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Bernie Sanders, with mittens pic, raises $1.8 million for charity

The Inauguration Day photograph of a mitten-clad, glamor-defying Bernie Sanders perhaps was not the most flattering image of the US senator, but it has become a remarkably charitable one.

The 79-year-old lawmaker from the northeastern state of Vermont announced Wednesday he has raised $1.8 million for charity over the past five days through sales of merchandise featuring him wearing knit mittens and a parka at President Joe Biden's January 20 swearing-in.

The image launched a thousand memes and made the earnest and seemingly cantankerous two-time presidential candidate even more of an internet star than he already was.

"Jane and I were amazed by all the creativity shown by so many people over the last week, and we're glad we can use my internet fame to help Vermonters in need," Sanders said in a statement.

"But even this amount of money is no substitute for action by Congress," he said, referring to efforts to pass a massive coronavirus pandemic rescue package.

"I will be doing everything I can in Washington to make sure working people in Vermont and across the country get the relief they need in the middle of the worst crisis we've faced since the Great Depression."

Sanders's office said the groups receiving charitable funds include the Vermont operations of Meals on Wheels and the Vermont Parent Child Network.

The initial run of the "Chairman Sanders" merchandise sold out 30 minutes after the items -- including sweatshirts and T-shirts -- were made available online Thursday. There is now a weeks-long backlog of orders.

The image of a cross-legged Sanders wearing a light blue mask and seated alone at the inauguration was captured by AFP photographer Brendan Smialowski.

According to Sanders' office, as part of the licensing agreement to put the image on apparel and stickers, Getty Images, the agency that distributes AFP images in the United States, will donate its proceeds from the license to Meals on Wheels America.

Smialowski has been impressed by the various iterations of his frame online.

"The internet is like a wild animal, tough to predict and hard to tame," he said.

"While I never expect or strive for my work to go viral or get memed, it doesn't surprise me in the sense that the internet and social media are unpredictable. Anything is possible."

Prepare for the next pandemic like a 'war,' says Bill Gates

Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates has warned that the world must prepare for the next pandemic as it would for war, including the investment of tens of billions of dollars each year, in a letter released Wednesday.

"We can't afford to be caught flat-footed again," wrote the Microsoft co-founder and his wife Melinda in an annual missive.

"The threat of the next pandemic will always be hanging over our heads -- unless the world takes steps to prevent it."

To avoid future destruction on the scale of that caused by Covid-19, "pandemic preparedness must be taken as seriously as we take the threat of war," Gates said.

"Stopping the next pandemic will require spending tens of billions of dollars per year -- a big investment, but remember that the COVID-19 pandemic is estimated to cost the world $28 trillion," he added.

"The world needs to spend billions to save trillions (and prevent millions of deaths)."

The American, ranked the third-wealthiest person in the world by Forbes, urged rich countries to provide the bulk of the investment, pointing out that their governments stand to benefit most.

Investments in future diagnostic and vaccination technologies should be supplemented by "a global alert system, which we don't have at large scale today," allowing epidemics to be detected and responded to early, the letter said.

Gates famously sounded the alarm about the risk of global pandemics at a 2015 TED conference.

He now advocates the creation of a team of around 3,000 fully trained, professional pandemic "firefighters" available on permanent alert.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has already invested $1.75 billion to fight the coronavirus pandemic, as well as promoting and funding inoculation projects in developing countries.

© 2021 AFP

Fed's Jerome Powell warns economic outlook still 'highly uncertain'

The fate of the US economy depends on the course of the pandemic and the Covid-19 vaccine rollout, but the outlook is nonetheless "highly uncertain," Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said Wednesday.

"A resurgence in recent months of Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths is causing great hardship for millions of Americans and weighing on economic activity and job creation," the central bank chief said.

He said government spending programs have helped support the economy, but the United States needs to recover at least nine million jobs to reach the goal of full employment.

"Overall economic activity remains below its level before the pandemic, and the path ahead remains highly uncertain," Powell told reporters.

He spoke after the central bank's policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) held its first meeting of 2021 and pledged to keep borrowing rates low until employment has recovered.

It was the first meeting under the presidency of Joe Biden, who took office last week and said defeating the Covid-19 pandemic and pushing through a $1.9 trillion economic rescue plan are his top priorities.

"Support from fiscal policy will help households and businesses weather the downturn as well as limit lasting damage to the economy that could impede the recovery," the central bank chief said.

He also said he was "absolutely sure" he would be able to work well with newly-installed US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, who was his predecessor as Fed chair and will lead the charge in pushing Biden's stimulus plan through Congress.

After the coronavirus pandemic derailed the world's largest economy, unemployment surged from a near record low of 3.4 percent to nearly 15 percent, before ending last year at 6.7 percent.

However, Powell said the pandemic drove huge numbers of people out of the workforce, which means "the real unemployment rate is close to 10 percent."

Vaccine hope, hiccups

As the economy grapples with the world's worst coronavirus outbreak, optimism about vaccines has raised hopes that activity can return to normal soon.

But there also have been some setbacks in vaccine distribution and supply, and the FOMC said the course of the recovery will depend "significantly" on the virus and those treatments.

Powell, who said he has received the first of two shots for his Covid-19 vaccine, cautioned that it will be "a struggle" to get enough people injected to achieve herd immunity.

After the United States, like other countries, saw a resurgence of infections late last year, the FOMC noted that the recovery had "moderated in recent months, with weakness concentrated in the sectors most adversely affected by the pandemic."

The FOMC again pledged to keep the benchmark lending rate low until the economy achieves "full employment," in keeping with the Fed's new policy stance.

Even before the pandemic struck, inflation was muted and since then has fallen far below the central bank's two-percent target.

That prompted the central bank to shift its focus to helping the labor market recover, while accepting higher inflation for a while once the economy begins to grow more strongly.

Powell acknowledged that some prices might spike as sectors are able to return to normal, but those transitory effects would not be overly concerning.

Economists like Mickey Levy of Berenberg Capital Markets wondered what happens if inflation rises to two percent or above for a longer period.

"The Fed is comfortable with its current monetary policy stance. Fiscal policy has taken over the spotlight, which the Fed has willingly yielded. Let's see how long this lasts," Levy said in an analysis.

The Fed also committed to keeping its asset purchases at the pace of at least $120 billion per-month, and Powell said it is far too soon to even discuss the possibility of tapering the bond buying program.

Biden resets by stressing US commitment to defend Japan

President Joe Biden reaffirmed Wednesday the United States' commitment to defend Japan in his first phone call with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, striking a note of reassurance after the Trump era.

During Donald Trump's administration, America's Asian allies often questioned whether Washington would uphold long-standing promises to defend them in the event of attack.

Trump had publicly mulled withdrawing troops from Japan and South Korea, where more than 20,000 US military personnel are stationed to deter any North Korean military action.

Biden and Suga both urged denuclearization of the whole Korean peninsula in the call -- their first since Biden took office last week.

They discussed Washington's "unwavering commitment to the defense of Japan under Article 5 of our security treaty," the White House said, and Biden reaffirmed "his commitment to provide extended deterrence to Japan."

The US backing "includes the Senkaku Islands" -- an area claimed both by Japan and China, which calls the islands the Diaoyus, the statement said.

The leaders also "discussed regional security issues, including China and North Korea. They together affirmed the necessity of complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."

Suga agreed to visit the United States as soon as possible, telling reporters in Japan after the call that the trip would be planned "while watching the coronavirus infection situation."

'Engage with world again'

The Jiji Press agency said the two leaders did not discuss the Tokyo Olympic Games, which were postponed until this year and could again be threatened by the Covid-19 pandemic.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also spoke Wednesday with Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and stressed Biden's pledge to "engage with the world again," a State Department spokesman said.

America's clear mention of the Senkakus, an uninhabited island chain which has been a potential flashpoint for decades, is likely to cause anger in Beijing.

While Biden is making a clean break from many of Trump's policies, his team has pledged continuity on some diplomatic issues including taking a hard line on China.

The new US leader sat for decades on the Senate foreign relations committee -- traveling around the world meeting foreign leaders -- before serving as vice president to Barack Obama, who promoted America as a "Pacific power."

Trump during his time in power rattled Asian allies by picking trade fights with China, embracing North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and openly floating the possibility of withdrawing troops from the region.

Suga spoke to Biden in November after the US election and gave a stark warning that the security situation was "increasingly severe" in the Asia-Pacific region.

COVID closes Machu Picchu -- again

The Inca citadel of Machu Picchu, which had partially reopened after months of coronavirus closures, will shut again for two weeks amid a deadly second pandemic wave in Peru, the government said.

A decree published in the official gazette said all archaeological sites in 17 regions of Peru "will receive zero visits" from January 31 to February 14.

Sixteen million Peruvians will be in lockdown during these two weeks in an area covering a third of the country in a bid to beat back the viral resurgence.

The South American nation's health care system has been overwhelmed by the Covid-19 pandemic. It has only 500 intensive care beds for a population of 32 million.

Machu Picchu, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1983, reopened to visitors in November after having been shuttered for almost eight months.

Machu Picchu mayor Darwin Baca said Wednesday the new closure will be devastating for some 6,000 local residents directly employed by tourism.

"The economic impact on the entire district is strong, the measures are very restrictive," he told AFP, and urged the government to take "economic reactivation" measures.

The town of Machu Picchu has had no coronavirus deaths for weeks.

The nearby Cuzco region, however, has seen 550 deaths and 26,000 infections to date, with 18 new deaths in 24 hours, according to the health ministry.

The region and eight others are under curfew, with restrictions on social gatherings.

Peru, like most countries in South America and elsewhere, has battled a second wave of Covid-19 since the Christmas and New Year holidays.

Daily infections in the country have risen from 1,000 to more than 5,000, with deaths per day increasing from 40 on average to more than 100.

© 2021 AFP

Poland to implement near-total ban on abortion

A controversial Polish court ruling that imposes a near-total ban on abortion will come into force on Wednesday, the country's right-wing government said, in an announcement that triggered protests.

The move means that all abortions in Poland will now be banned except in cases of rape and incest and when the mother's life or health are considered to be at risk.

The ruling is in line with the policies of the governing right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS).

"The ruling will be published today in the Journal of Laws," the government information centre said on Twitter.

Poland was rocked by massive demonstrations when the Constitutional Court verdict was first issued in October.

The ruling said abortions in cases of foetal abnormalities were "incompatible" with the constitution.

The government said the reasoning behind the October 22 ruling would also be published.

Women's Strike, the organisation behind a string of mass demonstrations against the ruling, called for a protest later Wednesday outside the Constitutional Court in Warsaw.

Demonstrations were also announced in other cities.

"Express your anger today as you see fit," Marta Lempart, a leading protest organiser, told a press conference.

"We are calling on everyone to go into the streets," she said, adding that publication of the ruling constituted "a crime".

Klementyna Suchanow, another organiser from Women's Strike, said: "The whole of Poland is mobilising, not just in Warsaw. We are ready!

"When we speak of hell for women, we can also speak of hell for the government. We are going to make this hell for you," she said.

- 'You will not win' -

Predominantly Catholic Poland already has one of Europe's most restrictive laws on abortion.

There are fewer than 2,000 legal abortions every year and women's groups estimate that an additional 200,000 women abort either illegally or abroad.

Borys Budka, head of the opposition Civic Platform, said the publication of the ruling was a "provocation".

Wanda Nowicka of the Left party tweeted: "You have not yet won this war against women and you will not win."

The government had delayed publishing the ruling after nationwide demonstrations held in defiance of coronavirus restrictions banning rallies.

The protests sparked by the abortion ruling soon became an expression of wider anti-government sentiment.

The biggest protests brought together tens of thousands of people in what organisers said was a generational "revolution" against the status quo, including against Poland's Catholic hierarchy.

But polling experts say that a "silent majority" of Poles support the existing abortion legislation and only a small number want wider abortion rights.

The government has defended the verdict, saying it will halt "eugenic abortions", referring to the termination of foetuses diagnosed with Down's Syndrome, but human rights groups have said it would force women to carry non-viable pregnancies.

© 2021 AFP

Auschwitz child victims honored 76 years on

The more than 200,000 children killed by Nazi Germany at Auschwitz were honoured on Wednesday in online ceremonies marking the liberation of the camp which has come to symbolise the Holocaust.

Survivors sounded the alarm over the modern-day dangers posed by the resurgence of racism, anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial at a 76th anniversary event.

"Do not let us down," Auschwitz survivor, Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, now 95, said in an appeal to young people for International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

"Do not allow the memory to be distorted and poisoned by the ugly resurgence of xenophobia and anti-Semitism.

"By denying these victims and poisoning ourselves with hatred we are murdering these victims a second time over," she said at the ceremonies, held online only for the first time due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"Build bridges, talk to each other, celebrate your differences because in reality we have more in common than separates us," Lasker-Wallfisch added.

All told, Nazi Germany deported around 232,000 children to Auschwitz, including 216,000 Jews, 11,000 Roma, 3,000 Poles and the rest from Russia, Ukraine and elsewhere, according the to Auschwitz-Birkenau museum.

Only some 700 were still alive when the Soviet Red Army liberated the camp on January 27, 1945.

Part of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler's plan of genocide against European Jews, dubbed the "Final Solution", Auschwitz-Birkenau operated in the occupied southern Polish town of Oswiecim between June 1940 and January 1945.

- Babies 'killed on the spot' -

Of the more than 1.3 million people imprisoned there, around 1.1 million -- mainly European Jews -- perished, either asphyxiated in the gas chambers or claimed by starvation, exhaustion and disease.

In all, the Nazis killed six million of pre-war Europe's estimated 10-11 million Jews.

Zdzislawa Wlodarczyk, who was among the several hundred children still alive when the Red Army arrived at Auschwitz, said that babies born there were also put to death.

"Children were born in the camp, but they were not allowed to live because they were killed on the spot," Wlodarczyk, now 88, said during the online ceremonies.

"They didn't have names and they didn't even have numbers. How many of these children died? Why? Were we enemies of the Third Reich?", she added.

From mid-1942, the Nazis systematically deported Jews from across Europe to six camps -- Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor and Treblinka.

Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest Nazi death and concentration camp, and the site where the most people were killed.

Victims were primarily European Jews, but also Roma, gays, Soviet prisoners of war and Poles.

© 2021 AFP

US issues terror alert over anti-government extremists

The US Department of Homeland Security declared a nationwide terrorism alert Wednesday, citing the potential threat from domestic anti-government extremists opposed to Joe Biden as president.

"Information suggests that some ideologically-motivated violent extremists with objections to the exercise of governmental authority and the presidential transition, as well as other perceived grievances fueled by false narratives, could continue to mobilize to incite or commit violence," the department said.

The National Terrorism Advisory System Bulletin said a heightened threat of attack "will persist in the weeks following the successful presidential inauguration," which took place on January 20.

"DHS does not have any information to indicate a specific, credible plot," it said.

"However, violent riots have continued in recent days and we remain concerned that individuals frustrated with the exercise of governmental authority and the presidential transition... could continue to mobilize a broad range of ideologically-motivated actors to incite or commit violence."

The alert said there had been mounting threats since last year from domestic violent extremists motivated by Covid-19 restrictions, Biden's defeat of Donald Trump in the November election, police brutality and illegal immigration.

DHS said these motivations could remain in place for the coming months and that the January 6 attack by Trump supporters on Congress could embolden extremists "to target elected officials and government facilities."

More than 150 people, including members of armed extremist groups, have been arrested since the attack, which has been branded as an insurrection.

The department urged the public to report suspicious activity and threats of violence.

Dramatic shark decline leaves 'gaping hole' in ocean: study

Overfishing has savaged populations of some sharks and rays by more than 70 percent in the last half-century, leaving a "gaping, growing hole" in ocean life, according to a new study.

Decades of data show an alarming decline in species ranging from hammerhead sharks to manta rays.

Among the worst-affected is the oceanic whitetip, a powerful shark often described as particularly dangerous to man that now hovers on the edge of extinction because of human activity.

Targeted for their fins, oceanic whitetips are also the victims of indiscriminate fishing techniques. Their global population has dropped 98 percent in the last 60 years.

"That's a worse decline than most large terrestrial mammal populations, and getting up there or as bad as the blue whale decline," Nick Dulvy, a professor at Simon Fraser University's department of biological sciences, told AFP.

Dulvy and a team of scientists spent years collecting and analysing information from scientific studies and fisheries data to build up a picture of the global state of 31 species of sharks and rays.

They found three-quarters of the species examined are now so depleted that they are threatened with extinction.

"We knew the situation was bad in a lot of places but that information came from different studies and reports, so it was difficult to have an idea of the global situation," the study's lead author Nathan Pacoureau told AFP.

"We show steep declines and a rapidly rising extinction risk for the most wide-ranging species in the largest, most remote habitats on the earth, which are often assumed to be protected from human influence," added Pacoureau, a post-doctoral fellow at SFU's department of biological science.

The study, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, points the finger at overfishing and weak protection, and calls for tighter restrictions and better implementation of existing rules.

The researchers note that species can stage a comeback when conservation efforts are made, so losses are not always irreversible.

The study focuses on oceanic sharks and rays, species that primarily live in open water. While it found variation in the health of different populations, the overall trend was clear.

"The data revealed a gaping, growing hole in ocean life," Pacoureau said.

- 'Stunned into silence' -

For 18 species where more data was available, the researchers concluded global populations fell over 70 percent since 1970.

Dulvy said the figure was likely to be similar, or even worse, for other oceanic sharks and rays, but gaps in data made it difficult to make definitive conclusions.

The results were a shock even for experts, Pacoureau said, describing specialists at a meeting on shark conservation being "stunned into silence" when confronted with the figures.

Three sharks were found to be critically endangered, with their populations declining by more than 80 percent -- the oceanic whitetip shark, scalloped hammerhead and great hammerhead.

Sharks and rays are especially vulnerable to population collapse because they grow slowly and reproduce comparatively infrequently.

The study notes a two-fold increase over the last half-century in the use of fishing with longlines and seine nets -- methods that can snare marine life indiscriminately, including endangered animals.

Regional bodies that manage international fisheries "have not prioritised shark and ray protection," Pacoureau said. He backs catch bans for endangered and critically endangered species, and limits for less threatened species.

"Proactive measures can prevent population collapses. And we know they work," he added, pointing to the recovery of great white sharks around the US after new regulations.

Dulvy said ordinary citizens had a role to play by pressing governments to meet their national and international commitments.

"Wherever you can, urge your government to care for sharks," he said.

© 2021 AFP

Police raid Alexei Navalny's offices, home as Russia fines social media platforms

Russian police raided the Moscow offices of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny's group on Wednesday and came to search several other properties, including a flat where his wife was, as the country's media watchdog said it would fine social media platforms for spreading protest calls.

The police searches come after tens of thousands of Navalny's supporters took to the streets on Saturday to call on the Kremlin to release him from jail where he is serving a 30-day stint for alleged parole violations that he denies.

Police had said the protests were illegal and detained close to 4,000 people. More than a dozen criminal cases have been opened. Navalny's allies plan to hold another rally this Sunday.

Ivan Zhdanov, director of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, said police appeared to be conducting the searches as part of an investigation into calls made to hold a protest that flouted restrictions imposed over the Covid-19 pandemic.

Zhdanov wrote on Twitter that Navalny's apartment in northern Moscow was being searched.

"A lot of 'heavies' in masks. They started breaking down the door," Zhdanov said, adding that Navalny's brother, Oleg, was inside the property.

At another location, Zhdanov posted video showing Yulia Navalnaya, the Kremlin critic's wife, telling police to wait for her lawyer to arrive as they banged loudly at the door.

Police also searched the offices of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, he said. Photos on social media showed around 20 masked men waiting to gain entry.

Navalny has not yet returned home since being poisoned last summer, as he was arrested immediately on his return to Russia from Germany, where he had been recovering.

Social media crackdown

The police raids came as Russia's media watchdog said it would punish top social media platforms for failing to delete posts calling for minors to join unsanctioned protests in support of Navalny.

Ahead of Saturday's rallies, social media platforms including TikTok, which is popular among teenagers, were flooded with thousands of posts calling for Russians to demonstrate.

In response, Russian media watchdog Roskomnadzor warned the platforms they would face fines for failing to delete such posts and said that several had removed a significant number.

But on Wednesday the watchdog deemed they had not done enough and said platforms including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and YouTube, would be fined "for failure to comply with the requirements to suppress the spread of calls to minors to participate in unauthorized rallies".

"Despite the request of the prosecutor general's office and the notification from Roskomnadzor, these internet platforms did not remove in time a total of 170 illegal appeals," Roskomnadzor said in a statement.

It added that the fines would range from 800,000 rubles ($10,520) to 4 million rubles ($52,760).

Also on Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin complained about the growing influence of large technology companies, which he said are "competing" with states.

Hashtags dedicated to Navalny have been trending on TikTok, where they have garnered more than 1.5 billion views since his return from Germany.


The world is watching us,' Secretary of State Antony Blinken says

Secretary of State Antony Blinken got to work Wednesday with a warning that the world's eyes were on the United States to see if it can heal deep divisions.

Blinken, a veteran diplomat and confidant of President Joe Biden, promised to rebuild morale and respect in a welcome ceremony at the State Department front entrance that was extraordinary for what was lacking -- crowds.

With Covid-19 raging, Blinken asked that only a bare minimum of employees, all masked, come to see him -- and noted that just days earlier, barricades had been protecting the usually staid building near the National Mall in the wake of a failed insurrection at the Capitol.

"The world is watching us intently right now. They want to know if we can heal our nation," Blinken said.

"They want to see whether we will lead with the power of our example," he said, "if we'll will put a premium on diplomacy with our allies and partners to meet the great challenges of our time."

He said that the challenges included the pandemic as well as "climate change, the economic crisis, threats to democracies, fights for racial justice and the danger to our security and global stability posed by our rivals and adversaries."

Blinken said of the turbulent times, "The president is committed to getting us through it as quickly as possible, so that very soon, we can all gather in person again and have confidence that the foundations of our democracy are strong."

Under former president Donald Trump, close Western allies were rattled by his jarringly undiplomatic approach as he voiced fondness for autocratic leaders.

The divisiveness spread to the State Department where Blinken's predecessor Mike Pompeo was a relentless defender of Trump, using his welcoming speech to vow "swagger" and spending his final days railing against multiculturalism and the media.

Blinken, who served as a deputy secretary of state under former president Barack Obama, promised to listen to dissenting views and said pointedly, "I will have your back."

Trump fired the US ambassador to Ukraine as Trump sought to dig up dirt on Biden, a scandal that led to his first impeachment.

"I cannot promise that you will support every choice I make as your secretary. But I can promise an open door and an open mind," Blinken said.

Blinken, known for his even temper, was confirmed Tuesday by the Senate 78-22 with many members of Trump's Republican Party backing him, a turnaround from the narrow approval on partisan lines for Trump's two secretaries of state.

Blinken got to work Tuesday with calls to his counterparts from neighbors Canada and Mexico as well as top US allies Japan and South Korea, key players in what will likely be a defining issue of his tenure -- the rise of China.

He is expected later Wednesday to hold a news conference, a sign of early commitment to engaging with the media after tensions during the Trump administration.

Blinken in his confirmation hearing signalled a shift from Trump by pursuing diplomacy, including with Iran, but also pledged continuity including in the hard line on China.

Indonesian volcano erupts, spewing hot ash three kilometers away

One of the world's most active volcanoes, Indonesia's Mount Merapi, erupted Wednesday, belching out huge clouds of smoke and ash that billowed down the sides of its rumbling crater.

The volcano, near Indonesia's cultural capital Yogyakarta, shot hot ash into the air around three dozen times throughout the day.

Some of it travelled as far as three kilometres (two miles) away from its peak, Indonesia's geological agency said.

Authorities told residents to stay outside a five-kilometre no-go zone, warning about possible lava flows.

Fiery red lava has been seen flowing down the volcano in recent days, but authorities have kept its alert status at the second-highest level.

Mount Merapi's last major eruption in 2010 killed more than 300 people, and forced the evacuation of around 280,000 residents from surrounding areas.

That was its most powerful eruption since 1930, which killed around 1,300 people, while another explosion in 1994 took about 60 lives.

Indonesia sits on the Pacific "Ring of Fire", a vast zone of geological instability where the collision of tectonic plates causes frequent quakes and major volcanic activity.

The Southeast Asian archipelago nation has nearly 130 active volcanoes.

© 2021 AFP

Napoleon's account of legendary Battle of Austerlitz goes on sale

Napoleon Bonaparte's account of his victory at the Battle of Austerlitz, dictated during his exile on the island of Saint Helena, went on sale Wednesday in Paris for one million euros ($1.2 million).

The account of the 1805 "three-emperors clash" with Russo-Austrian forces, which is considered Napoleon's greatest military victory, takes readers through preparations for battle, the fighting itself and is completed by a battle plan drawn by his loyal aide-de-camp General Henri-Gatien on tracing paper.

The densely packed 74-page manuscript, dictated to Bertrand, contains several corrections by the exiled emperor, who crossed out words and added remarks in the margins in tiny writing.

Napoleon does not refer to himself in the first person, instead prefacing his remarks with "the emperor says".

The sale comes at the start of a year marking the bicentenary of Napoleon's death.

Gallery owner Jean-Emmanuel Raux, a collector of French imperial memorabilia, found the manuscript in a trove of documents belonging to Bertrand's heirs.

"It's the most fabulous document about French history that you could find in a private collection," he told AFP.

His daughter Alizee, who studied the manuscript in detail, said it was an "embellished account of the battle".

Within around nine hours on December 2, 1805, some 75,000 soldiers of Napoleon's "Grande Armee" outmanoeuvred a larger Russian-Austrian force at Austerlitz, in what was then the Austrian empire.

It helped to end the coalition between Francois I of Austria and Tsar Alexander I of Russia that had been financed by Britain -- and is a battle studied in French military schools to this day.

Napoleon details all the tactics he deployed to dupe his opponents into believing that French forces were weak -- including earlier retreats and negotiations that disguised the fact he had already chosen the site of the battle.

His exalted account trumpets the heroism of the French, from trooper to officer, and claims even wounded soldiers hailed the emperor.

"I will lose a good number of brave men," he said on the eve of the battle. "I feel bad that they really feel like my children, and, in truth, I reproach myself sometimes over this sentiment since I fear that it will leave me unqualified for war."

The manuscript will be exhibited until the end of the month at the Paris gallery Arts et Autographes, as well as online for potential foreign buyers.

The sale is part of the "BRAFA in the Galleries" art fair taking place in 126 galleries in 13 countries from January 27 to 31.

Collectors can arrange to view the manuscript in person or over the internet.

© 2021 AFP

The end of offices? New York's business districts face uncertain future

Boarded-up stores, shuttered restaurants and empty office towers: Covid-19 has turned New York's famous business districts into ghost towns, with companies scrambling to come up with ways to entice workers to return post-pandemic.

"If they don't come back, we're sunk," said Kenneth McClure, vice president of Hospitality Holdings, whose Midtown bistro pre-coronavirus would buzz with the sound of financiers striking deals at lunch and sharing cocktails after a hard day at the office.

The group has closed its six restaurants and bars in Manhattan, two of them permanently, due to lockdown restrictions that have paused office culture - a culture as intrinsic to the Big Apple as a Broadway show, a yellow taxi or a slice of cheese pizza.

"Customers that you saw three, four, five times a week just virtually disappeared," McClure told AFP, recalling March of last year when the pandemic first swept New York, where it has killed more than 26,000 people.

According to data collected by security firm Kastle Systems, only 14 percent of New York's more than one million office workers had returned to their desks by the middle of January, putting the countless sandwich shops and small businesses in Midtown and Wall Street at risk.

With vaccines now rolling out, corporations and business leaders are grappling with how to attract employees back after spending the best part of a year working from home, and in turn maintaining the character of business districts.

Seventy-nine percent of employees questioned in a PricewaterhouseCoopers survey published this month said that working remotely had been a success, but the report also found that offices are not about to be consigned to history.

Some 87 percent of employees said the office was important to them for collaborating with team members and building relationships, aspects of working life they felt was easier and more rewarding in person than over Zoom.

"Being here, seeing my colleagues and getting out of the house, it changes my mood for the whole week," said Jessica Lappin, speaking to AFP from her office at the Alliance for Downtown New York, where she is president.

Few workers plan on being in offices Monday to Friday, nine to five, though.

"The vast majority of employees say a hybrid system of two-to-three days working from home and two-to-three days working in the office is their preferred approach," said Deniz Caglar, co-author of the PwC report.

Experts say companies should transform their offices away from places where employees come to send emails or make phone calls, which they can do at home, towards more appealing spaces suited for mentoring, camaraderie and fostering creativity.

'New future'

That could mean larger, more flexible conference rooms rather than cubicles, something as simple as better decor, outdoor space like a balcony or terrace and "hoteling," where workers schedule use of a workspace as opposed to every employee having their own desk.

"Think of it as a theater, where you have different sets for different scenes," David Smith, co-author of a Cushman & Wakefield report about workplaces of the future, told AFP.

It may also mean offices becoming more multipurpose -- facilities such as gyms, cafes, launderettes and concierge services that make employees feel their commute is worthwhile -- accelerating a trend that was growing before coronavirus, experts say.

While offering staff flexibility, several major employers are doubling-down on their commitment to offices, betting big on New York's business districts despite the uncertainty caused by the pandemic.

In August, Facebook signed a lease on a 730,000-square-foot space in Midtown, while a Google spokesperson told AFP the technology giant is continuing to expand its campus in the Chelsea neighborhood.

Greenberg Traurig, a law firm that employs 400 people in New York, has installed sneeze guards, touchless faucets, hand sanitizer machines, increased ventilation and distanced work stations.

It has staff coming in on "a rotational basis," and the firm plans to proceed with its move into a new state-of-the-art building near Grand Central Station this year, vice-chairman Robert Ivanhoe told AFP.

In late December, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo cut the ribbon on a new $1.6 billion train concourse servicing Penn Station, highlighting local politicians' hopes of reviving Midtown.

Business district leaders say they are looking to add green spaces to the neighborhoods, while outdoor dining -- extremely rare in New York before the pandemic -- is expected to become a permanent feature.

"There is definitely an opportunity for everyone to be looking at the new future," Alfred Cerullo, president of the Grand Central Partnership business improvement group, told AFP.