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Russia blocks access to 2 news sites critical of the Kremlin

Russia blocks access to 2 news sites critical of the Kremlin

Russian authorities have blocked two online news outlets critical of the Kremlin, the latest move in a government crackdown on critical and independent media ahead of September parliamentary elections

ByThe Associated PressAugust 4, 2021, 9:02 PM• 2 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this article

Oktrytye Media and MBKh Media, which are backed by leading Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky, said Wednesday night their websites had become unavailable for users of most Russian internet providers. Khodorkovsky is a Russian tycoon who moved to London after spending a decade in prison in Russia on charges widely seen as political revenge for challenging President Vladimir Putin’s rule.

Both outlets said they had not received any notifications from authorities explaining why they were blocked.

According to Russia’s state registry of blocked websites, access to both news outletswas restricted upon orders of the Prosecutor General’s Office. The registry referred to a law allowing the blocking of websites that incite mass unrest, extremist activities or participation in unauthorized rallies.

Independent media and journalists in Russia have faced increased pressure ahead of the Sept. 19 vote, which is widely seen as an important part of Putin’s efforts to cement his rule before the 2024 presidential election.

The 68-year-old Russian leader, who has been in power for more than two decades, pushed through constitutional changes last year that would potentially allow him to hold onto power until 2036.

In recent months, the government has designated a number of independent media outlets and journalists as “foreign agents” — a label that implies additional government scrutiny and carries strong pejorative connotations that could discredit the recipients — and raided the homes of several prominent reporters.

The publisher of one outlet that released investigative reports exposing alleged corruption and abuses by top officials and tycoons close to Putin was outlawed as an “undesirable” organization, membership in which is a criminal offense.

Israel fires back after 3 rockets launched from Lebanon

Israel fires back after 3 rockets launched from Lebanon

Israel’s army says it has fired back after three rockets were fired over the border from Lebanon

By LAURIE KELLMANBy and ZEINA KARAMAugust 4, 2021, 8:45 PM• 2 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this article3:22

Catch up on the developing stories making headlines.The Associated Press

TEL AVIV, Israel — Three rockets were fired from Lebanon into Israeli territory Wednesday and the army responded with sustained artillery fire, Israel’s military said. There was no immediate information on damages or casualties.

The announcement came after sirens sounded in northern Israel warning of a possible rocket attack from Lebanon. Two rockets landed inside Israeli territory, the army said, adding that it fired artillery back into Lebanon.

Channel 12 reported that one rocket exploded in an open area and another was intercepted by Israel’s defense system, known as the Iron Dome.

The warnings went off near Kiryat Shmona, a community of about 20,000 people near the Lebanese border.

A Lebanese army official said the military had no comment pending investigations. Other Lebanese security officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press.

However, several witnesses in the border area in south Lebanon said two rockets landed in an Israeli community across the border, followed by multiple artillery shells that were fired from Israel. The Israeli shells landed in an area between the Lebanese villages of Marjayoun and Khiam, they said, adding it was not clear where the rockets were fired from.

There have been several similar incidents in recent months.

The rocket fire is believed by Israeli authorities to have been launched by Palestinian groups based in Lebanon and not the militant Hezbollah group. However, it’s unlikely that Palestinian groups could operate without Hezbollah’s consent.

U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price condemned the rocket fire from Lebanon.

“Israel has the right to defend itself against such attacks,” he told reporters in Washington, adding that the U.S. would remain engaged with partners “in the region in an effort to de-escalate the situation.”

At the United Nations, spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, known as UNIFIL, was aware of the rocket fire and Israel’s artillery response. He said the UNIFIL commander, Maj. Gen. Stefano Del Col, appealed for a cease-fire and urged both sides to “exercise maximum restraint to avoid further escalation.”

———

Karam reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Washington and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

Mexico to call out national guard to protect gas trucks

Mexico to call out national guard to protect gas trucks

Mexico’s president says he will call on the National Guard to protect gas delivery trucks after drivers and crews went on strike to protest government price controls

ByThe Associated PressAugust 4, 2021, 8:40 PM• 4 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleThe Associated PressFILE – In this July 1, 2021 file photo, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador waves after giving a speech at a ceremony marking the third anniversary of his presidential election at the National Palace in Mexico City. Mexico’s anti-monopoly regulator has on Wednesday, July 28, 2021, openly criticized President Lopez Obrador’s plan to set a maximum price for cooking and heating gas. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano, File)

MEXICO CITY — Mexico’s president said Wednesday he will call on the National Guard to protect gas delivery trucks after drivers and crews went on strike to protest government price controls.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said he will not back down and compared the battle to his 2019 offensive against fuel thieves.

Those independent trucks and their crews blocked entrances and vandalized trucks at gas tank farms around Mexico City, saying price controls will hurt their earnings. Photos posted by local media showed masked men smashing the windows of some small gas tank trucks Tuesday to enforce the strike. Others parked their vehicles at entrances to tank farms to block them.

“Yesterday they said they could not go out (on deliveries) because they risked getting their vehicles vandalized,” López Obrador said. “The National Guard is going to intervene to protect the distributors.”

López Obrador said he would consider filing criminal complaints. He has said in the past he wants to set up a state-owned gas distribution company to compete with the often-corrupt private tank trucks that fill roof-top gas tanks or distribute small portable gas cylinders.

Distributors often short-change customers on the amount of gas they deliver. Moreover, some charge as much as 50% profits margins, contributing to gas price increases of almost 50% in the last year.

The Mexican Association of Gas Distributors said Tuesday it “distances itself from the actions by groups of independents who work on commission, who do not hold distribution permits and who are blocking plants, preventing us from going out and working to supply homes and businesses that need gas.”

The association represents the owners of tank farms and some larger distribution chains that own fleets of trucks. The independents own or lease their own trucks, or run smaller operations delivering small portable LP cylinders to homes.

The association said it had warned the government about “the risks and impacts implicit” in imposing price controls.

Mexico imports much of its LP gas, and international prices have risen, leading to higher costs for Mexicans. López Obrador invoked emergency powers to decree a six-month price cap.

Experts had warned that price controls announced Sunday would probably lead to shortages, because the largely private gas distributors may refuse to operate under government-imposed profit margins.

Mexico’s anti-monopoly regulator criticized López Obrador’s maximum prices and warned that “price regulation could have consequences unintended by the decree, like shortages of LP gas.”

Experts said the proposed price cap hearkens back to decades past when Mexico’s state-owned oil company Pemex imported LP gas and sold it at fixed prices to distributors. Now, private companies import much of the gas, and won’t do so if they lose money on it.

The government is under pressure to do something.

One of the president’s key promises has been that basic fuel prices won’t increase above the rate of inflation, and the largely privatized market for cooking gas cylinders has made that unobtainable.

Mexico’s inflation rate is currently hovering around 6%. Cooking gas is a major expenditure for almost 70% of Mexican households.

López Obrador has called the gas strike “an emergency situation,” and compared it the showdown he faced early in his administration in late 2018 and 2019.

Faced with increasing theft of gasoline and diesel by criminal gangs that drill illegal taps into government pipelines, the president shut down many pipelines. Fuel had to be moved by tanker trucks, and there were long lines at gas stations.

Head of UN health agency seeks vaccine booster moratorium

Head of UN health agency seeks vaccine booster moratorium

The head of the World Health Organization is calling for a moratorium on administering booster shots of COVID-19 vaccines as a way to help ensure that doses are available in countries where few people have received their first shots

By JAMEY KEATEN Associated PressAugust 4, 2021, 8:35 PM• 4 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleThe Associated PressWorld Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, left, and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi watch the opening ceremony in the Olympic Stadium at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Friday, July 23, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (Leon Neal/Pool Photo via AP)

WHO officials say the science is unproven about whether giving booster shots to people who have already received two vaccine doses is effective in preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

The U.N. health agency has repeatedly called for rich countries to do more to help improve access to vaccines in the developing world. It has argued that no one is safe until everyone is safe because the longer and more widely the coronavirus circulates, the greater the chance that new variants could emerge — and prolong a global crisis in fighting the pandemic.

The agency has no power to require countries to act, and many in the past have ignored its appeals on issues like donating vaccines, limiting cross-border travel and taking steps to boost production of vaccines in developing countries.

Tedros pointed to a WHO target he had announced in May seeking to ensure that 10% of the populations in all countries receive vaccines against the coronavirus.

“Accordingly, WHO is calling for a moratorium on boosters until at least the end of September to enable at least 10% of the population of every country to be vaccinated,” he told a news conference.

To help take the heat out of the pandemic, WHO has been focusing on getting vaccines to older adults, health care workers and other target populations in many countries before booster shot campaigns are carried out.

Dr. Bruce Aylward, a special adviser to Tedros, said the moratorium was about an appeal to countries considering booster doses to “put a hold” on such policies “until and unless we get the rest of the world caught up” in the fight against the pandemic.

”As we’ve seen from the emergence of variant after variant, we cannot get out of it unless the whole world gets out of it together. And with the huge disparity in vaccination coverage, we’re simply not going to be able to achieve that,” Aylward said.

Israel, France, Germany and many Middle Eastern countries have already started administering boosters, and other nations, including the United States and Britain, are considering plans to do so in the wake of the emergence of the highly transmissible delta variant.

Dr. Katherine O’Brien, WHO’s vaccines chief, noted that a “very limited number” of countries were giving booster doses though a larger number were contemplating it.

“The evidence is evolving. It’s moving. We don’t have a full set of evidence around whether this is needed or not,” O’Brien said, adding that the main message was that “we need instead to focus on those people who are most vulnerable.”

Asked about the WHO position, White House press secretary Jen Psaki called it a “false choice” and suggested the United States could both donate vaccines abroad and provide boosters at home.

“We announced just yesterday that we hit an important milestone of over 110 million vaccines donated to the world. That is more than any other country has shared combined,” she said. “We also, in this country, have enough supply, to ensure that every American has access to a vaccine. We will have enough supply to ensure, if the FDA decides that boosters are recommended for a portion of the population, to provide those as well.”

WHO officials reiterated their call for global “solidarity” to help battle the coronavirus pandemic and appealed to wealthy countries and corporations to help.

“We need everyone’s cooperation, especially the handful of countries and companies that control the global supply of vaccines,” Tedros said, appealing in particular to the influential Group of 20 large economies. “The G-20 has a vital leadership role to play as the countries that are the biggest producers, the biggest consumers and the biggest donors of COVID-19 vaccines.”

He urged the G-20, which currently is chaired by Italy, to make “concrete commitments to support global vaccination targets.”

“We call on everyone with influence — Olympic athletes, investors, business leaders, faith leaders and every individual in their own family and community — to support our call for a moratorium on booster shots until at least the end of September,” Tedros said.

Wildfire reaches Turkey power plant, prompts evacuations

Wildfire reaches Turkey power plant, prompts evacuations

The mayor of the southwest Turkish city of Milas says a power plant was being evacuated as flames from a wildfire reached the plant

By MEHMET GUZEL and ZEYNEP BILGINSOY Associated PressAugust 4, 2021, 8:33 PM• 5 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleThe Associated PressPeople watch a wildfire burning the forest in Turgut village, near tourist resort of Marmaris, Mugla, Turkey, Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021. As Turkish fire crews pressed ahead Tuesday with their weeklong battle against blazes tearing through forests and villages on the country’s southern coast, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government faced increased criticism over its apparent poor response and inadequate preparedness for large-scale wildfires.(AP Photo/Emre Tazegul)

MARMARIS, Turkey — A coal-fueled power plant in southwest Turkey and nearby residential areas were being evacuated Wednesday evening as flames from a wildfire reached the plant, a mayor and local reporters said as sirens from the plant could be heard blaring.

Milas Mayor Muhammet Tokat, from Turkey’s main opposition party, has been warning of the fire risks for the past two days for the Kemerkoy power plant in Mugla province. He said late Wednesday that the plant was being evacuated. Local reporters said the wildfires had also prompted the evacuation of the nearby seaside area of Oren.

Turkey’s defense ministry said it was evacuating people by sea as the fires neared the plant. The state broadcaster TRT said the flames had “jumped” to the plant.

Authorities have said that safety precautions have been taken at the Kemerkoy power plant and its hydrogen tanks had been emptied. TRT said flamable and explosive substances had been removed. The privately-run plant uses lignite to generate electricity, according to its website.

As the mayor announced the evacuation on Twitter, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was speaking live on the pro-government A Haber channel and said the power plant was at risk of burning. Three ministers were there to oversee developments. He said planes and helicopters had been there all day to fight the fires.

But the mayor said air support came infrequently and only focused on the closer flames around the plant rather than addressing the wider fires in the area that were being fanned by shifting winds. At night, air support was not possible at all and videos showed flames in the plant’s vicinity.

The wildfires have turned into yet another partisan issue in Turkey. Erdogan accused opposition party members of a “terror of lies” for criticizing Turkey’s lack of adequate aerial firefighting capabilities and inadequate preparedness for large-scale wildfires. The president said the municipalities were also responsible for protecting towns from fires and that responsibility did not fall on the central government alone.

Firefighters have been trying to protect the power plant for the past two days. Along with police water cannons, they fought back the flames Tuesday night while other rescuers dug ditches around the Kemerkoy plant. Videos from an adjacent neighborhood in Milas showed charred, decimated trees.

Scorching heat, low humidity and strong winds have fed the fires, which so far have killed eight people and countless animals and destroyed forests in the past eight days. Villagers have had to evacuate their homes and livestock, while tourists have fled in boats and cars. In the seaside province of Mugla, where tourist hot spot Bodrum is located, seven fires continued Wednesday. In Antalya, at least two fires raged on and two neighborhoods had to be evacuated.

Officials say 167 fires had been brought under control and 16 continued in five provinces. Thousands of firefighters and civilians were working to douse the flames.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said another firefighting plane and its staff would come from Azerbaijan on Thursday morning and 40 firetrucks would drive to Turkey to help with the fires. He announced four rented firefighting planes had landed and two from Israel would come Thursday.

Environmental groups and opposition lawmakers in Turkey have also been voicing fears that fire-damaged forests could lose their protected status.

Turkish officials, including Erdogan, have firmly rejected the speculation that the forests were in danger of construction and said the burned forests were protected by the constitution and would be reforested. While the exact acreage burned in the past week remains unclear, officials have promised the affected areas would not be transformed for other purposes.

Environmentalists were already protesting mining licenses issued for parts of some forests and trying to stop companies from cutting down trees. They have staged sit-ins across Turkey.

A 2020 report by the Turkish Foundation for Combating Soil Erosion showed that 58% of Turkey’s forests have been licensed to mines. About 59% of Mugla, where the fires have been raging, has been designated for mines, it said.

“I won’t be able to see the forests that will be replanted. Maybe my kids won’t even see them,” said Resit Yavuz, a resident in Marmaris, in Mugla province. “There are no trees left. There’s nowhere left for fires to erupt.”

A heat wave across southern Europe, fed by hot air from North Africa, has led to wildfires across the Mediterranean, including in Italy and Greece. Temperatures in Marmaris reached an all-time high of 45.5 C (114 F) on Tuesday.

The heatwave is forecast to continue in Turkey and Greece until the end of the week.

———

Bilginsoy reported from Istanbul.

Lawyer for Huawei CFO argue US was ‘selective’ in disclosure

Lawyer for Huawei CFO argue US was ‘selective’ in disclosure

Lawyers for a senior executive for Chinese communications giant Huawei Technologies have argued in court that the United States “strategically crafted” a misleading record of the case and acted “in bad faith” when presenting reasons for her extradition

By JIM MORRIS Associated PressAugust 4, 2021, 8:30 PM• 2 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleThe Associated PressMeng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Huawei, leaves British Columbia Supreme Court during a break from her extradition hearing, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Lawyers for a senior executive for Chinese communications giant Huawei Technologies argued in court Wednesday that the United States “strategically crafted” a misleading record of the case and acted “in bad faith” when presenting reasons for her extradition.

Meng Wanzhou, who is Huawei’s chief financial officer and the daughter of the company’s founder, was arrested at Vancouver’s airport in late 2018 at the request of the U.S., which has charged her with fraud. Her arrest infuriated Beijing, which sees her case as a political move designed to prevent China’s rise.

The U.S. accuses Huawei of using a Hong Kong shell company called Skycom to sell equipment to Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions. It says Meng committed fraud by misleading the HSBC bank about the company’s business dealings in Iran.

Defense lawyer Mona Duckett said the U.S. omitted facts, obscured the law and “inaccurately summarized documents to support a false narrative.”

The only remedy for the court is to deny the extradition request, Duckett said.

Meng, who attended the hearing wearing a blue dress and an electronic monitoring device on her ankle, followed the proceedings through a translator.

Over the next three weeks Association Chief Justice Heather Holmes will hear final arguments on whether Meng should be extradited to face trial in the United States.

Holmes likely won’t make her ruling until later in the year. Whatever her decision, it will likely be appealed.

In past hearings Meng’s lawyers have argued her extraction should be halted because Canadian Border Security Agency officers detained and questioned her without a lawyer, asked questions that benefited U.S. authorities, seized her electronic devices and put them in special bags to prevent wiping, and compelled her to give up the passcodes before her official arrest.

Soon after Meng’s arrest, China arrested Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig in apparent retaliation and charged them with spying. Both have remained in custody with limited access to visits by Canadian consular officials.

Meng remains free on bail in Vancouver and is living in a mansion.

Muslim mob badly damages Hindu temple in central Pakistan

Muslim mob badly damages Hindu temple in central Pakistan

Pakistani police say a Muslim mob stormed a Hindu temple in a remote town in eastern Punjab province, damaging statues and burning down the temple’s main door

By ASIM TANVEER Associated PressAugust 4, 2021, 8:16 PM• 2 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this article

MULTAN, Pakistan — A Muslim mob stormed a Hindu temple in a remote town in Pakistan’s eastern Punjab province on Wednesday, damaging statues and burning down the temple’s main door, police said.

The attack followed an alleged desecration of a madrassa, or religious school, by a Hindu boy earlier this week, the police added.

In general, Muslims and Hindus live peacefully in the predominantly Muslim Pakistan, but there have been attacks on Hindu temples in recent years. Most of Pakistan’s minority Hindus migrated to India in 1947 when India was divided by Britain’s government.

In Wednesday’s assault, the mob briefly blocked a key road nearby after attacking the temple in the city of Bhong in Rahim Yar Khan district, police official Asif Raza said. He said the vandals were incited by a court ruling that granted bail to the 8-year-old Hindu boy in the alleged madrassa desecration.

The boy was earlier arrested on charges of intentionally urinating on a carpet in the madrassa’s library that housed religious books.

The mob alleges the boy committed blasphemy, an act punishable by the death sentence in Pakistan. Mere accusations of blasphemy have incited mobs to violence and deadly attacks in the past.

Raza said Pakistani troops were called in to restrain the attackers and bring the mob under control but the temple had already been damaged by the time the soldiers showed up.

Mexico sues US gun manufacturers over arms trafficking toll

Mexico sues US gun manufacturers over arms trafficking toll

The Mexican government is suing U.S. gun manufacturers and distributors, arguing that their commercial practices have unleashed tremendous bloodshed in Mexico

By E. EDUARDO CASTILLO Associated PressAugust 4, 2021, 8:12 PM• 4 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this article3:22

Catch up on the developing stories making headlines.The Associated Press

The unusual lawsuit was filed in U.S. federal court in Boston. Among those being sued are some of the biggest names in guns, including: Smith & Wesson Brands, Inc.; Barrett Firearms Manufacturing, Inc.; Beretta U.S.A. Corp.; Colt’s Manufacturing Company LLC, and Glock Inc. Another defendant is Interstate Arms, a Boston-area wholesaler that sells guns from all but one of the named manufacturers to dealers around the U.S.

The manufacturers did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The Mexican government argues that the companies know that their practices contribute to the trafficking of guns to Mexico and facilitate it. Mexico wants compensation for the havoc the guns have wrought in its country.

The Mexican government “brings this action to put an end to the massive damage that the Defendants cause by actively facilitating the unlawful trafficking of their guns to drug cartels and other criminals in Mexico,” the lawsuit said.

The government estimates that 70% of the weapons trafficked to Mexico come from the U.S., according to the Foreign Affairs Ministry. And that in 2019 alone, at least 17,000 homicides were linked to trafficked weapons.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the U.S. firearm industry’s trade association, said in a statement that it rejected Mexico’s allegations of negligence.

“These allegations are baseless. The Mexican government is responsible for the rampant crime and corruption within their own borders,” said Lawrence G. Keane, the group’s senior vice president and general counsel. The Mexican government is responsible for enforcing its laws, he said.

The group also took issue with Mexico’s figures for the number of guns recovered at crime scenes and traced back to the U.S. It said that traces were attempted on only a fraction of the recovered guns and only on the ones carrying a serial number, making them more likely to have originated in the U.S.

Alejandro Celorio, legal advisor for the ministry, told reporters Wednesday that the damage caused by the trafficked guns would be equal to 1.7% to 2% of Mexico’s gross domestic product. The government will seek at least $10 billion in compensation, he said. Mexico’s GDP last year was more than $1.2 trillion.

“We don’t do it to pressure the United States,” Celorio said. “We do it so there aren’t deaths in Mexico.”

Ebrard said the lawsuit was another piece of the government’s efforts against guns. “The priority is that we reduce homicides,” he said. “We aren’t looking to change American laws.”

Mexico did not seek the advice of the U.S. government on the matter, but advised the U.S. Embassy before filing the lawsuit.

Steve Shadowen, the lead attorney representing Mexico, said that in the early 2000s about 30 U.S. cities brought similar litigation against gun manufacturers arguing that they should be responsible for increased police, hospitalization and other costs associated with gun violence.

As some cities started winning, gun manufacturers went to Congress and got an immunity statute for the manufacturers. Shadowen said he believes that immunity doesn’t apply when the injury occurs outside the United States.

“The merits of the case are strongly in our favor and then we have to get around this immunity statute which we think we’re going to win,” he said. “That statute just simply doesn’t apply. It only applies when you’re in the United States.”

He said he believes it is the first time a foreign government has sued the gun manufacturers.

The sale of firearms is severely restricted in Mexico and controlled by the Defense Department. But thousands of guns are smuggled into Mexico by the country’s powerful drug cartels.

There were more than 36,000 murders in Mexico last year, and the toll has remained stubbornly high despite President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s pledge to pacify the country. Mexico’s nationwide murder rate in 2020 remained unchanged at 29 per 100,000 inhabitants. By comparison, the U.S. homicide rate in 2019 was 5.8 per 100,000.

In August 2019, a gunmen killed 23 people in an El Paso Walmart, including some Mexican citizens. At that time, Foreign Affairs Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said the government would explore its legal options. The government said Wednesday that recent rulings in U.S. courts contributed to its decision to file the lawsuit.

It cited a decision in California allowing a lawsuit against Smith & Wesson to move forward, a lawsuit filed last week against Century Arms related to a 2019 shooting in Gilroy, California, and the $33 million settlement reached by Remington with some of the families whose children were killed in the Newtown, Connecticut, mass school shooting.

Greek fires force beach rescue, approach Olympics birthplace

Greek fires force beach rescue, approach Olympics birthplace

Coast guard vessels have helped with evacuations on the Greek island of Evia, where residents fleeing wildfires had fled to a beach for safety

By THANASSIS STAVRAKIS and NICHOLAS PAPHITIS Associated PressAugust 4, 2021, 7:56 PM• 5 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleThe Associated PressAn helicopter drops water over a fire in Varibobi area, northern Athens, Greece, Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021. Firefighting planes were resuming operation at first light Wednesday to tackle a major forest fire on the northern outskirts of Athens which raced into residential areas the previous day, forcing thousands to flee their homes amid Greece’s worst heatwave in decades. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

VARIBOBI, Greece — Greece evacuated people in boats from an island beach Wednesday amid heavy smoke from a nearby wildfire and fire crews fought to keep flames away from the birthplace of the ancient Olympic Games as the country sweltered under a record heat wave.

Civil Protection chief Nikos Hardalias said 118 wildfires broke out over the past 24 hours, and warned that even worse days could lie ahead for the hard-pressed fire service.

“We are making a titanic effort on many fronts,” he told an evening briefing. “According to our threat forecasts, tomorrow too is expected to be a difficult day … The toughest part lies ahead of us, the next days and weeks will be even harder. Our key target is to protect human lives.”

Evacuations were taking place in Greece’s southern Peloponnese region due to a major fire near ancient Olympia — where the Olympics were held every four years from 776 B.C. for more than a millennium. The adjacent town of Ancient Olympia was evacuated, with another seven nearby villages. The area was ravaged by wildfires in 2007 that cost dozens of lives but spared Olympia’s ruined sports venues and temples.

The mayor of the nearby town of Pirgos said a strong firefighting cordon had been placed around the verdant site.

“I think the site’s security is at a satisfactory level,” Panagiotis Andonakopoulos said.

The coast guard evacuated about 90 people stranded on a beach near the northern village of Rovies on the island of Evia. Private boats helped in the operation. Media reports said three firefighters suffered burns. Several homes were burnt as well as swaths of forest.

Temperatures in Greece reached 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit) Wednesday, in what authorities described as the worst heat wave since 1987. Neighboring countries face similar conditions, fueling deadly wildfires in Turkey and blazes in Italy and across the Mediterranean region. Officials in Albania said one person died of smoke inhalation near the southern city of Gjirokaster,.

An EU disaster response group said firefighters and water-dropping planes were being sent from EU members to Italy, Greece, Albania and North Macedonia.

“Following the situation with great concern. European solidarity is at work to fight these terrible fires,” EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted.

The EU Atmosphere Monitoring Service said smoke plumes from the region’s wildfires were clearly visible in satellite images, which also showed that the intensity of the wildfires in Turkey was at the highest level since records started in 2003.

Greek scientists said the total destruction in just three days this month in Greece exceeded 50% of the average area burnt in the country in previous years. An Athens Observatory report said an estimated 6,000 hectares (14,800 acres) went up in smoke in the wildfires between Sunday-Wednesday — compared to 10,400 hectares in the whole of last year.

The causes of the Greek wildfires were unclear, but authorities say human error and carelessness are most frequently to blame.

Outside Athens, low-flying helicopters and planes dumped water on charred forests around Tatoi, 20 kilometers (12 1/2 miles) north of Athens, where more than 500 firefighters had battled through the night to contain the blaze that started Tuesday. At least 80 cars were burned.

“The ground crews did vital work, (fighting) nightmarish fires in suburban forests,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said, visiting a mobile control center. “We had no loss of human life. … Homes will be rebuilt and over time the forest will grow back.”

Firefighters pumped water from a swimming pool to douse the flames, and water-dropping buckets were attached to military helicopters. Authorities said more than 100 homes and businesses had been seriously damaged or destroyed, and more than 500 people were put up for the night in hotels.

The fire sent clouds of smoke over the Greek capital. It also raged close to a large forested estate and palace that once belonged to Greece’s royal family and is now a public park but Greece’s Culture Ministry said Wednesday the Tatoi estate was not harmed.

It said artifacts “of particular historic and artistic value” were removed from storage areas in the estate as a precaution. Under a major restoration program, thousands of artifacts from the former palace — including ceremonial carriages, luxury cars, antiquities, paintings and clothes — have been stored for years on the estate pending conservation.

Sporadic power outages occurred after the flames toppled electricity transmission towers, adding more strains to Greece’s overloaded national power grid at the height of the key summer tourist season.

The heat wave is forecast to hover over Greece and Turkey until the end of the week.

——— Derek Gatopoulos in Athens and Elena Becatoros in Argostoli, Greece. contributed.

———

Follow all AP stories on climate change issues at https://apnews.com/hub/climate.

Puerto Rico dock workers to end strike as goods accumulate

Puerto Rico dock workers to end strike as goods accumulate

Dock workers who launched a strike that prevented thousands of shipping containers with items including food and medicine from reaching Puerto Rico in recent weeks have reached a tentative agreement with their employer

By DÁNICA COTO Associated PressAugust 4, 2021, 7:39 PM• 2 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this article

Many in the U.S. territory were relieved at the announcement, given the island’s huge dependence on imports. However, concerns remain since the deal between Puerto Rico’s Union of Dock Workers and stowage company Luis Ayala Colón Sucres, Inc. is in place for only 45 days.

The strike had prevented some 4,500 shipping containers and 13 boats from reaching Puerto Rico and another 5,000 containers from leaving the island. It also prompted the U.S. territory’s government to file a lawsuit on Monday against union workers and the company known as LAC, which handles 80% of all international cargo entering the Port of San Juan.

“The situation has reached a breaking point,” Puerto Rico’s Ports Authority said in the lawsuit.

It is seeking a permanent injunction ordering that those sued meet their responsibilities, noting that it has been unable to collect more than $400,000 in fees and tariffs.

Noelia García, the government’s chief of staff, said the lawsuit will be withdrawn only when the deal between dock workers and the stowage company is final. She also hinted that government officials might look into contracting other companies to avoid a repeat.

“Diversity is healthy,” she said. “We’re going to take proactive measures to ensure this won’t happen again.”

García declined to provide more details.

Hernán Ayala, vice president of the stowage company, said there are no plans to prioritize items.

“We’ll empty the ships as they arrive,” he said. “This will be done as quickly as possible.”

The workers were striking in part because they said the company had given workshop tasks to managers.

While the strike did not cause severe shortages of life-saving items, the Association of Hospitals of Puerto Rico issued a statement Tuesday warning that supplies of certain medical equipment would run out in two to six weeks as the island faces a spike in COVID-19 cases it blames on the delta variant.

Pope resumes public audiences month after major surgery

Pope resumes public audiences a month after major surgery

Pope Francis has resumed his routine of holding weekly audiences with the general public a month after he underwent bowel surgery

By FRANCES D'EMILIO Associated PressAugust 4, 2021, 7:29 PM• 3 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this article1:37

The pope greeted people from his hospital balcony at the exact time he usually gives his weekly Angelus. The Associated Press

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis resumed his routine of holding weekly audiences with the general public a month after he underwent bowel surgery, and during the much-awaited appearance Wednesday he recalled the anniversary of the devastating Beirut port explosion and expressed the desire to visit Lebanon.

After removing his face mask to protect against COVID-19, Francis walked unaided to the center of the stage of a Vatican auditorium. He smiled as he gestured toward the visitors, before taking his seat in an upholstered chair and addressing several hundred pilgrims and tourists, who wore masks as part of the Vatican’s anti-pandemic measures for crowd situations.

Near the end of an almost hour-long audience, Francis spoke of the Beirut explosion, recalling the “victims, their families, the injured, and all those who lost homes and work” in the blast.

Lebanon’s people, he said, were still “tired and disappointed” in the aftermath, a reference to the economic and political crises convulsing the Middle Eastern nation on the Mediterranean Sea. Francis appealed to the international community to offer “concrete gestures” of help to the Lebanese people and not “just words.”

“My desire to visit you is great,” Francis said, adding he “never tires of praying” for them.

Francis, 84, was hospitalized on July 4 in Rome for an operation in which a section of his colon was removed. The Vatican said the surgery was necessitated by diverticular stenosis, or a narrowing of the bowel.

On Wednesday, audience members clapped vigorously after he finished his introductory remarks and after he greeted each language group. After the pope gave participants his closing blessing, he went down the stage’s steps with the help of two aides to greet some members of the public, pausing for a selfie with an audience member.

“I hope that the coming summer holidays will be a time of refreshment and spiritual renewal for you and your families,” Francis said during his scripted remarks.

Unlike previous pontiffs, who spent summers at the Vatican’s holiday retreat in the cooler hills near Rome, or, in the case of John Paul II, who liked to vacation in the Italian Alps, Francis stays at the Vatican each summer.

But during his papacy, the Wednesday audiences have been suspended in July to give Francis some extra rest time during Rome’s hot summers. His hospitalization therefore didn’t interfere with his regular general audience schedule.

While recovering at the hospital, Francis stepped onto a 10-floor balcony to greet well-wishers. He still looks somewhat wan, but Francis has been in good spirits and adlibbed at times during his traditional Sunday window appearances to the crowd in St. Peter’s Square.

His wish for a peaceful future for Lebanon echoed sentiments he voiced three days before his surgery. On July 1, at a prayer service in St. Peter’s Basilica, Francis insisted that Lebanon must remain a “land of tolerance and pluralism” as he welcomed the country’s Christian patriarchs to the Vatican to pray for an end to that country’s crises.

Nicaragua arrests ex-beauty queen candidate

Nicaragua arrests ex-beauty queen candidate

Nicaraguan police have arrested a former beauty queen two days after she registered as an antigovernment candidate in the Nov. 7 elections

ByThe Associated PressAugust 4, 2021, 6:38 PM• 2 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this article

The coalition said vice presidential candidate Berenice Quezada had been placed under house arrest, and claimed she was being held incommunicado. Nicaragua’s national police had yet to confirm the detention or the charges.

She was the eighth contender in the election to be arrested since May. The other seven candidates and about two dozen opposition leaders have been arrested on vague treason charges. Most of those arrested in the crackdown are being held incommunicado, at undisclosed locations and with no access to lawyers.

Quezada was crowned Miss Nicaragua in 2017, and had called on citizens to vote against “the dictatorship” of President Daniel Ortega, who is seeking a fourth consecutive term.

On Monday, Citizens for Liberty coalition registered Oscar Sobalvarro, a rancher and former commander in the U.S.-backed ‘Contra’ rebellion against Ortega’s government during the 1980s.

That came despite calls from some opposition parties to boycott the race after Ortega arrested most of his potential opponents.

“The country has experienced too much harassment and repression, and Nicaraguans deserve to live in peace,” Sobalvarro said.

As expected, the Sandinista party nominated Ortega for reelection as president and his wife, Rosarillo Murillo, for vice president.

With so many opposition contenders jailed, critics doubt the presence of long-shot candidates like Sobalvarro would do anything more than lend a thin veil of legitimacy to already discredited elections in which Ortega, 75, is seeking re-election.

Electoral authorities allied with Ortega previously barred two opposition parties from even running candidates.

Ortega alleges the country’s April 2018 street protests were part of an organized coup attempt with foreign backing.

Mired in crises, Lebanon marks 1 year since horrific blast

Grieving and angry, Lebanese mark year since horrific blast

Lebanon has marked one year since the horrific explosion at Beirut’s port that further plunged the small Mideast country into a downward spiral and traumatized a nation already reeling from an unprecedented political and economic crisis

By ZEINA KARAM and SARAH EL DEEB Associated PressAugust 4, 2021, 6:34 PM• 7 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this article2:12

MOMENT OF TERROR: The bride who was memorably caught up in the tragic explosion that rocked Beirut almost a year ago reflects on the impact of the experience.The Associated Press

BEIRUT — United in grief and anger, families of the victims and several thousand Lebanese on Wednesday marked one year since the horrific explosion at Beirut’s port with a moment of silence and prayers at the foot of the silos that was shredded by the blast on that fateful day.

A few blocks away, groups of protesters hurled stones and Molotov cocktails and clashed with security forces near Parliament, which they accuse of blocking the investigation into the port blast by refusing to lift immunity of senior politicians implicated in negligence that led to the explosion. Police responded with water cannons and volleys of tear gas.

The grim anniversary came amid an unprecedented economic and financial meltdown, and a political stalemate that has kept the country without a functioning government for a full year.

“We have to call for justice and we have to stand together, all of us together as one people, next to the families, to really ask for truth and justice,” said Nada Hjeily whose close friend died in the blast.

The explosion killed at least 214 people, according to official records, injured and maimed thousands and devastated entire neighborhoods of the Lebanese capital.

It was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history — the result of hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate igniting after a fire broke out. The explosion tore through the city with such force, it caused a tremor across the entire country that was heard and felt as far away as the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, more than 200 kilometers (180 miles) away.

It soon emerged in documents that the highly combustible nitrates had been haphazardly stored at a port warehouse alongside other flammable material since 2014, and that multiple high-level officials over the years knew of its presence and did nothing.

A year later, there has been no accountability, and the investigation has yet to answer questions such as who ordered the shipment of the chemicals and why officials ignored repeated internal warnings of their danger.

Several thousand people gathered at various locations in Beirut on Wednesday, chanting slogans against the country’s political class widely blamed for the port disaster and years of corruption and mismanagement that plunged Lebanon into bankruptcy. They all marched toward the port.

“This is too big of a crime for it to be swept under the carpet,” said Sara Jaafar, an architect whose house opposite the port was totally destroyed, as she marched toward the rally there.

“It’s important for foreign countries to know we are against this murderous ruling class,” Jaafar added. A year on, she has not been able to go back to her home, which like so many remains in ruins.

Protesters converged on the highway that snakes around the port, covering the streets with a sea of Lebanese flag and walking up and down the bridges over the motorway. Families of the victims walked down the road parallel to the explosion site, carrying posters with photographs of their loved ones. The crowds lined up on both sides broke out in applause, in a show of support and respect.

They then held a memorial and prayers inside the port, which still holds the ruins of the giant silos. Names of each of the killed were read out. A huge metal gavel with the words “Act for Justice” was placed on a wall opposite the port.

“We are all victims of this system,” said Paul Naggear, father of 3-year-old Alexandra, who perished in the blast. He spoke on a podium outside the port, his wife Tracy standing next to him.

Flags flew at half-staff over government institutions and embassies, and even medical labs and COVID-19 vaccination centers were closed to mark the day, which had been declared a national day of mourning. Reflecting the raw anger at the country’s ruling class, posters assailing authorities were hung on the facades of defaced buildings across from the port.

“Here starts your end and our beginning,” read one poster that took up the space of five floors of a high-rise. “Hostages of a murderous state,” read another.

“This is a day of pain and grief. It is the day we lost our loved ones and relatives and children. We hope all those coming down (to the streets) in solidarity with us to respect our pain,” said Ibrahim Hoteit, who lost his brother in the blast and is now a spokesman for the families fighting for accountability.

The blast, coupled with the devastating economic crisis, political stalemate and rising poverty, have posed the gravest threat to the small country’s stability since its 1975-90 civil war.

In a statement Wednesday afternoon, the Lebanese army said it arrested a number of people who were on their way to take part in anniversary commemorations, saying they had a large number of weapons and ammunition in their possession.

In Beirut’s eastern neighborhood of Gemayzeh, a fist fight broke out between supporters of the Lebanese Communist Party and others who support the right-wing Christian Lebanese Forces. Several people were lightly injured in the stone-throwing, before security forces opened fire, shooting into the air and dispersed the two sides.

Later, protesters marched toward the parliament building and began throwing stones from behind a giant metal barrier, setting off clashes wih security forces, which fired volleys of tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowd.

In an extensive investigative report, Human Rights Watch on Tuesday called for an international probe into the port blast, accusing Lebanese authorities of trying to thwart the investigation. HRW said a lack of judicial independence, constitution-imposed immunity for high-level officials and a range of procedural and systemic flaws in the domestic investigation rendered it “incapable of credibly delivering justice.”

The explosion — which destroyed and damaged thousands of homes and businesses — and the lack of accountability have added to the deep political and sectarian divisions, tensions and anguish in a country reeling from multiple crises, including an economic unraveling so severe it has been described by the World Bank as one of the worst in the last 150 years.

The crisis has led to a dramatic currency crash and hyperinflation, plunging more than half of the country’s population below the poverty line. The international community has refused to help Lebanon financially before wide reforms are implemented to fight widespread corruption and mismanagement.

Meanwhile, an international conference co-hosted by France and the United Nations on Wednesday raised $370 million in aid for Lebanon’s growing humanitarian needs, including $118.6 million pledged by France, the former colonial power in Lebanon. The money is intended for the people of Lebanon, bypassing the government.

At the Vatican, Pope Francis recalled the suffering of the Lebanese people, as he held his first weekly audience with the public since surgery a month ago.

“A year after the terrible explosion in the port of Beirut, Lebanon’s capital, that caused death and destruction, my thoughts go to that dear country, above all to the victims, to their families,’’ the pontiff said.

“And so many lost the illusion of living,’’ he added.

———

Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Frances D’Emilio in Rome and Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed reporting.

Red Cross questions Lithuania on trying to block migrants

Red Cross questions Lithuania on trying to block migrants

The Red Cross is warning that Lithuania’s decision to turn away immigrants attempting to cross in from neighboring Belarus does not comply with international law

By LIUDAS DAPKUS Associated PressAugust 4, 2021, 6:17 PM• 3 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleThe Associated PressFILE – In this Friday, July 9, 2021 file photo, members of the Lithuania State Border Guard Service patrol on the border with Belarus, near the village of Purvenai, Lithuania. Lithuania has ordered its border guards to turn away, by force if needed, migrants attempting to enter the Baltic country as the rapidly growing number of immigrants illegally crossing from neighboring Belarus has emerged a major foreign policy issue to the small European Union nation. (AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis, File)

VILNIUS, Lithuania — The Red Cross warned Wednesday that Lithuania’s decision to turn away immigrants attempting to cross in from neighboring Belarus does not comply with international law.

“Pushbacks of people seeking asylum are not compatible with the Geneva Convention on Refugee Status, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and other human rights instruments” Egle Samuchovaite, program director for Lithuania’s Red Cross, told The Associated Press.

“In the absence of a physical border barrier with Belarus, the question arises as to how to ensure that there is no disproportionate use of force against asylum seekers, which by any means could not be justified,” she said, adding that the Red Cross understands the state’s challenges in protecting its border.

Lithuania, a nation of less than 3 million people, has no physical barriers for its 679-kilometer (420-mile) long border with Belarus. Some 4,090 migrants, most of them from Iraq, have crossed this year from Belarus into Lithuania.

Another 35 people crossed into Lithuania illegally on Wednesday, according to the State Border Guard Service, but this was significantly lower than the triple-digit numbers of previous days.

Belarus claimed Wednesday that a “non-Slavic” person died from injuries at a border town but Lithuania dismissed the report as propaganda from a hostile regime.

“This is nonsense, a Brothers Grimm fairy tale,” Lithuania Interior Minister Agne Bilotaite told reporters.

Defense Minister Arvydas Anusauskas called the report “an obvious provocation. Lithuania is under hybrid attack and spreading such information is a classic example of this process.”

Later Wednesday, the Belarusian State Border Committee claimed that five Iraqi migrants who were forcibly expelled to Belarus from Lithuania had injuries, including dog bites, and had been hospitalized.

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Follow all AP stories on developments in Belarus at https;//apnews.com/hub/Belarus.

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Follow all AP stories on global migration at https://apnews.com/hub/migration.

Israel talks Iran with envoys from Security Council states

Israel talks Iran with envoys from Security Council states

Israel is urging ambassadors of U.N. Security Council member states to take action against Iran following last week’s drone strike off the coast of Oman on a merchant vessel linked to an Israeli billionaire

ByThe Associated PressAugust 4, 2021, 5:55 PM• 2 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleThe Associated PressThis Jan. 2, 2016 photo shows the Liberian-flagged oil tanker Mercer Street off Cape Town, South Africa. The oil tanker linked to an Israeli billionaire reportedly came under attack off the coast of Oman in the Arabian Sea, authorities said Friday, July 30, 2021, as details about the incident remained few. (Johan Victor via AP)

JERUSALEM — Israel summoned Wednesday ambassadors of U.N. Security Council member states and urged for action against Iran following last week’s drone strike off the coast of Oman on a merchant vessel linked to an Israeli billionaire.

A joint statement by the defense and foreign affairs ministry said that Israel called on the diplomats to have their governments “set clear boundaries for Iran … to cease its aggressive conduct.” At the same time, it restated that “Israel will maintain the right to act independently in the face of any attack or threat to its citizens and sovereignty.”

The United States, Britain and Israel have all blamed Iran for the drone strike on the Mercer Street last week that killed two, a British national and a Romanian. Iran has denied involvement in the incident.

While no one has claimed responsibility for the attack, Iran and its militia allies have used similar so-called “suicide” drones in attacks around the region. The Persian Gulf has seen a rise in attacks on commercial vessels in the aftermath of the disintegration of the Iran nuclear deal in 2018.

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz told diplomats that Iran “violated all of the guidelines” set in the now defunct nuclear deal, saying it was “time for diplomatic, economic and even military deeds — otherwise the attacks will continue.”

Israel has called for international pressure to halt what it has described as growing regional aggression by Iran, while also threatening to act alone to prevent its arch-enemy from obtaining nuclear weapons.

“This is an attack on the world’s trade routes, this is an attack on freedom of movement. This is an international crime,” said Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid.

International conference on Lebanon raises $370 million

International conference on Lebanon raises $370 million

The French presidency says an international conference on Lebanon has raised some $370 million in aid to meet the Mideast country’s humanitarian needs, one year after the massive explosion at Beirut’s port

By SYLVIE CORBET The Associated PressAugust 4, 2021, 5:05 PM• 4 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleThe Associated PressPeople pass next of a justice symbol monument that sits in front of towering grain silos gutted in the massive August 2020 explosion at the Beirut port that claimed the lives of more than 200 people, in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021. A year after the deadly blast, families of the victims are consumed with winning justice for their loved ones and punishing Lebanon’s political elite, blamed for causing the disaster through their corruption and neglect. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

SAULIEU, France — An international conference on Lebanon on Wednesday raised some $370 million in aid to meet the country’s humanitarian needs, one year after the massive explosion at Beirut’s port, the French presidency said.

France will provide 100 millions euros ($118.6 million) in the coming months, Macron said. Paris will also send 500,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines for the country.

President Joe Biden, who addressed the conference in a video message, pledged to give $100 million in new humanitarian assistance.

The conference drew 33 states, some represented by heads of state or government, diplomats and 13 international organizations, plus five representatives of Lebanese civil society, according to a final statement from Macron’s office. Participants included Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, King Abdullah II of Jordan and European Council President Charles Michel.

Wednesday’s event was also meant to mount pressure on Lebanese leaders to form a new government able to implement reforms and start rebuilding the country.

Lebanon is going through the worst economic and financial crisis of its modern history, and a political stalemate has kept the country without a functioning government for a full year.

Biden said that “no amount of outside assistance will ever be enough, if Lebanon’s own leaders do not commit to do the hard but necessary work of reforming the economy and combating corruption. That’s essential, and has to start now.”

Lebanese politicians have only made the situation ”worse by placing their individual and political interests above the Lebanese people’s interests,” Macron criticized. “Lebanon definitely deserves better.”

Macron said that humanitarian aid promised Wednesday will be unconditional.

However, he warned that “there will be no blank check to the Lebanese political system because it is defaulting. … Lebanese leaders seem to opt for the deterioration (of the situation). I regret it. I think it’s an historical and moral error.”

Michel, the European Council President, stressed that the EU adopted a few days ago a “sanctions framework … to target those in Lebanon who obstruct efforts to end the political crisis. We obviously hope that we will not be obliged to activate it.”

Macron, who went to Beirut twice since the explosion at the port, has led international efforts to try to help the former French protectorate by providing emergency aid. Last year’s conference on Lebanon, organized in the wake of the explosion, raised about 280 million euros ($332 million).

In a statement laying out the conference’s conclusions, participants said that Lebanon’s “development model needs to be overhauled to ensure the country gets back into a sustainable and people-centered development process.”

“Humanitarian assistance cannot be a long-term solution,” the conference concluded, noting that “structural economic and financial assistance will require profound changes expected from Lebanon’s leaders.”

According to the U.N., over half of Lebanese people now live in poverty, one in three Lebanese suffer from food insecurity and nearly 4 million people are at risk of not accessing safe water.

Airstrikes pummel Taliban positions in southern Afghanistan

Airstrikes pummel Taliban positions in southern Afghanistan

The Afghan defense ministry says U.S. and Afghan airstrikes are hitting Taliban targets in an effort to dislodge the insurgents after they pushed into the Helmand provincial capital of Lashkar Gah

By TAMEEM AKHGAR Associated PressAugust 4, 2021, 3:32 PM• 4 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleThe Associated PressAfghan Special forces patrol a deserted street during fighting with Taliban fighters, in Lashkar Gah, Helmand province, southern Afghanistan, Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021. The Taliban pressed ahead with their advances in southern Afghanistan on Tuesday, capturing nine out of 10 districts of the Helmand provincial capital, residents and officials said. The fall of Lashkar Gah would be a major turning point in the offensive the Taliban have waged over the past months as U.S. and NATO forces complete their pullout from the war-torn country. (AP Photo/Abdul Khaliq)

The United Nations and Human Rights Watch asked both sides to take care to prevent civilian casualties as the fighting rages on. The Taliban have waged a fierce push over the past months as U.S. and NATO forces complete their pullout from the war-torn country. They have taken large swaths of land and have now turned their guns on larger urban centers.

Ghulam Wali Afghan, a lawmaker from Helmand, told The Associated Press that his relatives and constituents in Lashkar Gah have told him of bodies in the streets and residents hiding inside their homes, too afraid to venture out and collect the dead.

After a night of heavy airstrikes, the Defense Ministry said Wednesday that the Taliban have suffered heavy losses in Lashkar Gah, though there was no immediate way to confirm that statement. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid denied the losses.

The authorities did not say whether Afghan forces have retaken back territory. On Tuesday, residents and officials had said the Taliban control nine out of 10 districts in the city.

The fall of Lashkar Gah would be a major turning point in the Taliban offensive and it would also be the first provincial capital to be captured by the insurgents in several years. The fighting this week has kept residents of Lashkar Gah trapped and hunkered down inside their homes.

On Wednesday, the province’s hospital chief, Sher Ali Shakir, urged people to remain in their houses, saying that in past 24 hours at least seven civilians were killed and 101 were wounded. Most of the injuries were bullet wounds, he said.

The airstrikes late Tuesday and ongoing street battles in Lashkar Gah have destroyed several houses and markets. The Helmand provincial council chief, Attaullah Afghan, charged both sides with ignoring the safety of civilians.

Earlier Tuesday, a dramatic call for people to evacuate the neighborhoods captured by the Taliban came from the Afghan forces’ commander for Helmand, Gen. Sami Sadat, who in an audio message shared with journalists asked the residents for forgiveness for the hardship they are going through.

“We will not leave the Taliban alive, Sadat said. “I know it’s hard … we do it for your future. Forgive us if you get displaced for few days, please evacuate as soon as possible.”

Lashkar Gah is one of three provincial capitals under siege by the Taliban as they stepped up their onslaught against government forces. The push on the cities came after the Taliban swept through dozens of districts across the country, many in remote and rural, sparsely populated areas. Along with Lashkar Gah, the provincial capitals of Herat, in western Herat province, and Kandahar, in southern Kandahar province have also been under Taliban attack.

Save the Children’s country director for Afghanistan said the aid group was “devastated by reports that 18 civilians, including women and children, have been killed during airstrikes on the city of Kandahar.”

Christopher Nyamandi, citing local media reports, said “some 49,000 people have been displaced since the violence flared up yesterday, including an estimated 29,400 children.” He said that Save the Children was providing aid to the displaced families.

There was no confirmation from the government on the report of 18 civilians killed.

In Herat, Afghan forces pushed the Taliban out of the city but were badly needing new supplies, according to Omar Nasir Mujadidi. He said Wednesday that pro-government militias, led by U.S.-allied warlord Ismail Khan, were aiding the Afghan security forces but need additional weapons. He said the government promised another 2,000 weapons for Khan’s followers.

The fighting in Herat in the last week has has killed 34 people and wounded more than 150, said physician Mohammad Aref Jalali, the provincial hospital chief in Herat.

Belgium seizes tens of millions of counterfeit cigarettes

Belgium seizes tens of millions of counterfeit cigarettes

Belgium’s customs officers have arrested 40 people and seized tens of millions of counterfeit cigarettes in raids targeting illegal production sites across the country

ByThe Associated PressAugust 4, 2021, 3:31 PM• 1 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this article

BRUSSELS — Belgium’s customs officers arrested 40 people Wednesday and seized tens of millions of counterfeit cigarettes in raids targeting illegal production sites across the country.

Belgium’s finance ministry described the operation as the biggest in the history of the customs service.

The ministry could not provide an estimated value of the merchandise seized since a final inventory has yet to be done.

In addition to the cigarettes falsely branded as Marlboro, Richmond, Prince and Regina, customs officers also discovered tons of tobacco, cigarette filters, empty packs and glue. The operation targeted 10 different production sites.

According to Belgian authorities, illegal production of manufactured tobacco has been growing in the European Union in recent years.

Cigarettes seized in Belgium are mainly destined for the British and French markets, where excise duties are higher.

Malaysian PM refuses to resign, delays vote by a month

Malaysian PM refuses to resign, delays vote by a month

Embattled Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has refused to resign after some lawmakers in his alliance pulled support for him, but says he will seek a vote of confidence in Parliament next month to prove his legitimacy to govern

By EILEEN NG Associated PressAugust 4, 2021, 3:10 PM• 4 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleThe Associated PressIn this photo released by Malaysia’s Department of Information, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin wearing a face mask to help curb the spread of the coronavirus speaks at the parliamentary session at parliament house in Kuala Lumpur, Monday, July 26, 2021. Malaysia’s government said it will not extend a coronavirus emergency beyond August 1 as Parliament reopened Monday after a disputed seven-month suspension amid a worsening pandemic. (Famer Roheni/ Malaysia’s Department of Information via AP)

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Embattled Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin refused to resign Wednesday after some lawmakers in his alliance pulled support for him, but said he will seek a vote of confidence in Parliament next month to prove his legitimacy to govern.

Shortly after a meeting with King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah at the palace, Muhyiddin said in a national broadcast that he had been informed by the monarch that eight lawmakers from a key party in his ruling alliance had withdrawn their support.

The party, the United Malays National Organization, is the largest in the alliance with 38 lawmakers, but it is split with some not backing the prime minister. UMNO’s president declared Tuesday that Muhyiddin had lost the right to govern after the withdrawal of some party lawmakers’ support and after an UMNO Cabinet minister resigned.

Muhyiddin said he told the king he has sufficient declarations of support from lawmakers that “convinced me that I still have the majority support” in Parliament. As such, he said the issue of resignation doesn’t arise. He didn’t give any numbers.

At the same time, public anger with his government has mounted after a lockdown in June failed to contain the spread of the virus, with daily cases soaring above 10,000 since mid-July.

Because of persistent questions over his legitimacy, Muhyiddin said Wednesday that a motion of confidence in his leadership will be presented for a vote when Parliament resumes next month.

“In this way, my position as prime minister and the Alliance National as the ruling government can be determined in accordance with the law and the constitution,” he said.

UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi disputed Muhyiddin’s claim of majority support because the governing alliance previously only had a three-seat majority in Parliament.

He said more party lawmakers in addition to the first eight have now signed declarations withdrawing their support for Muhyiddin, and that those documents were presented to the king on Wednesday.

Ahmad Zahid, who is among several UMNO leaders facing graft charges, challenged Muhyiddin to immediately convene a special Parliament session to prove his legitimacy and not wait until September.

The opposition also demanded that the vote be held no later than Aug. 9. They said the issue must be resolved now given the worsening virus outbreak and sluggish economy.

“It doesn’t make sense for a government whose legitimacy and majority support have been disputed to delay the process … in Parliament,” they said in a statement.

Muhyiddin came under renewed pressure last week when the king rebuked his government for allegedly misleading Parliament over the status of the emergency laws.

Parliament reopened for a five-day special sitting last week a few days before the emergency expired after Muhyiddin caved in to royal pressure, but it was only to brief lawmakers on the pandemic and no motions were allowed.

After the king’s rebuke, Muhyiddin was accused of treason by some allies and the opposition, who filed a fresh vote of no-confidence against him. The government then suspended Parliament for two weeks, citing virus infections among staff members.

Muhyiddin denied committing treason against the king. He accused some political leaders of sparking political chaos after he refused to interfere in court process to bail out several politicians mired in criminal cases. He didn’t name anyone but UMNO’s president and several top leaders are fighting graft charges.

He pledged his government will focus on efforts to tackle the pandemic and ensure that the vaccination program isn’t disrupted.

Malaysia reported a record 19,819 new cases on Thursday, pushing its total cases to 1.18 million. Deaths have soared above 9,000. But vaccinations have also been ramped up with some 20% of the country’s population fully inoculated.

Daughter: German-Iranian woman sentenced to 10 years in Iran

Daughter: German-Iranian woman sentenced to 10 years in Iran

The daughter of a German-Iranian rights activist says her mother has been given a prison sentence of 10 years and eight months in Iran

ByThe Associated PressAugust 4, 2021, 3:04 PM• 2 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this article

BERLIN — The daughter of a German-Iranian rights activist said Wednesday that her mother has been given a prison sentence of 10 years and eight months in Iran.

Claren retweeted a tweet by lawyer Mostafa Nili saying that a Revolutionary Court sentenced Taghavi and a British-Iranian man, Mehran Raouf, for allegedly running an “illegal group” and spreading “propaganda against the system.”

Human rights group Amnesty International has described Taghavi, who is in her late 60s, as a “non-violent political prisoner” and said she was arrested in 2020.

State media in Iran did not immediately acknowledge the sentence, apparently issued after a closed-door hearing.

Germany’s Foreign Ministry said that from its perspective, in accordance with the rule of law, the prison sentence for Taghavi was not comprehensible. The ministry said the German embassy had lobbied on her behalf and would continue to do so and try to get access to her to make sure she gets medical care, but said it had only limited access to Taghavi.

“Mrs. Taghavi is a dual national and from the Iranian perspective dual nationals are Iranian citizens,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Adebahr said. “That is why it’s often not possible for us to provide consular assistance in such cases. But we tried to help Mrs. Taghavi as best as we could.”

Rights groups accuse Iran of holding dual-nationals as bargaining chips for money or influence in negotiations with the West, something Tehran denies.

A United Nations panel has criticized what it describes as “an emerging pattern involving the arbitrary deprivation of liberty of dual nationals” in Iran.

British navy group: Hijackers have left vessel off UAE coast

British navy group: Hijackers have left vessel off UAE coast

The British navy says hijackers who boarded a vessel off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in the Gulf of Oman have left the ship, without elaborating

By ISABEL DEBRE and JON GAMBRELL Associated PressAugust 4, 2021, 2:38 PM• 5 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this article3:22

Catch up on the developing stories making headlines.The Associated Press

FUJAIRAH, United Arab Emirates — The hijackers who captured a vessel off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in the Gulf of Oman departed the targeted ship on Wednesday, the British navy reported, as recorded radio traffic appeared to reveal a crew member onboard saying Iranian gunmen had stormed the asphalt tanker.

The incident — described by the British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations the night before as a “potential hijack” — revived fears of an escalation in Mideast waters and ended with as much mystery as it began.

Hints of what unfolded on the Panama-flagged asphalt tanker, called Asphalt Princess, began to emerge with the maritime radio recording, obtained by commodities pricing firm Argus Media and shared with The Associated Press. In the audio, a crew member can be heard telling the Emirati coast guard that five or six armed Iranians had boarded the tanker.

“Iranian people are onboard with ammunition,” the crew member says. “We are … now, drifting. We cannot tell you exact our ETA to (get to) Sohar,” the port in Oman listed on the vessel’s tracker as its destination. It was not clear whether the crew members, whom he identified as Indian and Indonesian, were in immediate danger.

No one took responsibility for the brief seizure, which underscored mounting tensions as Iran and the United States seek a resolution to their standoff over Tehran’s tattered 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

Apparently responding to the incident, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh on Tuesday denied that Iran played any role. He described the recent maritime attacks in the Persian Gulf as “completely suspicious.”

Over the past years, the rising tensions have played out in the waters of the Persian Gulf, where just last week a drone attack on an oil tanker linked to an Israeli billionaire off the coast of Oman killed two crew members. The West blamed Iran for the raid, which marked the first known fatal assault in the yearslong shadow war targeting vessels in Mideast waters. Iran denied involvement.

Late on Tuesday, the intruders boarded the Asphalt Princess sailing off the coast of Fujairah, authorities said. The official news agency of Oman’s military said it received reports that the Asphalt Princess had been hijacked and immediately dispatched Royal Air Force maritime patrol aircraft and naval vessels “to contribute to securing international waters.”

In the recorded radio traffic, when the Emirati coast guard asks the crew member what the Iranian gunmen were doing onboard, he says he “cannot understand the (Iranians),” his voice muffled, before trying to hand over the radio to someone else. The call then cuts off.

Possible signs of trouble began to emerge that evening when six oil tankers off the coast of Fujairah announced around the same time via their Automatic Identification System trackers that they were “not under command,” according to MarineTraffic.com. That typically means a vessel has lost power and can no longer steer.

Satellite-tracking data for the Asphalt Princess had showed it gradually heading toward Iranian waters off the port of Jask early Wednesday, according to MarineTraffic.com. Hours later, however, it stopped and changed course toward Oman, just before the British navy group declared the hijackers had departed and the vessel was now “safe.”

In an analysis, maritime intelligence firm Dryad Global described the seizure of the Asphalt Princess as the latest Iranian response to outside pressures, economic conflicts and other grievances.

“Iran has consistently shown that in conducting this kind of operation, it is calculated in doing so, both by targeting vessels directly connected with ongoing disputes and (vessels) operating within the ‘grey space’ of legitimacy,” which may be involved in illicit trade, Dryad Global said.

The owner of the Asphalt Princess, listed as Emirati free zone-based Glory International, could not immediately be reached for comment.

The U.S. military’s Mideast-based 5th Fleet and the British Defense Ministry also did not respond to requests for comment. The Emirati government did not immediately acknowledge the incident.

The Gulf of Oman sits near the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which a fifth of all traded oil passes. Fujairah, on the UAE’s eastern coast, is a main port in the region for ships to take on new oil cargo, pick up supplies or trade out crew.

For the past two years, after then-President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from Iran’s nuclear deal and imposed crushing sanctions, the waters off Fujairah have witnessed a series of explosions and hijackings. The U.S. Navy has blamed Iran for a series of limpet mine attacks on vessels that damaged tankers.

In the summer of 2019, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard troops detained a British-flagged tanker, the Stena Impero, near the Strait of Hormuz. Last year, an oil tanker sought by the U.S. for allegedly circumventing sanctions on Iran was hijacked off the Emirati coast and later ended up in Iran, though Tehran never acknowledged the incident.

And in January, armed Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops stormed a South Korean tanker and forced the ship to change course and travel to Iran. While Iran claimed it detained the ship over pollution concerns, it appeared to link the seizure to negotiations over billions of dollars in Iranian assets frozen in South Korean banks.

———

DeBre reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Rights group urges Western firms to stop Belarus TV ads

Rights group urges Western firms to stop Belarus TV ads

A German-Swiss group that campaigns for human rights in Belarus is calling on Western companies to stop buying advertising airtime on the authoritarian country’s state broadcasters

ByThe Associated PressAugust 4, 2021, 2:37 PM• 2 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this article

BERLIN — A German-Swiss group that campaigns for human rights in Belarus called Wednesday for Western companies to stop buying airtime for advertising on the authoritarian country’s state broadcasters.

Libereco said major consumer goods companies such as Procter & Gamble, Nestle and Mars were among the top advertisers on Belarusian state TV, according to a week-long analysis of primetime ads last month.

“Western companies must immediately end their financial support for dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s propaganda TV,” the group said.

Contacted for comment by The Associated Press, Swiss food and drinks giant Nestle said that “as a matter of principle, we do not position ourselves along political lines in the countries where we operate, and we comply with all applicable laws and sanctions.”

In a statement, the company said advertising was an important way to reach consumers but that after a regular review “we have already significantly reduced our advertising budget for Belarus.”

Sandoz, a subsidiary of Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis, said it complies with “all relevant national and international regulations and requirements.”

“We continue to carefully monitor developments in the country and to evaluate the situation accordingly,” the company said in a statement.

———

Follow all AP stories on developments in Belarus at https://apnews.com/hub/Belarus

‘Freedom is worth fighting for’: Belarus activists on trial

‘Freedom is worth fighting for’: Belarus activists on trial

Leading opposition figures went on trial in Belarus Wednesday, part of a multi-pronged crackdown on dissent in the ex-Soviet nation that was rocked by months of protests

By YURAS KARMANAU Associated PressAugust 4, 2021, 2:19 PM• 3 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this article2:43

Audio was released of air traffic controllers in Belarus telling the pilots of a Ryanair flight to divert to Minsk due to a “bomb” threat, which ended up being a ruse to arrest an activist on board.The Associated Press

Maria Kolesnikova, a top member of the opposition Coordination Council, has been in custody since her arrest in September. She is accused of conspiring to seize power, creating an extremist organization and calling for actions damaging state security.

The trial of Kolesnikova and lawyer Maxim Znak, another leading member of the Coordination Council who faces the same charges, started Wednesday behind closed doors at the Minsk Regional Court in the Belarusian capital. They could face up to 12 years in prison if convicted.

“Freedom is worth fighting for. Do not be afraid to be free,” she wrote in last year’s message from prison conveyed by her lawyer. “I do not regret anything and would do the same again.”

Just before the start of her trial, Kolesnikova said in a note from prison that authorities offered to release her from custody if she asks for a pardon and gives a repentant interview to state media. She insisted that she was innocent and rejected the offer.

Just as Kolesnikova and Znak went on trial, a Belarusian Olympic sprinter flew from Tokyo to Europe after resisting an attempt by her team’s officials to forcibly send her home to Belarus after a dispute over coaching. The 24-year-old runner Krystsina Tsimanouskaya said she could be in danger if she returns to her homeland.

Belarus was shaken by months of protests fueled by President Alexander Lukashenko’s being awarded a sixth term after the August 2020 presidential vote that the opposition and the West denounced as a sham. He responded to the demonstrations with a massive crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested and thousands beaten by police.

Authorities have ramped up their crackdown on dissent in recent weeks, targeting independent journalists and democracy activists in hundreds of raids.

On Wednesday, the Belarusian state security agency that still goes under its Soviet-era name KGB arrested Uladzimir Matskevich, a professor of philosophy who founded a top independent university, after raiding his apartment in Minsk.

Matskevich’s colleague, Tatsiana Vadalazhskaya, who was a member of the opposition Coordination Council, and Ulad Vialichka, the former head of EuroBelarus non-government organization, were also arrested following searches at their apartments.

The Viasna human rights center said authorities accused them of inflicting damage to state security and inciting strife.

On Tuesday, Vitaly Shishov, a Belarusian activist who ran a group in Ukraine helping Belarusians fleeing persecution, was found hanged in a park in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. Ukrainian police have opened a probe to investigate whether it was a suicide or a murder made to look like suicide.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy ordered the country’s law enforcement agencies Wednesday to better protect Belarusians who sought refuge in his country.

“Every Belarusian who could become a target for criminals because of political stance must receive special reliable protection,” Zelenskyy said.

———

Follow all AP stories on developments in Belarus at https://apnews.com/hub/Belarus.

ASEAN ministers pick Brunei diplomat as envoy to Myanmar

ASEAN ministers pick Brunei diplomat as envoy to Myanmar

Southeast Asian foreign ministers have picked Brunei’s second foreign minister as their special envoy to Myanmar, in a breakthrough for regional mediation aimed at ending the country’s deepening crisis

By JIM GOMEZ and EILEEN NG Associated PressAugust 4, 2021, 1:35 PM• 4 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleThe Associated PressIn this April 22, 2021, file photo, flags of some of the ASEAN member countries fly at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta, Indonesia. Southeast Asia’s top diplomats were meeting Monday, Aug. 2, 2021, to appoint a special envoy to help deal with the political crisis and violence gripping Myanmar and finalize an emergency plan to help control a coronavirus outbreak that many fear is spiraling out of control in the military-ruled nation. (AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana, File)

The foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asians said Erywan will begin his work in Myanmar to “build trust and confidence with full access to all parties concerned.”

The 10-nation bloc has been under increasing international pressure to act on violence and instability in Myanmar, an ASEAN member. Myanmar’s military in February toppled the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi and cracked down on opponents.

In a joint statement Wednesday after their annual meeting, the ministers reiterated their concerns about the situation in Myanmar, including reports of fatalities and violence. But they stopped short of calling for the release of political detainees, saying only they “heard calls” for their freedom, in a reflection of the sensitivity of the issue.

The regional group is hamstrung by its bedrock policy of noninterference in the domestic affairs of member nations and by its consensus decision making, meaning just one member state can shoot down any proposal.

Erywan was among at least four candidates proposed by ASEAN, and Myanmar was believed to have preferred a former Thai diplomat. Its decision to yield to the group’s pressure indicated its military rulers are still hoping to rely on ASEAN support as they face international condemnation.

Sidharto Suryodipuro, head of ASEAN Cooperation at Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry, told reporters in Jakarta that it was an arduous process to persuade Myanmar to commit to the envoy and the mediation process. He said Erywan is expected to draw up a timeline on his mission to ease the violence and meet with all parties involved.

He said the joint statement doesn’t amount to ASEAN’s recognition of the military government.

“Myanmar must now work together in the context of ASEAN because the success of the special envoy will also be Myanmar’s success in settling a crisis that has become multilayered, involving not just politics but also economics and worsened by COVID-19,” he said.

Even with the envoy’s appointment, it remains uncertain if and when the Myanmar military leaders will allow access to Suu Kyi, who has been detained with other political leaders and put on trial on a slew of charges, diplomats have said.

More than 900 people have been killed by Myanmar authorities since the February takeover, many in anti-government protests, according to a tally kept by the independent Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. Casualties are also rising among the military and police as armed resistance grows in both urban and rural areas.

Some ASEAN lawmakers responded warily to Erywan’s appointment, noting that he led a delegation to Myanmar in June and met only with the junta.

Erywan must ensure “he does not become a pawn in the junta’s game” of using ASEAN to gain international legitimacy while it continues its oppressive rule, said Kasit Piromya, a Thai board member of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights.

In another touchy issue, the ministers said ASEAN and China have completed the preamble for a proposed “code of conduct,” a nonaggression pact the two sides have been negotiating since 2017 to avoid armed conflicts in the disputed South China Sea.

China, Taiwan and ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have overlapping claims in the disputed waters and have been locked in increasingly tense territorial standoffs for decades. China turned seven disputed reefs into missile-protected island bases in recent years, ratcheting tensions with rival claimants, along with the United States and its allies.

Two Southeast Asian diplomats said the preamble consists of principles that will reflect the rival claimant states’ adherence to international law, including the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

An analyst expressed little hope the proposed pact can effectively restrain aggression in the disputed sea, given a Chinese insistence on its vast territorial claims and penchant to interpret agreements in a way that will buttress its claims.

“I hold no illusion that the code of conduct, when it comes to pass, will be of meaningful effect in constraining Chinese coercive behavior in the South China Sea,” said Hoang Thi Ha of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

China has refused to recognize an international arbitration ruling in 2016 that invalided most of its claims in the South China Sea.

———

Gomez reported from Manila, Philippines. Associated Press reporter Nini Karmini contributed from Jakarta, Indonesia.

Iranians fear new bill will restrict internet even further

Iranians fear new bill will restrict internet even further

A new bill designed to restrict access to social media applications in Iran is stirring anxiety among young Iranians, social media users and business owners

By MEHDI FATTAHI and ISABEL DEBRE Associated PressAugust 4, 2021, 12:44 PM• 5 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this article3:22

Catch up on the developing stories making headlines.The Associated Press

TEHRAN, Iran — For Ali Hedieloo, a 40-year-old making wooden furniture in Iran’s capital, Instagram is more than just a surfeit of glossy images. Like an estimated 1 million other Iranians, it’s how he finds customers, as the app has exploded into a massive e-commerce service in the sanctions-hit country.

But now, the social media platform has come under threat. Iran moved last week toward further government restrictions on Instagram and other apps, as hard-line lawmakers agreed to discuss a bill that many fear will undermine communication, wipe out livelihoods and open the door to the banning of key social media tools.

“I and the people working here are likely to lose our jobs if this bill becomes effective,” said Hedieloo from his dimly lit workshop in the southern suburbs of Tehran, where he sands bleached wood and snaps photos of adorned desks to advertise.

The bill has yet to be approved by Iran’s hard-liner dominated parliament, but it is already stirring anxiety among young Iranians, avid social media users, online business owners and entrepreneurs. Iran is a country with some 94 million internet devices in use among its over 80 million people. Nearly 70% of Iran’s population uses smartphones.

Over 900,000 Iranians have signed a petition opposing the bill. The protest comes at a tense time for Iran, with Ebrahim Raisi, the former judiciary chief and hard-line protege of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, assuming the country’s highest civilian position this week. Journalists, civil society advocates and government critics have raised the alarm about the possible increase of social repression once he takes office.

Companies that host unregistered social media apps in Iran would risk penalties, with authorities empowered to slow down access to the companies’ services as a way to force them to comply. Lawmakers have noted that the crippling U.S. sanctions on Iran make the registration of American tech companies in the country impossible, effectively ensuring their ban.

The law would also criminalize the sale and distribution of virtual private networks and proxies — a critical way Iranians access long-blocked social media platforms like Facebook, Telegram, Twitter and YouTube. It also would bar government officials from running accounts on banned social media platforms, which they now use to communicate with citizens and the press. Even the office of the supreme leader has a Twitter account with over 890,000 followers.

And finally, the bill takes control of the internet away from the civilian government and places it under the armed forces.

The bill’s goal, according to its authors, is to “protect users and their rights.” Hard-liners in the government have long viewed social messaging and media services as part of a “soft war” by the West against the Islamic Republic. Over time, Iran has created what some have called the “halal” internet — the Islamic Republic’s own locally controlled version of the internet aimed at restricting what the public can see.

Supporters of the bill, such as hard-line lawmaker Ali Yazdikhah, have hailed it as a step toward an independent Iranian internet, where “people will start to prefer locally developed services” over foreign companies.

“There is no reason to worry, online businesses will stay, and even we promise that they will expand too,” he said.

Internet advocates, however, fear the measures will tip the country toward an even more tightly controlled model like China, whose “Great Firewall” blocks access to thousands of foreign websites and slows others.

Iran’s outgoing Information Technology Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, whom the hard-line judiciary summoned for prosecution earlier this year over his refusal to block Instagram, warned that the bill would curtail access to information and lead to full-blown bans of popular messaging apps. In a letter to Raisi last month, he urged the president-elect to reconsider the bill.

Facebook, which owns Instagram, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Social media is a highly contested space in Iran, where the government retains tight control over newspapers and remains the only entity allowed to broadcast on television and radio. Over recent years, anti-government protesters have used social media as a communication tool to mobilize and spread their message, prompting authorities to cripple internet services.

During the turmoil in the fall of 2019, for instance, the government imposed a near-complete internet blackout. Even scattered demonstrations, such as the recent protests over water shortages in Iran’s southwest, have seen disruptions of mobile internet service.

But many ordinary Iranians, reeling from harsh American sanctions that have severed access to international banking systems and triggered runaway inflation, remain more preoccupied with the bill’s potential financial fallout.

As the coronavirus ravages Iran, a growing number of people like Hedieloo have turned to Instagram to make a living — tutoring and selling homemade goods and art. Over 190,000 businesses moved online over the past year.

Although much about the bill’s fate remains uncertain, experts say it already has sent a chill through commerce on Instagram, where once-hopeful users now doubt they have a future on the app.

“I and everyone else who is working in cyberspace is worried,” said Milad Nouri, a software developer and technology analyst. “This includes a teenager playing online games, a YouTuber making money from their channel, an influencer, an online shop based on Instagram.”

He added: “Everyone is somehow stressed.”

———

DeBre reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Ambassador: US orders 24 Russian diplomats out by Sept. 3

Ambassador: US orders 24 Russian diplomats out by Sept. 3

The Russian ambassador to the United States says Washington has ordered 24 Russian diplomats to leave the country by Sept. 3

ByThe Associated PressAugust 2, 2021, 8:11 PM• 3 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this article

MOSCOW — The Russian ambassador to the United States says Washington has ordered 24 Russian diplomats to leave the country by Sept. 3, a move that comes shortly after the U.S. said it had laid off nearly 200 local staffers working for its diplomatic missions in Russia.

They are the latest in a series of measures taken by both sides that have strained U.S.-Russia relations, although the State Department denied that its move was retaliatory.

In an interview with The National Interest magazine, ambassador Anatoly Antonov said the embassy received a list of 24 Russian diplomats who are expected to leave the U.S. by Sept. 3.

“Almost all of them will leave without replacements because Washington has abruptly tightened visa issuing procedures,” Antonov said.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Ned Price confirmed that the diplomats are expected to leave the U.S. but rejected Antonov’s characterization of the situation as “incorrect.” He said the expirations were not related to the situation with local staff at U.S. diplomatic facilities in Russia.

“There’s a three-year limit on visa validity for Russians, it’s nothing new. When visas expire, as you might expect, these individuals are expected to leave the country or apply for an extension. That is what is at play here,” he told reporters. Price did not say whether applications for extensions would be considered or summarily rejected.

“Russian diplomatic missions in the United States are still forced to work under unprecedented restrictions that not only remain in effect, but are stepped up,” Antonov said.

“The expulsions of diplomats are implemented under far-fetched pretexts now and then. Last December the State Department unilaterally established a three-year limit on the assignment period for Russian personnel in the United States that, as far as we know, is not applied to any other country,” he said.

Antonov’s interview comes several days after the State Department announced laying off 182 locally employed staffers at the U.S. facilities in Russia to comply with a ban on local hires the Kremlin imposed earlier this year in response to U.S. expulsions of Russian diplomats and tit-for-tat closures of numerous diplomatic facilities in each country.

After the announcement of the ban, the U.S. Embassy in Russia suspended routine consular services and since May has been processing immigrant visas only in the case of life-or-death emergencies.

The suspension of consular services has also left Russian businessmen, exchange students and romantic partners adrift because they are no longer able to obtain U.S. visas in Russia.

Mexico president downplays sparse turnout in referendum vote

Mexico president downplays sparse turnout in referendum vote

Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has downplayed the abysmal turnout for a national referendum on pursuing ex-presidents for alleged wrongdoing during their administrations

ByThe Associated PressAugust 2, 2021, 8:00 PM• 1 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleThe Associated PressA banner showing images of several Mexican former presidents, obscuring their eyes with red bars, and calling for citizens to participate in a referendum on whether ex-presidents should be tried for their alleged crimes during their time in office, hangs from a wall in Mexico, City. Sunday, Aug. 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Christian Palma)

MEXICO CITY — Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador on Monday downplayed the abysmal turnout for a national referendum on pursuing ex-presidents for alleged wrongdoing during their administrations.

“Democracy is never going to fail,” López Obrador said.

The participation fell well short of the 40% required to make the vote binding, though observers gave that little importance since former presidents can already be prosecuted. The president suggested lawmakers should consider lowering the required percentage and blamed the National Elections Institute, which conducted the referendum, for the low turnout.

López Obrador also said that he expects to hold another national referendum in February giving voters the opportunity to decide whether he should complete the final three years of his six-year term.

Nicaraguan party registers for elections despite arrests

Nicaraguan party registers for elections despite arrests

A conservative coalition registered an ex-leader of the 1980s “Contra” rebels as presidential candidate in the Nov. 7 elections

ByThe Associated PressAugust 2, 2021, 7:55 PM• 2 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this article

The Citizens For Liberty coalition registered Oscar Sobalvarro, a rancher and former commander in the U.S. backed rebellion against Ortega’s government during the 1980s. That came despite calls from some opposition parties to boycott the race after President Daniel Ortega arrested most of his potential opponents.

The coalition nominated Berenice Quezada, who was crowned Miss Nicaragua in 2017, for vice president.

Monday is the deadline for registering candidates, and a few smaller parties and Ortega’s Sandinista party are expected to also submit their registrations.

“The country has experienced too much harassment and repression, and Nicaraguans deserve to live in peace,” Sobalvarro said.

With at least seven opposition contenders jailed on vague treason charges, critics doubt the presence of long-shot candidates like Sobalvarro would do anything more than lend a thin veil of legitimacy to already discredited elections in which Ortega, 75, is seeking a fourth consecutive term.

Electoral authorities allied with Ortega previously barred two opposition parties from even running candidates.

The European Union on Monday placed sanctions on first lady and Vice-President Rosario Murillo and seven other senior officials accused of serious human rights violations or undermining democracy. Murillo and dozens of other regime leaders already face U.S. sanctions.

EU headquarters said in a statement that its sanctions, which include asset freezes and bans on travel in Europe, “are targeted at individuals and are designed in this way not to harm the Nicaraguan population or the Nicaraguan economy.” The latest move brings the total number of Nicaraguan officials subject to EU sanctions to 14.

In the past two months, police in Nicaragua have arrested and detained about two dozen opposition figures. Most of those arrested in the crackdown are being held incommunicado, at undisclosed locations and with no access to lawyers.

Ortega alleges the country’s April 2018 street protests were part of an organized coup attempt with foreign backing.

Israeli defense chief: Alleged Iran attack an ‘escalation’

Israeli defense chief: Alleged Iran attack an ‘escalation’

Israel’s defense minister says Iran’s alleged attack on a merchant ship off the coast of Oman last week was “a stepping-up of the escalation” of hostilities by Iran, and called for international action

ByThe Associated PressAugust 2, 2021, 7:46 PM• 2 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this article

JERUSALEM — Israel’s defense minister said Monday that Iran’s alleged attack on a merchant ship in the Arabian Sea last week was “a stepping-up of the escalation” of hostilities by Iran, and called for international action.

Benny Gantz addressed Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, and said the drone strike on the Mercer Street that left two crew members dead — one from the United Kingdom and one from Romania — was “in violation of international law and human morality.” He charged that Iran was behind at least five attacks on international shipping in the last year.

The United States, Britain and Israel have blamed Iran for the fatal attack on the Israeli-linked oil tanker. Iran denies involvement.

While no one has claimed responsibility for the attack, Iran and its militia allies have used so-called “suicide” drones in attacks previously. The region has seen a rise in attacks on commercial vessels in the aftermath of the disintegration of the Iran nuclear deal in 2018.

“This is exactly the reason why we must act now against Iran, which is not only striving toward nuclear arms, but is also bringing about a dangerous arms race and intends to destabilize the Middle East with terrorist militias who are armed with hundreds of drones in Iran, Yemen, Iraq and other countries in the region,” he said.

Gantz said that any future agreement between world powers and Iran to rein in its nuclear program must also address Iranian’s “aggression in the region and harming both innocent people and to the global economy.”

“This is not a future threat, rather a tangible and immediate danger,” he said.

In Washington, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. was “confident that Iran carried out this attack.”

“It follows a pattern of similar attacks by Iran, including past incidents with explosive drones,” he told reporters at the State Department. “There is no justification for this attack on a peaceful vessel on a commercial mission, international waters rise action is a direct threat to freedom of navigation and commerce, took the lives of innocent sailors.”

Blinken said the U.S. was in close contact with the U.K., Israel and Romania and “there will be a collective response.” He did not elaborate on what that response might be.

In heat emergency, southern Europe scrambles for resources

In heat emergency, southern Europe scrambles for resources

Turkey is seeking international help to fight wildfires, and neighbor Greece is using old power stations to cope with the demand for air conditioning as a heat wave intensifies in southeast Europe

By DEREK GATOPOULOS, MEHMET GUZEL and COLLEEN BARRY Associated PressAugust 2, 2021, 6:41 PM• 4 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleThe Associated PressA firefighter looks on, in the fire-devastating Sirtkoy village, near Manavgat, Antalya, Turkey, Sunday, Aug. 1, 2021. More than 100 wildfires have been brought under control in Turkey, according to officials. The forestry minister tweeted that five fires are continuing in the tourist destinations of Antalya and Mugla. (AP Photo)

Temperatures reached 45 C (113 F) in inland areas of Greece and nearby countries and are expected to remain high for most of the week.

Battling deadly wildfires along its coastline for a sixth day, Turkey broadened an appeal for international assistance and was promised water-dropping planes from the European Union. The fires have been blamed for the deaths of eight people in recent days.

The help for residents in Turkey’s fire-ravaged areas couldn’t come soon enough. At the coastal village of Bozalan, resident Esra Sanli looked over at the blaze.

“It’s burning. It’s obviously burning. There’s no plane, there’s no helicopter, there are no (access) roads,” she said, sobbing. “How is this going to be extinguished? How?”

In Greece, an emergency was declared in fire-hit areas on the island of Rhodes, which is near the Turkish coast. Workers with health conditions were allowed to take time off work, while Greek coal-fired power stations slated for retirement were brought back into service to shore up the national grid, under pressure due to the widespread use of air conditioning.

Pregnant and other vulnerable workers in North Macedonia were told to stay home.

Dann Mitchell, a professor of climate science at the University of Bristol, said the heat wave in southeast Europe “is not at all unexpected, and very likely enhanced due to human-induced climate change.”

“The number of extreme heat events around the world is increasing year on year, with the top 10 hottest years on record all occurring since 2005,” Mitchell told The Associated Press.

“This year, we have seen a number of significant events, including a particularly dramatic heat wave in western Canada and the U.S., that was extreme even for current levels of climate change,” Mitchell said. “These black swan events have always happened, but now they sit on the background of a hotter climate, so are even more deadly.”

Some 30 people were treated for light smoke inhalation in Italy’s coastal city of Pescara after flames tore through a nearby pine forest. Beach-goers nearby had to be rescued by sea Sunday from that wildfire.

“That zone of pine forest is a nature reserve, and it’s completely destroyed. It brings tears to see it. The environmental damage is incalculable. This is the heart of the city, its green lung and today it is destroyed,” Pescara Mayor Carlo Masci said.

Cyprus, recovering from a major wildfire last month, kept water-dropping planes on patrol to respond to fires as they broke out.

“If you don’t react right away with a massive response to any outbreak, things can turn difficult quickly,” forestry service chief Charalambos Alexandrou told state-run media. “The conditions are war-like.”

On a visit to the power grid operator Monday, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis urged members of the public to avoid daytime use of ovens, washing machines and other energy-demanding appliances to reduce the risk of blackouts. He described the weather conditions in Greece as the most severe since a deadly heat wave in 1987.

It was the year that Ioanna Vergou, deputy mayor of the northern Greek town of Skydra, was born. The town of 5,500 briefly ranked among the hottest in the country. She said municipal workers had been given earlier shifts and those needing public services were handed water and sent to an air-conditioned waiting area.

“Many people here have compared the heat wave to what happened in 1987,” she said. “But hopefully it will be easier this time round. We are all just waiting for it to pass.”

——— Mehmet Guzel reported from Cokertme, Turkey and Colleen Barry reported from Milan, Italy. Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, Ayse Wieting in Istanbul, Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Serbia, Menelaos Hadjicostis in Nicosia, Cyprus, and Konstantin Testorides in Skopje, North Macedonia also contributed. ———

Follow all AP stories about climate change issues at https://apnews.com/hub/Climate