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Daily pauses on Syria strikes ‘not good enough’

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An order by Vladimir Putin for daily five-hour ceasefires in airstrikes on the rebel-held Syrian enclave of eastern Ghouta does not go far enough, according to Save the Children.

The international aid organisation said the “humanitarian pause” ordered by the Russian leader was not a good enough measure to avoid further civilian casualties in the region.

More than 520 people are thought to have died as a result of relentless attacks by the Syrian government last week.

New footage obtained by Save the Children and given exclusively to Sky News shows the shocking aftermath of a strike on the office of a Syrian aid group on Saturday, hours before the UN Security Council voted on a 30-day ceasefire.

Bombing of Ghouta has been going on for a week
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Easterm Ghouta was devastated by bombs last week

Children are seen screaming as they scramble clear of the rubble while the dust clears. It is believed 46 families had been sheltering in the building before it was hit.

Three of those staying there were injured, including two young girls.

Save the Children – which works with partner organisations in Syria to help those affected by the ongoing conflict – has urged the UN to immediately implement the month-long ceasefire voted on over the weekend.

:: The complex who’s who of Syrian civil war

A Syrian child receives treatment for a suspected chemical attack in eastern Ghouta
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A Syrian child receives treatment for a suspected chemical attack in eastern Ghouta

The charity said that the “humanitarian corridor” proposed by the Kremlin, designed to allow civilians to leave the enclave during the “pause” period, would do little to protect families from the “horrifying and never-ending violence”.

Local response director Sonia Khush urged the UN to implement the agreed month-long ceasefire immediately.

“As this conflict enters its eighth year, it’s clear that it is far from being resolved, and all parties involved continue to show utter contempt for children’s lives and wellbeing,” she added.

“The fighting must cease and aid agencies must be allowed to deliver lifesaving humanitarian assistance, or more children will die.”

Members of the Security Council vote during a meeting on a ceasefire in Syria
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Members of the Security Council vote during a meeting on a ceasefire in Syria

The five-hour daily pauses are due to start on Tuesday, with Monday having seen further strikes.

Many projects Save the Children is involved with in the Middle Eastern country, including repairing damaged classrooms and providing counselling, have had to be suspended as a result of the continued violence.

Aid workers in eastern Ghouta estimate that 4,100 families are now living in underground basements and shelters in a bid to protect themselves from airstrikes, with more than half of them without water, sanitation or ventilation.

One young boy, Ahmed, was among those who spent much of last week trapped in a makeshift shelter.

“We’ve not been able to go to school, they shelled the school, the teacher was killed,” he said.

“There is no food and we can’t go outside, the shops are closed, the planes are bombing.”

In total, 350,000 people are trapped in eastern Ghouta, with many of those still alive unable to bury their loved ones due to the ongoing shelling.

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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.

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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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