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UN calls for end to ‘hell on earth’ violence in eastern Ghouta

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The United Nations has called for an end to the “hell on earth” violence in Syria after hundreds of civilians were killed in eastern Ghouta.

Residents in the rebel-held area outside Damascus say they are waiting for their “turn to die” after more than 290 people including dozens of children were killed since Sunday.

UN secretary general Antonio Guterres said the Syrian government’s bombing campaign had turned the region into “hell on earth” for civilians.

“My appeal to all those involved is for an immediate suspension of all war activities in eastern Ghouta allowing for humanitarian aid to reach all those in need,” he said.




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Moment Syrian airstrike hits rebel-held suburb

French president Emmanuel Macron has called for a humanitarian truce to allow civilians to be evacuated.

Rockets and barrel bombs continued to fall on Wednesday, killing at least 24 people, in an apparent preparation for a government ground assault.

The UN has described the situation as “beyond imagination”, while Amnesty International said “flagrant war crimes” were being committed.

Bilal Abu Salah, who lives in the eastern Ghouta town of Douma, said: “We are waiting our turn to die. This is the only thing I can say.”


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Sky’s Special Correspondent Alex Crawford has the latest

Prime Minister Theresa May has called on President Bashar al Assad’s regime and its ally Russia “to ensure this violence stops and those people in need of help are given that help”.

But the Kremlin said claims the Russian military was responsible for civilian casualties in eastern Ghouta were “unfounded”.

:: Ghouta resident: ‘Bombing and shelling never stops’

An Amnesty International spokesman said: “The Syrian government, with the backing of Russia, is intentionally targeting its own people in eastern Ghouta.

An injured man covered with blood is seen at a medical point in the besieged town of Douma,
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Rockets and artillery fire have been targeting eastern Ghouta

“People have not only been suffering a cruel siege for the past six years, they are now trapped in a daily barrage of attacks that are deliberately killing and maiming them, and that constitute flagrant war crimes.”

The Syrian government maintains it is fighting a war on terrorism and does not target civilians.

State media reported that rebels have been firing mortars on districts of Damascus near eastern Ghouta, killing at least six people on Tuesday and wounding two people on Wednesday.

A spokesman for Russia’s Defence Ministry said there had been a “massive bombardment by illegal armed groups from eastern Ghouta” which had targeted residential areas, hotels and Russia’s Centre for Syrian Reconciliation.

Syrian children cry at a make-shift hospital in Douma following air strikes on the Syrian village of Mesraba in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region
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Syrian children cry at a make-shift hospital in the town of Douma

The UN has called for a ceasefire, saying the situation for civilians in eastern Ghouta is “spiralling out of control”.

It has warned the violence could turn into a repeat of the battle for Aleppo, which endured months of conflict between rebels and government forces in 2016.

Eastern Ghouta was among the first Syrian regions to shake off government rule after popular demonstrations against President Assad swept through the country in 2011, eventually leading to civil war.

Ghaith, a wounded 12-year-old Syrian boy, cries as he receives treatment at a make-shift hospital in Kafr Batna and waits for news of his mother in the operating room
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A 12-year-old boy receives treatment in eastern Ghouta

It is also among the last places to resist Assad’s determined campaign to take back control of every last rebel-held region.

It is supposed to be one of the “de-escalation zones” agreed by Russia, Iran and Turkey as part of their diplomatic efforts. But a former al Qaeda affiliate, which has a small presence there, is not included in the agreement.

The bombardment of eastern Ghouta by Assad’s forces resulted in the worst 48-hour death toll in Syria since a chemical attack in 2013.

Smoke plumes rise following a regime air strike in the rebel-held town of Hamouria, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region
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Smoke plumes rise following a regime airstrike in eastern Ghouta

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 106 civilians, including 19 children, were killed in the violence on Tuesday.

It came after 127 people were killed on Monday in eastern Ghouta’s bloodiest day in four years.

The Observatory blamed Russian warplanes, saying Moscow carried out its first strikes in three months on eastern Ghouta.

A person inspects damaged building in the besieged town of Douma
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The UN has described the situation in eastern Ghouta as ‘beyond imagination’

In another development, Assad’s forces were sent to the northern Afrin region, where they came under fire by Turkish forces attacking the Kurdish-controlled area.

Syria is sending in forces to come to the aid of a Kurdish militia known as the YPG, after Turkey and its Free Syrian Army allies made unexpected gains there.

A spokesman for Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said there would be “serious consequences” after a convoy of about 50 vehicles tried to enter Afrin on Tuesday but were repelled by artillery fire.

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COVID-19: Single-dose Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine cleared in the US | US News

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US regulators have approved Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose COVID jab, enabling millions more Americans to be vaccinated and setting the vaccine up for additional approvals around the world.

The J&J vaccine is the third authorised in the US following ones from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, both of which require two doses.

COVID-19 has claimed more than half a million lives in the US, and states are clamouring for more doses to stem cases, hospitalisations and deaths.

In a 44,000-person global trial carried out by Johnson & Johnson, the vaccine was found to be 66% effective at preventing moderate-to-severe COVID-19 four weeks after inoculation.

It was 100% effective in preventing hospitalisation and death due to the virus.

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which are based on new messenger RNA technology, showed higher efficacy rates in pivotal trials that used two doses versus J&J’s single-shot vaccine.

Direct comparison, however, is difficult because the trials had different goals and J&J’s was conducted while more contagious new variants of the virus were circulating.

Dr William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, said: “It potentially could play a very substantial role if we have enough doses because it’s only a single-dose vaccine and that will make it attractive to people who are difficult to reach.

“It’s one and done.”

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President Joe Biden hailed the move but cautioned Americans against celebrating too soon.

“Things are still likely to get worse again as new variants spread,” he said in a statement, urging people to continue washing their hands, wearing masks and maintaining social distancing.

“There is light at the end of the tunnel, but we cannot let our guard down now or assume that victory is inevitable,” he added.

The US government, which has purchased 100 million doses of the J&J vaccine, plans to distribute about 3 million to 4 million next week. That would be on top of the around 16 million doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines the government already planned to ship across the country.

So far, the US has distributed more than 90 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines, some of which have been used for second shots. About 14% of Americans have received at least one dose, according to US government data.

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Plastic surgeon turns up for Zoom court hearing while in the middle of operating on a patient | US News

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A Californian plastic surgeon is being investigated after he attended a virtual court hearing while operating on a patient.

Dr Scott Green reportedly turned up for the video conference – which concerned a traffic violation – while in an operating room and wearing surgical scrubs.

According to the Sacramento Bee, beeps of medical machinery could be heard during the Zoom call, and the patient’s procedure was taking place just out of view.

A courtroom clerk asked Dr Green: “Are you available for trial? It kind of looks like you’re in an operating room.”

The doctor confirmed that he was in the middle of surgery, but urged the court to proceed.

Dr Green appeared to continue working with his head down while he waited for Thursday’s trial to begin.

But when the judge entered the chamber, he said he was reluctant to proceed over concerns for the patient’s welfare.

The doctor appeared to dismiss these concerns, replying: “I have another surgeon right here who’s doing the surgery with me, so I can stand here and allow them to do the surgery also.”

But the judge decided to postpone the hearing because it wasn’t appropriate to conduct a trial under the circumstances – telling Dr Green he would rather set a new date.

The doctor apologised, but the judge interrupted him and said: “We want to keep people healthy, we want to keep them alive. That’s important.”

The Medical Board of California says it is looking into the incident, and expects surgeons to follow the standard of care when treating their patients.

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Golden Globes: Criticism of elusive group behind awards ‘mostly stems from jealousy’, member says | Ents & Arts News

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A member of the elusive group behind the Golden Globes has gone on the record about the way the organisation works – following a slew of accusations that votes can easily be influenced and that it prohibits new members from joining.

Husam Asi, a BBC Cinematic presenter, is a member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), which organises and votes for the awards.

He told Sky News the claims were unfounded and “mostly stem from jealously” among journalists who do not get the same access to stars, or invitations to trips and parties as HFPA members.

The Golden Globes set the tone for the highly prestigious BAFTAs and Oscars that follow. Pic: AP
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The Golden Globes set the tone for the highly prestigious BAFTAs and Oscars that follow. Pic: AP

Last week, an investigation by the LA Times claimed HFPA members were “routinely granted exclusive access to Hollywood power players, invited to junkets in exotic locales, put up in five-star hotels and, as Globes nominations near, lavished with gifts, dinners and star-studded parties”.

When asked if such access to Hollywood’s top talent and invites to glamourous parties and dinners swayed HFPA members or coloured their votes, Mr Asi told Sky News: “I personally was never affected by those.”

Mr Asi, who works in LA as a presenter and producer, acknowledged there is a need for more transparency around the organisation, its members and the selection process.

But he said the problem was industry wide – and questioned why Oscar members are not criticised for enjoying similar perks.

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association has fewer than 90 members, and critics say this makes it easier to influence.

Members are famously hard to get hold of, with only a handful willing to speak anonymously to the LA Times when the latest allegations emerged.

The Golden Globes are being held virtually this year because of the pandemic
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The Golden Globes are being held virtually this year because of the pandemic . Pic: AP

Kjersti Flaa, a Norwegian entertainment journalist denied membership to the HFPA, has a pending lawsuit accusing it of “institutionalising a culture of corruption”.

She told Sky News her case relates to two areas: “anti-competition” and how the HFPA has “monopolised entertainment journalism” in LA.

Ms Flaa is also challenging them with regards to “the fair procedure” of how journalists are appointed members.

She said the HFPA tried to portray her as a “bad person and a disgruntled journalist” – but since filing the lawsuit, she claims other journalists have come forward with similar experiences.

“It’s kind of a relief for me to see that it’s not only me and my colleagues that have been treated badly, it’s all over the place,” she said.

Ms Flaa added that “everyone’s afraid of retaliation”, which is why it’s been kept “under the lid for so long”.

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The Golden Globes ceremony, though sometimes mocked for its self-congratulatory and boozy ceremonies, has become one of the most influential in the world.

As the first event in the annual awards season, it sets the tone for the highly prestigious BAFTAs and Oscars that follow. Yet each year, the nominations seem to cause a stir – with eyebrows raised at seemingly unpredictable and left-field choices and omissions.

Last year, there was disbelief that no female directors met the cut. Although three women have been nominated this year, allegations that the Globes are out of touch on other fronts have been raised once again.

It’s been revealed the HFPA has no black members – a point the organisation has now vowed to change immediately. It told the LA Times this week: “We are fully committed to ensuring our membership is reflective of the communities around the world who love film, TV and the artists inspiring and educating them.”

In a statement to Sky News, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association said it was common for entertainment journalists around the world to be invited to set visits, premieres and press. However, it also said “the notion that these visits have any influence over nominees for the Golden Globes is absurd and is strictly prohibited by our policies”.

The Golden Globes are organised by an elusive group called the Hollywood Foreign Press Association
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The Golden Globes are organised by an elusive group called the Hollywood Foreign Press Association

Critic and BAFTA member Jason Solomons has experience running awards ceremonies and told Sky News awards systems are “gameable” and are “open to strategy” – adding: “They’re political. They can be influenced quite easily.”

Mr Solomons ran the Critics’ Circle awards in London and said there is always “an element of trading around this time of years to get big names to come to your red carpet or big awards ceremonies”.

He also told Sky News that reports of studios trying to woo voters were nothing new and were part and parcel of the industry: “If you’re a big entertainment company with a big budget who can influence those things, you’re going to try and do it if it’s within the rules.”

The Golden Globes ceremony itself will be quite different this year due to the pandemic. The party atmosphere will be replaced by a bicoastal Zoom fest presented by Tina Fey in New York and Amy Poehler in LA.

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