Democratic senators call for ban on marketing guns to kids

Outraged Democratic lawmakers called Thursday for a halt to a marketing campaign aimed at children for a semi-automatic rifle called the JR-15.

"What are we coming to?" said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

"With the epidemic of youth gun violence and mass shootings, an idea like this, a children's AR-15, should just not see the light of day," he said, referring to a popular military-style weapon.

At a press conference, Schumer and several other Democratic senators urged the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to take action against the company, Wee1 Tactical, that makes the JR-15.

"The law says you shouldn't be marketing guns to kids," he said, calling it "despicable."

On its website, Wee1 promotes the .22 caliber JR-15 as a lightweight semi-automatic rifle "geared towards smaller enthusiasts."

The Chicago-based company said the gun is about 20 percent smaller than the standard AR-15 and can have five- or 10-round magazines.

"We are excited and honored to provide a quality product that will assist families in safely passing on the proud American tradition of responsible gun ownership to the next generation of recreational shooting and hunting enthusiasts," the company said.

The Wee1 website includes a picture of a child firing the weapon next to an adult.

Schumer and the other senators referenced a spate of recent mass shootings in the United States and the shooting of a schoolteacher in Virginia by a six-year-old child.

"The last thing we need to be doing is reducing in size these deadly weapons of war and then marketing them to children," Schumer said. "But that's what's happening."

Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois said gun manufacturers were using the "tobacco company playbook" to lure younger customers.

"They want more Americans to use these weapons and they're hooking them to the young with the JR-15," Durbin said.

The other Illinois senator, Tammy Duckworth, called for a ban on military-style assault weapons altogether, an appeal echoed by President Joe Biden.

"It's time we pass an assault weapons ban in this country," Biden tweeted on Thursday. "We've done it before, and we can do it again.

"I urge both chambers of Congress to act quickly and deliver this ban to my desk where I'll promptly sign it into law," he said.

© Agence France-Presse


Activists slam appointment of UAE oil boss to lead climate talks

Hundreds of campaign groups on Thursday condemned the appointment of an oil boss to lead UN climate talks in the United Arab Emirate, saying it threatened the meeting's "legitimacy".

The UAE named Sultan Al Jaber, chief executive of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), to head the crucial COP28 climate meeting in November, sparking an outcry from activists.

He is the first CEO to take the role at the UN summit.

NGOs and civil society organisations from around the world said in an open letter Thursday the "decision threatens the legitimacy and efficacy of COP28.

"This is no cause for celebration," it added in the letter to UN chief Antonio Guterres and Simon Stiell, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), under which all climate negotiations are held.

"If we have any hope of addressing the climate crisis, every COP must be free from the polluting influence of the fossil fuel industry," the letter added.

Experts have repeatedly warned that the world is not on track to limit warming by 1.5 degrees Celsius set out in the Paris agreement. If that target is to be met, they say, no new fossil fuel projects can come online.

'Corporate trade show'

The UAE, a leading crude producer and one of the world's biggest polluters per capita, argues that oil remains indispensable to the global economy.

It is pushing the merits of carbon capture -- removing carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, as fuel is burned or from the air.

"The UAE's track record demonstrates it is not serious about phasing out fossil fuel use and keeping global temperature rise to below 1.5 degrees Celsius," the letter Thursday said.

"It is central to causing the climate crisis, not solving it."

The signatories called on the UNFCCC not to allow "big polluters" to influence climate policymaking or sponsor climate talks.

They said "world governments continue to treat the UNFCCC as an industry PR stunt and corporate trade show", despite increasing climate impacts.

The UAE had one of the largest contingents of oil and gas lobbyists at the last COP held in Egypt in November.

That meeting concluded with a landmark agreement to create a "loss and damage" fund to cover the costs that developing countries face from climate-linked natural disasters and slower impacts like sea level rise.

But observers left disappointed that little progress had been made on reducing the planet-heating emissions from fossil fuels.

© 2023 AFP

Climate tipping points in Amazon, Tibet 'linked': scientists

Climate extremes in the Amazon rainforest are directly affecting those in the Tibetan Plateau, scientists said Thursday, warning that the Himalayan region crucial for the water security of millions was close to a potentially disastrous "tipping point".

Planet-heating pollution from human activities is raising global temperatures and scientists have said this is pushing crucial ecosystems and whole regions towards often irreversible changes.

Vulnerable areas include melting polar ice sheets that could cause metres of sea-level rise, as well as the Amazon basin, where tropical forests are at risk of turning into savannah.

But can one tipping point have a domino effect on another region? Recent research suggests this is already happening.

Climate-driven changes in the Amazon basin have knock-on effects on the Tibetan Plateau 20,000 kilometres (12,500 miles) away, scientists in China, Europe and Israel reported in Nature Climate Change earlier this month.

"We've been surprised to see how strongly climate extremes in the Amazon are connected to climate extremes in Tibet," said co-author Jurgen Kurths from Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

The researchers used global near-surface temperature data over the last 40 years to map out a pathway of climate links. They stretched from South America to Southern Africa, on to the Middle East and finally into the Tibetan Plateau.

In their study, the researchers then used computer simulations to track how global warming might change these long-distance link-ups out to 2100.

They found that when it gets warmer in the Amazon, temperatures also rise in Tibet. But when rain increases in the South American rainforest, snowfall decreases in the Himalayan region, sometimes called the "third pole".

'Tipping cascades'

Using snow cover data, the scientists also detected what they say are early warnings the Tibetan Plateau has been approaching a tipping point of its own since 2008.

The Tibetan Plateau supplies a substantial proportion of the water needs of almost two billion people across South Asia, Southeast Asia and China.

Research published in Nature Climate Change last year said climate change could deplete terrestrial water storage over the Tibetan Plateau, which may ultimately threaten water availability downstream.

Other studies have shown a warming trend in recent decades in the region which -- like the Arctic region -- is warming two to three times faster than the global average.

But Kurths said the proximity to a potential point-of-no-return transition had been "overlooked so far".

The researchers said that while their study suggests a heightened risk of "tipping cascades" it was unlikely that the climate system as a whole would flip into a new state.

"Yet, over time, sub-continental tipping events can severely affect entire societies and threaten important parts of the biosphere," said co-author Hans Joachim Schellnhuber from PIK.

"This is a risk we should rather avoid."

To avoid the worst impacts of warming, countries have agreed to keep temperatures from rising above the limit of well below two degrees Celsius since the mid-1900s, and preferably below 1.5C.

For that to be achieved, planet-heating greenhouse gas emissions, mainly from fossil fuels, must decline some 45 percent compared to 2020 levels by the end of this decade, and to net zero by mid-century, according to the UN's climate science advisory body.

© 2023 AFP

Egypt unveils ancient king's 'secret keeper' tomb and a gold-laced mummy

Egypt unveiled Thursday a gold-laced mummy and four tombs, including of an ancient king's "secret keeper", discovered in the Saqqara necropolis south of Cairo.

The vast burial site at the ancient Egyptian capital Memphis, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is home to more than a dozen pyramids, animal graves and old Coptic Christian monasteries.

Archaeologist Zahi Hawass, Egypt's former antiquities minister, announced the latest discovery, dating from the fifth and sixth dynasties—around the 25th to the 22nd centuries BC—to reporters at the dig site.

The largest tomb, "decorated with scenes of daily life," belonged to a priest, inspector and supervisor of nobles named Khnumdjedef, said Hawass.

It was found in the pyramid complex of Unas, the last king of the fifth dynasty, who reigned some 4,300 years ago.

Another tomb belonged to Meri, who according to Hawass served as the pharaoh's appointed "secret keeper", a priestly title held by a senior palace official bestowing the power and authority to perform special religious rituals.

A third tomb belonged to a priest in pharaoh Pepi I's pyramid complex, and the fourth to a judge and writer named Fetek, Hawass added.

Fetek's tomb included a collection of "the largest statues" ever found in the area, Mostafa Waziri, head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, told reporters.

One of the tombs in Saqqara included a collection of 'the largest statues' ever found in the area, a top official saidOne of the tombs in Saqqara included a collection of 'the largest statues' ever found in the area, a top official said.


Down a 15-meter shaft, the expedition also found a large limestone sarcophagus that had remained sealed "just as the ancient Egyptians left it 4,300 years ago", Hawass said.

Inside was a mummy featuring "gold-leaf covering" that belonged to a man named Hekashepes, according to Hawass, who described it as one of the oldest and most complete non-royal mummies ever found in the country.

Egypt has unveiled many major archaeological discoveries in recent years.

Critics say the flurry of excavations has prioritized finds shown to grab media attention over hard academic research.

But the discoveries have been a key component of Egypt's attempts to revive its vital tourism industry after years of political unrest, as well as after the COVID pandemic.

The government's plans—the crowning jewel of which is the long-delayed inauguration of the Grand Egyptian Museum at the foot of the pyramids in Giza—aim to draw in 30 million tourists a year by 2028, up from 13 million before the pandemic.

Egypt has unveiled major discoveries in recent years, a key part of its attempts to revive the vital tourism industryEgypt has unveiled major discoveries in recent years, a key part of its attempts to revive the vital tourism industry.


The country of 104 million inhabitants is suffering from a severe economic crisis.

According to official figures, Egypt's tourism industry accounts for 10 percent of GDP and some two million jobs.

Hands off our public holiday, cry angry Danes

The Danish government's plan to abolish a public holiday to help fund the defense budget amid the war in Ukraine is putting Denmark's cherished welfare model at risk, the country's biggest trade union warned.

"It's a big threat to the Danish model", said Lizette Risgaard, the head of the FH union which has 1.3 million members in a country of 5.9 million inhabitants.

"Politicians should stay out of labour market issues. If they go through with this they'll be imposing their will and violate our agreements", she thundered in an interview with AFP on Wednesday.

The left-right government coalition in power since December, headed by Social Democratic Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, plans to scrap the religious holiday known as "Great Prayer Day", observed since the 17th century.

Initially introduced as a day of prayer, fasting and penitence, it falls on the fourth Friday after Easter and is now a common date for confirmations.

But the government wants to get rid of it and use the money to raise the defense budget to NATO's target of two percent of GDP by 2030, instead of 2033 as previously planned.

The government insists the accelerated calendar is necessary due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The move is expected to provide an extra three billion kroner ($440 million) to state coffers.

The cancelled holiday would entail an additional 7.4 hours of labour per worker, according to the government.

"I don't think it's a problem to have to work an extra day", Frederiksen said.

"We are facing enormous expenditures for defense and security, health care, psychiatry and the green transition," she said, presenting the new government's programme to parliament.

Danes will have to work an extra day, which their employers will have to pay them for.

But the public holiday and the wages paid to both those who work that day and those who are off, are already enshrined in the country's sacred collective wage agreements.

Overwhelming opposition

"It's a public holiday. And of course, they can say 'OK, we want to abolish it'", said Risgaard.

"But then they are going against what we have agreed upon in negotiations: to have the right to be with your family that day.

"In our collective wage agreements, there are 600 different ways of defining wages when someone works that day," she said.

A recent poll by the Epinion institute indicated an overwhelming majority of Danes opposed the move, which was not mentioned during last autumn's election campaign.

Only 17 percent supported the plan, while 75 percent were against it.

"They're interfering with the Danish model," Pernille Holm, a physiotherapist in her 30s, told AFP on Thursday.

"We have a way of doing things here in Denmark. We (negotiate) with our employer. And the unions negotiate our rights as workers."

"The government should not be able to do anything without including these two parts," she insisted.

Deja vu

An online petition started by FH has garnered almost half a million signatures.

Only the three governmental parties, which hold a majority in parliament, support the measure.

The Lutheran Church and organizations representing military employees have also protested vehemently.

"I am furious that they are using the military this way by saying that the money from the public holiday will go to increasing the budget," the head of the main union representing military personnel, Jesper Korsgaard Hansen, told tabloid B.T.

In parliament, the nine opposition parties ranging from the extreme left to the extreme right say they will refuse to take part in any new defense policy agreement until the government withdraws its plan.

For Danes, there is a sense of deja vu.

Ten years ago, a Social Democratic government tried to abolish the same public holiday but gave up amid a national outcry.

Soren, a 36-year-old dad pushing his child in a pram, told AFP he thinks the plan is "a bad idea" but believes the holiday will undoubtedly disappear at some point.

"They have had it on their mind for almost a decade," he said. "So it will happen sometime".

© 2023 AFP

Peruvian lawmakers call for President Boluarte's impeachment

A group of Peruvian lawmakers on Wednesday submitted a motion seeking to impeach President Dina Boluarte after a little over a month in power, citing "permanent moral incapacity".

The bid to remove Boluarte comes in the midst of violent protests following the impeachment and arrest last month of her predecessor, Pedro Castillo, in which dozens of people have been killed.

The motion, a copy of which was reviewed by Reuters, was signed by 28 leftist members of congress who support Castillo. A minimum of 20%, or 26 signatures, was required to file the motion.

The motion must now be approved by 52 votes before it can be debated in Congress where it must win two-thirds of the chamber's support.

"Never in the history of Peru has a government in so little time - a month in governance - killed more than forty people in protests," the motion said, accusing Boluarte of allowing the abuse and disproportionate use of force, among other accusations.

Boluarte's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

She has blamed Castillo, who is in pretrial detention, for promoting political polarization during his nearly 17 months in power.

On Tuesday, Boluarte called for a "political truce". She has also accused drug traffickers and others of stirring up the violence on the streets.

Peru's ombudsman office said there were more than 90 blockades across the country on Wednesday and one person was killed in Cusco city.

At least 47 people have died in clashes since the protests began in December, according to the office, including one police officer, while hundreds have been injured.

Human rights groups accuse police and soldiers of using excessive force, including live ammunition and dropping tear gas from helicopters.

Security forces say protesters, mostly in Peru's southern Andes, used homemade weapons and explosives.

(Reuters)

'We know who did it': Russian anti-war exiles targeted in Serbia

They may be more than a thousand miles from Moscow, but the long arm of the Kremlin is still dangerously close for Russian exiles in Serbia who oppose the invasion of Ukraine.

Tens of thousands have flocked to Belgrade to escape the war back home, where sanctions, mobilization of young men and a crackdown on the opposition have dramatically altered life.

But Russians in Serbia who criticize the conflict have also faced violence, threats and online intimidation campaigns.

Many Serbs refused to condemn Russia, their historic ally, after it invaded Ukraine. Ultranationalist have since rallied in support of Vladimir Putin with murals hailing the Russian leader and the infamous Wagner mercenary group popping up in Belgrade.

Under the surface, there have been other more worrying developments.

Both Serbian and American officials have complained that Wagner has been actively trying to recruit fighters in the country, resulting in a rare condemnation of Russia from Serbian authorities last week.

A Belgrade mural to the glory of Russia's mercenary group Wagner reading 'Wagner Group -- Russian knights'A Belgrade mural to the glory of Russia's mercenary group Wagner reading 'Wagner Group -- Russian knights' © OLIVER BUNIC / AFP

The atmosphere of intrigue prompted Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic to compare the capital to Casablanca during World War II, where expatriates from both sides spied and plotted against each other.

"On Christmas and New Year Belgrade was like Casablanca -- there's no spy that hasn't occupied our hotels," said Vucic.

"In Belgrade it hasn't been like that since World War II."

Evil Eagles

But for Russian exiles like Vladimir Volokhonskii -- a former city official who fled Saint Petersburg after being arrested for attempting to organize an anti-war rally -- it has been still more chilling.

His name and photograph has been posted multiple times with barrages of insults on a Telegram channel that frequently targets Russian exiles in the Balkan country.

With thousands of followers, the "Evil Eagles" channel is known for naming and shaming Russians living in Serbia who have denounced Putin's war.

They are often branded as "traitors" and "degenerates", while threats of violence against them are common.

"Why is [...] still walking around Serbia without having his face smashed in?" a recent post read.

The Serbian prosecutor's office confirmed to AFP that they are aware of the group and have launched an investigation into "several posts".

The brains behind "Evil Eagles" is Alexander Lysov, a Wagner-linked Russian with deep ties to Serbian nationalists.

With an office in Wagner's newly-opened headquarters in Saint Petersburg, Lysov insisted his outfit works in the "informational, humanitarian and cultural field" and rejected the notion that he instructed others to target Russian dissidents in Serbia.

Serbian and American officials have complained that Russian mercenary group Wagner has been trying to recruit in the countrySerbian and American officials have complained that Russian mercenary group Wagner has been trying to recruit in the country © OLIVER BUNIC / AFP

"We are trying to convey to the public that these people in Serbia have no right to represent the Russian people," he told AFP.

"They are not against the Russian special military operation, but against Russia itself," Lysov added.

'Threats'

A recent video published online showed Lysov chatting in Wagner's glitzy glass offices with Damnjan Knezevic -- an infamous Serbian leader of a pro-Kremlin ultranationalist group called the People's Patrol.

"He contacted me through mutual friends and asked me to organize a tour," Lysov said. "I would organize such a tour for any resident of Serbia."

The meeting also coincided with the appearance of a People's Patrol mural dedicated to Wagner in downtown Belgrade this month, where members of the outfit stomped on a blue and white flag used by opponents of the war.

Peter Nikitin, the head of a Russian dissident association in Serbia, recognized the flag -- claiming it was the same one stolen from his group after several of its members were beaten by unknown assailants.

"Now we know who did it," Nikitin told AFP.

Despite the threats, activists say they plan to continue speaking out even as pressure on them mounts.

"Several people... including Serbs, sent me some vague threats," said former official Volokhonskii, with Z, the Russian symbol for the war, painted on an apartment in Belgrade that he frequented.

"I cannot say that I feel safe."

© 2023 AFP

UK cost-of-living crisis pushes mothers to the brink

At an east London church on a bitterly cold winter's day, Beautine Wester-Okiya picks her way through boxes of donated baby clothes, toys and other assorted items destined for local people battered by the UK's cost-of-living crisis.

It's the frontline of something the special needs nurse could never have imagined before -- dire poverty in a developed Western nation.

"I've never seen anything like this in my life here in the UK," Wester-Okiya, who came to Britain 40 years ago from Malaysia, told AFP.

It's a similar story of economic hardship 140 kilometers north (85 miles) north in the central English city of Coventry.

In a huge warehouse, employees of the charity Feed the Hungry pack emergency food supplies not just for children in Nicaragua, Ukraine and Africa but also families just a few miles down the road.

Britain is in the midst of the biggest surge in prices in decades, from fuel and heating to food and housing costs.

The crisis has put food banks that have already become a feature of modern British life under even greater pressure, prompting a drive to branch out into offering other services from baby clothes to help applying for welfare payments.

'Suicidal mums'

"We have suicidal mums... we have kids who just managed to come through the pandemic only to find this terrible cost-of-living crisis," said Wester-Okiya.

"Broken mums, broken homes, broken families. The mums are depressed, the kids are crying all the time."

For the past two-and-a-half years the Hackney Children & Baby Bank has been flat out coordinating help for the needy.

Set up during the pandemic, it has repeatedly swung into action to deal with crisis after crisis, from migrants who have arrived in small boats with nothing to homeless Afghans and Ukrainians.

But many of those in need of help now are people from the UK who've never before faced such economic pain.

"We're no longer talking of just migrants, we are talking of middle-class people having to sell their house, people like teachers," said Wester-Okiya.

Faced with a constantly growing crisis -- the UK now has more than 2,500 food banks -- the baby bank has expanded its operations to include older children too.

Toiletries are in particularly high demand.

"One teen, 14 years old, wrote a terrible poem about how she's bullied because she's not able to wash," said Wester-Okiya, adding how the girl described her mother cutting a bar of soap into four and giving each family member a small piece.

Next meal

In Coventry, a city once home to a thriving car manufacturing industry, the "crazy" cost of everything has led single mother-of-four Hannah Simpson to visit a food bank for the first time.

Simpson, 29, whose youngest is just 12 months old, has been skipping meals to make sure her children can eat.

But that has inevitably taken its toll, leaving her feeling "tired and drained".

"I try and hide my struggles from them... but my daughter did say to school the other day, 'I'm worried because mummy hasn't been eating dinner with us and there's not enough food to go round'," she said.

"It's a lot of stress. I've got four children, I've got to manage, keep on top of and I've got to worry where I'm going to get our next meal from."

A 50-year-old woman who gave her name as Tracy said the food bank has been a "lifesaver" since she began coming in November.

"My cupboards were completely bare, I've been having one meal a day, just waiting until my tea every day," she said.

Faced with a crisis that is only getting worse, Feed the Hungry, which runs Coventry's 14 food banks as well as its international operation, has launched a range of projects aimed at helping people to cope long term.

A project to teach people to cook and make the best of what they have available is under development.

'Sold everything'

A "Pathfinder" project offers people the chance to buy food worth £25 ($30) for a small fee, giving them back some choice and "dignity" while at the same time offering them help to access grants and unclaimed welfare payments.

"It's working, the only issue that we have is that demand far outstrips what we can actually deliver," said project manager Hugh McNeill.

People who come through the charity's doors have "no financial resilience whatsoever, they've borrowed and they've sold everything they've got", he added.

"You can go right round the country and it's exactly the same in every city and every town."

For Wester-Okiya, hopes of building resilience are a long way off.

"My phone never stops," she said, waving a smartphone buzzing constantly with messages and pleas for help.

"I've lived here for 40 years and as a nurse I interact a lot with families but last year was terrible and I fear for the next three months."

© 2023 AFP

Myanmar pilgrims return to Buddha's golden footprints

Devotees are returning in greater numbers to a central Myanmar temple, built around the gold-lined footprints of Buddha, after the Covid pandemic and a military coup curbed the annual pilgrimage.''

The Shwe Sat Taw pagoda in the Magway region, west of the military capital Naypyidaw, was built around footprints that, according to myth, the Buddha left during a visit more than 1,000 years ago.

The three-month festival usually takes place between February and April each year, although visitor numbers have been down in recent years because of Covid travel restrictions and violence following the February 2021 coup.

Temple trustees, to the delight of pilgrims in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, raised a heavy glass dome on Wednesday that seals the footprints from the region's searing humidity.

A queue formed to spread gold leaf in the hollows of the larger-than-life-size imprints, adding to the sheen laid down by generations of pilgrims.

Families at another riverside shrine nearby offered flowers and banknotes, while children splashed happily in the water.

Even those few thousand pilgrims who made the journey were well down from the crowds that once thronged the riverside.

Swaths of Magway have been ravaged by fighting since the coup. The military has been accused of torching villages and carrying out extrajudicial killings as it struggles to crush opposition to its rule.

"I come to this festival every year to donate flowers," said Than Than, who had travelled hundreds of kilometres from Mandalay.

Vendor Yee Mar, from Monywa in neighbouring Sagaing region, said from her stall near the pagoda that she hoped more pilgrims would come.

"The Shwe Sat Taw festival was very popular and crowded in the past," she told AFP.

"I hope to sell many products during this festival and earn some money."

Many other stalls stood empty but temple trustee Win Htay said he hoped people would take advantage of the relative calm.

"I'm happy to see many people have come to the opening ceremony today who couldn't come in recent years," he said. "This area is peaceful."

© 2023 AFP

US Republicans probe art sales by Biden's son

The matter of who buys artwork produced by Joe Biden's son, a former lawyer with a troubled past, is taking center stage on Capitol Hill -- where Republicans have vowed to use their new House majority to aggressively investigate the president's family.

The chairman of the powerful House Oversight Committee on Wednesday demanded a New York art gallery produce a list of who has bought artwork made by Hunter Biden.

"Your arrangement with Hunter Biden raises serious ethics concerns and calls into question whether the Biden family is again selling access and influence," Republican James Comer of Kentucky said in his letter.

Comer requested the gallery's owner, Georges Berges, testify before his committee next month.

Hunter Biden is a favorite target of Republicans, particularly over his prior work with foreign firms.

He is the president's second of four children, though his older brother died of cancer in 2015, and he has publicly discussed struggles with addiction.

The Republicans suggest that wealthy influence seekers may buy Hunter Biden's artwork with the aim of winning favor at the White House.

According to Comer, some of the paintings exhibited by the New York gallery have price tags up to $225,000.

"Why would anyone pay Hunter Biden top dollar for artwork that is arguably worthless? He’s no Pablo Picasso," Comer tweeted Wednesday.

The gallery, which recently promoted Hunter Biden's paintings on social media, did not provide a comment immediately to an AFP request.

The Biden administration, which presents itself as an ethical antithesis to predecessor Donald Trump, has faced questions about Hunter Biden's business dealings, especially during his father's tenure as vice president (2009-2017).

© Agence France-Presse

UAE astronaut says not required to fast during Ramadan on ISS

Emirati astronaut Sultan al-Neyadi said Wednesday that he will not be required to fast during Ramadan while on his upcoming space mission.

The 41-year-old will become the first Arab astronaut to spend six months in space when he blasts off for the International Space Station (ISS) next month aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

Neyadi, NASA's Stephen Bowen and Warren Hoburg and Russia's Andrey Fedyaev are scheduled to fly to the ISS on February 26 as members of SpaceX Dragon Crew-6.

Asked at a press conference Wednesday how he will observe the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims typically fast from dawn to sunset, Neyadi said his situation falls under an exception.

"I'm in... the definition of a traveler, and we can actually break fast," Neyadi said. "It's not compulsory."

"Actually fasting is not compulsory if you're... feeling not well," he said.

"So in that regard, anything that can jeopardize the mission, or maybe put the crew members in a risk, we're actually allowed to eat sufficient food."

Neyadi will be the second national from the oil-rich United Arab Emirates to voyage to space.

In September 2019, Hazzaa al-Mansoori spent eight days on the ISS.

The NASA astronauts and Russian cosmonaut were also asked at the Johnson Space center Wednesday whether any of the political tensions on Earth, over Ukraine for example, spilled over into space.

"I've been working and training with cosmonauts for over 20 years now and it's always been amazing," said NASA's Bowen, a veteran of three space shuttle missions.

"Once you get to space, it's just one crew, one vehicle and we all have the same goal."

Fedyaev pointed to the "very long history" of space cooperation between Russia and the United States.

"The life of people in space on the International Space Station is really setting a very good example for how people should be living on Earth," the Russian cosmonaut said.

Five-day handover

NASA officials said they expect the members of SpaceX Dragon Crew-6 to have a five-day handover with the four members of Dragon Crew-5, who have been on the ISS since October.

Also currently aboard the ISS are three astronauts whose return vehicle, a Soyuz crew capsule, was damaged by a strike from a tiny meteoroid in December.

Russia plans to send an empty spacecraft to the ISS on February 20 to bring home the trio -- Russian cosmonauts Dmitry Petelin and Sergei Prokopyev and NASA astronaut Frank Rubio.

Their Soyuz MS-22 crew capsule sprang a radiator coolant leak after the meteoroid strike.

MS-22 flew Petelin, Prokopyev and Rubio to the ISS in September after taking off from the Russian-operated Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

They were scheduled to return home in the same spacecraft in March, but their stay on the ISS will now be extended by several extra months.

Russia has been using the aging but reliable Soyuz capsules to ferry astronauts into space since the 1960s.

Space has remained a rare venue of cooperation between Moscow and Washington since the start of the Russian offensive in Ukraine.

The ISS was launched in 1998 at a time of increased US-Russia cooperation following the Cold War "Space Race."

© Agence France-Presse

Influencer Andrew Tate says Romania case against him empty

Romanian prosecutors on Wednesday further questioned divisive influencer Andrew Tate over alleged human trafficking and rape, with the British-American national denouncing the case brought against him as void.

"There's no evidence in my file, because I've done nothing wrong. Everybody knows I'm innocent," Tate, surrounded by a slew of reporters, shouted after the hearing by Romania's anti-organised crime and terrorism directorate (DIICOT) ended.

"The matrix is trying to frame me, but God knows the truth," he said.

Former kickboxer Tate, his younger brother and two Romanian women are under investigation for allegedly "forming an organised criminal group, human trafficking and rape".

They are accused of coercing women into "forced labour... and pornographic acts" for "substantial financial benefits".

All four were arrested at the end of December.

Tate, 36, and his brother Tristan, 34, deny all accusations.

The Tate brothers both claimed their innocence on Wednesday, with Tristan saying DIICOT prosecutors "have nothing against me".

Last week, a Bucharest court extended their detention until February 27, a decision which they are appealing.

Their detention could be extended to a maximum of 180 days, pending possible indictment.

"They want the truth to come out quickly," said Eugen Vidineac, who represents the Tate brothers, adding that they had provided detailed statements and collaborated.

On Tuesday Andrew Tate -- whose Twitter handle "Cobratate" currently has 4.8 million followers -- said "a political operation designed to degrade" his influence and an "unjust imprisonment" had been used to "silence empowering people", implying he was among them.

He also deplored the poor conditions of his detention, tweeting that "cockroaches, lice and bedbugs" are his "only friends at night".

According to prosecutors, a human trafficking network set up by the suspects had been operating since 2019 and recruited "several victims, including minors... for the purpose of sexual exploitation".

The potential victims were tricked by the Tate brothers, who feigned affection, before being forced into prostitution and the production of pornographic films, prosecutors said.

In 2016, Tate appeared on the "Big Brother" reality television show in Britain but was removed after a video emerged showing him attacking a woman.

He then turned to social media platforms to promote his divisive views before being banned for misogynistic remarks and hate speech.

Tate was allowed back on Twitter after the billionaire Elon Musk bought the company.

© 2023 AFP

Russia shuts down oldest rights group

A Moscow court on Wednesday ordered the closure of Russia's oldest human rights organization, the Moscow Helsinki Group, silencing another respected institution amid a political crackdown.

The judge with the Moscow City Court granted a justice ministry request to "dissolve" the rights group, the court announced in a statement.

The Moscow Helsinki Group said it would appeal the ruling.

The decision is the latest in a series of legal rulings against organizations critical of the Kremlin, a trend that intensified after President Vladimir Putin sent troops into Ukraine last year.

The Moscow Helsinki Group was created in 1976 to monitor Soviet authorities' commitment to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms and was considered to be Russia's oldest rights group.

But its members were jailed, harassed and expelled from the country and the Moscow Helsinki Group had to suspend operations in 1982 under pressure from Soviet authorities.

Its work was re-established by former political prisoners and rights activists during the perestroika movement -- a series of political and economic reforms -- in 1989.

-'Life is long' -

Roman Kiselyov, head of legal programs at the organization, said the Moscow Helsinki Group would continue its work but it was unclear what form it would take.

"Human rights work and the movement will not end there," Kiselyov told AFP.

"Decisions about the future will have to be made, that's for sure."

Genri Reznik, a star lawyer who defended the organization in court, called the justice ministry's request to shut down the group "legal disgrace."

He expressed hope however that courts in Russia could review the case in the future.

"Life is long," he told reporters.

"People will go, regimes will change."

For two decades, it was headed by Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a Soviet-era dissident who became a symbol of resistance in Russia and who died in 2018.

When Alexeyeva -- the doyenne of Russia's rights movement -- celebrated her 90th birthday, Putin visited her at home, bringing her flowers.

"I am grateful to you for everything that you have done for a huge number of people in our country for many, many years," Putin told her at the time.

'Destruction of symbols'

The justice ministry had accused the rights group of breaching its legal status by carrying out activities such as observing trials outside Moscow.

Before Putin sent troops to Ukraine, Russia dissolved another pillar of the country's rights movement, Memorial.

That group emerged as a symbol of hope during Russia's chaotic transition to democracy in the early 1990s and was co-awarded the Nobel Peace Prize less than a year after it was ordered to shut down.

Pavel Chikov, a prominent lawyer and activist, said that dissolution of top rights groups was equal to the "destruction" of Russia's intellectual and cultural institutions and symbols of "peace, progress, and human rights."

The Russian government has been using an array of laws to stifle critics, imposing prison terms of up to 15 years for spreading "false information" about the military, among other measures.

Russia's top opposition politician Alexei Navalny is in jail and his political organizations have been declared extremist.

Navalny was poisoned with Novichok, a Soviet-made nerve agent, on a trip to Siberia in 2020. He has accused Putin of being behind the attack.

Most other key opposition figures are also either in prison or exiled.

© 2023 AFP

Microsoft users kicked out of apps during global outage

US tech giant Microsoft said on Wednesday it had suffered a global outage that limited access to software including Outlook and Teams for several hours.

Tens of thousands of incidents were logged by the tracking website Downdetector, with complaints spiking in the hour from 0700 GMT and particularly affecting users in Asia and Europe.

The firm said it had discovered a "networking configuration issue" that it was working on before tweeting at 1430 GMT that "the impacted services have recovered and remain stable".

Microsoft did not reveal how many users were affected and did not respond to AFP requests for comment.

But it said access had been disrupted for users of several apps on the Microsoft 365 online office platform, which has more than 300 million users worldwide.

Teams, a messaging programme for companies, and email client Outlook are among the most widely used.

Thousands took to social media to voice their dismay at the technical problems.

"I have a paper in half an hour on MS teams and the servers are not working in India. Please do something," said one Twitter user shortly after the services went down.

Earlier this month, the firm announced it would be cutting 10,000 staff, almost five percent of its global workforce.

© 2023 AFP

One dead as heavy snow and record cold hit Japan

Tourists reveled in wintry scenes across Japan on Wednesday, as much of the country was blanketed by snow in a cold snap that has killed at least one person and disrupted travel.

"These temperatures are some of the coldest we've seen in a decade," Japan Meteorological Agency official Takafumi Umeda told AFP.

Record lows were logged in several locations, including one area of southern Kumamoto, where the mercury hit -9 degrees Celsius (16 degrees Fahrenheit), the coldest logged there since 1977 when that observation site began keeping track.

Top government spokesman Hirokazu Matsuno said one person had died in the cold snap, while meteorologists warned of blizzards, high waves and traffic snarl-ups due to icy roads.

Authorities were also investigating whether two other deaths were related to the freezing weather across much of the archipelago, Matsuno told reporters.

Hundreds of flights were cancelled due to the snowstorm, while delays and cancellations disrupted both local trains and long-distance Shinkansen services. Vehicles on major roads in several locations were left stranded, local media said.

At the seventh-century Zenkoji Temple in the mountainous region of Nagano, north of Tokyo, a chilly calm descended with trees, old-fashioned lamp posts and the place of worship itself covered in layers of powdery snow.

Visitors included some who were there for skiing but had been forced off the slopes by blizzard conditions.

"I came to ski, but the snow was incredibly heavy so I cut my plan short and instead decided to do a bit of sightseeing," 30-year-old Akiko Sotobori told AFP.

"The blizzard (at the ski resort) was such that I couldn't see anything three meters (10 feet) ahead."

There were picturesque scenes in the former capital, tourist favorite Kyoto, where the shining walls of the famous Golden Pavilion contrasted with the temporary bright-white brilliance of its tiered roofs.

The country's Sea of Japan coast was hit hardest by the overnight blizzard, with Tokyo and its surrounding regions spared the snow but seeing unseasonably low temperatures.

© 2023 AFP