion leaders specializing in the access control market.
Read the full report:
About Reportlinker
ReportLinker is an award-winning market research solution. Reportlinker finds and organizes the latest industry data so you get all the market research you need - instantly, in one place.

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 8:35 am
A less Trumpy version of Trumpism might be the future of the Republican Party
The Conversation<span class=Is Sen. Marco Rubio, espousing a polished populism, the future of the GOP? Joe Raedle/Getty Images" src="" data-src="" referrerpolicy="no-referrer">President Trump at a massive rally just before the election.

Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, but his populist ideas may continue to animate the Republican Party.

As scholars of American beliefs and elections, we can envision a less Trumpy version of Trumpism holding sway over the party in coming years. We call it “polished populism.”

Populism is folk-politics based on the premise that ordinary citizens are wiser and more virtuous than supposedly corrupt and self-serving elites. Populist rhetoric is often expressed in cruder, coarser language than ordinary political speech – less like a politician on a stage and more like a guy in a bar.

Trump, a prime practitioner of populist rhetoric, took this to an extreme with the shorthand of Twitter and the insults of the locker room.

Polished populists take a different approach, arguing for the same policies that Trump did – limiting immigration, redistributing wealth toward the working class rather than just the poor, opposing the woke policies of social justice movements, promoting “America First” foreign and trade policies – but without his overtly antagonistic language.

Some Republicans are now arguing for a rejection of populism and a return to traditional conservatism. Those long-standing GOP priorities include limited government, strong national defense of American interests abroad, religious values and, perhaps most importantly, ordinary political personalities.

For two reasons – the GOP’s narrow electoral defeat in 2020 and the changing demographics of the Republican Party – we believe that populist policies, if not rhetoric, will continue to be a dominant theme of the Republican Party.

The contemporary conservatism associated with Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and George W. Bush in the 2000s has several facets and factions, but it can be summed up in the phrase, “You keep what you earn, it’s a dangerous world, and God is good.”

The economic, national defense and social conservatives of previous decades tended to agree that human nature is untrustworthy and society is fragile, so the U.S. needs to defend against external enemies and internal decline.

Populist conservatism accepts those views but adds something different: the interests and perceptions of “ordinary” people against “elites.” So populism rejects the notion of a natural aristocracy of wealth and education, replacing it with the idea that people it considers elites, including career politicians, bureaucrats, journalists and academics, have been promoting their own interests at the expense of regular folk.

The recent rise of populism in America has been driven in part by a clear economic reality: The expansion of wealth over the last 40 years has gone almost entirely to the upper reaches of society. At the same time, the middle has stagnated or declined economically.

The populist interpretation is that elites benefited from the globalization and technological advancements they encouraged, while the advantages of those trends bypassed ordinary working people. Calls for trade protections and national borders appeal to Americans who feel left behind.

Populism also has a cultural aspect: rejection of the perceived condescension and smugness of the “highly educated elite.”

In that sense, populism is driven by identity (who someone believes they are like, and perhaps more importantly, who they are not like). For populists, the like-minded are ordinary folk – middle income, middle-brow educations at public high schools and state universities, often middle-of-the-country – and the dissimilar are the products of expensive educations and urban lifestyles.

While traditional conservatism has not vanished from the GOP, populist perceptions dominate the new working-class foundations of the party. And those reflect the emerging divide in education.

The base of the Republican Party has shifted from more wealthy and educated Americans to voters without college degrees. In the 1990s, whites who did not attend college tended to back Democrat Bill Clinton, but in 2016 they supported Republican Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton by 39 percentage points. In 2020, it was roughly the same for Trump over Biden.

We believe the Republican Party will be slow to move away from this new identity.

Even after a pandemic, a recession, an impeachment, four years of anti-immigration sentiment and the Black Lives Matter protests, Trump still received more votes than any presidential candidate in history not named Joe Biden.

Biden’s overall victory was by a margin of 7 million votes. But his victory in the Electoral College relied on a total of 45,000 votes in three states. This was similar to Trump’s narrow 2016 Electoral College margin of 77,000 votes, also in three states. A strong Republican candidate, a foreign policy problem for the incumbent Democrat or a small piece of luck could shift the presidency back to the other party.

Support for Republicans even grew somewhat among traditionally Democratic African American and Hispanic voters, despite the GOP’s anti-Black Lives Matter and anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Clearly, Trumpism was not repudiated by voters in the way that Democrats had hoped. It is entirely possible that if the pandemic had not occurred – which was a major source of the decline in his support – Donald Trump would still be in the White House.

The GOP could conclude that its loss was only due to an outside event and not a fundamental rejection of policy. That would give the party little incentive to change course, aside from changing the face on the poster.

Over the next four years we believe the GOP will solidify the transition to a populist base, though not without resistance from traditional conservatives.

Republican victory in a future presidential election would likely require an alliance between traditional and populist conservatives, with both groups turning out to vote. The question is which one will lead the coalition.

The competition for the 2024 Republican nomination will likely also be a contest between these two party bases and ideologies, with the emerging winner defining the post-Trump GOP.

The Republican contenders for the 2024 nomination and the new leadership of the GOP include a broad range of populists versus traditional conservatives.

Perhaps a leading indicator of the move toward polished populism is the shift in the rhetoric employed by Marco Rubio.

The senator from Florida was once a traditional conservative, but has shifted toward populism after his trouncing by Trump in the 2016 Republican presidential primary. Recently he argued that “the future of the party is based on a multiethnic, multiracial, working-class coalition,” defined as “normal, everyday people who don’t want to live in a city where there is no police department, where people rampage through the streets every time they are upset about something.”

The opposing trend toward rejecting Trumpist populism is exemplified by the shift in the arguments made by Nikki Haley. Haley, the U.N. ambassador under the Trump administration and former South Carolina governor, has rejected Trump’s leadership, now arguing that “we shouldn’t have followed him.”

These two Republicans and several others see a potential president in the mirror. Which one mirrors the current GOP will depend on the realignment or retrenchment between the populists and the traditionalists.

Polished populism – Trump’s policies without his personality – may be the future of the GOP’s identity.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Morgan Marietta, University of Massachusetts Lowell and David C. Barker, American University School of Public Affairs.

Read more:

From ‘Total exoneration!’ to ‘Impeach now!’ – the Mueller report and dueling fact perceptions

Young Black Americans not sold on Biden, the Democrats or voting

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 8:27 am
Explosion strikes Israeli-owned ship in Mideast amid tension
Associated Press

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — An explosion struck an Israeli-owned cargo ship sailing out of the Middle East on Friday, an unexplained blast renewing concerns about ship security in the region amid escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran.

The crew and vessel were safe, according to the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, which is run by the British navy. The explosion in the Gulf of Oman forced the vessel to head to the nearest port.

The incident recalled the summer of 2019, when the same site saw a series of suspected attacks that the U.S. Navy blamed on Iran, which Tehran denied. Meanwhile, as U.S. President Joe Biden tries to revive nuclear negotiations with Iran, he ordered overnight airstrikes on facilities in Syria belonging to a powerful Iranian-backed Iraqi armed group.

Dryad Global, a maritime intelligence firm, identified the stricken vessel as the MV Helios Ray, a Bahamian-flagged roll-on, roll-off vehicle cargo ship. Another private security official, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, similarly identified the ship as the Helios Ray.

Satellite-tracking data from website showed the Helios Ray had been nearly entering the Arabian Sea around 0600 GMT Friday before it suddenly turned around and began heading back toward the Strait of Hormuz. It was coming from Dammam, Saudi Arabia, and still listed Singapore as its destination on its tracker.

Israel’s Channel 13, in an unsourced report, said the assessment in Israel is that Iran was behind the blast. Israeli officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The blast comes as Tehran increasingly breaches its 2015 nuclear accord with world powers to create leverage over Washington. Iran is seeking to pressure Biden to grant the sanctions relief it received under the deal that former President Donald Trump abandoned nearly three years ago.

Iran also has blamed Israel for a recent series of attacks, including a mysterious explosion last summer that destroyed an advanced centrifuge assembly plant at its Natanz nuclear facility and the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a top Iranian scientist who founded the Islamic Republic’s military nuclear program two decades ago.

Capt. Ranjith Raja of the data firm Refinitiv told the AP that the Israeli-owned vessel had left the Persian Gulf Thursday bound for Singapore. On Friday at 0230 GMT, the vessel stopped for at least 9 hours east of a main Omani port before making a 360-degree turn and sailing toward Dubai, likely for damage assessment and repairs, he said.

The vessel came loaded with cargo from Europe. It discharged vehicles at several ports in the region, Raja added, including in Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, with its last port of call at Dammam.

While details of the explosion remained unclear, two American defense officials told the AP that the ship had sustained two holes on its port side and two holes on its starboard side just above the waterline in the blast. The officials said it remained unclear what caused the holes. They spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity to discuss unreleased information on the incidents.

A United Nations ship database identified the vessel’s owners as a Tel Aviv-based firm called Ray Shipping Ltd. Calls to Ray Shipping rang unanswered Friday.

Abraham Ungar, 74, who goes by “Rami,” is the founder of Ray Shipping Ltd., and is known as one of the richest men in Israel. He made his fortune in shipping and construction.

According to the Nikola Y. Vaptsarov Naval Academy, where Ungar provides support and maritime training, he owns dozens of car-carrying ships and employs thousands of engineers.

The U.S. Navy's Bahrain-based 5th Fleet said it was “aware and monitoring” the situation.

While the circumstances of the explosion remain unclear, Dryad Global said it was very possible the blast stemmed from “asymmetric activity by Iranian military."

As Iran seeks to pressure the United States to lift sanctions, the country may seek “to exercise forceful diplomacy through military means,” Dryad reported. Iran did not immediately acknowledge the incident.

In the tense summer of 2019, the U.S. military blamed Iran for explosions on two oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world's most strategic shipping lanes. The U.S. also had attributed a series of other suspected attacks to Iran, including the use of limpet mines — designed to be attached magnetically to a ship’s hull — to cripple four oil tankers off the nearby Emirati port of Fujairah.

Since the killing of Fakhrizadeh, the Iranian nuclear scientist, last November, Israeli officials have raised alarms about potential Iranian retaliation, including through its regional proxies like Lebanon's Hezbollah and Yemen's Houthi rebels.

Over the years, Iran has been linked to attacks on Israeli and Jewish civilian targets in Latin America, Europe and Asia. Israel has not commented on its alleged role in the scientist's killing.

Friday's incident also follows normalization deals between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain. The agreements, met with scathing criticism from Iran, solidified an emerging regional alliance against the Islamic Republic.


Associated Press writers Laurie Kellman in Tel Aviv, Israel, Josef Federman in Jerusalem and Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 8:14 am
UN rights chief cites 'need' to assess rights in Xinjiang
Associated Press

GENEVA (AP) — The United Nations' human rights chief on Friday cited the need for an “independent and comprehensive assessment” of the rights situation in China’s Xinjiang region, while emphasizing that activists, lawyers and rights defenders face unfair charges, detention and trials in China.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said her office is working to find “mutually agreeable parameters” for her to visit China, including Xinjiang. Efforts to arrange such a visit for the human rights commissioner date to before she took office in September 2018.

Bachelet discussed China while giving the U.N.'s Human Rights Council her regular update on the rights situation worldwide, this time involving some 50 countries.

Bachelet credited China’s progress in curbing COVID-19 but said “fundamental rights and civic freedoms continue to be curtailed in the name of national security and the COVID-19 response.” She said over 600 people are being investigated for participating in protests in Hong Kong.

Concerns about detention centers -- which China calls training centers -- for Muslim Uyghurs and others in Xinjiang have provoked human rights concerns for many months, and Bachelet’s office and Chinese authorities have so far failed to arrange a visit for her to the region.

“In the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, information that is in the public domain indicates the need for independent and comprehensive assessment of the human rights situation,” Bachelet said, adding that her office was looking into reports of arbitrary detention, ill-treatment and sexual violence in institutions, among other rights issues.

Rights office spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said discussions were continuing for a “preparatory technical mission” that could pave the way for Bachelet to visit China. Shamdasani said such a mission was needed before a Bachelet visit "to ensure meaningful access.”

Bachelet’s address ran through an array of rights concerns and issues, including “the growing expansion of the definition of ‘foreign agent’” in Russia; a “serious contraction of civic space” in several countries in southeast Asia; “excessive use of force” against demonstrators in some South American countries, and “charges of sedition against journalists and activists” in India for reporting or commenting on protests by farmers there.

She noted several European governments restricted the work of groups that defend migrants’ rights, and cited some 50 cases opened in Germany, Greece, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands and Spain over the last five years involving humanitarian search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean Sea.

The comments were separate from other Bachelet speeches and council discussions on “major country situations” about places that included Belarus, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Venezuela

Overall, Bachelet cautioned about the impact of COVID-19 on human rights.

“Today, in every region of the world, people are being left behind -- or pushed even further behind -- as the coronavirus pandemic continues to gather pace,” she said.

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 8:10 am
Russia's Navalny moved to prison as Amnesty changes his status
CBS News

Moscow — Jailed Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny was transferred to an undisclosed penal colony this week to serve his two-and-a-half-year prison sentence. His move comes as a prominent human rights organization defends its decision to strip him of "prisoner of conscience," insisting it didn't cave to pressure from Moscow.

Navalny's lawyer Vadim Kobzev said on Thursday that he went to visit the Kremlin critic in a Moscow detention facility, but was told he had been moved. The head of the national prison service later confirmed Navalny's transfer to a penal colony, but wouldn't say which one he'd been sent to.

"There is no threat to his health or life," the prisons official added.

Navalny was handed the prison sentence earlier this month for violating the terms of a previous suspended sentence. He has always dismissed all the charges against him as politically motivated.

His arrest on January 17, as he returned to Moscow after five months of treatment in Germany for poisoning with a Soviet-era nerve agent, prompted weeks of mass protests across Russia, with thousands of his supporters and many close allies being detained. 

"Prisoner of conscience"?

Amnesty International named Navalny a "prisoner of conscience" almost as soon as he was arrested in January. This week, however, it came out that London-based rights organization had reversed its decision to use the label in its description of Navalny over remarks the politician made years ago that were deemed nationalist. 

"Concerns were subsequently raised within the Amnesty movement over the reference to Navalny as a prisoner of conscience given that Navalny had, in the past, made comments which may have amounted to the advocacy of hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, violence or hostility," the organization said in a statement emailed to CBS News late on Thursday. 

It said the "concerns" had prompted a re-examination of Navalny's case, after which Amnesty concluded that a mistake had been made in its initial assessment. The rights group did not say what comments had sparked its reassessment, but added that some of Navalny's, "previous comments have not been publicly renounced."

The organization said it was still calling for Navalny's immediate release and an independent investigation into his poisoning, which the opposition leader has blamed squarely on Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"Orchestrated campaign"

Navalny has been criticized for past statements against illegal immigration, and for attending an annual nationalist march in the early 2000s. In one 2007 clip, he's heard defending nationalism, saying: "We have a right to be Russians in Russia."

He also called for the deportation of migrants, but spoke out against violence by far-right extremists. Navalny has since distanced himself from those views in public speeches, but he still promotes the idea of visa requirements for citizens of former Soviet states in Central Asia.

Earlier this week, Alexander Artemev, a spokesman for Amnesty's Russia office, told the BBC that the decision was made after the NGO was bombarded with complaints and requests to remove Navalny from the list "prisoner of conscience" list. He said it appeared to be part of an "orchestrated campaign" to discredit the politician and "impede" Amnesty's calls for his release from custody. 

There were a series comments and stories in the preceding days by pro-Kremlin media, journalists associated with them, and from Putin's sympathizers abroad, questioning Navalny's "prisoner of conscience" status.

"A genuine mistake?"

The move to delist Navalny subjected Amnesty to a fresh wave of backlash on social media – this time from his supporters and other Kremlin critics.

Alexander Golovach and Ruslan Shaveddinov, both members of Navalny's anti-corruption group, said they were going to renounce their own "prisoner of conscience" statuses, which Amnesty awarded them after their arrests several years ago. Both are now free.

Vladimir Ashurkov, Navalny's self-exiled ally based in Britain, in a conference call late on Thursday agreed that the politician's status could have been reviewed due to an orchestrated campaign to defame him. He described Navalny as Putin's most prominent opponent, and a person with "high moral principles."

"We believe a genuine mistake was made," Ashurkov said. "We will engage with Amnesty to change that."

In its statement to CBS News, Amnesty acknowledged that some of Navalny's old comments had become more prominent, "in the context of a deliberate campaign by President Putin and his supporters to discredit him," but denied that the campaign had prompted its reevaluation. 

"Amnesty International does not base its decisions on 'prisoner of conscience' status on Twitter threads, or on lobbying by journalists or government supporters," the organization insisted.

It wasn't the first time Amnesty has changed someone's "prisoner of conscience" status. The organization delisted South African anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela while he was in jail for advocating violence against the apartheid government. Unlike Navalny, however, Mandela's remarks were made after he was granted the status. 

The backlash against Amnesty intensified after a pro-Kremlin prankster released a recorded video call on Thursday with a representative from the organization.

"We may have done more harm than good at this time," Marie Struthers, head of Amnesty's Eastern Europe and Central Asia department, told the prankster, who was posing as one of Navalny's associates. 

Amnesty has indicated that it has no plans to rethink its delisting of Navalny. 

Prince Harry sips tea with James Corden in rare TV interview

Outrage grows as attacks against Asian Americans continue to increase

Former gymnast calls for accountability, ex-Olympic coach dies by suicide amid sex assault charges

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 8:02 am
UN: Carbon-cutting pledges by countries nowhere near enough
Associated Press

The newest pledges by countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions are falling far short of what's needed to limit global warming to what the Paris climate accord seeks, a new United Nations report finds.

So the U.N.’s climate chief is telling nations to go back and try harder.

Most countries — especially top carbon polluters China, United States and India — missed the Dec. 31 deadline for submitting official emission-cutting targets for November’s climate negotiations in Scotland. Friday’s report provides an incomplete snapshot of the world’s efforts: The world’s pledges so far are only enough to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions to less than 1% below 2010 levels by 2030.

The world has to cut carbon pollution 45% below 2010 levels to achieve the more stringent official Paris goal of limiting future warming to another half a degree (0.3 degrees Celsius) from now, U.N. officials said.

“We are very, very far from where we need to be,” U.N. climate chief Patricia Espinosa said. “What we need to put on the table is much more radical and much more transformative than we have been doing until now.”

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the report “a red alert for our planet.”

U.N. officials applauded the more than 120 nations, including the U.S. and China, that have made longer-term goals of net-zero carbon emissions by mid-century. But those same nations must translate long-term talk into the immediate action “that people and the planet so desperately need,” Guterres said.

Instead of limiting the world to only 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming since pre-industrial times — the more stringent of two Paris accord goals — the data shows that world “is headed to close to 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) and a global catastrophe if this is not curtailed quickly,” said Bill Hare, director of Climate Analytics, a private group that tracks countries’ emissions targets.

The 2015 Paris climate agreement had nations submit voluntary targets for how much heat-trapping gases they would spew by 2025 and update them every five years.

With the big pandemic-delayed climate negotiations in Glasgow set for later this year, nations are supposed to submit updated and tougher goals for 2030. The U.S., the second biggest carbon polluter behind China, promises its goal will be announced before a special Earth Day summit in April.

Fewer than half of the world’s countries, accounting for 30% of the world’s carbon emissions, submitted targets by the deadline. Only seven of the top 15 carbon polluting nations had done so.

At least 10 countries that submitted goals last year did not provide tougher goals, Hare said. And because of changes to emissions in its base year calculations, Brazil essentially weakened its target from its 2015 version, said Taryn Fransen, a senior fellow at the think tank World Resources Institute.

Espinosa said even countries that already gave targets need to go back and do better because “we are simply out of time.”

Her predecessor and prime engineer of the Paris agreement, Christiana Figueres, said she thinks the U.S., China and Japan can change the picture when they announce their goals: “I have high hopes they will deliver.”

China and the United States, with 35% of the world’s carbon emissions, can make a huge difference with their targets, Fransen said, noting that the U.S. can pledge to cut emissions in half from 2005 baseline levels by 2030 and can achieve that with concerted action.

The goal the Obama Administration submitted in 2015 was to cut emissions 26% to 28% from 2005 levels by 2025. When he was president, Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the agreement, but President Joe Biden put the country back in.

After dramatic decreases in carbon pollution in early 2020 because of the pandemic lockdown, initial data shows that near end-of-the-year emissions were back up to 2019 levels, pushed by China's industrial production, said Corinne LeQuere, who tracks emissions at the University of East Anglia.

The world adopted the more stringent 1.5 degree Celsius temperature goal in 2015 at the urging of small island nations, which fear being swamped by climate-related sea rise if temperatures pass that mark.

“We are flirting dangerously" with the warming limit, said Ambassador Aubrey Webson of Antigua and Barbuda, chairman of the Alliance of Small Island States. “It is small island developing states like ours that will pay the ultimate price if we do not.”


Read stories on climate issues by The Associated Press here.


Follow Seth Borenstein on Twitter: @borenbears


The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 8:01 am
Exclusive: Family heirlooms and House of Lords robes to be exempt from fur ban
The TelegraphLord Goldsmith wears faux fur in the House of Lords - House of Lords/PA Wire

Members of the House of Lords will be allowed to wear their ermine robes, and families can pass down treasured mink coats in planned exemptions from an upcoming fur ban, the Telegraph understands.

Ministers have been considering an outright ban on the fur trade as a "Brexit bonus" due to the cruelty of mink farms abroad. They argue that as fur farming is banned in the UK due to animal welfare concerns, fur farmers should not be able to profit from their trade in this country.

However, the British fur industry hit back, arguing that a ban could criminalise those who hand down family heirlooms and stop members of the House of Lords from wearing their traditional robes.

The Prime Minister's fiancée, Carrie Symonds, has long called for a fur ban, labelling the practice 'sick', but it is understood that even the fiercest proponents of the ban would be willing to see a loophole enabling people to keep and pass on their grandmother's fur coat.

Under plans for a sales or import ban, buying new furs would not be allowed, but institutions like the House of Lords which have a stockpile of ermine robes would be allowed to hand them out. Those who have vintage fur coats will be able to pass them down, but will not be allowed to sell them.

Senior government insiders said a fur import ban is "definitely" coming down the line, pointing to the mink farms which spread Covid-19 during the pandemic and the cruel conditions many animals are kept in.

Sources added that the law will be carefully written, so the "aggressive" fur lobby cannot undo it in the courts.

Government officials explained the ban "would be either a sales or import ban", adding "People will be able to keep, look after and even give away and swap existing items. They just won’t be able to buy anything new."

Environment minister Lord Goldsmith has long called for a fur ban in the UK. Although traditional robes are unlikely to fall under a ban, the peer has said that he recommends those new to the House of Lords choose faux fur for their robes like he did.

The minister said: “In the UK, we have some of the highest welfare standards in the world. We care deeply about our animals and nobody wants to see the continuation of practices which cause them unnecessary harm or suffering.

“Fur farming has rightly been banned in this country for nearly 20 years. Now our future relationship with the EU has been established we have an opportunity to consider further steps we can take in relation to fur sales.”

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs added that during the transition period it was not possible to introduce restrictions relating to the fur trade as this would restrict free movement within the EU single market. Now our future relationship with the EU has been established there will be an opportunity for the government to consider further steps it could take in relation to fur sales.

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 7:58 am
CORRECTED-UPDATE 1-U.N. human rights boss urges Saudi Arabia to allow free speech, assembly

(Adds quotes, details)

GENEVA, Feb 26 (Reuters) - United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet, in rare public comments on Saudi Arabia, said on Friday that people were unlawfully held in the kingdom and urged it to uphold freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly.

Bachelet, addressing the U.N. Human Rights Council where Saudi Arabia is among the 47 members, welcomed the release earlier this month of women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, adding: "although I regret that others continued to be unjustly detained".

Hathloul campaigned for women's right to drive and to end Saudi Arabia's guardianship system that requires women to obtain permission of a male relative for certain decisions and travel. She spent nearly three years behind bars in a case that drew international condemnation, and remains forbidden to leave Saudi Arabia for five years.

Bachelet did not refer to the expected release by the Biden administration of a sensitive U.S. intelligence report on the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

She welcomed plans announced by Saudi authorities to adopt new legislation to strengthen what she said were human rights guarantees linked to family law and personal status.

"I urge the authorities to also establish legislative frameworks to uphold the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association for everyone in the Kingdom," Bachelet told the Geneva forum. (Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay Editing by John Revill and Peter Graff)

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 7:25 am
U.S. targets Iranian-backed militias in Syria with airstrikes
CBS News

The U.S. on Thursday conducted its first military action under President Biden, targeting infrastructure used by Iranian-backed militant groups in Syria in response to recent rocket attacks in Iraq. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters traveling with him that he had recommended the strike to Mr. Biden, who authorized it in a phone call on Thursday morning.

"The operation sends an unambiguous message: President Biden will act to protect American coalition personnel," Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said in a statement. 

The strikes destroyed multiple facilities at a border control point in al Bukamal, Syria, used by a number of Iranian-backed militant groups, including Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al Shuhada, according to Kirby.

The Pentagon spokesman did not mention any casualties, but U.K.-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Friday that 22 people were killed in the strikes, which it said had hit three trucks carrying munitions from Iraq into Syria. The organization said all of those killed were believed to have been members of the Iran-backed militias.

In the first military strike of his presidency, Mr. Biden approved a target along the Syria-Iraq border that would serve as payback for Iran putting U.S. personnel in harm's way — but stop short of further escalating tension with Tehran as he tries to draw the Islamic Republic back into the crumbling 2015 nuclear deal

An administration official confirmed that the Biden team had selected the targets as part of a calibrated response meant to meant to achieve three things: Send a signal to Iran that the new U.S. president would not tolerate rocket attacks that put U.S. personnel in harm's way; avoid angering U.S. partners in Iraq who need to keep good relations with both Tehran and Washington, and avoid provoking Iran to retaliate further.

Two former Trump administration officials told CBS News that the al Bukamal area has been a target of scores of Israeli strikes in recent months because it is serves as a transhipment point for the Iranian-backed Shiite militias in both Syria and Iraq. Both officials approvingly acknowledged the selection of the location. 

One of the former officials said, "it is easier to send messages there as we're less exposed."

The Biden administration's strike against Iranian-backed militias follows on the heels of its first diplomatic outreach to Iran regarding American hostages in the country, as well as its public offer made via European diplomats to restart talks on Tehran's nuclear program. Both of those diplomatic initiatives were made last week.

Last week, a rocket attack in Erbil, northern Iraq, killed one contractor, who was not an American citizen, and injured four American contractors and one American service member. A total of eight contractors were injured, two seriously enough to require evacuation. 

The United States had evidence that the attack was conducted with Iranian-supplied equipment. The attack on Erbil consisted of 14 rockets, with six more left on the launcher rails. 

The most recent airstrike against Iranian-backed militias was in December 2019, which hit targets in both Iraq and Syria. There was no immediate response from Iranian officials to Thursday's U.S. strike. 

Eleanor Watson and Tucker Reals contributed reporting.

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U.S. carries out airstrikes in Syria on Iranian-backed targets

"A Shot of Hope": Medical mistrust and access

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 7:02 am
Speaking at CPAC: Former Leader of Magical Cult That Channels Ghost of Trump

TOKYO—Even by the standards of the alleged kooks and conmen commonly found on the CPAC roster, one of this year’s speakers has an extraordinary background which includes fronting an organization which claimed—in all seriousness—to be able to channel Donald Trump’s guardian deity through a magical medium.

The former political leader of a Japanese cult called Happy Science, Jay “Hiroaki” Aeba, is on the bill for Friday.

Like Trump, Aeba has been accused of fraud back home but he doesn’t think that should be held against him.

We asked Aeba for clarification but didn’t get a reply. He is now head of the Japanese Conservative Union although he said last year he was still a believer in Happy Science.

Aeba’s guru, Ryuho Okawa, claims to be a Venusian god named El Cantare who created life on earth—and is also a reincarnation of the Buddha, just in case you were wondering. Okawa is not only a snazzy dresser and a self-proclaimed deity, but he says he has the power to channel the spirits of any person, living or dead. He claims to have had a great awakening in 1981 and subsequently founded the Happy Science religion (Kofuku no Kagaku) in 1986. In American terms, he’s like Billy Graham crossed with Shirley MacLaine. He’s channeled the spirits of Jesus, Kim Jong II, and in 2016, he even managed to obtain an exclusive interview with the guardian spirit of Donald Trump.

In that amazing encounter, Trump’s spirit correctly stated, via Okawa, that he would be the next president.

You’ve never quite seen anything like the spirit of Donald Trump possessing a Japanese visionary and discussing New York cheesecake as a political metaphor. It’s too bad that the God (Okawa) himself can’t make it to CPAC but at least his former disciple, Aeba is speaking.

CPAC which runs through Sunday afternoon, features the best and the brightest of the Republican party and its allies, such as insurrection rousing Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, and the usual assortment of foxes and fiends from Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp. Aeba is scheduled to take the podium right after Donald Trump Jr and speak about China’s threat to the U.S.

This will not be the first time that Aeba has spoken at the event,—indeed he claims to be the first Japanese man to speak on the mainstage of the event.If you read Aeba’s online profile in English, there appear to be no outright lies at first glance, but there are what the Jesuits would call some sins of omission.

He is a self-proclaimed conservative commentator and columnist and chairman of the Japanese Conservative Union (JCU) which was founded in 2015. The profile says, “Jay attended his first CPAC in 2011 and founded JCU in 2015 as a counterpart to the American Conservative Union (ACU). In 2017, JCU and ACU co-hosted the first-ever international CPAC in Tokyo, where experts from across the Indo-Pacific met to discuss such critical issues as the economic and military security of the region in the face of Chinese expansionism, the nuclear threat posed by North Korea, the development and regulation of the cryptocurrency market…. To date, JCU and ACU have hosted four Japanese CPACs”.

All of this is true. What his biography fails to mention is that Aeba was a member of Japan’s Happy Science cult for many years, and was also a major figure in the creation of their political arm, the Happiness Realization Party.

Ostensibly, the Happy Science cult teaches that Okawa, the founder is a god, and only by following his teachings can one obtain happiness in this life and the next. They believe in aliens, reincarnation, and multi-dimensions. Some of the teachings are modelled after the Buddhist eightfold path and preach love, wisdom, and self-reflection. Yet at the same time, the cult also teaches that the Nanjing massacre never happened and that Japan must scrap its pacifist constitution, rearm to the max, and prepare for a cataclysmic war.

One weekly magazine reported the group’s total capital as being close to $1.8 billion —money made from encouraging believers to buy copies of Okawa’s many books, from extracting lavish donations from followers, and for self-help seminars conducted by the organization. Of course, they also sell prayers and charms. During the pandemic, Happy Science found itself in hot water for selling “cures” for COVID-19.

Happy Science—not content to just be a spiritual power—launched its own political party in 2009, and Aeba was the first party leader. He went on to serve as the research division chief and held many other positions within the party. In 2011, while attending his first CPAC, he was still an executive member of the Happiness Realization Party and presumably began networking with America’s conservative elite in the hopes of gaining the Happiness Party an aura of legitimacy.

Aeba, who also used the alias Jikido “Jay” Aeba, and sometimes goes by Jay H. Aeba, was born in 1967 and graduated from the elite Keio University Law Division in 1989. In 1990, he joined the headquarters of Happy Science and in May of 2009, he became their political leader. He served as the organization public relations chief. In 2013, he became the chief of the research and investigation division. In 2015, he ostensibly left the party and created the Japanese Conservative Union. It’s not entirely clear what relationship Aeba has had with his former party after the creation of JCU but his relations with Happy Science seem strained—much like Trump’s relationship with the GOP. Although, in an interview published last year in SEIRON magazine, he said that he was still a believer of Happy Science.

On April 6 2020, he changed his name to Hiroaki Aeba. Three days later, on April 9, Happy Science publicly disavowed having any connection to Hiroaki Aeba aka Jikido Aeba and the JCU on their website. Why? Possibly because in April last year two magazines reported on a scandal within the JCU that seemed to implicate Aeba in possible fraud involving cryptocurrency. According to the articles, Aeba collected nearly nine million dollars to create a virtual currency called Liberty. In his fund-raising efforts, he used a photo of himself and Donald Trump in a pamphlet handed out to potential investors. The photo was enough to convince many of his credibility.

The Japanese media reports that it is still a mystery as to what happened to the nearly nine million dollars in funding used to create the virtual currency and it has resulted in internal fighting within the JCU.

The JCU told The Daily Beast in an email about the alleged cryptocurrency misconduct, “Jay [Aeba] and JCU are proceeding to deal with and address this issue with the cooperation of experts including lawyers.”

One thing is certain: the photo of Trump and Aeba is actually real.

There are some similarities between Aeba and Trump. They are both political opportunists, charismatic speakers, adept at using celebrity connections to enhance their image—and both of them have been accused of fraud. For Aeba, his pictures and meetings with Trump have given him an air of prestige and access amongst Japan’s arch-conservatives. He may have used that for his own personal gain rather than for the benefit of the Happy Science cult but it seems to be working out fine.

While Aeba was a member of the Happiness Realization Party, the cult’s political arm, he gave them access to the wealth and influence of the Republican Party. JCU told The Daily Beast: “Since its establishment [in 2015] JCU has never had any relation with Happy Science (HS) or the Happiness Realization Party (HRP). As for Chairman Jay Aeba, he also has completely left the HS organization and HRP now. In terms of his personal religious belief, we do not know because the JCU has a policy of religious freedom for all members and staff.”

Trump supporters at CPAC may worry that the Republican Party is trying to move on from the Trump era, but even if he returns as the presidential nominee for 2024, Trump is mortal, unlike cult-leader Okawa, he doesn’t claim he will be reincarnated again and again and live on forever.

That’s where the Happy Science cult comes in handy. Even after he’s dead, the ghost of Trump can keep calling the shots via a magical medium for years to come.

Now, isn’t that something to be happy about?

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Posted on 26 February 2021 | 7:01 am
Officials: Heavy fighting kills 27 people in central Yemen
Associated Press

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Heavy fighting between rebels and government forces in Yemen's oil-rich Marib has killed at least 27 people, tribal leaders and security officials said Firday, amid a resurgence of violence in the area.

The Iranian-backed Houthi rebels earlier this month renewed their attack on Marib, a stronghold for Yemeni forces allied with the internationally recognized government. The rebel offensive has faced stiff resistance and made little progress so far.

The officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to talk to the media, said the uptick in violence came over the past twenty-four hours, adding that most of the dead were rebel fighters.

Yemen's stalemated civil war began in 2014, when the rebels seized the capital of Sanaa and much of the country’s north. A Saudi-led coalition — with U.S. backing — intervened months later to restore the internationally recognized government's authority.

Yemeni security officials said that government forces have also advanced on the strategic northern city of Hazm, under air cover provided by Saudi-led forces.

The rebels are aiming to take control of Marib in order to close off Saudi Arabia’s southern border and seize oil fields in the province that would give them leverage in possible peace negotiations.

The war in Yemen has killed some 130,000 people and spawned the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, leading much of the country to the brink of famine.

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 6:46 am
U.N. human rights boss urges Saudi Arabia to allow free speech, assembly

GENEVA, Feb 26 (Reuters) - United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet, in rare public comments on Saudi Arabia, said on Friday that people were "unjustly detained" in the kingdom and urged it to uphold freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly.

"I urge the authorities to also establish legislative frameworks to uphold the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association for everyone in the Kingdom," she told the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. (Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, editing by John Revill)

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 6:38 am
All aboard? Russian diplomats depart a sealed-off North Korea in hand-pushed railcar
NBC News

MOSCOW — Eight Russian diplomats and their families became unlikely social media sensations Friday after crossing the border home from North Korea by hand-pushed railcar.

With borders closed and travel restricted due to Covid-19, the diplomats were forced to abandon any hopes of red-carpet treatment on their departure from Pyongyang and instead take an elaborate and unusual method of journey home.

After a 32-hour train ride and a two-hour bus journey to an area closer to the border, they pushed their trolley loaded with children and luggage across the final 0.6 mile stretch separating the two countries.

“The most important part of the route was a pedestrian crossing to the Russian side,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a Facebook post.

“They needed to prepare the cart in advance, put it on rails, place the luggage, seat the children and then set off...They had to push the whole assembly by rail for more than a kilometer," it added.

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The journey included crossing a rail bridge across the Tumen river, a body of water that serves as a natural border between North Korea and Russia, as well as China.

The Russian embassy’s third secretary, Vladislav Sorokin, was the "engine" of the handcar, according to the Ministry. The youngest passenger was his three-year-old daughter, Varya.

The video shows them being met on the Russian side by cheering Foreign Ministry personnel, who greeted them as they finished their journey across the hilly, barren landscape. From there they were taken to Vladivostok, the largest city in Russia's far east which is nestled along its Pacific coast.

“We don’t leave our own,” the ministry statement concluded.

Already one of the most isolated countries in the world before the Covid-19 pandemic, North Korea has shut its doors even tighter in an effort to fight the virus.

Last year it severely restricted air and rail connections with neighboring China and Russia — the two nations that arguably have the most normalized border contacts with Pyongyang.

Russia’s mission in Pyongyang was one of the few remaining with some staffing presence. Most embassies were entirely shut down early last year, with staffs flown out on a North Korean charter.

North Korea has not reported internal Covid numbers and very little is known about the pandemic within the closed country.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has rarely addressed the pandemic head on, but he delivered an unusual, tearful apology to the North Korean people last October for failing them during this crisis — perhaps indicating that the country has been hit much worse than it's let on.

“Our people have placed trust, as high as the sky and as deep as the sea, in me, but I have failed to always live up to it satisfactorily,” he said at the time, according to the Korean Times.

“I am really sorry for that.”

Russia has historically maintained relations with North Korea, with which it shares a border. The two countries had normal trade relations before the pandemic, and North Korean laborers were not unheard of in Russia’s far east.

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 6:36 am
U.S. notified Israel in advance about strike on Iran-backed militia facilities in Syria

The Biden administration notified Israel in advance about the airstrike against an Iranian-backed Shiite militia base on the Syrian-Iraqi border Thursday evening, Israeli officials told me.

Why it matters: The airstrike was the first overt military action by the U.S. in the Middle East since Biden assumed office, and one that Israeli officials see as a positive signal about the new administration's posture toward Iran.

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Driving the news: The U.S. notification to Israel took place Thursday morning ET in talks between working-level officials at the Pentagon and the Israeli Ministry of Defense.

Israeli officials told me it was a standard update that occurs every time a U.S. military operation can influence Israel and vice versa.

Behind the scenes: The strike came several weeks after a missile attack on a U.S. base in Erbil in northern Iraq. The U.S. retaliation was delayed mainly in order to coordinate it with the Iraqi government and avoid creating a crisis with Iraq.

In recent weeks, Israeli officials were concerned by growing provocations by Iran and its proxies both in Yemen and in Iraq.

The Israelis shared their concerns with the Biden administration. Israeli officials told me they expected that Biden would respond.

What they're saying: "The Iranians didn’t realize that Biden is not Obama, and that if they will continue down this road of miscalculation they will eventually get hit," an Israeli official told me.

Between the lines: A year ago, a group of experts from the Center for New American Security led by former Obama administration official Ilan Goldenberg published a paper called "Countering Iran in the Gray Zone."

They spoke to numerous Israeli defense officials to determine what the U.S. can learn from the Israeli military campaign against Iranian entrenchment in Syria, which the Israelis call the "Campaign Between Wars," or MABAM in Hebrew.

The bottom line of the report was that the U.S. should examine whether it could adopt this Israeli policy. It stressed that targeted strikes against Iran or other adversaries in the Middle East would not definitely lead to a wide escalation, as many in the U.S. defense establishment fear.

What’s next: It's unclear if the strike was a one-off event or whether it will turn into a doctrine, but it's an attempt by Biden to send Iran an early message that he is not afraid to use force to retaliate against attacks on U.S. forces in the region. It also indicates his wish to return to the 2015 nuclear deal will not deter him from using military force when needed.

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Posted on 26 February 2021 | 6:30 am
Biden orders airstrikes in Syria, retaliating against Iranian-backed militias
NBC NewsImage: A worker cleans shattered glass outside a damaged shop following a rocket attack the previous night in Irbil, the capital of the northern Iraqi Kurdish autonomous region (Safin Hamed / AFP - Getty Images file)

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Thursday ordered airstrikes on buildings in Syria that the Pentagon said were used by Iranian-backed militias, in retaliation for rocket attacks on U.S. targets in neighboring Iraq.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby portrayed the bombing in eastern Syria as carefully calibrated, calling it “proportionate” and “defensive.”

The operation was the first known use of military force by the Biden administration, which has for weeks emphasized plans to focus more on challenges posed by China.

The president’s decision appeared aimed at sending a signal to Iran and its proxies in the region that Washington would not tolerate attacks on its personnel in Iraq, even at a sensitive diplomatic moment.

Three rocket attacks in one week in Iraq, including a deadly strike that hit a U.S.-led coalition base in the northern Iraqi town of Irbil, presented a test for Biden only weeks after assuming the presidency. The rocket assaults coincided with a diplomatic initiative launched by the administration to try to revive a 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers.

The airstrikes “were authorized in response to recent attacks against American and coalition personnel in Iraq, and to ongoing threats to those personnel,” Kirby said in a statement.

The operation “destroyed multiple facilities located at a border control point used by a number of Iranian-backed militant groups,” including Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, he said.

Syrian and Iranian officials did not immediately react to the strikes.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Friday that 22 people were killed in the strikes. The London-based monitoring group did not provide any details about how it obtained that figure. Iran's state broadcaster IRIB news, meanwhile, said 17 “resistance fighters” were killed in the strikes, but also didn't provide detail about the source of that figure other than citing “reports.”

A senior U.S. defense official told NBC News on Thursday evening that the target was a transit hub near the Iraqi-Syrian border used by the militia fighters, and it was too early to say what casualties might have been inflicted on the militants.

“The operation sends an unambiguous message: President Biden will act to protect American and coalition personnel. At the same time, we have acted in a deliberate manner that aims to de-escalate the overall situation in both eastern Syria and Iraq,” he said.

Two U.S. aircraft were involved in the strikes that took place at about 6 p.m. EST on Thursday, or 2 a.m. Friday in Syria, the official said.

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Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters travelling with him that the administration had been “very deliberate about our approach.”

“We’re confident that target was being used by the same Shia militia that conducted the strikes,” Austin said, referring to the recent rocket attacks in Iraq on U.S. and coalition personnel.

The Pentagon had said previously that it was awaiting the results of an Iraqi investigation into the Irbil rocket attack.

“We allowed and encouraged the Iraqis to investigate and develop intelligence and that was very helpful to us in refining the target,” said Austin, who spoke en route to Washington after a visit to California and Colorado.

Biden had approved the operation on Thursday morning, he said.

A civilian contractor was killed in the Irbil rocket assault, and a U.S. service member and others were wounded. At least two 107mm rockets landed on the base, which also hosts Irbil’s civilian international airport.

NBC News had previously reported that Iranian-backed militias were most likely behind the Irbil rocket attack, and that the weapons and tactics resembled previous attacks by the Iranian-linked militias. However, it was unclear if Iran had encouraged or ordered the rocket attack.

An obscure group called Saraya Awliya al-Dam, or Custodians of the Blood, claimed responsibility for the Irbil attack. But former diplomats and regional analysts said the group was merely a front organization created by the main Shiite militias in Iraq.

Following the rocket attack on the Irbil base, Iraq’s Balad air base came under rocket fire days later, where a U.S. defense firm services the country’s fighter jets, and then two rockets landed near the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad.

Iran has rejected any connection to the rocket attacks.

In a phone call Tuesday between Biden and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, the two leaders agreed that “that those responsible for such attacks must be held fully to account,” according to a White House readout of the conversation.

Dennis Ross, a former senior U.S. diplomat who worked on Middle East policy under several presidents, said the administration had lowered the risk of causing friction with the Iraqi government by hitting targets in Syria.

“By striking facilities used by the militias just across the border in Syria, the risk of blowback against the Iraqi gov is reduced,” Ross tweeted.

Dan De Luce and Mosheh Gains reported from Washington; Ali Arouzi reported from London; Amin Hossein Khodadadi reported from Tehran; and Charlene Gubash reported from Cairo.

The Associated Press contributed.

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 6:29 am
IS bride loses bid to return to UK to fight for citizenship
Associated Press

LONDON (AP) — A woman who ran away from London as a teenager to join the Islamic State group lost her bid Friday to return to the U.K. to fight for the restoration of her citizenship, which was revoked on national security grounds.

Shamima Begum was one of three east London schoolgirls who traveled to Syria in 2015. She resurfaced at a refugee camp in Syria and told reporters she wanted to come home, but was denied the chance after former Home Secretary Sajid Javid revoked her citizenship.

Begum's lawyers appealed,, saying her right to a fair hearing was harmed by the obstacles of pursuing her case from the camp. The U.K. Supreme Court disagreed, ruling Friday that the right to a fair hearing does not trump all other considerations, such as public safety.

“The appropriate response to the problem in the present case is for the deprivation hearing to be stayed - or postponed - until Ms. Begum is in a position to play an effective part in it without the safety of the public being compromised,'' said Justice Robert Reed, the president of the Supreme Court. “That is not a perfect solution, as it is not known how long it may be before that is possible. But there is no perfect solution to a dilemma of the present kind.”

Javid argued that Begum was Bangladeshi by descent and could go there.

She challenged the decision, arguing she is not a citizen of another country and that Javid’s decision left her stateless.

The human rights group Liberty said the court’s ruling sets “an extremely dangerous precedent”.

“The right to a fair trial is not something democratic governments should take away on a whim, and nor is someone’s British citizenship,'' said Rosie Brighouse, a lawyer with Liberty. “If a government is allowed to wield extreme powers like banishment without the basic safeguards of a fair tria,l it sets an extremely dangerous precedent.''

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 5:06 am
EU sees must-not-miss chance to revive Iran nuclear deal
Associated Press

BRUSSELS (AP) — The top European Union diplomat supervising the international agreement aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions called Friday for a concerted effort to reinvigorate the pact even as Tehran appears to be reneging on some of its commitments.

“This is an occasion that we cannot miss,” to revive the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters via video-link.

The deal almost collapsed after the Trump administration unilaterally pulled the U.S. out three years ago, triggering crippling economic sanctions on Iran. Britain, France and Germany notably struggled to keep it alive and have been heartened by President Joe Biden’s willingness to bring the U.S. back in.

“I am convinced as coordinator of the JCPOA that we do have diplomatic space, a diplomatic window of opportunity to dialogue” in line with Biden’s aims, Borrell said. “We need to use this opportunity and focus on solutions to bring the JCPOA back on track in order for everybody (to fulfil) their commitments.”

Iran this week effectively set a deadline to lift the U.S. sanctions within three months, after which it said it would erase surveillance footage of its nuclear facilities. It has also limited some monitoring of its activities, which the EU says are meant to help ensure that Tehran's nuclear work is peaceful.

The U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, has also reported that Iran has added 17.6 kilograms (38.8 pounds) of uranium enriched up to 20% to its stockpile as of Feb. 16 — far past the 3.67% purity allowed under the JCPOA.

Borrell said that Iran’s latest moves “are very much concerning.”

Posted on 26 February 2021 | 4:43 am