Putin to meet Pope Francis, Italian leaders on one-day visit to Rome

Russian President Vladimir Putin is meeting with Pope Francis during a one-day visit to Rome. (Vatican Media via Reuters)
Updated 04 July 2019
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Putin to meet Pope Francis, Italian leaders on one-day visit to Rome

  • ‘We have a special relationship, tested by time, with Italy’

ROME: Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives in Rome Thursday for a lightning visit including talks with the pope and Italy’s populist government, which has called for an easing of sanctions despite Moscow’s ongoing crisis with the West.

Rome’s historic center is on security lockdown for the visit with 50 streets blocked to traffic and Italian media reporting that mobile phone signals could be scrambled.

Putin will be driven around in his six-meter-long armored limo by a chauffeur who has been practicing negotiating his way around the Eternal City’s narrow streets. His talks with Italian leaders should be easier.

Far-right Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini has often expressed admiration for Putin, and his coalition government advocates reviewing EU sanctions against Russia.

On the eve of the visit, Putin praised Salvini and his Lega party for having a “welcoming attitude” to Russia.

“They are pushing for a rapid abolition of the anti-Russian sanctions introduced by the US and the EU,” Putin said in an interview with Corriere della Sera.

The US and EU have progressively imposed sanctions on Russia since its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Moscow’s involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, including the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17.

Salvini has previously visited Moscow and been pictured in pro-Putin T-shirts.

When his party won most Italian votes in May’s European elections, Salvini posted a photo of himself with a picture of Putin in the background.

“Men like him (Putin) who act in the interest of their own citizens, there should be dozens in this country,” Salvini said last year.

The Kremlin says Putin wants to discuss Russia-EU relations, the situation in Syria, Ukraine and Libya and Iran’s nuclear program.

An EU summit last month extended economic sanctions targeting whole sectors of the Russian economy, including its crucial oil and gas industry, until the end of 2019.

Italy has not vetoed the sanctions but the EU front appears less united thanks to Rome’s pro-Russian overtures.

Before talks with Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and President Sergio Mattarella, Putin will have his third meeting with Pope Francis.

Their last encounter was in 2015 when the pope urged all parties to the conflict in Ukraine to make a “sincere effort” for peace.

The meeting lasted an unusual 50 minutes. Only audiences with former US President Barack Obama and French President Emmanuel Macron have been longer.

Francis first met Putin in 2013, as the Roman Catholic Church sought to improve ties with the Russian Orthodox Church.

Only in 2009 did the Vatican and Moscow re-establish full diplomatic ties which had been severed during Soviet times.

Relations have improved since the coming to power in the same year of Patriarch Kirill, who headed up the Russian Orthodox Church’s diplomatic arm for years.

The Russian Orthodox Church has frequently accused the Catholic Church of proselytizing in Russia, an Orthodox Christian country of 144 million.

The pope in 2016 held a historic meeting with Kirill in Cuba, the first encounter between the heads of the two largest Christian churches since Christianity split into Western and Eastern branches in the 11th Century — an event known as “The Great Schism.”

Kremlin adviser Yuri Ushakov said on Wednesday that “for the time being a possible invitation for the pope to visit Russia is not on the agenda.”

The pope and Putin will discuss “preserving Christian holy sites in Syria,” the Kremlin said.

Salvini and fellow Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio will attend a dinner for Putin in the evening, after which the Russian president will meet his old friend and former premier Silvio Berlusconi, known for his sex scandals and “bunga bunga” parties.

“We are bound by a friendship stretching back many years,” Putin said in the Corriere interview, hailing “a politician of global stature.”


Firefighters battle wildfire in Portugal, 32 people hurt

Updated 22 July 2019
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Firefighters battle wildfire in Portugal, 32 people hurt

COLOS, Portugal: More than 1,000 firefighters battled a major wildfire Monday amid scorching temperatures in Portugal, where forest blazes wreak destruction every summer.
About 90% of the fire area in the Castelo Branco district, 200 kilometers (about 125 miles) northeast of the capital Lisbon, was brought under control during cooler overnight temperatures, according to local Civil Protection Agency commander Pedro Nunes.
But authorities said they expected heat in and winds to increase again in the afternoon, so all firefighting assets remained in place. Forests in the region are tinder-dry after weeks with little rain.
The Portuguese Civil Protection Agency said 321 vehicles and eight water-dumping aircraft were deployed to tackle the blaze, which has raced through thick woodlands.
Nunes told reporters that the fire, in its third day, has injured 32 people, one seriously.
Police said they were investigating what caused the fire amid suspicions it may have been started deliberately.
Temperatures were forecast to reach almost 40 C (104 F) Monday — prolonging a spell of blistering weather that is due to hit northern Europe late this week.
Recent weeks have also seen major wildfires in Spain, Greece and Germany. European Union authorities have warned that wildfires are “a growing menace” across the continent.
In May, forest fires also plagued Mexico and Russia.
Huge wildfires have long been a summer fixture in Portugal.
Residents of villages and hamlets in central Portugal have grown accustomed to the summer blazes, which destroy fruit trees, olive trees and crops in the fields.
In the hamlet of Colos, 50-year-old beekeeper Antonio Pires said he had lost half of his beehives in the current wildfire. Pires sells to mainly Portuguese and German clients, but also to Brazil and China.
“(I lost) 100 out of 230 (hives), so almost half,” Pires said. “A lot of damage.”
The country’s deadliest fire season came in 2017, when at least 106 people were killed.
The average annual area charred by wildfires in Portugal between 2010 and 2016 was just over 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres). That was more than in Spain, France, Italy or Greece — countries which are significantly bigger than Portugal.
Almost 11,500 firefighters are on standby this year, most of them volunteers. Volunteers are not uncommon in fire brigades in Europe, especially in Germany where more than 90% are volunteers.
Experts and authorities have identified several factors that make Portugal so particularly vulnerable to forest blazes. Addressing some of them is a long-term challenge.
The population of the Portuguese countryside has thinned as people have moved to cities in search of a better life. That means woodland has become neglected, especially as many of those left behind are elderly, and the forest debris is fuel for wildfires.
Large areas of central and northern Portugal are covered in dense, unbroken stretches of forest on hilly terrain. A lot of forest is pine and eucalyptus trees, both of which burn fiercely.
Environmentalists have urged the government to limit the area of eucalyptus, which burns like a torch. But it is a very valuable crop for Portugal’s important paper pulp industry, which last year posted sales worth 2.7 billion euros ($3 billion). The government says it is introducing restrictions gradually.
Experts say Portugal needs to develop a diversified patchwork of different tree species, some of them more fire-resistant and offering damper, shaded.
Climate change has become another challenge, bringing hotter, drier and longer summers. The peak fire season used to run from July 1 to Sept. 30. Now, it starts in June and ends in October.
After the 2017 deaths, the government introduced a raft of measures. They included using goats and bulldozers to clear woodland 10 meters (33 feet) either side of country roads. Property owners also have to clear a 50-meter (164-feet) radius around an isolated house, and 100 meters (328 feet) around a hamlet.
Emergency shelters and evacuation routes have been established at villages and hamlets. Their church bells aim to toll when a wildfire is approaching.
With 98% of blazes caused by human hand, either by accident or on purpose, officials have also been teaching people how to safely burn stubble and forest waste. Police, army and forest service patrols are also increased during the summer.