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Russia restricts access to Facebook after invasion

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Russia has limited access to Facebook over the platform’s stance on the accounts of several Moscow-backed news outlets amid the invasion of Ukraine.

Russia’s communications regulator Roskomnadzor accused the network of “censorship” and violating “the rights and freedoms of Russian citizens”.

Facebook said it had refused to stop fact-checking and labelling content from state-owned news organisations.

The move came a day after Russia launched its attack on Ukraine.

It is unclear what the regulator restrictions mean, or to what extent Facebook’s parent company Meta’s other platforms – WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Instagram – are affected.

The regulator had demanded Facebook lift the restrictions it placed on Thursday on state news agency RIA, state TV channel Zvezda, and pro-Kremlin news sites Lenta.Ru and Gazeta.Ru.

It said that Meta had “ignored” these requests.

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Sir Nick Clegg, vice-president of global affairs at Meta, said Russian authorities “ordered us to stop the independent fact-checking and labelling” the outlets’ content.

“We refused,” he said.

But he made clear he wanted Russians to continue to use Meta’s platforms.

“Ordinary Russians are using our apps to express themselves and organise for action”, Sir Nick said, and the company wants “them to continue to make their voices heard”.

Many state-owned media outlets in Russia have painted a largely positive picture of Russian military advances in Ukraine, calling the invasion a “special military operation” that had been forced on Moscow.

On Thursday Meta said it had set up a “special operations centre” to monitor content about the conflict in Ukraine.

Russia has its own Facebook equivalents, VK and Odnoklassniki, but Facebook is also popular in the country – as is Meta-owned Instagram.

On Friday, US Senator Mark Warner said Facebook, YouTube and other social media services had “a clear responsibility to ensure that your products are not used to facilitate human rights abuses”.

Meta, has been under pressure to label misinformation – and has been working with outside fact-checkers, including Reuters.

Moscow has also increased pressure on domestic media, threatening to block reports that contain what it describes as “false information” regarding its invasion of Ukraine.

Twitter also told the BBC that its safety and integrity teams were “disrupting attempts to amplify false and misleading information and to advance the speed and scale of our enforcement”.

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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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