Voice of Europe

Updated: 43 sec ago

Three Climbers Presumed Dead in Banff Avalanche

1 hour 7 min ago - [CET]
Three renowned mountain climbers are presumed dead after an avalanche in Alberta’s Banff National Park, Canadian officials said Thursday. Outdoor apparel company The North Face said that American Jess Roskelley and Austrians David Lama and Hansjorg Auer disappeared while attempting to climb the east face of Howse Peak on the Icefields Parkway. They were reported overdue Wednesday. “They are missing, and local search and rescue has assumed the worst,” North Face said in a statement. Roskelley climbed Mount Everest in 2003 at age 20. At the time he was the youngest American to climb the world’s highest peak. The North Face says it is doing what it can to support the climbers’ families and friends. Parks Canada said the three men were attempting to climb the east face of Howse Peak on the Icefields Parkway Wednesday. Officials say recovery efforts are on hold because of a continued risk of avalanches. Parks Canada says safety specialists immediately responded by air and observed signs of multiple avalanches and debris containing climbing equipment. “Parks Canada extends its sincerest condolences to the families, friends and loved ones of the mountaineers,” Parks Canada said in a statement. Roskelley’s father, John Roskelley, was himself a world-renowned climber who had many notable ascents in Nepal and Pakistan, mostly in the 1970s. John Roskelley joined his son on the successful Everest expedition in 2003. Jess Roskelley grew up in Spokane, Washington, where his father was a county commissioner. John Roskelley told The Spokesman-Review the route his son and the other climbers were attempting was first done in 2000. “It’s just one of those routes where you have to have the right conditions or it turns into a nightmare. This is one of those trips where it turned into a nightmare,” John Roskelley said. John Roskelley had climbed the 10,810-foot Howse Peak, via a different route, in the 1970s and knows the area well. On Thursday he was preparing to go to Canada to gather Jess Roskelley’s belongings and see if he could get into the area. “It’s in an area above a basin,” he said. “There must have been a lot of snow that came down and got them off the face.” The elder Roskelley said: “When you’re climbing mountains, danger is not too far away. ... It’s terrible for my wife and I. But it’s even worse for his wife.”
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Police Official: Short-Circuit Likely Caused Notre Dame Fire

3 hours 44 min ago - [CET]
Paris police investigators think an electrical short-circuit most likely caused the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral, a police official said Thursday, as France paid a daylong tribute to the firefighters who saved the world-renowned landmark. A judicial police official told The Associated Press that investigators made an initial assessment of the cathedral Wednesday but don't have a green light to search Notre Dame's charred interior because of ongoing safety hazards. The cathedral's fragile walls were being shored up with wooden planks, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak by name about an ongoing investigation.  Investigators believe the fire was accidental, and are questioning both cathedral staff and workers who were carrying out renovations. Some 40 people had been questioned by Thursday, according to the Paris prosecutor's office. The police official would not comment on an unsourced report in Le Parisian newspaper that investigators are looking at whether the fire could have been linked to a computer glitch or the temporary elevators used in the renovation work, among other things. The prosecutor's office said only that "all leads must be explored.'' Temporary structure proposed Since the cathedral will be closed to the public for years, the rector of the Catholic parish that worships there has proposed building a temporary structure on the plaza in front of the Gothic-era landmark, and City Hall gave its approval Thursday "subject to technical restraints.''  "The rector has no cathedral for the moment. ... But I'm going to try to invent something,'' Bishop Patrick Chauvet said.  A crypt containing vestiges dating from antiquity is located under the vast esplanade.  President Emmanuel Macron has said he wants Notre Dame to be restored in five years, in time for the 2024 Summer Olympics, which Paris is hosting. Restoration specialists have questioned the ambitious timeline, with some saying it could take three times that long to rebuild the 850-year-old architectural treasure.  Honoring the firefighters Earlier Thursday, Macron held a ceremony at the Elysee Palace to thank the hundreds of firefighters who battled the fast-moving fire at Notre Dame for nine hours starting Monday evening, preventing the structure's destruction and rescuing many of the important relics held inside. "We've seen before our eyes the right things perfectly organized in a few moments, with responsibility, courage, solidarity and a meticulous organization,'' Macron said. "The worst has been avoided.''  The cathedral's lead roof and its soaring spire were destroyed, but Notre Dame's iconic bell towers, rose windows, organ and precious artworks were saved.  Macron said the firefighters will receive an Honor Medal for their courage and devotion.  Paris City Hall also held a ceremony in the firefighters' honor Thursday afternoon, with a Bach violin concert, two giant banners strung from the monumental city headquarters and readings from Victor Hugo's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame.''  Remarkably, no one was killed in the blaze that broke out as the cathedral was in the initial stages of a lengthy restoration.  Securing area, cathedral A large swath of the island in the Seine River where Notre Dame is located was officially closed Thursday by police, who cited "important risks'' of collapse and falling objects. The area had been unofficially blocked off since the fire.  Meanwhile, workers using a crane removed some statues to lessen the weight on the cathedral's fragile gables, or support walls, to keep them from collapsing since they were no longer supported by the roof and its network of centuries-old timbers that were consumed by the inferno.  They also secured the support structure above one of Notre Dame's rose windows with wooden planks.  Saving history Among the firefighters honored Thursday was Paris fire brigade chaplain Jean-Marc Fournier, who told the Le Parisian daily he was able to save the cathedral's consecrated hosts. The paper said he climbed on altars to remove large paintings, but that he was especially proud "to have removed Jesus'' from the Cathedral — a reference to the Catholic belief that consecrated hosts are the body of Christ.  An earlier report credited Fournier with helping salvage the crown of thorns believed to have been worn by Jesus at his crucifixion, but Fournier told France Info Thursday he arrived after rescuers had already broken the relic's protective covering and an official who had the secret code needed to unlock it finished the job. He praised the action that preserved "this extraordinary relic, this patrimony of humanity.'' Among others honored was Myriam Chudzinski, one of the first firefighters to reach the roof as the blaze raged. Loaded with gear, they climbed hundreds of steps up the cathedral's narrow spiral staircase to the top of one of the two towers. "We knew that the roof was burning, but we didn't really know the intensity,'' she told reporters. "It was from upstairs that you understood that it was really dramatic. It was very hot and we had to retreat, retreat. It was spreading quickly.''  Benedicte Contamin, who came to view the damaged cathedral from afar Thursday, said she's sad but grateful it's still there.  "It's a chance for France to bounce back, a chance to realize what unites us, because we have been too much divided over the past years,'' she said.
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Officials Pay Tribute to Victims of Madeira Tourist Bus Crash

5 hours 46 min ago - [CET]
In a show of solidarity, the foreign ministers of Germany and Portugal laid two wreaths near the site where 29 German tourists died on Wednesday after their bus overturned on the Portuguese island of Madeira. The bus — carrying 55 tourists, a guide and a driver — veered off a steep road in the coastal town of Canico, near Madeira's capital city, Funchal, and came to a halt next to a house, which was damaged in the crash, authorities said. Portugal's public prosecutor's office opened an investigation into the accident, the cause of which authorities said they could not yet determine. Local TV channel SIC attributed it to either brake failure or a problem with the accelerator cable. Heiko Maas, Germany's foreign minister, landed in Madeira on Thursday evening with a team of doctors, psychologists and consular officials to meet those affected and thank Portugal for its help. As soon as he touched down, the minister and his team headed to the scene of the crash, where he paid tribute to the victims and, alongside his Portuguese counterpart, held a minute of silence. Flowers left near accident site Shocked residents also laid flowers by the road where the accident took place. "This is a terrible event," Maas told reporters during his visit to the site. "We can't just stay in Germany watching and celebrating Easter." Maas then visited Funchal's hospital, where 28 people were treated for head, abdominal, chest and other injuries, a hospital spokesman said on Thursday morning. A statement released on Thursday evening by Madeira's regional health service confirmed that 17 of the 28 injured remained in hospital and that 10 people were already discharged. None of those injured are currently in a life-threatening condition, Portugal's foreign minister, Augusto Santos Silva, told reporters after he arrived in Madeira on Thursday afternoon. "We are working flat-out to bring people who are injured and capable of being transported, to identify those who have died and to inform their families." Maas said. "It is very difficult work." Many victims were retirees Authorities on the island confirmed all 29 people killed were German. Madeira's regional health service said 17 were women and 12 were men. Many were retirees, said Germany's best-selling daily, Bild. The 29 victims were members of a bigger holiday group, other members of which were traveling on another bus, a regional civil protection spokesman said. Two of the injured were Portuguese and the rest were foreign nationals, a hospital spokesman said. Santos Silva confirmed the two Portuguese citizens were the driver and the tour guide. Images taken by Reuters photographers on Thursday showed the bulk of the wreckage had been removed, leaving some debris still scattered on the ground. Tributes poured in and three days of mourning were declared in Portugal on Thursday in honor of the victims of the bus crash. "I have no words to describe what happened. I cannot face the suffering of these people," Canico Mayor Filipe Sousa told SIC TV. Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa sent his "deepest condolences" to victims' families, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed "sadness and shock" at the scale of the tragedy.
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As Turkish-US Tensions Escalate, Ankara Looks to NATO

Thu, 04/18/2019 - 23:33 - [CET]
As tensions escalate between Turkey and the United States over the procurement of Russian missiles, Ankara is looking to NATO, which it sees as taking a more nuanced stance on the controversial weapons purchase. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence's warning this month that Turkey's future in NATO could be at risk if Ankara takes delivery of Russian S-400 missiles drew an angry response from Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin. "We are one of the members. We are a country that has a say in all decisions," Kalin said. "Therefore, we will not allow the questioning of Turkey's position in NATO." Washington claims the S-400 missiles, which are due to be delivered in July, pose a security threat to NATO military systems in Turkey — in particular, America's latest fighter jet, the F-35. Russia is developing the S-400 system to counter the F-35's stealth technology. ​U.S. warning While America is warning of far-reaching military and financial sanctions if the Russian missile system is delivered to Turkey, analysts say NATO appears to be taking a different stance. "We have to make a difference here between Turkish-NATO relations and Turkey-American relations," said international relations professor Huseyin Bagci of Ankara's Middle East Technical University. "Bilaterally [between Turkey and the U.S.] speaking, it's not a good [situation], but concerning NATO, there isn't a problem." "There is not one sentence from the NATO secretary-general that Turkey cannot buy this [S-400] system," he added. "NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg tells Turkey every ally has the right to buy any system; however, the political consequences, the strategic consequences, of such a purchase, he does not say anything. So the Turks are confused [about] whom to believe, the Americans or NATO." This month, Stoltenberg again refused to be drawn into the controversy over Turkey's S-400 purchase, reiterating his stance that it was a "national decision of each NATO ally to determine on its own." Stoltenberg appears to be seeking to position NATO as an honest broker in resolving the dispute. "We see that this is an issue which has created disagreement between allies, and NATO provides a platform for allies to address issues like this," he said. With Turkey devoting military resources to many NATO theaters of operation, from Afghanistan to Kosovo, analysts suggest the military alliance will be wary of being drawn into the increasingly bitter dispute between Ankara and Washington.  Regional role Turkey's geographical importance bordering many of the world's most unstable regions and its preparedness to play an active role were acknowledged this month at a NATO gathering at the Turkish Mediterranean resort of Antalya. Turkey "sees itself as a bridge between Europe and the Middle East," said Madeleine Moon, head of the NATO Parliament Assembly, "which gives it a leading role in promoting security and stability" in the Middle East and North Africa. While Ankara is deepening its ties with Moscow, it's also stepping up its support of NATO efforts to counter Russian influence. "Turkey relations with Moscow are very close, so there is an antagonism there [with its Western allies]," said Aydin Selcen, a former senior Turkish diplomat. "But also at the same time, although the rhetoric is very harsh against some allies, Turkey's participation in NATO exercises in the Baltic Sea and Black Sea is at unprecedented levels and quality." Selcen offers two explanations for the apparent contradictory foreign policy of Ankara toward NATO and Western allies. "Either there is some sort of disconnect or lack of coordination between the Turkish presidency and national defense ministry," Selcen said, "which is, in today's Turkish national regime, quite improbable, or Ankara is trying to extract some flexibility from Washington, which is not forthcoming." Turkey's more robust approach toward its NATO partners could be threatening a new quarrel within the alliance. According to reports, Ankara is set to veto Macedonia's NATO membership unless Skopje extradites Turkish nationals wanted in connection with the failed 2016 Turkey coup. Turkey's future in alliance Turkey's stance toward some NATO members and its deepening ties with Moscow are leading some to question the country's future within the alliance, a fear Turkish presidential adviser Gulnor Aybet appears happy to stoke. "If the United States continues to approach Turkey with a zero-sum game … then the doors, which are currently open for the future of relations, could turn toward another partner, and that is Russia," Aybet said this month during a panel discussion in Washington. However, international relations professor Bagci said it's essential to look beyond the political rhetoric and understand that the decades-long strategic importance of NATO to Turkey remains unchanged. "Russia is not an alternative [to Turkey]. Turkey will not look to Russia as a most trusted ally. It is not the case and will not be," Bagci said. "Turkey always uses Russia as a balance of power, as leverage. Turkey will not leave NATO unless NATO leaves Turkey. Then, Russia is an alternative."
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Putin Ally Makes Pitch to Probable Next Leader of Ukraine

Thu, 04/18/2019 - 22:24 - [CET]
Ukraine's new president could regain control over the separatist-controlled east of his country within months and get cheap gas and major investment from Russia if he does a deal with Moscow, the Kremlin's closest ally in Ukraine said.  Viktor Medvedchuk, a prominent figure in Ukraine's Russia-leaning opposition, outlined the prospect in an interview before a presidential election runoff in Ukraine on Sunday, which polls show political novice Volodymyr Zelenskiy should easily win.  He said the Kremlin was keen to know more about Zelenskiy, a 41-year-old Russian-speaking TV comedian who has no political experience, to understand if he is someone it could strike a deal with, something it failed to do with incumbent Petro Poroshenko.  "They don't have any expectations in Moscow," he said. "They want to see what happens afterward, who will be in his [Zelenskiy's] entourage, and what he will do and with whom."  A Ukrainian citizen, Medvedchuk does not represent Russia, but his words carry weight due to his close friendship with President Vladimir Putin and track record as a channel between the two nations.  Medvedchuk said he had known Putin for 19 years, that the Russian leader is godfather to his daughter, and that he had held talks with Putin in Moscow as recently as two weeks ago.  The Kremlin has made clear it will be glad to see the back of Poroshenko but has not commented on Zelenskiy, saying only that it is watching candidates' statements closely and hopes any new president can implement a peace deal on Donbass, eastern Ukraine, which has been under separatist control since 2014.  The Kremlin did not immediately respond when asked if Medvedchuk was acting on its behalf or if the outlines of his proposal were in line with its own thinking. T​esting the waters Medvedchuk, who said he had met Zelenskiy only once, "eight or nine years ago," and had no contacts with him, appears to be testing the waters however.  Medvedchuk was head of then-Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma's administration until 2005. He has brokered prisoner exchanges between the two countries and held talks in Moscow last month with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev about gas prices.  At that meeting, he said he and an ally secured a pledge of a 25 percent discount for Russian gas if Kyiv agreed to resume direct gas purchases from energy giant Gazprom instead of via European countries as it has done since the end of 2015.  Russia's main focus is returning separatist-held Donbass to Kyiv on its own terms. This could help Moscow win some relief from sanctions imposed by the European Union over its 2014 annexation of Crimea and its backing for the pro-Russian Donbass uprising.  Poroshenko balked at what he saw as the unfavorable terms of the so far unimplemented Minsk peace deal agreed upon at a 2015 summit with Russia, France and Germany. That deal called for Donbass to be given a special status and for an amnesty for separatist fighters, among other things.  So far, Zelenskiy has said he wants peace in the east and to breathe new life into stalled talks, while saying he would not implement parts of the Minsk deal either.  For now, said Medvedchuk, Zelenskiy was on the wrong policy track. But he said there was hope he might alter his stance once elected, after he'd had a chance to immerse himself in the subject.  "Maybe he'll come round to the idea that for the sake of peace you need to do this," said Medvedchuk. "Nobody is talking about having to make concessions or give something back. We're talking about the need to return people and territory."  Putin might be willing to release 24 captured Ukrainian sailors as a goodwill gesture, Medvedchuk said, adding that billions of dollars of Russian money would flow into Ukraine's economy if economic ties between the two neighbors, which have been disrupted by sanctions, were restored.  "We're not saying that we have to kiss or hug each other again. We're talking about restoring pragmatic economic relations," he said, adding that Ukraine had lost $20 billion a year in exports to Russia because of Kyiv's turning its back on Moscow after Russia's actions in 2014.  Need to talk Medvedchuk's pitch to patch up ties with Moscow is unpalatable for many Ukrainians who view Russia as a strategic enemy, particularly in the Ukrainian-speaking west of the country. But it has support in the Russian-speaking southeast and is designed to appeal to those weary of a five-year-old war estimated by the United Nations to have killed over 16,000 people.  Some EU countries have suggested they would be ready to lift sanctions on Russia if pro-Russian separatists handed Donbass back to Ukrainian government control. Other countries favor sanctions relief only if Moscow returns Crimea as well.  An agreement on how to implement a peace deal over eastern Ukraine could be reached "within several months" and implemented on the ground within "six to eight months," said Medvedchuk, saying any talks on the matter should include Kyiv, Moscow and the two pro-Russian separatist breakaway territories.  "We could do it all within a few months. We need to sit down and talk. It [the detail in the Minsk accord] has already been spelled out. We just need to determine the order of doing things."  That would entail the Ukrainian parliament's enacting several laws and approving a change to the constitution.  Medvedchuk said he would advise Zelenskiy on the subject if asked and that his party, Opposition Platform — for Life, which is second in the polls, would potentially be ready to cooperate with Zelenskiy in parliament on a case-by-case basis after elections in October. Zelenskiy has indicated he would not want to form a coalition with Medvedchuk's party and has not said if he would be ready to work together on an ad hoc basis.  In the meantime, Moscow's standoff with Kyiv is deepening. Russia's Medvedev said on Thursday that he had signed a decree limiting Russian exports of some coal, crude oil and oil products to Ukraine in response to a recent Ukrainian embargo on some Russian goods.  Cold economic logic now dictates the need for a rapprochement with Moscow, said Medvedchuk.  "If we don't do it and continue with this anti-Russian policy and hysteria, our economic life will deteriorate further," he said. 
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Architects, Engineers, Faithful Explore How to Restore Notre Dame

Thu, 04/18/2019 - 21:35 - [CET]
France's Prime Minister has called for an international competition to restore the spire at the fire-damaged Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.  French President Emmanuel Macron says he wants the repairs done in five years.  But the cathedral is not only a cultural and UNESCO heritage site - it is also an ecclesiastical one.  What will it take to restore the building? And should it be restored to what it was or should it be changed? The fires are out, millions of dollars are being pledged, and the political will is there to begin restoring Notre Dame.   The stone vault in the cathedral protected much of the interior of the building, but the lead-clad timber roof and the 19th-Century Neogothic spire have been destroyed. French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has called for a new spire that is "adapted to the techniques and challenges of our era." What will that mean? Julio Bermudez is a professor in the School of Architecture and Planning at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.  He says those restoring Notre Dame will have to decide whether or not to leave a 21st Century mark on the building. "So I think we could have this conversation how far we want to replicate exactly what it was before or how much - or should we - have a different level of response that acknowledges today's time," said Bermudez.   One concern is the condition of the three massive Rose windows in the Cathedral - what effect did the fire and water have on them?  Virginia Raguin is Distinguished Professor of Humanities at the College of the Holy Cross. She says that the windows will be examined by a worldwide team of experts, but only once the structural integrity of the building is assured. "They will have to assess the integrity of the windows and then they will make a decision as to whether or not they can be stabilized in place, whether they need to be stabilized in place, how to stabilize them in place or whether they need to be taken and then solidified,'' said Raguin. Karpali Krusche is the associate dean for research, scholarship, and creative work at the School of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.  She is also an expert in historic preservation and has worked on the digital preservation of the Taj Mahal in India and the Vatican's Belvedere Courtyard.  She says rebuilding Notre Dame offers a unique opportunity to learn how to prevent future disasters. "So it is going to be crucial to understand how can we protect these monuments for any kind of natural or man-made disaster or attacks that can happen to such iconic monuments around the globe," said Krusche. Art History professor Kevin Murphy of Vanderbilt University in Nashville says the site is important even to those with no faith, so restoring its former beauty is paramount. "Many people who aren't necessarily Catholic who go there and feel inspiration will want to have that sense of soaring spaciousness completely restored regardless of the particular choices that are made about materials and style and those sort of questions," he said. Restorers will also have to decide whether to rebuild the roof with wood or with other materials.  Because of a lack of timber, the massive oak beams that held the previous roof might not be replicated.  And preventing another catastrophe will be paramount.   Kobi Karp is an architect whose firm has designed and built commercial and multi-use properties across the world.  He says even if the roof is restored to its previous design, it will have to incorporate modern fireproofing and firefighting equipment. "And I think that now we actually have an opportunity to take our knowledge in fire life safety to go into the truss system so when we do resurrect this beautiful volume and space we would be able to hopefully never, ever have to face this event again,'' said Karp. But any restoration will have to consider the artistic and ecclesiastical heritage of Notre Dame.  Catholic University Associate professor and Chair of the Art department Nora Heimann says the cathederal is as much a symbol of hope as it is a symbol of France or of the Catholic Faith. "We see it as a symbol of courage, we see it as a symbol of human resilience, we see it as a symbol of ingenuity and for those of us among the community of the Catholic faithful, it stands for the endurance of faith against all obstacles.  That it [the fire] happened in particular in Holy Week just adds tremendous poignancy to it," said Heimann.   Julio Bermudez says that rebuilding Notre Dame is an act of faith, not only for the French but also for all humanity. "This is now a human heritage in which perhaps the French have more responsibility than many, but then all of us are part of this beautiful project of faith in our humanity and in our connection to something larger than we are," said Bermudez. French President Emmanuel Macron has said that he wants Notre Dame restored in five years - just in time for Paris to host the 2024 Olympics. Some have balked at that timeline, but momentum to rebuild what was lost and preserve what remains is running high, so perhaps it can be done.
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Greek Anarchists Claim Russian Consulate Grenade Blast 

Thu, 04/18/2019 - 21:04 - [CET]
A Greek anarchist group on Thursday claimed responsibility for exploding a grenade outside the Russian Consulate in Athens in March.    In a statement on anti-establishment website Indymedia validating the hit, the group calling itself "FAI/IRF Revenge Plot" accused Moscow of torturing arrested anarchists.    They dedicated the attack to Mikhail Zhlobitsky, a 17-year-old anarchist killed in a suicide bombing at the regional offices of federal security service FSB in Arkhangelsk in October.    The Athens grenade explosion on March 22 caused no injuries. The consulate was closed at the time.     Domestic far-left outfits regularly carry out acts of violence against diplomatic missions in Greece.    FAI/IRF is associated with the Conspiracy of Fire Nuclei, a Greek anarchist group, several of whose members are serving long prison terms for letter bomb attacks.
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Bulgaria Seizes 288 Kilos of Heroin in Truck From Iran 

Thu, 04/18/2019 - 20:51 - [CET]
Bulgarian customs officials confiscated more than 288 kilograms (635 pounds) of heroin hidden on a truck from Iran, prosecutors announced Thursday.  The haul was the biggest amount of heroin seized at Bulgaria's borders this year, the customs agency said. Two men — the Iranian truck driver and a Turkish man, who was allegedly to receive the drugs in Bulgaria — were detained and indicted for drug trafficking, the Haskovo regional prosecution said in a statement. They risk jail terms from 15 to 20 years, it added. The drugs were placed in 144 packages hidden inside the floor and ceiling of a spray painting machine transported inside the truck. It was found when the vehicle was X-rayed upon entering Bulgaria from Turkey at the southeastern Kapitan Andreevo border checkpoint on Sunday, but the seizure was announced Thursday. Bulgaria, which lies on the so-called Balkan drug route from the Middle East to Western Europe, has seen a several-fold increase in heroin seizures over the past three years. In 2018, the customs agency confiscated a total of 994 kilos of heroin at the country's borders, a rise of 13 percent from 2017. The amount included the biggest heroin haul in the agency's history — over 712 kilos found in two Iranian trucks travelling to Austria in October.  Over the past week, Bulgarian authorities also found over 210 kilos of cocaine washed ashore or floating in life jackets in the Black Sea, just days after similar packages were seized along the coast in neighboring Romania.
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Debate Over Future Notre-Dame Spire Fuels French Divisions

Thu, 04/18/2019 - 19:48 - [CET]
President Emmanuel Macron might have hoped he was striking a note for modernity and openness in announcing an international competition to design a new spire for Notre-Dame cathedral, but he may have opened a can of worms instead. There was already debate about whether his goal of rebuilding the church by 2024, when Paris hosts the Olympic Games, was overly ambitious, but now he's unsettled those who would prefer to return the national symbol to just how it was. "Since the spire wasn't part of the original cathedral," the Elysee Palace said in a statement late on Wednesday, "the President of the Republic hopes there will be some reflection and a contemporary architectural gesture might be envisaged." Computer-generated pictures online included ideas for a soaring glass needle to replace the 91-metre (300 foot) spire, which was added to the cathedral in the mid-1800s, replacing a Medieval one that was removed in 1786. But that appears to be too much for many French, especially those with a traditional or Catholic bent. In an online survey conducted by conservative newspaper Le Figaro, more than 70 percent of the 35,000 people who responded said they opposed any contemporary style design. Francois-Xavier Bellamy, a 33-year-old philosopher who will head the right-of-center Les Republicains party list in next month's European Parliament elections, said Macron's government lacked humility in suggesting a modernist rethink. "We are the inheritors of patrimony, it doesn't belong to us, and it's important therefore that we hand it on in the way that we received it," he told Reuters. "There are rules in France about protecting national heritage. The President of the Republic is not above the law. It's not up to him to decide to build a modern spire." Plus ca change... While Bellamy is a conservative Catholic and might be expected to campaign for returning the 850-year-old Gothic masterpiece to exactly how it was before the fire, his views are shared by some architectural historians. Patrick Demouy, an emeritus professor of medieval history who specializes in the Notre-Dame de Reims cathedral, said it would be difficult to imagine something starkly different to the 19th century spire, even if its architect, Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, was himself quite inventive with his design. "Personally, I'm in favor of restoring it to how it was because that's the spire that has imposed itself on the collective memory," he told Reuters. "It would be hard to perceive [a contemporary spire] because we wouldn't really recognize it any longer as being Notre-Dame." Macron's culture minister, Franck Riester, said it was important the nation debated the issue and generated ideas. There is likely to be months if not years of discussion before a design — contemporary or otherwise — is fixed upon. "The masterpiece that Viollet-le-Duc left us is exceptional, but we must not dogmatically insist that we recreate an identical cathedral," he told BFM TV. "We must let the debate take place, see what ideas are presented, and then decide." Paris has a track-record of being experimental with its architecture, whether via buildings such as the Pompidou Center, or the glass pyramid at the heart of the Louvre, which blends modernism with classical lines. Other constructions, such as the 210-metre Montparnasse tower or the vast empty square of the Arche de la Defense, have come in for more criticism, even if they have fans, too. For Jean-Michel Leniaud, an art historian at the National Institute of Art History, Notre-Dame is special because it is both a work of art and among the nation's greatest monuments, a source of unity for citizens in times of strife. "The restoration of Notre-Dame de Paris shouldn't be the opportunity for creative architects to show off their inventive spark," he told Reuters. "We should go back to the original, the spire of Viollet-le-Duc," he said. "The best way, the most consensual way to overcome this terrible disaster is to return it to the original state."
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Authoritarian Leaders Fueled Hatred Toward Journalists Worldwide, Study Finds

Thu, 04/18/2019 - 19:22 - [CET]
A report released Thursday concludes disdain for journalists throughout the world has increased during the past year, due primarily to the behavior of authoritarian leaders. The 2019 World Press Freedom Index report, conducted by Reporters Without Borders, said "authoritarian regimes continue to tighten their grip on the media," resulting in a "hatred of journalists" that has "degenerated into violence, contributing to an increase in fear." The United States' ranking in the annual index of press freedom declined for the third time in three years, a result of U.S. President Donald Trump's regular threats to reporters and his inflammatory remarks about the media, the report said. The U.S. ranked 48th among the 180 nations and territories that were surveyed, maintaining a descent that started in 2016.  For the first time since the report started in 2002, the United States was included in a category of countries where the treatment of journalists is described as "problematic." The report said while a deterioration of the press freedom climate in the U.S. predated Trump's presidency, the first year of his time in office "has fostered further decline in journalists' right to report."  The report cited Trump's repeated declarations of the news media as an "enemy of the American people," attempts to deny White House access to "multiple media outlets," regular use of the term "fake news" in retaliation to critical reporting, and calls to revoke the broadcasting licenses of "certain media outlets." It noted that hatred toward reporters prompted a gunman to murder four journalists and another employee last June at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland just east of Washington.  The gunman had mental health issues and was angry with the newspaper for reporting about his pleading guilty to criminal harassment in 2011.   "Amid one of the American journalism community's darkest moments, President Trump continued to spout his notorious anti-press rhetoric, disparaging and attacking the media at a national level," the report said. European countries once again occupied most of the spots at the top of the index.  Norway topped the list for the third consecutive year, followed by Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark.  The United Kingdom ranked 33rd, rising seven spots since last year.  But the report said the U.K. "remained one of the worst-performing countries in Western Europe," noting its more favorable ranking was due to the sharp deterioration of press freedom in other countries. The countries at the bottom of the list were dominated by Asian countries.  Turkmenistan ranked 180, topped by North Korea, Eritrea, China and Vietnam in ascending order. The Americas experienced the most pronounced regional deterioration worldwide, primarily due to the decline of the U.S., Brazil, Mexico, Nicaragua and Venezuela. The European Union and the Balkans registered the second largest regional deterioration, followed by the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe and Central Asia and the Asia-Pacific. The findings are based on responses to an 87-question survey that assesses pluralism, media independence and censorship in each country. Government policy was not evaluated. Responses were provided by media representatives, sociologists and attorneys around the world.  Their feedback was integrated into a database of reported abuses and violent acts against journalists. To access the report in its entirety, visit https://rsf.org/en/ranking_table.    
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Pope Washes Feet of Prisoners at Holy Thursday Service

Thu, 04/18/2019 - 19:08 - [CET]
Pope Francis washed and kissed the feet of 12 prisoners on Thursday at a traditional service, telling them to shun any inmate hierarchy structure or law of the strongest and to help each other instead. Francis' predecessors held the traditional Holy Thursday rite in one of Rome's great basilicas, washing the feet of 12 priests. But to emphasize its symbolism of service, Francis transferred it to places of confinement, such as prisons, immigrant centers or old age homes. He traveled this year to a prison in the town of Velletri, about 40 km south of Rome. It is the fifth time since his election in 2013 that he has held the service, which commemorates Jesus' gesture of humility toward his apostles on the night before he died, in jail. Francis told the inmates that in Jesus's time, washing the feet of visitors was the job of slaves and servants. "This is the rule of Jesus and the rule of the gospel. The rule of service, not of domination or of humiliating others," he said. Of the male inmates whose feet Francis washed, there were nine Italians, one Brazilian, one Moroccan and one Ivorian. The Vatican did not give their religions. In the past, conservative Catholics criticized the pope for washing the feet of women and Muslim inmates. The Velletri prison, which is overcrowded like most Italian jails, mostly holds foreigners for common crimes, but one section holds turncoats who collaborated with investigators and get special protection. On Good Friday, Francis, marking his seventh Easter season as Roman Catholic leader, is due to lead a Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) procession around Rome's ancient Colosseum. The 82-year-old leader of the world's 1.3 billion Roman Catholics leads an Easter vigil service on Saturday night and on Easter Sunday reads the traditional "Urbi et Orbi" (To The City and The World) message.
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UN Calls for Repatriation of IS Wives, Children in Syria

Thu, 04/18/2019 - 19:02 - [CET]
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is calling on countries to repatriate thousands of wives and children of Islamic State militants in Syria, who are living in dire conditions in the al-Hol camp in al-Hasakeh governorate in northeast Syria. More than 75,000 people who fled Islamic State's last stronghold in Baghuz are living in overcrowded, desperate conditions in al-Hol Camp. Women and children comprise 90 percent of the population. Among them are more than 11,000 foreign women and children, including those born of a foreign father or mother. Governments have expressed reluctance to repatriate their nationals, who left their countries of origin to join the Islamic State militant cause in Syria. But Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis Panos Moumtzis said all member states have an obligation under international law to repatriate their own nationals. He said no one should be rendered stateless. Moumtzis is appealing to states to accept the children who have the nationality of their foreign mother or father. He said children should be treated first and foremost as victims. Children have special rights for protection that apply in all situations, he told VOA. "This has to be irrespective of the children's age, sex, and including any perceived family affiliation," he said. "The perceived family affiliation should really not affect the determination of the best interests of the child.So, it is really a special plea for the children." The U.N. children's fund estimates there are about 2,500 children living with their mothers in a separate area of the al-Hol camp. Moumtzis said women are being kept apart from the rest of the population to reduce tensions. He said there is hostility toward them because of their suspected involvement with IS fighters. He said the area where the foreign women and their children are staying is more restricted than the rest of the camp. The United Nations, he added, has not been allowed to access the area, which is run by the Kurdish-led Syrian Defense Forces. He said the International Committee of the Red Cross is one of a few organizations allowed to go in and out. The United Nations, he said, provides the ICRC with life-saving supplies, which they distribute to the residents.
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Notre Dame's Neighborhood Isolated Since Fire

Thu, 04/18/2019 - 18:00 - [CET]
The neighborhood around Notre Dame Cathedral is usually buzzing with tourists all year. Now the shops and cafes are empty and the streets eerily quiet. Since Monday's fire, half the island in the middle of the Seine has been closed to visitors. Residents who have the right to cross the safety cordons are the only customers for the local shops struggling with the sudden freeze to business. The police on Thursday blocked off the area to pedestrians and traffic until Monday - and likely longer. At Quasimodo Notre Dame bar, named for Victor Hugo's hunchback, some of the storekeepers gathered to commiserate. “We can't work anymore,” said Betty Touiller, who operates a boutique in the open-air flower market famous for its blossoms and caged birds. “We couldn't even water our plants on Tuesday. Even when they showed their paychecks, my employees couldn't get in.” Four apartment buildings were evacuated on Cloister Street which runs along the cathedral's northern wall and is scattered with stones that have been tumbling off the monument since Monday evening. None fell on Thursday morning, but few believe the weakened walls are stable. The upper part of the building is no longer upheld by the lattice of beams, which burned away in the fire. The cathedral walls now lean 20 centimeters (8 inches) toward the street, although a makeshift support of wooden planks is there now, and a protective net will soon go up, according to police. Elsewhere, the restaurants that remain open have refrigerators filled with perishables - and dining rooms void of customers. “They're talking years before things go back to normal,” said Patrice Le Jeune, president of the neighborhood merchants' association. Frederic Benami, a waiter in the neighborhood said that when he saw the spire fall, it was “like losing a member of the family.” He lives above one of the only open establishments, “Au Vieux Paris,” which served five people on Wednesday, instead of 130 normally, according to France Info. “We feel like we're holed up in a camp,” said Isabelle Hugot, another neighbor. “It's unbearable.”
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Ukraine Election: The President vs. the Guy Who Plays One on TV

Thu, 04/18/2019 - 17:26 - [CET]
Ukraine's presidential runoff Sunday is a battle between a billionaire tycoon who rode anti-Russian protests to the nation's top office five years ago and a comedian who plays a president in a TV sitcom. Improbably, the actor appears poised to win. Comic actor Volodymyr Zelenskiy's commanding lead in the polls reflects widespread disillusionment with President Petro Poroshenko and Ukraine's old political elite, as well as a seething anger against rampant corruption and a lack of opportunity that have left many in endemic poverty. It also reflects a campaign that has effectively used humor and social media to reach voters. Zelenskiy's easygoing style and artistic flair contrasts sharply with Poroshenko's stodgy demeanor and stiff gestures, and the rival campaigns bear the distinctive mark of their starkly different persona.
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Germany Charges Former SS Guard With 5,230 Counts of Accessory to Murder

Thu, 04/18/2019 - 17:25 - [CET]
A former Nazi guard has been charged with 5,230 counts of accessory to murder at the Stutthof concentration camp during the final months of World War II, German prosecutors said Thursday. Prosecutors in the northern city of Hamburg said Thursday that the 92-year-old suspect, whose name they didn't release, is accused of assisting in the "malicious and cruel" killing of mainly Jewish inmates through his work as an SS guard at the camp between August 1944 and April 1945. Prosecutors said the man, who was aged 17-18 at the time and would therefore be tried as a juvenile, was "a little wheel in the machinery of murder" which saw thousands of people shot dead, poisoned or starved toward the end of the war. German daily Die Welt reported that the suspect, who it identified as Bruno Dey, acknowledged to investigators he was aware of the camp's gas chambers and saw bodies taken to the crematoriums, but denied being a supporter of Nazi ideology and expressed regret for the fate of Jews. German prosecutors have charged a number of aging former concentration camp guards in recent years. There have been some convictions but in several cases the defendants' poor health has prevented them going on trial.
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Leaders of Russia, Estonia Sit Down for Talks

Thu, 04/18/2019 - 16:44 - [CET]
The presidents of Russia and Estonia have sat down for talks at the Kremlin for the first time in nearly a decade. Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid arrived in Moscow on Thursday to hold talks with President Vladimir Putin. Putin told Kaljulaid in opening remarks that the lack of high-level contacts between Russia and Estonia is “not a normal situation” and said that both countries have a lot of issues in common, including environment issues surrounding the Baltic Sea and security. Estonia, which borders Russia's northwest and is home to a large Russian-speaking minority, was spooked by Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.   Estonia has since hosted scores of NATO military drills, aimed at deterring potential Russian aggression.  
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Tensions Flare With Italy's Ruling Coalition Over Corruption

Thu, 04/18/2019 - 16:33 - [CET]
Italy's deputy transport minister has been placed under investigation in a corruption probe, becoming the latest political pawn in Italy's uneasy ruling coalition between the right-wing, anti-migrant League party and the populist 5-Star Movement. League member Armando Siri "categorically denied" wrongdoing and asked Thursday to immediately respond to prosecutors' questions. That didn't stop his boss, 5-Star member Danilo Toninelli, from revoking Siri's authority pending further clarity in the investigation. Five-Star leader and deputy premier Luigi Di Maio called for Siri to resign. The League stood by Siri, saying it had "full confidence" in him. It called for a quick investigation that "leaves no shadows" about his behavior. The onetime rival parties formed a coalition government last year. The League has seen its popularity soar ahead of the European Parliament elections next month.
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North Korea's Kim to Meet with Russian President Putin

Thu, 04/18/2019 - 15:40 - [CET]
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin are to meet later this month in Moscow. The Kremlin announcement was made Thursday after North Korea said it tested a new tactical weapon armed with a "powerful warhead." The Kremlin did not provide details of the Putin-Kim summit, but said it had planned the meeting for months. Kim and U.S.  President Donald Trump have held two summits as part of an ongoing effort to denuclearize North Korea, but the efforts have stalled. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said earlier U.S. presidential advisor Fiona Hill met in Moscow with her Russian counterpart, Yuri Ushakov.  The U.S. State Department said the U.S. special envoy for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, was also in Moscow. Russia and North Korea have relatively warm relations and Putin has long expressed a willingness to meet with Kim. The last meeting between the leaders of the two countries occurred in 2011, when Kim's father, the late Kim Jong Il, met in Siberia with then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.  
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Paris Honors 'Exemplary' Firefighters for Saving Notre-Dame

Thu, 04/18/2019 - 15:38 - [CET]
French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday hailed as "exemplary" hundreds of firefighters who saved Notre-Dame in the devastating blaze, as efforts intensified to ensure there was no further damage to the still fragile cathedral. Some 600 firefighters worked throughout the night Monday to put out the fire at the Paris landmark and prevent an even worse disaster, in a blaze that felled the spire and destroyed two-thirds of its roof. Sixty firefighters are still keeping a vigil at Notre-Dame to ensure no further fire erupts while France's culture minister warned that two gables and figurines perched high up in the building were still at risk of collapse inside. Dressed in ceremonial uniform, the firefighters and other emergency workers filed into the Elysee Palace for the closed-door meeting with Macron. "The country and the entire world were watching us and you were exemplary," Macron said. "You were the perfect example of what we should be," he added. He said the firefighters would be awarded France's golden medal of honour in recognition of their "courage and devotion". Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo was also to pay tribute to the firefighters and others who helped save the 850-year-old gothic masterpiece, in a ceremony from 1430 GMT outside the city hall. The ceremony will see a reading of Victor Hugo's celebrated novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (called simply Notre-Dame de Paris in the original French) about the deformed Quasimodo that helped turn the building into a cultural, as well as religious icon. 'Worst was avoided' Culture Minister Franck Riester said on Thursday that even three days after the fire there remained concerns that parts of the building could collapse. He said one gable in the north transept and another between the two great bell towers were at risk. He also said figures in the southern bell tower still risked falling and, if they did, this would damage the organs below. An operation will be undertaken to remove them. But he added that "thanks to the exceptional work of the fire brigade, their courage, the strategy for attacking the fire adopted by the two officers in charge, we can say that the worst was avoided". Macron had on Tuesday in an address to the nation outlined an ambitious strategy to rebuild Notre Dame within just five years, hailing the French as a nation of "builders." The goal was warmly applauded by some but greeted with skepticism by some experts who warned of the painstaking work and expertise needed to make the cathedral anew. Investigators trying to determine the cause of the blaze are questioning workers who were renovating the steeple, an operation suspected of accidentally triggering the blaze. For the toppled spire, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said on Wednesday that an international contest of architects would determine one of three options: not replacing the spire, rebuilding it as it was or creating a wholly new edifice. A descendant of the 19th-century French architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc who built the steeple on Thursday urged that it be rebuilt in some form. "Not reconstructing the spire would equate to amputating an element that belongs to it," Jean-Marie Henriquet, 76, told AFP. 'Extraordinary generosity' Catholic worshippers, particularly shocked by the burning of the cathedral just ahead of Easter, will be welcomed in an "ephemeral cathedral" of wood in front of the Paris monument until it reopens, Notre-Dame's chief priest Monsignor Patrick Chauvet told CNews. Meanwhile, pledges of donations for rebuilding from France's biggest family companies, listed firms as well as foreign giants like Apple and Walt Disney have rolled in. More than 850 million euros ($960 million) has now been pledged but there has been controversy over why the money has been so quick to come when France is beset by social problems. "In one click, 200 million, 100 million. That shows the inequality which we regularly denounce in this country," the head of the CGT trade union, Philippe Martinez, said on Wednesday. Riester however called the debate "pointless" and urged people to let this "extraordinary show of generosity to run is course."
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Trump Adviser Fiona Hill Holds Talks in Moscow

Thu, 04/18/2019 - 15:37 - [CET]
An adviser to U.S. President Donald Trump has traveled to Russia for talks, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on April 18. Fiona Hill held talks in Moscow on April 17 with several Russian officials, including Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov, according to Peskov. A U.S. Embassy official — who asked not to be named because statements about Hill's visit should be made by the National Security Council — confirmed the visit to the Associated Press. Hill is senior director for European and Russian affairs at the U.S. National Security Council. Peskov said Hill and Russian officials discussed bilateral issues but did not discuss a potential meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The news comes on the day when the U.S. Justice Department is releasing a redacted version of the special counsel's report on alleged Russian election interference and Trump's campaign. Moscow has denied any role and Peskov on April 18 dismissed the report as unimportant. "This is not an issue for us,” Peskov said. “It is not a thing that interests us or causes us concern.” “All the reports on the matter that have been released so far contain nothing but cursory statements,” Peskov said, adding that the Kremlin has “more interesting and important things to do.” (Information for this report also came from AP and Reuters)  
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Mass Graves From Franco Era Become Spanish Election Issue

Thu, 04/18/2019 - 14:29 - [CET]
When archaeologists in Spain unearthed layers of human bones from a mass grave last year, the remains of one body emerged draped in a shirt that had the letters “MG” embroidered on it in red. The initials spoke volumes to Daniel Galán. They sparked hope he would be able to provide a proper burial for his grandfather, Miguel Galán, a village mayor who disappeared eight decades ago along with tens of thousands of others summarily executed by the forces of Gen. Francisco Franco during and after the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War. Galán is among a small number of descendants promised provincial government funds for DNA tests to confirm that their ancestors were tossed into a mass grave at Paterna Cemetery in Valencia. But with Spain’s national election later this month exposing an ideological divide that has echoes of the clash of left and right during the civil war, some Spaniards worry they may lose the chance to recover their dead. The far-right Vox party, which recently exploded onto Spain’s political scene, wants to scrap efforts to exhume and identify Franco’s victims. Its ambition counters the pledge by the ruling Socialists to remove Franco’s remains from a huge, publicly maintained mausoleum near Madrid so they no longer attract nationalists celebrating the dictator as a hero. “Depending on who wins, logically there would be a change. If the right wins, well, all this will just stop or worse,” Galán, 61, said while visiting Paterna Cemetery to repair the grainy black-and-white photo of his grandfather, which had fallen off the headstone. For other Spaniards, digging up bodies just stirs up a painful past unnecessarily and runs counter to the desire for reconciliation that made it possible for Spain to have a bloodless transition from dictatorship to democracy after Franco’s death in 1975. They also fear that the exhumations could lead to a shaming of those who had relatives on the side of Franco*s right-wing forces. “I think that that period of history was settled,” Elena Escribano, a 60-year-old housewife, said at a Vox rally. “Not knowing where a relative is is hard, but there are victims on both sides. We must pray for them but we must look to the future.” Activists and relatives pushed for the excavations after the then-Socialist government passed the 2007 Law of Historical Memory, which allowed exhumations of mass graves and condemned atrocities committed during Franco’s regime. But the law did not guarantee funding, and the conservative Popular Party that governed between 2011 and 2018 included none in the national budget. The result is a piecemeal and sometimes cumbersome process. At Paterna, the precarious funding scheme and a backlog of work meant the remains of 244 people — Galán’s grandfather possibly among them — ended up being stored in a ceramics museum. Rosa Pérez, a local lawmaker who championed funding for families to exhume mass graves at Paterna Cemetery and other sites in the province of Valencia, has promised that money will be there to carry out forensic and DNA tests on the bones stored in the museum regardless of who wins the April 28 national election. But Pérez is putting on hold any spending for new exhumations until after regional and local elections this month and next to see if her United Left party remains in power locally. So far, archaeologists have removed the remains of 450 of the 2,237 bodies thought to be in the mass graves at the Paterna Cemetery. “This shouldn’t be how this is being handled,” Pérez said. “We have been in need of a national plan for a long time.” Experts have estimated for the Spanish government that 740 mass graves and 9,000 bodies have been exhumed nationally since 2000. That leaves an estimated 114,000 bodies still hidden in 2,500 mass graves, they added. The Socialist government of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez wanted to include 15 million euros ($20 million) in the national budget that failed to pass this year to continue identifying victims of Franco’s regime. It has also mentioned establishing a “truth commission” to investigate the crimes of his dictatorship, and is studying a plan to have 25,000 bodies exhumed in five years. But Sánchez faces strong competition in the April 28 national election, at which the far-right Vox is widely anticipated to win its first seats in the Spanish Parliament. Vox has already successfully pushed the Popular Party to commit to rolling back regional laws that allow the exhumations of mass graves in Spain’s south in order to support their formation of a government for Andalusia earlier this year. Now, Vox could prove influential in the creation of possible coalition government at the national level after the election. Popular Party president and opposition leader, Pablo Casado, who in 2015 called those who want to recover the mass grave bodies “old fogeys,” wants a new “Law of Concord” that would subsume the Law of Historical Memory. The leader of Vox, Santiago Abascal, criticized the exhumations when he kicked off his campaign. “How are we going to condemn our grandparents?” Abascal asked supporters. “For us, we only have one doctrine for the recent historical memory. And that is liberty: liberty for you to respect your grandparents.” Outside the walls of the Paterna Cemetery, a walk through scrubland leads to a wall in which bullet holes from the Francoist firing squads that executed people like Miguel Galán still are visible. Galán insists he does not want to drag Spain back into its bloody past. “The difference is between them lying in mass graves like rotting dogs and being able to take them and give them dignified burial,” Galán said. “For those who say we are only reopening old wounds, that is not true, because these wounds have been open for 80 years.”  
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Populists Expected to Gain Seats in May's EU Elections

Thu, 04/18/2019 - 14:19 - [CET]
The European Parliament is predicting that nationalist, populist and anti-migrant groups will make significant gains in the May 23-26 EU elections but says it thinks mainstream parties will keep control over the assembly.   Projections released Thursday suggest the center-right European People's Party will remain the biggest group, with 180 seats in the 751-seat parliament, down 37 seats. The center-left Socialists and Democrats would drop from 186 to 149 seats.   The Europe of Nations and Freedom group, which combines right-wing and far-right parties like Italy's Liga, Britain's UKIP and France's National Rally would win 62 seats, compared to 37 currently.   New parties like former UKIP figurehead Nigel Farage's Brexit Party, which are listed as "other," are expected to expand from 21 seats to 62.   The data is collected from national surveys and assumes that Britain will participate.    
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Ukraine Reverses Nationalization of Tycoon's Bank

Thu, 04/18/2019 - 14:17 - [CET]
A Ukrainian court has ruled that the 2016 nationalization of a major bank owned by a powerful tycoon was illegal. The court in Kyiv ruled on Thursday that Pryvatbank, owned by tycoon Ihor Kolomoyskyi, was nationalized in 2016 illegally. It was not immediately clear how the government would return the bank, once Ukraine's biggest private lender with a reported capital shortfall of $5 billion, to Kolomoyskyi. Ukraine's National Bank vowed to appeal the ruling. Kolomoiskyi's figure has loomed large in Ukraine in the past few weeks as the country goes to the polls to elect a new president Sunday. Kolomoyskyi is an archrival of incumbent President Petro Poroshenko. The tycoon is believed to have ties to Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a comedian who emerged as an odds-on favorite in the race.    
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Turkish Opposition Has Historic Victory Confirmed in Istanbul, as Erdogan Seeks to Overturn Vote

Thu, 04/18/2019 - 01:19 - [CET]
After 17 days of recounts and controversies, Turkey's opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) was confirmed the official winner Wednesday in the Istanbul mayoral election. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seeking to overturn the historic vote, which ends his Justice and Development Party's (AKP), and other Erdogan-affiliated parties', 25-year control of Turkey's largest city.  Ekrem Imamoglu, Istanbul's new mayor, addressed thousands of jubilant supporters outside the city's mayoral building. "I take this victory for Turks, Kurds, Greeks and Armenians," Imamoglu said, referring to Istanbul's diverse population.  Imamoglu's victory speech included a theme of inclusivity that underpinned his winning campaign, which secured a narrow victory by 14,000 votes out of 9 million ballots cast. Potential game changer Victory for the CHP in Istanbul, the country's industrial, financial and cultural capital, is already touted as a potential political game changer for an opposition that has suffered nearly two decades of defeat at the hands of the AKP. "The unquestionable significance of this election is that power can be changed through the ballot box, and that is a big change," said Soli Ozel, professor of international relations, at Istanbul's Kadir Has University. "On the other hand, it will be quite disastrous for the (AK) party — in terms of finances, power, psychology, morale— to lose Istanbul." The AKP vigorously challenged the result, calling for numerous partial recounts of the millions of votes. In an attempt to prove fraud, interior minister Suleyman Soylu sent police to knock on the doors of Istanbul residents to confirm voter lists.  Erdogan is calling for the vote to be annulled. Tuesday, AKP officials delivered five suitcases of evidence to the Supreme Electoral Board to back calls to rescind the Istanbul election. Analysts warn of the dangers a vote annulment holds. "All the opponents from various parties and different ways of life are tired of this regime, and people are rejoicing now," political scientist Cengiz Aktar said. "The annulation of the vote will have a devastating effect on them. I worry about the reaction." The High Election Board (YSK) is predominantly made up of government and presidential appointees. Opposition parties have in recent polls questioned the board's impartiality, but have raised few criticisms of its handling of the Istanbul result. Evidence of impartiality On election night, the YSK declared Imamoglu to be provisionally ahead, contradicting claims of victory by AKP candidate Binali Yildirim. Analysts cite the electoral board's decision to give Imamoglu the mayoral mandate, and with it further political momentum to his claim for power, as further evidence of impartiality. "The credibility of the electoral board was on the line," Ozel said. "I think they have been compromised in other places, but at least the procedural lines were at last followed (in Istanbul). "In that sense, it's both a political victory for Mr. Imamoglu, and at least a somewhat legal victory, too. So we are, in my judgment, on a different plateau. A threshold has been crossed," he added. Observers suggest the AKP will be lobbying the YSK hard behind the scenes to overturn the vote, given the importance of Istanbul to the party. "Istanbul presents so many patronage opportunities. It greases the wheels of politics for those who control it," Ozel said. "And for the AKP, in the last 25 years, they have truly mastered that, as well." "They've generated enormous urban rents, which they used to help the dependent and poorer sections of society, but also enrich contractors, who in turn supported the party. So, that wheel of fortune will be broken," he added. Significant risks Any rerun of the Istanbul vote brings with it significant risks for the AKP, as well as for Erdogan. The underlining causes for the AKP's defeat — high unemployment and inflation — remain unchanged. Observers also point out that voters usually punish the party blamed for re-elections, especially any considered unjustified. There are unconfirmed reports that the AKP has conducted private polls in Istanbul that indicate Imamoglu would win with a larger margin of victory in a revote.  Analysts also warn that Turkey's current economic woes could be further exacerbated by another Istanbul poll held in a profoundly polarized atmosphere. Analyst Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners suggests while Erdogan is publicly calling for another vote, he may not be too disappointed if his calls for a new ballot are rejected. "Erdogan's finely honed political instincts tell him repeating the elections carry several political and economic hazards, which are costlier than losing the center of cronyism," Yesilada said.
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Majority of Victims in Madeira Bus Accident Are German

Wed, 04/17/2019 - 22:18 - [CET]
A majority of those who died in Portugal's Madeira bus accident are German, SIC TV reported. "I have no words to describe what happened. I cannot face the suffering of these people," mayor Filipe Sousa told SIC, adding that all the tourists in the bus were German. Several local media said there were 28 dead in the accident.
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Bells Toll as France Focuses on Repairing Notre Dame

Wed, 04/17/2019 - 22:11 - [CET]
Bells tolled across France Wednesday, marking the moment flames began demolishing parts of Notre Dame Cathedral. The focus is now on rebuilding the Paris cathedral — and finding the cause of the inferno that ravaged one of the world’s most iconic landmarks. The unity forged by the fire may be short-lived. From village churches to Saint Sulpice in Paris, the sound was of bells. Notre Dame is badly damaged by Monday’s fire but still standing. Some of its biggest treasures have been saved: the bell towers and rose windows, along with priceless artifacts - like a crown of thorns said to have been worn by Jesus. Earlier Wednesday, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced a global competition to design the replacement for Notre Dame’s spire that collapsed in the inferno. The cathedral had fire alarms but reportedly lacked some basic safety measures. President Emmanuel Macron wants to repair Notre Dame in five years, when Paris hosts the Olympics. Some experts estimate it will take much longer. But reconstruction money is pouring in — nearly a billion dollars in donations so far. ​In an address to the nation, Macron said the fire offered an occasion to come together. “We can be better than we are,” he said. But it’s unclear whether Notre Dame — or Macron— can unify a deeply divided France that has seen months of yellow vest protests over government policies. Nicolas Chouin, who joined the crowds of people flocking to see the charred cathedral, said he hopes healing will occur. “It’s something beyond us - beyond our little problems of everyday life. So it can be a rewarding event in a way. Of course it doesn’t solve all the political issues…we’ll see if it’s just a parenthesis.” The fire caused France’s squabbling parties to suspend campaigning for European Union elections, but most observers think the truce will be short-lived. The French are also waiting for Macron to announce planned measures to meet popular grievances — also delayed by the inferno. Investigators are interviewing construction workers who might have inadvertently started the blaze. So far, the cause is still considered likely to be accidental.
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France Launches Global Contest to Replace Notre-Dame Spire

Wed, 04/17/2019 - 19:08 - [CET]
France on Wednesday announced it would invite architects from around the world to submit designs for replacing the spire of Notre-Dame cathedral after a devastating blaze, as the government braced for a mammoth restoration challenge. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said the contest would decide whether the monument should have a new spire at all and if so, whether it should be identical to the fallen 19th-century model or be a wholly new design. The world looked on in horror Monday as flames engulfed the 850-year-old gothic masterpiece seen as encapsulating the soul of Paris and the spire came crashing down. Explaining that having no new spire at all was an option, Philippe noted that Notre-Dame had been without a steeple for part of its history. "The international contest will settle the question of whether we should build a new spire, whether we should rebuild the spire that was designed and built by [Eugene] Viollet-Le-Duc, in identical fashion, or whether we should... endow Notre-Dame cathedral with a new spire adapted to the techniques and the challenges of our era." Philippe described the task of rebuilding it as "a huge challenge and historic responsibility," a day after President Emmanuel Macron said the entire restoration should be completed in just five years. The bells of French cathedrals were to ring out at 1650 GMT on Wednesday to mark the exact moment when the fire started on Monday. Macron had vowed to rebuild the iconic monument, the real star of Victor Hugo's "Hunchback of Notre Dame" by 2024 when France hosts the summer Olympics. "We can do it," he said Tuesday, calling France "a nation of builders." On Wednesday afternoon, he was set to chair a meeting of senior government, church, conservation and Paris city officials to launch the reconstruction process. Rebate debate No sooner had firefighters extinguished the flames than pledges of donations towards restoring France's best-loved monument, which attracted 12 million visitors in 2018, began to pour in. Within 24 hours, the pledges had reached more than 800 million euros ($900 million), with French business magnates and corporations jostling to outshine each other with displays of generosity. But the slew of announcements raised eyebrows in France, with some leftist politicians arguing that the ultra-rich could best help protect the country's cultural heritage by fully paying their taxes — or helping the "human cathedral" of people in need. The huge tax breaks available on the donations also caused some unease, prompting Francois-Henri Pinault, the billionaire CEO of the Kering luxury goods empire, to announce he would forfeit his rebate. "The donation for Notre-Dame of Paris will not be the object of any tax deduction. Indeed, the Pinault family considers that it is out of the question to make French taxpayers shoulder the burden," Pinault said in a statement. Pinault had led the pledges of donations starting Monday night with a promise of 100 million euros. Billionaire Bernard Arnault and his LVMH luxury conglomerate, Total oil company and cosmetics giant L'Oreal also each pledged 100 million euros or more, while US tech giant Apple said it would give an unspecified amount. French corporations are eligible for a 60-percent tax rebate on cultural donations. The government said Wednesday that figure would remain unchanged, but increased the rebate to 75 percent on individual donations for Notre-Dame of up to 1,000 euros. Bigger private donations will continue to qualify for the standard 66 percent rebate. Rebuilding for 2024 Olympics On Tuesday evening, Macron set out an ambitious timeline for restoring the landmark that took nearly two centuries to build and which has played a role in many of the defining moments of French history. "We will rebuild the cathedral even more beautifully and I want it to be finished within five years," Macron said in an address to the nation, in which he hailed how the fire had shown the capacity of France to mobilize and unite. In a sign of the monument's resilience, the copper rooster that topped its spire was found Tuesday in the rubble of the roof, "battered but apparently restorable" according to a spokesperson for the culture ministry. The walls, bell towers and the most famous circular stained-glass windows also remain intact. But the floor of the nave was left strewn with blackened roof beams and chunks of the collapsed upper vaulting. Experts have warned that full restoration could take longer than five years, with one of the biggest tasks involving replacing the precious oak "forest" that propped up the roof. "I'd say decades," Eric Fischer, head of the foundation in charge of restoring the 1,000-year-old Strasbourg cathedral, told AFP. 'Long, complex' investigation Investigators trying to determine the cause of the blaze are questioning workers who were renovating the steeple, an operation suspected of accidentally triggering the blaze. The police have already spoken to around 30 people from five different construction companies. Public prosecutor Remy Heitz has said the investigation threatened to be "long and complex". Meanwhile, work to secure the cathedral continues. Junior interior minister Laurent Nunez said Tuesday that although "some weaknesses" had been identified, overall the building was "holding up OK".
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Former Spy: Hungary Used as Logistical Base for Russian Intelligence Activity

Wed, 04/17/2019 - 17:54 - [CET]
“Is your boss working for Moscow?” It isn’t a question any Western counter-intelligence officer wants to be asked by counterparts in agencies from allied NATO countries, but for Ferenc Katrein it wasn’t such an infrequent query during his decade-and-a-half at Hungary’s Constitution Protection Office. Worst of all, there were grounds for suspicions about Hungary’s civilian intelligence services, doubts Katrein himself harbored. Five-and-half years ago Katrein left Hungary’s counter-espionage agency, where he’d risen to become executive head of operations and later chief adviser to the director. “There comes a point when you have to say no,” he told me as we sipped coffee in a cafe near a railway station. “It was both a matter of being asked to do things I didn’t think right and blocked from doing things we needed to do,” he adds. The final straw for Ferenc was being obstructed from mounting operations to counter Russian intelligence activity in Hungary by, among other things, targeting Russian officers in a bid to recruit them as double agents. 'Russian' bank relocation Katrein, who now lives outside Hungary, agreed to be interviewed by VOA amid a political storm in Budapest over a controversial decision by the government of Viktor Orban to agree to the relocation to the Hungarian capital of a Russian-controlled development bank steeped in Cold War history. Known now as the International Investment Bank, formerly as Comecon, the obscure Russian-controlled financial institution is headed by Nikolai Kosov, whose parents had storied careers in the Soviet spy agency KGB. Opposition politicians in Hungary, as well as Western security officials, have expressed fear the bank will be used as cover for Russian espionage activities in Europe. Katrein shares the worries, hence his agreement to the interview and his readiness to discuss the politicization of the Hungarian intelligence services and the Russian threat to Europe. “The Russians will use the bank, as they use other state-owned companies and organizations that set up shop overseas, for intelligence purposes,” he says. “This hurts me as a former counter-intelligence officer to see this bank being allowed to re-base in Budapest,” he adds. The bank has denied it or its director is in any way linked to Russian intelligence. But Katrein says his old agency won’t have the resources or manpower to be able to monitor what the bank is up to or the activities of its employees. The Orban government has extended diplomatic immunity to the bank, further shielding it. He believes Orban is anxious to play Russia and the West against each other. “All the Russian [intelligence] services — the GRU, FSB and SVR — are highly active in Hungary and they have free rein, that was my problem. There was no effort to curtail or control them. We are a member of NATO and we have a responsibility to our allies. The question some of us started asking was, ‘Who is our partner, NATO or the Russians? The question was being asked inside the building. We didn’t understand what was going on,” he says. The original sin in Hungary after the fall of communism was not to effect a root-and-branch clearing of the country’s intelligence agencies. “We didn’t do what the Czechs did or what happened to the intelligence services in the Baltic countries. They all rebuilt their agencies from scratch, with the help of the British,” he says. One of the first triggers for Hungarian agents to question operations in their agencies was in 2007, a decade after Hungary had joined NATO. During the socialist administration of Ferenc Gyurcsany, the then-chief intelligence director Lajos Galambos invited Russian operatives to help him find the source of political leaks to Orban’s party, Fidesz. Sixteen Hungarian intelligence officers were polygraphed by two Russian operatives, who pretended to be Bulgarian psychologists, according to documents declassified and released by Hungary’s general prosecutor last week. Katrein says the focus was on up-and-coming younger officers, many of whom are now in leadership positions in the agency. “The polygraphs were very deep and probing and they have a lot of information on those people. If I had that information on the leaders of Russian counterintelligence, I’d consider that a big coup,” he says. Counterintelligence in crisis The politicization, as well as demoralization, of the counterintelligence agency continued under Orban, who was re-elected in 2010 replacing Gyurcsany, says Katrein. Around 100 experienced intelligence specialists have left the agency in the past eight years, frustrated by having their hands tied when it comes to combating Russian espionage activity. “Hungary is being used as a logistical base to launch operations in other European Union countries,” Katrein explains. “They can organize operations and missions in Hungary without many worries,” he adds. Asked how he would characterize the Russian espionage and active measures threat to Europe, he doesn’t hesitate in replying, “It is grave.” Katrein adds, “I have no problems with Russians; I like the culture. But the Russian government is very aggressive against the European Union. You shouldn’t underestimate these guys.”  
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Ukraine: Russian 'Terror Group' Thwarted

Wed, 04/17/2019 - 17:35 - [CET]
Ukrainian authorities say they have arrested seven people they claim were sent by Russian security services to carry out political killings and other "terrorist" acts, including the slaying of Ukrainian intelligence agents. Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) chief Vasyl Hrytsak made the announcement April 17, four days ahead of Ukraine's presidential runoff vote. At a news conference, Hrytsak said the SBU thwarted "a sabotage and reconnaissance terrorist group of the Russian special services" that consisted of seven people, all of whom have been arrested. One person who assisted the group was arrested April 17, he said, but it was not clear if that was in addition to the other seven. Russia seized control of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 and has given crucial backing to militants who hold parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in a war that has killed some 13,000 people since April 2014. Hrytsak alleged that since early 2017, the Russian security services had sent several "autonomously operating" sabotage groups into parts of Ukraine including the separatist-held section of the Donetsk region. He said these groups were responsible for attacks including a car bombing that killed Ukrainian military intelligence officer Maksim Shapoval in June 2017 and one that missed its apparent target, also a military intelligence officer, in Kyiv earlier this month. Prosecutors said at the time that the man suspected of planting that bomb, on April 4, was killed by the blast. However, Hrytsak said that the suspect, a Russian man, was alive and had given information to the Ukrainian authorities. Hrytsak alleged that "the true organizer" of operations that included the killing of Shapoval was an officer of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), Dmitry Minayev. SBU officials identified one of the seven suspects whose arrests were announced on April 17 as Timur Dzortov, who they said was deputy chief of staff to the leader of Russia's Ingushetia region, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, in 2015-17. There was no immediate comment from Russian officials.
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Italy Arrests 2 Terror Suspects Training for Combat in Syria

Wed, 04/17/2019 - 14:21 - [CET]
Authorities on Wednesday arrested an Italian convert to Islam and a Moroccan resident who met over the Internet and were preparing to fight with Islamic State in Syria.   Sicilian prosecutors who ordered the arrests said investigators had identified the Italian suspect, 25-year-old Giuseppe Frittatta, from social media posts. They included extremist propaganda as well as photos of himself holding a knife with a 26-centimeter (10-inch) blade calling for deaths to "'all westerners."   The 18-year-old Moroccan, Ossama Gafhir, is alleged to have induced Frittatta toward extremism, and was following stringent fitness routine to prepare for combat.   Frittata — a Sicilian who changed his name to Yusef — allegedly was in contact with extremists in Italy and abroad, including an American that prosecutors are trying to identify who provided Islamic State battlefield details.   The arrests were carried out in northern Italy.   Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said the arrests reinforced his decision to close Italian ports to humanitarian rescue boats with migrants, "seeing that we already have potential terrorists at home."   Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte, who met Tuesday with the deputy premier of Libya's U.N.-backed government, Ahmed Maitig, said renewed fighting could create a "humanitarian crisis that could expose our country to the risk of arrivals by foreign fighters."   Salvini told reporters that some 500 "terrorists" were in Libyan jails, adding "we don't want to see them arrive by sea."    
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Turkey Criticizes US for Designating Iranian Force Terrorist

Wed, 04/17/2019 - 13:39 - [CET]
The U.S. decision to designate Iran's Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization is a dangerous development that could lead to chaos, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Wednesday. Speaking at a joint news conference with Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Turkish minister also said that U.S. sanctions were harming the people of Iran.   The United States re-imposed sanctions on Iran, including on its energy sector, last November, after President Donald Trump pulled out of the landmark 2015 Iran nuclear deal.   Trump and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the designation against the Revolutionary Guard with great fanfare last week.   "When we start adding other countries' armies to terror lists, then serious cracks will occur in the system of international law," Cavusoglu said. "Trust in the global system will decline and total chaos will ensue."   "Our conscience does not accept that the brotherly Iranian people be punished," Cavusoglu said of U.S. sanctions on Iran. "Such steps put regional stability, peace, calm and economic development under risk."   Zarif arrived in Turkey after visiting Syria where he met President Bashar Assad. Russia, Iran and Turkey, which back rival groups in Syria's conflict, have been sponsoring talks in Kazakhstan to try to end the war.   Zarif said he would tell Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan about his talks with Assad, adding that Iran wants to help Turkey and Syria establish "good relations."   The U.S. designation — the first-ever for an entire division of another government — adds another layer of sanctions to the powerful paramilitary Iranian force and makes it a crime under U.S. jurisdiction to provide it with material support.    
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Runaway Saudi Sisters Plead for Help on Social Media

Wed, 04/17/2019 - 11:35 - [CET]
Two Saudi sisters appealed for help Wednesday from the former Soviet republic of Georgia after fleeing their country, in the latest case of runaways from the ultra-conservative kingdom using social media to seek asylum. Using a newly created Twitter account called “GeorgiaSisters,” they identified themselves as Maha al-Subaie, 28, and Wafa al-Subaie, 25. Like other Saudi women who have fled and turned to social media, they posted copies of their passports to establish their identities. The sisters claim they are in danger and will be killed if they are forcibly returned to Saudi Arabia. They said their father and brothers have arrived in Georgia looking for them. Wafa said they fled “oppression from our family” without elaborating. Saudis can enter Georgia visa-free, making the country a transit point for numerous other Saudi women who have fled in recent years. Guardianship laws Saudi women who run away are almost always fleeing abusive male relatives and claim there are few good choices for them to report the abuse in Saudi Arabia. Saudi women caught running away in the kingdom can be forced into restrictive shelters, pressured to reconcile with their abusers or detained on charges of disobedience. Regardless of their age, women in Saudi Arabia must have the consent of a male relative to obtain a passport, travel or marry under so-called male guardianship laws. The sisters’ first post to the Twitter account was Tuesday evening. It read: “We are two Saudi sisters who fled from Saudi Arabia seeking asylum. Yet, the family and the Saudi government have suspended our passports and now we are trapped in Georgia country. We need your help please.” Remember us In another post, the sisters appear with their faces showing and their hair uncovered — a taboo for conservative families in Saudi Arabia. The post says they are showing their faces in order for the world to “remember us” in case something happens to them. In a later video posted on Twitter, Maha said: “We want your protection. We want a country that welcomes us and protects our rights.” Her sister posted another video calling for help from the U.N. refugee agency. “We fled oppression from our family because the laws in Saudi Arabia (are) too weak to protect us. We are seeking the UNHCR protection in order to be taken to a safe country,” Wafa said. The sisters did not give further details on why they have fled. The Associated Press could not immediately reach the sisters in Georgia. A Saudi activist who goes by the name Ms Saffaa told the AP that she and other activists have had direct contact with the sisters in Georgia. Other, similar cases Their cases mirror that of 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, who in January drew worldwide attention when she barricaded herself in an airport hotel room in Bangkok after fleeing her Saudi family during a trip to Kuwait. Her social media pleas on Twitter prompted quick action by the UNHCR and she was granted asylum in Canada. There had been speculation that al-Qunun’s successful getaway would inspire others to copy her, but powerful deterrents remain in place. If caught, runaways face possible death at the hands of relatives for purportedly shaming the family. The issue of male guardianship is extremely sensitive in the kingdom, where conservative, tribal families view what they consider to be the protection of women as a man’s duty.
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Macron Wants Notre Dame Cathedral Rebuilt Within 5 Years

Wed, 04/17/2019 - 10:08 - [CET]
As crews check the structural stability of France’s Notre Dame cathedral and work to determine the full extent of damage from a massive fire at the centuries-old Paris landmark, President Emmanuel Macron is pushing ahead with an ambitious goal of rebuilding it within five years. He gave the proposal to rebuild it “even more beautifully” in a nationwide address Tuesday night, and planned to spend Wednesday meeting with his Cabinet to discuss the reconstruction and the funding that will be necessary to complete it. He already has a huge head start, with wealthy French citizens and businesses having pledged about $800 million. WATCH: Experts Say Notre Dame Restoration Could Take Decades ​Decades of work But those in charge of carrying out restoration efforts at other historic cathedrals cautioned such work could take decades to complete. The fire broke out Monday evening and it took 400 firefighters battling the flames for nine hours to bring it under control. All cathedrals in France will ring their bells Wednesday evening to mark 48 hours after the fire began. Notre Dame’s spire and roof collapsed, but the cathedral’s walls, iconic bell towers and round stained glass windows survived. Officials said some of the art work was damaged, as was the main organ, but that many of the works and artifacts survived and would be taken to the Louvre Museum. Also surviving are the Crown of Thorns, the site’s most sacred relic that was purported to have been worn by Jesus Christ during his crucifixion, as well as a 13th century tunic said to have been worn by French king Louis IX. ​Exact damage, cause not yet known The exact extent of the damage will not be know until the remaining structure is deemed safe enough for teams to go inside and access all areas of the site. The Paris public prosecutor is investigating the cause of the fire, which is suspected to be linked to renovation work on the cathedral’s roof, and said it would be a “long and complex case.” Authorities are interviewing dozens of people from five companies that were involved in the renovation work. A spokesman for one of the companies, Julien le Bras, said “all the security measures were respected” by its 12 workers who he said are “participating in the investigation with no hesitation.” The fire occurred during the holiest week of the year for Christians. It occurred less than a week before Easter and during Catholic Holy Week commemorations. An Easter Mass had been planned at the cathedral Sunday. A Vatican statement expressing shock and sadness and called Notre Dame a “symbol of Christianity in France and in the world.” Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti said Tuesday on Twitter that Pope Francis is praying “for those who are trying to cope with this dramatic situation.”
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Experts: Notre Dame Restoration Could Take Decades

Wed, 04/17/2019 - 09:55 - [CET]
French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday set the goal of rebuilding the fire-gutted Notre Dame Cathedral within five years. In a passionate televised speech, Macron said France is the nation of builders and that with everyone's participation, it can be done. But experts on restoring historic structures warn it could take decades to bring the church to its former glory. VOA's Zlatica Hoke reports.
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Parisians and Tourists Flock to See a Crippled 'Mother' of France

Wed, 04/17/2019 - 07:25 - [CET]
A day after Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral was transformed into an inferno, hundreds of millions of dollars have already been pledged to rebuild one of the world's most iconic monuments. Precious objects it housed have been saved. For VOA, Lisa Bryant reports from Paris the investigation into the fire is ongoing, but officials so far believe it may have been an accident.
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Ban on Foreign Landowners Leaves Georgia Farmers in Limbo

Wed, 04/17/2019 - 06:37 - [CET]
When Georgian businesswoman Tamar Gerliani planted grapes on a small piece of land to start her own winery three years ago, she knew she faced an uphill battle in an industry dominated by men. But she could not have foreseen that a legal reform designed to help Georgian landowners would make things even harder. A ban on foreigners owning farmland introduced last year in Georgia’s new constitution has made it more difficult for farmers to borrow because the country’s mostly foreign-owned banks will no longer accept it as collateral. Small farmers thwarted That has thwarted hundreds of small farmers looking to expand, banking associations, farmers and pressure groups say — among them Gerliani, who needs $10,000 for a tractor to tend her vines. “It’s difficult to work without a tractor,” the 31-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “This business already has many challenges and I could do without having to go ask around every time I need to use it.” The new constitution states that, with a small number of exceptions, agricultural land can only be owned by the state, a Georgian citizen or a Georgian-owned entity. The provision came into force in December last year as the former Soviet republic swore in a new president, though there has been a de-facto ban on foreigners buying farmland since 2017, when the government imposed a moratorium on purchases. It followed widespread public concern about outsiders scooping up too much of the country’s fertile soil, particularly in strategically sensitive areas, said Agriculture Minister Levan Davitashvili. About 40% of Georgia’s population lives in rural areas, but less than 10% of the country’s land is arable, and foreigners own about 10% of it, he said. “Most of our agricultural land is pastures located in high mountainous areas,” Davitashvili told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone. “People were a bit concerned and this ... was reflected in the constitution.” Bad effect on common people But the ban is damaging small farmers, who often have no other collateral, said Teona Zakarashvili, a lawyer at anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International. “This type of regulation has a bad effect on common people. It directly impacts the livelihood of small farmers who already are in a very poor financial state,” she said. Since the moratorium came into force, about 1,500 loans were denied, according to the parliamentary committee on agrarian issues. Women in particularly have been badly affected. They often have no other property because sons are traditionally favored when it comes to inheritance, said Nino Zambakhidze, who heads the Georgian Farmers Association. Loving wine Gerliani’s grandfather left her one hectare (2.5 acres) of land in Kakheti, the main wine-producing region of a country widely regarded as the birthplace of winemaking. Her family, like many others in the area, had been producing small quantities of wine for generations, but as she grew up she began dreaming of turning it into a business. After studying marketing online, she took up winemaking classes and used her spare time to work on her dream, a wine label called Malati, the word for love in the Svan language spoken in Georgia’s mountains. She invested savings and planted Saperavi, the grapes used to make Georgia’s best known wine, a full-bodied red. Georgian wines went into decline under the Soviet Union, when many wineries fell under state control. But it is now enjoying a resurgence: Last year, the country exported a record 86 million bottles, according to the Georgian National Wine Agency. After a few years of hard work Gerliani is expecting to produce up to 3,000 bottles of organic wine with her next harvest in autumn. But the journey was not an easy one. At first, she said, almost no one took her seriously. “It’s not easy to start as a woman,” she said. “Men think they are more professional and know much more about this business than women do.” Most people assumed she had no idea what she was up to, and whenever she needed equipment or workers she found herself quizzed over her winemaking credentials. That was one of the reasons she was so keen to buy her own tractor. But with only her vineyard as collateral, she has been unable to do so. Solutions Davitashvili, the agriculture minister, said the government was aware of the problems faced by small farmers like Gerliani and was looking as possible solutions. They include allowing financial institutions to own agricultural land for up to two years, after which they must sell it. A draft law would also allow foreigners to own land if they inherit it or have an investment plan approved by the government. Those failing to use it for agriculture however would be forced to sell it. Davitashvili said he hoped the law would be approved before the beginning of the summer. Meanwhile, tractor or no tractor, Gerliani is determined to make it. “It’s really hard but I manage,” she said. “I am doing my best.”
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Notre Dame: Center of Celebration, Mourning, Evolution of France

Wed, 04/17/2019 - 06:10 - [CET]
The cathedral Notre Dame de Paris (or Our Lady of Paris, dedicated to the Virgin Mary) has seen a long string of history-making events in its 850-year history. 1163: The cornerstone of the cathedral is laid on the site of an earlier church, and likely a Gallo-Roman temple before that. Bishop of Paris Maurice de Sully is the driving force of the new church. French King Louis VII and Pope Alexander III attend the ceremony. 1231: King Louis IX places in the cathedral a crown of thorns believed to have been worn by Jesus during the crucifixion. 1345: Most of the basic elements of the cathedral have been finished, including both towers and the rose windows, but the cathedral continues to evolve over the next six centuries. 1431: King Henry VI of England is crowned King of France in the cathedral. 1455: The mother of Joan of Arc petitions a papal delegation to overturn her daughter’s conviction for heresy. 1537: James V of Scotland marries Madeleine of Valois, daughter of King Francis I of France, in the cathedral. 1548: French Protestants (Huguenots) raid the cathedral and damage sculptures they deem idolatrous. 1558: James V’s daughter, Mary Queen of Scots, marries Dauphin Francis, who becomes King Francis II. 1793: The cathedral is dedicated by French revolutionists to the Cult (Church) of Reason. Many of the cathedral’s treasures are taken or destroyed. 1801: New ruler Napoleon signs an agreement to return Notre Dame to the Catholic Church. 1804: Napoleon and wife Josephine are crowned Emperor and Empress of France. Pope Pius VII presides over the ceremony. 1810: Napoleon marries his second wife, Marie-Louise of Austria, at Notre Dame. 1831: Victor Hugo publishes his novel, “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.” The book highlights the fact that the cathedral is in disrepair. 1844: King Louis Philippe orders the restoration of the cathedral. The spire is replaced and gargoyles are added. 1900: Composer Louis Vierne is appointed the organist of Notre Dame. He serves for 37 years. He dies suddenly while playing a recital at the great organ. It is exactly how he said he wanted to die. 1909: Joan of Arc is beatified by Pope Pius X. 1971: High-wire artist Philippe Petit gives a tightrope performance on a cable suspended between Notre Dame’s two towers. 1980: Pope John Paul II celebrates Mass on the parvis of the cathedral. 2013: New bells, made from melted-down 19th-century bells, are installed in the bell towers. 2016 and 2017: Police foil plans to stage attacks at the cathedral. 2019: Fire destroys the spire and roof, but much of the structure and many of its treasures are saved.
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In Notre Dame Fire, Embers of Unity for a Fractured France

Wed, 04/17/2019 - 04:15 - [CET]
In Paris' heart, a charred and gaping hole. But also a rallying cry.   The disfigurement of Notre Dame, the splendid cathedral that has watched over the French capital for centuries and is now a blackened wreck mourned around the globe, felt to Parisians like a body blow, as impossible to stomach as the eternal loss to New York of its Twin Towers, as unfathomable as the idea of Egypt shorn of its pyramids or London robbed of Buckingham Palace.   Which is why, even before the tears had dried and firefighters had extinguished the flames, the immediate, visceral imperative was to rebuild. Here's money. Here's wood. Donations poured in, from billionaires pledging hundreds of millions of euros to the more modest offerings of those who gave what they could spare. A nation that for months of violent yellow-vest protests has been more divided than at any time since World War II suddenly found a shared mission in the ashes of disaster: Restore, for future generations, the gift of Notre Dame that previous generations handed down to us.   Experience says the new-found unity won't last. It didn't even after gunmen massacred 130 people at the Bataclan concert hall and other Paris sites in 2015 and killed 17 in the attack on satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket. Then, France shared a slogan, "Je suis Charlie," in a similar way that it now shares the pain of Notre Dame.   Because the iconic cathedral's suffering took precedence, immediately overpowering the political, social and economic splits that have consumed President Emmanuel Macron's popularity and much of his time since November. He'd been due to address the nation in a broadcast Monday night. Macron quickly abandoned that plan as the inferno feeding on ancient, tinder-dry wooden beams brought down the cathedral's spire and cross-shaped roof. Whatever Macron had intended to say, the answers he'd prepared to respond to the unrest that has monopolized France's attention, would have been lost amid the distress and prayers for Notre Dame, shared live by TV networks that abandoned their regular Monday night programming.   Instead, Macron spoke to the nation Tuesday. "What we've seen together in Paris overnight, it's our ability to unite," he said.   The front-page headline of the Liberation newspaper on Tuesday neatly captured how the fire has re-ordered the nation's priorities.   "Notre Drame" — "Our Drama" — it read over a picture of the spire consumed by fire and smoke. At his church in the west of Paris, the Rev. Guillaume de Menthiere felt the mood shift even as the cathedral was still spewing ash and smoke over the capital, as people filed in to pray at his church and to listen to its bells' mournful tolling in solidarity for its big sister, Notre Dame.   The priest later said he was reminded of the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, another tragedy when the world seemed to stop spinning and which drew French mourners back into churches that dot every town but which also seem to have lost much of their hold over France, with its fiercely guarded red line between church and the secular state.   In 2001, France wept for the United States and the attacks' victims from multiple countries. "We are all Americans," newspaper Le Monde famously said.   This time, thankfully, no one died in the fire that appears to have started somewhere in Notre Dame's roof, which had been getting a much-needed repair job. But the outpouring of emotion from across the globe was still huge: "We are all French," the world now appears to be saying.   Ordained in Notre Dame nearly three decades ago, de Menthiere was too overcome to sleep once he got home. At dawn, he rose and marshaled his thoughts into words. In the fire, he identified glowing embers of hope that France is coming together.   "During these hours of anguish, I seemed to sense that the old Gallic cockerel was awaking from its torpor," he wrote in an email to parishioners that fellow priests quickly shared. "A mysterious communion seemed at last to be reigning over the people of France which the months gone by had so sadly shown to be in pieces and fractured," he added. "This unity that a presidential message, planned for that same night, would probably not have succeeded in rebuilding, was accomplished before our dumbfounded eyes by Notre Dame."   Parisians who went to bed fearful that the cathedral would be reduced to rubble were relieved when they awoke to learn that its two landmark bell towers are still standing, saved by hundreds of firefighters, and that not all of its treasures have been lost.   Like the proud, crowing and indomitable Gallic cockerel, long a symbol of France and featured on coins, flag poles, the presidential Elysee Palace and even the uniforms of the national soccer team, the French have been reminded that, in despair, they share deep wells of fortitude. "That is the history of the French. We divide very often around things that we argue about but we then get together," said Bertrand de Feydeau, vice president of a conservation group that was among those collecting donations and within hours had already raised more than 11 million euros ($12 million) in gifts of all sizes.   "Because the French have a lot of heart."
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Parisians, Tourists Flock to See Crippled 'Mother' of France

Wed, 04/17/2019 - 02:05 - [CET]
Just a couple of days ago, Severine Vilbert strolled by Notre Dame with her eldest daughter on a chilly but brilliantly sunny day. The blossoms were out and the cathedral glistened in the light.  "We were looking at Notre Dame and saying, ‘Wow, it's such a beautiful monument, how proud we were to be Parisian and live in this beautiful city,'" Vilbert recalled, not bothering to fight back tears. "And then, it was like a nightmare for us." On Tuesday, Vilbert retraced her footsteps in a transformed Paris. A few drops of rain fell from a slate grey sky, as she joined thousands of Parisians and tourists paying a vigil of sorts to a smoking-but-still-cherished icon.  The inferno that raced through the more than 850-year-old cathedral Monday night destroyed most of the roof. Its 90-meter (295-foot) spire collapsed in the blaze, causing selfie-snapping onlookers to gasp. Investigators are scouring for clues from the fire that they consider likely, for the moment, accidental.  "I'm a Christian. I'm a Catholic. I think it's really terrible about what's happened," George Castro, a French-Colombian, said of the blaze that occurred just a week before Easter. "It's really, really sad."  But amazingly, no lives have been lost and priceless treasures were saved, along with Notre Dame's stunning rose window. Reports quoted experts assessing the building as structurally sound.  The fire is the latest assault on one of the world's most beautiful cities. Over the past few years, Paris has weathered two massive terrorist attacks that bookended 2015, and most recently the yellow vest crisis that defaced some of its most prestigious landmarks and deeply divided French citizens.  Some Parisians, like Nicolas Chouin, believe the blaze can help to reconcile a fractured France.  "It's something beyond us, beyond our little problems of everyday life," he said, gazing at the skeleton of the cathedral's roof. "Of course, it doesn't solve all the political issues — let's see if it's just a parenthesis." President Emmanuel Macron canceled a major address to the nation Monday night, in which he was expected to outline measures to assuage the yellow vest anger, to race to the scene of the fire.  "We will rebuild the cathedral even more beautiful," he vowed on Tuesday, promising to restore the edifice within five years. Companies and business tycoons have lost no time to turn his promises into reality, donating hundreds of millions of dollars within hours of the blaze. The French government and Paris city hall have promised to donate hundreds of millions more.  "We're French, we're proud of being French, and we're going to rebuild it," Vilbert said. "It's going to take many years, but it's going to be great."  Tourists and foreign residents, who flock to the French capital yearly by the millions, are just as devastated.  "There's beauty, there's history, there's culture — it represents Paris," said Briton Rhia Patel, who studies French literature at the Sorbonne University. "It's what people travel long and far to come and find."  Staring at the charred remains, retired Paris firefighter Philippe Facquet offered an expert assessment of the challenges that faced his former colleagues.  "Attacking this kind of fire is very difficult," he said, "because there are narrow spiral staircases, so carrying hoses and other heavy material is very difficult. And the adjacent roads are very narrow — so a lot of complications."  Then Facquet offered his personal assessment — that he felt "very bad." "It's our mother, it's our patrimony, it's the symbol of Paris," he said. "Our heart is bleeding." 
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Rebuilding Notre Dame Will Be Long, Fraught and Expensive

Wed, 04/17/2019 - 01:58 - [CET]
Notre Dame in Paris is not the first great cathedral to suffer a devastating fire, and it probably won't be the last. In a sense, that is good news. A global army of experts and craftspeople can be called on for the long, complex process of restoring the gutted landmark. The work will face substantial challenges -- starting immediately, with the urgent need to protect the inside of the 850-year-old cathedral from the elements, after its timber-beamed roof was consumed by flames. The first priority is to put up a temporary metal or plastic roof to stop rain from getting in. Then, engineers and architects will begin to assess the damage. Fortunately, Notre Dame is a thoroughly documented building. Over the years, historians and archeologists have made exhaustive plans and images, including minutely detailed, 3-D laser-scanned re-creations of the interior. Duncan Wilson, chief executive of the conservation organization Historic England, said Tuesday that the cathedral will need to be made secure without disturbing the debris scattered inside, which may provide valuable information -- and material -- for restorers. "The second challenge is actually salvaging the material,'' he said. "Some of that material may be reusable, and that's a painstaking exercise. It's like an archaeological excavation.'' Despite fears at the height of the inferno that the whole cathedral would be lost, the structure appears intact. Its two rectangular towers still jut into the Paris skyline, and the great stone vault stands atop heavy walls supported by massive flying buttresses. An edifice built to last an eternity withstood its greatest test. Tom Nickson, a senior lecturer in medieval art and architecture at London's Courtauld Institute, said the stone vault "acted as a kind of fire door between the highly flammable roof and the highly flammable interior'' -- just as the cathedral's medieval builders intended. Now, careful checks will be needed to determine whether the stones of the vaulted ceiling have been weakened and cracked by the heat. If so, the whole vault may need to be torn down and re-erected. The cathedral's exquisite stained-glass rose windows appear intact but are probably suffering "thermal shock'' from intense heat followed by cold water, said Jenny Alexander, an expert on medieval art and architecture at the University of Warwick. That means the glass, set in lead, could have sagged or been weakened and will need minute examination. Once the building has been stabilized and the damage assessed, restoration work can begin. It's likely to be an international effort. "Structural engineers, stained-glass experts, stone experts are all going to be packing their bags and heading for Paris in the next few weeks,'' Alexander said. One big decision will be whether to preserve the cathedral just as it was before the fire, or to take a more creative approach. It's not always a straightforward choice. Notre Dame's spire, destroyed in Monday's blaze, was added to the Gothic cathedral during 19th-century renovations. Should it be rebuilt as it was, or replaced with a new design for the 21st century? Financial and political considerations, as well as aesthetic ones, are likely to play a part in the decision. Getting materials may also be a challenge. The cathedral roof was made from oak beams cut from centuries-old trees. Even in the 13th century, they were hard to come by. Nickson said there is probably no country in Europe with big enough trees today. Alternatives could include a different type of structure made from smaller beams, or even a metal roof -- though that would be unpopular with purists. The restored building will have to reflect modern-day health and safety standards. But Eric Salmon, a former site manager at the Paris cathedral, said it is impossible to eliminate all risk. "It is like a street accident. It can happen anywhere, anytime,'' said Salmon, who now serves as technical director at the Notre Dame cathedral in Strasbourg, France. The roof of Strasbourg's Notre Dame was set ablaze during the 1870 Franco-Prussian War. It took up to five years to restore the wooden structure. Nowadays the roof is split into three fire-resistant sections to make sure one blaze can't destroy it all. Smoke detectors are at regular intervals. Still, Salmon said that what worked in Strasbourg may not be suitable for Paris. Each cathedral is unique. "We are not going to modify an historic monument to respect the rules. The rules have to be adapted to the building,'' he said. Experts agree the project will take years, if not decades. Audrey Azoulay, director-general of UNESCO, the United Nations' cultural organization, said restoring Notre Dame "will last a long time and cost a lot of money.'' A government appeal for funds has already raised hundreds of millions of euros (dollars) from French businesses. But few doubt that Notre Dame will rise again. "Cathedrals are stone phoenixes -- reminders that out of adversity we may be reborn,'' said Emma Wells, a buildings archaeologist at the University of York. "The silver lining, if we can call it that, is this allows for historians and archaeologists to come in and uncover more of its history than we ever knew before. It is a palimpsest of layers of history, and we can come in and understand the craft of our medieval forebears.''
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Spain Pulls Far Right Vox Party From Pre-Election Debate

Tue, 04/16/2019 - 22:45 - [CET]
Spain's election board blocked on Tuesday the far-right Vox party from participating in the only confirmed debate between leading contenders for the April 28 election. The ruling shows the complexity of Spain's shift from decades of two-party rule to a fragmented political landscape where no one party looks set to win a majority and Vox has gone from relative obscurity to major force in less than a year. Vox has never won more than 5 percent of votes in national elections, but achieved a surprise victory in regional elections last year and is predicted by polls to win around 10 percent in this month's parliamentary vote. That was why Spain's Atresmedia network chose it to join the four major national parties for a scheduled April 23 debate over other movements like Catalan and Basque nationalists. But the electoral commission said that was a violation of electoral law. Several smaller parties had demanded inclusion in the debate, based on previous electoral performance. Atresmedia said it would comply - though it did not agree. "Atresmedia maintains that a debate between five candidates is of the greatest journalistic value and most relevance for voters," the network said in a statement after the ruling. Vox reacted defiantly, tweeting that separatist parties had swayed the decision. "It's clear who calls the shots still in Spain: the separatists. Until April 28. Because a great victory for #LongLiveSpain will see those parties who wish to destroy our co-existence, constitution and homeland banned." The vote looks set to be one of Spain's most bitterly-fought in decades. It will probably be split between five parties for the first time since a return to democracy 40 years ago, polls show, making coalition negotiations or even repeat elections a possibility.
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Brussels Warns US Against Exposing EU Firms in Cuba to Law Suits

Tue, 04/16/2019 - 22:34 - [CET]
The European Union has warned Washington that any move to allow U.S. citizens to sue foreign firms doing business in Cuba could lead to a World Trade Organization challenge and a cycle of counter-claims in European courts. The EU has serious concerns over the decision by U.S. President Donald Trump to end the practice of suspending on a rotating six-month basis a section of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act that would allow such suits, principally from Cuban-Americans. The comments came in a letter seen by Reuters from EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and dated April 10. The two EU officials called on Washington to adhere to a 1998 agreement to grant a consistent waiver for EU companies and citizens while the bloc suspends a WTO challenge over the issue. "Failing this, the EU will be obliged to use all means at its disposal, including in cooperation with other international partners, to protect its interests," the letter said. "The EU is considering a possible launch of the WTO case." The letter also said that EU courts were empowered to allow EU companies to recover any losses caused by claims over Cuba. It said that an overwhelming majority of the 50 largest claimants, making up more than 70 percent of the value of claims, had assets in the European Union. "This could trigger a self-defeating cycle of claims that will impair the business climate, without bringing justice to holders of claims, or impacting the situation in Cuba in any positive way," the two EU officials wrote. The Trump administration announced on March 4 it would allow lawsuits by U.S. citizens against dozens of Cuban companies on Washington's blacklist. However, it stopped short of allowing legal action against foreign firms who had used property confiscated by the Cuban government since the 1959 revolution — though it left the door open to doing so in the future. Pompeo earlier this month extended to May 1 the waiver for foreign firms. Trump's move marked an intensification of U.S. pressure on Cuba and also appeared aimed at punishing Havana over its support for Venezuela's socialist president, Nicolas Maduro. The European Union said it also wanted to further democracy and human rights in Cuba and to find a peaceful and democratic solution to the crisis in Venezuela.
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Fire Causes Massive Damage to Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris

Tue, 04/16/2019 - 22:00 - [CET]
The Paris Fire Brigade says the structure of the famed Notre Dame cathedral has been saved, along with the site's main works of art, after 400 firefighters spent more than nine hours Monday battling a fire that caused massive damage. As VOA's Michael Brown reports Parisians and admirers of the landmark building are consoling one another over the devastation, occurring days before cathedral was to host Easter mass.
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Macron Vows Notre Dame Cathedral Will Be Rebuilt 'Within 5 Years'

Tue, 04/16/2019 - 21:55 - [CET]
French President Emmanuel Macron promised Tuesday to rebuild Notre Dame Cathedral "within five years" after a fire caused extensive damage to the Parisian landmark. Macron said in a nationwide televised address the 850-year-old structure would be rebuilt "even more beautifully" and called on citizens to "change this disaster into an opportunity to come together." The fire is out and experts are assessing the damage. Paris fire department spokesman Gabriel Plus said building specialists and architects are "surveying the movement of structures and extinguishing smoldering residues." Although the fire caused massive damage to the famed Gothic edifice in central Paris, the city's fire chief, Jean-Claude Gallet, said firefighters saved the building's two iconic towers and stone structure. The flames, which at one point burned 10 meters into the air above the roof, destroyed much of the cathedral's roof and caused its central spire to collapse. Cathedral spokesman Andre Finot said Monday the entire wooden interior of the cathedral was likely to have been destroyed. Paris officials said firefighters worked to save as much art work and holy objects from the 12th-century cathedral as they could. Paris Deputy Mayor Emmanuel Gregoire said pieces of the purported Crown of Christ was salvaged and transported to "a secret" location. The world-famous 18th century organ also survived, officials said, as did statues removed just days ago for restoration and other treasures inside the cathedral. It is not clear what caused the blaze, although fire officials said the blaze may be linked to renovation work at the building. Paris prosecutor Remy Heitz said 50 investigators are involved in the "long and complex" effort to find the cause. Heitz said investigators would interview workers from five companies working on the restoration. A spokesman for one of the companies, Julien le Bras, said "all the security measures were respected" by its 12 workers who he said are "participating in the investigation with no hesitation." A Vatican statement expressing shock and sadness and called Notre Dame a "symbol of Christianity in France and in the world." Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti said Tuesday on Twitter Pope Francis is praying "for those who are trying to cope with this dramatic situation." The fire occurred during the holiest week of the year for Christians. It occurred less than a week before Easter and during Catholic Holy Week commemorations. An Easter Mass had been planned at the cathedral on Sunday. The medieval Catholic cathedral is one of the most visited historical monuments in Europe, welcoming millions of people each year. It dates to the 12th century and is famous for featuring in Victor Hugo's classic novel, "The Hunchback of Notre-Dame."
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Poll Favors Comedian as Run-Off Vote Nears in Ukraine

Tue, 04/16/2019 - 21:36 - [CET]
The presidential candidate and comic actor Volodymyr Zelenskiy is likely to win Ukraine's presidential election, according to an opinion poll published on Tuesday. The poll by the KIIS research firm showed Zelenskiy, a political novice who plays a fictional president in a popular TV series, on 72.2% of the vote. Incumbent Petro Poroshenko was on 25.4%. KIIS polled 2,004 voters in all regions, except annexed Crimea, from April 9 to 14. Last week, a poll by Reiting research agency gave Zelenskiy 61 percent of votes and incumbent Petro Poroshenko 24 percent. Poroshenko and Zelenskiy will meet in the second round of Ukraine's presidential election, which will take place on April 21. Zelenskiy won nearly twice as many votes as Poroshenko in the first round, on March 31.    
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Trump Offers Condolences to Macron After Notre Dame Fire

Tue, 04/16/2019 - 21:10 - [CET]
U.S. President Donald Trump expressed condolences to French President Emmanuel Macron during a phone call Tuesday over Monday's fire that extensively damaged Notre Dame Cathedral, the White House said. Firefighters extinguished the blaze Tuesday morning. French officials are now assessing the damage. White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders addressed the fire Tuesday, saying in a statement the U.S. has offered to help rehabilitate "this irreplaceable symbol of Western civilization."  "France is the oldest ally of the United States, and we remember with grateful hearts the tolling of Notre Dame's bells on September 12, 2001, in solemn recognition of the tragic September 11th attacks on American soil," Sanders said in her statement. "Those bells will sound again. ...Vive la France!" Sanders' deliberate remarks contrasted sharply with Trump's seemingly impromptu suggestion Monday for French authorities to immediately use "flying water tankers" to help extinguish the fire. "Must act quickly," Trump declared on Twitter. Trump's comments were dismissed by French authorities who pointedly responded that "all means are being used, except for water-bombing aircraft." They explained that the force of falling water could destroy the Gothic edifice. Fire chief Lt. Col. Michael Bernier, a spokesman for France's civil defense organization, described Trump's suggestion as "risible." Bernier added that such a move would have endangered the lives of firefighters and anyone else in the area.
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Source: Spanish Court Returns Stolen Material to N. Korea Embassy

Tue, 04/16/2019 - 20:12 - [CET]
Material stolen by intruders from the North Korean Embassy in Madrid in February has been returned by Spanish authorities to Pyongyang's mission without a review of the contents, a Spanish judicial source said on Tuesday. Investigators said the intruders, self-professed members of a group seeking the overthrow of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, removed computers and hard drives from the embassy before fleeing to the United States, where they handed the material to the FBI. The Spanish judicial source said the FBI returned the material two weeks ago to the Spanish court investigating the raid. The court did not review the material before turning it over to the North Korean Embassy, in keeping with standard practice to protect diplomatic information, the source said. Another source, familiar with the U.S. government involvement in the case, confirmed the FBI had returned the material to Spanish authorities. It was not known how the material was handled while in the United States. A group of at least 10 people stormed into the embassy in February, restrained and physically beat some personnel and held them hostage for hours before fleeing, the Spanish court said earlier. The anti-Kim group, which calls itself Cheolima Civil Defense, said the raid was not an attack and that it had been invited into the embassy. Three of the intruders took an embassy official into the basement during the raid and encouraged him to defect from North Korea, according to a detailed document made public on March 26 by the Spanish court. The document included the names of the leaders of the group, some of whom are believed to be in the United States, while others could have left for other countries. The court is seeking their extradition. The judicial source said the investigation into the incident was almost complete, including interviews with all witnesses. North Korea's foreign ministry denounced the incident a "grave terrorist attack" and cited rumors that the FBI was partially behind the raid. The U.S. State Department said Washington had nothing to do with it.  
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Turkey Eyes Trump Protection From Any Sanctions for Russian Missile System Purchase

Tue, 04/16/2019 - 19:47 - [CET]
Turkey expects President Donald Trump to use a waiver to protect it if the U.S. Congress decides to sanction Ankara over a planned purchase of a Russian missile defense system, a Turkish presidential spokesman said in Washington on Tuesday. The United States has threatened to impose sanctions if Turkey seals its deal with Russia. Ankara has said its purchase should not trigger sanctions as Turkey is not an adversary of Washington and remains committed to the NATO alliance. "If it comes to that, that is the sanctions proposed to be implemented by the Congress, of course we will expect President Trump to use his power for a waiver on that issue," Ibrahim Kalin told reporters in a briefing. Asked if Trump has explicitly signaled he would issue a waiver, Kalin said he did not. "I cannot say that he did. This is a message we are conveying." U.S. officials have called Turkey's planned purchase of Russian-made S-400 missile defense systems "deeply problematic," saying it would compromise the security of F-35 fighters jets, made by Lockheed Martin Corp. Turkey has refused to back down and said it will take delivery of the S-400s in July. The disagreement is the latest in a series of diplomatic disputes between the United States and Turkey. They include Turkish demands that Washington extradite cleric Fethullah Gulen, differences over Middle East policy and the war in Syria, and sanctions on Iran. Asked what Turkey would do if Trump abstained from providing a waiver, Kalin said Turkey would have to wait and see the scope of the sanctions, but hopes it does not come to that. "Threats and sanctions would be very counterproductive, backfire and will not produce any results positively," he said.    
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Climate Protesters Arrested at Hague War Crimes Court

Tue, 04/16/2019 - 18:39 - [CET]
Dutch police on Tuesday arrested around 20 climate change protesters from the Extinction Rebellion movement after they staged a demonstration at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, officials said. The protest at the tribunal, which is more used to dealing with war crimes and genocide, came a day after the same grassroots environmental group blocked key roads in London. "A number of persons entered the premises of the ICC today, as general visitors to the court. After that, they grouped and started demonstrating outside the ICC building," ICC spokesman Fadi El Abdallah told AFP. "They were evacuated by the Dutch police in a peaceful way." A picture tweeted by Extinction Rebellion's Dutch branch showed the protesters unveiling banners inside the ICC's premises on a bridge between the security gate and the main court building. The group said that 25 "rebels" were involved and that they wanted to get the ICC's 122 member countries "to recognize ecocide as an international crime." "We can confirm that around 20 demonstrators of this action group have been arrested in the ICC today. They had invaded the building and were arrested on the basis of trespass," a Dutch police spokesman said. The "Extinction Rebellion" group was established last year in Britain by academics to attract attention to the slow response of governments around the world to rising temperatures and sea levels caused by greenhouse gas emissions. On Monday over a thousand protesters blocked central London's Waterloo bridge and choked off key streets. More than 100 were arrested.  
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Polish FM: Russia Expels Polish Diplomat in 'Reciprocity'

Tue, 04/16/2019 - 17:30 - [CET]
Poland's foreign ministry says Russia is expelling an employee of Poland's consulate in the Siberian city of Irkutsk. Ministry spokeswoman Ewa Suwara told The Associated Press on Tuesday that Russia's declaration of the Pole as "persona non grata" was a move of "reciprocity."    She did not elaborate and could not say whether the Pole has left Russia. The neighbors have had strained relations. Russia's business daily Kommersant reported that the expulsion came after Poland recently expelled Russia's deputy consul in Poznan.      Last year Poland expelled four Russian diplomats in a gesture of solidarity with Britain, which has charged two Russians with attacking a former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter with a nerve agent in Salisbury. Moscow denies involvement.  
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Trump Slams Democrats, 'Dirty Cops' Ahead of Mueller Report Release

Tue, 04/16/2019 - 17:24 - [CET]
The U.S. Justice Department will release on Thursday a redacted version of the nearly 400-page report of special counsel Robert Mueller on Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election aimed at helping Donald Trump win the presidency. In a steady drumbeat against the Mueller investigation, Trump claimed again Tuesday that he has already been exonerated of wrongdoing linked to the election, even as he and the American public await details of the prosecutor's 22-month investigation. "No Collusion - No Obstruction!" Trump said on Twitter. On Monday, the U.S. leader contended that "these crimes were committed" by his 2016 opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton, the Democratic National Committee and "Dirty Cops," his derogatory term for former top U.S. law enforcement officials, "and others! INVESTIGATE THE INVESTIGATORS!" Mueller investigated Trump campaign contacts with Russia and whether Trump, as president, obstructed justice by trying to thwart the probe. Sparring over the report in advance of its release is rampant. Attorney General William Barr released a four-page summary of Mueller's findings three weeks ago, saying the prosecutor had concluded that Trump and his campaign did not collude with Russia to help him win but had reached no conclusion whether Trump obstructed justice. But with Mueller not reaching a decision on the obstruction issue, Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein decided no obstruction charges against Trump were warranted. Trump tweeted that Mueller's report "was written by 18 Angry Democrats who also happen to be Trump Haters (and Clinton Supporters), should have focused on the people who SPIED on my 2016 Campaign, and others who fabricated the whole Russia Hoax ... Since there was no Collusion, why was there an Investigation in the first place! Answer - Dirty Cops, Dems and Crooked Hillary!" Barr, a Trump appointee as the country's top law enforcement official, said last week he believes that top American intelligence agencies spied on the Trump campaign. He later amended his remarks, saying that while he is "not saying that improper surveillance occurred," he is "concerned about it and looking into it." Barr said he would examine the details of how the FBI's counterintelligence investigation began. As for the Mueller report, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told the U.S. cable news program Fox News Sunday, "I don't think it is going to be damaging to the president." Congressman Jerrold Nadler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee that is probing the election, told CNN on Sunday that Barr should release the full report and underlying investigatory evidence to his panel, but Barr has balked. "To deny the Judiciary Committee and the Congress the knowledge of what's in parts of the Mueller report is not proper," Nadler said. No one other than Barr and key officials in the Justice Department, Mueller and his team of prosecutors appear to know what the report says about the extent of Trump campaign links with Russia during his 2016 campaign or whether he took any actions as the U.S. leader aimed at inhibiting the investigation. Nadler said that even though Barr concluded no obstruction charges should be brought against Trump, his decision should not go without review. Nadler noted that Barr, before he became the country's top law enforcement official, wrote that Trump could not obstruct justice because the president "is the boss of the Justice Department and could order it around to institute an investigation, to eliminate an investigation or could not be questioned about that." "In other words, [Barr] thinks as a matter of law a president can't obstruct justice, which is a very wild theory to which most people do not agree," Nadler said. "The fact of the matter is we should see and judge for ourselves and Congress should judge whether the president obstructed justice or not, and the public ultimately." Nadler said it "may be that Mueller decided not to prosecute obstruction of justice for various reasons that there wasn't proof beyond a reasonable doubt on some things. But there still may have been proof of some very bad deeds and very bad motives. And we need to see them and the public needs to see them." Opposition Democrats like Nadler have launched new investigations of Trump, a Republican, but the president is objecting. On Twitter, Trump said last Saturday, "Why should Radical Left Democrats in Congress have a right to retry and examine the $35,000,000 (two years in the making) No Collusion Mueller Report...." Barr has said he will release as much of the Mueller report as possible, while excluding material Mueller included from secret grand jury testimony and confidential U.S. intelligence sources, information about ongoing investigations and material that might prove damaging to peripheral figures in the investigation who have not been charged with criminal offenses. The extent of his redactions is not known.
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Erdogan's AKP Demands Formal Rerun of Istanbul Vote

Tue, 04/16/2019 - 17:11 - [CET]
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling party on Tuesday formally demanded a rerun of Istanbul's local ballot after contesting last month's election results that gave the opposition the victory. Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) got most votes nationwide in the March 31 election but its loss of the capital Ankara and Istanbul, the country's economy hub, was a major setback after a decade and half in power. The AKP had demanded a recount and vowed to appeal for a new vote in Istanbul, citing alleged irregularities, after the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) won the city by a slim margin. The Supreme Electoral Council, known by its Turkish initials YSK, must now rule on whether the AKP's formal demand for a new election has any merit. "We have come here to submit our extraordinary request for the election for the Istanbul metropolitan municipality to be annulled and repeated," AKP deputy chief Ali Ihsan Yavuz told reporters outside the YSK. Local media showed images of AKP officials wheeling suitcases containing what they said was evidence of electoral irregularities into the YSK headquarters in Ankara. It was unclear how long YSK officials could take to rule on the appeal, but lingering uncertainty over the Istanbul result more than two weeks after the ballot is one factor worrying foreign investors and weighing on the lira. A new Istanbul election would be held in June 2 if the appeal is recognised, according to local media. A recount of void ballots in Istanbul is still ongoing after the AKP said it found irregularities in several districts. Opposition candidate CHP Ekrem Imamoglu has accused the AKP of "unfair play" and declared himself mayor. But the margin between him and the AKP's Binali Yildirim remains very tight. Currency crisis A defeat in Istanbul would be especially sensitive for Erdogan, who grew up in one of its deprived neighbourhoods and built his political career after being Istanbul mayor himself in the 1990s. The AKP has won every election since it came to power 17 years ago. But voters appeared to punish the party this time after a currency crisis last year badly hurt Turkish households and pitched the economy into recession. Erdogan himself has described the Istanbul vote as marred by "organised crimes" and last week called for the ballot to be annulled. After the ballot, electoral authorities had said CHP's Imamoglu was ahead by nearly 30,000 ballots. But that margin has narrowed to around 14,000 after a recount of void ballots over the last fortnight. The CHP said on Tuesday the margin was now around 13,800 ballots in favour of its candidate with only around 80 ballot boxes left to count. Each candidate had won around 4 million votes. Although he was not personally running in the election Erdogan campaigned hard in the city, presenting the vote as a matter of national survival. He put forward Yildirim, a former premier and AKP heavyweight, as the party candidate. Imamoglu, a former mayor of a local Istanbul district, ran a low-key campaign, rallying door to door to talk over local issues. He is already being credited with having revived the opposition's profile nationwide.  
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European Voters Urged to Mobilize Behind Child Climate Activists

Tue, 04/16/2019 - 17:01 - [CET]
Sweden's teenage activist Greta Thunberg choked backed tears on Tuesday as she warned of climate disaster and urged Europeans to vote in next month's elections to press for decisive action on cutting greenhouse gases. In a speech to a packed committee of the European Parliament, Thunberg, 16, warned time is running out to stop the ravages of global warming. "I want you to panic, I want you to act as if the house was on fire," Thunberg told the environment committee of the assembly in the French city of Strasbourg. Citing scientific reports endorsed by the United Nations and holding back her tears, she warned of accelerating disasters like mass species extinction, erosion of top soil, deforestation, air pollution, loss of insects and the acidification of oceans. She received a warm round of applause before composing herself and continuing her speech. "You need to listen to us, we who cannot vote," Thunberg said, referring to the tens of thousands of students taking to the streets worldwide to fight climate change. "You need to vote for us, for your children and grandchildren," she said. "In this election, you vote for the future living conditions for human kind." Voters in EU countries will elect on May 23-26 a new European Parliament, which will also play a role in chosing the head of the European Commission, the bloc's executive arm. Hijacked for political ends During a visit to Brussels in February, Thunberg urged the European Union to double its ambition for greenhouse gas cuts, upping its target from 40 percent to 80 percent by 2030. Under the 2015 Paris climate deal to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, the 28-nation EU has pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40 percent by 2030, compared to 1990. EU officials are now talking of increasing the figure to 45 percent. The U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) has said warming is on track toward an unliveable 3C or 4C rise, and avoiding global chaos will require a major transformation. Thunberg has inspired tens of thousands of children worldwide to boycott classes to draw attention to climate change. Around 100 young people marched Tuesday through the streets of Strasbourg to the parliament building to press for urgent action against climate change. Francoise Grossetete, a French member of the European Parliament, said she would skip the committee hearing because she strongly objected to Thunberg's alarmist stand that in her view is anti-economic growth. Thunberg has become "the symbol of this just environmental cause that is hijacked for political ends" by environmental lobbies, said Grosssete, a member of the center-right European People's Party. The Swede hit global headlines with her speech in December at a UN climate meeting in Poland and has received support from climate activists.      
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Diplomacy Blooms as China Invites Vatican to Join Garden Expo

Tue, 04/16/2019 - 16:23 - [CET]
The Vatican said Tuesday it has accepted a Chinese invitation to take part in an international horticultural exhibition in a sign of blooming relations since their historic deal last year. "The aim is to create an atmosphere of dialogue," said the Vatican's culture minister Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, who will inaugurate the Holy See's pavilion at the exhibition on April 29. An agreement struck in September on the appointment of bishops in China paved the way for a rapprochement between Beijing and the Vatican after diplomatic ties were severed in 1951. Both Beijing and the Holy See are now to have a say in appointing Catholic bishops in the Communist country, the world's most populous. The accord was forged despite a clampdown on religious worship in China, where churches were destroyed in some regions and several church-run kindergartens closed last year. Authorities have also cracked down on Bible sales. The pavilion at the "Live Green, Live Better" exposition, which is to run to October, will house books on the cultivation and medicinal properties of herbs and plants from the Vatican Apostolic Library, Ravasi told media. The aim is to promote messages expressed by Pope Francis in the 2015 encyclical "Laudato Si," which called for deep changes in lifestyle, production and consumption to restore nature and combat climate change.
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European Governments Push Back Against Vaccination Skeptics

Tue, 04/16/2019 - 16:20 - [CET]
Brandenburg has become the first state in Germany to require all children attending kindergarten to be vaccinated for measles and other infectious diseases as fears spread across Europe about the influence of the anti-vaccination movement and lower immunization rates. A decrease in immunization has led to an increase in measles in Germany, France, Italy and elsewhere.   The German government is considering whether to mandate vaccinations across the country.  Authorities there say 2019 is likely to be a record year for measles with cases tripling in three states.  Other European countries have already introduced laws making vaccinations compulsory, including Italy which two years ago passed a law making 10 vaccines obligatory for children who enrolled in Italian schools, including chickenpox and measles. Last week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a public health emergency with 285 cases of measles confirmed since October.  City health officials have ordered mandatory vaccinations for anybody who’s been in contact with infected people and violators can face fines of up to $1,000. Health officials say a booklet produced by an anti-vaccine group has been widely disseminated through Orthodox Jewish communities, not the first time in the United States an insular community has seen a jump in infection rates as a result of a fall in immunization rates prompted by anti-vaccine campaigners. Under the Brandenburg law children who have not been vaccinated against measles will be excluded from attending kindergartens.  Brandenburg lawmakers say they will examine whether to add other vaccinations. “In the public interest, individual concerns towards vaccination, which cannot be proven scientifically, must take second place,” said Sylvia Lehmann of the Social Democratic Party. State lawmakers from Germany's right-wing populist Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD) voted against the legislation, noting a vaccine obligation last existed in east Germany when the communists were in power.  The Green Party abstained from the vaccine vote. Brandenburg’s health minister Andreas Buttner says “the protection of babies and pregnant women” should take “precedence over the rights of those who refuse to have their children vaccinated.”  In Brandenburg 73.5% of young children are being vaccinated within the recommended time frame of 23 months. In some Germany’s other states, including Lower Saxony and Schleswig-Holstein, school principals have been taking action by ordering children who have not been vaccinated to go home. The World Health Organization said more Europeans contracted measles last year – 82,600 – than at any time in the past decade. German Health Minister Hermann Groehe is proposing a federal law obligating nursery schools in all of the country’s 16 states to report parents to health officials if they cannot prove that they sought vaccination advice for their children.  If the law is passed, parents who do not show proof of such medical consultation could be fined up to $2,800. “No one can be blasé about the fact that people are still dying of measles,” Groehe told Germany’s Bild newspaper.  “Therefore we are now toughening the regulations for vaccination protection.” But Groehe has so far ruled out making vaccinations compulsory for school children, as Italy recently did. Italy’s approach has been characterized by U-turns, thanks to the vaccine-sceptic anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), which is in a coalition government with the populist Lega party. M5S had helped to fuel the anti-vaccination campaign and poured scorn on expert opinion that insists vaccines are safe and the combined measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine isn’t linked to autism.  The party argued requiring schoolchildren to be vaccinated was “coercive.”   Last year, the health minister, a member of the Five Star Movement, introduced a temporary measure to allow children to stay in school as long as their parents declared they had been vaccinated without having to provide any documentation.  Italian measles rates then skyrocketed and last year the country accounted for nearly a quarter of all new cases in Europe, according to WHO.   The organization says 95% of a population needs to be inoculated for the spread of the disease to become unlikely, protecting those who cannot be vaccinated for serious health reasons, including lowered immunity. In March, the Italian government allowed the M5S's temporary measure relaxing vaccination rules to expire, bringing back into play a two-year-old law requiring children to receive mandatory immunizations before attending school.   Analysts say there has been a noticeable shift in public opinion favoring vaccinations since an Italian populist politician who has campaigned against compulsory vaccinations was hospitalized last month after contracting chickenpox and was widely mocked on social media.  
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UK Police Arrest More Than 100 in Climate Change Protests

Tue, 04/16/2019 - 16:02 - [CET]
Police say they have arrested more than 120 people after climate change protesters blocked major bridges and intersections in central London, bringing traffic to a standstill. The group Extinction Rebellion is organizing several weeks of civil disobedience against what it says is the failure to tackle the causes of climate change.   Chief Supt. Colin Wingrove said police were dealing with a number of demonstrations in central London which had had a significant impact on public transit. He said 55 bus routes had to be shut down and roughly 500,000 people had been affected.   "At this time, ongoing demonstrations are causing serious disruptions to public transport, local businesses and Londoners who wish to go about their daily business," he said, adding that police expect the protests to last several weeks.   On Monday, demonstrators blocked sites including Waterloo Bridge over the River Thames, the busy Oxford Circus intersection and Parliament Square, and vandalized the headquarters of oil company Shell.   After hours of disruption, police ordered the group to confine protests to Marble Arch, beside Hyde Park. Scores of demonstrators who refused to move were arrested – 122 by early Tuesday afternoon – and traffic movement was slowed in several parts of central London.   Extinction Rebellion said "over 100 brave rebels" had been arrested. It said protests would continue.  
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No Sign of Arson in Notre-Dame Blaze as Nation Grieves for Symbol

Tue, 04/16/2019 - 15:43 - [CET]
The fire that tore through Notre-Dame cathedral was probably caused by accident, French prosecutors said on Tuesday after firefighters doused the last flames in the ruins overnight and the nation grieved for the destruction of one of its symbols. More than 400 firemen were needed to tame the inferno that consumed the roof and collapsed the spire of the eight-centuries-old cathedral. They worked through the night to extinguish the fire some 14 hours after it began. Paris public prosecutor Remy Heitz said there was no obvious indication the fire was arson. Fifty people were working on what would be a long and complex investigation. One firefighter was injured but no one else was hurt in the blaze which began after the building was closed to the public for the evening. From the outside, the imposing bell towers and outer walls, with their vast flying buttresses, still stood firm, but the insides and the upper structure were eviscerated by the blaze. Firefighters examined the gothic facade and could be seen walking atop the belfries as police kept the area in lockdown. Investigators will not be able to enter the cathedral's blackened nave until experts are satisfied its stone walls withstood the heat and the building is structurally sound. The fire swiftly ripped through the cathedral's timbered roof supports, where workmen had been carrying out extensive renovations to the spire's wooden frame. The Paris prosecutor has opened an investigation into "involuntary destruction by fire." Police on Tuesday began questioning the workers involved in the restoration, the prosecutor's office said. Hundreds of stunned onlookers had lined the banks of the Seine river late into the night as the fire raged, reciting prayers and singing liturgical music in harmony as they stood in vigil. "Yesterday we thought the whole cathedral would collapse. Yet this morning she is still standing, valiant, despite everything. It is a sign of hope," said Sister Marie Aimee, a nun who had hurried to a nearby church to pray as the fire spread. It was at Notre-Dame that Napoleon was made emperor in 1804, Pope Pius X beatified Joan of Arc in 1909 and former presidents Charles de Gaulle and Francois Mitterrand were mourned. Messages of condolence flooded in from around the world. Pope Francis, the leader of the Catholic Church, was praying for those affected, the Vatican said, adding: "Notre-Dame will always remain - and we have seen this in these hours — a place where believers and non-believers can come together in the most dramatic moments of French history." Britain's Queen Elizabeth expressed deep sadness while her son and heir Prince Charles said he was "utterly heartbroken." Vow to rebuild President Emmanuel Macron promised to rebuild Notre-Dame, considered among the finest examples of European Gothic architecture, visited by more than 13 million people a year. Notre-Dame is owned by the state. It has been at the center of a years-long row between the nation and the Paris archdiocese over who should finance badly needed restoration work to collapsed balustrades, crumbling gargoyles and cracked facades. It was too early to estimate the cost of the damage, said the heritage charity Fondation du Patrimoine, but it is likely to run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. The rival billionaire owners of France's two biggest luxury fashion empires, Francois-Henri Pinault of Kering and Bernard Arnault of LVMH, pledged 100 million euros and 200 million euros to the restoration respectively. Oil company Total pledged 100 million. The city of Paris said it would provide 50 million. Paolo Violini, a restoration specialist for Vatican museums, said the pace at which the fire spread through the cathedral had been stunning. "We are used to thinking about them as eternal simply because they have been there for centuries, or a thousand years, but the reality is they are very fragile," Violini said. Human chain The company carrying out the renovation works when the blaze broke out said it would cooperate fully with the investigation "All I can tell you is that at the moment the fire began none of my employees were on the site. We respected all procedures," Julien Le Bras, a representative of family firm Le Bras Freres. Officials breathed a sigh of relief that many relics and artworks had been saved. At one point, firefighters, policemen and municipal workers formed a human chain to remove the treasures, including a centuries-old crown of thorns made from reeds and gold, and the tunic believed to have been worn by Saint Louis, a 13th century king of France. "Notre-Dame was our sister, it is so sad, we are all mourning," said Parisian Olivier Lebib. "I have lived with her for 40 years. Thank God that the stone structure has withstood the fire."
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Norwegian Jailed By Russia For 14 Years For Spying

Tue, 04/16/2019 - 15:01 - [CET]
A Russian court has sentenced a Norwegian citizen to 14 years in prison over spying following a trial behind closed doors. Russian authorities say Frode Berg, a retired border inspector, was detained in Moscow in December 2017 following a sting operation by Russia's FSB security service. Berg, 63, was accused by the prosecution of espionage relating to Russia's nuclear submarines. The trial was held behind closed doors at the Moscow City Court for secrecy reasons. On April 9, prosecutor Milana Digayeva demanded that Berg serve the sentence in a penal colony. Digayeva said the accused was caught red-handed with the documents he had received from an employee of a military facility– Aleksei Zhitnyuk – who was shadowed by Russian intelligence. Zhitnyuk was found guilty of high treason in December and sentenced to 13 years in prison. Berg's lawyers have said that he admitted being a courier for Norway's military intelligence, but that he had little knowledge of the operation he took part in. A lawyer for Berg said on April 16 that his client will not appeal the sentence but will submit a plea for pardon after it comes into force. Asked about a possible pardon for Berg, Russian President Vladimir Putin said last week that he would wait for the verdict before assessing a possible plea. Norwegian media reports said that Berg is a former border inspector.
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Russian Duma Approves Sovereign-Internet Bill

Tue, 04/16/2019 - 14:36 - [CET]
The lower chamber of Russia's parliament has passed in the third and final vote a controversial bill that critics say is part of efforts by President Vladimir Putin to expand government control over the internet. Lawmakers in the State Duma on April 16 voted 307 to 68 to pass the proposed legislation that critics fear could herald a new era of widespread censorship. The second reading is when amendments are finalized. The bill must now go to the upper house, the Federation Council, before being signed into law by Putin. The so-called "sovereign Internet" bill would require Russian web traffic and data to be rerouted through points controlled by the state, and for the creation of a domestic domain-name system. Backers of the bill say it will make what they call the Russian segment of the Internet -- known as the RuNet -- more independent. They argue it is needed to guard Russia against potential cyberattacks. Critics say the bill will deal a large blow to Internet freedom in Russia. The proposed move sparked protests of several thousand people in Moscow last month. The legislation would require the installation of specialized equipment that would make it easier to block websites banned by the government with greater efficiency. Last week, the chief of Russian media regulator Roskomnadzor said the bill would in fact target a popular messaging app. Aleksandr Zharov told the TASS news agency on April 9 that the bill "prevents the spread of banned information." "It's obvious that one of the elements of this prevention will be fighting against" online resources including the Telegram messaging app, Zharov was quoted as saying. At least four online news outlets, including the Rossiiskaya Gazeta government daily, deleted his remarks, according to a Telegram channel monitoring efforts by Roskomnadzor to block the messaging app. In April 2018, Russia blocked Telegram after the popular messaging app refused to comply with a Russian court order to give security services access to users' encrypted messages. Amnesty International said that blocking Telegram - used by senior government officials and Kremlin foes alike - would be "the latest in a series of attacks on online freedom of expression" in Russia. Many Russians took to the streets to protest Kremlin efforts to silence the messaging app. (Some information for this report came from Reuters)  
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Kim Set to Meet Putin, With Trump on Both Men's Minds

Tue, 04/16/2019 - 11:33 - [CET]
Since emerging from his international isolation just over a year ago, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been a busy man. Kim has met twice with U.S. President Donald Trump, three times with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, four times with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and once with Vietnamese President Nguyen Phu Trong.  One name missing from that list: Russian President Vladimir Putin. That could soon change.  Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed Monday that preparations for a long-rumored Kim-Putin summit are underway. The meeting could happen as soon as next week, according to South Korea’s semi-official Yonhap news agency.  Pyongyang and Moscow have clear motivations for the meeting. Kim, whose government is being squeezed by international sanctions, is likely to push Putin for economic aid that would give him more leverage in nuclear talks with the United States. Putin may use the meeting to boost his influence in North Korea and ensure Moscow is not sidelined in negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Putin as spoiler? Maybe not. Under Putin, Russia has attempted to disrupt U.S. interests around the world, in areas as diverse as Syria, Ukraine, and Venezuela.  But Putin is not likely to play the role of spoiler in the North Korea-U.S. talks, in part because he doesn’t have much leverage over Pyongyang, says Andrei Lankov, a professor at Seoul’s Kookmin University.  “And in this case, Russia’s interests are not that different from that of the United States. Both sides want to preserve the status quo and want denuclearization,” Lankov says. Russia may also be reluctant to upset South Korea, an important trading partner, whose progressive government is heavily invested in engagement with the North. Russia has carried out a balancing act in its approach toward Korea.  After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russian leaders decided to prioritize relations with South Korea over the North.  But since the mid-1990s, Moscow’s policy has been based on “equidistance,” or balanced relations toward both Seoul and Pyongyang, says Anthony Rinna, a North Korea-Russia relations specialist at the Sino-NK research group.  “The Kremlin is trying to reverse the post-Cold War decline of its influence in East Asia,” Rinna says. “In order to do that, Moscow needs to strengthen its ties with the DPRK.”  Though Moscow supported intensified U.S.-led international sanctions on North Korea following missile and nuclear tests in 2016 and 2017, it later called for them to be eased. Russian companies have since supplied oil to North Korea, in violation of those sanctions. Another factor: Russia sees North Korea as a buffer against the U.S. military presence in the region, including the 28,000 U.S. troops in South Korea.  But for now, Russia’s biggest priority may be preventing a return to the provocations of 2017, when Kim and Trump regularly exchanged threats of nuclear war.  “Preserving the status quo is the major goal,” says Leonid Petrov, a Korean studies expert at the Australian National University. “That means slow-motion conflict without major shifts or changes.” What does North Korea want? Kim’s goals, too, are diverse. At the top of his list is economic aid to relieve the pressure of sanctions and expand his leverage in stalled talks with Trump.  At a February summit in Hanoi, Trump pushed for a “big deal” in which North Korea commits to completely giving up its nuclear weapons in exchange for the United States lifting sanctions. North Korea countered with a gradual approach, offering to dismantle a key nuclear complex in exchange for partial U.S. sanctions relief.  By meeting with Putin, Kim may be trying to show Trump that he has other options for economic help. But it’s not clear how much Russia can offer, in part because of Russia’s struggling economy and also because such help could violate sanctions. For example, North Korea has expressed interest in buying new Russian civilian aircraft to replace its aging fleet, according to Russian state media. However, a 2017 U.N. Security Council resolution prohibits the sale of transportation vehicles to North Korea.  Besides economic aid, Kim could also ask Putin for a commitment to military assistance in the event North Korea is attacked, as well as continued diplomatic support at the United Nations, Petrov says. “It’s a shopping list, and we don’t know what’s going to materialize,” Petrov says.  In any case, Putin will not likely offer enough to fundamentally change North Korea’s calculation for the nuclear talks, says Kim Heung-kyu, a political science professor at Seoul’s Ajou University. “Considering its internal circumstances, Russia is not capable of focusing very much on issues in East Asia,” Kim says. “It's also not willing to have regional conflicts.” 
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Fire Causes Massive Damage to Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris

Tue, 04/16/2019 - 10:25 - [CET]
The Paris Fire Brigade said Tuesday the structure of the famed Notre Dame cathedral has been saved, along with the site's main works of art, after 400 firefighters spent more than nine hours battling a fire that caused massive damage. The building's two iconic towers and stone structure were standing Tuesday, but absent were the 12th-century cathedral's roof and spire, which collapsed in the blaze. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo thanked firefighters and police officers for helping to save holy objects and major works of art from the cathedral. ​She said Notre Dame is a place where "the soul of Paris resonates." The fire brigade said two policemen and one firefighter were injured during the effort to put out the fire. "The worst has been avoided, even if the battle has not been totally won yet," French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters at the cathedral shortly before midnight local time. He said he would launch a national fundraising campaign to rebuild the cathedral, and called on the world’s “greatest talents'' to help with the effort. Hours later, French billionaire Francois-Henri Pinault pledged $113 million to help the reconstruction effort, followed shortly by another French billionaire Bernard Arnault saying his family and company would contribute $226 million. It is not clear what caused the blaze, although French media reported that fire officials said the blaze could be "potentially linked" to renovation work being done at the building.  Several sections of the building had been under scaffolding and officials say bronze statues were removed last week for the renovation. The Paris prosecutor's office said it had launched an inquiry into the fire and said it was treating the blaze as an "involuntary" fire. ​The Vatican released a statement expressing shock and sadness and called Notre Dame a "symbol of Christianity in France and in the world."  The fire came during Catholic Holy Week commemorations, and less than a week before Easter. An Easter Mass had been planned at the cathedral on Sunday. Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit invited priests across France to ring church bells in a call for prayers. Firefighters in Paris evacuated buildings nearby Notre Dame and cleared the area around the cathedral as ash fell over the surrounding blocks. Thousands of onlookers lined bridges over the River Seine late into the night to watch the scene and others gathered at the nearby Saint Julien Les Pauvres church to sing hymns and say prayers. The medieval Catholic cathedral is one of the most visited historical monuments in Europe, welcoming millions of people each year. It is famous for featuring in Victor Hugo's classic novel, "The Hunchback of Notre-Dame." Situated on the Ile de la Cite, an island in the River Seine, the building is known for its stone gargoyles, stained glass windows and the iconic flying buttresses that hold up its walls.
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Turkey’s Purged Workers Carve Out New Life in Kurdish Region

Tue, 04/16/2019 - 09:45 - [CET]
Thousands of state employees accused of supporting the Kurdish insurgency in their war against Turkey have lost their jobs — a mass crackdown that has forced many to make radical career changes.  The largest number of firings have occurred in Diyarbakir, the largest city in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, and have included teachers, civil servants and local municipality workers.  Some of those dismissed workers are now employed at the Emekciler restaurant, founded by former court official Mustafa Ozer, who opened the restaurant with 22 of his fellow fired workers.  "Of course, it is not that simple to be sacked from your job of 23 years,” Ozer said. “Suddenly one night, your whole life’s effort is taken from you. You are being marginalized, and you are denied the bread that you bring to your home." Ozer claims his dismissal had more to do with trade union activism than his support of Kurdish insurgents, and called his firing a release in many ways. “There were daily, weekly lists of people who were sacked,” he said. “We were checking those lists every day to see if our name is on it. Every day, we had the panic. Our nerves were really stretched to the edge during this period. And eventually, our names appeared on the list, and our employment got terminated.” Ozer and his partners contributed 11,000 lira (about $2,000) to start the restaurant.  “Some of us have a master's degree. Some are two-year college graduates,” said Ozer. “Some headed departments. Some were branch chiefs. Here is my colleague, Seyhmus. He used to work at the state employment agency,” added Ozer. ​Seyhmus, who only wanted to be identified by his first name, modestly admits he has few skills to offer. "I can't really cook, but I help with the running of the place. I don’t have such talent, unfortunately,” he said. Seyhmus admits adjusting to the loss of a career in which he devoted his life was difficult, but the camaraderie he discovered at Emekciler restaurant helped.  “I am OK now because I saw the true value of friendship. We are like a family here,” he said. Many of Emekciler's customers are former colleagues. Ozer said they visit, risking trouble at work for eating at a restaurant run by fired workers.  Ankara defends the crackdown, claiming supporters of the Kurdish insurgency have deeply infiltrated the state across the region. Local and international human rights groups have sharply criticized the firings, claiming most are arbitrary with little or no evidence to justify the dismissal. The government created an appeals process, but so far, less than 5% of applicants were successful. Zeki Kanay, an academic at Diyarbakir’s Dicle University, lost his job after signing a petition calling for an end to the decades-long war with Kurdish insurgents. Kanay turned to organic farming on a small plot of land outside city walls. He works the farm with other purged workers and has not yet made a profit. But he said there are other rewards. "If we didn't have that (the farm), life would be even harder, because this system pushes you to be alone, alienated,” he said. “It (the state) tries to instill fear and break us apart. However, on the contrary, we try to get closer to each other, and that’s how we all can stand on our feet now.” ​Bishar Ilci helped Kanay set up the farm. He is working to reintroduce native seeds to the region. Ilci worked for Diyarbakir’s municipality until Mayor Gultan Kisanak of the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP) was removed from office and jailed, accused of supporting terrorism. “I worked in the municipality for 10 years and managed good projects,” said Ilci. “There were various social projects. My last 2.5 years in the municipality was devoted to the (Syrian) Yazidi refugees. We initiated educational projects, vegetable gardens for each family, and ran activities, especially with women. We had done serious work on farming.“ Ilci said he has little hope of getting his job back. “It feels like the state is trying to discipline us with hunger. We have to learn how to stand on our feet,” he said. “We have given a good struggle for Kurdish rights for many years in this region, and now we say, 'Why can't we do the same with the land, with animals? And why not help your people with healthy food?’”
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Notre Dame's Age, Design Fueled Fire and Foiled Firefighters

Tue, 04/16/2019 - 05:55 - [CET]
Is there anything firefighters could have done to control the blaze that tore through Paris' historic Notre Dame Cathedral sooner?   Experts say the combination of a structure that's more than 850 years old, built with heavy timber construction and soaring open spaces, and lacking sophisticated fire-protection systems left firefighters with devastatingly few options Monday once the flames got out of control.   "Very often when you're confronted with something like this, there's not much you can do," said Glenn Corbett, a professor of fire science at John Jay College.   Fire hoses looked overmatched — more like gardening equipment than firefighting apparatus — as flames raged across the cathedral's wooden roof and burned bright orange for hours. The fire toppled a 300-foot (91-meter) spire and launched baseball-sized embers into the air.   While the cause remains under investigation, authorities said that the cathedral's structure — including its landmark rectangular towers — has been saved. Some of the factors that made Notre Dame a must-see for visitors to Paris — its age, sweeping size and French Gothic design featuring masonry walls and tree trunk-sized wooden beams — also made it a tinderbox and a difficult place to fight a fire, said U.S. Fire Administrator G. Keith Bryant. With a building like that, it's nearly impossible for firefighters to attack a fire from within. Instead, they have to be more defensive "and try to control the fire from the exterior," said Bryant, a former fire chief in Oklahoma and past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs.   "When a fire gets that well-involved it's very difficult to put enough water on it to cool it to bring it under control," Bryant said.   And while there's a lot of water right next door at the Seine River, getting it to the right place is the problem, he said: "There are just not enough resources in terms of fire apparatus, hoses to get that much water on a fire that's that large."   Because of narrower streets, which make it difficult to maneuver large ladder fire trucks, European fire departments don't tend to have as large of ladders as they do in the United States, Bryant said.   And what about President Donald Trump's armchair-firefighter suggestion that tanker jets be used to dump water from above on Notre Dame?   French authorities tweeted that doing so would've done more harm than good. The crush of water on the fire-ravaged landmark could've caused the entire structure to collapse, according to the tweet.   Other landmark houses of worship have taken steps in recent years to reduce the risk of a fire.   St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, built in 1878, installed a sprinkler-like system during recent renovations and coated its wooden roof with fire retardant. The cathedral also goes through at least four fire inspections a year.   Washington National Cathedral, built in 1912 with steel, brick and limestone construction that put it at less risk of a fast-moving fire, is installing sprinklers as part of a renovation spurred by damage from a 2011 earthquake.   That cathedral faces fire inspections every two years, but D.C. firefighters stop by more often to learn about the church's unique architecture and lingo — so they'll know where to go if there's a fire in the nave, or main area of the church — for instance.   "It's really important for us to make sure that those local firefighters are aware of our building and our kooky medieval names that we use for all the different spaces and that they know where to go," said Jim Shepherd, the cathedral's director of preservation and facilities. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the New York Archbishop who often visited the Notre Dame Cathedral while studying in Europe, saw significance in the fact that the fire broke out at the beginning of Holy Week, when Christians there and around the world prepare to celebrate Easter and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.   "Just as the cross didn't have the last word, neither — for people of faith in France — will this fire have the last word," Dolan said.
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World Mourns Paris' Fire-Damaged Notre Dame Cathedral

Tue, 04/16/2019 - 05:35 - [CET]
VOA's Lisa Bryant in Paris contributed to this report. The world reacted with shock, tears and prayers as it watched images of the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral burning in Paris on Monday.  French President Emmanuel Macron addressed the nation just before midnight. "I tell you solemnly tonight: We will rebuild this cathedral,” he vowed.  He said he would seek international help, including from the "greatest talents'' in the world for the task.  Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said Spain was ready to help. He called the fire a "catastrophe for France, for Spain and for Europe.''  On the streets of Paris, hundreds gathered, some wept, as they watched the flames engulf the cathedral's spire. Paris resident Lisa Sussman, originally from Atlanta, in the U.S. state of Georgia, said, "It’s horrible. It really is the center of Paris. I was at the apartment with my friends. It really hurts everyone’s heart — they really feel that connected to it. I feel it, too. It was really tragic to watch the spire fall." Nearby, another Parisian resident, George Castro, said he was in shock. "I’m a Christian, a Catholic. I think it’s really, really sad to see this happening right now. Right now, we don’t have many symbols, and this is a huge symbol for the West. It’s very, very sad," he said. Pope Francis issued a statement late Monday expressing the Vatican’s “shock and sadness” at “the news of the terrible fire that devastated the Cathedral of Notre Dame, a symbol of Christianity in France and in the world.”  Archbishop of New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan prayed at St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan for intercession. "God preserve this splendid house of prayer, and protect those battling the blaze,'' Dolan said in a statement. The Russian Orthodox Church's secretary for inter-Christian relations Hieromonk Stefan called the fire "a tragedy for the entire Christian world and for all who appreciate the cultural significance of this temple,'' the state news agency RIA-Novosti reported:  U.S. President Donald Trump called it a "terrible, terrible fire'' that devastated "one of the great treasures of the world.'' He also had advice for the French on how to fight the fire. "Perhaps flying water tankers could be used to put it out. Must act quickly!," Trump said on Twitter.  France's Civil Security agency said that wasn't possible. "Hundreds of firemen of the Paris Fire Brigade are doing everything they can to bring the terrible #NotreDame fire under control. All means are being used, except for water-bombing aircrafts which, if used, could lead to the collapse of the entire structure of the cathedral,'' the agency tweeted in English.  Former U.S. President Barack Obama, in a tweet, called Notre Dame "one of the world’s great treasures, and we’re thinking of the people of France in your time of grief. It’s in our nature to mourn when we see history lost – but it’s also in our nature to rebuild for tomorrow, as strong as we can." He also posted an old photo of himself, his wife Michelle and their two daughters lighting candles in the cathedral.  Celebrities also poured their grief and dismay in tweets. American actress Laura Dern said she was moved to tears. “I’m weeping. Our gift of light,” she wrote. “Notre Dame on fire. My heart is breaking. My grandmother’s and mother’s heart home.”  Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote, “Standing here next to you, heartsick for Notre Dame. …”
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Prayers, Hymns, Community Shared in Firelight of Notre Dame

Tue, 04/16/2019 - 04:15 - [CET]
Some kneeled, some folded their hands to make silent entreaties. Others sang with their eyes focused on the sky that had gone from blue to yellow and orange, and filled with acrid smoke. In an impromptu act of togetherness and hope, Parisians and people just visiting France's charismatic capital came together to pray for Notre Dame as a fire quickly advanced through the cathedral.  The blaze that engulfed Notre Dame brought memories and sorrow to people around the world who had seen or dreamed of seeing the church known for its sculpted gargoyle guards and place in literary history. But emotions might have run highest in the crowd outside another Gothic church, not far from where Notre Dame burned.  In front of the Saint-Julien-des-Pauvres church, a couple hundred people knelt in prayer in the middle of a larger group. More voices joined an unceasing communal hymn sung mostly a cappella, though accompanied at one point by two violins. "The cathedral is more than walls. It's a symbol of Catholic France,'' said Paris resident Gaetane Schlienger, 18, who tried to climb a tree near the vigil. "But I have a lot of friends who are not Catholic, and for them it also has a huge impact.'' Schlienger said she comes to Notre Dame nearly every week because gazing at it "you feel in security, in peace. It's magnificent.'' The cathedral also called to Quentin Salardaine, 25, a doctor from Paris, as flames devoured it and colored the sky. "I think this building just symbolizes Paris, no matter if you're Catholic or not. I'm not,'' Salardaine said. "I'm just here because I couldn't stay at my place just knowing that this thing is happening and there are people gathering, singing this religious anthem.'' Elsewhere in Paris, hundreds, and then thousands of people lined the banks of the Seine River around the small island on which Notre Dame stands, watching in disbelief and horror. The flames spread along the roof at the back of the structure. The spire burned and fell.  ​The fire chief in Paris reported crews were struggled to contain the fire, which progressed into the cathedral's wooden interior and one of the architecturally distinctive towers. Streams of water from fire hoses whipped across the exterior.  Even after firefighters started getting a handle on the blaze, bits of flame could be seen from the Left Bank still licking above exposed walls where the roof used to be. Lights moving past the huge stained-glass windows at the front of Notre Dame appeared to be guiding investigators doing inspections. Later, an Associated Press reporter got a glimpse inside the cathedral. The only illumination inside the darkened structure came from a glowing red hole in the soaring ceiling. Hours earlier, the spire had risen from that spot into the Paris skyline. Streams of sparks instead spilled onto the floor where the church choir usually stands.  Outside Saint-Julien-des-Pauvres, people kept approaching the spontaneous chorus. Blandine Bouret, 68, said she knew the neighborhood well. Her grandfather had a small store on a street in the shadow of Notre Dame. Her father had an engraving boutique nearby. "It's terrible, it's catastrophic. This is the soul of Paris,'' Bouret said. Americans Lucy Soule and her father Win, of Freeport, Maine, felt lucky to have visited Notre Dame an hour before flames engulfed it. Lucy Soule, 22, said it also felt "weird.''  "Now you can smell it burning,'' she said of the monument she'd stood in so recently. Her father said, "I feel sorry for the people tomorrow. They won't be able to see it.''
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Americans, Frequent Visitors to Notre Dame, Begin Fundraising Efforts

Tue, 04/16/2019 - 03:25 - [CET]
The fire that devastated Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on Monday prompted fund-raising appeals in the United States, as people horrified by the blaze began making commitments to restore a global landmark even before the flames were extinguished. The New York-based French Heritage Society and the Go Fund Me crowdsourcing platform were among the first to offer help for a cathedral that is a must-see destination for visitors to Paris from all over the world. French President Emmanuel Macron said an international campaign would be launched to raise funds for the rebuilding of Notre Dame Cathedral. The French Heritage Society, an American non-profit group dedicated to preserving French architectural and cultural treasures, launched a web page on Monday to raise money for the cathedral's restoration. "Notre Dame is obviously an architectural marvel and most certainly a monument that should be restored," Jennifer Herlein, the executive director of the society, said by phone. Herlein could not immediately say how much her organization had raised for Notre Dame on Monday. Eventually, the funds raised will go directly to the cathedral, she said. The organization, which was founded in 1982, gave two grants last year totaling more than $430,000 for restoration projects at France's national library, she said. 50 campaigns  At the website GoFundMe, more than 50 campaigns related to the cathedral fire had been launched globally on Monday, John Coventry, a spokesman for Go Fund Me, said by email. "In the coming hours we'll be working with the authorities to find the best way of making sure funds get to the place where they will do the most good," Coventry said. Some of the Go Fund Me campaigns had not listed any money raised by late Monday, and several joke campaigns were created through Go Fund Me to help Quasimodo, the fictional character in Victor Hugo's 19th century novel "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." "I think the challenge will be whether or not people who give the money agree with those who are doing the rebuilding about how the cathedral should be rebuilt," said Lisa Bitel, a professor of religion and history at the University of Southern California. "This is a national monument in France and they will not spare money to rebuild," Bitel said. "I don't think the Americans will get much of a say in how to do it." Notre Dame Cathedral has looked to international donors for past renovation efforts. In 2017, Michel Picaud, president of Friends of Notre Dame De Paris, told the New York Times his group planned to organize gala dinners, concerts and other events to raise funds in France and the United States for restoration work at the cathedral.  
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Devastated Art World Wept as Notre Dame Burned

Tue, 04/16/2019 - 03:14 - [CET]
Notre Dame, a survivor of wars and revolutions, has stood for centuries as not merely the greatest of the Gothic cathedrals and a towering jewel of Western architecture.   It has stood, in the words of one shell-shocked art expert, as "one of the great monuments to the best of civilization.''   And so it was that across the globe Monday, a stunned and helpless art world wept alongside the people of France as a massive fire ravaged the beloved cathedral.   "Civilization is just so fragile,'' said Barbara Drake Boehm, senior curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's medieval Cloisters branch in New York, her voice shaking as she tried to put into words what the cathedral meant. "This great hulking monument of stone has been there since 1163. It's come through so many trials.''   "It's not one relic, not one piece of glass -- it's the totality,'' she said, struggling to find words expansive enough to describe the cathedral's significance. "It's the very soul of Paris, but it's not just for French people. For all humanity, it's one of the great monuments to the best of civilization.''   Boehm spoke shortly before the Paris fire chief announced that firefighters had been able to finally save the structure, including its two main towers. Much of the roof was destroyed.   The exact cause of the blaze wasn't known, but French media quoted the fire brigade as saying it was "potentially linked'' to a 6 million-euro ($6.8 million) renovation project on the church's spire and its 250 tons of lead. The Paris Prosecutor's office, which was investigating, said it was treating it as an accident.   Construction on Notre Dame -- French for "Our Lady'' -- began in the 12th century and continued for nearly 200 years. It sustained damage and fell into neglect during the French Revolution, but received renewed attention following the 1831 publication of Victor Hugo's novel "The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.'' This led to two decades of restorations, including the cathedral's famous flying buttresses and a reconstructed spire.   While most kings were crowned elsewhere, Napoleon Bonaparte made sure he was crowned there in 1804, and married there in 1810.   Experts note that Notre Dame is an aesthetically smooth synthesis of different centuries. "It all blends together so harmoniously,'' said Nancy Wu, a medieval architecture expert and educator at the Met Cloisters. She said she was struck by delicacy of the structure, as well as that in the three stunning stained-glass rose windows, and the elegant exterior carvings.   "There are a lot of details that remind one of intricate lace,'' she said, "even though it's a building of cold hard stone.''   Aside from the structure, art experts were concerned about the fate of countless priceless artworks and artifacts inside, including relics like the crown of thorns, which is only occasionally displayed.   "This cathedral has a number of elements that are not just famous but religiously significant,'' said Julio Bermudez, professor at the school of architecture and planning at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. "One of course is the crown of thorns ... the faithful believe this is the crown that the Savior put on his head. It's kept in a very safe place. But you know the fire is tremendously damaging.'' He also expressed concern about the beautiful stained-glass windows, which he called "really irreplaceable.''   Those worried about the cathedral's durability could, perhaps, take solace in one of Notre Dame's more fascinating survival stories. In 1977, workers demolishing a wall in another part of Paris discovered 21 heads belonging to 13th-century statues from the cathedral. The kings of Judea, which were a prime example of Gothic art, had been taken from Notre Dame during the French Revolution and guillotined by antiroyalists who mistakenly thought they represented French kings.   The heads, which were thought to be lost, are now displayed in the capital's Cluny Museum.   The mourning was not limited to the art world. Religious leaders, too, expressed deep sorrow over the devastation.   Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, said he was praying for Notre Dame, which he called "second maybe to St. Peter's Basilica, (in) ... the ability of a church to lift our minds and hearts back to the Lord.''   "For the French, my God, for the world, Notre Dame Cathedral represents what's most notable, what's most uplifting, what's most inspirational about the human project,'' he said.   Boehm, at the Cloisters, found herself thinking about how the cathedral is at once of the past, and of the present -- a living, vibrant building, despite its age.   "When you step inside it, you have at once the sense of everything that came before, and everything that's still current,'' she said.
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'City of Lights' Plunged into Dark Sorrow as Notre Dame Burns

Mon, 04/15/2019 - 23:53 - [CET]
Distraught Parisians and stunned tourists gazed in disbelief on Monday as a monstrous inferno tore through Paris' Notre Dame cathedral, one of the world's best-loved monuments. Thousands of onlookers lined bridges over the Seine and along the river's embankments, held at a distance by a police cordon as the blaze engulfed the cathedral's roof. "I'm devastated," said Elizabeth Caille, 58, who lives close to the cathedral. "It's a symbol of Paris. It's a symbol of Christianity. It's a whole world that is collapsing." As dark fell over the French capital, orange flames rising through the heart of the 12th century Gothic cathedral cast an eerie glow through its stained-glass windows and against its stone towers. Dumbstruck observers stood rooted to the spot as the scale of catastrophe sunk in, questioning whether the cathedral would survive the night as clouds of acrid-smelling smoke rose into the sky. Some were visibly moved. "It will never be the same" said 30-year-old Samantha Silva, tears welling in her eyes as she explained how she would always take foreign friends visiting Paris to the cathedral. Built over a century starting around the year 1160, historians consider Notre Dame to be among the best examples of French Gothic cathedral architecture. Notre Dame survived being ransacked by rioting Huguenots in the 16th century, pillaging during the French Revolution of the 1790s and being left in a state of semi-neglect until Victor Hugo's 1831 novel "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," which led to renewed interest in the cathedral and a major restoration which began in 1844. The cathedral continued to be used as a place for national mourning in modern-day France. World leaders attended memorial services held for former presidents Charles de Gaulle and Francois Mitterrand. "It's horrible, it's 800 years of history gone up in smoke," said German tourist Katrin Recke. As fire-fighters raced to save priceless artworks, centuries-old gargoyles and the cathedral's northern tower, world leaders expressed sorrow and grief in messages to the French people. "Notre Dame belonged to all humanity. What a tragic spectacle. What horror. I share the French nation's sadness," tweeted Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Union's executive Commission. Former U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton wrote: "My heart goes out to Paris. Notre Dame is a symbol of our ability as human beings to unite for a higher purpose — to build breathtaking spaces for worship that no one person could have built on their own."
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Turkey’s Purged Workers Carve Out New Life in Kurdish Region

Mon, 04/15/2019 - 23:26 - [CET]
Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast is the center of a decade's long Kurdish insurgency by the PKK. Across the region, in a security crackdown, tens of thousands of people have been fired from their state jobs, accused of supporting the insurgents. For many that means a radical career change, Dorian Jones reports from Diyarbakir, Turkey.
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Turkey: Buying Russian Defense System Should Not Trigger US Sanctions

Mon, 04/15/2019 - 23:18 - [CET]
Turkey's purchase of a Russian air defense missile system should not trigger U.S. sanctions because Ankara is not an adversary of Washington and remains committed to the NATO alliance, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said Monday. Speaking at a U.S.-Turkey conference in Washington amid rising tensions between the two NATO allies over Ankara's plan to buy the Russian S-400 missile system, Akar adopted a relatively conciliatory tone and urged to resolve issues via dialogue. "Turkey is clearly not an adversary of the United States," Akar said and added that, therefore, its procurement of the S-400 system should not be considered within the scope of U.S. sanctions designed to target America's enemies. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last week that Washington had told Ankara it could face retribution for buying the S-400s under a sanctions law known as Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CATSAA). "This procurement decision does not signify a change in Turkey's course. I'd like to reiterate strongly that there is no change in Turkey's commitment to NATO," Akar said. The disagreement over the F-35 is the latest of a series of diplomatic disputes between the United States and Turkey including Turkish demands that the United States extradite Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, differences over Middle East policy and the war in Syria, and sanctions on Iran. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has refused to back down from Ankara's planned purchase of a Russian S-400 missile defense system that the United States has said would compromise the security of F-35 aircraft, made by Lockheed Martin.  Turkey has said it will take delivery of the S-400s in July. In early April, the United States halted delivery of equipment related to the stealthy F-35 fighter aircraft to Turkey, marking the first concrete U.S. step to potentially blocking the delivery of the jet to the NATO ally. Akar said Turkey was puzzled by the move and expected U.S. and other partners in the program to fulfill their obligations. "We firmly believe that linking the S-400 to the F-35 project is unfortunate. ... We are one of the investors and partners and not just a buyer. We have invested over $1 billion ... and fulfilled all our obligations," he said. Akar repeated Turkey's offer to hold technical talks with the United States to address "technical concerns" over the S-400 purchase. Turkey is also assessing a renewed offer from the United States to buy Patriot missile defense systems, Akar added. "Recently, we received the restated offer for the Patriots. This offer is now on the table, we are studying it carefully," he said.
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