Bulgaria’s Orthodox Church elects new patriarch with pro-Russian views

Sofia, Bulgaria — Bulgaria’s Orthodox Church elected Daniil, a 52-year-old metropolitan considered to be pro-Russian, as its new leader Sunday in a vote that reflected the divisions in the church and wider society since Russia invaded Ukraine more than two years ago.

Growing divisions between pro-Russian and anti-Russian factions within the senior clergy began after some of them attempted to warm relations with the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which was recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople in 2019. Russian and most other Orthodox patriarchs refused to accept the designation that formalized a split with the Russian church.

Unlike his late predecessor, who in his last prayers criticized Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, Daniil has taken the side of the Moscow Patriarchy in its dispute with the Ecumenical Patriarch over the independence of Ukraine’s Orthodox Church.

Daniil also criticized the expulsion last fall of a Russian and two Belarusian clerics accused of spying for Moscow, and in his prayers, he blamed people who called Russia an “aggressor.”

The 52-year-old bishop, born Atanas Nikolov, studied theology in Sofia and eventually went to serve as a monk in a monastery. He belongs to the first generation of young Bulgarians who joined the church after the fall of communism.

The bells of the golden-domed Alexander Nevski cathedral in downtown Sofia announced the election of a new patriarch by the 138 delegates at the church council.

Shortly after, council speaker Cyprian said that “Vidin metropolitan Daniil was elected by the clergy and the people as Holy Bulgarian Patriarch and Sofia metropolitan.”

Daniil was clad in the green-and-gold patriarchal attire and put upon his head the white veil, symbol of his office.

In a tight second-round ballot, Daniil won support of 69 delegates against Grigory, the metropolitan of Vratsa, who was backed by 66 delegates. The patriarch is elected for life unless he steps down.

Daniil succeeded the soft-speaking and charismatic Patriarch Neophyte, who passed away in March aged 78 after leading the church for 11 years.

A church procession accompanied the newly elected patriarch to the cathedral, where he was enthroned in a sumptuous ceremony, attended by other Orthodox church representatives as well as Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians.

Bartholomew is considered first among equals among Eastern Orthodox patriarchs, which gives him prominence but not the power of a Catholic pope. Large portions of the Eastern Orthodox world are self-governing under their own patriarchs.

Though the church in Bulgaria is fully separate from the state, its constitution names Eastern Orthodoxy as the “traditional religion,” followed by some 85% of its 6.5 million people.

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Taliban call on West to build deeper ties, ignore curbs on women

Islamabad — A United Nations-led two-day conference of special envoys for Afghanistan from nearly two dozen countries kicked off Sunday in Qatar with the Taliban demanding an end to financial sanctions and expressing a desire for greater engagement with the West while dismissing curbs on women’s freedom as a policy difference.  

This is the first time the Taliban participated in the gathering to discuss international engagement with Afghanistan since U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres initiated what is commonly referred to as the “Doha process” a year ago.  

Rosemary DiCarlo, U.N. undersecretary-general for political and peacebuilding affairs is presiding over the talks.

Delegates attending the conference told VOA, the hard-line group’s participation was a boon for the process, despite intense criticism from women’s rights groups in and outside Afghanistan for excluding rights activists. To ensure the Taliban did not skip the meeting as they did in February because activists were invited, the U.N. decided not to bring them to the official event. 

The Taliban were not invited to the first round in May last year.

Taliban’s pitch

Zabihullah Mujahid, chief spokesperson of the Taliban’s interim government, is leading the Kabul delegation. Addressing the gathering, Mujahid urged unfreezing Afghan funds and lifting banking sanctions that have cut off the country from the international financial system, saying such actions were hindering the economic progress his government was aiming for.

“Afghans are questioning why the easing of sanctions on financial and trade sectors remains slow-paced? Why the government and the private sector are consistently confronting various challenges?” Mujahid asked the gathering that included representatives from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.

The U.S. froze $7 billion of Afghan central bank funds after the Taliban took control of the country in August 2021. In 2022, the Biden administration put half the money in a Switzerland-based trust account called “Fund for the Afghan People,” which a board oversees. The remaining money is locked in the U.S.

The Taliban delegation head did not directly reference the ban on girls’ education and women’s employment in most sectors, or curbs on their mobility, instead hinting at them as cultural, religious and policy differences. In a recent report, U.N. special rapporteur Richard Bennet called the Taliban’s hard-line practices an “attack on the entire civilian population, amounting to crimes against humanity.”

“I do not deny that some countries may have problems with some measures of the Islamic Emirate,” Mujahid said using the title the regime uses for itself.  

“The policy differences should not escalate to the extent that powerful countries use their leverage to impose security, political, and economic pressures on our people, affecting the lives of our nation in a significant way,” Mujahid added, apparently criticizing the way the United States and other western countries have been pressuring the Taliban to soften their stance. Mujahid instead called on countries to separate “Afghanistan’s internal matters from foreign relations.”

Referring to growing bilateral engagement with Russia, China, and others, Mujahid said the de facto rulers were keen to engage with the West.

“We hope that Western countries will also prioritize mutual bilateral interests in a similar manner,” he said.  

Prior to the start of formal talks Sunday, the Taliban held bilateral meetings with delegates from Russia, Saudi Arabia, India and Uzbekistan. While no country has recognized the Taliban government since the group came to power in August 2021 at the end of the 20-year, U.S.-led war, at least 16 countries have diplomatic missions in Afghanistan. Only Beijing has exchanged ambassadors with Kabul. 

Response to Taliban

“Everyone stated their position. It was good. Everyone talked about engagement,” Asif Durrani, Pakistan’s special representative for Afghanistan told media covering the summit. “The very fact that Taliban attended shows the U.N. could prevail.”

Despite severe criticism by global rights group of the U.N.’s decision to exclude Afghan women from the event and their issues from the agenda, no country boycotted the gathering. Delegates from the United States, Canada, Norway, and other western countries as well as the European Union are taking part in the talks along with representatives of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.  

“There is pressure to attend. There is a realization to make the best of it, to build on it,” said a Western diplomat speaking on background to VOA.  

They added that it was good that countries were choosing a structured process to deal with the Taliban and that despite nearly three years of Taliban rule, there was still a huge divide between the de facto rulers and the global community.

Speaking to media on the sidelines, Durrani said delegates raised the issue of women’s rights during the closed-door speeches. The Taliban gave measured, “palatable” responses to issues that were difficult for them, he added.  

Despite participants expressing concerns about the presence of terrorist groups on Afghan soil and calling out the regime for its treatment of women and girls, Mujahid seemed upbeat afterward.  

“The views of all countries seems positive about Afghanistan,” Mujahid said responding to a VOA question while talking to the media. “Because everyone wants to cooperate with Afghanistan. Which is good. We want to boost our relations with the countries which are already in touch with us, and those who aren’t, they should come and give importance to interacting with Afghanistan and cooperate with the people of Afghanistan.”

More than one delegate told VOA the mood during the talks was good and a positive tone was set for similar engagement in the future.

Discussions on improving conditions for Afghanistan’s private business sector, including exploring ways to collaborate on entrepreneurship, job creation, Islamic finance, and access to markets will take place Monday. This will be followed by talks regarding sustaining the Taliban’s ban on opium poppy cultivation, it’s impact on women, and providing alternative livelihoods to poppy farmers.

U.N. representatives and delegates from various countries plan to meet with Afghan civil society activists after the conference Tuesday. In a post on social media platform X, the Taliban foreign ministry official Zakir Jalali insisted this meeting would not mean the Taliban will be sharing the spotlight.

“If several special envoys meet with someone after the meeting of the participants, it has nothing to do with Doha-3,” he said.

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Greece fights dozens of wildfires in ‘most difficult day of year’

Athens, Greece — Firefighters were battling a series of wildfires near the Greek capital, Athens, on Sunday evening, as the country braces for another scorching summer.

Greece faces a tough wildfire season after its warmest winter and earliest heat wave on record, with temperatures hitting 44°C (111°F).  

“Today in Attica two extremely dangerous fires that broke out in residential areas and spread rapidly due to strong winds in Keratea and Stamata were tackled,” Climate Crisis and Civil Protection Minister Vasilis Kikilias said late on Sunday.  

He said there was no longer an active front in Stamata, north of Athens, though there were some minor reignitions in the eastern area of Keratea.  

He said, “Ground forces will remain in the field throughout the night.”

Since Sunday midday, the authorities have called for the evacuation of at least eight areas near the capital, with flames destroying cars and houses.  

Ert channel reported that a 45-year-old-man died from cardiac arrest while trying to flee fires in suburban Athens.  

According to the police, the man was found unconscious in the yard of a house in Rodopoli and taken to the hospital, where he died.  

“Today is the hardest that the fire brigade has faced in this year’s firefighting season,” fire department spokesperson Vasilis Vathrakogiannis said on Sunday afternoon, during an emergency press briefing.

“The situation is very difficult, as strong winds continue to blow; they have not subsided and the outbreaks are many,” the mayor of Lavreotiki, Dimitris Loukas, told Athens News Agency Sunday afternoon.

He said a nearby military air base was not currently in danger from the flames.

A fire brigade spokesman noted that wind speeds had exceeded 60 km per hour in Keratea, while in Stamata, the blaze was fanned by strong northerly winds exceeding 70 km an hour.

Island fires

A fire also broke out Sunday in an industrial zone in Ritsona, near the island of Evia.  

Black smoke filled the sky above Ritsona after the fire started in a recycling factory, burning various flammable materials that were in the grounds around it, including tires and mattresses.  

Firefighters are fighting to prevent the flames from spreading beyond the recycling plant to other factories in the area.

The fire also approached a refugee center, but the Athens News Agency reported that this was not believed to be in danger.

Separately, a large wildfire broke out on Serifos island on Saturday afternoon but was also brought under control by firefighters early Sunday.

“All of southwestern Serifos has burned. We are talking about an area where the fire stopped at the sea,” Serifos Mayor Konstantinos Revintis told MEGA TV.  

The fire caused damage to houses, cottages, warehouses and chapels, according to the mayor.

The Fire Danger Forecast Map issued for Sunday by the Civil Protection Ministry predicted a very high category 4 risk of fire for Attica, the Peloponnese, Crete, the North and South Aegean Regions, and central Greece.  

A wildfire ignited Saturday afternoon in the area of Mount Parnitha — known as “the lungs of Athens” — was controlled Saturday evening with the help of reinforcements from other regions as well as volunteer firefighters.

More than 40 wildfires erupted across Saturday in Greece with wind speeds exceeding 100 kilometers per hour, according to fire brigade sources.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis called on Greeks to brace for a difficult wildfire season in his weekly Facebook post on Sunday.

“The difficult times are still ahead of us. Our effort is continuous. In this effort, our allies are new tools that build a new culture of prevention and responsibility,” he said.

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Finance minister: Pakistan’s new IMF loan program ‘on track’ for up to $8 billion

Islamabad — Pakistan said Sunday that discussions with the International Monetary Fund to secure a new multibillion-dollar loan program are progressing well and the program “is on track.”

Finance Minister Muhammad Aurangzeb confirmed during a news conference that Islamabad is negotiating a three-year loan program valued at $6 – $8 billion to avoid a debt default. 

He stated that the government is pursuing the loan facility to sustain macroeconomic and currency stability, increase foreign exchange reserves, and attract foreign direct investment to cash-strapped Pakistan.

“The IMF program is our assurance in terms of macroeconomic stability. We are taking it forward certainly; it is inevitable… without this program, we cannot move forward,” he said.

“We are making positive progress. We are very optimistic that we will be able to take it through the finishing line for an Extended Fund Program, which is going to be larger and longer in nature,” the minister said of his ongoing talks with the U.S.-based global lender. 

Aurangzeb underlined the importance of the IMF loan, saying it would help unlock investments from other international financial institutions and countries that are friendly toward Pakistan, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. “They want a backstop for investment, which is the Fund program.”

Last week, Pakistan’s parliament passed the government’s tax-laden budget for the coming fiscal year. Officials claimed the budget would guide the country towards an era of sustainable and inclusive growth. Opposition parties rejected the budget, saying it would be highly inflationary.

Pakistan is facing $25 billion in external debt payments in the coming fiscal year starting in July, a significantly higher amount than its current level of foreign exchange reserves.

US support crucial

Aurangzeb, speaking Sunday, dismissed concerns that a recent resolution in the U.S. Congress calling for a probe into fraud allegations in Pakistan’s February elections would undermine the ongoing talks with the IMF.

Washington’s support is crucial for Islamabad to negotiate the bailout package successfully.

On Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 368-7, urging “the full and independent investigation of claims of interference or irregularities” in the February 8 vote.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s administration promptly rejected the resolution on Wednesday, saying it “stems from an incomplete understanding of the political situation and electoral process” in Pakistan. 

On Friday, ruling coalition lawmakers passed a counter-resolution in the legislative lower house of parliament, decrying the congressional move as an “interference” in Pakistan’s internal affairs. 

The opposition party of jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan and independent observers have persistently alleged that the powerful military was behind widespread rigging, including mobile phone and internet shutdowns on polling day, and unusually delayed results to help its favored political parties to win the elections, charges Pakistan’s election commission denied.   

The contentious election has fueled political turmoil in the country of about 250 million people, making it harder for the Sharif administration to tackle the economic crisis and attract much-needed foreign investment.

Since gaining independence in 1947, Pakistan has received 23 bailout packages from the IMF, the most of any country in the world. Critics blame repeated military-led dictatorial rules, financial mismanagement, and corruption by elected governments for hindering democratic and economic progress.

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Dutch PM Rutte urges support for Ukraine, EU, NATO in farewell speech

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Long-serving Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte urged his country to support Ukraine and international cooperation in his final address to his compatriots Sunday, as an inward-looking new government is set to take over the Netherlands in two days.

“It is crucial that our country is embedded in the European Union and NATO. Together we are stronger than alone. Especially now,” the 57-year-old Rutte said from his office in The Hague.

After leading the country for 14 years, he will take his experience with consensus-building to Brussels, where he will take over as NATO’s new secretary-general later this year.

He stressed the need to continue support for Ukraine, “for peace there and security here.” The new government, expected to take office on Tuesday, has pledged to maintain assistance. But far-right populist Geert Wilders, whose party won the largest block of seats in last year’s election, has expressed pro-Russia views and Kremlin backers cheered his victory at the polls.

Rutte described the MH17 tragedy in 2014 as “perhaps the most drastic and emotional event” during his tenure. The passenger jet was shot down over eastern Ukraine as it traveled from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, killing all 298 passengers and crew, including 196 Dutch citizens.

A Dutch court convicted two Russians and a pro-Moscow Ukrainian in 2022 of involvement in the downing of the Boeing 777.

Known for cycling to meetings and his dedication to politics, Rutte highlighted his country’s positive attributes.

“There is no war here, you can be who you are, we are prosperous,” he said in the 12-minute speech.

He acknowledged that there had been low points during his tenure, including a child benefits scandal that wrongly labeled thousands of parents as fraudsters.

Wearing a white shirt with several of the top buttons undone, Rutte said that his time in office had added some “gray hairs and wrinkles” to his appearance. 

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Mauritania’s President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani on track for reelection, provisional results show 

NOUAKCHOTT — Mauritania’s President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani is on track to secure a second mandate after positioning the country as a strategic ally of the West in a region swept by coups and violence, provisional results showed on Sunday.   

Ghazouani, who is seeking reelection on a pledge of providing security and economic growth, obtained 55% of votes, according to provisional results from over 80% polling stations, the country’s independent electoral commission said on Sunday afternoon. His main rival, anti-slavery activist Biram Dah Abeid, received 22.4% of votes, the commission said, with a turnout of almost 55%.   

The full results are expected on Sunday evening but Ghazouani, a former army chief and the current president of the African Union, has a comfortable lead.   

Although his opponents accused him of corruption and mismanagement, he remains popular among Mauritanians who see him as a beacon of stability. The vote is taking place in a particularly tense regional climate, with Mauritania’s neighbors shaken by military coups and jihadi violence.   

Mauritania is rich in natural resources including iron ore, copper, zinc, phosphate, gold, oil and natural gas. It is poised to become a gas producer by the end of the year, with the planned launch of the BP-operated Greater Tortue Ahmeyin offshore gas project at the border with Senegal.   

Yet almost 60% of the population lives in poverty, according to the United Nations, working as farmers or employed in the informal sector. With few economic opportunities for young people at home, many are attempting to reach Europe, and some are even trying to get to the United States through Mexico.   

“The last word belongs to the Mauritanian voters,” Ghazouni said after voting in Ksar, a suburb of the capital. “I commit myself to respecting their choice.”   

Saturday’s vote unfolded peacefully, according to observers.   

“Nothing has been detected so far and the CENI has not received any complaints,” said Taghioullah Ledhem, the spokesman for CENI, the country’s independent electoral commission. But some opposition candidates held a different view.   

Biram Dah, who came second in the vote according to the provisional results, warned on Sunday against “an electoral coup d’état for the benefit of Ghazouani, who was defeated by voters.”   

During a press conference on Sunday morning, Biram accused the electoral commission of fraud by giving Ghazouni thousands of votes “added out of nowhere.”   

“We are going to oppose this electoral hold-up,” he said. “I ask Ghazouani to respect his solemn commitment to comply with the will of the people.” 


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Greek firefighters battle new wildfire near Athens amid strong winds 

ATHENS — Greek firefighters were battling a wildfire south of Athens on Sunday amid strong winds, just hours after managing to contain blazes in a mountainous area also near the capital as well as on an island in the Aegean Sea.

Dozens of firefighters, backed up by 17 water-carrying aircraft, fought to tame the new fire in a sparsely-populated area near the town of Keratea, some 35 kilometers (22 miles) south of Athens.

Greek television showed at least one house in flames as smoke from burning pine and olive trees billowed into the sky.

With hot, windy conditions across much of Greece, dozens of wildfires broke out over the weekend and authorities advised people to stay away from forested areas.

Firefighters were still engaged on the island of Serifos where a fire had broken out amid low vegetation on Saturday and spread quickly, fanned by strong winds, damaging houses and prompting the evacuation of several hamlets.

The wildfire, which at one point had raged across 15 kilometers (9.3 miles), damaged holiday homes and storehouses, the island’s mayor, Kostas Revinthis, told Greek television.

Another fire in the mountainous forest of Parnitha near a nature reserve just outside Athens had eased by Sunday morning, officials said.

The strong winds are not expected to abate until later on Sunday, meteorologists said.

Wildfires are common in the Mediterranean country but have become more devastating in recent years as summers have become hotter, drier and windier, which scientists link to the effects of climate change.

After last summer’s deadly forest fires and following its warmest winter on record, Greece developed a new doctrine, which includes deploying an extra fire engine to each new blaze, speeding up air support and clearing forests.

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M23 continues to gain ground in volatile east DR Congo 

Kanyabayonga, DR Congo — The M23 militia group continued to gain ground in the war-torn east of DR Congo, with more towns falling into the hands of the rebels, sources told AFP Sunday.   

Kinshasa accuses Rwanda of backing the Tutsi-led M23 rebel group which has seized swathes of eastern DR Congo in an ongoing offensive launched in 2021 — something Kigali denies.   

On Sunday the M23 (March 23 Movement) moved into the town of Kirumba, in North Kivu province, which has been rocked by violence since 2021 when the group resumed its armed campaign in the region.    

Kirumba is the biggest town in the south of the Lubero territory, where the group has been advancing, and a big commercial center with more than 120,000 residents.    

“We regret that the large entity [the town] has since yesterday evening been in the hands of the M23,” a local official, who did not wish to be named, told AFP on Sunday.   

He said the group is now heading north from the town.   

‘They are numerous’ 

“They are numerous, some arrived on foot and others in vehicles,” a civil society leader who asked to remain unnamed told AFP.   

Another local official, who also said the rebels had arrived in the town, said they are “waiting for the government’s reaction.”  

President Felix Tshisekedi held a meeting of DR Congo’s defense council on Saturday.   

During a speech to mark the country’s independence day, Tshisekedi said “clear and firm instructions have been given for the safeguarding of the territorial integrity of our country”, without giving more details.   

On Saturday M23 seized the strategic town of Kanyabayonga, as other surrounding areas also fell into the hands of the rebels.   

Kanyabayonga is home to more than 60,000 people and tens of thousands of people have fled there in recent months, driven from their homes by the advance of the rebels.    

The town is considered a pathway to Butembo and Beni in the north, strongholds of the Nande tribe and major commercial centers.    

It is in the Lubero territory, the fourth territory in the North Kivu province that the group has entered after Rutshuru, Nyiragongo and Masisi.   

Other towns near Kanyabayonga have also been seized by M23, according to officials and security sources.   

Five people including three civilians and two soldiers have been killed in the town of Kayna where the rebels took control on Saturday, Console Sindani vice president of Kayna civil society, told AFP on Sunday.   

The mayor of the commune of Kayna, Clovis Kanyauru told AFP on Sunday there had been three deaths.   

DR Congo’s mineral-rich east has been the scene of violence for 30 years by armed groups, both local and foreign-based, going back to regional wars of the 1990s. 


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Austrian far-right, Hungary’s Orban form new EU alliance 

Vienna — Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPO), Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz and the populist Czech ANO party led by Andrej Babis are forming a new alliance in the European Parliament, they announced on Sunday.   

The move would reorder but possibly also split nationalist forces in the assembly, provided four more parties join. Parties from at least a quarter of the European Union’s 27 member states are needed to officially form a new political group.   

While Fidesz has remained outside larger groupings since it parted ways with the mainstream center-right European People’s Party (EPP) in 2021, the FPO is part of the Identity and Democracy political group along with Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party in France. ANO is not part of a political group.   

“Today is a historic day because today we are entering a new era of European politics,” FPO leader Herbert Kickl said in an address to the media attended by Babis and Orban convened at short notice in a Vienna hotel.   

“This alliance is meant as a rocket that will bring other parties on board at the European level to join forces and give Europe a better future,” Kickl said of the “new patriotic Alliance.”   

Former Czech prime minister Babis said the new group would be called Patriots for Europe.   

All three men cited the fight against illegal immigration, which has long been a pressing concern for them, as well as transferring more powers from Brussels back to member states.   

In this month’s European Parliament election, nationalist parties capitalized on voter disquiet over spiraling prices, migration and the cost of the green transition, and are looking to translate their seat gains into more influence on EU policy.   

While the FPO has a clear lead in Austrian opinion polls ahead of a Sept. 29 parliamentary election, Orban faces a growing threat in Hungary from the new opposition party Tisza, which said this month it would join the EPP in the European Parliament.   

“Today we are creating a political formation that in my view will be off to a flying start and will very quickly become the largest group of the European right,” Orban said.   

“This will happen within days and then the sky is the limit,” he said.   

The three men took no questions but the FPO said a press conference would be held in Brussels or Strasbourg soon with other parties joining the alliance. 

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Eleven dead in Indian capital after heavy rain, flight operations stutter

New Delhi — The death toll from this week’s sudden heavy rain has climbed to 11 in New Delhi, including four citizens who drowned in submerged underpasses, the Times of India reported, while flight operations stuttered in the Indian capital.  

New Delhi, which endured one of its worst heatwaves in history earlier this month, faced the biggest downpour in decades on June 28, with rainfall in a single day surpassing the city’s average for the entire month.  

The torrential rain caused a fatal roof collapse at one of the three terminals of Delhi’s main airport, disrupted flights, flooded underpasses, and led to massive traffic jams, power and water outages in parts of the city.  

Nearly 60 flights were cancelled from New Delhi’s main airport in the last 24 hours, according to data from flight tracking platform Flightaware.  

Operations were largely normal on Sunday, with most flights from the affected terminal diverted to the other two, an airport official said but did not rule out possible flight cancellations in the course of the day.  

The Delhi airport is one of the country’s biggest and busiest.  

Terminal 1, the now-closed terminal, is mostly used by low-cost carriers IndiGo, operated by Interglobe Aviation INGL.NS, and SpiceJet, and currently has a capacity to handle 40 million passengers annually.  

An Indigo spokesperson did not comment on the flight cancellations and a SpiceJet spokesperson did not immediately respond to a phone call. 

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2 dead, 1 missing after Swiss landslide, police say

GENEVA — Two people have died and a third is missing after torrential rains triggered a landslide in southeastern Switzerland, police said Sunday.

Violent storms lashed the Alpine country with rain this weekend, with hundreds of people evacuated in the west after the Rhone River and its tributaries broke their banks.

“The bodies of two people were found by rescuers in connection with the landslide in the Fontana region,” police in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino said in a statement.

According to local daily La Regione, the dead were two women who were on holiday in the region.

Emergency services were assessing the best way to evacuate 300 people who had arrived for a football tournament in Peccia, while almost 70 more were being evacuated from a holiday camp in the village of Mogno.

The poor weather was making rescue work particularly difficult, police had said earlier, with several valleys inaccessible and cut off from the electricity network.

The federal alert system also said part of the canton was without drinking water.

In the western canton of Valais, the civil security services said “several hundred” people were evacuated and roads closed after the Rhone overflowed in different locations.

Extreme rainfall also struck southeastern Switzerland last weekend, leaving one dead and causing major damage. 

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Expanding extremist groups in Africa fuel worries that they could attack the US, allies

GABORONE, Botswana — Violent extremist groups linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group are growing in size and influence across Africa, fueling worries that as they improve their tactics they could attack the U.S. or Western allies.

U.S. defense and military officials described the threats and their concerns about growing instability in Africa, where a number of coups have put ruling juntas in control, leading to the ouster of American troops and a decline in U.S. intelligence gathering.

“Threats like Wagner, terrorist groups and transnational criminal organizations continue to sow instability in multiple regions,” Air Force Gen. CQ Brown, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in opening remarks Tuesday at a conference of African chiefs of defense in Botswana. “I think we can all agree, what happens in one part of the world, does not stay in one part of the world.”

Wagner is the Russian mercenary group that has gone into African nations to provide security as Western forces, including from the U.S. and France, have been pushed out. The group is known for its brutality, and human rights organizations have accused its members of raping and killing civilians.

While Brown only touched briefly on the terror threat in the region, it was a key topic among others at the conference and spurred questions from military chiefs in the audience after his speech. They wanted to know what the U.S. could do to help stem the spread of insurgents in West Africa, the Gulf of Guinea and the Sahel.

This is the first time that the chiefs of defense conference has been held on African soil. And it is the first time the U.S. joint chiefs chairman has visited a sub-Saharan country since 1994, when Gen. John Shalikashvili visited Rwanda and Zaire.

A senior U.S. defense official said al-Qaida linked groups — such as al-Shabab in Somalia and Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin, known as JNIM, in the Sahel region — are the largest and most financially viable insurgencies. JNIM is active in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger and is looking to expand into Benin and Togo, which it uses as hubs to rest, recuperate, get financing and gather weapons but also has increased attacks there.

At the same time, the Islamic State group has key cells in West Africa and in the Sahel. The defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a threat assessment, said the Islamic State cells were getting increasing direction from the group’s leadership that relocated to northern Somalia. That has included how to kidnap Westerners for ransom, how to learn better military tactics, how to hide from drones and how to building their own small quadcopters.

A U.S. military airstrike in Somalia on May 31 targeted Islamic State militants and killed three, according to U.S. Africa Command. U.S. officials have said the strike targeted the group’s leader, but the defense official said Monday that it’s still unclear if he was killed.

Roughly 200 Islamic State insurgents are in Somalia, so they are vastly outnumbered by al-Shabab, which has grown in size to between 10,000 and 12,000.

The growth of the insurgent groups within Africa signals the belief by both al-Qaida and the Islamic State group that the continent is a ripe location for jihadism, where extremist ideology can take root and expand, the official said.

And it comes as the U.S. was ordered to pull out its 1,000 troops from Niger in the wake of last July’s coup and also about 75 from Chad. Those troop cuts, which shut down a critical U.S. counterterrorism and drone base at Agadez, hamper intelligence gathering in Niger, said Gen. Michael Langley, head of U.S. Africa Command.

Surveillance operations before the coup gave the U.S. a greater ability to get intelligence on insurgent movements. Now, he said, the key goal is a safe and secure withdrawal of personnel and equipment from both Agadez and a smaller U.S. facility near the airport.

Langley met with Niger’s top military chief, Brig. Gen. Moussa Salaou Barmou, during the conference, and said military-to-military communications continue but that it’s yet to be determined how much the new transitional government will deal with the U.S.

Currently, he said, there are about 400 troops still at Agadez and 200 near the airport.

But, he added that “as we’re in transition and resetting, we need to maintain capabilities to get enough intelligence to identify warnings of a threat out there.”

Langley said the U.S. is still trying to assess the militant groups’ capabilities as they grow.

“Yes, they’ve been growing in number. Have they been growing in capability where they can do what we call external ops attacks on the homeland and attacks on allies, whether we’re talking about Europe or anyone? That’s what we closely watch,” he said. “I’d say it has the potential as they grow in numbers.”

Both Langley and Brown spoke more extensively about the need for the U.S. and African nations to communicate more effectively and work together to solve security and other problems.

And Brown acknowledged that the U.S. needs to “do better at understanding the perspectives of others, ensuring their voices and expertise don’t get drowned out.”

The U.S has struggled to maintain relations with African nations as many foster growing ties to Russia and China.

Some African countries have expressed frustration with the U.S. for forcing issues, such as democracy and human rights, that many see as hypocrisy, given Washington’s close ties to some autocratic leaders elsewhere. Meanwhile, Russia offers security assistance without interfering in politics, making it an appealing partner for military juntas that seized power in places like Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso in recent years.

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Want to follow swimming in Paris? Then get up to speed on WADA, doping and China

TOKYO — The Paris Olympics open next month and the agency that oversees doping enforcement is under scrutiny following allegations it failed to pursue positive tests of Chinese swimmers who subsequently won medals — including three gold — at the Tokyo Games in 2021.

The focus on the World Anti-Doping Agency and China’s swimmers raises questions for athletes about the fairness of the competitions and the effectiveness of doping control at the Olympics.

“It’s hard going into Paris knowing that we’re going to be racing some of these athletes,” American swimmer Katie Ledecky, a seven-time Olympic champion, said in a television interview. “I think our faith in the system is at an all-time low.”

Rob Koehler, who worked as a deputy director of WADA until 2018, offered a similar tone.

“Athletes have zero confidence in the global regulator and World Aquatics,” Koehler, the director general of athletes’ advocacy body Global Athlete, told The Associated Press. “Transparency is needed more than ever. Without it, the anti-doping movement will crumble and athletes will never feel they have a level playing field.”

The background

From January 1-3, 2021, 23 elite Chinese swimmers tested positive for the banned substance trimetazidine — a heart medication known as TMZ — while competing in the Chinese city of Shijiazhuang and staying in a local hotel.

Chinese authorities investigated but did not sanction the swimmers and said they had unwittingly ingested the banned substance. They blamed food/environmental contamination and said the drug had gotten into spice containers in the hotel kitchen.

The investigation was carried out by the Chinese Minister of Public Security, China’s national police force.

WADA accepted the explanation and argued, in part, it was not possible to send its own investigators to China during what officials said was a “local COVID outbreak.”

Several of those athletes later won medals at the Tokyo Olympics, including gold medals in three events.

Eleven of the 23 Chinese swimmers were named this month on the country’s national team to compete in Paris, including Zhang Yufei, who won gold in the 200-meter butterfly and the women’s 4×200 freestyle relay. She also won two silver medals in Tokyo.

Also on the list for Paris is 200 individual medley Olympic gold-medalist Wang Shun, and 200 breaststroke world-record holder Qin Haiyang.

The criticism of WADA

WADA has been criticized for seeming to look the other way at aspects of the Chinese anti-doping agency’s investigation and reporting. It has also not published any of the science behind its decision.

The Chinese agency, known as CHINADA, did not report the positive tests to WADA until mid-March. And in early April 2021 it told WADA it had begun an investigation. On June 15 of that year, it told WADA that environmental contamination was the cause and said it was not pursing an ADRV — an anti-doping rules violation.

Had an anti-doping rules violation been found, CHINADA should have filed a mandatory provisional suspension with a public disclosure forthcoming.

Many questions have been asked since the case became public this year, including by a bipartisan group of U.S. senators. Why did it take 2 1/2 months to report the findings, and why was the investigation begun even later? WADA attributes the “certain delays” to COVID restrictions.

Why was there an apparent delay in inspecting the hotel kitchen? Why was the residue still around, particularly in light of China’s tough sanitation rules during the pandemic? And where did the TMZ come from and how did it land in a spice container? Why were the national police involved in a sports doping case?

The New York Times and German broadcaster ARD broke the story in April of this year.

WADA’s defense

Basically, WADA says it had no grounds to challenge the findings of CHINADA. WADA did say, however, it did not agree with all of CHINADA’s investigation “for largely technical reasons.”

WADA says it accepted the contamination theory because: the levels of TMZ were very low; the swimmers were from different regions of China; and the swimmers were in the same place when the positive tests occurred. Also, competing swimmers stayed in another hotel. Three were tested and none tested positive.

Legally, WADA argued that it could have appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport but was advised not to by external lawyers. It would have been a narrow appeal that would not have kept the athletes from competing at the Tokyo Olympics.

WADA has appointed retired Swiss prosecutor Eric Cottier to review the handling of the case. Fairly or not, his impartiality has been questioned.

The banned medication

Trimetazidine is listed as a “metabolic modulator” and is banned by WADA — in competition and out of competition. It is believed to help endurance and recovery time after training. One of the best-known TMZ cases involved Chinese swimmer Sun Yang, who was suspended for three months in 2014 after testing positive for the substance. He also served a four-year suspension for a separate doping violation.

Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva tested positive for TMZ weeks before the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. She said the substance had belonged to her grandfather and had accidentally contaminated her food. She was allowed to skate in Beijing, but was was eventually handed a four-year suspension.

WADA said Valieva’s contamination scenario “was not compatible with the analytical results.” In the case of the Chinese swimmers, WADA said “the contamination scenario was plausible and that there was no concrete scientific element to challenge it.”

Strict Liability

The principle of “Strict Liability” — athletes are responsible for what they ingest — is at the heart of the WADA code, and is there to ensure all athletes are treated equally. Some question if the principle was followed in this case.

WADA’s rules specify that a “mandatory provisional suspension” should have taken place after the positive tests, which were carried out at a WADA-approved laboratory in Beijing. The local anti-doping agency — in this case, CHINADA — should have issued the suspension.

“CHINADA’s handling of the case, and WADA’s subsequent response, did not adhere to the most essential rule in the code — the principle of Strict Liability,” Steven Teitler, the legal director of the Netherlands doping agency, wrote in a white paper examining the case.

WADA further muddied the water in a fact sheet it published. It said “even for mandatory provisional suspensions there are exceptions.” It said there were multiple precedents for the decision to exonerate the Chinese athletes, precedents that did not seem to have been widely known.

This has raised more questions about how the agency follows its own rules.

The anti-doping system relies on national agencies like CHINADA to enforce the rules, which can clash with the wishes of high-profile athletes and the prestige they might bring to a country and its government.

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Ice baths and ventilators: India’s hospitals adapt to killer heat

NEW DELHI — The Nigerian student only popped out to repair his phone, but he ended up in a New Delhi hospital, the latest victim of a brutal heat wave that has cost scores of lives, sent birds plummeting from the sky and tormented India’s poorest workers.

On that sweltering June day, the business administration student collapsed in the street and strangers rushed him to the nearby Ram Manohar Lohia (RML) hospital, one of the country’s largest.

When he was admitted, his body temperature had soared to more than 41 degrees Celsius and he was very dehydrated, said Seema Wasnik, head of RML’s emergency medicine department.

She immediately recognized the classic signs of heatstroke. More than 40,000 suspected heatstroke cases were recorded in India as a prolonged heat wave pushed temperatures above 40 C on most days since May, with some areas hitting peaks of nearly 50 C.

The young Nigerian was lucky. The RML hospital is equipped with one of India’s first specialist heatstroke units, and doctors immersed him in an ice bath for 20 minutes to lower his temperature before moving him onto a ventilator.

His case was startling but not unusual – more than 30 patients have been treated in the unit since it opened in early May and five of those have died.

Heatstroke is caused when the body’s core temperature goes above 40.6 C. It can lead to long-term organ damage and death, and symptoms include rapid breathing, confusion or seizures, and nausea.

The specialist unit at the RML hospital is equipped with ceramic bathtubs where patients can be cooled, along with ventilators and huge ice machines. Wasnik said the hospital’s director decided to open the unit after seeing that meteorologists were predicting an extremely hot summer.

“We hoped that once we set the precedent other (hospitals) would follow,” she said.

And they did, spurred to action also by health ministry instructions to prepare for the prolonged and deadly heat waves being forecast by weather experts.

As well as Delhi’s RML hospital, a heatstroke unit was also opened in the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Bhubaneswar in Odisha state. These are the leading national hospitals in the country.

Across India several other hospitals reserved beds and laid on extra staff to deal with heatstroke patients.

“The attention now being given to the problem signals a commitment to act,” said Srinath Reddy, an honorary distinguished professor associated with the Public Health Foundation of India, a health policy think tank.

“There is now no scope for apathy and no excuse for inertia as the climate emergency is scorching its signature on human bodies,” he said.

‘Heat trap’ cities

Across Asia, billions of people were exposed this summer to deadly temperatures for days on end with scientists attributing the intensity and duration of these heat waves to human-driven climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

So far this summer, from March to June, at least 110 people have died from heat-related illnesses in India, including scores of election workers during the recent vote. Northwest and eastern India recorded more than twice the usual number of heat wave days.

Hot winds during the day and relentlessly high temperatures at night meant there was no relief, and the agony was intensified for millions of the country’s poorest citizens by water shortages and power cuts.

Authorities described cities as “heat traps.”

And even as scattered rains began in late June, heralding the beginning of the monsoon season, Reddy said public pressure for more action to mitigate the effects of future heat waves would grow.

“There is now an anxious public’s demand for an effective government response and acceptance by pressured policymakers of the need to act with alacrity for protecting lives,” said Reddy.

Doctors from RML and AIIMS, Bhubaneswar told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that more than 90% of the patients they treated for heat-related conditions were outdoor workers, including security guards, migrant laborers and street vendors.

“Extreme heat aggravates existing income and health inequities,” said Hisham Mundol, chief adviser at the Environmental Defense Fund, India.

The poorest were unable to adjust their lifestyles to seek shelter from the heat by, for example, taking time off work, and also could not afford air conditioning, Mundol said.

They were also more likely to seek help at crowded public hospitals, where services were under immense strain because of the number of heat-related cases.

The extent of the problem was revealed in a nationwide survey of over 12,000 people across 20 states and union territories by the Centre for Rapid Insights (CRI), which showed that 45% of the households surveyed said at least one person fell ill from the heat in May.

Of those affected, more than 67% had family members who were sick for more than five days, and the poorest people were hit particularly hard, the survey showed.

Dillip Kumar Parida, medical superintendent at AIIMS, Bhubaneswar, said his institute had also opened a critical care unit for heatstroke patients but more needed to be done to keep pace with the effects of runaway global warming.

“The health system will have to prepare for that and stay ready so we are not caught by surprise like we were during COVID,” he said.

“Fighting with Mother Nature is impossible; we can only predict, prepare and spread awareness to deal with what is to come in the future,” he said.

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Kenya’s urban population grows, along with need for affordable housing

NAIROBI, Kenya — In the heart of the crowded Kibera neighborhood in Kenya’s capital, Jacinter Awino shares a small tin house with her husband and four children. She envies those who have escaped such makeshift homes to more permanent dwellings under the government’s affordable housing plan.

The 33-year-old housewife and her mason husband are unable to raise the $3,800 purchase price for a one-room government house. Their tin one was constructed for $380 and lacks a toilet and running water.

“Those government houses are like a dream for us, but our incomes simply don’t allow it,” Awino said.

The government plans to build 250,000 houses each year, aimed at eventually closing a housing deficit that World Bank data puts at 2 million units. The plan was launched in 2022, but no data is available on the number of houses already completed.

Kenya’s urban areas are home to a third of the country’s total population of more than 50 million. Of those in urban areas, 70% live in informal settlements marked by a lack of basic infrastructure, according to UN-Habitat.

Some urban Kenyans have moved into a government housing project on the outskirts of the capital, Nairobi, where one-bedroom units sold for $7,600 last year.

Felister Muema, a 55-year-old former caterer, paid a deposit of about 10% through a savings plan and is expected to pay off the balance in 25 years.

“This is where I have started living my life,” she said. “If I do something here, it is permanent. If I plant a flower, no one is going to tell me: ‘Uproot it, I don’t want it there.’ This gives me life.”

But experts say construction and financing need to change and speed up for Kenya’s housing deficit to be met.

“We cannot rely on the traditional mortgage route,” said UN-Habitat’s head of East Africa, Ishaku Maitumbi, who recommended a cooperative savings system that is popular with Kenyan businesses.

For home construction, some are exploring the emerging technology of 3-D printing. A machine layers special mortar to form concrete walls and cuts the building time by several days compared to traditional brick and mortar work.

A company, 14Trees, has used the technology to build a showcase house in Nairobi and 10 houses in coastal Kilifi County.

Company CEO Francois Perrot said the technology can help address the huge housing need on the African continent, but it will take time.

“If we want to clear that backlog, we need to build differently, we need to build at scale, with speed, and with low-carbon materials, and this is what construction 3-D printing makes possible,” Perrot said.

The company’s homes, like many traditionally built ones, remain beyond the reach of most Kenyans. A two-bedroom house costs $22,000 and a three-bedroom one costs $29,000. But Perrot asserted that acquiring a printer locally and making mortar locally would help bring down costs.

“People don’t really worry or care about technology. What they care about is the design, the price, the way it is set up, the layout of the building,” he said.

Nickson Otieno, an architect and founder of Niko Green, a sustainability consulting firm, said such new technology has great potential but remains limited.

“It will still take a long time for it to compete with brick and mortar,” he said. “Brick and mortar, everybody can build their house anywhere they are. They are able to access the materials, they are able to access the tradesmen who build the house and they can plan the cost.”

Financing remains a challenge. In June 2023, Kenya’s parliament passed a finance law with a new housing tax of 1.5% on gross income, to be used to build affordable housing. The law is being challenged in court. Critics argue the tax is discriminatory as it applies only to those with formal employment.

If the tax is rejected, Kenya’s government would need to look elsewhere for funding to build affordable housing.

The housing tax is one of the issues causing discontent among young people who have organized a series of protests that included the extraordinary storming of parliament Tuesday. More than 20 people were killed as police opened fire.

President William Ruto has defended the need for the tax.

“We have said that affordable housing, social housing is a right,” he said earlier this year in response to the legal challenge.

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