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Afghan boy who went viral after wearing plastic bag Messi shirt flees Taliban

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An Afghan boy who went viral over his love of the Argentinian footballer Lionel Messi has had to flee his home after being hunted by the Taliban.

Murtaza Ahmadi, now aged 7, was pictured wearing a homemade Messi shirt that his brother fashioned out of a blue and white plastic bag in 2016.

The colours matched the jersey of the Argentinian national side, and the footballer’s name and shirt number were scrawled on the back in pen.

Murtaza, who later met his idol after the image went viral, had to flee Afghanistan’s southeastern Ghazni province with his family in November.

The UN has said 4,000 families left amid intense fighting after the Taliban launched an offensive in the previously safe area.

Murtaza's plastic bag jersey was made by his older brother
Image:
Murtaza’s plastic bag jersey was made by his older brother

Witnesses have described “absolute terror” as hundreds of civilians, soldiers and insurgents were killed in the fighting.

Murtaza’s family belongs to the Shiite-denominated Hazara ethnic group, who were targeted by the Sunni Taliban in the attacks.

The boy is now living in a cramped room in the capital Kabul with his mother and brother.

His father Arif has remained in Jaghori where he works as a farmer.

Shafiqa has said the Taliban have been searching for her son by name.

She said: “(They) said if they capture him, they will cut him into pieces.”

Messi clutches the young fan's hand before a friendly match in Qatar
Image:
Messi clutches the young fan’s hand before a friendly match in Qatar

Murtaza’s older brother Houmayoun, who made the Messi plastic bag jersey, said: “We are worried something bad will happen if they know who Murtaza is.”

Shafiqa added that she hid her famous son’s face with a scarf to prevent him from being recognised as they fled Ghazni.

She also told how they left their home district of Jaghori in the night after hearing gunshots.

Shafiqa said: “We couldn’t take any of our belongings, we left only with our lives.”

Barcelona forward Messi, a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, met with the youngster after the image emerged 2016.

Murtaza clutched the footballer’s hand as he walked out onto the pitch with him for a Barcelona friendly in Qatar.

Messi gave him a signed shirt and ball, which were among the possessions left behind when the family fled Jaghori.

Murtaza said: “I want them back so I can play.”

“I miss Messi.

“When I meet him (again), I will say, ‘Salaam’ and ‘How are you?’ Then he will reply saying thank you and be safe, and I will go with him to the pitch where he will play and I will watch him.”

Sports were rarely tolerated under the 1996-2001 Taliban regime, and the Kabul football stadium was a well-known venue for stonings and executions.

Afghan security forces have beaten back the Taliban in Jaghori, but Shafiqa has said she doesn’t feel her family is safe there.

She said: “The danger of the Taliban coming back is high, going back is not an option.”

The youngster plays football in his signed Messi shirt
Image:
The youngster plays football in his signed Messi shirt

Shafiqa has also told how her family received unwanted attention from the image of Murtaza in the makeshift Messi shirt.

She said: “Local strongmen were calling and saying, ‘You have become rich, pay the money you have received from Messi or we will take your son’.

“At night we would sometimes see unknown men, watching and checking our house, and then the calls.

“During the days, we wouldn’t dare let him outside home to play with other children.”

The family have already fled once before when they sought asylum in Pakistan in 2016.

They returned reluctantly after their money ran out.

The family are among more than 300,000 Afghans who have fled their homes due to violence since the beginning of 2018 alone, according to the UN’s agency for humanitarian affairs.

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Ultima Thule: Remote icy world is much flatter than scientists first thought | Science & Tech News

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The furthest object in our solar system visited by a spacecraft – Ultima Thule – appears not to be “snowman shaped” as first thought, and is in fact much flatter.

New pictures taken by the New Horizons spacecraft at a different angle as it raced away from Ultima Thule at 31,000mph (50,000 kmh) reveal it is not spherical.

NASA said the larger lobe more closely resembles a giant pancake, and the smaller one a dented walnut.

The images were taken nearly 10 minutes after New Horizons crossed its closest approach point on 1 January.

New analysis suggests it is far flatter than the 'snowman' shape. Pic: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL /Southwest Research Institute
Image:
New analysis suggests it is far flatter than thought.. Pic: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL /Southwest Research Institute

Scientists also did new analysis of the craft’s approach images to modify their conclusions about its shape.

The mission’s lead scientist, Alan Stern, said: “This really is an incredible image sequence, taken by a spacecraft exploring a small world four billion miles away from Earth.

“Nothing quite like this has ever been captured in imagery.”

The icy world of Ultima Thule is roughly 20 miles long and is the most distant world ever studied by mankind – a billion miles beyond Pluto.

Mr Stern added: “We had an impression of Ultima Thule based on the limited number of images returned in the days around the flyby, but seeing more data has significantly changed our view.”

“It would be closer to reality to say Ultima Thule’s shape is flatter, like a pancake.

“But more importantly, the new images are creating scientific puzzles about how such an object could even be formed. We’ve never seen something like this orbiting the sun.”

An artist's illustration of New Horizons as it flew past Pluto a few years ago. Pic: NASA
Image:
An artist’s illustration of New Horizons as it flew past Pluto a few years ago. Pic: NASA

NASA says New Horizons’ mission will help scientists understand the origins of our solar system.

Its successful flyby last month sparked scenes of jubilation at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland.

Mr Stern said at the time: “Everything we are going to learn about Ultima – from its composition to its geology to how it was originally assembled, whether it has satellites and an atmosphere and those kinds of things – are going to teach us about the original formation conditions of objects in the solar system.”

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Tainted alcohol kills more than 100 in India – including 36 at a funeral | World News

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At least 3,000 suspected bootleggers have been arrested after a batch of illegal alcohol killed more than 100 people in India.

According to NDTV, the alcohol was first drunk at a funeral in the city of Haridwar, where 36 people have been confirmed dead and a further 18 remain in hospital.

It is believed the drink had been laced with methanol – a highly toxic substance commonly used as anti-freeze.

A further 69 people are feared to have died after sachets of the alcohol were then taken to the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh.

Many of those killed had complained of stomach pains and respiratory problems.

This is believed to be the deadliest outbreak since 2011, when a batch of bootleg booze killed 172 people in West Bengal.

Deaths from illegally made alcohol – often referred to as “hooch” or “country liquor” – are common in India because licensed brands are often out of the reach of those in poverty.

Bootleg alcohol is cheap and often has chemicals added to increase its strength.

In some states, like Bihar, the sale of alcohol is banned.

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Insect species could fall by 40%, causing ‘catastrophic collapse’ of world’s ecosytems | World News

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Dramatic declines in insect numbers could see 40% of species die out in the “largest extinction event on Earth” for millions of years.

Scientists have warned of a “catastrophic collapse of nature’s ecosystems” if numbers continue to decline, as insects are key to many of the world’s natural systems and wildlife chains.

Insects provide a food source to other wildlife such as birds and mammals, and are also important for pollinating plants and recycling nutrients.

Researchers say the agricultural industry is largely to blame for declining populations, with destruction of habitat and the widespread use of pesticides having a major impact.

AYRSHIRE, SCOTLAND - MAY 27: A Great Tit pauses on a fence with an insect in its beak to feed its young, May 27, 2004 in Ayrshire, Scotland. The Royal Society For The Protection Of birds is encouraging Britons across the country to take part in an insect census to monitor numbers and species. The results will be used to calculate likely impact on the indigenous bird populations. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
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Many birds rely on insects for food

Other factors include disease and introduced species, as well as climate change, with rising temperatures affecting the range of places insects can live.

The Earth is currently facing its sixth mass extinction, according to another study published in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The report found billions of animal species have been lost over the last few decades in a “biological annihilation” of wildlife.

Insect numbers are declining by 2.5% each year and a third of species are endangered, meaning many face extinction by the end of the century.

Bees are among the most affected by declining populations
Image:
Bees are among the most affected by declining populations

They currently make up more than half of the world’s species, but research shows they are disappearing much faster than birds and mammals.

The latest study, published in the journal Biological Conservation, found butterflies, bees and dung beetles were among the worst hit.

This not only affected “specialist” species which rely on particular host plants or habitats, but more hardy types as well.

Scientists say urgent action is needed to prevent the mass extinction.

The study’s authors, Francisco Sanchez-Bayo and Kris Wyckhuys, said: “The conclusion is clear: unless we change our ways of producing food, insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades.

Researchers say the loss of insects could be 'catastrophic'
Image:
Researchers say the loss of insects could be ‘catastrophic’

“The repercussions this will have for the planet’s ecosystems are catastrophic to say the least, as insects are at the structural and functional base of many of the world’s ecosystems since their rise at the end of the Devonian period, almost 400 million years ago.”

They called for a dramatic reduction in the use of pesticides, habitat restoration and changes to agriculture, such as planting flowers along the margins of fields.

The chief executive of the wildlife charity Buglife called the report “gravely sobering” and also urged change.

“It is becoming increasingly obvious our planet’s ecology is breaking and there is a need for an intense and global effort to halt and reverse these dreadful trends – allowing the slow eradication of insect life to continue is not a rational option,” said Matt Shardlow.

Falling insect populations have been the subject of concern for a number of years, with a report published last year finding species in German nature reserves had declined by more than 75% during the 27-year study.

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