France gets help from EU neighbors as wildfires rage

Firefighters embrace as they work to contain a fire in Saint-Magne, as wildfires continue to spread in the Gironde region of southwestern France, on Thursday. (Reuters)
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Updated 11 August 2022

France gets help from EU neighbors as wildfires rage

  • Most of the country is sweltering under a summer heatwave compounded by a record drought
  • Four firefighting planes would be sent to France from Greece and Sweden, as well as teams from Austria, Germany, Poland and Romania

HOSTENS, France: Firefighting teams and equipment from six EU nations started to arrive in France on Thursday to help battle a spate of wildfires, including a fierce blaze in the parched southwest that has forced thousands to evacuate.
Most of the country is sweltering under a summer heatwave compounded by a record drought — conditions most experts say will occur more often as a result of rapid climate change.
“We must continue, more than ever, our fight against climate disruption and... adapt to this climate disruption,” Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said after arriving at a fire command post in the village of Hostens, south of Bordeaux.
The European Commission said four firefighting planes would be sent to France from Greece and Sweden, as well as teams from Austria, Germany, Poland and Romania.
“Our partners are coming to France’s aid against the fires. Thank you to them. European solidarity is at work!” President Emmanuel Macron tweeted.
“Across the country over 10,000 firefighters and security forces are mobilized against the flames... These soldiers of fire are our heroes,” he said.
In total, 361 foreign firefighters were dispatched to assist their 1,100 French colleagues deployed in the worst-hit part of the French southwest.
A first contingent of 65 German firefighters, followed by their 24 vehicles, arrived Thursday afternoon and were to go into action at dawn Friday, officials said.
Among eight major fires currently raging, the biggest is the Landiras fire in the southwest Gironde department, whose forests and beaches draw huge tourist crowds each summer.
It had already burned 14,000 hectares (35,000 acres) in July — the driest month seen in France since 1961 — before being contained, but it continued to smolder in the region’s tinder-dry pine forests and peat-rich soil.
Since flaring up again Tuesday, which officials suspect may have been caused by arson, it has burned 7,400 hectares, destroyed or damaged 17 homes, and forced 10,000 people to quit their homes, said Lt. Col. Arnaud Mendousse of the Gironde fire and rescue service.
Borne said nine firefighting planes are already dumping water on the blaze, with two more to be in service by the weekend.
“We battled all night to stop the fire from spreading, notably to defend the village of Belin-Beliet,” Mendousse told journalists in Hostens.
On several houses nearby, people hung out white sheets saying: “Thank you for saving our homes” and other messages of support for the weary fire battalions.
“You’d think we’re in California, it’s gigantic... And they’re used to forest fires here but we’re being overwhelmed on all sides — nobody could have expected this,” Remy Lahlay, a firefighter deployed near Hostens in the Landes de Gascogne natural park, told AFP.
With temperatures in the region hitting nearly 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) Thursday and forecast to stay high until at least Sunday, “there is a very serious risk of new outbreaks” for the Landiras fire, the prefecture of the Gironde department said.
Acrid smoke has spread across much of the southwestern Atlantic coast and its beaches that draw huge crowds of tourists each summer, with the regional ARS health agency “strongly” urging people to wear protective face masks.
The smoke also forced the closing of the A63 motorway, a major artery toward Spain, between Bordeaux and Bayonne.
The government has urged employers to allow leaves of absence for volunteer firefighters to help fight the fires.
In Portugal Thursday, more than 1,500 firefighters were also battling a fire that has raged for days in the mountainous Serra da Estrela natural park in the center of the country.
It has already burned 10,000 hectares, according to the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS).


‘Dozen’ dead in suspected Burkina Faso jihadist attack

Updated 27 September 2022

‘Dozen’ dead in suspected Burkina Faso jihadist attack

  • Violence has raged in the landlocked west African country after Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba seized power in a January coup

OUAGADOUGOU: A suspected jihadist attack in the north of Burkina Faso has killed around a dozen people, mostly soldiers, security sources told AFP on Monday.
Violence has raged in the landlocked west African country after Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba seized power in a January coup, ousting Burkina’s elected leader and promising to rein in jihadists.
But as in neighboring countries, insurgents affiliated to Al-Qaeda and the Daesh group have stoked the unrest.
In the latest attack, a convoy carrying supplies to local residents and escorted by a military unit “was the target of a terrorist attack” near Gaskinde in the Sahel region, an army statement said.
“The attack unfortunately caused human and material losses,” and a full toll would be established “as soon as possible,” it said.
A security source told AFP that a preliminary toll indicated “about a dozen dead among elements of the unit. There were also a number of seriously wounded.”
The source added that reinforcements had been sent to the area, both to secure it and to aid the victims.
On Sunday an improvised explosive device that targeted another army-escorted resupply convoy in the Sahel wounded four people, security sources said.
These attacks followed one on Saturday in the country’s east near the borders with Niger and Benin. The army said at least two soldiers and two civilian auxiliaries were killed in an ambush on their patrol.
Thousands have died and about two million people have been displaced by the fighting since 2015 when the insurgency spread into Burkina Faso.
Earlier this month Damiba sacked his defense minister and assumed the role himself after a series of jihadist attacks.

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Blinken urges Pakistan to seek China debt relief after floods

Updated 27 September 2022

Blinken urges Pakistan to seek China debt relief after floods

  • Blinken promised strong US support for Pakistan as it dries out and rebuilds from the floods

WASHINGTON: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Monday on Pakistan to seek debt relief from its close partner China as floods devastate the South Asian country.
Blinken promised strong US support for Pakistan as it dries out from the floods, which have submerged one-third of the country, an area the size of the United Kingdom.
“We send a simple message. We are here for Pakistan, just as we were during past natural disasters, looking ahead to rebuild,” Blinken said after talks in Washington with Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.
“I also urged our colleagues to engage China on some of the important issues of debt relief and restructuring so that Pakistan can more quickly recover from the floods,” Blinken said.
China is a key economic and political partner of Pakistan, pushing ahead with a $54 billion “economic corridor” that will build infrastructure and give Beijing an outlet to the Indian Ocean, although Chinese interests have also faced attacks from separatists.
Washington, whose Cold War alliance with Islamabad has frayed, has repeatedly charged that China will reap the benefits while Pakistan will face unsustainable debt.
The warnings by the United States — which considers China its preeminent global competitor — have repeatedly been brushed aside by Pakistan.
Some 1,600 people — one-third of them children — have died in Pakistan’s floods and more than seven million have been displaced, amid fears that such severe disasters will become more common due to climate change.
The United States has committed $56 million in humanitarian aid and sent 17 planes full of supplies, with promises of long-term support.
Bhutto Zardari said that President Joe Biden, who signed a landmark domestic climate package last month, also needed to look at “climate justice.”
“It’s not only important that you ‘build back better’ here,” he said, using Biden’s campaign slogan.
“The opportunity of this crisis in Pakistan is that we must build back better — greener, more climate-resilient — back home as well,” he said.
“I believe that working together we can do this.”
Pakistan, despite being the fifth most populous country, contributes only about 0.8 percent of greenhouse gas emissions blamed for climate change due to its state of development.
The US relationship with Pakistan sharply deteriorated over the course of the two-decade war in Afghanistan.
Under heavy pressure, Pakistan provided crucial logistical access, but US officials believe Islamabad’s powerful military and intelligence apparatus never abandoned the Taliban, who swept back to power last year as US troops pulled out.
“We have had our differences — that’s no secret,” Blinken said.
But he said Pakistan and the United States “have a shared stake in Afghanistan’s future,” including greater freedoms for women and girls, whose rights have again been heavily curtailed by the Taliban under their austere interpretation of Islam.
In another longstanding concern of the United States, Blinken encouraged Pakistan to respect for freedom of religion and expression.
Pakistan has seen repeated attacks against religious minorities and mob violence over accusations of blasphemy.
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s five-month-old government has faced criticism for restrictions on the media since he replaced Imran Khan, who lost a no-confidence vote in parliament after running afoul of the military.
Blinken also called on Pakistan to pursue a “responsible relationship” with India.
Dialogue has been at a standstill between the historic rivals, with India launching airstrikes in February 2019 in response to a deadly attack blamed on Pakistan-backed militants.
Immediately after meeting Bhutto Zardari, Blinken was hosting a dinner for India’s foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, with whom he will hold talks on Tuesday.
The South Asian foreign ministers were not expected to meet in Washington.

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UN speeches end with silence from Myanmar, Afghanistan

Updated 26 September 2022

UN speeches end with silence from Myanmar, Afghanistan

  • There was no speech from Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban, who now control the nation after a US withdrawal, and no words from Myanmar, where a military junta toppled the civilian government
  • Myanmar and Afghanistan didn’t go entirely unmentioned at UNGA77 with Nepali FM Bharat Raj Paudyal referencing both countries

UNITED NATIONS: For the second straight year, Afghanistan and Myanmar were silent at the UN General Assembly’s leaders’ meeting, which ended Monday with no representative of either government stepping forward to talk as the United Nations tries to resolve who should represent them.
At the annual high-level meeting of leaders, there was no speech from Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban, who now control the nation after a US withdrawal last year, and no words from Myanmar, where a military junta toppled the civilian government last year and detained its de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
For Afghanistan, it mirrored last year’s assembly when the Taliban — in its second chapter of ruling the nation — tried to figure out how to interact with the United Nations.
Last month, the UN special envoy on Myanmar said she wouldn’t visit the Southeast Asia nation again unless its military government allows her to meet with Suu Kyi, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison, including a three-year term with hard labor imposed last week for alleged election fraud.
Myanmar’s military seized power in February 2021 from Suu Kyi’s elected government, plunging the country into what some UN experts have described as civil war. Critics say the charges subsequently brought against Suu Kyi and top figures in her Cabinet were fabricated to keep them out of politics.
In December, the UN delayed actions on both Afghanistan’s and Myanmar’s bid for seats. UN diplomats said then that the decision to delay the requests by Myanmar’s junta and the Taliban had wide support because of the actions of the two countries’ new rulers.
Myanmar and Afghanistan didn’t go entirely unmentioned Monday. Bharat Raj Paudyal, foreign secretary of Nepal, brought up both of them.
“Afghanistan has remained on the precipice of uncertainty and violence,” he noted, and asked all parties in Myanmar to “respect the will of the people to elect their representatives.”


Putin grants Russian citizenship to US whistleblower Snowden

Updated 26 September 2022

Putin grants Russian citizenship to US whistleblower Snowden

  • Snowden, 39, fled the United States and was given asylum in Russia after leaking secret files in 2013
  • Documents revealed vast domestic and international surveillance operations carried out by the NSA

Vladimir Putin on Monday granted Russian citizenship to former US. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, nine years after he exposed the scale of secret surveillance operations by the National Security Agency (NSA).

Snowden, 39, fled the United States and was given asylum in Russia after leaking secret files in 2013 that revealed vast domestic and international surveillance operations carried out by the NSA, where he worked.

US authorities have for years wanted him returned to the United States to face a criminal trial on espionage charges.

There was no immediate reaction from Snowden, whose name appeared without Kremlin comment in a Putin decree conferring citizenship on a list of 72 foreign-born individuals.

The news prompted some Russians to jokingly ask whether Snowden would be called up for military service, five days after Putin announced Russia's first public mobilization since World War Two to shore up its faltering invasion of Ukraine.

"Will Snowden be drafted?" Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of the state media outlet RT and a vocal Putin supporter, wrote with dark humour on her Telegram channel.

Snowden's lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, told RIA news agency that his client could not be called up because he had not previously served in the Russian army.

He said that Snowden's wife Lindsay Mills, who gave birth to a son in 2020, would also apply for citizenship.

Russia granted Snowden permanent residency rights in 2020, paving the way for him to obtain Russian citizenship.

That year a US appeals court found the program Snowden had exposed was unlawful and that the US intelligence leaders who publicly defended it were not telling the truth.

Putin, a former Russian spy chief, said in 2017 that Snowden, who keeps a low profile while living in Russia, was wrong to leak US secrets but was not a traitor.


Biden to host Macron for state visit at White House Dec 1

Updated 26 September 2022

Biden to host Macron for state visit at White House Dec 1

  • State visits, which feature more pomp and ceremony than the frequent bilateral meetings hosted by US presidents for foreign leaders, have not taken place so far during Biden’s presidency
  • Asked why France had been chosen for the honor ahead of other US allies, Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said ‘we deeply value our relationship with France’

WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden will host French President Emmanuel Macron at the White House on December 1 for the first full-scale state visit of his administration, Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday.
The visit will “underscore the deep and enduring relationship between the United States and France, our oldest ally,” Jean-Pierre told reporters at the White House.
State visits, which feature more pomp and ceremony than the frequent bilateral meetings hosted by US presidents for foreign leaders, have not taken place so far during Biden’s presidency, which Jean-Pierre attributed to Covid pandemic restrictions.
Asked why France had been chosen for the honor ahead of other US allies, Jean-Pierre said “we deeply value our relationship with France.”
The link between the two countries is “founded on shared democratic values, economic ties, and defense and security cooperation,” she said.
Relations between Paris and Washington hit a major crisis last year when Australia abruptly announced it was ditching a contract to buy conventional French submarines in favor of a US nuclear-powered submarine deal.

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