France honors Europe’s anti-extremist troops on Bastille Day

France honors Europe’s anti-extremist troops on Bastille Day
Members of the French Civil Defense (Securite Civile) march past French President Emmanuel Macron , his wife Brigitte Macron and French government’s members during the annual Bastille Day military parade on the Champs-Elysees in Paris on Wednesday. (AFP)
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Updated 22 July 2021

France honors Europe’s anti-extremist troops on Bastille Day

France honors Europe’s anti-extremist troops on Bastille Day
  • Traditional parade on France's national day returned to Champs-Elysees after a one-year hiatus caused by Covid-19
  • Macron announced a major drawdown of French troops in the Sahel region last month

PARIS: European special forces involved in anti-extremist operations in Africa’s Sahel region were given prime position in France’s Bastille Day celebrations on Wednesday, in a sign of President Emmanuel Macron’s military priorities.
The traditional parade on France’s national day returned to the Champs-Elysees after a one-year hiatus caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Roughly 80 French and European special forces drawn from the multinational Takuba force in the Sahel led the procession on foot, a choice intended to send a diplomatic message from Paris.
Macron, who presided over the ceremony, announced a major drawdown of French troops in the Sahel region last month and is banking on his often reluctant European partners to send more troops to replace them.
Paris wants Takuba — which numbers only 600 troops currently, half of them French — to take over more responsibilities from the 5,100 soldiers in France’s Barkhane operation, who have been battling Islamist groups in the Sahel for eight years.
The parade under grey skies and light rain was a scaled-down version of the usual event, with only 10,000 people in the stands instead of 25,000.
The holiday commemorates the storming of the Bastille prison in Paris in 1789, which kicked off years of revolution in France.
This year’s event could be the last for 43-year-old Macron, who will finish a five-year term in April next year.
He is expected to seek re-election, however.
It will be the last for outgoing defense chief-of-staff Francois Lecointre, who looked emotional as he greeted Macron before reviewing the troops.
“There’s a continual decline of order in the world,” he told Le Monde newspaper on Saturday, referring to actions by Russia, Turkey and Iran, as well as terror groups such as Islamic State in the Middle East and in Africa.
Alongside the traditional pageantry, fireworks displays and celebrations of Bastille Day, the southern Riviera town of Nice will mark the fifth anniversary of a terror attack that cost the lives of 86 people.
Prime Minister Jean Castex will visit the city for a ceremony at the site of a memorial for the dead, who were killed by a Tunisian man who drove a truck into crowds watching fireworks.
City authorities have organized a concert and 86 beams of light will illuminate the Mediterranean waterfront to honor the dead at 10:34 pm, the time of the start of the truck rampage.


Ukraine tightens coronavirus lockdown curbs

Ukraine tightens coronavirus lockdown curbs
Updated 13 sec ago

Ukraine tightens coronavirus lockdown curbs

Ukraine tightens coronavirus lockdown curbs
  • Ukraine imposed a nationwide “yellow” code after cases dropped over the summer
KYIV: Ukraine tightened coronavirus lockdown curbs on Thursday, restricting large events and occupancy at gyms, cinemas and cultural sites, after a recent steady increase in new infections.
Ukraine imposed a nationwide “yellow” code after cases dropped over the summer, allowing it to lift lockdown restrictions.
This week, however, the government extended a state of emergency that allows authorities to impose curbs until year-end to rein in infections.
The health ministry has said it plans compulsory coronavirus vaccinations for those in occupations such as teaching and employment in state institutions and local governments.
Ukraine’s pandemic tally of infections stands at 2.4 million, with 55,284 deaths.

Melbourne anti-lockdown protests fizzle out as daily COVID-19 cases hit pandemic high

Melbourne anti-lockdown protests fizzle out as daily COVID-19 cases hit pandemic high
Updated 16 min 25 sec ago

Melbourne anti-lockdown protests fizzle out as daily COVID-19 cases hit pandemic high

Melbourne anti-lockdown protests fizzle out as daily COVID-19 cases hit pandemic high
  • Police and union officials have said extremist and far-right groups joined the demonstrations
  • Australia’s total infections topped 92,000, with some 61,000 recorded since mid-June when the first Delta case was detected

SYDNEY: Melbourne’s streets were largely quiet on Thursday after three days of anti-lockdown protests, with hundreds of police officers on patrol in the city to prevent another rally as COVID-19 cases in Victoria hit a daily pandemic record.
Police in central Melbourne were checking people’s reasons for being outside, footage on social media showed, after a violent protest on Wednesday in Australia’s second-largest city resulted in more than 200 arrests.
A vaccination center at the Melbourne Town Hall would be shut until Monday after several of its staff were physically and verbally abused on their way to work, operator cohealth said on Thursday.
“Why would you abuse, as I’m told, why would you spit on people who are doing that sort of work?,” Premier Daniel Andrews said in a media briefing in Melbourne, the state capital. “That is ugly, that is uncalled for.”
Hundreds of protesters have taken to the streets in the city of 5 million since officials earlier this week ordered a two-week closure of building sites and made vaccines mandatory for construction workers to limit the spread of the virus.
Police and union officials have said extremist and far-right groups joined the demonstrations.
Victoria on Thursday reported 766 new locally acquired cases, topping its previous pandemic daily high of 725 hit on Aug. 5, 2020, and four new deaths. Neighbouring New South Wales reported 1,063 new infections, up from 1,035 a day earlier, and six new deaths.
Australia is fighting a third wave of infections from an outbreak of the Delta variant in its two largest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, and its capital Canberra, forcing nearly half the country’s 25 million people into strict stay-at-home restrictions.
Officials have promised to ease lockdown rules once 70 percent of adults are fully vaccinated, which is expected next month. Some 55.5 percent of people aged 16 and older are fully vaccinated in New South Wales and about 45 percent in Victoria.
Dual-dose vaccinations in New South Wales are rising by around 1 percent a day, state Health Minister Brad Hazzard said, putting it on track to hit 70 percent by around Oct. 8. Officials have pledged to ease lockdown curbs on the Monday after that target has reached.
Australia’s total infections topped 92,000, with some 61,000 recorded since mid-June when the first Delta case was detected in Sydney. Total deaths are just below 1,200, but still lower than in many other comparable countries.


Under Taliban, thriving Afghan music scene heads to silence

Under Taliban, thriving Afghan music scene heads to silence
Updated 29 min 15 sec ago

Under Taliban, thriving Afghan music scene heads to silence

Under Taliban, thriving Afghan music scene heads to silence
  • Families where music is a profession passed through generations are looking for ways to leave the country

KABUL, Afghanistan: A month after the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, the music is going quiet.
The last time the militant group ruled the country, in the late 1990s, it outright banned music. So far this time, the government set up by the Taliban hasn’t taken that step officially. But already, musicians are afraid a ban will come, and some Taliban fighters on the ground have started enforcing rules on their own, harassing musicians and music venues.
Many wedding halls are limiting music at their gatherings. Musicians are afraid to perform. At least one reported that Taliban fighters at one of the many checkpoints around the capital smashed his instrument. Drivers silence their radios whenever they see a Taliban checkpoint.
In the alleys of Kharabat, a neighborhood in Kabul’s Old City, families where music is a profession passed through generations are looking for ways to leave the country. The profession was already hit hard by Afghanistan’s foundering economy, along with the coronavirus pandemic, and some families now too fearful to work are selling off furniture to get by.
“The current situation is oppressive,” said Muzafar Bakhsh, a 21-year-old who played in a wedding band. His family had just sold off part of its belongings at Kabul’s new flea market, Chaman-e-Hozari. “We keep selling them … so we don’t die of starvation,” said Bakhsh, whose late grandfather was Ustad Rahim Bakhsh, a famous ustad — or maestro — of Afghan classical music.
Afghanistan has a strong musical tradition, influenced by Iranian and Indian classical music. It also has a thriving pop music scene, adding electronic instruments and dance beats to more traditional rhythms. Both have flourished in the past 20 years.
Asked whether the Taliban government will ban music again, spokesman Bilal Karimi told The Associated Press, “Right now, it is under review and when a final decision is made, the Islamic Emirate will announce it.”
But music venues are already feeling the pressure since the Taliban swept into Kabul on Aug. 15.
Wedding halls are usually scene to large gatherings with music and dancing, most often segregated between men’s and women’s sections. At three halls visited by the AP, staff said the same thing. Taliban fighters often show up, and although so far they haven’t objected to music, their presence is intimidating. Musicians refuse to show up. In the male sections of weddings, the halls no longer have live music or DJs. In the women’s section — where the Taliban fighters have less access — female DJs sometimes still play.
Some karaoke parlors have closed. Others still open face harassment. One parlor visited by the AP stopped karaoke but stayed open, serving waterpipes and playing recorded music. Last week, Taliban fighters showed up, broke an accordion and tore down signs and stickers referring to music or karaoke. A few days later, they returned and told the customers to leave immediately.
Many musicians are applying for visas abroad.
In the family home of another ustad in Kharabat, everyone’s go-bag is packed, ready to leave when they can. In one room, a group of musicians was gathered on a recent day, drinking tea and discussing the situation. They shared photos and videos from their performances around the world — Moscow, Baku, New Delhi, Dubai, New York.
“Musicians do not belong here anymore. We must leave. The love and affection of the last years are gone,” said a drum player, whose career has spanned 35 years and who is the master of a leading music education center in Kabul. Like many other musicians, he spoke on condition he not be named, fearing reprisals from the Taliban.
Another musician in the room said the Taliban broke a keyboard worth $3,000 when they saw it in his car as he crossed through a checkpoint. Others said they were shipping their most valuable instruments outside the country or hiding them. One had dismantled his tabla — a type of drum — and hidden the parts in different locations. Another buried his rebab, a stringed instrument, in his courtyard. Some said they hid instruments behind false walls.
One who managed to leave already is Aryana Sayeed, a top female pop star who was also a judge on the TV talent show, “The Voice of Afghanistan.” Already used to death threats by Islamic hard-liners, Sayeed decided to escape the day the Taliban took over Kabul.
“I had to survive and be the voice for other women in Afghanistan,” said Sayeed, now in Istanbul. She said she was asking Turkish authorities to help other musicians get out of her homeland. “The Taliban are not friends of Afghanistan, they are our enemies. Only enemies would want to destroy your history and your music,” she said.
At the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, most of the classrooms are empty. None of the teachers nor the 350 students have come back since the takeover. The institute was once famous for its inclusiveness and emerged as the face of a new Afghanistan. Now, it is guarded by fighters from the Haqqani network, an ally of the Taliban considered a terrorist group by the United States.
Inside the institute, pictures of boys and girls playing hang from the walls, dusty pianos rest inside locked rooms, and some instruments have been stacked in a container on the school’s patio. The fighters guarding the site said they were waiting for orders from the leadership on what to do with them.
“We’re not interested in listening to these things,” one fighter said, standing next to a set of dhambouras, a traditional string instrument. “I don’t even know what these items are. Personally, I’ve never listened to them and I’m not interested.”
In a classroom at the end of the corridor, a Taliban fighter rested on a mattress listening to a male voice chanting on his cell phone, apparently one of the instrument-less religious anthems common among the group.
Back in Kharabat, Mohammed Ibrahim Afzali once ran the family business repairing musical instruments. In mid-August, he put away his tools, broke the instruments left in the workshop and closed down. Now the 61-year-old sells chips and snacks to help feed his family of 13.
“I made this tiny shop. God is merciful, and we will find a piece of bread,” he said.


New Zealand’s PM hopes to avoid future coronavirus lockdowns

New Zealand’s PM hopes to avoid future coronavirus lockdowns
Updated 23 September 2021

New Zealand’s PM hopes to avoid future coronavirus lockdowns

New Zealand’s PM hopes to avoid future coronavirus lockdowns
  • New Zealand has taken an unusual zero-tolerance approach to the coronavirus

WELLINGTON: New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says she doesn’t want to use lockdowns in the future and sees vaccinations as the “golden ticket” to navigating the pandemic.
Her remarks came as Auckland remained in a sixth week of lockdown following an outbreak of the coronavirus’ delta variant.
New Zealand has taken an unusual zero-tolerance approach to the virus and is trying to completely eliminate the outbreak in its largest city through drastic measures, at least until vaccination rates improve. Fifteen more local transmissions were reported Thursday.
Ardern says she sees a hopeful path in using vaccinations coupled with public health measures to prevent widespread hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19. About 62 percent of New Zealanders have had at least one dose of coronavirus vaccine.


US-French spat seems to simmer down after Biden-Macron call

US-French spat seems to simmer down after Biden-Macron call
Updated 23 September 2021

US-French spat seems to simmer down after Biden-Macron call

US-French spat seems to simmer down after Biden-Macron call
  • Biden and Macron agreed “that the situation would have benefitted from open consultations among allies on matters of strategic interest to France and our European partners”

PARIS: The most significant rift in decades between the United States and France seemed on the mend Wednesday after French President Emmanuel Macron and President Joe Biden got on the phone to smooth things over.
In a half-hour call that the White House described as “friendly,” the two leaders agreed to meet next month to discuss the way forward after the French fiercely objected when the US, Australia and Britain announced a new Indo-Pacific defense deal last week that cost the French a submarine contract worth billions.
The White House made a point of releasing a photograph of Biden smiling during his call with Macron.
In a carefully crafted joint statement, the two governments said Biden and Macron “have decided to open a process of in-depth consultations, aimed at creating the conditions for ensuring confidence.”
So did Biden apologize?
White House press secretary Jen Psaki sidestepped the question repeatedly, allowing that Biden did acknowledge “there could have been greater consultation.”
“The president is hopeful this is a step in returning to normal in a long, important, abiding relationship that the United States has with France,” she said.
The call suggested a cooling of tempers after days of outrage from Paris directed at the Biden administration.
In an unprecedented move, France last week recalled its ambassadors to the United States and Australia to protest what the French said amounted to a stab in the back by allies. As part of the defense pact, Australia will cancel a multibillion-dollar contract to buy diesel-electric French submarines and acquire US nuclear-powered vessels instead.
It was clear there is still repair work to be done.
The joint statement said the French ambassador will “have intensive work with senior US officials” upon his return to the United States.
Biden and Macron agreed “that the situation would have benefitted from open consultations among allies on matters of strategic interest to France and our European partners,” the statement said.
Biden reaffirmed in the statement “the strategic importance of French and European engagement in the Indo-Pacific region.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, during a visit to Washington, didn’t mince words in suggesting it was time for France to move past its anger over the submarine deal, saying French officials should “get a grip.” Using both French and English words, he added they should give him a “break.”
Johnson said the deal was “fundamentally a great step forward for global security. It’s three very like-minded allies standing shoulder-to-shoulder, creating a new partnership for the sharing of technology.”
“It’s not exclusive. It’s not trying to shoulder anybody out. It’s not adversarial toward China, for instance.”
Psaki declined to weigh in on whether Johnson’s comments were constructive at a moment when the US was trying to mend relations with France.
The European Union last week unveiled its own new strategy for boosting economic, political and defense ties in the vast area stretching from India and China through Japan to Southeast Asia and eastward past New Zealand to the Pacific.
The United States also “recognizes the importance of a stronger and more capable European defense, that contributes positively to transatlantic and global security and is complementary to NATO,” the statement said.
No decision has been made about the French ambassador to Australia, the Elysee said, adding that no phone call with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was scheduled.
Earlier Wednesday, Macron’s office had said the French president was expecting “clarifications and clear commitments” from Biden, who had requested the call.
French officials described last week’s US-UK-Australia announcement as creating a “crisis of trust,” with Macron being formally notified only a few hours beforehand. The move had prompted fury in Paris, with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian calling it a “stab in the back.”
France’s European Union partners agreed Tuesday to put the dispute at the top of the bloc’s political agenda, including at an EU summit next month.
Following the Macron-Biden call, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met in New York with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell as the administration worked to repair the damage done to broader EU-US relations by the deal.
Blinken spoke of the need for trans-Atlantic cooperation on any number issues “quite literally around the world, to include of course Afghanistan and the Indo-Pacific and Europe and beyond.”
Borrell, taking note of the phone call, said he hoped to be able to “build a stronger confidence among us following the conversation that had been taking place this morning between President Biden and President Macron. I’m sure we’ll be working together.”
The French presidency categorically denied a report by Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper published on Wednesday saying Macron could offer the country’s permanent seat on the UN Security Council to the European Union if the bloc backs his plans on EU defense.
Psaki echoed Johnson’s point that the creation of the new security alliance — which has been dubbed AUKUS — wasn’t meant to freeze out other allies on Indo-Pacific strategy.
“During the conversation, the president reaffirmed the strategic importance of France — French and European nations I should say — in the Indo-Pacific region,” Psaki said.
The deal has widely been seen as part of American efforts to counter a more assertive China in the Indo-Pacific region.