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German Social Democrats voting on coalition pact with Merkel

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Members of Germany’s center-left Social Democratic Party have started voting on whether to accept the coalition agreement negotiated by their leaders with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc on forming a new government.

SPD leaders promised to give the party’s 463,000 members the chance to approve the agreement after facing strong resistance to entering another so-called “grand coalition” with Merkel, especially among its youth wing.

SPD lawmaker Heiko Maas, Germany’s current justice minister, urged passing the agreement, telling members it “contains many Social Democratic successes: safe pensions, better training, free day-care or massive relief for low-earners.”

Voting started Tuesday and concludes March 2. Results are expected March 4.

Should the agreement be rejected, Merkel would be faced with forming a minority government or new elections would need to be called.

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COVID-19: What EU leaders said about AstraZeneca vaccine – and the data forcing a rethink | World News

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European countries are revising their refusal to give older people the Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine following the release of fresh data.

The French government has made a partial U-turn, with people aged between 65 and 74 with pre-existing health conditions now able to get the AstraZeneca vaccine.

The vaccine, developed with Oxford University, has suffered rollout setbacks and doses are languishing after nearly half of the EU‘s members limited its use to under 65s.

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It was approved for all adults by the EU’s drugs regulator but it is up to each member to set out its own policy, with many saying the initial trial did not have enough data on the effectiveness on over 65s.

France’s partial U-turn came hours after fresh data published by Public Health England (PHE) based on the UK’s vaccine rollout showed protection against symptomatic COVID in those over 70, four weeks after the first jab, ranged between 60-73% and 57-61% for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.

The study found one dose of either vaccine is more than 80% effective at preventing those over 80 years old from being admitted to hospital three to four weeks after the first jab.

Sky News looks at which EU countries have restricted the AstraZeneca vaccine.

France

Emmanuel Macron was one of the vaccine’s most vociferous critics, calling it “quasi-ineffective” for the elderly.

At the end of January, having ordered 1.1 million doses, Mr Macron said: “The real problem on AstraZeneca is that it doesn’t work the way we were expecting it to.

“We’re waiting for the EMA [European Medicines Agency] results, but today everything points to thinking it is quasi-ineffective on people older than 65, some say those 60 years or older.”

France’s Europe minister, Clement Beaune, then said the UK was taking “a lot of risks” by having a 12-week gap between the two doses and said French citizens would not stand for this type of gamble, even though scientists have approved the method.

Scepticism towards vaccines has been high in France for a few decades, with a very low COVID-19 vaccine take-up compared with its neighbours and just a quarter of its AstraZeneca vaccines administered by Friday.

In an attempt to restore public trust in the AstraZeneca vaccine Mr Macron has now said he would take it if he was offered it.

Germany

The efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine in older people started being publicly questioned by European countries after a German newspaper claimed it was only 8% effective on the over-65s.

Handelsblatt’s story, which it stood by, was attributed to a single anonymous government source with no explanation of how the number was calculated.

It came in the week that the EMA was due to decide whether to authorise the vaccine, which it did on 29 January – although with a warning that data for over 55s was limited.

Chancellor Angela Merkel
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel is being urged to change her stance on the AstraZeneca vaccine

Germany then recommended the vaccine should not be used for people over 65, saying there was a lack of reliable efficacy data on this age group.

Like France, Germany’s vaccine rollout has been much slower than the UK’s, with purchased vaccines lying unused.

German officials said a key reason for the low uptake was the age restriction and a growing number of leading politicians are now calling for the rule to be relaxed, which is expected to happen soon.

European Commission

Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, had a very public spat with AstraZeneca over gaining more of its vaccine doses.

She then suggested the UK had compromised on “safety and efficacy” by approving the jab so early, despite the EMA reaching the same conclusions as the UK’s internationally-respected MHRA which approved the vaccine.

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EU chief’s ‘regrets’ over vaccine export row

The Commission has been criticised over the slow pace of immunisation across the bloc, with critics saying it failed to secure sufficient early supply.

In late February, Ms von der Leyen changed her tune as officials rushed to ensure doses did not go to waste.

“I would take the AstraZeneca vaccine without a second thought, just like Moderna’s and BioNTech/Pfizer’s products,” she told Germany’s Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper.

Which other European countries have restricted the AstraZeneca vaccine?

Greece, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden (where AstraZeneca is based along with the UK), Poland and Austria have all blocked its use in over-65s.

Norway, which is not in the EU but is in the European Economic Area, has also blocked its use on under 65s.

Italy initially limited the jab to under 55s but at the end of February raised that to adults up to 65 years old.

Belgium and Spain have limited it to under 55s.

Switzerland, which is not in the EU but is in the single market, has rejected the AstraZeneca jab as it said the trial data is “not yet sufficient”.



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Kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls: ‘Repentant bandits’ key to release of the 279 students it has emerged | World News

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“Repentant bandits” helped secure the release of 279 girls kidnapped from a Nigerian boarding school, it has emerged – as the students open up about the horrors of their ordeal.

A group of about 100 gunmen burst into the Girls Science Secondary School in the northwestern state of Zamfara on Friday and abducted the students.

Before ransacking the school in Jangebe town, they also attacked a nearby military camp and checkpoint, preventing soldiers from stepping in.

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‘They were pointing guns at our heads’

The girls said they were forced to march through stones and thorns and were repeatedly hit with guns if they could not keep up.

Umma Abubakar said: “Most of us got injured on our feet and we could not continue trekking, so they said they will shoot anybody who did not continue to walk.”

Farida Lawali, 15, added: “While they were beating the girls with guns, some of them were crying and moving at the same time.”

At least a dozen of the schoolgirls have been taken to hospital for treatment.

In spite of their horrific ordeal, the father of seven of the girls, vowed the abduction would not stop him from schooling his children.

A group of girls who were abducted from a boarding school in Nigeria have been released and are "safe", reports say. Gunmen abducted 317 students from the Girls Science Secondary School in Jangebe town, Zamfara state, on Friday 26 Feb 21
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The girls have been given food, water and reunited with their families

Lawal Abdullahi said: “It’s a ploy to deny our girls from getting the western education in which we are far behind.

“We should not succumb to blackmail.

“My advice to the government is that they should take immediate precautions to stop further abductions.”

And UN children’s agency UNICEF has joined his call, urging the Nigerian government to provide added protection to schools.

Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari said news of the girls’ release had brought “overwhelming joy”.

And Zamfara state governor Dr Bello Matawalle revealed it had been “repentant bandits” working with the government under an amnesty programme who had helped secure the Jangebe girls’ release.

“Those repentant ones are working for us, and they are working for the government and they are working for security,”
he said.

Several large groups of armed men operate in Zamfara state, described by the government as bandits, and are known to kidnap for money or for the release of their members from jail.

The government has repeatedly denied paying ransoms.

But on Friday president Buhari had issued a statement in which he urged state governments “to review their policy of rewarding bandits with money and vehicles, warning that the policy might boomerang disastrously”.

Sky News’ Africa correspondent John Sparks said the latest abduction prompted more questions on the ransom debate.

“Was money paid? This is becoming a growth industry in Nigeria,” he said.

“It’s happening frequently: Criminal gangs or bandits taking advantage of the precarious security situation in the north and central areas.”

Such kidnappings in Nigeria were first carried out by jihadist group Boko Haram, and later its offshoot Islamic State West Africa Province, but the tactic has now been adopted by other criminal gangs.

The raid in Zamfara state was the second kidnapping in little over a week in the north west, a region increasingly targeted by criminal gangs.

On Saturday, gunmen released 27 teenage boys who were kidnapped from their school on 17 February in the north-central state of Niger.



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Carlos Ghosn: Special forces veteran and son extradited over ex-Nissan chief’s ‘music box’ escape from Japan | World News

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A US special forces veteran and his son accused of helping ex-Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn escape from Japan have been extradited to the country.

They are accused of aiding a plot to smuggle Ghosn out of the country, where he was awaiting trial on financial misconduct charges in December 2019.

Michael Taylor and son Peter Taylor allegedly helped him escape in a music box and on a private jet to his home country of Lebanon, which has no extradition treaty with Japan.

Prosecutors say they received at least $1.3m (£936,000) for their services.

Instrument cases claimed to be used during Ghosn's escape
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Prosecutors say Ghosn escaped in a music case loaded on to a private jet

The pair landed in Tokyo on Monday after a high-profile battle to avoid being handed over, with lawyers claiming they faced the prospect of relentless interrogation and “mental and physical torture”.

They had been in a Boston jail since May, but last month the US Supreme Court cleared the way for their extradition.

“This is a sad day for the family, and for all who believe that veterans deserve better treatment from their own country,” said their lawyer Paul Kelly.

Michael Taylor was shielded from view as he arrived in Japan on Monday
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Michael Taylor was shielded from view as he arrived in Japan on Monday

Under Japanese law, suspects cannot have a lawyer present during questioning by prosecutors and can be held for 20 days before being charged or released.

Michael Taylor, 60, is a special forces army veteran and private security specialist who in the past had been hired to rescue abducted children. He has never denied the allegations.

He described the escape plan in detail in an interview with Vanity Fair last year and said he did it “to liberate the oppressed”.

Michael Taylor, in a police photo from 2012, has never denied helping the escape
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Michael Taylor, in a police photo from 2012, is a former special forces Green Beret

Prosecutors have called it one of the most “brazen and well-orchestrated escape acts in recent history”.

Michael Taylor and another man, George-Antoine Zayek, allegedly chartered a jet to Japan with two large boxes in a ruse that they were musicians with audio equipment.

Ghosn, who was out on bail, is said to have met up with Peter Taylor at a Tokyo hotel before the others joined them.

As the younger Mr Taylor flew to China, the other three are said to have taken a bullet train to another hotel near Osaka airport.

They all went into a room but only two came out.

Prosecutors say Ghosn was inside one of the boxes – which passed through security without being checked.

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January 2020: ‘I was facing conviction rate of 99%’ – Ghosn

The private jet landed in Istanbul in Turkey, before Ghosn was transferred to another flight to Lebanon.

He had initially been arrested in November 2018 on claims he diverted money from Nissan for his own gain and underreported his future income.

He denies the charges against him and says he escaped to avoid “political persecution” and an unfair trial.

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