Foreign firefighters arrive in Greece for summer wildfire season

Foreign firefighters arrive in Greece for summer wildfire season
Romanian firefighters stand in front of fire engines during a ceremony, in Athens, on Saturday. (AP)
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Updated 02 July 2022

Foreign firefighters arrive in Greece for summer wildfire season

Foreign firefighters arrive in Greece for summer wildfire season
  • More than 200 firefighters and equipment from Bulgaria, France, Germany, Romania, Norway and Finland will be on standby
  • The Bulgarian firefighters have been stationed in Larissa, in central Greece

ATHENS: Several dozen Romanian and Bulgarian firefighters took up their posts in Greece on Saturday, the first members of a European force being deployed to the country to provide backup in case of major wildfires during the summer.
More than 200 firefighters and equipment from Bulgaria, France, Germany, Romania, Norway and Finland will be on standby during the hottest months of July and August in Greece, where a spate of wildfires caused devastation last summer.
A group of 28 Romanian firefighters with eight vehicles, and 16 firefighters from Bulgaria with four vehicles, were the first to arrive for the two-month mission, financed and coordinated under the European Union’s civil protection mechanism.
“We thank you very much for coming to help us during a difficult summer for our country, and for proving that European solidarity is not just theoretical, it’s real,” Greek Civil Protection Minister Christos Stylianides said on Saturday as he welcomed the members of the Romanian mission in Athens.
“When things get tough, you will be side by side with our Greek firefighters so we can save lives and property.”
The Bulgarian firefighters have been stationed in Larissa, in central Greece.
Last summer’s wildfires ravaged about 300,000 acres (121,000 hectares) of forest and bushland in different parts of Greece as the country experienced its worst heatwave in 30 years.
Following sharp criticism of its response to the fires, the Greek government set up a new civil protection ministry and promised to boost firefighting capacities.
In Greece’s worst wildfire disaster, 102 people were killed when a blaze tore through the seaside town of Mati and nearby areas close to Athens during the summer of 2018.


Afghan refugees in UK shun relocation to Scotland, Wales as hotel costs mount

Afghan refugees in UK shun relocation to Scotland, Wales as hotel costs mount
Updated 8 sec ago

Afghan refugees in UK shun relocation to Scotland, Wales as hotel costs mount

Afghan refugees in UK shun relocation to Scotland, Wales as hotel costs mount
  • Officials say language barrier, poor weather behind fear of life outside London

LONDON: Afghan refugees living in temporary accommodation in the UK are boycotting demands to relocate to Scotland and Wales due to their limited English language skills and concerns over poor weather, The Telegraph reported.

The UK is spending about $1.2 million a day on hotels to temporarily house almost 10,0000 Afghans who fled from their homeland in the wake of the Taliban takeover. Authorities have so far allocated permanent housing to about 7,000 refugees. 

However, officials are facing significant resistance from many Afghan families amid the relocation process. Common concerns include perceived language barriers and a belief that the climate outside southeast England is colder. Staff say that many of the refugees favor the capital, London, and believe stereotypes about life in the rest of the UK.  

Refugees Minister Lord Harrington called on local councils across the country to push harder in moving refugee families from temporary housing into permanent accommodation, warning in a letter that more than 2,000 properties were needed to house the remaining 10,000 Afghans, including more than 500 four-bedroom homes.

The UK Home Office said: “While hotels do not provide a long-term solution, they do offer safe, secure and clean accommodation.”

One Afghan refugee, who previously worked alongside the British Army, told the BBC: “I want to settle and integrate but how can I when we are living in a hotel for months and months? I can’t start my life properly.”

The man has shared a single hotel room with his wife and two children for almost one year.

He added: “I don’t blame her (for struggling) because I know the situation. She is in that room for one year with two kids. These are kids, and she is depressed, so things are not good.”


Drought officially declared in several parts of England

Drought officially declared in several parts of England
Updated 12 August 2022

Drought officially declared in several parts of England

Drought officially declared in several parts of England
  • The "drought trigger threshold had been met" in parts of southwestern, southern, central and eastern England
  • The Environment Agency on Friday published a report saying that England as a whole had its driest July since 1935

LONDON: The UK government on Friday officially declared a drought in several parts of England, following months of record low rainfall and unprecedented temperatures in recent weeks.
At a meeting of the National Drought Group, the government’s Environment Agency said the “drought trigger threshold had been met” in parts of southwestern, southern, central and eastern England.
Drought was last officially declared in England in 2018.
The Environment Agency on Friday published a report saying that England as a whole had its driest July since 1935.
The exceptional weather comes as France is also experiencing a record drought and battling huge wildfires.
The Met Office, the UK’s meteorological authority, said the period from January to June this year saw the least rainfall in England and Wales since 1976.
That summer saw the use of drastic measures such as roadside standpipes and water rationing.
The government statement said the move to drought status was based on factors such as rainfall, river flows and levels of groundwater and reservoirs and their impact on public water supply.
“We urge everyone to manage the amount of water they are using in this exceptionally dry period,” National Drought Group chair, Harvey Bradshaw, was quoted as saying.
The Environment Agency and water companies “will step up their actions to manage impacts” and press ahead with their published drought plans, including thinks like hosepipe bans.
It stressed that “essential supplies of water are safe.”
England and parts of Wales are severely parched and some water companies have already announced hosepipe bans.
The UK overall had 56 percent of its average rainfall for July. Every month of the year except February has been drier than average, according to the Met Office.
Satellite images from July released by NASA showed dried-up brown areas extending across most of southern England and up the northeastern coast.
The source of the River Thames has dried up, with the river now flowing from a point several miles downstream.
Meetings of the National Drought Group are convened by the government’s Environment Agency, which monitors water levels in rivers and ground water.
The group is made up of senior decision-makers from the government and water companies, along with other affected groups such as farmers.
The Met Office on Tuesday issued an amber warning over “extreme heat” in parts of England and Wales Thursday to Sunday, predicting possible impacts on health, transport and infrastructure.
Temperatures were expected to hit the mid-30s Celsius, peaking on Friday and the weekend, after which showers and thunderstorms were forecast.
Temperatures were not expected to hit the record levels seen in July when a temperature of 40.3 Celsius was recorded in Lincolnshire in northeastern England on July 20, during an unprecedented heatwave.
The National Climate Information Center said that such high temperatures in the UK were only possible due to human-induced climate change.


Germany suspends military operations in Mali

Germany suspends military operations in Mali
Updated 12 August 2022

Germany suspends military operations in Mali

Germany suspends military operations in Mali
  • The German move comes as Mali’s junta turned away from France and toward Russia in its fight against militancy

BERLIN: The German defense ministry said Friday it had suspended most of its operations in Mali after the local military-led government denied flyover rights to a UN peacekeeping mission.
“The Malian government has once again refused to give flyover rights to a flight planned today” for the rotation of personnel on the ground, a ministry spokesman said at a regular press conference.
In response, Germany had decided to “suspend until further notice the operations of our reconnaissance forces and CH-53 (helicopter) transport flights.”
“It is no longer possible to support the MINUSMA reconnaissance missions on an operational basis,” the spokesman said.
Without the new troops, who were set to “replace French forces” in the process of withdrawing, “security on site is not assured” as the “remaining forces must be kept ready for security operations.”
The flyover rights were refused despite assurances to the contrary from the Malian Defense Minister Sadio Camara in a call with his German counterpart Christine Lambrecht Thursday, the spokesman said.
“Camara’s actions tell a different story than his words,” Lambrecht said in a statement posted by her ministry on Twitter.
The German move comes as Mali’s junta turned away from France and toward Russia in its fight against militancy.
The long-running insurgency has claimed thousands of lives and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes.
The relationship between Bamako and Paris, its former colonial power and traditional ally, has deteriorated in recent months.
The arrival of Russian paramilitaries in the country on the invitation of the government was a key factor in France’s decision to pull its military forces out.
The withdrawal is expected to be completed in the coming weeks.


US, Indonesia, Australia hold drills amid China concerns

US, Indonesia, Australia hold drills amid China concerns
Updated 12 August 2022

US, Indonesia, Australia hold drills amid China concerns

US, Indonesia, Australia hold drills amid China concerns
  • More than 5,000 personnel from the US, Indonesia, Australia, Japan and Singapore are participating in this year’s exercises

BATURAJA, Indonesia: Soldiers from the US, Indonesia and Australia joined a live-fire drill on Friday, part of annual joint combat exercises on Sumatra island amid growing Chinese maritime activity in the Indo-Pacific region.
A total of more than 5,000 personnel from the US, Indonesia, Australia, Japan and Singapore are participating in this year’s exercises, making them the largest since they began in 2009.
The expanded drills are seen by China as a threat. Chinese state media have accused the US of building an Indo-Pacific alliance similar to NATO to limit China’s growing military and diplomatic influence in the region.
The United Kingdom, Canada, France, India, Malaysia, South Korea, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and East Timor also sent observers to the exercises, which began early this month.
The US Indo-Pacific commander, Adm. John C. Aquilino Aquilino, said the 14 nations involved in the training are signaling their stronger ties as China grows increasingly assertive in claiming virtually the entire South China Sea and holds exercises threatening self-ruled Taiwan.
“The destabilizing actions by the People’s Republic of China as it applied to the threatening activities and actions against Taiwan is exactly what we are trying to avoid,” he said at a joint news conference with Indonesian military chief Gen. Andika Perkasa in Baturaja, a coastal town in South Sumatra province.
“We’ll continue to help deliver a free and open Indo-Pacific and be ready when we need to respond to any contingency,” Aquilino said.
Indonesia and China enjoy generally positive ties, but Jakarta has expressed concern about what it sees as Chinese encroachment in its exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.
Despite its official position as a non-claimant state in the contested South China Sea, Indonesia has been “dragged along” in the territorial dispute since 2010 after China claimed part of Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone in the northern region of the Natuna Islands, said Connie Rahakundini Bakrie, a security analyst at the University of Indonesia.
The edge of the exclusive economic zone overlaps with Beijing’s unilaterally declared “nine-dash line” demarking its claims in the South China Sea.
Increased activities by Chinese coast guard vessels and fishing boats in the area have unnerved Jakarta, prompting Indonesia’s navy to conduct a large drill in July 2020 in waters around Natuna at the southern portion of the South China Sea.
Indonesia sees the current exercises with the US as a deterrent in defense of the Natuna Islands, while for Washington, the drills are part of efforts to forge a united front against China’s military buildup in the South China Sea, Bakrie said.
“Indonesia wants to send the message that it is fully prepared for any high-intensity conflict in the South China Sea area,” she said.
The joint combat exercises end Sunday.


Afghan girls face uncertain future one year after Taliban school ban

Afghan girls face uncertain future one year after Taliban school ban
Updated 12 August 2022

Afghan girls face uncertain future one year after Taliban school ban

Afghan girls face uncertain future one year after Taliban school ban
  • Some are trying to find ways to keep education from stalling for a generation of young women
  • Underground schools present an alternative, though with limitations

KABUL: For most teenage girls in Afghanistan, it’s been a year since they set foot in a classroom. With no sign the ruling Taliban will allow them back to school, some are trying to find ways to keep education from stalling for a generation of young women.
At a house in Kabul, dozens gathered on a recent day for classes in an informal school set up by Sodaba Nazhand. She and her sister teach English, science and math to girls who should be in secondary school.
“When the Taliban wanted to take away the rights of education and the rights of work from women, I wanted to stand against their decision by teaching these girls,” Nazhand said.
Hers is one of a number of underground schools in operation since the Taliban took over the country a year ago and banned girls from continuing their education past the sixth grade. While the Taliban have permitted women to continue attending universities, this exception will become irrelevant when there are no more girls graduating from high schools.
“There is no way to fill this gap, and this situation is very sad and concerning,” Nazhand said.
The relief agency Save the Children interviewed nearly 1,700 boys and girls between the ages of 9 and 17 in seven provinces to assess the impact of the education restrictions.
The survey, conducted in May and June and released Wednesday, found that more than 45 percent of girls are not going to school, compared with 20 percent of boys. It also found that 26 percent of girls are showing signs of depression, compared with 16 percent of boys.
Nearly the entire population of Afghanistan was thrown into poverty and millions were left unable to feed their families when the world cut off financing in response to the Taliban takeover.
Teachers, parents and experts all warn that the country’s multiple crises, including the devastating collapse of the economy, are proving especially damaging to girls. The Taliban have restricted women’s work, encouraged them to stay at home and issued dress codes requiring them to cover their faces, except for their eyes, though the codes are not always enforced.
The international community is demanding that the Taliban open schools for all girls, and the US and EU have created plans to pay salaries directly to Afghanistan’s teachers, keeping the sector going without putting the funds through the Taliban.
But the question of girls’ education appears to have been tangled in behind-the-scenes differences among the Taliban. Some in the movement support returning girls to school — whether because they see no religious objection to it or because they want to improve ties with the world. Others, especially rural, tribal elders who make up the backbone of the movement, staunchly oppose it.
During their first time ruling Afghanistan in the 1990s, the Taliban imposed much stricter restrictions on women, banning school for all girls, barring women from work and requiring them to wear an all-encompassing burka if they went outside.
In the 20 years after the Taliban were driven from power in 2001, an entire generation of women returned to school and work, particularly in urban areas. Seemingly acknowledging those changes, the Taliban reassured Afghans when they seized control again last year that they would not return to the heavy hand of the past.
Officials have publicly insisted that they will allow teen girls back into school, but say time is needed to set up logistics for strict gender segregation to ensure an “Islamic framework.”
Hopes were raised in March: Just before the new school year was to begin, the Taliban Education Ministry proclaimed everyone would be allowed back. But on March 23, the day of the reopening, the decision was suddenly reversed, surprising even ministry officials. It appeared that at the last minute, the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, bowed to the opposition.
Underground schools present an alternative, though with limitations.
A month after the Taliban takeover, Nazhand started teaching street children to read with informal outdoor classes in a park in her neighborhood. Women who couldn’t read or write joined them, she said.
Some time later, a benefactor who saw her in the park rented a house for her to hold classes in, and bought tables and chairs. Once she was operating inside, Nazhand included teen girls who were no longer allowed to go to public school.
Now there are about 250 students, including 50 or 60 schoolgirls above sixth grade.
“I am not only teaching them school subjects, but also trying to teach them how to fight and stand for their rights,” Nazhand said.
The Taliban haven’t changed from their first time in power in the late 1990s, she said. “These are the same Taliban, but we shouldn’t be the same women of those years. We must struggle: by writing, by raising our voice, by any way possible.”
Nazhand’s school, and others like it, are technically illegal under the Taliban’s current restrictions, but so far they haven’t shut hers down. At least one other person operating a school declined to speak to reporters, however, fearing possible repercussions.
Despite her unwavering commitment, Nazhand worries about her school’s future. Her benefactor paid for six months’ rent on the house, but he died recently, and she doesn’t have any way to keep paying for rent or supplies.
For students, the underground schools are a lifeline.
“It is so hard when you can’t go to school,” said one of them, Dunya Arbabzada. “Whenever I pass by my school and see the closed door ... it’s so upsetting for me.”