Wildfire raging near French Riviera kills 2, injures 27

A fire brigade truck drives next to a wildfire near Le Luc on Wednesday. Fires near the French Riviera killed 2 people and was burning out of control in the forests of the popular region, fueled by wind and drought. (AP)
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Updated 18 August 2021

Wildfire raging near French Riviera kills 2, injures 27

  • Over 1,100 firefighters were battling the flames and thousands of tourists and locals were evacuated to safer areas
  • Whipped up by powerful seasonal winds coming off the Mediterranean Sea, the fire had burned 7,000 hectares of forest by Wednesday morning, local officials said

BORMES-LES-MIMOSAS, France: wildfire near the French Riviera killed two people and was burning out of control Wednesday in the forests of the popular region, fueled by wind and drought.
Over 1,100 firefighters were battling the flames and thousands of tourists and locals were evacuated to safer areas.
The fire started Monday evening 40 kilometers (24 miles) inland from the coastal resort of Saint-Tropez. Whipped up by powerful seasonal winds coming off the Mediterranean Sea, the fire had burned 7,000 hectares (17,300 acres) of forest by Wednesday morning, local officials said.
The prefect of the Var region, Evence Richard, told reporters that two people were killed. The local prosecutor said the bodies were found in a home that burned down near the town of Grimaud. An investigation has been opened to formally identify the victims.
At least 27 people, including five firefighters, have suffered smoke inhalation or minor injuries from the blaze, the prefecture of the Var region said. Authorities closed a highway north of the fire area on Wednesday afternoon due to the thick smoke.
In the Gulf of Saint-Tropez, huge water-bombing planes could be seen swooping down to fill their bellies with water to dump across the flaming Riviera backcountry.
The end of the day brought new risks, because the airborne battle against the blaze by nine water-dropping aircraft and two planes spreading fire retardant must stop at night. Reinforcements to give firefighters on the ground periodic rests were coming in from northern France and elsewhere.
The wildfire has forced about 10,000 people to flee homes, campgrounds and hotels, sending them to sleep in temporary shelters, the prefect tweeted. Among them were over 1,000 people who stayed around a gym in the seaside resort of Bormes-Les-Mimosas where authorities supplied food and water.
Vassili Bartoletti and his family, who are from northeastern France, were evacuated early Tuesday from a campground where they had been vacationing.
“Around midnight, someone knocked at our door and told us to take our belongings and leave. At the end of the alley, we could see the red flames,” he told The Associated Press. “So we left hastily.”
Bartoletti said his 6-year-old son was “very anxious” about the fire.
“I showed him the map. I showed him we were far away, that we’ve been moved to a safe place” in Bormes-Les-Mimosas, he said.
Last month, while the family was on vacation on the Italian island of Sardinia, a major blaze there for three days threatened the town where they had rented a house. They did not have to evacuate but endured smoke in the air and saw water-dumping planes and helicopters going back and forth repeatedly.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who has been vacationing in a nearby coastal fortress, visited the fire zone on Tuesday and praised the firefighters for their work.
French officials warned that the fire risk would remain very high through Wednesday because of hot, dry weather. Temperatures have reached 40 degrees Celsius (104 F) in recent days.
Wildfires have swept across the Mediterranean region in recent weeks, leaving areas in Greece, Turkey, Italy, Algeria and Spain in smoldering ruins. In Greece on Wednesday, a major wildfire northwest of Athens, the capital, decimated large tracts of pine forest for a third straight day.
In neighboring Albania, hundreds of hectares (thousands of acres) have burned over the last month. Police reported Wednesday that a former deputy minister has been arrested for arson.
In Spain, authorities in the central region of Castilla y León said firefighters had established a perimeter around a blaze that has consumed at least 12,000 hectares (29,650 acres) this week. A fire on the Canary Islands was also brought under control after singeing 300 hectares (740 acres) of farmland.
While the Mediterranean is known for its sunny, hot summers, scientists voice little doubt that climate change from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas is driving extreme events such as heat waves, droughts and wildfires. Such hardships are likely to happen more frequently as the Earth continues to warm, they say.


Scholar Ramadan to face Geneva rape trial: prosecutors

Updated 05 December 2022

Scholar Ramadan to face Geneva rape trial: prosecutors

  • A Swiss national and former professor at Oxford University, Ramadan has faced a string of rape and sexual assault allegations in France and Switzerland since 2017
  • The Swiss investigation has moved slowly, since Ramadan was initially in pre-trial detention in Paris over other rape allegations and could not be questioned

GENEVA: Embattled Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan will go on trial for rape in Geneva next year, over a case dating back more than 14 years, the prosecution said on Monday.
A Swiss national and former professor at Oxford University, Ramadan has faced a string of rape and sexual assault allegations in France and Switzerland since 2017.
The Geneva judiciary said in the current case Ramadan had been charged with rape and sexual coercion, and would be tried before the Geneva criminal court, confirming information first published by Swiss broadcaster RTS.
The accuser in this case, named simply “Brigitte” by Swiss media, has accused the now 60-year-old scholar of brutally attacking her on the evening of October 28, 2008.
The Muslim convert, who had met Ramadan a month earlier during a book signing, accuses him of subjecting her to sexual attacks, beatings and insults in a Geneva hotel room.
She waited a decade before coming forward, filing her complaint in April 2018.
Her lawyer, Francois Zimeray, told AFP his client was fearful as she brought the case.
“She feels no desire for revenge but is relieved and is putting her faith in the institutions,” he said, adding that he expected the trial to take place during the first half of 2023.
Ramadan’s lawyer, Guerric Canonica, meanwhile alleged on Monday that the prosecution had simply “copied the complaint without considering disqualifying elements.”
“It is now up to the judges to re-establish Mr. Ramadan’s complete innocence and we are serenely waiting for our day in court,” he told AFP.
Ramadan, who has previously filed a complaint against Brigitte for slander, is a father of four whose grandfather founded Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.
He was a professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University until he was forced to take leave when rape allegations surfaced at the height of the “Me Too” movement in 2017.
The Swiss investigation has moved slowly, since Ramadan was initially in pre-trial detention in Paris over other rape allegations and could not be questioned.
After he was released in November 2018, he was put on probation and barred from leaving France.
Swiss prosecutors went to Paris to question him, and once the probation was partially lifted, Ramadan traveled to Geneva for witness hearings in 2020.


Seoul: North Korea fires over 100 artillery rounds in military drill

Updated 05 December 2022

Seoul: North Korea fires over 100 artillery rounds in military drill

  • Some of the shells landed in a buffer zone near the sea border
  • South Korea and the United States have also stepped up military drills this year

SEOUL: North Korea fired around 130 artillery shells into the sea off its east and west coasts on Monday, South Korea’s military said, in the latest apparent military drill near their shared border.
Some of the shells landed in a buffer zone near the sea border in what Seoul said was a violation of a 2018 inter-Korean agreement designed to reduce tensions.
The South Korean military sent several warning communications to the North over the firing, the ministry of defense said in a statement.
North Korea did not immediately report on the artillery fire, but it has been carrying out an increasing number of military activities, including missile launches and drills by warplanes and artillery units.
South Korea and the United States have also stepped up military drills this year, saying they are necessary to deter the nuclear-armed North.
The 2018 Comprehensive Military Agreement (CMA) was the most substantive deal to come from the months of meetings between leader Kim Jong Un and then-South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
With those talks long stalled, however, recent drills and shows of force along the fortified border between the Koreas have cast doubts on the future of the measures. South Korea has accused the North of repeatedly violating the agreement with artillery drills this year.
This year North Korea resumed testing of its long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) for the first time since 2017, and South Korea and the United States say it has made preparations to resume nuclear testing as well.


Chinese cities relax testing rules as zero COVID-19 policy eases

Updated 05 December 2022

Chinese cities relax testing rules as zero COVID-19 policy eases

  • Local authorities have begun a slow rollback of the restrictions that have governed daily life for years
  • Chinese authorities on Monday reported 29,724 new domestic COVID-19 cases

BEIJING: Businesses reopened and testing requirements were relaxed in Beijing and other Chinese cities on Monday as the country tentatively eases out of a strict zero COVID-19 policy that sparked nationwide protests.
Local authorities across China have begun a slow rollback of the restrictions that have governed daily life for years, encouraged by the central government’s orders for a new approach to fighting the coronavirus.
In the capital Beijing, where many businesses have fully reopened, commuters from Monday were no longer required to show a negative virus test taken within 48 hours to use public transport.
Financial hub Shanghai — which underwent a brutal two-month lockdown this year — was under the same rules, with residents able to enter outdoor venues such as parks and tourist attractions without a recent test.
Neighboring Hangzhou went a step further, ending regular mass testing for its 10 million people, except for those living in or visiting nursing homes, schools and kindergartens.
In the northwestern city of Urumqi, where a fire that killed 10 people became the catalyst for the recent anti-lockdown protests, supermarkets, hotels, restaurants and ski resorts reopened on Monday.
The city of more than four million in the far-western Xinjiang region endured one of China’s longest lockdowns, with some areas shut from August until November.
Authorities in Wuhan, where the coronavirus was first detected in late 2019, and Shandong scrapped the testing requirement for public transport on Sunday.
And Zhengzhou — home to the world’s largest iPhone factory — on Sunday said people will be allowed to enter public places, take public transport and enter their residential compounds without a 48-hour negative test result.
The World Health Organization has cheered China’s loosening of its zero COVID-19 policy, which came after hundreds took to the streets across the country to call for greater political freedoms and an end to lockdowns.
While some COVID-19 rules have been relaxed, China’s vast security apparatus has moved swiftly to smother further rallies, boosting online censorship and surveillance of the population.
And as officials have dismantled testing facilities, long queues have appeared around those that remain, forcing residents to wait in cold temperatures to get tests that remain obligatory across much of China.
“Students can’t go to school without a 24-hour negative test,” wrote a user on China’s Twitter-like Weibo.
“What’s the point in closing testing booths before dropping the need to show test results completely?” another asked.
Chinese authorities on Monday reported 29,724 new domestic COVID-19 cases.


Growth in arms trade stunted by supply issues: report

Updated 05 December 2022

Growth in arms trade stunted by supply issues: report

  • The growth was severely impacted by widespread supply chain issues
  • Companies in the US continue to dominate global arms production

STOCKHOLM: Sales of arms and military services grew in 2021, researchers said Monday, but were limited by worldwide supply issues related to the pandemic, with the war in Ukraine increasing demand while worsening supply difficulties.
The top 100 arms companies sold weapons and related services totalling $592 billion in 2021, 1.9-percent more than the year before, said the latest report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
However the growth was severely impacted by widespread supply chain issues.
“The lasting impact of the pandemic is really starting to show in arms companies,” Nan Tian, a senior researcher at SIPRI, told AFP.
Disruptions from both labor shortages and difficulties in sourcing raw materials were “slowing down the companies’ ability to produce weapons systems and deliver them on time.
“So what we see really is a potentially slower increase to what many would have expected in arms sales in 2021,” Tian said.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is also expected to worsen supply chain issues, in part “because Russia is a major supplier of raw materials used in arms production,” said the report’s authors.
But the war has at the same time increased demand.
“Definitely demand will increase in the coming years,” Tian said.
By how much was at the same time harder to gauge, Tian said pointing to two factors that would impact demand.
Firstly, countries that have sent weapons to Ukraine to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars will be looking to replenish stockpiles.
Secondly, the worsening security environment means “countries are looking to procure more weapons.”
With the supply crunch expected to worsen, it could hamper these efforts, the authors noted.
Companies in the US continue to dominate global arms production, accounting for over half, $299 billion, of global sales and 40 of the top companies.
At the same time, the region was the only one to see a drop in sales: 0.9 percent down on the 2020 figures.
Among the top five companies — Lockheed Martin, Raytheon Technologies, Boeing, Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics — only Raytheon recorded an increase in sales.
Meanwhile, sales from the eight largest Chinese arms companies rose 6.3 percent to $109 billion in 2021.
European companies took 27 of the spots on the top 100, with combined sales of $123 billion, up 4.2 percent compared to 2020.
The report also noted a trend of private equity firms buying up arms companies, something the authors said had become increasingly apparent over the last three or four years.
This trend threatens to make the arms industry more opaque and therefore harder to track, Tian said, “because private equity firms will buy these companies and then essentially not produce any more financial records.”


US intel chief thinking ‘optimistically’ for Ukraine forces

Updated 04 December 2022

US intel chief thinking ‘optimistically’ for Ukraine forces

  • Russia’s military focus has been on striking Ukrainian infrastructure and pressing an offensive in the east

KYIV: The head of US intelligence says fighting in Russia’s war in Ukraine is running at a “reduced tempo” and suggests Ukrainian forces could have brighter prospects in coming months.
Avril Haines alluded to past allegations by some that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s advisers could be shielding him from bad news — for Russia — about war developments, and said he “is becoming more informed of the challenges that the military faces in Russia.”
“But it’s still not clear to us that he has a full picture of at this stage of just how challenged they are,” the US director of national intelligence said late Saturday at the Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley, California.
Looking ahead, Haines said, “honestly we’re seeing a kind of a reduced tempo already of the conflict” and her team expects that both sides will look to refit, resupply, and reconstitute for a possible Ukrainian counter-offensive in the spring.
“But we actually have a fair amount of skepticism as to whether or not the Russians will be in fact prepared to do that,” she said. “And I think more optimistically for the Ukrainians in that timeframe.”
In recent weeks, Russia’s military focus has been on striking Ukrainian infrastructure and pressing an offensive in the east, near the town of Bakhmut, while shelling sites in the city of Kherson, which Ukrainian forces liberated last month after an 8-month Russian occupation.
In his nightly address on Saturday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky lashed out at Western efforts to crimp Russia’s crucial oil industry, a key source of funds for Putin’s war machine, saying their $60-per-barrel price cap on imports of Russian oil was insufficient.
“It is not a serious decision to set such a limit for Russian prices, which is quite comfortable for the budget of the terrorist state,” Zelensky said, referring to Russia. He said the $60-per-barrel level would still allow Russia to bring in $100 billion in revenues per year.
“This money will go not only to the war and not only to further sponsorship by Russia of other terrorist regimes and organizations. This money will be used for further destabilization of those countries that are now trying to avoid serious decisions,” Zelensky said.
Australia, Britain, Canada, Japan, the United States and the 27-nation European Union agreed Friday to cap what they would pay for Russian oil at $60 per barrel. The limit is set to take effect Monday, along with an EU embargo on Russian oil shipped by sea.
Russian authorities have rejected the price cap and threatened Saturday to stop supplying the nations that endorsed it.
In yet another show of Western support for Ukraine’s efforts to battle back Russian forces and cope with fallout from the war, US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland on Saturday visited the operations of a Ukrainian aid group that provides support for internally displaced people in Ukraine, among her other visits with top Ukrainian officials.
Nuland assembled dolls out of yarn in the blue-and-yellow colors of Ukraine’s flag with youngsters from regions including northeastern Kharkiv, southern Kherson, and eastern Donetsk.
“This is psychological support for them at an absolutely crucial time,” Nuland said.
“As President Putin knows best, this war could stop today, if he chose to stop it and withdrew his forces — and then negotiations can begin,” she added.