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Allies turn off Russian energy, Ukraine fears 300 dead in theatre

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Provided by AFP :Images of destruction in Ukraine's besieged city of Mariupol

The United States and EU announced Friday a new drive to wean Europe off Russian gas imports and so choke off the billions in revenues that are fuelling Moscow’s ruinous war against Ukraine.

A clearer scale of the ruin emerged from Ukraine’s besieged port city of Mariupol, which a month into the invasion now resembles scenes of Russian cities razed by the Nazis in World War II.

Authorities said some 300 civilians may have died in a Russian air strike on a theatre-turned-bomb shelter last week, in what would be the invasion’s single bloodiest attack.

After a trio of summits in Brussels, US President Joe Biden warned that NATO would “respond” if Russia’s Vladimir Putin resorts next to chemical weapons as part of his aggression against a Western-leaning democracy.

“The nature of the response would depend on the nature of the use,” Biden said.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused Biden of seeking to “divert attention”, and also denied Ukrainian claims that Russia had broken international law by dropping incendiary phosphorus bombs on civilians.

Biden and EU commission chief Ursula von der Leyen announced a joint energy task force in Brussels, before he headed to the eastern Polish town of Rzeszow, a mere 80 kilometres (50 miles) from Ukraine.

Taken together, Western sanctions are “draining Putin’s resources to finance this atrocious war”, von der Leyen told reporters alongside Biden.

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On the battlefield, Moscow said it had destroyed Ukraine’s largest remaining military fuel depot, at Kalynivka near the capital Kyiv, using sea-borne cruise missiles.

‘Bodies lying there’ 

Fireballs leapt into the air from the storage facility, while a smaller fire blazed from a severed fuel line and a huge plume of black smoke rose over the site, AFP reporters at the scene said.

“Fortunately, there were no casualties,” a security guard said at a checkpoint near the depot, asking not to be identified.

But in the east, Russian strikes targeting a medical facility in Ukraine’s second city Kharkiv killed four civilians and wounded several others, police said.

“I had gone out looking for bread. There were explosions. When I came back there were four bodies lying there, with relatives crying by their side,” 71-year-old Mykola Hladkiy told AFP.

Several residents said cluster munitions were used, and AFP journalists saw large fires after other strikes in Kharkiv.

NATO, European Union and G7 leaders in Brussels shied away from impassioned demands by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for more advanced weapons systems to take the fight to the invaders.

He underlined the toll inflicted by incessant Russian bombardment of cities such as the southern port of Mariupol — where authorities said a horrifying picture was emerging from the Drama Theatre.

Up to 1,000 civilians were said to be sheltering in the theatre when it was flattened by a Russian bomb last week. Ukraine said efforts to dig people out of the ruins were hampered by relentless bombardment.

“From eyewitnesses, information is emerging that about 300 people died in the Drama Theatre of Mariupol following strikes by a Russian aircraft,” Mariupol city hall wrote on Telegram.

Ukraine re-occupying towns 

Zelensky says nearly 100,000 people are trapped without food, water or power in the besieged city.

Addressing the EU summit late Thursday by video feed, he thanked countries including Poland and Estonia for their support, noted German backing came “a little later” — and singled Hungary out for censure.

“You have to decide for yourself who you are with,” Zelensky told Hungary’s right-wing populist leader Viktor Orban, who has close ties to Moscow.

“Listen, Viktor, do you know what’s going on in Mariupol?” he added.

While Mariupol is now a charred ruin, Western defensive systems including shoulder-fired anti-tank missiles have helped Ukraine’s armed forces hold their line.

“Ukrainian counter-attacks, and Russian forces falling back on overextended supply lines, has allowed Ukraine to re-occupy towns and defensive positions up to 35 kilometres (22 miles) east of Kyiv,” Britain’s defence ministry said in a daily update.

After several rounds of sanctions banished Russia from much of Western finance, Ukraine’s EU allies broadened their economic offensive to energy, which largely powers European homes and industry.

Biden and von der Leyen said the United States would strive to help supply Europe with an extra 15 billion cubic metres of liquefied natural gas this year — replacing one-third of supplies from Russia.

Germany, Moscow’s biggest customer in Europe, said it would halve Russian oil imports by June and end all coal deliveries by the autumn.

“The first important milestones have been reached to free us from the grip of Russian imports,” Economy Minister Robert Habeck said.

3.7 million refugees 

In Poland, Biden will meet members of the US 82nd Airborne Division, part of NATO’s increasingly muscular deployment to its eastern flank.

He will also receive a briefing on the dire humanitarian situation in Ukraine, which nearly 3.7 million people have fled, mostly to Poland.

The UN believes that more than half of Ukraine’s children have already been driven from their homes, “a grim milestone that could have lasting consequences for generations to come”, according to Unicef chief Catherine Russell.

In the flashpoint town of Irpin on Kyiv’s north-western outskirts, little Daria played with her dinosaur mittens as a yellow evacuation bus took her family and others away. It was her fourth birthday on Thursday.

“We were planning some candles and a cake, but we had to leave it there,” said Daria’s mother Susanna Sopelnikova, 29, holding her tightly on her lap.

“We stayed in the basement for about three weeks, then we decided to leave,” said Sopelnikova, as Daria’s six-year-old brother Yehor sat silently next to their father Anatolii to the distant boom of shelling.

After the Putin regime imposed an information blackout on its “special military operation”, most Russians are unaware of the true picture of fighting in Ukraine.

But an exhibition of 24 shocking images opened on Friday at a train station in Lithuania used by Russians transiting from the exclave of Kaliningrad.

On some of the pictures, exhibited at the height of the carriage windows, an inscription read: “Today, Putin is killing the peaceful population of Ukraine. Do you approve of this?”

AFP

International

Three killed in Washington DC lightning strike – was climate change to blame?

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A Reuters TV video camera mounted on a nearby rooftop in Washington DC captured the lightning strike. Reuters

Climate change is increasing the likelihood of lightning strikes across the United States, scientists say.

The warning comes after a deadly lightning strike hit Washington DC last Thursday (4 August 2022), killing three people and leaving one other in critical condition.

What caused the deadly lightning strike in Washington DC?

Last week’s hot, humid conditions in Washington DC were primed for electricity. Air temperatures topped out at 34C. This is 3C higher than the 30-year normal maximum temperature for this time of year, according to the National Weather Service.

More heat can draw more moisture into the atmosphere, while also encouraging rapid updraft – two key factors for charged particles, which lead to lightning.

Global warming could increase the number of lightning strikes

In 2014, a key study released in the journal Science warned that the number of lightning strikes could increase by 50 per cent in this century in the United States. For each 1C of warming, a 12 per cent rise in the number of lightning strikes could occur, according to the study.

Fast-warming Alaska has seen a 17 per cent rise in lightning activity since the cooler 1980s. And in typically dry California, a siege of 14,000 lightning strikes during August 2020 sparked some of the state’s biggest wildfires on record.

Because heat and moisture are often needed to make lightning, most strikes happen in the summer. In the United States, the populous, subtropical state of Florida sees the most people killed by lightning.

Beyond the United States, there is evidence that lightning strikes are also shooting up in India and Brazil.

Three people were killed by the Washington DC lightning strike

Two men and two women were struck by lightning on Thursday while visiting Washington’s Lafayette Square, just north of the White House.

During a violent, afternoon thunderstorm, lightning hit near a tree that stands metres away from the fence that surrounds the presidential residence and offices across from the square, which is often crowded with visitors, especially in the summer months.

All four victims sustained critical, life-threatening injuries, and were taken to area hospitals. Two of them later died: James Mueller, 76, and Donna Mueller, 75, from Janesville, Wisconsin, the Metropolitan Police Department reported.

“We are saddened by the tragic loss of life,” the White House said in a statement on Friday. “Our hearts are with the families who lost loved ones, and we are praying for those still fighting for their lives.”

Later on Friday a third victim, a 29-year-old male, was pronounced dead. Further details on the victim were being withheld until the next-of-kin were notified.

It is still rare to be hit by lightning in the US, experts say

But even as lightning strikes increase, being hit by one is still extremely rare in the United States, experts say. Roughly 40 million lightning bolts touch down in the country every year, according to the Center for Disease Control – with the odds of being struck less than 1 in a million.

Among those who are hit, about 90 per cent survive the ordeal, the CDC says. The country counted 444 deaths from lightning strikes from 2006 through to 2021.

Euronews
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15 Palestinians killed in Gaza as Israeli military targets opposition fighters

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The Palestinian health ministry says 15 Palestinians have been killed in the Gaza Strip where the Israeli military is targeting members of the Palestinian group Islamic Jihad.

A five-year-old child, two women and several PIJ fighters – including leader Tayseer Jabari – are among the dead.

Some 300 Palestinian rockets and mortars have been allegedly fired at Israel since Friday, an Israeli official said.

Israel says it launched the operations due to “immediate threat” from PIJ.

The latest violence is the most serious flare-up between Israel and Gaza since an 11-day conflict in May 2021 left more than 200 Palestinians and a dozen Israelis dead.

The Israeli military is warning this latest operation – codenamed Breaking Dawn – could last for a week.

As well as air strikes on Gaza, some 19 members of PIJ have been arrested in raids across the occupied West Bank, according to Israel.

Sirens warning of incoming missiles continued to sound in Israeli towns on Saturday, amid more reports of air strikes in Gaza.

Palestinian health officials confirmed a man was killed near Khan Younis, in the south of the strip, on Saturday.

But so far Hamas, the biggest militant group in the area – which has similar ideology to Islamic Jihad and often coordinates its actions with it – does not seem to be firing from its large rocket arsenal.

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As a result, there are no reports of Israeli air strikes targeting Hamas, which would mark an escalation in the violence.

Hamas issued strong statements on Friday night saying that “resistance groups” were united. But because it governs Gaza it has its own practical considerations which may stop it from getting more involved.

The calculations of Hamas could change, if for example the civilian death toll in Gaza rises rapidly.

If it does decide to join the fighting then it would quickly get much more intense.

If things stay like this, Egypt – which often acts as a go-between for Israel and Gaza – could have a better chance of brokering some kind of truce.

Cairo officials were preparing on Saturday to host a potential delegation of PIJ representatives as part of that process, Egyptian media said.

Life in the Palestinian territory has already become much harder in the past week, after Israel closed its crossings with Gaza amid fears that Islamic Jihad would retaliate for the arrest of one of its leaders in the northern West Bank.

On Saturday, Gaza’s only power station closed down because it had not received any fuel deliveries, an electricity company spokesman said. BBC/Eagle

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US kills Al-Qaeda leader Al-Zawahiri in drone strike

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Ayman al-Zawahiri

A United States drone strike killed Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri at a hideout in the Afghan capital, President Joe Biden said Monday, adding “justice had been delivered” to the families of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

In a somber televised address, Biden said he gave the final go-ahead for the high-precision strike that successfully targeted Zawahiri in the Afghan capital over the weekend.

“Justice has been delivered and this terrorist leader is no more,” Biden said, adding that he hoped Zawahiri’s death would bring “closure” to families of the 3,000 people killed in the United States on 9/11.

A senior administration official said Zawahiri was on the balcony of a house in Kabul when he was targeted with two Hellfire missiles, an hour after sunrise on July 31, and that there had been no US boots on the ground in Afghanistan.

“We are not aware of him ever leaving the safe house. We identified Zawahiri on multiple occasions for sustained periods of time on the balcony of where he was ultimately struck,” the official said.

According to the official’s account, the president gave his green light for the strike on July 25 — as he was recovering in isolation from Covid-19. Biden said there were no civilian casualties in the operation.

It was the first known over-the-horizon strike by the United States on an Al-Qaeda target in Afghanistan since American forces withdrew from the country on August 31, 2021.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Monday evening that “by hosting and sheltering” Zawahiri, the Taliban had “grossly violated the Doha Agreement” signed in 2020, which paved the way for America’s withdrawal.

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Zawahiri, an Egyptian surgeon who grew up in a comfortable Cairo household before turning to violent radicalism, had been on the run for 20 years since the 9/11 attacks.

He took over Al-Qaeda after Osama bin Laden was killed by US special forces in Pakistan in 2011, and had a $25 million US bounty on his head.

Over the weekend the Afghan interior ministry denied reports circulating on social media of a drone strike in Kabul, telling AFP a rocket struck “an empty house” in the capital, causing no casualties.

Early Tuesday in Kabul, however, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted that an “aerial attack” was carried out on a residence in the Sherpur area of the city.

“The nature of the incident was not revealed at first. The security and intelligence agencies of the Islamic Emirate investigated the incident and found in their preliminary investigations that the attack was carried out by American drones,” his tweet said.

The news comes a month before the first anniversary of the final withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, leaving the country in the control of the Taliban insurgency that fought Western forces over the preceding two decades.

Under the 2020 Doha deal, the Taliban promised not to allow Afghanistan to be used again as a launchpad for international jihadism, but experts believe the group never broke its ties with Al-Qaeda.

“What we know is that the senior Haqqani Taliban were aware of his presence in Kabul,” the Biden official said.

Taliban interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani also heads the feared Haqqani Network, a brutal subset of the Taliban blamed for some of the worst violence of the past 20 years and which has been described by US officials as a “veritable arm” of Pakistani intelligence.

– Doctor turned jihadist –

Zawahiri, 71, lacked the potent charisma that helped bin Laden rally jihadists around the world, but willingly channeled his analytical skills into the Al-Qaeda cause.

He was believed to be the main strategist — the real mastermind who steered operations, including the September 11 attacks, as well as bin Laden’s personal doctor.

Saudi Arabia, the home country of bin Laden as well as many of the 9/11 hijackers, welcomed the announcement of Zawahiri’s death.

“Thousands of innocent people of different nationalities and religions, including Saudi citizens, were killed,” by terrorists under his leadership, the Saudi foreign ministry said.

Al-Qaeda is believed to have been degraded in the years since the US invasion of Afghanistan, and the White House official said Zawahiri was “one of the last remaining figures who carried this kind of significance.”

The organization, agreed Soufan Center researcher Colin Clarke, is “at a crossroads.”

“Despite Zawahiri’s leadership, which minimized AQ’s losses while rebuilding, the group still faces serious challenges going forward. For one, there’s the question of who will lead al Qaeda after Zawahiri’s gone,” he said.

Zawahiri’s father was a renowned physician and his grandfather a prayer leader at Cairo’s Al-Azhar institute, the highest authority for Sunni Muslims.

He became involved with Egypt’s radical Muslim community at a young age and published several books which came for many to symbolize the radical Islamist movement.

He left Egypt in the mid-1980s, heading for Pakistan’s northwestern city of Peshawar where the resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was based.

It was at that time, when thousands of Islamist fighters flooded into Afghanistan during the 1980s, that Zawahiri and bin Laden met, and in 1998 he became one of five signatories to bin Laden’s “fatwa” calling for attacks against Americans.

Jihadist monitor SITE said some militants were questioning the veracity of the report he had been killed, while others believed Zawahiri had achieved his desire of “martyrdom.”

As for Al-Qaeda’s future without him, SITE said jihadists were bullish, with one writing: “If Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri is dead, there are a thousand Aymans.”

AFP/Punch

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