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Airstrikes on eastern Ghouta at ‘most intense’ ahead of UN ceasefire vote



Witnesses say deadly airstrikes on eastern Ghouta in Syria were at their “most intense” on Friday morning, hours before the UN was set to vote on a proposal calling for a temporary ceasefire.

The region continued to come under heavy fire from President Assad’s forces overnight as warplanes pounded the rebel-held enclave near the capital of Damascus, with 417 people, including almost 100 children, thought to have died as a result of “concentrated fire” since Sunday.

Sweden and Kuwait have put forward a draft resolution demanding a 30-day truce to allow for the delivery of aid and medical evacuations as the bombing enters its sixth day, which the UN Security Council will decide on during a meeting at 4pm on Friday.

The situation in eastern Ghouta has 'never been worse'
The situation in eastern Ghouta has ‘never been worse’

Olog Skoog, the Swedish ambassador, said that in seven years of war in the Middle Eastern country, the situation in eastern Ghouta had “never been worse”, with a witness in the town of Douma describing the latest airstrikes and artillery fire on Friday morning as “the most intense so far”.

Hundreds of people have been pulled from the rubble by the local emergency services in recent days, with the early morning bombardment spread across Douma, Zamalka and Hammouriyeh.

The UN motion is expected to gain the nine votes needed to be passed, but Russia, which has continued to back the Syrian government against the rebels, has the power to veto it.

Strikes on Friday morning were the 'most intense so far'
Strikes on Friday morning were the ‘most intense so far’

Previous attempts to bring hostilities in Syria to an end, even on a temporary basis, have been thwarted by Russia, having vetoed on possible security council action 11 times.

The US has accused Moscow of bearing “unique responsibility” for the violence in eastern Ghouta, with its amendments to the resolution proposed by Sweden and Kuwait ruling out the possibility of an immediate ceasefire.

Instead, the Russian draft circulated to the security council on Thursday only commits to an end to hostilities “as soon as possible” and condemns the “relentless shelling” of Damascus by the rebels.

Hundreds of people have been rescued from the rubble
Hundreds of people have been rescued from the rubble

It adds that foreign military forces should only operate in Syria “in coordination with official authorities”, which several council diplomats – speaking on the condition of anonymity – described as unacceptable.

Kelley Currie, the US ambassador for economic and social affairs, told the security council that President Assad was prepared “to bomb or starve” his opponents into submission.

She added that President Assad was relying on Russia to veto the motion so that the siege could continue.

The bombardment on eastern Ghouta – home to 400,000 people – has drawn parallels with attacks on eastern Aleppo, which claimed thousands of civilian lives.

Since 2011 more than 340,000 people have died as a result of conflict in Syria, with millions forced to flee their homes and cities left in ruins.

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CCTV captures woman being dragged along road by robbers in car | World News



CCTV has captured the moments that a woman was dragged along a road by a car after robbers stole her handbag in California.

It was the latest in a series of attacks against people of Asian descent in the San Francisco Bay Area and in other parts of the US.

Eric Nghiem said his Vietnamese wife Jenny was wearing her handbag across her body as she walked to a supermarket when a thief grabbed it and jumped into the car on Wednesday afternoon.

The footage shows a white vehicle with both its right-hand side doors open as it drives slowly down the road in Oakland, in the Bay Area.

The woman managed to get up straight away after letting go of her bag
The woman managed to get up straight away after letting go of her bag

Mrs Nghiem can be seen being dragged on her front as she hangs on to her handbag strap being held by a man in the front passenger seat.

She was pulled along for about 46 metres, according to local reports, before she let go and the car doors were closed then the robbers drove off.

The victim then got up and walked to the side of the road where shocked looking pedestrians checked if she was alright.

Mr Nghiem said his wife is sore and bruised and has been left mentally shaken by the incident in Oakland’s East Lake.

At least 32 Asian Americans in the Bay Area have been assaulted or robbed since the start of 2021, the San Francisco Chronicle has reported.

Cynthia Choi, co-executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action in San Francisco, told the paper that Asian Americans are often targeted around Chinese New Year because thieves believe they might be carrying cash for the lucky envelopes many people exchange during that time.

Police have stepped up their patrols and volunteers have increased their street presence.

Oakland Police Department said the robbery is under investigation.

It remains unclear whether the victim was targeted because of her race.

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The Dissident director Bryan Fogel on Khashoggi film: ‘Hearing the recording of Jamal’s murder would make it a shock horror – I didn’t want that’ | Ents & Arts News



As President Joe Biden releases an explosive report implicating Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Sky News talks to filmmaker Bryan Fogel about his new documentary about the killing – The Dissident.

WARNING: This article contains graphic and upsetting details about Jamal Khashoggi’s death.

The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was without doubt violent and senseless – but in making a documentary about his death, Oscar-winning director Bryan Fogel knew one thing was key – it mustn’t become a horror film.

Jamal Khashoggi was killed after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018
Khashoggi entered the Saudi embassy in Istanbul at around 1.14pm on 2 October 2018. Pic: AP

When the 59-year-old Washington Post columnist walked into the Saudi embassy in Istanbul at around 1.14pm on 2 October 2018 to pick up documents that would allow him to embark on a new marriage, he little knew what awaited him inside.

Pic: The Dissident/Briarcliff Entertainment
Jamal Khashoggi entered the consulate hoping to kickstart a new life – the reality was very different. Pic: The Dissident/Briarcliff Entertainment

Despite his fiancee, Hatice Cenzig, waiting outside on the pavement for him until the early hours of the morning, Mr Khashoggi never walked out of the building.

A team of 15 Saudi government agents – including a forensic expert specialising in autopsies – flew into Turkey days before the killing and left shortly after. Mr Khashoggi’s remains have never been found.

Bizarrely, a lookalike, wearing his clothes, did exit from the back door later that afternoon as CCTV footage shows. The clothes were later retrieved by Turkish authorities from a public toilet waste bin.

More from Jamal Khashoggi

Saudi authorities have since admitted Mr Khashoggi was killed in a “rogue” extradition operation, but have denied involvement from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose policies were often criticised in the writer’s columns.

Mr Khashoggi was well connected (he was the first cousin of Dodi Fayed among other notable family connections), with over two-million Twitter followers, columns in the Washington Post and regular guest slots on UK and US TV news channels.

Pic: The Dissident/Briarcliff Entertainment
Hatice was left waiting on the pavement for hours. Pic: The Dissident/Briarcliff Entertainment

This influence was enough to have him labelled “an enemy of state” by his home country.

Many of the details of the case read like the plot excerpts from a crime novel, with the story feverishly covered around the world, but despite the high levels of drama, filmmaker Fogel tells Sky News he wanted to focus on something far more important.

“I was drawn to this story because of the bigger issues. Jamal’s murder was utterly horrific in its nature, but it also shines a light into what is happening in this part of the world, what is happening on the reaches of authoritarian regimes and where the money and business interests are so powerful that somebody can get away with a crime such as this.”

Featuring never before seen footage, including videos of forensic testing inside the consulate, he was also given access to the 37-page transcript of Mr Khashoggi’s final moments – a document never previously released to global media.

Handed to him by the Turkish authorities after working closely with them for a year, he was also offered access to the audio recordings themselves – but drew a line.

Pic: The Dissident/Briarcliff Entertainment
Khashoggi had been critical of the crown prince. Pic: The Dissident/Briarcliff Entertainment

He tells Sky News: “Hearing Jamal being murdered would serve no purpose to an audience other than to shock and to put it into a different genre of category – that of horror film – which is not what I was seeking to make. So, I made that choice to not include the audio…

“I felt that to put it into the film would go into a territory that I didn’t want to as a filmmaker and as an activist… And I didn’t want Hatice to hear that. I didn’t want Jamal’s family to hear that. We know what happened.”

Although a hardened journalist in his own right – with experience of dealing with corruption at high levels from his 2017 documentary Icarus about the Russian doping scandal – he also admits it was a decision that helps him sleep at night.

“I chose not to listen to it. We all know that he was murdered. We all know it was horrific. We all know he was chopped to pieces by blunt bone saw. What was that going to do other than to give me more nightmares and trauma in regard to this case than I’ve already experienced?”

And in truth, the transcript alone provides enough graphic detail to chill, with the document showing that Mr Khashoggi – who is referred to by one official as a “sacrificial animal” as he enters the consulate – taking seven and a half minutes to die, with his final words, “I can’t breathe”.

The lawsuit has been brought by Hatice Cengiz, Mr Khashoggi's fiancee
Hatice allowed documentary makers to film inside Khashoggi’s flat for the first time

Recordings suggest Mr Khashoggi’s body is then dismembered by a bone saw and part of his body burnt in a tandoori oven in the garden.

The existence of this audio recording is thanks to another detail that would sit well in a crime thriller – Turkish authorities had previously bugged the consulate and were recording every word and noise that took place in the media room where Mr Khashoggi was killed.

Despite delving into a murky murder case with very powerful players at its heart, Fogel says he has the privilege of not having felt threatened at any point in its making.

“Being American hopefully still offers me some protection. I am not living in the Middle East… I don’t really try to spend a lot of time looking over my shoulder when I’m engaging in making a film like this, because if I was then I shouldn’t be making content such as this.”

However, Fogel isn’t immune to the emotional toll of such a distressing story.

Pic: The Dissident/Briarcliff Entertainment
Fogel describes filming with Hatice as ‘heart-breaking’. Pic: The Dissident/Briarcliff Entertainment

In the film, we see inside the flat bought by Mr Khashoggi to start his new life with fiancee Hatice as she enters it for the first time since his death.

With the cupboards and walls still covered with black fingerprint powder, the cameras follow her into her intended marital home. Fogel describes it as a “difficult” experience.

“That day that I shot with her, as we were allowed back into what was going to be their home, she had not been able to set foot in there in the six months prior to that as first of all, they weren’t married.

“Second of all, had been turned into a crime scene and she didn’t have access to that apartment. I mean, it was is heart-breaking. That day that we shot was about as authentic as I could get.”

And Fogel says it was that access to someone so close to Mr Khashoggi which was so important to the success of the documentary.

“If you’re able to engage an audience and able to bring an emotional connection to the viewer, that emotional connection creates resonance which in turn can create impact and change.”

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers a foreign policy address as Vice President Kamala Harris listens during a visit to the State Department in Washington, U.S., February 4, 2021. REUTERS/Tom Brenner
Joe Biden has pledged to realign US ties with Saudi Arabia

While Mr Khashoggi’s death drew global attention and generated front pages and column inches around the world, the response from international world leaders was distinctly more muted.

French, British, and American governments largely turned a blind eye to the murder, and recommendations by independent expert on extrajudicial killings for the UN Agnes Callamard went unheeded, despite her own investigation finding credible evidence of high-level Saudi officials’ individual liability, including that of the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.

Now, with the recent change of US government and Joe Biden’s subsequent declassification of a US intelligence report into the murder, many believe that leading nations will now have to reappraise their relations with the kingdom.

Agnes Callamard, independent expert on extrajudicial killings for the UN
Agnes Callamard, independent expert on extrajudicial killings for the UN

Ms Callamard is certainly hopeful this will be the case, telling Sky News in a statement: “The Director of National Intelligence (DNI) report will further pave the way towards greater accountability for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. The United States will be in the position to take the lead in… setting in place the international mechanisms to prevent and punish such acts in the future.

“This should include calling for the establishment of an international standing instrument for human rights and criminal investigation into allegations of targeted killing, or other acts of violence against journalists, human rights defenders or others targeted because of their peaceful activities or expressions.”

Speaking ahead of the report’s release, Fogel too was optimistic: “Time will tell exactly what further actions Biden takes, but clearly there is an appetite there for justice and accountability.”

However, as to whether a similar scandal could ever take place again, the filmmaker is rightly cautious: “I don’t think they’re going to chop up somebody inside of a consulate again… But, I think the authoritarian playbook in today’s day and age is increasingly allowing crimes like these to go unpunished.

Mohammed bin Salman had previously enjoyed a cosy relationship with Donald Trump
Mohammed bin Salman had previously enjoyed a cosy relationship with Donald Trump. Pic: AP

“So, while there’s been a tonne of global attention on this murder, really the punishment of this has remained completely elusive.

“I don’t think we’re going to see something this brazen, but I do think we’re going to see a continuation of human rights abuses like this unless there truly is a price to pay. And so far, there hasn’t been.”

Eight men were eventually convicted of murder, with five sentenced to death, but the death penalty was commuted to 20 years in prison after reportedly being forgiven by Mr Khashoggi’s family.

In 2018, Mr Khashoggi was posthumously named Time magazine’s person of the year.

Sky News has contacted the Foreign Office for comment on any UK response following the US release of the declassified intelligence report into Mr Khashoggi’s death.

The Dissident will have its UK Premiere online at the Glasgow Film Festival on 6 March, and Irish Premiere online at the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival on 13 March.

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Taylor Swift cancels postponed shows – and warns ‘near future’ of live gigs remains unclear | Ents & Arts News



Taylor Swift has announced that she is cancelling a series of tour dates that were previously postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

In a candid statement, the 31-year-old star also warned that the “near future” of live performances remains unclear.

Swift had suspended her whole 2020 tour last April – expressing hope that shows in the US and Brazil could be moved to a later date.

NEWARK, NEW JERSEY - AUGUST 26: Taylor Swift performs onstage during the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards at Prudential Center on August 26, 2019 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/VMN19/Getty Images for MTV)
She might not be performing on stage right now, but Swift is still releasing plenty of new music

But on Friday, she wrote on her website: “I love coming on here to tell you good news, or to share a new project with you. It’s not my favourite thing in the world to have to tell you news I’m sad about. I’m so sorry, but I cannot reschedule the shows that we’ve postponed.

“Although refunds have been available since we first postponed the Lover Fest shows, many of you hung onto your tickets and I too hung onto the idea that we could reschedule.”

She told her fans that “she can’t wait ’til we can safely be at shows together again”, but added: “This is an unprecedented pandemic that has changed everyone’s plans and no one knows what the touring landscape is going to look like in the near future.

“I’m so disappointed that I won’t be able to see you in person as soon as I wanted to.”

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August 2020: Taylor Swift pays for student to go to uni

Despite the setback, 2020 wasn’t full of doom and gloom for Swift. She managed to release two albums during lockdown, with both achieving huge commercial success and critical acclaim.

Swift is one of the world’s biggest stars, and the cancellations will undoubtedly come as a blow to the live events industry.

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But there have been some promising developments in recent days, with the organisers announcing that the Reading and Leeds music festivals will be able to go ahead based on the government’s roadmap out of England’s lockdown.

Stormzy, Post Malone and Liam Gallagher are confirmed acts to headline the twin events, which will run on the bank holiday weekend from 27 to 29 August.

A post on Twitter added: “Following the government’s recent announcement, we can’t wait to get back to the fields this summer. LET’S GO.”

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