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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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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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Taiwan invasion unlikely for now – but there are other ways China can turn the screw | World News

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The good news is that there are only five months when weather conditions are good enough to mount an invasion of Taiwan, according to Ian Easton, the author of The Chinese Invasion Threat. 

The bad news is that two of them are April and May.

So when Taiwan reported that 25 Chinese air force aircraft, including nuclear-capable bombers, entered its air defence identification zone (ADIZ) this week, fears of attack are front of mind.

It was the largest incursion by the Chinese military to date.

US Admiral Philip Davidson – Washington’s top military officer in the Asia-Pacific region – recently said he was worried China could invade Taiwan in the next six years.

Chiu Kuo-cheng, Taiwan’s new defence minister, responded: “His evaluation says six years, but my concerns include six hours.”

The foreign minister, Joseph Wu, said this month that in the event of an attack Taiwan would fight “to the very last day”.

The famous Taipei 101 in the capital
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It’s unclear how far the US would go if the threat to Taiwan reaches a new level

There is belligerence from the Chinese side. A defence ministry spokesperson said that a declaration by Taiwan of independence “means war”.

Hu Xijin, the editor of a nationalistic Chinese tabloid, said that the Chinese military could fly directly over the island of Taiwan itself, and if Taiwan fired at those planes, China would attack.

Hu’s attention-seeking provocations should always be taken with a pinch of salt but they show how the conversation around Taiwan is evolving.

But although the intensity is increasing, in many ways we are still in the status quo that has existed for decades.

China’s constitution, adopted in 1949, says Taiwan is part of its “sacred territory” and details the “inviolable duty” of “reunifying the motherland”.

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On the question of “Taiwan independence”, China as far back as 2005 passed a law that formally authorised military force if Taiwan was “separated” from China.

Taiwan has its own constitution and a highly functioning democracy – rated above Japan and South Korea by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

The election of President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016 led to an escalation in pressure from China. What we’re seeing now is best viewed as the latest development in that continuous period.

A pilot prepares to take off on a F-CK-1 Ching-kuo IDF at an Air Force base in Tainan
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Taiwan spent $900m scrambling jets to intercept Chinese planes last year

And as China has increased its attrition strategy, the US has increased its ties with the island, which in turn leads to more Chinese pressure.

That pressure is designed to take a psychological and logistical toll on Taiwan.

In 2020, Taiwan spent some $900m scrambling fighters to meet Chinese sorties and said it would no longer dispatch jets to meet every incursion, instead tracking Chinese aircraft with land-based missiles. Expect that pressure to continue.

But a full-scale invasion by China remains unlikely in the short term. That would require a massive build up of forces, easily detectable by US and Taiwanese monitoring.

There are options short of invasion that are still worrying.

China could blockade the island economically, or seize some of its outlying territory. The Kinmen Islands, administered by Taiwan, are barely a mile from China.

Any such move would be a test of the US resolve to defend Taiwan, perhaps analogous to Russia’s seizing of the Crimean Peninsula.

Would an aggressive Chinese move, short of full invasion, prompt the US to respond militarily?

Right now, no one knows. That means it would be hugely destabilising.

For all the pressures of the current moment, it at least fits a known, established pattern – and is far preferable to an escalation, the consequences of which would be difficult to predict.

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COVID-19: World Health Organisation calls for ban on sale of live wild mammals in food markets | World News

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The sale of live wild mammals at food markets should be suspended as an emergency measure, the World Health Organisation has said.

The statement comes after a WHO team visited Wuhan in China to investigate the origins of COVID-19.

The most likely scenario is that the virus originated in bats, was spread to another unidentified animal, and then passed on to humans, a WHO report said in March.

Live COVID updates from across the UK and around the world

The organisation said in a separate report on Tuesday that animals, “particularly wild animals”, are the source of more than 70% of emerging infectious diseases in humans.

They added many of these are caused by novel viruses – a virus that has not previously been recorded.

The report states: “Wild mammals, in particular, pose a risk for the emergence of new diseases. They come into markets without any way to check if they carry dangerous viruses.

“There is a risk of direct transmission to humans from coming into contact with the saliva, blood, urine, mucus, faeces, or other body fluids of an infected animal, and an additional risk of picking up the infection from contact with areas where animals are housed in markets or objects or surfaces that could have been contaminated with such viruses.”

The WHO said “traditional markets play a central role in providing food and livelihoods ” around the world.

It added that banning the sale of live wild animals would help to protect the health of both shoppers and workers.

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WHO: Lab leak COVID origin ‘unlikely’

The closest-related viruses to COVID-19 have been found in bats in southwest China.

The intermediate host is more elusive: mink, pangolins, rabbits, raccoon dogs and domesticated cats have all been cited as a possibility.

The WHO team said that a theory the virus was leaked from a lab was “extremely unlikely” but it has not been ruled out.

The call for a ban of the sale of wild animals comes as the the WHO said the global coronavirus pandemic is at a “critical point”.

It added that people need a “reality check” as restrictions are eased.

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Dr Maria van Kerkhove, head of the WHO’s technical response, told a news conference vaccinations alone are not enough to combat COVID-19.

Coronavirus restrictions were eased in parts of the UK on Monday, with shoppers returning to high streets and drinkers visiting pub gardens in England, and non-essential retailers reopening in Wales.

Dr van Kerkhove, speaking on Monday afternoon, urged caution, saying: “We need headlines around these public health and social measures, we need headlines around the tools that we have right now that can prevent infections and save lives.

“We are in a critical point of the pandemic right now, the trajectory of this pandemic is growing.”

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Facebook takes down official page for French town called Bitche | Science & Tech News

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Facebook has been criticised after taking down the official page for the French town of Bitche.

Local broadcaster Radio Melodie reported that the page was taken down, forcing the municipal communications officer to create a new one under another name.

Ms Valerie Degouy said the new page was named after the town’s post code, Mairie 57230, as reported by Politico.

Ms Degouy said: “I tried to reach out to Facebook in every possible way, through different forms, but there’s nothing [I could] do,” she said, adding she had “already had issues when I first created the page”.

Another of the commune’s towns, Rohrbach-les-Bitches, renamed its page Ville de Rohrbach out of caution.

In a post explaining the change, the account holder said: “Far from us the idea of denying the name of our beautiful village… [but] Facebook seems to be hunting the term associated with Rohrbach…

“We let you imagine the reason,” they added with a winking and laughing emoji.

As Politico reports, this is not the first time that the town’s name has caused upset for Americans.

Back in 1881, the US embassy was located on the Place de Bitche in Paris, named in honour of the town.

The then ambassador, Levi Parsons Morton, complained about the name as it appeared to be embarrassing on the embassy’s letterhead and Parisian authorities renamed the square Place des Etats-Unis.

A spokesperson for Facebook confirmed to Sky News that the page was removed in error, and had since been “swiftly restored this morning, when we because aware of the issue”.

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