Tadej Pogacar Wins COVID-defying Tour de France

In a stunning performance for the ages, Tour de France rookie Tadej Pogacar won cycling’s showpiece race Sunday on the eve of his 22nd birthday.Pogacar became the second-youngest winner of the 117-year-old event that this year braved, and overcame, France’s worsening coronavirus epidemic.Turning him from promising prodigy into cycling superstar, Pogacar became the youngest winner since World War II and the first from Slovenia.His victory was incredible, too, for the way in which he sealed it: at the last possible moment, on the penultimate stage before Sunday’s finish on Paris’ Champs-Elysees.In a high-drama time trial on Saturday, he left the race breathless by snatching away the overall lead from Slovenian countryman Primoz Roglic.Their 1-2 is the first for one country since British riders Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome went 1-2 at the 2012 Tour. Australian Richie Porte rounded out the podium, at age 35, after his brilliant time trial that hoisted him from fourth to third overall.With jets trailing plumes of red, white and blue smoke above the riders as they raced toward the finish, the Tour was also celebrating a victory — over the coronavirus.None of the 176 riders who started, or the 146 finishers who raced into Paris, tested positive in multiple batteries of tests, validating the bubble measures put in place by Tour organizers to shield them from infection.

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Russian Jets Strike Syrian Rebel-Held Bastion in Heaviest Strikes Since Cease-fire 

Syrian opposition sources said Russian jets bombed rebel-held northwestern Syria on Sunday in the most extensive strikes since a Turkish-Russian deal halted major fighting with a cease-fire nearly six months ago.   Witnesses said the warplanes struck the western outskirts of Idlib city and that there was heavy artillery shelling in the mountainous Jabal al-Zawya region in southern Idlib from nearby Syrian army outposts. There were no immediate reports of casualties.   “These thirty raids are by far the heaviest strikes so far since the cease-fire deal,” said Mohammed Rasheed, a former rebel official and a volunteer plane spotter whose network covers the Russian air base in the western coastal province of Latakia.   Other tracking centers said Russian Sukhoi jets hit the Horsh area and Arab Said town, west of the city of Idlib. Unidentified drones also hit two rebel-held towns in the Sahel al-Ghab plain, west of Hama province.   There has been no wide-scale aerial bombing since a March agreement ended a Russian-backed bombing campaign that displaced over a million people in the region which borders Turkey after months of fighting.   There was no immediate comment from Moscow or the Syrian army, who have long accused militant groups who hold sway in the last opposition redoubt of wrecking the ceasefire deal and attacking army-held areas.   The deal between Turkish President and Russian President Vladimir Putin also defused a military confrontation between them after Ankara poured thousands of troops in Idlib province to hold back Russian-backed forces from new advances.   Western diplomats tracking Syria say Moscow piled pressure on Ankara in the latest round of talks on Wednesday to scale down its extensive military presence in Idlib. Turkey has more than ten thousand troops stationed in dozens of bases there, according to opposition sources in touch with Turkish military.   Witnesses say there has been a spike in sporadic shelling from Syrian army outposts against Turkish bases in the last two weeks. Rebels say the Syrian army and its allied militias were amassing troops on front lines.  

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Greece Scrambles to Rehouse Homeless Migrants, Refugees on Lesbos 

For Rahaf al Mohammed, the Moria refugee center was a living hell, but now, after militant arsonists last week razed what has been frequently described as the worst in Europe, she refuses relocation to a new, fenced encampment 10 kilometers south.“Not good,” the 29-year-old Syrian mother said, “It is like [a] prison. Terrible prison.”“We went [there] but left [the] next day because [there was] no food, no electricity, no water, and no bottom [to] our tent,” she said, pushing a baby carriage back to Moria. “We slept on dirt and rocks. My babies [are] now sick.”Independent verification of the conditions at the new, heavily guarded Kare Tepe camp was not possible.Many of the 12,500 migrants and refugees left homeless after the ferocious blaze, though, attest to the same conditions, forcing most of them to return to Moria, seeking shelter in its chaotic, and now razed, sprawl of tarpaulin tents, crooked prefab structures and the acrid smell of burnt plastic.An aerial view of destroyed shelters following a fire at the Moria camp for refugees and migrants on the Island of Lesbos, Greece, Sept. 9, 2020.Under a scorching Greek sun this week, teams of bedraggled Afghan migrants were seen prying out mangled rods to erect flimsy tents. Others, mainly young men, used a broken irrigation pipe deep in an adjacent olive grove to shower in the open.“At least here,” said Mohammed Amir, 17, “we are at peace. Small aid groups come and help us. They give us food that we can eat three times a day.“Inside Kara Tepe,” the Afghan said, “food comes only once, and it is rotten.“There is no way, I am not going back there,” he said. His four sisters, in colorful head scarves and green plastic face masks, nodded in agreement.The stakes, though, are high. With more than 13,000 asylum seekers on the island, Lesbos remains a dangerous bottleneck in Europe’s migrant crisis.Worse yet, the troubled Kara Tepe transfer complicates government efforts to manage the country’s worst humanitarian crisis in five years, when more than 1 million refugees, mainly from Syria, flooded Europe in the biggest migration push since World War II.Government officials warn they may use force to round up and rehouse all migrants.Greek officials wearing personal protective equipment arrive in an area where refugees and migrants from the destroyed Moria camp are sheltered on the island of Lesbos, Sept. 18, 2020.In recent days, some 70 female officers in protective white suits and masks were deployed to help move women and children to Kara Tepe.More than 8,000 were checked in to the new sprawl of crisp white tents by the weekend. It remained unclear, however, whether the camp’s new residents would remain.“There are many Afghan men going around warning women and children not to resettle because they will burn this camp, also,” Abdirahman Chama, a 38-year-old migrant from Somalia said.“More importantly,” he said, “if you are out and have a chance to escape this island and go to the West, why go back in?“I will try to go Germany, but anywhere else will also be good.”Only recognized refugees can move to another EU member state, a status, together with its documentation, the government has told Lesbos’ homeless asylum seekers they can only obtain as residents of the new camp.Earlier this week, Germany agreed to take in 1,553 people from 408 families whose protected status has been confirmed by Greek authorities. Belgium and France are expected to follow suit, with the government vowing to empty Lesbos of its refugees by Easter.A woman with a baby holds a document before entering the new temporary refugee camp in Kara Tepe, on the northeastern island of Lesbos, Greece, Sept. 18, 2020.Until then, though, locals remain vigilant.“You think we would be relieved seeing this camp in our backyards destroyed,” said Stelios Panagopoulos, a coffee shop owner in the town of Moria, about a kilometer and a half north of the dreaded refugee camp.“We are now more scared than ever because militant migrants remain at large, and they are out there hiding in the fields and surrounding mountains, taking revenge on us, slaughtering our livestock and destroying our properties,” he said.Earlier this year, a farmer from Moria was barred from leaving the country and ordered to pay about $6,000 in fines for firing a warning shot at a migrant intruder. He has since been released and the migrant was detained.Last week, and after fleeing detention during the camp fire, the migrant returned, allegedly setting fire to the farmer’s barn.Authorities contacted by VOA suspect he was among the ringleaders of the Moria blaze.At least seven refugees, including two minors, have been arrested in connection with the fire.“There is one solution,” al Mohammed, the Syrian mother said, “we [must] all leave. It will be better for all.” 

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Sweden Spared Surge of Virus Cases but Many Questions Remain

A train pulls into the Odenplan subway station in central Stockholm, where morning commuters without masks get off or board before settling in to read their smartphones.Whether on trains or trams, in supermarkets or shopping malls — places where face masks are commonly worn in much of the world — Swedes go about their lives without them.When most of Europe locked down their populations early in the pandemic by closing schools, restaurants, gyms and even borders, Swedes kept enjoying many freedoms. The relatively low-key strategy captured the world’s attention, but at the same time it coincided with a per capita death rate that was much higher than in other Nordic countries.Now, as infection numbers surge again in much of Europe, the country of 10 million people has some of the lowest numbers of new coronavirus cases — and only 14 virus patients in intensive care.Whether Sweden’s strategy is succeeding, however, is still very uncertain.Its health authorities, and in particular chief epidemiologist Dr. Anders Tegnell, keep repeating a familiar warning: It’s too early to tell, and all countries are in a different phase of the pandemic.That has not stopped a World Health Organization Europe official from saying the continent could learn broader lessons from Sweden that could help the virus battle elsewhere.“We must recognize that Sweden, at the moment, has avoided the increase that has been seen in some of the other countries in western Europe,” WHO Europe’s senior emergency officer, Catherine Smallwood, said Thursday. “I think there are lessons for that. We will be very keen on working and hearing more from the Swedish approach.”According to the European Center for Disease Control, Sweden has reported 30.3 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 inhabitants in the last 14 days, compared with 292.2 in Spain, 172.1 in France, 61.8 in the U.K. and 69.2 in Denmark, all of which imposed strict lockdowns early in the pandemic.Overall, Sweden has 88,237 reported infections and 5,864 fatalities from the virus, or 57.5 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants since the beginning of the crisis.The way Sweden’s strategy was viewed outside the country seems to depend largely on what stage of the pandemic the observer was experiencing at the time. Initially, many abroad were incredulous at images of Swedes dining with friends in restaurants or sipping cocktails on the Stockholm waterfront. Some were envious that Swedish businesses were not forced to close.Then came shock as the virus ripped through the country’s nursing homes and hospices.By mid-April, more than 100 deaths were reported each day in Sweden, while mortality rates were falling elsewhere in Europe.Today, as fears of a second wave grow across Europe, it’s fashionable to praise Sweden, with reporters from France, the U.K. and elsewhere traveling to Stockholm to ask about its success.But a Swedish government commission investigating the handling of the pandemic will, undoubtedly, have hard questions to answer: Did authorities wait too long to limit access to nursing homes, where about half of the deaths occurred? Were they too slow to provide personal protective equipment to staff in those homes when shortcomings in the elderly care sector had long been known? Why did it take so long to set up wide-scale testing?Tegnell also refuses to rule out a second wave of coronavirus infections in Sweden. A particular concern is the return of students to high schools for the first time since March.“We need to be very careful and find the first sign that something is going on so that we can do as much as possible to prevent it from escalating,” he told The Associated Press.Localized outbreaks are expected, but rather than fight them with nationwide rules, officials plan to use targeted actions based on testing, contact-tracing and isolating patients rapidly.“It’s very important that we have quick and local response to hit down the virus without making restrictions for the whole country,” Health Minister Lena Hallengren said last week.From the beginning, health officials argued that Sweden was pursuing a sustainable approach toward the virus that the population could adopt — for years, if necessary. “This is a marathon, not a sprint,” became a slogan repeated by ministers at every opportunity, given that neither a vaccine nor a cure yet exist.While the rest of the world watched with envy at the freedoms that Swedes enjoyed amid lockdowns elsewhere, there were not as many as people have assumed. Gatherings were capped at 50, and congregating at bars was banned. Most of the changes involved voluntary actions by citizens, rather than rules imposed by the government.This trust given to the population to shoulder personal responsibility in the pandemic puts Sweden at odds with most other countries that used coercive measures such as fines to force compliance.This is often attributed to a Swedish model of governance, where large public authorities comprised of experts develop and recommend measures that the smaller ministries are expected to follow. In other words, the people trust the experts and scientists to develop reasonable policies, and the government trusts the people to follow the guidelines.Swedes were asked to work from home when possible and maintain a social distance, and most willingly complied. While people now ride public transportation without masks, there are also far fewer people commuting than before.Unlike most European countries that have mandated wearing face masks in public spaces, Sweden does not recommend their broad use, and people largely follow that recommendation.Health officials say face masks used outside health care facilities by untrained personnel can provide a false sense of safety that could see sick people leave home and ignore social distancing. Instead, they believe simple but nonnegotiable guidelines provide clear rules that can stay in place for long periods of time: staying home when showing symptoms of COVID-19, maintaining good hand hygiene and keeping social distancing.In a country the size of California with only a quarter of that state’s population of 41 million, and with low levels of transmission, most Swedes believe wearing masks makes little sense.Carol Rosengard, 61, who runs a center for disabled youth, has seen people wear masks improperly or take them off to smoke a cigarette or drink water.“That’s not how they should be handled,” Rosengard said, explaining her support for not imposing face mask rules on the population.That view is echoed by Hallengren, the health minister, who doesn’t totally dismiss the effectiveness of masks and sees their usefulness in cases of severe local outbreaks. At the same time, she rejects blanket rules for the entire country.”People will not wear masks for years,” she said. 

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Carpenters Wow Public with Medieval Techniques at Notre Dame

With precision and boundless energy, a team of carpenters used medieval techniques to raise up — by hand — a 3-ton oak truss Saturday in front of Notre Dame Cathedral, a replica of the wooden structures that were consumed in the landmark’s devastating April 2019 fire that also toppled its spire.The demonstration to mark European Heritage Days gave the hundreds of people a firsthand look at the rustic methods used 800 years ago to build the triangular frames in the nave of Notre Dame de Paris.It also showed that the decision to replicate the cathedral in its original form was the right one, said Gen. Jean-Louis Georgelin, who heads the cathedral’s reconstruction.“It shows … firstly that we made the right choice in choosing to rebuild the carpentry identically, in oak from France,” Georgelin said in an interview. “Secondly, it shows us the … method by which we will rebuild the framework, truss after truss.”A debate over whether the new spire should have a futuristic design or whether the trusses should be made of fireproof cement like in the Cathedral of Nantes, which was destroyed in a 1972 fire, ended with the decision in July to respect Notre Dame’s original design and materials.Carpenters put the skills of their medieval colleagues on show in front of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France, Sept. 19, 2020. French President Emmanuel Macron wants the cathedral reopened in 2024 in time for the Paris Olympic Games.A total of 25 trusses are to be installed at an unknown date in the cathedral nave. Philippe Gourmain, a forestry expert working on the cathedral project, said the carpentry phase will not come before 2022.“The problem of Notre Dame is not a carpentry problem. We have the wood. We know how to do it,” Gourmain said. “The big issue is regarding the stone.”Some stones — which support the carpentry — were damaged by the fire and “it’s not so easy now” to find similar stone, he said.French President Emmanuel Macron wants the cathedral reopened in 2024 in time for the Paris Olympic Games, a deadline that many experts have called unrealistic.For the moment, the delicate task of dismantling melted scaffolding, which was originally erected to refurbish the now-toppled spire, continues. That job, started in early June, will be completed in October.The soaring cathedral vaults are also being cleared of debris by 35 specialists on ropes. The organ with its 8,000 pipes was removed for repair in early August.It is not yet known what technique will be used to create and install the wooden trusses.Carpenters showcase medieval techniques in front of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France, Sept. 19, 2020. A total of 25 trusses are to be installed at an unknown date in the cathedral nave.The truss mounted for the weekend display is a replica of truss No. 7, more advanced that the first six trusses, which were “more primitive,” said Florian Carpentier, site manager for the team from Carpenters Without Borders team that felled the trees and used axes to cut the logs for the wooden frame. With rope cables and a rustic pulley system, the carpenters slowly pulled the truss they built in July from the ground where it was laid out.“It’s a moment to see, ancestral techniques that last. There is the present and the past and it links us to our roots,” said Romain Greif, an architect who came with his family to watch the display. “It’s an event.”In a final touch, once the No. 7 truss replica was raised on high, a carpenter shinnied up the wooden beams — to cheers — to tie an oak branch to the top of the triangular structure, a symbol of prosperity and a salute to the workers, a tradition still honored in numerous European countries. 

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First Native American Racer Blazes Trail at Tour de France

A late draft to the Tour de France, Neilson Powless didn’t have time to scramble together a turtle necklace, the spirit animal of his Native American tribe, or paint one of their wampum bead belts on the frame of the bike that he’s ridden for three punishing weeks, over 3,300 kilometers of roads.But although unable to carry the Oneida Tribe’s symbols with him, the Tour rookie has become a powerful symbol himself as the first tribally recognized Native North American to have raced in the 117-year-old event.Not only has Powless survived cycling’s greatest and most grueling race, he distinguished himself in a crop of exciting young talents who helped set this Tour alight. Crossing the finish in Paris on Sunday will, he hopes, resonate on reservations back in the United States.”My main hope is that I can be a positive role model for young Indigenous kids who have a lot going against them,” Powless, who turned 24 during the race, told The Associated Press. “I think finishing the Tour de France is a testament to years of hard work and dedication to a lifelong dream. Hopefully I can help drive kids to setting their mind to a goal and going after it.””It must make it a lot easier when you can see somebody else who is doing it, or has done it,” he added.Neilson Powless of the US rides during the 16th stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 164 kilometers from La Tour-du-Pin to Villard-de-Lans, Sept. 15, 2020.Word of Powless’ feats in France has filtered back to the Oneida Nation in Wisconsin. The tribal chairman, Tehassi Hill, says the cyclist is blazing “a trail of journey, hope and inspiration.””Whenever one of our own, from the Oneida community, are in the spotlight, it definitely does not go unnoticed. Neilson’s journey and accomplishments, I’m sure are spoken of at many gatherings here in Oneida,” Hill told the AP.”Even during a pandemic, he did not falter or give up on his dreams,” the Oneida leader added. “This is an important message not only to our youth here in Oneida, but to everyone in our community.”Powless traces his Oneida heritage to his grandfather, Matthew Powless. The ex-U.S. Army paratrooper lived on the Stockbridge-Munsee Reservation in Wisconsin. He coached boxing and occasionally showed off his tribal smoke-dancing skills to his grandson. He died at age 80 in 2015.”I saw him dance once or twice when I was younger, but I wish I could have watched him more,” said Powless, who grew up in Roseville, California. “He tried to get me into boxing for a few years and I would train at the gym he coached at sometimes when we would visit.”The good news for American cycling is that Powless saw his future on a bike, instead. His main job at this Tour has been to ride in support of his team leader, veteran Colombian rider Rigoberto Uran. But Powless has also shown off his own strengths, particularly on arduous climbs. On his birthday, during Stage 6, he was part of a small group that powered to the front of the race in a fight on the slopes of the Mont Aigoual, with stunning views across southern France. He placed fourth at the top.”An amazing experience,” he said. “The win would have been nice.”He distinguished himself again two days later, placing fifth on the brutal Stage 8 of climbing in the Pyrenees.”This Tour will be a massive point of growth for him,” Jonathan Vaughters, his boss at the EF Pro Cycling team, told the AP. “Where that heads him is still unknown. But he certainly is coming out of the Tour a much better rider than he went in.”The Tour confirms he is its first Native North American competitor. The cyclist hasn’t made a fuss of his heritage. Vaughters says he only found out that Powless is one-quarter Oneida from the rider’s dad just days before he took the Tour start on August 29. Still, when pressed, Powless proudly points out that he has a tribal ID recognizing him as one of the 16,500 Oneida members.”The tribe has helped me financially with schooling. I have family on the reservation,” he said. “It’s not that I just had a blood test one day and decided ‘Oh, I guess I’m Native American.’ It is something I have, like, sort of grown up with and it has been part of my whole life and the tribe recognizes that as well.”Told just days before the Tour that he was on the team, Powless says he didn’t have time to discreetly decorate his bike or source a replacement for the turtle necklace he broke last year.Still, based on his performances, he’ll surely be back and able to fix that at future Tours.”Normally I would have a painting of the Oneida bead belt, the wampum belt, somewhere on my bike, my garment, my shoe,” he said. “Just something really small, most people wouldn’t even really see it. It’s just something that I have always tried to keep close to me.”  

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Russia’s Navalny Says He’s Now More Than ‘Technically Alive’

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny said he is recovering his verbal and physical abilities at the German hospital where he is being treated for suspected nerve agent poisoning but that he at first felt despair over his condition.Navalny, the most visible opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin, fell ill on a domestic flight to Moscow on August 20 and was transferred to Germany for treatment two days later. A German military lab later determined that the Russian politician was poisoned with Novichok, the same class of Soviet-era agent that Britain said was used on a former Russian spy and his daughter in England in 2018.Navalny was kept in an induced coma for more than a week while being treated with an antidote. He said in a Saturday post on Instagram that once he was brought out of the coma, he was confused and couldn’t find the words to respond to a doctor’s questions.”Although I understood in general what the doctor wanted, I did not understand where to get the words. In what part of the head do they appear in?” Navalny wrote in the post, which accompanied a photo of him on a staircase. “I also did not know how to express my despair and, therefore, simply kept silent.””Now I’m a guy whose legs are shaking when he walks up the stairs, but he thinks: ‘Oh, this is a staircase! They go up it. Perhaps we should look for an elevator,'” Navalny said. “And before, I would have just stood there and stared.”The doctors treating him at Berlin’s Charite hospital “turned me from a ‘technically alive person’ into someone who has every chance to become the Highest Form of Being in Modern Society again — a person who can quickly scroll through Instagram and without hesitation understands where to put likes,” he wrote.The Kremlin has repeatedly said that before Navalny’s transfer to Berlin, Russian labs and a hospital in the Siberian city of Omsk found no sign of a poisoning. Moscow has called for Germany to provide its evidence and bristled at the urging of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other Western leaders to answer questions about what happened to the politician.”There is too much absurdity in this case to take anyone at their word,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Friday.Peskov also accused Navalny’s colleagues of hampering a Russian investigation by taking items from his hotel room out of the country, including a water bottle they claimed had traces of the nerve agent.Navalny’s colleagues said that they removed the bottle and other items from the hotel room in the Siberian city of Tomsk and brought them to Germany as potential evidence because they didn’t trust Russian authorities to conduct a proper probe.  

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Police, Protesters Clash as London Eyes Tighter Virus Rules

Police in London clashed with protesters Saturday at a rally against coronavirus restrictions, even as the mayor warned that it was “increasingly likely” that the British capital would soon need to introduce tighter rules to curb a sharp rise in infections.Scuffles broke out as police moved in to disperse hundreds of demonstrators who gathered in London’s central Trafalgar Square. Some protesters formed blockades to stop officers from making arrests, and traffic was stopped in the busy area.The “Resist and Act for Freedom” rally saw dozens of people holding banners and placards, such as one reading “This is now Tyranny,” and chanting “Freedom!” Police said there were “pockets of hostility and outbreaks of violence towards officers.”Britain’s Conservative government this week banned social gatherings of more than six people in a bid to tackle a steep rise in COVID-19 cases in the country. Stricter localized restrictions have also been introduced in large parts of England’s northwestern cities, affecting about 13.5 million people.But officials are considering tougher national restrictions after Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed Friday that Britain is “now seeing a second wave” of coronavirus, following the trend seen in France, Spain and across Europe.London Mayor Sadiq Khan said the city may impose some of the measures already in place elsewhere in the U.K. That may include curfews, earlier closing hours for pubs and bans on  household visits.People sit on a street closed to traffic to try to reduce the spread of coronavirus so bars, cafes and restaurants can continue to stay open, in London, Sept. 19, 2020. New lockdown restrictions in England appear to be in the cards.”I am extremely concerned by the latest evidence I’ve seen today from public health experts about the accelerating speed at which COVID-19 is now spreading here in London,” Khan said Friday. “It is increasingly likely that, in London, additional measures will soon be required to slow the spread of the virus.”Cases climbThe comments came as new daily coronavirus cases for Britain rose to 4,322, the highest since early May.The latest official estimates released Friday also show that new infections and hospital admissions are doubling every seven to eight days in the U.K. A survey of randomly selected people, not including those in hospitals or nursing homes, estimated that almost 60,000 people in England had COVID-19 in the week of September 4, about 1 in 900 people.Britain has Europe’s highest death toll in the pandemic with 41,821 confirmed virus-related deaths, but experts say all numbers undercount the true impact of the pandemic.In a statement, British police said the protesters Saturday were “putting themselves and others at risk” and urged all those at the London rally to disperse immediately or risk arrest.

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Civilian Casualties Drop in Eastern Ukraine as Cease-fire Holds

U.N. officials say a cease-fire that took effect in July in eastern Ukraine appears to be holding and has resulted in a significant drop in civilian casualties.The cease-fire between the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed separatists is giving rise to hope that the period of relative calm, the longest since the conflict began in April 2014, might result in a permanent peace.The conflict, which broke out after Russia’s illegal annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, has killed more than 13,000 people.
Since the cease-fire began July 27, the U.N. Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine says security incidents in eastern Ukraine have dropped by 53 percent. It adds there has been an even larger reduction in civilian casualties.Jens Laerke, spokesman for the U.N. Organization for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, says security incidents have dropped from 533 in July to 251 in August, and five civilian casualties were reported in August compared with 13 the previous month.’Sense of normality’“Our colleagues in Ukraine tell us that this improvement has given people on both sides of the ‘contact line’ that divides eastern Ukraine a sense of normality and people hope that it will become sustainable,” he said. “But they also report that up till now, they have not observed changes in terms of humanitarian access that could lead to a scaling up of humanitarian work, and that is largely due to restrictions imposed in response to COVID-19.”Laerke notes all five official crossing points were closed in late March because of the coronavirus pandemic. He says two have since reopened. However, he says crossings across the contact line are largely limited to those granted humanitarian exemptions.
The Ukrainian government stopped funding government services in areas controlled by rebels in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions when the conflict began. People living there are required to register as displaced people and cross the contact line into government-controlled areas to receive benefits.That is creating hardships for elderly people, especially those who are ill and disabled. The U.N. calculates up to 1.2 million people are unable to receive their pensions and social benefits because they cannot cross the contact line to obtain them.

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Belarus Police Detain Hundreds of Protesters in Minsk

Belarusian police detained hundreds of protesters in central Minsk on Saturday, a witness said, as around 2,000 people marched through the city demanding that President Alexander Lukashenko step down.
 
Belarus, a former Soviet republic closely allied with Russia, has been rocked by mass street protests since Lukashenko claimed a landslide victory in an Aug. 9 presidential election that his opponents say was rigged. He denies their accusation.
 
Saturday’s protesters, most of them women, briefly scuffled with police who then blocked their path and started picking people one by one out of the crowd, the witness said.  
 
In one location, dozens of female protesters could be seen encircled by men in green uniforms and black balaclavas outside a shopping mall as they shouted “Only cowards beat women!”Police officers detain Nina Baginskaya, 73, during an opposition rally challenging official presidential election results in Minsk, Belarus, Sept. 19, 2020.Among the detained was 73-year-old opposition activist Nina Baginskaya who has become an icon of the protest movement after scuffling with armed policemen last month.
 
One female protester was taken away in an ambulance after lying on the ground, apparently unconscious.
 
Lukashenko’s crackdown on the protests has prompted the European Union to weigh fresh sanctions against his government.
 
The president, who has ruled Belarus for 26 years, says the protesters are being backed by foreign powers. Earlier this month he secured a $1.5 billion lifeline from Moscow. 

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US Civil Rights Activist Rosa Parks’ Home on Display in Italy

The Detroit home where American civil rights activist Rosa Parks took refuge after the historic bus boycott has been rebuilt as an art project in Naples, Italy. Parks’ niece saved the two-story home from demolition in Michigan following the 2008 financial crisis. She donated it to an American artist who rebuilt it for public display in Germany, and now in Italy, after failing to find a permanent place for it in the United States. VOA correspondent Mariama Diallo reports.

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UK Ambassador to China Stirs Uproar With Photo Seen as Promoting Xi Jinping

Britain’s newest ambassador to China has gotten off to a rocky start after posting a photo on social media that some viewers interpreted as an endorsement of the hard-line policies of Chinese President Xi Jinping.Caroline Wilson, appointed in June to lead Britain’s diplomatic mission in Beijing as of this month, posted the photo on Twitter after a meeting with Liu Xiaoming, China’s envoy to Britain.In the photo, Liu beams with apparent delight as the two hold what appears to be a gifted book, the latest in a series of tomes laying out Xi’s thoughts on governance.Wilson described the occasion on Twitter as a “valuable meeting with @AmbLiuXiaoMing before heading to Beijing.” Her new subordinates at the British Embassy in Beijing subsequently retweeted the posting.Valuable meeting with @AmbLiuXiaoMing before heading to Beijing. We can and must work for ambitious UK-China collaboration, on climate, health, trade, engaging on trickier topics too. I look forward to supporting a mature, positive UK-China relationship, in line with UK values. pic.twitter.com/J98XPqhrRI— Caroline Wilson (@CWilson_FCDO) September 16, 2020As of Friday morning, Wilson’s tweet had generated more than 1,000 comments, and while a handful praised her as “the perfect person for this absolutely pivotal role,” the vast majority considered the posting highly problematic.“Even Liu XiaoMing didn’t choose to upload this photo,” one commentator wrote, though the Chinese envoy did post several other photos from the meeting. Many others shared the views of a writer who commented, “How could she uphold UK values while holding ‘Xi Jinping Thought’?”Among the most scathing comments was one from a writer who uploaded a 1938 photo of then-British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain shaking hands with Adolf Hitler. Another writer said Wilson’s gesture was “no different than holding Mao’s little red book.”A tweet that had generated almost 500 likes by Friday lodged a more serious charge, that Wilson is too eager to please Xi.Seriously, how could you be so naive to do such a picture? But not only take the picture, but then be so naive as to share it to the world, putting your nativity on display. Unless of course you only have an audience of one. CCP already has you pegged as a naive pushover.— RichS (@RichScotford) September 17, 2020Foreign ministry responseA spokesperson from the British foreign ministry defended Wilson’s tweet, telling VOA their country has “a policy of engagement with China and our approach will remain consistent even if difficulties emerge.”“We must have a calibrated approach and use engagement to raise matters on which the U.K. cannot agree or compromise with China, including on human rights and Hong Kong,” the spokesperson said.That argument is not persuasive to Roger Garside, a former British diplomat whose latest book, Coming Alive: China After Mao, focuses on contemporary China.“As a former British diplomat myself, who served twice in Beijing, I am appalled by this behavior by our Ambassador-designate to the PRC,” Garside wrote from London in response to VOA’s request for comment. “It goes beyond anything I have witnessed from a British diplomat.”Garside summed up the reaction to Wilson’s tweet as a “stream of well-deserved outrage.”’Hard looks’Clive Hamilton, a professor of public ethics in Australia, also responded to a request for comment from his home in Canberra:“I think the foreign policy establishment is lagging [behind] the political shift that has taken place in Britain this year. It has yet to wake up to the [Communist Party of China]’s ambitions and ruthless modus operandi.”Hamilton added: “The danger is that instead of advocating Britain’s policies in Beijing, she will end up advocating China’s policies in London.”Wilson has already attracted “hard looks” from critics of China’s ruling Communist Party within her own party, said Hamilton, the author of Hidden Hand, which warns that the Chinese Communist Party is determined to mold the world in its own image.He said there has been no public criticism “as far as I know, but I’ve heard indirectly that some have expressed dismay in private.”

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