Morocco recalls its ambassador to Germany as tensions rise

Morocco recalls its ambassador to Germany as tensions rise

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Associated Press

Thursday, May 6, 2021

RABAT, Morocco (AP) – Morocco’s ambassador to Germany has been recalled to Rabat for “consultations,” the Moroccan Foreign Ministry said Thursday.

The North African kingdom’s move comes amid rising tensions with Germany, notably related to the disputed Western Sahara. The ministry also cited concerns about the two countries’ cooperation against terrorism and in settling Libya’s conflict.

In March, Morocco suspended ties with the German Embassy due to “deep misunderstandings” following then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s controversial decision in December to recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over the territory.

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The German Foreign Ministry said it was not informed in advance about the ambassador’s recall, adding that it was mystified by the allegations cited in the Moroccan Foreign Ministry’s statement.

“We are all the more surprised by this measure as we are working with the Moroccan side in a constructive way to resolve the crisis,” the ministry said, adding that it has asked Morocco for an explanation.

On Thursday, the Moroccan Foreign Ministry said in a statement that “Germany has distanced itself from the spirit of constructive solution with a destructive attitude on the issue of the Moroccan Sahara.” It accused Germany of “antagonistic activism” following Trump‘s decision.

The ministry also accused German authorities of acting “with complicity towards an individual formerly convicted of acts of terror, by disclosing sensitive information communicated by the Moroccan security services to their German counterparts.”

It did not name the individual, or elaborate on the accusations.

And the ministry said Germany exhibited a “continued determination to counter Morocco’s regional influence, particularly on the Libyan issue,” after Morocco was not included in important Libya peace talks in Berlin in January.

After Morocco froze relations with the German Embassy in March, Germany’s government said it saw no reason for a deterioration of its good diplomatic relations with Morocco.

The Algeria-backed Polisario Front fought for independence for Western Sahara after Morocco annexed the former Spanish colony in 1975. U.N. peacekeepers now monitor a 30-year-old cease-fire between Moroccan forces and Polisario supporters.

The U.N. has expressed concern that Trump’s decision – in exchange for Morocco normalizing diplomatic ties with Israel – could thwart negotiation efforts in the long-running Western Sahara conflict. Many countries, including Germany, support a U.N.-brokered political solution.

Germany busts international child porn site used by 400,000

Germany busts international child porn site used by 400,000

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Germany’s former national soccer player Christoph Metzelder arrives at the court for the opening of his trial in Duesseldorf, Germany, Thursday, April 29, 2021. The former defender of Borussia Dortmund, Real Madrid and Schalke 04 stands trial on charges of … more >

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By Kirsten Grieshaber

Associated Press

Monday, May 3, 2021

BERLIN (AP) — German prosecutors announced Monday they have busted one of the world’s biggest international darknet platforms for child pornography, used by more than 400,000 registered members.

Frankfurt prosecutors said in a statement together with the Federal Criminal Police Office that in mid-April three German suspects, said to be the administrators of the “Boystown” platform, were arrested along with a German user. One of the three main suspects was arrested in Paraguay.

They also searched seven buildings in connection with the porn ring in mid-April in Germany.

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The authorities said the platform was “one of the world’s biggest child pornography darknet platforms” and had been active at least since 2019. Pedophiles used it to exchange and watch pornography of children and toddlers, most of them boys, from all over the world.

Prosecutors wrote that they found “images of most severe sexual abuse of toddlers” among the photos and video material.

A German police task force investigated the platform, its administrators and users for months in cooperation with Europol and law enforcement authorities from the Netherlands, Sweden, Australia, the United States and Canada, the statement said.

The three main suspects were a 40-year-old man from Paderborn, a 49-year-old man from Munich and a 58-year-old man from northern Germany who had been living in Paraguay for many years, the prosecutors’ statement said. They worked as administrators of the site and gave advice to members on how to evade law enforcement when using the platform for illegal child pornography.

A fourth suspect, a 64-year-old man from Hamburg, is accused of being one of the most active users of the platform having allegedly uploaded more than 3,500 posts.

Germany has requested the extradition of the suspect who was arrested in Paraguay.

No names were given in line with Germany’s privacy regulations.

After the raids in mid-April, the online platform was shut down.

Germany’s top security official thanked the authorities for their success.

“This investigative success has a clear message: Those who assault the weakest aren’t safe anywhere,” German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said. ”That’s what investigators work for day and night, online and offline, globally.”

“We’ll do everything within our power to protect the kids from these disgusting crimes,” he added.

Russia blacklists 8 EU officials in retaliatory action

Russia blacklists 8 EU officials in retaliatory action

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In this photo takes from a video provided by the Babuskinsky District Court on Thursday, April 29, 2021, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is seen on TV screens during a hearing on charges of defamation in the Babuskinsky District Court … more >

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By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV

Associated Press

Friday, April 30, 2021

MOSCOW (AP) – Russia on Friday blacklisted eight officials from the European Union in retaliation for EU sanctions over the imprisonment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

The Russian list includes European Parliament President David Sassoli and Vera Jourova, the vice president of the European Commission for values and transparency.

European Council President Charles Michel, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Sassoli condemned the Russian move, saying it’s “unacceptable, lacks any legal justification and is entirely groundless.”

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They said in a statement that Moscow’s action is “the latest, striking demonstration of how the Russian Federation has chosen confrontation with the EU instead of agreeing to redress the negative trajectory of our bilateral relations.”

“The EU reserves the right to take appropriate measures in response to the Russian authorities’ decision,” the statement said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry accused the EU of trying to punish Moscow for its “independent foreign and domestic policies” and of trying contain its development with “unlawful restrictions.” It particularly referred to the EU sanctions slapped on six Russian officials in March.

“All our proposals for settling problems between Russia and the EU through a direct professional dialogue have been consistently ignored or rejected,” the ministry said.

The EU sanctions targeted the Russian officials involved in the imprisonment of Navalny, the most adamant opponent and critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Navalny was arrested in January upon his return from Germany where he spent five months recovering from a nerve agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin – accusations that Russian officials reject. European labs have confirmed that Navalny was poisoned.

In February, Navalny was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison on charges of violating the terms of a suspended sentence while he was in Germany. The sentence stemmed from a 2014 embezzlement conviction that Navalny has rejected as politically driven.

Russia has rejected the U.S. and the EU criticism of Navalny‘s imprisonment and of Russia‘s crackdown on protests demanding his release as meddling in its internal affairs.

The tensions over Navalny have further exacerbated Russia‘s relations with the West, which plunged to post-Cold War lows after Russia‘s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. Those ties have become further strained over U.S. and the EU accusations of Moscow’s interference in elections and hacking attacks.

The Russian sanctions list also includes Ilmar Tomusk, the head of Estonia’s Language Inspectorate; Ivars Abolins, chairman of Latvia’s National Electronic Media Council; Maris Baltins, director of the Latvian State Language Center; Jacques Maire, a French lawmaker who is also a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe; Berlin chief state prosecutor Jorg Raupach; and Asa Scott, head of chemical and biological defense and security division at the Swedish Defense Research Agency.

___ Associated Press writer Samuel Petrequin in Brussels contributed to this report.

Russian defense chief scoffs at Western warnings on Ukraine

Russian defense chief scoffs at Western warnings on Ukraine

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This handout photo released on Thursday, April 22, 2021 by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service shows, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu watches drills form a board of military helicopter in Crimea. The Russian military is conducting massive drills in … more >

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By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV

Associated Press

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

MOSCOW (AP) – Russia’s defense chief said Tuesday that a troop pullback from areas near Ukraine had nothing to do with Western pressure, adding that Moscow will continue doing what is necessary to protect itself.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu also voiced concern about NATO forces’ presence near Russia.

The recent Russian troop buildup near Ukraine worried the West, which strongly urged the Kremlin to withdraw its forces. Shoigu, who ordered the drawdown on Thursday after massive drills, scoffed at the Western calls as inappropriate.

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“Some even warned us that our activities on our own territory will have consequences,” Shoigu said. “I would like to emphasize that we don’t see such warnings as acceptable and will do everything that is necessary to ensure the security of our borders.”

He pointed to the deployment of NATO troops near Russia as a cause for Moscow’s concern.

“The U.S. and NATO activities to increase combat readiness and build up their presence have contributed to an increase in military threats,” Shoigu said, noting that Moscow was closely monitoring the deployment of U.S. troops and weapons in Europe as part of NATO’s Defender Europe 2021 drills.

The Russian troop buildup came amid a rise in cease-fire violations in eastern Ukraine, stoking fears of large-scale hostilities. The conflict between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine‘s eastern industrial heartland, called Donbas, erupted shortly after Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine‘s Crimean Peninsula. More than 14,000 people have been killed in seven years of fighting.

In 2015, France and Germany helped broker a peace deal that was signed in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. The agreement helped end large-scale battles, but skirmishes have continued and a peace settlement has stalled.

The deal obliged Ukraine to grant broad autonomy to the rebel regions and declare an amnesty for the rebels, and stipulated that Ukraine would regain full control of its border with Russia in the rebel-held territories only after they elect local leaders and legislatures. Many in Ukraine saw the deal as a betrayal of national interests and opposed it.

The latest round of the so-called “Normandy Format” talks between the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany in December 2019 brought no progress.

Ukrainian officials have continuously pushed for revising the Minsk agreement and inviting the U.S. and other powers to join the peace talks, ideas Russia has rejected.

On Tuesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy reaffirmed a call for modifying the Minsk agreement and inviting other countries to help broker peace talks.

“I believe that the Minsk agreement should be flexible,” Zelenskyy said. “The ”Normandy format” could be extended to involve other serious, powerful players on a parallel track,” Zelenskyy added, without specifying what other nations could be invited to help broker peace talks.

Zelenskyy on Tuesday visited Ukrainian troops near Crimea.

He welcomed the Russian troop pullback, saying it helped de-escalate tensions. At the same time, he noted that “we don’t have a 100% guarantee that the Russian troops won’t return.”

Zelenskyy voiced hope that an agreement could be reached quickly to secure a cease-fire in the east during the celebration of Orthodox Easter this coming Sunday.

___

Yuras Karmanau in Kyiv, Ukraine contributed to this report.

The Latest: Biden: Sending help to India during virus surge

The Latest: Biden: Sending help to India during virus surge

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People wearing face masks to protect against the spread of the coronavirus walk on a street in Tokyo, Tuesday, April 27, 2021. Japan declared a state of emergency from Sunday to curb a rapid coronavirus resurgence, the third since the … more >

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By The Associated Press

Associated Press

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden says the U.S. is sending “a whole series of help” to India to combat the coronavirus, including life-saving therapeutics.

Biden says the U.S. is sending “mechanical parts” India needs to domestically produce COVID-19 vaccines. The president adds the administration is engaging in discussions about when the U.S. could send vaccine doses to India.

“I think we’ll be in a position to be able to share vaccines as well as know-how with other countries who are in real need. That is the hope and expectation,” Biden says.

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On Monday, the White House announced it would share about 60 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine with the world once the vaccine passes federal safety and quality reviews.

___

THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

– CDC: Vaccinated people in US can go outside without mask

– Minnesota child dies of COVID-19 complications

India records more than 320,000 new cases of coronavirus

Harry, Meghan to lead ‘Vax Live’ fundraising concert in LA

– Follow more of AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic and https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-vaccine

___

HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:

O’FALLON, Mo. – The number of people in Missouri infected with the coronavirus has topped the half-million mark.

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services on Tuesday cited 524 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19, bringing the total to 500,071. The state also reported 37 new deaths, although 34 that occurred since November were uncovered in the state’s weekly review of death certificates. In total, 8,732 Missourians have died from the virus.

The state’s COVID-19 dashboard shows 36.9% of Missourians have received at least one shot of COVID-19 vaccine, and 26.5% have completed vaccination. Missouri continues to rank in the bottom third among states for per capita vaccinations.

To increase outreach, the state on Tuesday announced the launch of a Spanish language version of the Missouri Vaccine Navigator, a registry tool aimed at helping direct residents to vaccination sites. The health department said it will offer additional languages soon.

___

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Want a beer with that shot? Health officials hoping to entice more people to be vaccinated by joining forces with a local brewery in Buffalo, New York.

People who receive their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine during a May 8 clinic at Resurgence Brewing Company will receive a token worth one drink of their choice.

The promotion is called a “drink for a dose.”

“While demand has slowed for COVID-19 vaccine, there are still people in Erie County for us to reach. We are going to shift to more innovative tactics, based on data and input from the community,” Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein said in a statement.

Burstein said the county, which includes Buffalo, is seeing a significant number of new coronavirus cases among 20-to-39-year-olds.

___

DALLAS – Lawyer Mark Melton of Dallas began posting advice on social media for people who might end up facing eviction early in the coronavirus pandemic.

He was soon inundated with phone calls and messages. Just over a year later, he’s recruited more than 175 attorneys who have helped more than 6,000 people.

The volunteer attorneys have helped renters understand the protections put in place to temporarily stop evictions and how to access government funds to pay rent. Melton’s efforts come as more than 4 million people in the U.S. said they faced eviction or foreclosure in the next two months, according to the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. In Texas, that number is more than 250,000.

A federal moratorium on evictions was extended through June by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A review of data from over 20 cities and states found about 81% of landlords had lawyers while only 3% of tenants did, according to the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel.

Studies indicate legal representation saves cities and states tens of millions of dollars on homeless shelters.

___

WORCESTER, Mass. – A nurses strike at a Massachusetts hospital is no closer to a resolution after the first negotiating session with management in two months ended without an agreement.

Nurses at St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester met with representatives of hospital owner Tenet Healthcare on Monday to discuss ending the strike that started March 8. The nurses are demanding increased staffing, which they say is important for patient safety, but their concerns were not addressed.

Tenet says staffing levels are in line with industry standards and it won’t budge. A spokesperson for the union says membership was insulted by Tenet’s offer of creating an audit committee on staffing.

___

BOSTON – Students at all nine schools in the Massachusetts state university system will be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 if they want to participate in on-campus activities this fall.

The schools’ presidents announced Monday the requirement applies to undergraduate and graduate students attending in-person classes, conducting on-campus research, living on campus or participating in other campus activities. Medical and religious exemptions will be made.

Combined, the nine schools have about 52,000 students.

___

DETROIT – Attorneys for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration defended coronavirus testing for school athletes, telling a judge Tuesday that Michigan law gives the health director extraordinary power to respond to a pandemic.

A parent group called Let Them Play Michigan is seeking an injunction to stop weekly coronavirus tests, which started April 2 for athletes ages 13-19, and related quarantines and mask requirements.

The group argues that the policy must go through a formal rule-making procedure, a process that would take weeks or months.

“Student-athletes have a protected liberty interest in associating with their peers and mentors and participating in athletic competitions as a component of their education,” attorney Peter Ruddell said in a filing at the Court of Claims.

Assistant Attorney General Darrin Fowler said state law is clear: A health director can use emergency orders to combat a pandemic. Fowler said the broader interests of public health far outweigh the group’s claim of injuries.

“Epidemics are unique situations that can evolve, just as we have seen COVID-19 evolve,” he said, “and they require quick and malleable responses to meet the changing understanding of conditions on the ground.”

Judge Michael Kelly heard arguments Tuesday over Zoom, with more than 1,000 people watching. Kelly said he’ll decide soon.

___

NEW YORK – U.S. health officials say fully vaccinated Americans don’t need to wear masks outdoors unless they are in a big crowd of strangers.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the updated guidance Tuesday. Previously the CDC had been advising that people should wear masks outdoors if they are within 6 feet of each other.

The change comes as more than half of U.S. adults have gotten at least one dose of coronavirus vaccine, and more than a third have been fully vaccinated.

The CDC guidance says fully vaccinated or not, people don’t have to wear masks outdoors when they walk, bike or run alone or with members of their household. They also can go maskless in small outdoor gatherings with fully vaccinated people.

Unvaccinated people should wear masks at outdoor gatherings that include other unvaccinated people. They also should keep using masks at outdoor restaurants.

The coronavirus has killed more than 570,000 people in the U.S., the highest death toll in the world.

___

SEATTLE – In Washington state, Amazon has started vaccinating thousands of its warehouse and delivery workers, contractors and their families.

Amazon.com Inc. hosted its first clinic on Monday. The Seattle Times reported company spokesperson Karen Riley Sawyer says a second vaccination clinic is set to open Tuesday at a Spokane warehouse. That will be followed by additional company vaccination opportunities at other facilities across the state.

Critics have claimed the company didn’t take proper safety precautions for its workers during the coronavirus pandemic. While some staff worked from home, about 1 million warehouse workers globally were required to report to their facilities as workloads soared because of increased demand for online shopping. But some warehouse workers stopped showing up as concerns increased about the coronavirus.

Amazon then rolled back its COVID-19 benefits, including pay increases and unlimited sick leave. The company has said its workers contracted the virus at rates comparable or lower than the national average.

___

SAO PAULO – Brazil’s Senate on Tuesday began an inquiry into the government’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic, a probe that analysts say could jeopardize the re-election of President Jair Bolsonaro.

Bolsonaro has been one of the world’s most prominent opponents of restrictions aimed at curbing the disease, whose effects he has often downplayed. He has encouraged use of medications that scientists say are worthless. Critics say his policies, along with a bungled vaccine campaign, have contributed to the world’s second-highest death toll from the coronavirus.

While the investigation isn’t formally aimed at criminal allegations, it potentially could lead to charges. It’s also likely to provide a drumbeat of embarrassing accusations ahead of the October 2022 presidential election.

Bolsonaro has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and instead blames governors and mayors, saying their restrictions on activity have caused more problems than the coronavirus.

___

FRANKFURT, Germany – Europe is ramping up its financial recovery plan, with Germany and France expected to use billions from a recovery fund.

Finance officials say the continent trails the U.S. and China in recovering from the recession brought on by the pandemic.

German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz and French couterpart Bruno Le Maire laid out plans Tuesday for spending on digitalization and fighting climate change. France should get about 40 billion euros ($48 billion) from the EU’s 750 billion euro recovery fund, and Germany around 30 billion euros ($36 billion).

Last year, France’s economy shrank by 8.3% amid the virus crisis, the worst slump since World War II, according to national statistics institute INSEE.

Country leaders are being asked to fix longstanding problems in their economies in return for the money, which leaders hope will start arriving as early as July. Italy’s 221.1 billion euro ($267.3 billion) recovery plan includes steps to reduce its backlog of court cases, considered a drag on businesses that can’t get commercial disputes quickly resolved.

___

KENILWORTH, New Jersey – Merck announced a deal with five makers of generic drugs in India to produce molnupiravir, an experimental antiviral similar to the COVID-19 medicine remdesivir but in a more convenient pill form.

Late-stage testing of the drug just started in the United States, and it’s unclear when the medicine might be used in India or elsewhere. A mid-stage study gave encouraging results, suggesting the drug quickly reduced virus levels when used early after infection.

Remdesivir is widely used for certain hospitalized patients but must be given as an infusion, which limits its use.

Molnupiravir, a pill that Merck is developing with Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, has shown wide activity against many types of respiratory viruses, according to Dr. George Painter, an Emory University professor who helped discover it.

“It’s my assumption that those generic drug manufacturers who have enormous capacity either have this on hand or will make it quickly,” he said.

___

ISLAMABAD – Pakistan cancelled all school exams until June amid a surge in deaths and infections from coronavirus, which has flooded the country’s hospitals.

The decision was announced by education minister Shafqat Mahmood days after students took to Twitter, saying their lives were endangered by holding exams of Cambridge International in Pakistan.

However, Mahmood continued vowing to go ahead with the exams, which began on Monday amid the pandemic. As the criticism grew, Mahmood said Tuesday all schools exams will be held in October.

The latest development came hours after Pakistan reported 142 deaths from coronavirus, one of the highest single-day deaths since last year. Pakistan is currently in the middle of the third wave and the steady increase in infections and deaths from coronavirus has flooded the country’s hospitals.

Pakistan has reported more than 17,000 confirmed deaths from COVID-19 and more than 800,000 confirmed cases.

___

LOS ANGELES – Prince Harry and Meghan will serve as the campaign chairs of Global Citizen’s effort to deliver COVID-19 vaccines to medical workers in the world’s poorest countries.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex will appear at “Vax Live: The Concert to Reunite the World,” to be taped Sunday at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles and air on ABC, CBS, FOX, YouTube and iHeartMedia broadcast radio stations on May 8.

The event was announced Tuesday by Global Citizen, an anti-poverty nonprofit. Global Citizen CEO Hugh Evans told the Associated Press that 60 nations still hadn’t received any COVID-19 vaccines as of April.

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will appear during the broadcast as part of the “We Can Do This” initiative to increase confidence in COVID-19 vaccines. French President Emmanuel Macron, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and Croatian Prime Andrej Minister Plenković also will appear at the concert, which will be hosted by Selena Gomez and headlined by Jennifer Lopez.

Harry and Meghan are leading an effort to raise money for the vaccine-sharing program COVAX, which hopes to produce $19 billion to pay for vaccines in poorer countries.

___

MADRID – Spain’s government has placed a quarantine on all travelers coming from India amid a major rise in infections in the Asian country.

The government didn’t specify the length of the quarantine, but in February it applied a 10-day quarantine on travelers from Brazil, South Africa and other countries because of the spread of more virulent strains of COVID-19.

In a meeting of Spain’s Cabinet on Tuesday, the government also approved a shipment of seven tons of medical supplies to the hard-hit India.

___

BEIJING – China says it will hold a video conference with South Asian governments to discuss fighting the coronavirus, and India is welcome to join.

The announcement comes amid ongoing tensions with New Delhi over a border dispute, and as India is being engulfed by a devastating surge of COVID-19 infections.

China’s Foreign Ministry said Beijing organized Tuesday’s meeting with the governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. A spokesman said India was welcome to “take an active part in the meeting.”

China and India are locked in a standoff over a remote section of their border, after deadly clashes there last June.

___

BRUSSELS – Belgium is shutting its borders to travelers from India, Brazil and South Africa in an effort to block coronavirus variants.

Prime minister Alexander De Croo’s government says a ministerial order banning passengers’ travels from the three countries will be published as soon as possible. The government says diplomats, sailors and a limited number of professional working in the transportation sector or major international organizations will still be allowed on Belgian soil.

India is currently hit by a devastating surge of COVID-19 infections spurred by a new variant that emerged there and has been detected in Belgium.

___

MARSHALL, Minn. – A young child from southwestern Minnesota has died of COVID-19 complications, according to the state Department of Health.

Marshall Public Schools Superintendent Jeremy Williams says the child, who died Sunday, was a first grader at Park Side Elementary.

While coronavirus deaths in children are rare, they can occur in otherwise healthy children, health officials said. “Since the start of the pandemic, three Minnesota children under age 18 have died due to COVID-19,” the health department said.

Gov. Tim Walz released a statement Monday in response to the death, calling it “heartbreaking.” Walz’s office said the child didn’t have underlying health conditions.

According to the school district, 22 students and staff are in quarantine at the elementary school, which will continue in-person instruction.

Department of Health officials say children under 16 years old are not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccination. They say the best approach is making sure others are vaccinated, along with testing, social distancing, wearing face masks and frequent hand washing.

___

NEW DELHI – India recorded more than 320,000 new cases of coronavirus infection as the surge weighed on the country’s health system.

The 323,144 new infections Tuesday raised India’s total past 17.6 million. It ended a five-day streak of recording the largest single-day increases in any country throughout the pandemic, but the decline likely reflects lower weekend testing rather than reduced spread of the virus.

The health ministry also reported another 2,771 deaths, with roughly 115 Indians succumbing to the disease every hour. The latest deaths pushed India’s total to 197,894, which experts say are probably an undercount.

Foreign ministry spokesman Arindam Bagchi tweeted photos Tuesday of the first shipment of medical aid India received from Britain. It included 100 ventilators and 95 oxygen concentrators.

Other nations like the U.S., Germany and Pakistan have also promised medical aid to India.

___

Summit catapults world ahead in crucial year to curb warming

Summit catapults world ahead in crucial year to curb warming

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President Joe Biden speaks to the virtual Leaders Summit on Climate, from the East Room of the White House, Friday, April 23, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) more >

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By SETH BORENSTEIN

Associated Press

Saturday, April 24, 2021

WASHINGTON (AP) – The world moved closer to curbing the worst of global warming after this week’s climate summit. But there’s still a long way to go, and the road to a safer future gets even rockier from here.

With the world trying to prevent more than another half-degree of warming (0.3 degrees Celsius) or so to achieve the most stringent of goals set by the 2015 Paris climate accord, scientists and politicians alike say this decade is crucial for any chance of getting that done. And that means 2021 is a “make-or-break year for people and the planet,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said.

Everything culminates in November with heavyweight climate negotiations in Glasgow, Scotland. While these climate meetings happen annually, every five or so years there is a weightier session of the type that in the past has led to major deals or disappointments. It’s that time again.

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By November, the U.N. climate negotiating process calls for 200 nations to ratchet up commitments to cut emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases by 2030. The rich countries need to come up with more money to help the poor countries develop greener power and adapt to climate change’s harsh realities. And nations need to agree on a price on carbon pollution after several years of gridlock. They must figure out essentially how to make it all work.

“Glasgow is the world’s last best hope,” said U.S. special climate envoy John Kerry.

There will be important stops in Germany in May for a minister’s level meeting, in a British seaside town in June for a meeting of leaders of big economies and a final push at U.N. headquarters in September, but everything is about what President Joe Biden called “a road that will take us to Glasgow.”

Biden’s summit, organized in less than 100 days, was designed to send the world off on a fast start toward Glasgow, and experts said it did so. They figure it pushed the globe anywhere from one-eighth to more than halfway along the journey, with mixed opinions on whether the United States did enough.

“If it were 100 miles to Glasgow, we have just done the first 12 miles on the lowlands, and we have a 88 hard miles to go, with a lot of difficult terrain to cross before we get there,” said Bill Hare, director of the German think tank Climate Analytics. Hare said while countries showed a significant increase in ambition to fight climate change, he was “hoping for slightly more.”

Climate scientist Zeke Hausfather, who directs climate issues at the Breakthrough Institute, was more optimistic: “I’d say this gets us about half the way (say, 50 miles) to where we need to get by Glasgow.”

Nate Hultman, director of the University of Maryland’s Center for Global Sustainability, was even more optimistic: “This has ended up being a critical international moment that provided a strong boost. … We’re now, I’d say, about 70 miles toward Glasgow.”

For his part, Kerry concluded the climate summit by saying that countries representing more than half of the world’s economic output have committed to a path that would achieve the Paris goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times. Beyond that level, environmental problems get substantially worse, with possible dangerous tipping points, scientists say. The world has already warmed 1.2 degrees Celsius (2.2 degrees Fahrenheit).

Hare’s calculations show the world didn’t quite make as much progress as Kerry claims. For example, to be on the path to limit warming to 1.5 degrees, the United States needs to cut greenhouse gas emissions 57% below 2005 levels by 2030, he said. The Biden target announced this week was 50% to 52%. The European Union’s goals also came close but didn’t quite get there. The only major economy now on track with 1.5 degrees is the United Kingdom, Hare said.

But there’s disagreement on that because of the different ways calculations can be made. The Rhodium Group, a research institute, said Biden’s target puts America in line with the 1.5 degrees goal.

Climate Action Tracker, a group of scientists including Hare who monitors nations’ pledges of carbon pollution cuts, calculated that targets announced since last September cut about 12% to 14% from the emissions gap. That emissions gap is that big area between what nations promise to do and the pollution reductions needed by 2030 to limit future warming to the 1.5 degrees goal. The announcements cut somewhere between 2.9 billion and 4.1 billion tons (between 2.6 billion and 3.7 billion metric tons) of carbon from the gap, the tracker calculated.

With the new targets from the United States, the United Kingdom, European Union, Japan and Canada, the new emissions gap is 22 billion to 26 billion tons (20 billion to 24 billion metric tons) of carbon pollution. Hare chastised Australia’s efforts as “really disgraceful” and said Brazil made a weaker pledge than in 2015, while Russia didn’t offer anything substantive.

“The Earth Day summit substantially improved the odds of a successful global climate summit in November,” said Nigel Purvis, a climate negotiator in the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. “With new action by rich nations and new assistance for poor nations, the world should be able to make additional progress in 2021.”

Poorer nations that haven’t made big pollution cut promises yet, especially India, are waiting to see if promises about financial help become more concrete before they commit to bigger pollution cuts, Hare said. But there’s hope there because of Biden’s promise to double public climate finance available to developing countries by 2024 and Germany’s announcing 4 billion euros a year extra, Hare said.

Also important was South Korea’s promise to stop financing coal power plants in other countries, Hare said. Activists hope China and Japan will follow suit, but they haven’t yet.

Alice Hill, a senior fellow for energy and environment at the Council on Foreign Relations, said this week’s summit “did not alone lead to the kind of enormous leap toward that what we need in fighting climate change.”

While the U.N.’s Guterres noted strengthened commitments, he said, “There is still a long way to go.”

Former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Guterres’ special envoy for climate ambitions and solutions, told The Associated Press that “There’s no question we moved forward. … But now comes the hard work – actually delivering results.”

___

Associated Press writers Christina Larson in Washington and Ellen Knickmeyer in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.

Indonesia looking for submarine that may be too deep to help

Indonesia looking for submarine that may be too deep to help

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Indonesian Navy submarine KRI Nanggala sails in the waters off Tuban, East Java, Indonesia, as seen in this aerial photo taken from an Indonesian Navy helicopter of the 400 Air Squadron, in this Monday, Oct. 6, 2014, photo. Indonesia’s navy … more >

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By Niniek Karmini

Associated Press

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Indonesia’s navy ships on Thursday were intensely searching for a submarine that likely fell too deep to retrieve, making survival chances for the 53 people on board slim. Authorities said oxygen in the submarine would run out by early Saturday.

The diesel-powered KRI Nanggala 402 was participating in a training exercise Wednesday when it missed a scheduled reporting call. Officials reported an oil slick and the smell of diesel fuel near the starting position of its last dive, about 96 kilometers (60 miles) north of the resort island of Bali, though there has been no conclusive evidence that they are linked to the submarine.

“Hopefully we can rescue them before the oxygen has run out” at 3 a.m. on Saturday, Indonesia’s navy chief of staff, Adm. Yudo Margono, told reporters.

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He said rescuers found an unidentified object with high magnetism in the area and that officials hope it’s the submarine.

The navy believes the submarine sank to a depth of 600-700 meters (2,000-2,300 feet) – much deeper than its collapse depth estimated at 200 meters (656 feet) by a firm that refitted the vessel in 2009-2012.

Ahn Guk-hyeon, an official from South Korea’s Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering, said the submarine would collapse if it goes deeper than around 200 meters because of pressure. He said his company upgraded much of the Indonesian submarine’s internal structures and systems but it lacks latest information about the vessel.

Frank Owen, secretary of the Submarine Institute of Australia, also said the submarine could be at too great a depth for a rescue team to operate.

“Most rescue systems are really only rated to about 600 meters (1,969 feet),” he said. “They can go deeper than that because they will have a safety margin built into the design, but the pumps and other systems that are associated with that may not have the capacity to operate. So they can survive at that depth, but not necessarily operate.”

Owen, a former submariner who developed an Australian submarine rescue system, said the Indonesian vessel was not fitted with a rescue seat around an escape hatch designed for underwater rescues. He said a rescue submarine would make a waterproof connection to a disabled submarine with a so-called skirt fitted over the recue seat so that the hatch can be opened without the disabled submarine filling with water.

Owen said the submarine could be recovered from 500 meters (1,640 feet) without any damage but couldn’t say if it would have imploded at 700 meters (2,297 feet).

In November 2017, an Argentine submarine went missing with 44 crew members in the South Atlantic, almost a year before its wreckage was found at a depth of 800 meters (2,625 feet). In 2019, a fire broke out on one of the Russian navy’s deep-sea research submersibles, killing 14 sailors.

Indonesia’s military said Thursday that more than 20 navy ships, two submarines and five aircraft were searching an area where the submarine was last detected. A hydro-oceanographic survey ship equipped with underwater detection capabilities also was on its way to the site around the oil spills.

Margono said the oil slick may have been caused by a crack in the submarine’s tank after the vessel sank.

Neighboring countries are rushing to join the complex operation.

Rescue ships from Singapore and Malaysia are expected to arrive between Saturday and Monday. The Indonesian military said Australia, the United States, Germany, France, Russia, India and Turkey have also offered assistance. South Korea said it has also offered help.

“The news of the missing submarine is deeply concerning,” Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said during a visit to New Zealand. “We will provide any assistance that we can. There’s no question that submarine search and rescues are very complex.”

Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton called the incident “a terrible tragedy.” He told Sydney Radio 2GB that fact that the submarine is “in a very deep part of waters” makes it “very difficult for the recovery or for location.”

“Our fervent prayers and hopes go out to the crew of KRI Nanggala, for their safety and resilience,” Singapore’s Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen wrote on Facebook.

Indonesia’s navy said an electrical failure may have occurred during the dive, causing the submarine to lose control and become unable to undertake emergency procedures that would have allowed it to resurface. It was rehearsing for a missile-firing exercise on Thursday, which was eventually canceled.

The German-built submarine, which has been in service in Indonesia since 1981, was carrying 49 crew members, its commander and three gunners, the Indonesian Defense Ministry said. It had maintenance and overhaul in Germany, Indonesia and most recently in South Korea, from 2007 to 2012.

The world’s largest archipelago nation with more than 17,000 islands has faced growing challenges to its maritime claims in recent years, including numerous incidents involving Chinese vessels near the Natuna islands.

Last year, President Joko Widodo reaffirmed the country’s sovereignty during a visit to the islands at the edge of the South China Sea, one of the busiest sea lanes where China is embroiled in territorial disputes with its smaller neighbors.

___

Associated Press writers Kim Tong-hyung and Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea, McGuirk Rod in Canberra, Australia and Nick Perry in Wellington, New Zealand contributed to this report.

Turkey withdraws from European treaty protecting women

Turkey withdraws from European treaty protecting women

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FILE – In this Monday, March 8, 2021, photo, protesters chant slogans during a rally to mark International Women’s Day in Istanbul. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a decree early Saturday, March 20, 2021, annulling Turkey’s ratification of the … more >

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By ZEYNEP BILGINSOY

Associated Press

Saturday, March 20, 2021

ISTANBUL (AP) – Turkey withdrew early Saturday from a landmark European treaty protecting women from violence that it was the first country to sign 10 years ago and which bears the name of its largest city.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s overnight decree annulling Turkey’s ratification of the Istanbul Convention is a blow to women’s rights advocates, who say the agreement is crucial to combating domestic violence. Hundreds of women gathered at demonstrations across Turkey on Saturday to protest the move.

The Council of Europe‘s Secretary General, Marija Pejčinović Burić, called the decision “devastating.”

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“This move is a huge setback to these efforts and all the more deplorable because it compromises the protection of women in Turkey, across Europe and beyond,” she said.

The Istanbul Convention states that men and women have equal rights and obliges state authorities to take steps to prevent gender-based violence against women, protect victims and prosecute perpetrators.

Some officials from Erdogan’s Islam-oriented party had advocated for a review of the agreement, arguing it is inconsistent with Turkey‘s conservative values by encouraging divorce and undermining the traditional family unit.

Critics also claim the treaty promotes homosexuality through the use of categories like gender, sexual orientation and gender identity. They see that as a threat to Turkish families. Hate speech has been on the rise in Turkey, and the country’s interior minister described LGBT people as “perverts” in a tweet. Erdogan has rejected their existence altogether.

Women’s groups and their allies who have been protesting to keep the convention intact immediately called for demonstrations across the country Saturday under the slogan “Withdraw the decision, implement the treaty.” They said their years-long struggle would not be erased in one night.

“We were struggling every day so the Istanbul Convention would be implemented and women would live. We now hear that the Istanbul Convention has been completely repealed,” Dilan Akyuz, 30, who joined other women demonstrating in Istanbul. “We are very angry today. We can no longer bear even one death of a woman. We do not have any tolerance for this.”

Rights groups say violence against and the killing of women is on the rise in Turkey, an assertion the interior minister called a “complete lie” on Saturday.

A total of 77 women have been killed since the start of the year, according to the We Will Stop Femicide Platform. Some 409 women were killed in 2020, with dozens found dead under suspicious circumstances, according to the group.

Numerous women’s rights groups slammed the decision, saying laws protecting women are inadequately enforced. Advocacy group Women’s Coalition Turkey said the withdrawal from a human rights agreement was a first in Turkey. “It is clear that this decision will further encourage the murderers of women, harassers, rapists,” their statement said.

Turkey‘s justice minister said the government was committed to combating violence against women.

“We continue to protect our people’s honor, the family and our social fabric with determination,” Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul tweeted.

Erdogan has repeatedly stressed the “holiness” of the family and called on women to have three children. His communications director, Fahrettin Altun, said the government’s motto was ‘Powerful Families, Powerful Society.”

Many women suffer physical or sexual violence at the hands of their husbands or partners, but up-to-date official statistics are unavailable. The Istanbul Convention requires states to collect data.

More than a thousand women and allies gathered in Istanbul, wearing masks and holding banners. There was a heavy police presence in the area, and the demonstration ended without serious skirmishes.

They shouted pro-LGBT slogans and called for Erdogan‘s resignation. They cheered as a woman speaking through a megaphone said, “You cannot close up millions of women in their homes. You cannot erase them from the streets and the squares.”

“As women, we now think that the withdrawal is a direct attack on women’s rights and a direct attack on the rights of modern young women, in particular,” Ebru Batur, 21-year-old demonstrator, said. “This of course makes us feel insecure and like our rights are appropriated.”

Turkey was the first country to sign the Council of Europe’s “Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence” at a committee of ministers meeting in Istanbul in 2011. The law came into force in 2014, and Turkey‘s Constitution says international agreements have the force of law.

Some lawyers claimed Saturday that the treaty is still active, arguing the president cannot withdraw from it without the approval of parliament, which unanimously ratified the Istanbul Convention in 2012.

But Erdogan gained sweeping powers with his re-election in 2018, setting in motion Turkey changing from a parliamentary system of government to an executive presidency.

The justice minister wrote on Twitter that while parliament approves treaties which the executive branch puts into effect, the executive also has the authority to withdraw from them.

Women lawmakers from Turkey’s main opposition party said they would not recognize the decree and called it another “coup” on parliament and an usurpation of the rights of 42 million women.

Germany’s Foreign Ministry joined the criticism, saying “withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention is a wrong signal for Europe, but especially for the women of Turkey.”

“Only a few weeks ago, President Erdogan introduced an action plan for human rights which also includes the fight against domestic violence and violence against women,” the German ministry said in a statement. “Quitting an important convention of the Council of Europe questions how serious Turkey is when it comes to the goals mentioned in that action plan.”

“It is clear that neither cultural, nor religious or other national traditions can serve as a disguise in order to ignore violence against women,” Germany said.

___

Mehmet Guzel contributed from Istanbul and Kirsten Grieshaber contributed from Berlin.

The Latest: Biden: ‘Big mistake’ by states to drop mask rule

The Latest: Biden: ‘Big mistake’ by states to drop mask rule

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A health worker prepares to administer the Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine to a health staff member at the Hospital UiTM in Sungai Buloh, outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Wednesday, March 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian) more >

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By The Associated Press

Associated Press

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden called out Republican governors in Texas and Mississippi for “Neanderthal thinking” in deciding to relax their mask mandates and other COVID-19 restrictions.

The governors of both states announced Tuesday they would lift their states’ mask mandates and other restrictions on businesses and gatherings aimed at stopping the spread of the virus.

Biden called it a “big mistake” while speaking in the Oval Office on Wednesday during a meeting with lawmakers, who each wore a mask. He said, “I hope everyone has realized by now, these masks make a difference.”

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Biden added: “We are on the cusp of being able to fundamentally change the nature of this disease” and said “the last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking that in the meantime, everything’s fine, take off your mask, forget it.”

___

THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

– CDC chief: Wear masks, follow federal guidelines

Biden stands by timeline of vaccines for all US adults by May

– Drug maker says India vaccine is 81% effective

– European countries seek vaccine ‘overdrive’ to catch up

– Follow AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic, https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-vaccine and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

___

HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:

WASHINGTON – The Biden administration will partner with health insurance companies to help vulnerable older people get vaccinated for COVID-19.

White House coronavirus special adviser Andy Slavitt announced Wednesday the goal is to get 2 million of the most at-risk seniors vaccinated soon. Many older people live in relative isolation and some lack the internet access to make vaccination appointments.

Insurance companies have ties to Medicare recipients through businesses that range from Medicare Advantage private plans, to prescription drug coverage, to Medigap plans that seniors purchase for expenses that traditional Medicare doesn’t cover.

Slavitt says insurers will use their networks to contact seniors with information about COVID-19 vaccines, answer questions, find and schedule appointments for first and second doses and coordinate transportation. The focus will be on reaching people in medically underserved areas.

The two major industry trade groups, America’s Health Insurance Plans and the BlueCross BlueShield Association, separately announced their member companies will take part in the pilot program, which is being called Vaccine Community Connectors.

___

WASHINGTON – The Biden administration is warning against virus fatigue and encouraging Americans to continue to wear a mask and practice social distancing despite many states easing restrictions.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the nation is “at a critical nexus in the pandemic,” and the next two months are “pivotal” in determining the remaining course of the pandemic.

While vaccinations are set to rapidly ramp up, Walensky warned deaths and new infections have plateaued at a “troubling” level after falling off their January highs.

She says: “Fatigue is winning and the exact measures we have taken to stop the pandemic are now too often being flagrantly ignored.”

Walensky says the CDC has been clear in opposing states’ moves to lift restrictions and encouraged Americans to follow federal guidelines.

___

NEW DELHI, India – The interim analysis of results from an Indian vaccine maker’s late stage trials shows its COVID-19 vaccine to be about 81% effective in preventing illness from the coronavirus.

The Bharat Biotech vaccine was controversially approved by India in January without waiting for trials to confirm that the vaccine was effective. Since then 1.3 million of doses of the vaccine have been administered to people in India.

The interim results are based on 43 trial participants who were infected by the virus. Of these, 36 hadn’t received the vaccine, the company says. A second analysis will be conducted for 87 cases, and a final analysis 130 cases.

Health care workers have been reticent to take the shots and health experts are concerned the regulatory shortcut has amplified vaccine hesitancy.

Bharat Biotech has already signed an agreement with Brazil to supply 20 million doses of the vaccine by September.

___

DETROIT – This week, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is expanding vaccinations to any resident factory worker, no matter their age or where they work.

Non-Detroit residents can also get a shot if they work in manufacturing in the city.

“We’ve had some illness in our plants and deaths. This is incredibly important. … It’s going to give them some peace of mind,” said Cindy Estrada, a vice president at the United Auto Workers, who bared her arm for a shot at the news conference.

More than 2.3 million vaccine doses have been administered so far in Michigan, mostly in the Detroit area, according to the state health department.

___

BERLIN – Germany is extending strict checks on its borders with the Czech Republic and Austria’s Tyrol province by another two weeks until March 17.

The checks were introduced on Feb. 14, initially for a 10-day period, in a bid to reduce the spread of possibly more contagious coronavirus variants that have taken hold in those areas.

Germany is limiting entry to its own citizens and residents, truck drivers, health workers and cross-border commuters working in “systemically relevant sectors.” All must show a negative coronavirus test.

Interior Ministry spokesman Steve Alter says an extension is necessary because of a “worsened infection situation” in the Czech Republic and the situation in Tyrol.

He says Germany is “in intensive talks, in particular with Austria, to find solutions.”

___

PRAGUE – The Czech Republic is negotiating with Germany and other European countries to treat its COVID-19 patients as hospitals fill up.

Interior Minister Jan Hamacek says 19 beds are ready for the Czech patients in neighboring Germany, which has offered to treat dozens. He says Switzerland has offered another 20 beds in its hospitals, including taking care of the transportation. Talks are also under way with Poland that could provide some 200 beds.

The Czech Republic is one of the hardest hit European Union countries. New confirmed cases reached 16,642 on Tuesday, the fourth highest since the start of the pandemic. There’s a record of more than 8,000 COVID-19 patients needing hospitalization.

Some hospitals in western Czech Republic near the German border and in the central Pardubice region cannot take more patients. The nation of 10.7 million had almost 1.3 million confirmed cases with almost 21,000 deaths.

___

WARSAW, Poland – Poland’s biotechnology company Mabion S.A. says it signed a framework agreement with the U.S. vaccine development company Novavax.

It would produce an active component, an antigen, of the U.S. firm’s anti-COVID-19 vaccine. The agreement provides for a transfer of technology to Mabion, which is to make a technical series of the antigen.

If the tests prove successful and Novavax vaccine gets approval from European, the companies will discuss cooperation on large-scale production, also for Europe’s needs.

Poland’s state Development Fund is to support the trial stage with up to 40 million zlotys ($10.6 million.) Amid a sharp rise in new infections, Poland is seeking to increase its purchases of COVID-19 vaccines. Poland’s President Andrzej Duda spoke this week with Chinese President Xi Jinping about the possibility of buying the Chinese vaccine.

___

PODGORICA, Montenegro – Montenegrin government says China has donated 30,000 Sinopharm vaccines to the small Balkan country.

A statement says the shipment arrived on Wednesday “illustrating friendly relations and great solidarity between our two countries.” Montenegro has previously acquired 5,000 Russian Sputnik V vaccines and Serbia has donated 2,000 of the same shots.

The small Balkan country of 620,000 people has reported more than 1,000 virus-related deaths and hundreds of new cases daily. Health authorities have appealed on the citizens to join the vaccination effort in large numbers.

Balkan countries have been turning to Russia and China for vaccines while still waiting to receive some through the international COVAX program. It’s designed to make sure less wealthy countries are not left behind in inoculation.

___

TOKYO – Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga says he is considering extending an ongoing state of emergency for the Tokyo region for about two weeks, amid concerns that infections have not slowed enough and are continuing to strain health systems in the region.

Suga had declared a month-long state of emergency in Jan. 7 for Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba, then extended the measure through to March 7. The measure issued for up to 10 other urban prefectures later in January was lifted last week, underscoring the government’s eagerness to allow businesses to return to normal as soon as possible.

“Our anti-infection measures are at a very important phase,” Suga told reporters Wednesday. “In order to protect the people’s lives and health, I think we need to extend (the state of emergency) for about two weeks.”

His comment comes after Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike and heads of the neighboring prefectures raised concerns that infections have not slowed enough and lifting restrictive measures this weekend could trigger a quick rebound of infections.

Daily new cases in Tokyo have significantly decreased after they peaked at around 2,000 in early January, but the slide has slowed recently. Tokyo on Wednesday reported 316 new cases, up from 232 the day before, for a prefectural total of 112,345. Nationwide, Japan has more than 434,000 cases and about 8,000 deaths as of Tuesday, the health ministry said.

Suga said medical systems in the region are still burdened with COVID-19 patients and that more hospital beds need to be freed up.

___

STOCKHOLM – A top health official in the Swedish capital says a third wave of the coronavirus pandemic has hit Stockholm after a drop in cases after the New Year. Cases in the capital have been rising sharply for the past three weeks.

“We do not want to see a development where the need for health care increases sharply,” said Johan Bratt, the capital city’s health director.

The last week of February saw 6,336 new cases, almost double the 3,225 new cases recorded three weeks earlier.

Officials in neighboring Norway said restaurants and gyms in some areas would be closed after pockets of virus outbreaks in the capital Oslo and elsewhere. The move comes after more cases of the virus mutations have been reported in Norway. The changes apply as of Wednesday.

___

MADRID – Spain has imposed a 10-day quarantine on travelers arriving from Colombia, Peru, and eight African countries, in addition to maintaining the quarantine on arrivals from Brazil and South Africa due to concerns over new variants of the coronavirus.

Spain’s government gazette published the order on Wednesday, imposing the obligatory quarantine on those arriving from Colombia, Peru, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Botswana, Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique and Comoras.

The quarantine order will take effect on Monday and last for 14 days, after which it can be extended. Spain’s health ministry reported Tuesday has detected 54 cases of the South African variant and 17 cases of the Brazilian variant.

Visitors can reduce the quarantine to seven days if they provide a negative result for a COVID-19 test.

___

HELSINKI – Estonia has issued additional coronavirus restrictions and will close restaurants and all non-essential shops for weekends to curb the worsening pandemic situation in the small Baltic country.

Effective March 6, eating establishments and most shops will close for Saturday and Sunday but will remain open during the week, the Estonian government said.

During week days, restaurants and stores need to comply with a maximum of 25% percent occupancy rate requirement. The new restrictions will remain in place until March 28.

Estonia, a nation of 1.3 million, has seen a rapidly increasing number of COVID-19 cases in the past weeks as the pandemic has spread across the nation.

On Wednesday, the country reported 1,467 new confirmed cases putting total tally to over 58,000 cases with 615 deaths. The 14-day average rate for new infections per 100,000 inhabitants stands now at over 1,100.

___

ANKARA, Turkey – Turkish researchers say the vaccine developed by China’s Sinovac Biotech company has a 83.5% efficacy rate, according to the results of a late-stage trial conducted in Turkey.

The trial also showed the vaccine to be 100% effective in preventing the hospitalization of COVID-19 sufferers, professors Murat Akova and Serhat Unal of Ankara’s Hacettepe University told reporters on Wednesday. A total of 10,220 people participated in the late-stage trial, they said.

Turkey authorized the Sinovac vaccine’s emergency use on Jan. 13 and began administering shots the next day. So far, more than 9 million doses of the two-shot vaccine have been administered.

Unal said no serious side-effect has been reported so far.

Turkey is set to receive some 100,000 doses of the vaccine. Ankara has also ordered 4.5 million doses of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine. Health Minister Fahrettin Koca has said Turkey aims to vaccinate 52.5 million people by the end of May.

___

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia – Slovakia is tightening restrictive measures in a bid to halt the spread of a highly contagious coronavirus variant first found in Britain.

Starting Wednesday, Slovakia, one of the hardest-hit European Union countries, is imposing a nationwide curfew between 8 p.m. and 1 a.m.

Authorities are also tightening rules for international travelers Wednesday to try to prevent virus variants from spreading or entering the country. Police and military officers are set to enforce the new measures by re-imposing border checks for 24 hours a day on all major border crossings with Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland.

In Slovakia’s already tight lockdown, people in counties where the virus situation is considered serious need to take a test every seven days to be able to go to work.

___

THE HAGUE, Netherlands – Dutch police say a blast smashed windows at a coronavirus testing center in a small town north of Amsterdam in the early morning. Nobody was hurt.

Police in the North Holland province tweeted that “an explosive went off” near the test center in Bovenkarspel just before 7 a.m. (0600 GMT) on Wednesday.

Police have taped off the area about 60 kilometers (40 miles) north of Amsterdam and are investigating the cause of the blast.

In January, rioters torched a coronavirus test facility in the fishing village of Urk on the first night of a 9 p.m. to 4:30 a.m. nationwide curfew imposed as part of the government’s lockdown.

___

TAIPEI, Taiwan – The first batch of COVID-19 vaccine has arrived in Taiwan.

Taiwan has signed contracts securing 10 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, 5.05 million doses of the Moderna vaccine and 4.76 million doses of vaccines through COVAX. Wednesday’s delivery had 117,000 AstraZeneca doses, which was transported from the airport with a police escort.

Health care workers, especially those who have direct contact with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 cases, will be the first to get the shots, Taiwan’s Health Minister Chen Shih-chung said at a news briefing. The island has yet to announce a mass vaccination campaign for the general public.

The island is planning to give the first dose to 117,000 individuals, the minister said, with the first dose providing an efficacy rate of 71%. The second dose is meant to be given eight weeks later, boosting effectiveness to 81%.

___

TORONTO – The health minister of Canada’s most populous province says Ontario seniors won’t receive the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine since there’s limited data on its effectiveness in older populations.

Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott says Ontario plans to follow the advice of a national panel that’s recommended against using the newly approved vaccine on people aged 65 and older.

Elliott says for anyone over that age, it’s recommended that they receive either the Pfizer or the Moderna vaccine.

There are no concerns that the vaccine is unsafe for use, but Canada’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization said this week that the vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are preferred for seniors due to “suggested superior efficacy.″

France said this week it will allow some people over 65 to receive the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine, after initially restricting its use to younger populations because of limited data on the drug’s effectiveness.

___

WELLINGTON, New Zealand – New Zealand reported no new community cases of the coronavirus for a third consecutive day as the latest outbreak in Auckland appears to have been brought under control.

The government placed the nation’s largest city into a weeklong lockdown Sunday after several new community cases were found.

Top lawmakers in the Cabinet are meeting Friday to review the lockdown. Also, health officials announced they had given the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine to more than 9,000 people, including more than half of the 12,000 people who work at the border.

New Zealand currently has a supply of about 200,000 doses. The country has been slower than many to begin its vaccination campaign but is seen as lower risk after eliminating community spread of the virus.

___

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden is directing states to prioritize vaccinating all teachers during the month of March, and announced that the federal government will help in the effort through its partnership with retail pharmacies.

Biden said his goal is for every pre-kindergarten through 12th grade educator, school staff member and childcare worker to receive at least one shot by the end of March.

To achieve this, Biden announced that qualifying individuals will be able to sign up this month to be vaccinated at a pharmacy near them.

Biden said that while schools are safe to reopen even before staff have been vaccinated, “time and again, we’ve heard from educators and parents that have anxieties about that,” so to “accelerate” the safe reopening teachers should be prioritized.

___

Morocco freezes ties with German Embassy amid Sahara tension

Morocco freezes ties with German Embassy amid Sahara tension

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By TARIK EL BARAKAH

Associated Press

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

RABAT, Morocco (AP) – Morocco’s Foreign Ministry has suspended ties with the German Embassy because of “deep misunderstandings,” notably related to the disputed Western Sahara.

The move this week comes amid diplomatic tension around Western Sahara since the U.S. under Donald Trump took the unusual move in December of recognizing Morocco’s sovereignty over the territory.

A letter leaked online from Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita to the rest of the Moroccan government orders officials to suspend “all contact, interaction and cooperation” with the German Embassy and embassy-related activities.

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A senior Moroccan government official confirmed to The Associated Press on Tuesday that the letter was authentic, but said it was not meant to be made public.

The official, who was not authorized to be publicly named, said the decision has to do with Germany’s recent stance on the Sahara issue, especially in the aftermath of the U.S. decision. The official also noted the appearance of a flag of the pro-independence Polisario Front outside the state assembly in the northern German city of Bremen.

Germany’s Foreign Ministry said it was aware of media reports about the letter, but had no further comment.

The Algeria-backed Polisario Front fought for independence for Western Sahara after Morocco annexed the former Spanish colony in 1975. U.N. peacekeepers now monitor a 30-year-old cease-fire between Moroccan forces and Polisario supporters.

The U.N. has expressed concern that Trump’s decision – in exchange for Morocco normalizing diplomatic ties with Israel – could thwart negotiation efforts in the long-running Western Sahara conflict. Many countries, including Germany, support a U.N.-brokered political solution.

___

David Rising in Berlin contributed.

German defense minister visits troops in Afghanistan

German defense minister visits troops in Afghanistan

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Friday, February 26, 2021

BERLIN (AP) – The German defense minister arrived in Afghanistan Friday for a unannounced visit to the country’s troops there.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said that Germany is ready to “continue supporting Afghanistan during its peace process,” the defense ministry said in a written statement.

Earlier this week, the German government prepared the way for the country’s troops in Afghanistan – the second-biggest contingent in a NATO force – to stay in place until next year if needed.

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Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Cabinet on Wednesday approved a new draft mandate that would enable German troops to stay until Jan. 31. The current mandate for Afghanistan expires at the end of March.

German troop deployments overseas require parliamentary approval, which is typically granted on an annual basis.

NATO has just under 10,000 troops in the war-ravaged country, helping to train and advise Afghan security forces. Germany’s contingent of nearly 1,100 is the second-biggest in the Resolute Support mission after the United States.

“Afghanistan urgently needs perspectives and a balance in society of the warring groups,” Kramp-Karrenbauer said. “Our soldiers are contributing an important part together with our allies especially in the north.”

The defense minister landed in Mazar-E Sharif to visit with German troops.

Iran officially imposes curbs on UN nuclear inspections

Iran officially imposes curbs on UN nuclear inspections

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FILE – In this Feb. 20, 2021, file photo, Director General of International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, Rafael Mariano Grossi, right, speaks with spokesman of Iran’s atomic agency Behrouz Kamalvandi upon his arrival at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini airport, Iran. Iran … more >

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By NASSER KARIMI and KIYOKO METZLER

Associated Press

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) – Iran officially started restricting international inspections of its nuclear facilities Tuesday, a bid to pressure European countries and President Joe Biden’s administration to lift crippling economic sanctions and restore the 2015 nuclear deal.

World powers slammed the restrictions as a “dangerous” move.

It came as the International Atomic Energy Agency reported in a confidential document distributed to member countries and seen by The Associated Press that Iran had added 17.6 kilograms (38.8 pounds) of uranium enriched up to 20% to its stockpile as of Feb. 16.

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It was the first official confirmation of plans Iran announced in January to enrich to the greater purity, which is just a technical step away from weapons-grade levels and far past the 3.67% purity allowed under the nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.

Iran also increased its total enriched uranium stockpile to 2,967.8 kilograms (6,542.9 pounds), up from 2,442.9 kilograms (5,385.7 pounds) reported on Nov. 2, the IAEA reported.

Iran‘s violations of the JCPOA and the move Tuesday to limit international inspections underscore the daunting task facing Biden as he seeks to reverse former President Donald Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. unilaterally out of the deal in 2018. That left Germany, France, Britain, China and Russia struggling to keep it alive.

The JCPOA was the most significant pact between Iran and major world powers since its 1979 Islamic revolution, and Germany, France and Britain stressed their commitment Tuesday to preserving it, urging Iran to “stop and reverse all measures that reduce transparency.”

“The E3 are united in underlining the dangerous nature of this decision,” the European powers said in a statement. “It will significantly constrain the IAEA‘s access to sites and to safeguards-relevant information.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said a new law had gone into effect Tuesday morning, under which Iran will no longer share surveillance footage of its nuclear facilities with the U.N. agency.

“We never gave them live video, but (recordings) were given daily and weekly,” Zarif said of the IAEA‘s access to information recorded by camera monitors. “The tape recording of our (nuclear) program will be kept in Iran.”

The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Tehran’s civilian nuclear agency, has promised to preserve the tapes for three months, then hand them over to the IAEA – but only if granted sanctions relief. Otherwise, Iran has vowed to erase the tapes, narrowing the window for a diplomatic breakthrough.

Since Trump pulled the U.S. out of the JCPOA, Iran has gradually been violating its restrictions to put pressures on the remaining nations to come up with economic incentives to offset crippling American sanctions.

Besides surpassing the purity and stockpiles allowed, Iran has also been spinning advanced centrifuges and producing uranium metal.

Zarif stressed in a tweet Tuesday that Iran‘s new limits on nuclear inspections and other violations of the pact are reversible, insisting that the U.S. move first to revive the deal.

In a show of defiance, Cabinet spokesman Ali Rabiei outlined further developments in Iran‘s nuclear program on Tuesday. Over the last three weeks, he told reporters, Iran has installed and started feeding gas into an additional 148 high-tech IR2-m centrifuges at its Natanz nuclear enrichment facility and its fortified nuclear complex at Fordo, bringing the total number of centrifuges to up to 492. Another set of 492 centrifuges will be installed in the coming month, he said.

He added that Iran has installed two cascades of even more advanced centrifuges at its nuclear enrichment facilities, but did not specify where.

On Monday, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also signaled Iran would refuse to capitulate to U.S. pressure over its nuclear program. Khamenei said that Iran could enrich uranium up to 60% purity if necessary, but stressed the country forbids nuclear weapons. Tehran has long insisted that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, such as power generation and medical research.

Before the nuclear deal, in 2013, Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium was already more than 7,000 kilograms (7.72 tons) with higher enrichment, but it didn’t pursue a bomb.

The Biden administration has said it’s ready to join talks with Iran and world powers to discuss a return to the deal. Zarif responded to the overture cautiously Tuesday, saying Iran is “assessing the idea of an unofficial meeting” with the parties to the accord “in which America is invited as a non-member.”

In further diplomatic moves, the new U.S. administration rescinded the Trump-imposed U.N. sanctions and eased restrictions on the domestic travel of Iranian diplomats posted to the United Nations.

Rabiei praised the steps on Tuesday but threw cold water on hopes for a swift revival of the deal.

“While we consider this as putting America on a constructive path, we see (the steps) as extremely insufficient,” he said.

Before Iran implemented its new restrictions on IAEA inspections, the agency‘s director-general, Rafael Grossi, negotiated a temporary deal during an emergency weekend trip to Tehran. It allowed him to keep the same number of inspectors on the ground.

In the report to members, the IAEA said the understanding would enable the agency to continue with its necessary JCPOA verification and monitoring activities for three months.

It added it would also “enable the agency to resume its full verification and monitoring of Iran’s nuclear-related commitments under the JCPOA if and when Iran resumes its implementation of those commitments.”

The IAEA also said it was still awaiting answers from Iran on three sites where inspections had revealed traces of uranium of man-made origin

____

Associated Press writer David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report. Metzler reported from Vienna.

Europe applauds Biden’s approach, stresses cooperation

Europe applauds Biden’s approach, stresses cooperation

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President Joe Biden speaks during a virtual event with the Munich Security Conference in the East Room of the White House, Friday, Feb. 19, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) more >

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By DAVID RISING

Associated Press

Saturday, February 20, 2021

BERLIN (AP) – Collective sighs of relief could be heard from many European capitals Saturday after U.S. President Joe Biden made clear in his first major foreign policy address since taking office that he rejected the “America First” and transactional approach of his predecessor and urged cooperation among Western allies.

At the same time, politicians and observers cautioned that some of the sources of tension from Donald Trump’s presidency remained and that the allies have serious work ahead of them, once Biden’s honeymoon is over.

“Biden gave exactly the speech that many Europeans wanted to hear – an America that pats you on the shoulders, that doesn’t criticize or demand,” wrote Germany‘s influential Der Spiegel magazine after Biden on Friday became the first American president to appear at the Munich Security Conference, albeit in virtual form.

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“Will it stay that way? For the moment, it was certainly the right message: It was primarily intended to patch up the injuries of the Trump years,” the magazine said in an analysis.

The annual Munich Security Conference has long been heralded as a gathering where world leaders are able to share and debate ideas in an informal setting.

Biden’s speech highlighted the condensed agenda for this year’s conference, which was held online due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In his keynote address, Biden assured other participants, including French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, that the United States was “determined to reengage with Europe, to consult with you, to earn back our position of trusted leadership.”

Over the last four years, the NATO alliance was shaken by Trump’s questioning of its relevance and his suggestion that the United States might not come to the aid of members who failed to meet pledges to commit 2% of gross domestic product to defense spending.

But Biden made no mention of Washington’s opposition to the Germany-Russia joint Nord Stream 2 pipeline project and steered away from criticizing Germany and others for failing to meet NATO defense spending goals. Instead, he emphasized Washington’s commitment to Article 5 of the NATO founding treaty, which states that an attack on one alliance member is considered an attack on all.

It is now important for Germany and the rest of Europe to seize upon the renewed U.S. willingness to engage in dialogue and work hard toward resolving areas of disagreement, said Juergen Hardt, the foreign policy spokesman for Merkel’s parliamentary group.

“With his speech, Joe Biden reached out to Europe,” Hardt said. “

The coming months must be used intensively to resolve numerous open issues, such as punitive tariffs, extra-territorial sanctions on Nord Stream 2, or digital tax,” he said.

Merkel told reporters Friday after Biden’s speech that it is up to Europe to take an example from his first days in office, and follow words with actions.

She cited the United States’ return to the Paris climate agreement, its decision to stay in the World Health Organization and to engage with the U.N. Human Rights Council, to extend the New START treaty and to try to revive the Iran nuclear agreement as “important steps toward more multilateral cooperation.”

“I can only support (the idea) that it is up to democratic countries not just to talk about freedom and values, but to produce results,” Merkel said.

In a nod toward Biden’s call for cooperation in addressing economic and national security challenges posed both by Russia and China, several leaders suggested more could be done.

The leader of the European Union’s executive branch, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, noted at the conference that “a more and more assertive China” showed robust economic growth in 2020 despite the pandemic and “a more and more defiant Russia continues to breach international rules at home and abroad.”

“It is up to us, the United States and Europe, to strengthen our cooperation again as proven and trusted partners, as indispensable allies, shoulder to shoulder,” von der Leyen said. “Because if we lead the way, this is not only about joining forces, this is a signal to the world.”

European Council President Charles Michel underlined the need for a common approach to “defend the rules-based international order from the attacks of autocratic regimes, whether from Russia, China or Iran,” saying “a strong partnership needs strong partners.”

“That’s why we, in Europe, are growing stronger, to increase our strategic ability to act,” Michel said.

France’s Macron, who has pushed since his own presidency began in 2017 for Europe to do more for its own defense, suggested that by doing so, it would be strengthening the U.S. ability to focus more on the Pacific region.

“I think it is time for us to take much more of the burden of our own protection,” he said.

Merkel, meanwhile, stressed that “it is very important that we develop a common trans-Atlantic Russia agenda, which on the one hand makes cooperative offers, but on the other hand very clearly names the differences.”

“The second and perhaps more complicated thing is for us to develop a common agenda toward China,” she said, noting that the country is both a systemic competitor and needs to tackle issues such as climate change.

“There is a great deal to do,” Merkel said. “Germany stands ready for a new chapter of the trans-Atlantic partnership.”

_____

Angela Charlton and Sylvie Corbet in Paris, and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this story.

DOJ Deports 95-year-old former Nazi camp guard back to Germany

DOJ Deports 95-year-old former Nazi camp guard back to Germany

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The American flag flies outside of the Justice Department building, Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) **FILE** more >

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By Jeff Mordock

The Washington Times

Saturday, February 20, 2021

A 95-year-old former German concentration camp guard, who had been living in Tennessee since 1959, was returned to his own country on Saturday, the Justice Department said.

Friedrich Karl Berger was deported after U.S. authorities determined he worked as an armed guard at a subcamp of the Neuengamme concentration camp system.

It is not immediately clear if Mr. Berger will face charges in Germany.

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The Neuengamme network held Jewish, Russian, Dutch, and Polish civilians along with political opponents from France, Italy, and other countries. All told, the Neuengamme system’s verified death toll is 42,900.

In 1945, prisoners were forced to live in “atrocious” conditions and work “to the point of exhaustion and death,” according to Mr. Berger’s removal order.

“Berger’s removal demonstrates the Department of Justice’s and its law enforcement partners’ commitment to ensuring that the United States is not a safe haven for those who have participated in Nazi crimes against humanity and other human rights abuses,” said Acting Attorney General Monty Wilkinson. “

Justice Department investigators were able to connect Mr. Berger’s service at the camp with details from an index card found in a sunken ship off the coast of Germany. The ship was mistakenly bombed by British warplanes in May 1945, during the war’s last week.

After the war, Mr. Berger moved Germany to Canada with his wife and daughter and ultimately made his way to the United States. Mr. Berger came to the United States legally, according to court documents.

 He is now a widower with two grandchildren.

In November, the Board of Immigration Appeals upheld a Tennessee immigration judge’s decision. The judge concluded that Mr. Berger was removable because of his “willing service as an armed guard of prisoners at a concentration camp where persecution took place.”

Mr. Berger blasted the attempts to remove him during his immigration trial. He insisted he was ordered to work at the camp and did not carry a weapon.

“After 75 years, this is ridiculous. I cannot believe it,” he told the court. “I cannot understand how this can happen in a country like this. You’re forcing me out of my home.”

But Mr. Berger did admit during the trial that he guarded prisoners, did not seek a transfer from the camp and was still earning a pension from Germany based on his wartime service.

Since 1979, the Justice Department has removed more than 70 people under a federal law that bars anyone who participated in Nazi persecutions from entering or living in the United States.

Antony Blinken, Joe Biden face issues with European Union on defense, energy policy

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken listens as President Joe Biden delivers a speech on foreign policy, at the State Department, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) more >

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By Guy Taylor

The Washington Times

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

President Biden’s arrival in the White House has brought optimistic predictions that U.S. relations with Europe are about to get a major positive overhaul, but a slate of thorny issues that divided the two sides during the Trump years isn’t going away.

While many on the continent are eagerly embracing Mr. Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken — the latter of whom spent much of his upbringing in Paris — analysts say it’s an open question whether Washington and the European Union can see eye to eye on issues such as energy policy and sharing the costs of mutual defense.

Germany’s deal with Russia on the Nord Stream 2 oil pipeline, American unease over a newly inked EU-Chinese investment deal, and the question of whether NATO members are spending enough on their own defense are just a few of the sticking points lurking in the backdrop when Mr. Biden makes his first major speech to European allies at the Munich Security Conference on Friday.

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“The disagreements between the U.S. and Europe have not gone away,” said Jeffrey Rathke, a former high-level U.S. diplomat who heads the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington.

While President Trump was celebrated by right-wing and nationalist parties in several nations, Europe’s ruling establishment across most of the continent privately loathed his unorthodox, at times abrasive rhetorical style, and skepticism of the value of the EU and NATO.

While the issues complicating the trans-Atlantic relationship are “real,” Mr. Rathke said, disputes “were in some cases exacerbated by the Trump administration’s approach, which in my view was needlessly antagonistic and sometimes gratuitously antagonistic toward our European allies.”

Mr. Biden’s vow to set a new course of engagement with allies will be put to the test separately Friday when — in addition to Munich — he participates in a virtual meeting with the Group of Seven, leaders of some of the world’s wealthiest democracies. Mr. Trump was supposed to have hosted the meeting last year.

Biden administration officials he plans to focus mainly on global COVID-19 responses and the world economy but will also press for ways the group can better work together in dealing with China.

Former German State Secretary Wolfgang Ischinger suggests that may be a heavy lift but that the moment is ripe for Mr. Biden.

“I do not believe that the obstacles that would prevent the United States and Europe to see eye to eye, for example, on China and on Russia and other [issues] are insurmountable,” Mr. Ischinger told a virtual discussion Wednesday hosted by the Wilson Center in Washington.

But, he added, “we need somebody in Washington who is willing to talk to us and whom we can trust. We didn’t really have that for the last four years.”

Eye on China

China’s growing diplomatic and financial success in Europe is a source of mounting concern in Washington. It reached new heights in 2019 when Italy became the first Western European power to officially join Beijing’s Belt and Road global infrastructure program.

The Trump administration characterized the Chinese program as a way to entrap weaker nations with predatory loans and aggressively pressed European nations to shun Chinese technology giants such as Huawei in the information and communications networks, with uneven results.

The EU went ahead with a significant investment accord with China despite clear reservations from the Biden administration, which unsuccessfully lobbied for a delay in the signing last month. The EU touts the agreement as the most ambitious ever signed between China and another country, providing Chinese companies access to many sectors including telecoms and Europe’s electric cars and hybrid vehicles.

Mr. Biden faces some popular headwinds as well in repairing America’s image and clout.

In a recent poll, the European Council on Foreign Relations found that while most Europeans rejoiced at Mr. Biden’s victory in November, many don’t think he can help the U.S. make a comeback as the pre-eminent global leader.

“Majorities in key member states now think the U.S. political system is broken,” according to the poll summary, while “a majority [also] believe that China will be more powerful than the U.S. within a decade and would want their country to stay neutral in a conflict between the two superpowers.”

Budget battles

On a separate front, heated debate over military spending among European allies appears likely to continue in the years ahead, despite Mr. Biden’s desire to soothe soreness among NATO members in the wake Mr. Trump’s demands that they pay more.

In an effort to improve “burden sharing” — the way the 30 member countries contribute cash, military hardware and troops to operations run by the world’s more powerful military alliance — Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg proposed Wednesday that the allies jointly fund more of NATO’s work.

The plan would mean using a NATO budget to pay for battle groups of troops on standby in member countries bordering Russia, aerial policing operations, the deployment of warships on permanent maritime duties and military exercises. Mr. Stoltenberg pushed the idea at a meeting Wednesday of NATO defense ministers, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, for the first time.

Nine of the 30 NATO countries, meanwhile, are set to meet the target figure of 2% of gross domestic product for defense spending this year — up from three in 2014, according to The Associated Press. Washington still spends more than all of its allies combined.

But NATO members are braced for Mr. Biden to be just as demanding about military spending. The tone may change, but not the substance of a complaint that has been made by U.S. presidents for well over a decade.

Less clear is whether the Biden administration will take a stand on the future of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project linking Russia and Germany, a priority of the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel that Republicans and Democrats in Washington have been trying to halt for years.

While Biden advisers have called the project is a “bad deal” for Europe, the president appears to be resisting pressure from lawmakers to impose sanctions on companies involved in Nord Stream 2.

Sens. Jim Risch, Idaho Republican, and Jeanne Shaheen, New Hampshire Democrat, wrote a letter to the administration last week pressing for action on a sanctions decision. Congress has mandated a report, due this week, to identify companies involved in the Nord Stream project that may be subject to the sanctions.

A bipartisan group of House lawmakers added to the pressure Wednesday with their own letter to Mr. Blinken, saying the completed pipeline would hand Russian President Vladimir Putin dangerous strategic leverage over Western Europe.

“If completed, Nord Stream 2 would enable the Putin regime to further weaponize Russia’s energy resources to exert political pressure throughout Europe,” wrote Reps. Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican; Marcy Kaptur, Ohio Democrat; Adam Kinzinger, Illinois Republican; and Ruben Gallego, Arizona Democrat.

The majority of Europe “opposes the Kremlin-backed pipeline, particularly in light of the poisoning and wrongful arrest of leading Russian anti-corruption activist and opposition figure Alexey Navalny,” the lawmakers wrote.

The pipeline has long been vexing for Ms. Merkel, whose government allowed German firms to work with Russian companies toward its completion despite outcry from Washington.

Mr. Rathke said in an interview Wednesday that the Biden administration faces “a difficult decision” on whether to push the sanctions.

“I don’t think that Joe Biden would like to start his presidency by having a fight with Angela Merkel about sanctions on German companies” over Nord Stream 2. “Nord Stream 2 is important, but not the most important thing in the U.S. relationship.”

“What the Biden administration needs is a way to put the issue in the context of an overall strategic mind-meld with Germany. If you can have an agreement with regard to how the U.S. and European allies are going to deal with Russia, then you can allow Nord Stream 2. But if you don’t have that agreement, you’re damned.”

Russia says it’s ready for split if EU imposes new sanctions

Russia says it’s ready for split if EU imposes new sanctions

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In this photo released by the Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speaks during a meeting in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021. Russia is prepared to cut ties with the European Union if the EU … more >

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By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV

Associated Press

Friday, February 12, 2021

MOSCOW (AP) – Russia is prepared for a split with the European Union if the EU imposes new crippling sanctions amid a dispute over the treatment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the nation’s top diplomat warned Friday.

In response to a question about Moscow‘s willingness to rupture links with the EU, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in televised remarks that Russia doesn’t want to be isolated but must increase its self-sufficiency to face potential EU sanctions.

“We don’t want to be isolated from international life, but we must be ready for that,” Lavrov said. “If you want peace, you must prepare for war.”

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Asked if Russia is heading toward a split with the European Union, Lavrov replied, “We proceed from the assumption that we are ready for that.”

He emphasized the importance of economic ties with the 27 EU nations, adding that Russia would continue engaging in mutually beneficial cooperation. At the same time, Lavrov said, Russia must prepare for the worst and increasingly rely on its own resources.

“We must achieve that in the economic sphere, if we see again, as we have felt more than once, that sanctions imposed in some areas create risks to our economy, including in the most sensitive spheres, such as supplies of parts and components,” the Russian foreign minister added.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov emphasized that Russia wants to maintain normal ties with the EU but needs to prepare for the worst, if the bloc takes hostile actions.

“If we face a destructive course that will hurt our infrastructure, our interests, Russia must be ready in advance for such unfriendly steps,” Peskov said during a call with reporters when asked about Lavrov‘s comment. “We must be self-reliant. We must ensure our security in the most sensitive strategic areas and be prepared to replace everything we could be deprived of with national infrastructure in case madness prevails and such unfriendly actions take place.”

European Commission spokesman Peter Stano said Friday the EU welcomes “mutually beneficial cooperation whenever the other side is ready for such a cooperation and for such a dialogue,” adding that Russia has “indicated that they are not really willing to go in this direction.”

German Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Andrea Sasse described Lavrov‘s comments as “really disconcerting and completely incomprehensible to us.” She told reporters in Berlin that Foreign Minister Heiko Maas had made Germany’s grievances with Russia clear but also emphasized that ”we are interested in cooperation with Russia.”

Russia-EU relations have sunk to new lows over Navalny‘s arrest and imprisonment. The most prominent political foe of Russian President Vladimir Putin was arrested Jan. 17 upon his return from Germany, where he spent five months recuperating from the nerve agent poisoning he blamed on the Kremlin. Russian authorities have denied the allegations.

Last week, a court in Moscow sent Navalny to prison for two years and eight months for violating terms of his probation while recuperating in Germany. The probation stemmed from a 2014 embezzlement conviction that Navalny has rejected as fabricated and the European Court of Human Rights has ruled to be unlawful.

Navalny was back in court Friday on a charge of defaming a World War II veteran who was featured in a video last year advertising constitutional amendments that allowed an extension of Putin’s rule. Navalny called the people in the video “corrupt stooges,” “people without conscience” and “traitors.” He rejected the libel charges as part of Kremlin efforts to disparage him and could face a fine or community service, if convicted.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said after visiting Russia last week that the 27-nation bloc must take a firm stance in its relations with Russia and ponder new sanctions in the wake of Navalny’s prison sentence. While Borrell was meeting with Lavrov, Moscow announced the expulsion of diplomats from Germany, Poland and Sweden for attending protests in support of Navalny.

The three EU countries responded in kind Monday, each expelling a Russian diplomat.

Borrell has said he plans to submit proposals for possible actions against Russia when he chairs the next meeting of the bloc’s foreign ministers on Feb. 22.

Navalny‘s arrest triggered a wave of protests across Russia that drew tens of thousands of people to the streets in the largest show of discontent in years. Authorities responded with a sweeping crackdown, detaining about 11,000 people across Russia. Many protesters were fined or given jail sentences ranging from seven to 15 days.

The United States and the European Union have urged Russia to release Navalny and to end the crackdown on protests. The Kremlin has accused them of meddling in Russia’s internal affairs and said it would not listen to Western criticism of Navalny’s sentencing and police actions against his supporters.

Lavrov accused the West of pursuing the “aggressive containment of Russia” to punish the country for its independent foreign policy.

“The sanctions wouldn’t bring any result. They wouldn’t change our course for defending our national interests,” Lavrov said.

___

Associated Press writers Daria Litvinova in Moscow, Frank Jordans in Berlin and Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed to this report.

Russia clashes with US and West over conflict in Ukraine

Russia clashes with US and West over conflict in Ukraine

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In this photo provided by the United Nations, Vassily Nebenzia, Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation and President of the Security Council for the month of October, briefs reporters on the work of the Security Council for the month, at … more >

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By EDITH M. LEDERER

Associated Press

Thursday, February 11, 2021

UNITED NATIONS (AP) – Russia clashed with the United States and its Western allies Thursday over the nearly seven-year conflict in eastern Ukraine, and the U.N. warned that the current fragile cease-fire risks being reversed if peace negotiations become deadlocked.

Russia called the Security Council meeting to mark Friday’s sixth anniversary of the signing of the Minsk peace plan brokered by France and Germany. It aimed to resolve the conflict between Ukraine and Russia-backed separatists that flared in April 2014 after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its support for the separatists in the mostly Russian-speaking industrial east called Donbass.

Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia accused Ukraine of failing to implement the 2015 Minsk agreement saying: “Over those six years, we still haven’t gotten an answer to two very important questions: How exactly does Ukraine intend to peacefully resolve the conflict, and how does Kiev envisage special status of Donbass within Ukraine?”

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“The answers to those questions will entirely determine any prospects for a settlement because after the beginning in 2014 of Kiev’s use of force and the ongoing shellings of residential areas by the Ukrainian army, which continue to this day, the people of Donbass have not felt any connection with Ukraine,” he said.

The United States and European allies France, Germany, Estonia, Ireland, Norway, Belgium and the United Kingdom blamed Russia for fueling the conflict, which has killed more than 14,000 people, by providing financial and military support to the separatists.

U.S. political coordinator Rodney Hunter, speaking on behalf of the Biden administration, said Russia instigated the conflict in Donbass and “has blocked meaningful progress in diplomatic negotiations while arming, training, funding, and leading its proxy forces and supporting the self-proclaimed `authorities’ on the ground.”

“The United States reaffirms its unwavering commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he said, accusing Russia of escalating “its oppression of any dissent to its brutal occupation of Crimea.”

“We will never recognize Russia’s attempted annexation of Crimea,” Hunter said. “As a result, U.S. sanctions on Russia in response to its aggression in eastern Ukraine and occupation of Crimea will remain in place unless — and until — Russia reverses course.”

The Minsk agreements envisage that Ukraine can regain control over its border with Russia in the separatist-held regions only after they are granted broad self-rule and hold local elections.

The accord helped reduce the scope of hostilities, but Ukrainian forces continued to exchange artillery salvos and gunfire.

While the July 2020 cease-fire “has largely held up,” U.N. political chief Rosemary DiCarlo said there has been an increase in security incidents in several hotspots in recent months.

“This dangerous trend needs to be quickly reversed,” she said.

The cease-fire deal was reached by members of the Tripartite Contact Group that includes representatives of Russia, Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe known as the OSCE. It followed a meeting in Paris in December 2019 of the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany — the so-called Normandy group — who expressed support for the Minsk deal and agreed to revive the peace process.

DiCarlo told the council that continuing discussions in these groups are “no reason for complacency” and no substitute “for meaningful progress.”

“The risk of backsliding is real if negotiations become deadlocked,” she warned.

Russia’s Nebenzia said the Minsk agreement didn’t say anything about direct dialogue with the two separatist governments of Donetsk and Luhansk in Donbass, or about agreeing on any special status for the region.

“Instead of that, fantasies about establishing some sort of international administration and holding elections only two years after that are in the document,” he said. “Do you really think the people of Donbass will really agree to this international form of occupation?”

In response, a statement from the seven European countries strongly condemned “the continued destabilization of certain areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions” and again called on Russia “to immediately stop fueling the conflict“ by supporting the separatists.

Germany’s U.N. Ambassador Christoph Heusgen went further, telling the Security Council how Russia violated key paragraphs in the Minsk agreements — including the initial 2015 cease-fire, failing to withdraw heavy weapons and foreign forces, and blocking free access for OSCE monitors to observe areas of the Russian-Ukrainian border not controlled by the Ukrainian government.

“Until today, there are Russian forces in eastern Ukraine,” Heusgen said. “They may not have the official stamp of the Russian army, but the Russians continue to be there, and without Russia, Luhansk and Donetsk could not survive.”

Halit Cevik, chief monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, saw “a window of opportunity for the sides to find a way towards lasting de-escalation, but we also see that it is narrowing.”

Cevik said the July 2020 cease-fire led to “the longest-lasting reduction in violence” since the mission began recording cease-fire violations. But he said, “adherence has frayed over time.”

German firm to remove dangerous material from Beirut port

German firm to remove dangerous material from Beirut port

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By

Associated Press

Saturday, February 6, 2021

BEIRUT (AP) – A German company is ready to remove hazardous materials stored in dozens of containers at Beirut’s port, Germany’s ambassador to Lebanon said Saturday, following efforts to secure the facility after the Aug. 4 explosion that devastated the port and much of the city.

Ambassador Andreas Kindl tweeted that the treatment at Beirut’s port for 52 containers of “hazardous and dangerous chemical material” has been completed. He added that the material is ready to be shipped to Germany.

The decision to remove the material followed the Aug. 4 explosion that was triggered by nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrates, a highly explosive fertilizer component, that had languished at the port for years. The blast killed 211 people, wounded more than 6,000, and destroyed parts of the capital.

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In November, Lebanon signed a deal with Germany’s Combi Lift to treat and ship abroad the containers consisting of flammable chemicals. The deal is worth $3.6 million, toward which port authorities in Lebanon paid will pay $2 million with the German government covering the rest.

Kindl said the material that was treated had been a threat to people in Beirut.

Since the August blast and a massive fire at the port weeks later, authorities have been concerned about dangerous material still at the facility. A month after the blast, the Lebanese army said military experts were called in for an inspection and found 4.35 tons of ammonium nitrate that were removed and destroyed.

Top diplomats of US, UK, France, Germany hold virtual talks

Top diplomats of US, UK, France, Germany hold virtual talks

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Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab wears a face mask as he arrives at 10 Downing Street, in London, Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021.(AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali) more >

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Associated Press

Friday, February 5, 2021

LONDON (AP) – The top diplomats of Britain, France, Germany and the United States met Friday for the first time in almost three years as the European allies welcome America’s return to center stage in world affairs under President Joe Biden.

Britain’s Foreign Office and the U.S. State Department said the foreign ministers of the three European nations and the U.S. secretary of state held virtual talks on topics that included Iran, China, Russia, Myanmar, climate change and the coronavirus pandemic.

The last time the top foreign affairs officials from the four countries met as a quartet was in April 2018.

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The meeting of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian came a day after Biden told U.S. diplomats at the State Department: “America is back. Diplomacy is back.”

U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said the ministers had “affirmed the centrality of the Transatlantic relationship in dealing with security, climate, economic, health, and other challenges the world faces.” He added that Blinken “underscored the U.S. commitment to coordinated action to overcome global challenges.” The statement offered no other details.

Biden has turned sharply away from the “America first” policies of his predecessor, former President Donald Trump, on issues such as climate change and Russia. One of Biden‘s first acts as president was reversing Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the 2015 Paris climate accord.

Biden said Thursday that the days of the U.S. “rolling over” to Russian President Vladimir Putin were over. He committed to reversing Trump’s order to withdraw U.S. troops stationed in Germany and ending support for Saudi Arabia’s military offensive in Yemen.

Britain, which is heading the G-7 group of industrialized nations this year and is set to host a global climate conference in November, has welcomed the United States’ renewed focus on engaging with its allies around the world.

The U.K. is also seeking new ways to exert influence now that it has left the European Union, such as working with small groups of like-minded countries on major issues.

Russia expels EU diplomats over Navalny as tensions rise

Russia expels EU diplomats over Navalny as tensions rise

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Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny’s lawyer Olga Mikhailova arrives to the Babuskinsky district court for the continuation of his trial, in Moscow, Russia, Friday, Feb. 5, 2021. A Moscow court resumes the trial against Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny on … more >

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By DARIA LITVINOVA

Associated Press

Friday, February 5, 2021

MOSCOW (AP) – Russia said Friday it was expelling diplomats from Sweden, Poland and Germany, accusing them of attending a rally in support of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, as international tensions grew over the jailing of the Kremlin’s most prominent foe.

The announcement came as the European Union’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that the treatment of Navalny represents “a low point” in relations between Brussels and Moscow.

The Russian Foreign Ministry accused Swedish and Polish diplomats in St. Petersburg and a German diplomat in Moscow of taking part in what it called “unlawful” rallies on Jan. 23. Tens of thousands of people across Russia took to the streets that day to protest Navalny‘s arrest.

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The diplomats were declared “persona non grata” and were required to leave Russia “shortly,” a ministry statement said.

European officials strongly denounced the move.

Germany said its diplomat was fulfilling his duty by following the developments, and it warned Moscow that its action won’t go unanswered, summoning the Russian ambassador.

“We consider this expulsion unjustified and think it is another facet of the things that can be seen in Russia at the moment that are pretty far from the rule of law,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in Berlin after a videoconference with French President Emmanuel Macron. Macron expressed solidarity with Germany, Poland and Sweden and condemned “in the stronger terms” the expulsions and what happened to Navalny “from the beginning to the end.”

Sweden said it “considers this entirely unjustified, which we have also conveyed to the Russian side,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Mats Samuelsson said in a statement to The Associated Press. Stockholm “strongly rejects Russian claims that the diplomat took part in a demonstration in Russia” and “reserves the right to take appropriate measures in response,” he said.

Poland also warned Moscow the move will worsen relations.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the action was further evidence Moscow was “turning its back on international law,” tweeting that expelling diplomats “for simply doing their jobs is a crude attempt to distract from Russia’s targeting of opposition leaders, protesters and journalists.”

Speaking at the start of his talks with Lavrov, Borrell said “our relations are under a severe strain, and the Navalny case is a low point in our relations.”

Afterward, Borell said he had relayed his concerns over Navalny’s jailing and the arrests of thousands of who had rallied on his behalf. The EU official said he also communicated the bloc’s support for Navalny‘s release and for an investigation of the August poisoning but added that there were no proposals of additional sanctions against Russia from the EU at this point.

Merkel said that “we reserve the right to continue the sanctions” but noted the Navalny situation shouldn’t affect the Nord Stream 2 pipeline under construction to deliver more Russian natural gas to Germany.

Lavrov again accused European officials of refusing to share evidence of the poisoning. The Kremlin has said it won’t listen to Western criticism of Navalny’s sentencing and police action against his supporters.

Navalny, 44, an anti-corruption investigator and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critic, was arrested Jan. 17 upon returning from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from a nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin. Russian authorities have rejected the accusation.

On Tuesday, a Moscow court ruled that while in Germany, Navalny violated probation terms of his suspended sentence from a 2014 money-laundering conviction and ordered him to serve two years and eight months in prison. The ruling prompted international outrage.

In the mass protests across Russia‘s 11 time zones for two weekends in a row, many people chanted slogans against Putin in the largest show of discontent in years. Thousands were detained. Several of Navalny‘s close allies face criminal charges and are under house arrest, and many of his associates were handed short jail terms.

Top Navalny strategist Leonid Volkov argued Thursday that trying to maintain rallies every weekend would only lead to many more arrests and wear out the participants and said that protests should pause until spring after reaching a peak.

Instead, he urged supporters to focus on challenging Kremlin-backed candidates in September’s parliamentary elections and securing new Western sanctions against Russia to press for Navalny’s release. He said Navalny’s team would try to ensure that “every world leader would discuss nothing but Navalny’s release with Putin.”

On Friday, however, another Navalny ally, Vladimir Milov, expressed disappointment with Borrell‘s visit to Moscow. He called it a “disastrously weak visit” and said Lavrov “used him as a decoration to lecture Europe on ‘international law.’”

“Maybe he’ll bring back some Sputink V vaccines as a reward,” Milov tweeted, referencing Borrell‘s praise of Russia‘s domestically developed coronavirus vaccine.

Navalny, meanwhile, was back in court Friday for yet another trial – this time on a charge of defaming a World War II veteran featured in a pro-Kremlin video that Navalny denounced on social media last year.

A criminal probe was opened after Navalny slammed people featured in a video promoting constitutional amendments last year that allowed an extension to Putin’s rule. Navalny called the people in the video “corrupt stooges,” “people without conscience” and “traitors.”

Russian authorities maintained that Navalny’s comments “denigrate (the) honor and dignity” of Ignat Artemenko, the veteran featured in the video.

If convicted, Navalny faces a fine or community service. He has denied the charge and refused to enter a plea on Friday, calling the trial a “PR process” aimed at disparaging him.

“The Kremlin needs headlines (saying that) Navalny slandered a veteran,” he said.

Artemenko, 94, took part in the hearing via teleconference, saying he was distressed by Navalny‘s comments and demanding a public apology.

Navalny accused Artemenko’s family of exploiting the frail man for their own gain, alleging the case was fabricated and the evidence falsified.

“The judge should burn in hell, and you’re selling your grandfather out,” Navalny said, as Artemenko’s grandson testified.

The hearing was eventually adjourned until Feb. 12.

___

Associated Press writers Geir Moulson in Berlin, Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Sylvie Corbet in Paris and Jill Lawless in London contributed.

Kremlin: Thousands of arrests at Navalny protests a necessary response

Kremlin: Thousands of arrests at Navalny protests a necessary response

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In this Sunday, Jan. 31, 2021, file photo, detained protesters walk escorted by police during a protest against the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in St. Petersburg, Russia. A prison sentence for Navalny and a sweeping crackdown on protesters … more >

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By Vladimir Isachenkov

Associated Press

Thursday, February 4, 2021

MOSCOW (AP) — The Kremlin said Thursday that thousands of arrests at protests against the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny were a necessary response to the unsanctioned rallies and strongly rebuffed Western criticism.

Asked about the harsh treatment of thousands of detainees, who spent many hours on police buses and were put in overcrowded cells, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that they have to bear responsibility for joining the unsanctioned protests.

“The situation wasn’t provoked by law enforcement, it was provoked by participants in unlawful actions,” Peskov said in a call with reporters.

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Massive protests erupted after Navalny, a 44-year-old anti-corruption campaigner who is Putin’s most determined political foe, was arrested Jan. 17 upon returning from his five-month convalescence in Germany from a nerve agent poisoning, which he has blamed on the Kremlin. Russian authorities deny any involvement and claim they have no proof that he was poisoned despite tests by several European labs.

A Moscow court on Tuesday ordered Navalny to prison for two years and eight months, finding that he violated the terms of his probation while recuperating in Germany, a ruling that caused international outrage and triggered new protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Following Navalny‘s arrest, authorities also have moved swiftly to silence and isolate his allies. Last week, a Moscow court put his brother, Oleg, top associate Lyubov Sobol, and several other key allies under house arrest – without access to the internet – for two months as part of a criminal probe into alleged violations of coronavirus restrictions during protests.

On Thursday, Sobol was formally charged with the incitement of violation of sanitary regulations by organizing protests.

Protests have spread across Russia‘s 11 time zones over the past two weekends, drawing tens of thousands in the largest show of discontent with Putin’s rule in years.

In a no-holds-barred response to the protest, police arrested over 10,000 protest participants across Russia and beat scores, according to the OVD-Info group monitoring arrests. Many detainees had to spend hours on police buses after detention facilities in Moscow and St. Petersburg quickly ran out of space, or were cramped into cells intended to accommodate far fewer inmates.

Peskov said that Russia won’t listen to Western criticism of Navalny‘s sentencing and police action against protesters.

German virus death toll tops 50,000 even as infections sink

German virus death toll tops 50,000 even as infections sink

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In this April 24, 2020, file photo, a man with a face mask watches empty chairs with names of bars and restaurants on the Roemerberg square in Frankfurt, Germany. More than 50,000 people have died after contracting COVID-19 in Germany, … more >

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By Geir Moulson

Associated Press

Friday, January 22, 2021

BERLIN (AP) — The death toll from the coronavirus in Germany has passed 50,000, a number that has risen swiftly over recent weeks even as infection figures are finally declining.

The country’s disease control center, the Robert Koch Institute, said Friday that another 859 deaths were reported over the past 24 hours, taking the total so far to 50,642.

Germany had a comparatively small number of deaths in the pandemic’s first phase and was able to lift many restrictions quickly.

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But it has seen much higher levels of infections in the fall and winter. Hundreds of deaths, sometimes more than 1,000, have been reported daily in the country of 83 million people over recent weeks. Germany hit the 40,000 mark on Jan. 10.

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier will leave a light shining in a window at his Bellevue palace in Berlin every evening starting Friday in memory of the dead and those fighting for their lives, his office said. He encouraged other Germans to do the same.

Steinmeier plans to lead a central memorial event for the dead after Easter.

The lights are meant as a sign that “the dead in the corona pandemic are not just statistics for us,” Steinmeier said. “Even if we don’t know their names and families, we know that every figure stands for a loved one whom we miss infinitely.”

Chancellor Angela Merkel echoed those comments this week, describing the recent death figures as “terrible.” Still, she said that daily infections are dropping and somewhat fewer people are receiving intensive care than over Christmas.

In Europe, the U.K., Italy, France and Spain, all of which have smaller populations, still have higher death tolls.

The head of the Robert Koch Institute, Lothar Wieler, said this week the explanation for the high death figures is “relatively simple but relatively depressing.”

“The increase is simply linked to the fact that the case numbers went up so much,” he said.

Wieler said there are still a lot of outbreaks at nursing homes – over 900 at present. Some homes are better-prepared than others to combat the pandemic, he said. There are also large numbers of cases among the over-80s.

Overall, new infections peaked in December. On Friday, the Robert Koch Institute reported 17,862 new cases, down from 22,368 a week ago. Germany’s total so far is a bit over 2.1 million. The number of new cases per 100,000 residents over seven days stood at 115.3, after reaching nearly 200 a month ago. It’s still well above the government’s target of a maximum 50.

There are currently 4,787 COVID-19 patients in intensive care, said Gernot Marx, the head of Germany‘s intensive care association, DIVI.

That is down from a peak of nearly 5,800 on Jan. 3, he said – “that was the most critical situation, in my opinion, since there has been intensive care in Germany.” He added that there has been no sign of a Christmas or new year peak.

Germany‘s current lockdown was extended this week until Feb. 14 amid concern about the possible impact of virus mutations such as the one first detected in England.

Authorities are trying to encourage more people to work from home, thus reducing the numbers who use public transport. Restaurants, bars, sports and leisure facilities have been closed since early November. Schools and nonessential shops followed in mid-December, and professional sports events are taking place without spectators.

Merkel says everyone in Germany will be offered a vaccination by late September. There has been frustration with the slow start to vaccinations. By Thursday, nearly 1.39 million people had received a first dose and over 115,000 a second dose.

Britain has delayed giving second doses for up to three months so it can give the first dose to as many as possible. But Health Minister Jens Spahn signaled that Germany won’t follow suit, pointing to concerns over a lack of study data and the need for the most vulnerable and elderly to get “comprehensive” protection.

“We will, according to all the scientific groundwork we have at the moment, stick to the … recommended rhythm for the second dose,” Spahn said Friday.

___

Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.

Judge orders Alexei Navalny remanded for 30 days, spokeswoman says

Judge orders Alexei Navalny remanded for 30 days, spokeswoman says

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In this image taken from video released by Navalny Life YouTube channel, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny speaks as he waits for a court hearing in a police station in Khimki, outside in Moscow, Russia, Monday, Jan. 18, 2021. A … more >

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By Daria Litvinova

Associated Press

Monday, January 18, 2021

MOSCOW (AP) — A judge on Monday ordered Alexei Navalny to be remanded in custody for 30 days, the Russian opposition leader’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh said on Twitter. 

The ruling concluded an hours-long court hearing set up at a police precinct where the politician was held since his arrest at a Moscow airport Sunday. 

Navalny flew to Russia from Germany, where he had spent five months recovering from nerve agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin. He was detained at passport control at Sheremetyevo airport after flying in Sunday evening from Berlin, where he was treated following the poisoning in August. 

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Navalny‘s arrest prompted a wave of criticism from U.S. and European officials, adding to existing tension between Russia and West.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas noted that Navalny had returned of his own volition and said “it is completely incomprehensible that he was detained by Russian authorities immediately after his arrival.”

Russia is bound by its own constitution and by international commitments to the principle of the rule of law and the protection of civil rights,” Maas added. “These principles must of course also be applied to Alexei Navalny. He should be released immediately.”

The politician’s allies said Monday he was being held at a police precinct outside Moscow and has been refused access to his lawyer. The court hearing into whether Navalny should remain in custody was hastily set up at the precinct itself, and the politician’s lawyers said they were notified minutes before.

“It is impossible what is happening over here,” Navalny said in video from the improvised court room, posted on his page in the messaging app Telegram. “It is lawlessness of the highest degree.”

Calls for Navalny‘s immediate release have come from European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and top officials of other EU nations. 

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for national security adviser called on Russian authorities to free Navalny. “Mr. Navalny should be immediately released, and the perpetrators of the outrageous attack on his life must be held accountable,” Jake Sullivan tweeted.

The outgoing U.S. secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said the U.S. “strongly condemns” the decision to arrest Navalny.

Nevertheless, the judge ordered that Navalny be remanded in custody until Feb. 15, Yarmysh said on Twitter. Navalny‘s lawyer Vadim Kobzev told the Interfax news agency that the defense plans to appeal the ruling.

Navalny‘s detention was widely expected because Russia‘s prisons service said he had violated probation terms from a suspended sentence on a 2014 money-laundering conviction. 

The service said it would seek to have Navalny serve his 3½-year sentence behind bars.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Monday the stream of Western reactions to Navalny‘s arrest reflects an attempt “to divert attention from the crisis of the Western model of development.”

“Navalny’s case has received a foreign policy dimension artificially and without any foundation,” Lavrov said, arguing that his detention was a prerogative of Russian law enforcement agencies that explained their action. “It’s a matter of observing the law,” he added. 

Navalny, 44, President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent and determined foe, brushed off concerns about arrest as he boarded his flight in Berlin on Sunday. 

“It’s impossible. I’m an innocent man,” he said.

Navalny fell into a coma while aboard a domestic flight from Siberia to Moscow on Aug. 20. He was transferred from a hospital in Siberia to a Berlin hospital two days later. 

Labs in Germany, France and Sweden, and tests by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, established that he was exposed to a Soviet-era Novichok nerve agent.

Russian authorities insisted that the doctors who treated Navalny in Siberia before he was airlifted to Germany found no traces of poison. Russia refused to open a full-fledged criminal inquiry, citing a lack of evidence that Navalny was poisoned, and officials have challenged Germany to provide proof of the poisoning 

Last month, Navalny released the recording of a phone call he said he made to a man he alleged was a member of a group of officers of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, who purportedly poisoned him in August and then tried to cover it up. The FSB dismissed the recording as fake.

Navalny has been a thorn in the Kremlin’s side for a decade, unusually durable in an opposition movement often demoralized by repression. Russian authorities have launched multiple criminal investigations against him, and he has been tried and convicted in two separate criminal cases widely seen as politically motivated. 

In December 2014, Navalny was convicted on charges of fraud and money-laundering and received a 3½-year suspended sentence, which he denounced as politically motivated and the European Court of Human Rights found “arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable” three years later. 

The sentence carried a probation period that was due to expire in December 2020. Authorities said the politician was subject to regular in-person checks with law enforcement officers as one of the conditions of his probation. 

Russia‘s prison service first accused Navalny of not appearing for these checks on Dec. 28 — two days before the probation period was supposed to end. 

Navalny and his team rejected the accusations and said the move was an attempt by the Kremlin to keep the politician from coming back to Russia.

Three days before his return to Moscow, the prison service alleged in a statement that Navalny repeatedly failed to appear for the checks, including when he was convalescing in Germany, and said it was “obligated to undertake actions to detain” the politician. 

Navalny had repeatedly said he would come back to Russia despite threats of arrest, saying he didn’t leave the country by choice, but rather “ended up in Germany in an intensive care box,” and said he was still dedicated to his cause. 

“I will go back to Russia, I will continue my work. No other possibility has ever been considered or is being considered,” Navalny said in October. 

___

Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report. 

Iran asks watchdog not to publish ‘unnecessary’ nuke details

Iran asks watchdog not to publish ‘unnecessary’ nuke details

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FILE – In this Aug. 26, 2020 file photo, released by the official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, President Hassan Rouhani, right, welcomes Director General of International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, Rafael Mariano Grossi for their meeting … more >

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Associated Press

Sunday, January 17, 2021

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) – Iran urged the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog to avoid publishing “unnecessary” details on Tehran’s nuclear program, state TV reported Sunday, a day after Germany, France and Britain said Tehran has “no credible civilian use” for its development of uranium metal.

The report quoted a statement from Iran’s nuclear department that asked the International Atomic Energy Agency to avoid publishing details on Iran’s nuclear program that may cause confusion.

“It is expected the international atomic energy agency avoid providing unnecessary details and prevent paving ground for misunderstanding” in the international community, the statement said. It did not elaborate.

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On Saturday, Germany, France and Britain pressed Iran to back off its plan to develop uranium metal, calling it “the latest planned violation” of its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. The goal of the deal is to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb, something Iran insists it does not want to do.

Iran has no credible civilian use for uranium metal,” they said in a joint statement. “The production of uranium metal has potentially grave military implications.”

On Thursday, the IAEA said Iran had informed it that it had begun installing equipment for the production of uranium metal. It said Tehran maintains its plans to conduct research and development on uranium metal production are part of its “declared aim to design an improved type of fuel.”

Tehran has long suspected that result of the inspections by the agency have leaked and caused further problems for Iran.

In December the country’s parliament passed a law that would suspend part of snap inspections the nuclear deal provided to inspectors in late February should the U.S. banking and oil sanctions remain in place. The country, though, said that the other usual inspections will continue since the nation is a member of non-proliferation treaty.

Iran reacted to the European statement Sunday saying Iran informed the U.N. nuclear watchdog nearly two decades ago of its plans for the “peaceful and conventional” production of uranium metal. It also said it provided updated information to the agency two years ago about its plans to produce silicide advanced fuel.

The statement said uranium metal is an “intermediate product” in the manufacture of uranium silicide, a fuel used in nuclear reactors that is safer and has more power capability than uranium oxide-based fuel, which Iran currently produces.

Later on Sunday Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in a tweet criticized the Europeans for their failure in saving the nuclear deal, or JCPOA, after the U.S. withdrawal and said the deal remain alive because Iran did not withdraw from it.

“JCPOA is alive because of Iran and not E3,” said Zarif in the Tweet. He also criticized Europe’s dependence on approval of every single banking transaction with Iran by the U.S. treasury.

The three European nations alongside the U.S., Russia and China signed the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran that prohibited research and production of uranium metal.

President Donald Trump in 2018 unilaterally withdrew the U.S. from Iran’s nuclear deal, in which Tehran had agreed to limit its uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. After the U.S. then ramped up sanctions, Iran gradually and publicly abandoned the deal’s limits on its nuclear development.

President-elect Joe Biden, who was vice president when the deal was signed during the Obama administration, has said he hopes to return the U.S. to the deal.

Siegfried Fischbacher, illusionist, dies in Las Vegas: Report

Illusionist Siegfried Fischbacher dies in Las Vegas: Report

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In this Thursday, July 17, 2014, file photo, Siegfried Fischbacher, left, holds up a white lion cub as Roy Horn holds up a microphone during an event to welcome three white lion cubs to Siegfried & Roy’s Secret Garden and … more >

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Associated Press

Thursday, January 14, 2021

BERLIN (AP) — German news agency dpa is reporting that illusionist Siegfried Fischbacher, the surviving member of the duo Siegfried & Roy, has died in Las Vegas at age 81.

The news agency said Thursday that Fischbacher’s sister, a nun who lives in Munich, confirmed his death of cancer.

“He was at home in Las Vegas,” Sister Dolore told dpa. She said she talked to her brother on the phone before he died and they prayed together.

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“I could pray with him and tell him that I will always be with him in my heart,” she said.

After the call, he lay down and fell asleep, she added.

Fischbacher’s long-time show business partner, Roy Horn, died last year of complications from COVID-19 at a Las Vegas hospital. He was 75.

The duo astonished millions with their extraordinary magic tricks until Horn was critically injured in 2003 by one of the act’s famed white tigers.

In a statement announcing Horn‘s death in May, Fischbacher said, “From the moment we met, I knew Roy and I, together, would change the world. There could be no Siegfried without Roy, and no Roy without Siegfried.”

He later told Germany’s weekly Bild am Sonntag newspaper his best friend would always stay by his side.

“For dinner, I will continue to have the table set for him, too. like it always was the case. I’m not alone,” dpa quoted Fischbacher as telling the newspaper.

For years, Siegfried & Roy was an institution in Las Vegas, where Fischbacher and Horn’s magic and artistry consistently attracted sellout crowds. The pair performed six shows a week, 44 weeks per year.

Horn and Fischbacher, both natives of Germany, first teamed up in 1957 and made their Las Vegas debut a decade later. Siegfried & Roy began performing at the Mirage in 1990.

The pair gained international recognition for helping to save rare white tigers and white lions from extinction. Their $10 million compound was home to dozens of rare animals over the years. The white lions and white tigers were the result of a preservation program that began in the 1980s.

The Siegfried & Roy show incorporated animal antics and magic tricks, featuring 20 white tigers and lions, the number varying depending on the night. The show also had other exotic animals, including an elephant.

Born on June 13, 1939 in Rosenheim in Bavaria, Fischbacher learned his first magic tricks as a young boy, dpa reported.

Horn and Fischbacher met on a cruise ship in 1957. Fischbacher performed the magic tricks, while Horn became his assistant, eventually suggesting using the cheetah in the act.

They honed their animal-magic show in small clubs in Germany and Switzerland in the mid-1960s. Their break came in a Monte Carlo casino when an agent in the audience invited them to Las Vegas. The pair made their debut at the Tropicana hotel-casino in the late 1960s.

The illusionists became popular in the 1970s, receiving their first star billing in 1978 as headliners of the Stardust’s “Lido de Paris.” Their show “Beyond Belief” opened in 1981 at the Frontier and played to thousands over seven years.

When they signed a lifetime contract with the Mirage in 2001, it was estimated they had performed 5,000 shows at the casino for 10 million fans since 1990 and had grossed more than $1 billion.

“Throughout the history of Las Vegas, no artists have meant more to the development of Las Vegas’ global reputation as the entertainment capital of the world than Siegfried and Roy,” Terry Lanni, chairman of MGM Mirage, the casino’s parent company, said after the 2003 attack that injured Horn.

UN watchdog confirms another Iranian breach of nuclear deal

UN watchdog confirms another Iranian breach of nuclear deal

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FILE – In this Feb. 3, 2007 file photo, a technician works at the Uranium Conversion Facility just outside the city of Isfahan, Iran, 255 miles (410 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran. The United Nations’ atomic watchdog agency, the … more >

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By DAVID RISING

Associated Press

Thursday, January 14, 2021

BERLIN (AP) – The United Nations’ atomic watchdog agency confirmed Thursday that Iran has informed it the country has begun installing equipment for the production of uranium metal, which would be another violation of the 2015 landmark nuclear deal with world powers.

Iran maintains its plans to conduct research and development on uranium metal production are part of its “declared aim to design an improved type of fuel,” the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency said.

Uranium metal can also be used for a nuclear bomb, however, and research on its production is specifically prohibited under the nuclear deal – the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – that Tehran signed with Germany, France, Britain, China, Russia and the United States in 2015.

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Since the unilateral American withdrawal from the deal in 2018, the other members have been working to try and preserve the accord, and Germany slammed the new Iranian move as a “completely wrong signal and not likely to build trust.”

The Foreign Ministry told The Associated Press that as the other members are committed to the deal and the “future American government has also expressed its willingness to return” to it, Iran “must not continue to undermine the core provisions” of the accord.

“It is long overdue for Iran to return to full compliance with its commitments,” the ministry said.

The ultimate goal of the deal is to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb, something Iran insists it does not want to do. Iran now has enough enriched uranium to make a bomb, but nowhere near the amount it had before the nuclear deal was signed.

On Sunday, IAEA inspectors visited the Isfahan plant where Iran has said it plans to conduct the research, and officials were informed by Tehran on Wednesday that “modification and installation of the relevant equipment for the mentioned R&D; activities have been already started,” the agency said.

Iran‘s ambassador to the IAEA, Kazem Gharibabadi, repeated that in a tweet on Wednesday, adding that “natural uranium will be used to produce uranium metal in the first stage.”

He told Iran‘s official news agency IRNA that the move will elevate Iran to the level of “progressive nations in production of new fuels.”

Although uranium metal in theory can be geared toward generating electricity, experiments with metal alloys are prohibited under the nuclear deal because uranium metal is a key material in the making of nuclear weapons. The process involves converting high-enriched uranium gas into metal that provides the cladding, or outer covering, for the fuel rods that power a nuclear reaction.

Iran had not previously experimented with this step in the process, but in order to make a bomb, you would have to,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, based in Washington.

It was the latest in a string of violations of the nuclear deal that Iran has undertaken since President Donald Trump pulled the United States out in 2018, saying it needed to be re-negotiated.

Tehran has been using the violations to put pressure on the other signatories to provide more incentives to Iran to offset crippling American sanctions re-imposed after the American pullout. President-elect Joe Biden, who was vice president when the deal was signed during the Obama administration, has said he hopes to return the U.S. to the deal.

The timing of the uranium metal announcement, Kimball said, left little doubt about Iran’s intentions.

“They know there’s someone named Biden who’s going to be in the White House next week and they want him to act as soon as possible to waive nuclear-related sanctions,” he added. “They are looking for ways to underscore that their patience has run out.”

Britain, France and Germany said last week that Iran “risks compromising” chances of diplomacy with Washington after Tehran announced another violation – that it was starting to enrich uranium to 20% purity, a technical step away from weapons-grade levels of 90%.

The foreign ministers of the three European nations said in a joint statement then that the Iranian activity “has no credible civil justification.” They said the enrichment was a clear violation of the deal and “further hollows out the agreement.”

Those working to save the deal also note that despite the violations, Iran continues to allow inspectors to access all sites in the country.

____

Associated Press writer Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, and Isabel DeBre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.

Bodies pile up at crematorium in Germany’s virus hot spot

Bodies pile up at crematorium in Germany’s virus hot spot

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Coffins containing deceased people wait in the worship room of the crematorium in Meissen, Germany, before cremation on Monday, Jan. 11, 2021. For those who died with the coronavirus, the coffins are marked with the word "COVID" as a warning. … more >

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By Frank Jordans

Associated Press

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

MEISSEN, Germany (AP) — The caskets are stacked three high in the Meissen crematorium‘s somber memorial hall, piled up in empty offices and stored in hallways. Many are sealed with plastic wrapping, others are labeled “infection risk,” “urgent” or simply “COVID.”

A surge of coronavirus deaths in this corner of eastern Germany has boosted business for crematorium manager Joerg Schaldach and his staff, but nobody is celebrating.

“The situation is a little bit tense for us at the moment,” Schaldach said as another undertaker’s van pulled up outside.

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The crematorium would typically have 70 to 100 caskets on site at this time of year, when the flu season takes its toll on the elderly.

“It’s normal for more people to die in winter than in summer,” said Schaldach. “That’s always been the case.”

Now he has 300 bodies waiting to be cremated and each day dozens more are delivered to the modernist building on a hill overlooking Meissen, an ancient town better known for its delicate porcelain and impressive Gothic castle.

On Monday, Meissen county once again took the unwanted lead in Germany’s COVID-19 tables, with an infection rate three times the national average. The state of Saxony, where Meissen is located, includes six of the 10 worst-hit counties in Germany.

Schaldach says the crematorium is doing its best to keep up with demand, firing up the twin furnaces every 45 minutes and managing 60 cremations a day.

“The ashes still end up in the right urn,” he said.

But whereas staff would normally try to ensure the deceased look good for relatives to bid their final farewells, infection rules now mean the caskets of COVID victims have to remain shut throughout, making the entire process even harder for those involved.

“It’s our business, we’ve seen death many, many times,” said Schaldach. “The problem we see is that the grieving relatives need our help. And at the moment, there’s a greater need for words of consolation because they’ve given their deceased loved one to the ambulance and then they never see them again.”

Some have linked Saxony’s high infection rate to wider anti-government sentiment in a state where over a quarter voted for the far-right Alternative for Germany party at the last national election. Its lawmakers have objected to the need to wear masks, limits on people gathering and the closure of stores. A few have even denied the existence of a pandemic outright.

Other commentators have noted the state’s large number of elderly and its reliance on nursing home workers from the neighboring Czech Republic, where COVID-19 infections are even higher.

Officials in Meissen, including the head of the county administration, the local doctors association and the lawmaker representing the region in parliament, an ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel, all declined to be interviewed about the situation.

Saxony’s governor, Michael Kretschmer, acknowledged in a recent interview with daily Freie Presse that he had underestimated the impact of the pandemic in his state and paid too much attention to those calling for businesses and schools to remain open.

A video showing Kretschmer talking to anti-lockdown protesters outside his home Sunday ends with him walking away after one person dons a mask made to look like the German Imperial War Flag, a symbol favored by far-right extremists.

Schaldach, the crematorium manager, says most people in Saxony accept the rules. But he, too, has read comments on social media branding reports about bodies piling up at his crematorium as fake news.

“Those who believe in conspiracy theories can’t be helped. We don’t want to debate with them,” he told The Associated Press. “They have their beliefs and we have our knowledge.”

Down in Meissen, the streets are empty, devoid of the usual tourists or even the bustle of locals.

Franziska Schlieter runs a gourmet food store in the historic city center that’s among the few allowed to stay open amid the lockdown. Her store, which has been run by five generations of her family, is being sustained by a trickle of regulars buying lottery cards and gift baskets.

“In the Bible, God sent people plagues when they didn’t behave,” said Schlieter, who feels easing the lockdown over Christmas was a mistake. “Sometimes I have to think of that.”

On the cobblestone square, Matthias Huth tends a lone food truck outside his shuttered restaurant. He defends those who have questioned the government’s COVID-19 restrictions, but says skepticism shouldn’t justify denial.

“Conversations are starting to change,” Huth said as he served up a dish of chopped blood sausage, sauerkraut and mash known locally as ‘Dead Grandma.’ “Everyone wants it to be over.”

___

Kerstin Sopke contributed to this report.

EU avoided chaos, explored new paths in turbulent 2020 year

EU avoided chaos, explored new paths in turbulent 2020 year

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FILE – In this Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020 file photo, European Council President Charles Michel speaks with EU leaders during an EU Summit video conference at the European Council building in Brussels, to address the need to strengthen the collective … more >

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By SAMUEL PETREQUIN

Associated Press

Friday, January 1, 2021

BRUSSELS (AP) – Between the specter of Brexit, the coronavirus pandemic and a new leadership team facing a budget battle, the European Union looked set to remember 2020 as an “annus horribilis.”

Instead, a last-minute trade deal with the United Kingdom coupled with the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in the final days of the year produced a sense of success for the 27-nation bloc and brought glimmers of hope to the EU‘s 450 million residents.

After months of chaotic negotiations, the EU also will head into 2021 with both a long-term budget and a coronavirus recovery fund worth 1.83 trillion euros ($2.3 trillion) that could help the EU‘s member nations bounce back from Europe’s most brutal economic crisis since World War II.

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“The European Union managed to do what was necessary,” Fabian Zuleeg, chief executive of the European Policy Centre, an independent think tank, said. “In the end, the European Union is resilient because it delivers benefits to its member, that the members will not want to give up.”

Ursula von der Leyen, a veteran member of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Cabinet, pledged to put the fight against climate change at the top of her agenda when she took over as president of the EU‘s powerful executive arm on Dec. 1, 2019. But the pandemic quickly relegated environmental concerns to the background.

EU leaders agreed this year on a more ambitious target for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, yet immediate public health needs and the economic fallout of the virus crisis eclipsed the ambitious Green Deal that von der Leyen envisioned to make Europe the world’s first carbon-neutral continent by 2050 .

Faced with a more urgent crisis, Brussels showed adaptability.

After several member states closed their borders in response to the virus, temporarily threatening the sacrosanct principle of free movement of people and goods within Europe’s visa-free Schengen Area, the EU secured the creation of priority corridors to allow cross-border movement of essential supplies. In an unprecedented move, the bloc also relaxed its stringent state aid rules so national governments could help businesses on the verge of collapse.

The true silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic was certainly the emergence of a common approach to health, which was until this year purely of member states’ competence.

When the virus first struck Europe hard in March, a critical shortage of personal protective equipment for health care workers laid bare the weaknesses of the EU‘s supply chains. Ten months and more than 350,000 virus-related deaths later, the member states’ cooperation on health-related issues has never been closer.

Under the European Commission’s helm, the 27 countries joined forces to resolve medicine and mask shortage, and to secure vaccine deals that allowed all member states to kickstart vaccination programs around the same time last week.

European countries also forged new ground in agreeing for the first time to borrow together while mutualizing part of the debt to fund the coronavirus recovery program. It was not an easy task. A majority of member states first had to overcome the resistance of a group of so-called “frugal” countries led by the Netherlands, then faced resistance from Poland and Hungary over a provision of the overall EU budget that linked payouts to respect for democratic standards.

The stalemate was broken under Germany’s time in the rotating presidency of the European Council, which defines the EU’s priorities. Merkel, who has been chancellor since 2005 and is set to leave office next year, proved she remains as a major EU power broker while in the twilight of her political career.

“Her role has been crucial when it comes to the (budget), to the recovery package,” Zuleeg told The Associated Press. “It was crucial that Germany took the lead together with France and push it over the line.”

Of course, Merkel could not fix all the EU‘s problems is the space of six months: the bloc’s relationship with Turkey is at a nadir, and the EU has yet to tackle illegal immigration and asylum, Europe’ most pressing and politically divisive issue before the pandemic. .

But while sealing the U.K. trade deal made for a frantic December, the EU found more ways to usher in 2021 with a blush of health on its cheeks. It launched an ambitious reform of its rules for internet businesses, a move that will expose big tech companies to hefty fines for violations, and signed a major investment deal with China this week.

___

Bishr El-Touni in Brussels contributed to this report.

Germany enters harder lockdown as virus deaths hit new high

Germany enters harder lockdown as virus deaths hit new high

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A man walks his dog in the outskirts of Frankfurt, Germany, Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020, the first day of a nationwide lockdown. (AP Photo/Michael Probst) more >

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By David Rising

Associated Press

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

BERLIN (AP) — Germany hit a new record level of coronavirus deaths as it entered a harder lockdown Wednesday, closing shops and schools to try to bring down stubbornly high new cases.

The country recorded 179.8 deaths of new infections per 100,000 residents over the last seven days, a new high and significantly more than the 149 per 100,000 reported a week ago by the Robert Koch Institute, the country’s disease control center.

It also blew past its previous daily total, with Germany‘s 16 states reporting 952 people had died of the virus, the agency said. That was far greater than the previous daily record set Friday of 598 deaths, although included two days of figures from the hard-hit eastern state of Saxony, which did not report Tuesday. It brought the country’s overall pandemic death toll to 23,427.

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Faced with exponentially increasing cases in October, Germany implemented a “lockdown light” at the start of November, which closed bars and restaurants but left shops open. The measures succeeded in leveling off the numbers of new daily infections, but didn’t bring them down, prompting the new stricter restrictions.

In addition to closing shops and moving children to remote learning for the few days before the Christmas holidays, private gatherings are being limited to two households with a maximum of five people, among other things.

The measures are expected to be in place until at least Jan. 10 and enjoy wide support, with the latest polls showing more than 80% of Germans approve of the lockdown restrictions or think they should be stricter.

Germany was widely praised for slowing the spread of its outbreak in the spring, but as people grew lax with distancing and mask rules over the summer the numbers of cases started to climb again.

While daily new cases peaked at about 6,000 in March, they are now more than four times that level, with 27,728 new cases reported Wednesday by the Robert Koch Institute.

The number of new infections per 100,000 residents over the last seven days hit a record high of 179.8, the agency reported.

German officials have pressed the European Union’s regulatory agency hard to speed up its approval of a coronavirus vaccine, and the European Medicines Agency has scheduled a meeting on that for Monday. With vaccinations expected to start before year’s end, German officials have urged people to stay patient and respect the regulations over the holidays.

Health Minister Jens Spahn said Germany was ready to start rolling out the vaccine and could begin vaccinations within two to four days of European approval.

“By summer we’ll be able to return to normal, step by step,” he said on RTL television Wednesday.

Germany: EU agency will OK coronavirus vaccine by Dec. 23

Germany: EU agency will OK coronavirus vaccine by Dec. 23

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Christmas lights shine over a virtually empty shopping street in the old town of Duesseldorf, Germany, on Monday afternoon, Dec. 14, 2020. Chancellor Angela Merkel and the governors of Germany’s 16 states agreed Sunday to step up the country’s lockdown … more >

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By Kirsten Grieshaber and Frank Jordans

Associated Press

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

BERLIN (AP) — After days of pressuring the European Union’s medical regulator, Germany’s health minister said Tuesday that he has received assurances that the European Medicines Agency will approve a coronavirus vaccine by Dec. 23.

Health Minister Jens Spahn told reporters in Berlin on Tuesday he “welcomed” German media reports that said EMA would finalize its approval process of the PfizerBioNTech coronavirus vaccine by Dec. 23, instead of at a Dec. 29 meeting.

“Our goal is an approval before Christmas,” Spahn said. “We want to still start vaccinating this year.”

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Asked afterward by The Associated Press whether he had received direct confirmation that the vaccine would be approved by then, Spahn said he had, “otherwise I wouldn’t have said that.”

He added, however, “the EU has to announce it.”

Spahn would not say from whom he had received the confirmation and the EMA could not immediately be reached for comment on exactly when it would release its findings on the approval process.

Spahn has expressed impatience with the EMA for days, noting that Germany has created some 440 vaccination centers, activated about 10,000 doctors and medical staff and was ready to start mass vaccinations immediately.

Italy, where Europe’s coronavirus outbreak erupted in February and which now leads the continent in the COVID-19 death count, is also pressing for a safe, accelerated approval process.

“My hope is that the EMA, in compliance with all safety procedures, will be able to approve the PfizerBioNTech vaccine earlier than expected and that vaccinations can also begin in the countries of the European Union as soon as possible,” Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza said in a statement.

The new vaccine developed by Germany’s BioNTech and American drugmaker Pfizer is already being used in Britain, the United States, Canada and other countries. But Germany cannot start vaccinations because it is still waiting for approval by the EMA, which evaluates drugs and vaccines for the EU’s 27 nations.

Seeing the vaccine being given to thousands of people elsewhere was galling for many Germans.

“It cannot be that a vaccine that has been developed in Germany is only approved and vaccinated (here) in January,” said Christine Aschenberg-Dugnus, a federal lawmaker with the pro-business Free Democrats.

The German Hospital Association chimed in Tuesday, demanding that the EU shorten its lengthy approval process and issue emergency authorization for the PfizerBioNTech vaccine.

“I am asking myself if we really need time until Dec. 29 to reach the approval of the vaccination in Europe — Europe should try to get an emergency authorization earlier,” Gerald Gass, president of the hospital association, told the RND media group. “That way we could still go into nursing homes with mobile teams before Christmas and vaccinate the residents.”

EMA chief Emer Cooke said Monday that her team is already working “around the clock” but added that the vaccine approval timeline is constantly under review, which suggests the date could change.

Part of the problem could be that the EU is seeking to kick off vaccinations in all of its nations at the same time, and Germany could be more prepared than others.

Spahn’s growing anxiety comes as Germany has been hitting records of new daily infections and virus deaths in recent weeks. Hospitals and medical groups across Germany have also repeatedly warned they are reaching their limits in caring for COVID-19 patients. On Tuesday, 4,670 COVID-19 patients were being treated in German ICUs.

The nation is going into a hard lockdown Wednesday with schools and most stores shutting down at least until Jan. 10 to stop the exponential rise of COVID-19 cases.

Spahn’s ministry says Germany is ready to give 3 million to 4 million BioNTech vaccination doses in January and up to 11 million doses in the first quarter of 2021.

The country would be able to vaccinate up to 60% of Germany’s citizens by the end of the summer, Spahn said Monday night on public broadcaster ZDF. The World Health Organization says around 60% to 70% of a population needs to be vaccinated to successfully tamp down the pandemic.

The Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s central disease control center, on Tuesday reported 14,432 new confirmed cases and 500 new deaths, the third-highest number of daily deaths since the pandemic began. Germany has counted over 22,600 virus deaths overall, which is still one-third the toll of Italy or Britain.

The Institute’s chief warned that the case numbers would still go up for some time after Germany heads into lockdown on Wednesday.

“Those older than 80 are getting more and more affected, and those are the people who get severely ill or die,” Lothar Wieler warned.

___

Mike Corder in The Hague, Nicole Winfield in Rome and Maria Cheng in Toronto contributed to this report.