Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Trees may be key to cooler temps during the summer, study says
By HealthDay News

Could trees be the key to a cool summer in the city?

Yes, claims new research that calculated just how much greenery can bring temperatures down.

"We've long known that the shade of trees and buildings can provide cooling," said study co-author Jean-Michel Guldmann. He is a professor emeritus of city and regional planning at Ohio State University, in Columbus.

"But now we can more precisely measure exactly what that effect will be in specific instances, which can help us make better design choices and greening strategies to mitigate the urban heat island effect," Guldmann said in a university news release.

RELATED Commercial forests could produce long-term climate benefit

For the study, his team created a 3D digital model of a nearly 14-square-mile area of northern Columbus to assess the effect that shade from trees and buildings had on land surface temperatures over one hour on a summer day.

The researchers found that the amount of tree canopy had a significant impact on what's known as the urban heat island effect.

For example, on a day when the temperature was 93.33 degrees Fahrenheit in one neighborhood, the temperature would have been 3.48 degrees lower -- 89.85 degrees -- if all the current trees had been fully grown.

RELATED New urban planning software may inspire more sustainable cities

And if the neighborhood had 20 more full-grown trees, the temperature would be another 1.39 degrees lower.

The researchers also found that both shaded and sun-exposed grassy areas had significant heat-reducing effects, but shaded grass provided more cooling than sun-exposed grass.

As expected, buildings increased the temperature, but shadows cast by them could significantly cool temperatures, particularly if they shaded the rooftops of adjacent buildings, the study authors said.

RELATED Most low-income blocks in U.S. cities are hotter, have fewer trees

For example, a 1% increase in the area of a building led to average surface temperature increases of between 2.6% and 3%. But an increase of 1% in the area of a shaded rooftop led to average temperature decreases of between 0.13% and 0.31%, the researchers found.

Shade on roadways and parking lots also significantly decreased temperatures, according to the study published online recently in the journal Computers, Environment and Urban Systems.

"We learned that greater heat-mitigation effects can be obtained by maximizing the shade on building rooftops and roadways," Guldmann explained.

The type of information provided by the model can be used to "formulate guidelines for community greening and tree planting efforts, and even where to locate buildings to maximize shading on other buildings and roadways," Guldmann said. "This could have significant effects on temperatures at the street and neighborhood level."More information

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has more on how trees and vegetation reduce heat islands.

Copyright © 2021 HealthDay. All rights reserved.

Study: Pandemic daycare closures linked to 600K lost jobs among U.S. moms

By Amy Norton, HealthDay News
JUNE 30, 2021 / 1:05 AM

A woman helps a child with adjusting a face mask in New York City on September 2020. File Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo

When child care centers were forced to close in the pandemic's early months, hundreds of thousands of American working mothers lost their jobs, new research shows.

The study is just the latest illustration of the toll the pandemic has taken on working women in the United States.

Over the first 10 months of the U.S. pandemic, more than 2.3 million women left the labor force, according to the National Women's Law Center. That compared with just under 1.8 million men.

That was, in part, because many job losses were in industries where women make up much of the workforce. On top of that, working mothers -- more than fathers -- faced the difficulty of having kids home from school or day care.

Poll: 72% of U.S. parents fear COVID-19 danger at schools, daycare

The new study looked specifically at the impact of pandemic child care closures.

It found that in states that had closures in spring 2020, women's job losses were particularly acute. In contrast, the employment decline among men was similar to that of men in other states.

Nationwide, the gap amounted to about 611,000 lost jobs among working mothers
RELATED Survey: 1 in 4 parents won't vaccinate their kids against COVID-19

"The effect was concentrated among women with young children," said lead researcher Yevgeniy Feyman of the Boston University School of Public Health.

That, he said, suggests that child care closures, themselves, fueled many of the excess job losses.

That is likely the case, agreed Rasheed Malik, who studies child care policy at the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan policy institute in Washington, D.C.

RELATED COVID-19 anxieties still high in U.S. one year into pandemic, poll shows

"Prior to the pandemic," he said, "there was already a strong relationship between local availability of child care and women's participation in the workforce."

The pandemic only worsened the longstanding problem of child care "deserts," Malik said. Those are areas across the country -- typically low-income -- where working parents lack affordable, quality child care options.

Child care centers did reopen in closure states by June 2020, according to Feyman's team. But while many women and men did go back to work, women still lagged behind as of December 2020, the study found.

They were less likely than men to be employed, and their employment rate remained below its pre-pandemic level.

Simply allowing child care centers to reopen didn't necessarily solve families' problems.

For one, Malik said, an estimated 10% of programs closed for good. And at those that did survive, staff reductions meant fewer families could be served.

"Getting back into the system wasn't just a matter of going back to the program you'd been in," Malik said.

The findings are based on data from a monthly labor force survey. It included nearly 49,000 U.S. adults, including more than 13,000 from states where child care centers shut down by April 2020.

Employment among men and women in all states dropped sharply in April 2020, but women in states with child care closures saw the steepest drop-off. The likelihood of women being employed during the closure period was 2.6 percentage points lower, compared to men.

That translated to 611,000 job losses among 23.5 million working mothers, the researchers estimated.

To Feyman, one implication is that American workers need better paid family leave, and a "cultural shift" where not only women, but men, take it.

Malik pointed to some fundamental issues that make finding reliable child care so difficult, pandemic or not.

Unlike public education, he said, the child care system is "market-based" -- with programs concentrated in more affluent areas where families can afford the cost.

"We think of it as a market failure," Malik said. "We don't have public school deserts, but we do have them in child care."

To make quality care accessible to more families there must be some level of government subsidy as well as assistance to low-income families, he said.

That "investment in families" would be repaid in parents' increased productivity and the educational and social benefits young children gain from being in high-quality programs, Malik said.

Another problem is the field's generally low pay and high turnover.

"These are difficult jobs," he added. "The work is rewarding, but definitely not financially rewarding."

Malik said that low pay is rooted in "historical bias" that undervalues the work of women, who make up the vast majority of the child care workforce.

"It's about time we honor the decades of hard work they've given us," Malik said.

The findings were published online recently in JAMA Health Forum.More information

The nonprofit Zero to Three has resources on child care.

Copyright © 2021 HealthDay. All rights reserved.  

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Report showed 'major' damage before Florida condo collap

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — The ground-floor pool deck of the oceanfront condominium building that collapsed near Miami was resting on a concrete slab that had “major structural damage” and needed to be extensively repaired, according to a 2018 engineering report that also uncovered “abundant cracking and spalling” of concrete columns, beams and walls in the parking garage.

Provided by The Canadian Press

The report was among a series of documents released by the city of Surfside as rescuers continued to dig Saturday through rubble in an effort to find any of the 156 people who remain unaccounted for after the collapse. At least five people were killed.

While the engineering report from the firm of Morabito Consultants did not warn of imminent danger from the damage — and it is unclear if any of the damage observed was responsible for the collapse — it did note the need for extensive and costly repairs to fix the systemic issues with Champlain Towers South.

The report said the waterproofing under the pool deck had failed and had been improperly laid flat instead of sloped, preventing water from draining off.

“The failed waterproofing is causing major structural damage to the concrete structural slab below these areas. Failure to replaced the waterproofing in the near future will cause the extent of the concrete deterioration to expand exponentially,” the report said.

The firm recommended that the damaged slabs be replaced in what would be a major repair.

Some of the damage to the concrete in the parking garage was minor, while other columns had exposed and deteriorating rebar. It also noted that many of the building’s previous attempts to fix the columns and other damage with epoxy were marred by poor workmanship and were failing.

Beneath the pool deck “where the slab had been epoxy-injected, new cracks were radiating from the originally repaired cracks,” the report said.

These were all problems that should have been dealt with quickly, said Gregg Schlesinger, an attorney specializing in construction defects and a former construction project engineer.

“The building speaks to us. It is telling us we have a serious problem,” Schlesinger said in a telephone interview Saturday about the new documents. “They (building managers) kicked the can down the road. The maintenance was improper. These were all red flags that needed to be addressed. They weren’t.”

In a statement Saturday, Morabito Consultants confirmed its report “detailed significant cracks and breaks in the concrete, which required repairs to ensure the safety of the residents and the public.”

The firm said it was hired again in June 2020 by Champlain Towers South to begin the 40-year recertification process that would detail what work needed to be done.

“At the time of the building collapse, roof repairs were under way, but concrete restoration had not yet begun,” the statement said.

Abi Aghayere, a Drexel University engineering researcher, said the extent of the damage shown in the engineering report was notable. In addition to possible problems under the pool, he said several areas above the entrance drive showing signs of deterioration were worrisome and should have been repaired immediately.

“Were the supporting members deteriorated to the extent that a critical structural element or their connections failed leading to progressive collapse?” he wrote in an email to the AP after reviewing the report. “Were there other areas in the structure that were badly deteriorated and unnoticed?”

The building was in the midst of its 40-year recertification process, which requires detailed structural and electrical inspections. In an interview Friday, Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said he wasn’t sure if the inspection had been completed, but he said it may contain vital clues.

“It should have been a very straightforward thing,” Burkett said. “Buildings in America do not just fall down like this. There is a reason. We need to find out what that reason is.”

The 12-story tower’s collapse Thursday morning has also raised questions over whether other similar buildings are in danger.

“This is a wake-up call for folks on the beach,” Schlesinger said. “The scary portion is the other buildings. You think this is unique? No.”

Details of the building's 40-year recertification inspection will be made public once they are completed, Surfside Town Clerk Sandra McCready said in an email.

Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said at a news conference Friday that she has seen no evidence of a sinkhole — much more common in other parts of Florida — or of something criminal, such as a bomb.

“I can tell you that at this time, they haven’t found any evidence of foul play,” she said.

Beyond that, much focus is on ocean water, which is rising in South Florida and elsewhere because of climate change. Last year, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a measure that would require developers to complete sea-level rise studies before beginning publicly funded projects.

One theory is that the saltwater ubiquitous in the area, which is subject to flooding during so-called King Tide events, intruded into concrete supports, corroding the steel-reinforcing rebar inside and weakening the concrete.

Meanwhile, the land on which Champlain Towers sat has been gradually sinking, according to a study published last year by an environmental professor at Florida International University.

But the professor, Shimon Wdowinski, cautioned against blaming the collapse on the caving ground.

“In most cases, these buildings just move,” he said in a video interview released by the university. “There’s no catastrophic collapse like in the case in Surfside, which was very unfortunate.”

Surfside officials say roof work was ongoing at the now-collapsed tower but have downplayed the possibility that work was a cause. Barry Cohen, a lawyer who escaped the crippled building with his wife, said the roof work could be part of a “perfect storm” of causes that combined to bring down the structure.

“They were doing a new roof. And I think, all day long, the building was pounding and pounding and pounding. They’ve been doing it for over a month,” Cohen said.

Another issue is whether nearby construction might have caused vibrations that weakened Champlain Towers. Cohen said he raised concerns previously that the work was possibly causing cracked pavers on the pool deck.

The collapse is already drawing lawsuits, including one filed hours after the collapse by attorney Brad Sohn against the condo’s homeowners association seeking damages for negligence and other reasons for all of the tower’s residents.

The association, the lawsuit contends, “could have prevented the collapse of Champlain Towers South through the exercise of ordinary care, safety measures and oversight.”

An attorney for the association, Ken Direktor, did not respond Friday to an email requesting comment.


Condon reported from New York. Associated Press writers Freida Frisaro in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Bobby Caina Calvan in Tallahassee, Florida, contributed to this story.

Curt Anderson And Bernard Condon, The Associated Press



USS Gerald Ford shock trials register as 3.9 magnitude ...

2021-06-21 · The blast registered as a 3.9 magnitude earthquake. June 21, 2021 / 2:26 PM / CBS/AFP. The U.S. Navy has started a series of tests on its newest and most advanced aircraft carrier

Classrooms grapple with racial slurs in classic American novels

Issued on: 27/06/2021 - 
The dismissal of a white New York professor for reading aloud the "N-word" from a Mark Twain novel has renewed debate about how books from some of the United States' most famous authors should be taught in an age of reckoning with racial injustice
Jason Redmond AFP/File

New York (AFP)

The recent dismissal of a white New York professor for reading aloud the "N-word" from a Mark Twain novel has shone a spotlight on the use of racial slurs in American classrooms.

It has renewed a long-standing debate about how books from some of the United States' most famous authors should be taught during an age of reckoning with racial injustice.

After years of hearing the term read from the texts of writers such as Twain and William Faulkner, students are increasingly taking a stand.

"There was no reason that I should have to go to my class and hear that slur," said Dylan Gilbert recalling the time in 2019 when her white English teacher at the University of Michigan uttered the term while reciting a passage from Faulkner.

Gilbert, who is Black, walked out of class.

"It felt like a reminder that even though I had gotten into Michigan I would still not be afforded the same opportunity for a safe learning environment as my white peers," she told AFP.

The issue came into sharp focus again last month when Hannah Berliner Fischthal, who is white, departed St. John's University in Queens, NYC.

She apologized after upsetting several students by pronouncing the racial slur out loud while reading an extract from Twain's 1894 book "Pudd'nhead Wilson" -- having first explained the context for the word in Twain's text and saying she hoped it would not cause offense.#photo1

The incident came after another professor, also white, this time at Duquesne University in Pennsylvania, was dismissed for using the slur during a course.

"The word has such a history and such a psychological emotional impact that just hearing the word, for some people, can be disruptive," said Arizona State University English professor Neal Lester, who is Black.

Derived from a Latin word, it became widely used in 18th Century America, partly to dehumanize African Americans and cast them as an inferior race.

Lester says he never says the word in his classroom.

Vershawn Young, a Black communications professor, takes a different view.

When, in June 2020, his employer, the University of Waterloo, announced that the word was banned on campus, Young refused to adhere to the new rule.

"When reading from a text, I say the word," he told AFP. "When students quote the text, they too are free to speak what they read. However, they also may replace the word with its euphemism. What they can't do is ignore it."

Young says he always prepares his students that it is coming so they aren't shocked.

"Outside of quotes, I do not use the word because I recognize my authority in relation to the multiple sensitivities that my students embody," he added.

- Censorship -

In an article in The Conversation last year, Young wrote that the ban on his campus censored Black professors like himself.

"I belong to multiple Black communities, where we use the N-word in six or seven culturally rich ways," he wrote, adding that banning it "serves the purposes of white supremacy."

In recent decades it has been culturally acceptable for Black people to use the word. It is regularly heard in discussions, movies or music, hip-hop songs being the most obvious example.

"Hearing a non-black person say the N-word is always offensive and harmful to me," said Gilbert, the student who objected to her white teacher using it.

"(But) I have no problem with Black people saying (it). In my personal opinion the word is never violent or threatening to me when it comes out of Black person's mouth," she added.

Wendy Kaminer, a lawyer and writer who used to be an American Civil Liberties Union board member, said "the distinction between quoting a racial slur and using a racial slur has been completely erased."

"I think that's quite problematic," she told AFP.

Kaminer says the disappearance of the word from university campuses is part of a wider trend that started in the 1990s of banning other terms, including relating to sexuality and minorities.

She thinks the United States, where freedom of speech is enshrined in the constitution, is moving towards a more western European approach to the regulation of what people can and can't say.

For Lester, the Arizona State University professor, the answer is to talk about the word and its complex history without uttering it.

"I've had many conversations in class around the word without actually saying it," she said.

"That in and of itself is not a huge intellectual gymnastics routine."

California's famed Venice Beach grapples with homeless problem

Issued on: 27/06/2021
Los Angeles police inspect an encampment at Venice Beach on June 16, 2021 where Rodrick Mims, 50, (R) who has been homeless off and on over the last 15 years, is living by the Pacific Ocean Patrick T. FALLON AFP

Venice (United States) (AFP)

Ah yes, Venice Beach in California: synonymous with sun, surf, palm trees and, now, homeless people.

As many as 200 tents line the oceanfront in this Los Angeles-area town that for decades has been a lure for surfers and tourists.

The area is a chaotic jumble of any material that can create shelter, and of waste and detritus, amid appalling hygiene conditions. The smell of urine competes with that of suntan lotion.

"I didn't expect to see so many homeless people here in Venice. Already in Hollywood a few days ago, I was a bit surprised, but here, all these tents touching each other, these shacks, these tarpaulins, it's almost like a village," said John Jackson, who was visiting from the southern US state of Alabama.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, authorities made homeless people living on the beach take down their tents during the day. But city hall suspended that rule to limit the risk of contagion among people who are already vulnerable to illness.

Homeless people in the Venice area, many of whom lost places in shelters and free meals because of the pandemic, have used the health crisis to converge on the city's beach.

"The homeless have been part of Venice folklore since the 60s or 70s, but now their numbers have exploded. And they've changed too," said an assistant in a souvenir shop who did not want to be named.

"Before a lot of them were hippies, beach bums who had more or less chosen this way of life. Now they are really poor guys. Almost everyone out there is very bad physically and mentally," said this man in his 60s.

"I see pain, mental illnesses, drugs ... And it's been rough for me this past month," said Denise Diangelo, a homeless woman who spoke to AFP near the beachfront encampment.

"Probably the main problem that I've had personally is sleeping. I usually like to sleep alone by the water, the Pacific Ocean, to keep away from problems," said Diangelo. Her only shelter, she says, is a beach umbrella.

Right before the pandemic nearly 2,000 people were recorded as being homeless in the streets of Venice. The numbers have grown steadily.

But now that life is returning to normal and tourists are coming back, the beachfront homeless camp is beginning to bother some and even take on a political bent.

Mike Bonin, a city councilor who advocates relocating the homeless population, has found himself locking horns with the Los Angeles County sheriff's office and neighborhood associations that want a much more forceful evacuation the homeless.

- A chronic problem in California -

Like many people who visit Los Angeles, Jackson, the Alabama tourist, said he cannot understand "why all these people are homeless when California has the reputation of being so rich."

Indeed, California boasts the world's fifth-largest economy in terms of GDP. But it is also one of the US states with the most poor people.

It holds the sad title of being home to the largest homeless population in America: more than 66,000 in Los Angeles County alone before Covid-19, up nearly 13 percent from the previous year.

One of the main reasons for this, according to the Los Angeles city agency that tries to address homelessness, is the lack of affordable housing in a city where rent is very expensive.

Rent shot up 65 percent from 2010 to 2020, nearly twice the average rate of increase for the country as a whole. In the same period, median Los Angeles household income rose only 36 percent.

Some groups are working to provide aid and housing for the homeless people of Venice, but this is a tough job because some of them having been living in the streets for years.

Take the case of Rodrick Sims, who is 50 and has been homeless for 15 years. He said his descent started when he got divorced.

"I don't know what to do. I'm hoping that they give me, you know, a place where I can start learning how to live inside again," he told AFP while eating grapes outside his tent on the beach.

"I'll tell you, when once you're outside, you get feral, like a wild wild man," Sims said.

© 2021 AFP


Friction emerges in North America one year into trade deal

Issued on: 27/06/2021
The United States and Canada are close allies but have a number of trade disputes, including over their dairy industries JIM WATSON AFP/File

Washington (AFP)

One year after it took effect in the midst of a record economic downturn, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) has yet to end trading friction between the North American allies.

The three countries said the new treaty would benefit their economies and workers but, as the anniversary nears on Thursday, the neighbors have already entered into a range of disputes -- many of which have seen the United States object to Mexican or Canadian practices.

"Most of the focus on USMCA over the next several years is going to be on the disputes," said Edward Alden, an expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

USMCA replaced the North American Free Trade Agreement, which had been in force since 1994, and which Alden said had envisioned the continent's three economies at one point becoming a single market, like the European Union.

That vision appears to be dead, at least for now.

"USMCA is very much the rules for three separate North American economies to cooperate, where they can, and rules for fighting where they can't cooperate," Alden said.

While the disputes between the countries have made headlines, Jeffrey Schott, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, credited the deal with "removing the cloud of uncertainty" over continental commerce.

"That creates a better atmosphere for trade and investment than we've had in some time," he said.

Former president Donald Trump, who was known for his bellicose rhetoric even towards American allies, negotiated the USMCA, but his successor President Joe Biden could change policies.

But there are also signs that even under the new government, the squabbling will continue.

- Ready to fight -

Canada is perhaps Washington's closest ally, but when it comes to trade, the neighbors have several differences.

The United States has long-running disputes over the Canadian dairy and softwood lumber industries, and has also taken issue with Ottawa's solar panel exports and with the taxation of American tech firms.

US Trade Representative Katherine Tai has said she will defend American interests, starting with dairy farmers.

Her office has set up a dispute settlement panel under the USMCA to examine the issue of milk quotas imposed by Canada, much to its dismay.

Francois Dumontier, a spokesman for a group representing Quebec milk producers, said USMCA provides "no advantage."

He also called some provisions an "attack on Canadian sovereignty," because they restrict Canadian exports while allowing more imports from the United States.

- After the pandemic -

On the other side of the border, David Salmonsen, senior director of congressional relations with the American Farm Bureau Federation, pointed to a long list of trade disputes, but said he is overall optimistic.#photo2

"I think we'll get a better picture once everybody's economies are recovering from the pandemic," he said. "We supported the agreement, and we think it'll work to keep agricultural trade moving and growing between all three nations."

Ottawa however has called for its own dispute settlement panel over Washington's 18 percent tariffs on solar panels made in Canada.

Despite the skirmishes, Valeria Moy, general director of the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, said that over the past year, there has been "no radical change compared to NAFTA."

However, she expects that USMCA could have an agreement on labor legislation in Mexico in the future.

Washington has already invoked USMCA twice to ask Mexico City to investigate violations of union rights in the automotive sector, notably at a General Motors plant.

"Will this have a beneficial effect on Mexican workers? It seems to me that it will," she said. "It will force Mexican companies to make changes."

But Moy warned that the United States could end up using the labor issue "as a pretext to apply protectionist measures."

© 2021 AFP

Bargaining over global tax enters key stage

Issued on: 27/06/2021 - 
Global tax reforms would allow countries to tax a share of profits of the 100 most profitable companies in the world JUSTIN TALLIS AFP/File

Paris (AFP)

Nearly 140 countries will haggle over key details of a global corporate tax plan this week, with some concerned about giving up too much and others eager to ensure tech giants pay their fair share.

The Group of Seven (G7) wealthy democracies approved a proposal to impose a minimum corporate tax rate of at least 15 percent earlier this month, hoping to stop a "race to the bottom" as nations compete to offer the lowest rates.

It is one of two pillars of reforms that would also allow countries to tax a share of profits of the 100 most profitable companies in the world -- such as Google, Facebook and Apple -- regardless of where they are based.

The deal now goes to the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which is overseeing two days of talks starting Wednesday to find a consensus among 139 countries.

The proposal will then be taken up by the G20 club of wealthy and emerging countries at a meeting of finance ministers in Italy on July 9 and 10.

"I don't think we have ever been so close to an agreement," said Pascal Saint-Amans, director of the OECD tax policy centre.

"I think that everybody has realised that a deal is better than no deal," Saint-Amans told France's BFM Business radio earlier this month, adding that failing to agree would lead to unilateral taxes and US reprisals.

US President Joe Biden has galvanised the issue by backing the global minimum corporate tax, and Europeans want a deal, he said.

Negotiations have gained new urgency as governments seek new sources of revenue after spending huge sums on stimulus measures to prevent their economies from collapsing during the coronavirus pandemic.

- Irish concerns -

While the G7 -- the United States, Canada, Japan, France, Britain, Italy and Germany -- approved the plan, it still faces hurdles as the negotiations expand to other nations.

European Union members Ireland and Hungary are not thrilled about it, as their corporate taxes are less than 15 percent.

Ireland has become the EU home to tech giants Facebook, Google and Apple thanks to its 12.5-percent rate.

But another EU country that has benefited from a low rate, Poland, voiced support for the proposal last week.

US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said China also has concerns about the proposal.

Two sources involved in the negotiations told AFP that China, which has a reduced rate for companies in key sectors, would not want a rate that exceeds 15 percent.

Biden also has some convincing to do at home, as key Republicans in Congress have already criticised the deal as a "speculative agreement" and an "economic blunder".

- Amazon escape? -

The next round of talks will also have to settle on a tax base and the number of companies whose profits could be taxed.

While Britain backed the G7 plan, it wants to ensure that its financial sector is exempt from the reform's "Pillar One" on taxing a share of profits of overseas-headquartered companies.

Others like France are concerned that US e-commerce behemoth Amazon could escape the levies because its profit margin does not exceed a 10-percent threshold.

The world's 100 biggest multinationals would be targeted by Pillar One, but countries in the G24 -- an intergovernmental group that includes countries such as Argentina, Brazil and India -- say more firms should be added to the list.

© 2021 AFP

World's smallest hog released into wild in India by conservationists

Issued on: 27/06/2021 
A dozen of the world's smallest pigs have been released into the wild in northeastern India as part of a conservation programme to boost their population Biju BORO AFP

Manas (India) (AFP)

A dozen of the world's smallest pigs have been released into the wild in northeastern India as part of a conservation programme to boost the population of a species once thought to have become extinct.

The pygmy hog, which has the scientific name porcula salvania, lives in tall, wet grasslands and was once found along plains on the Himalayan foothills in India, Nepal and Bhutan.

Its population declined in the 1960s, leading to fears it had become extinct until it was rediscovered in India's northeastern state of Assam in 1971, conservationists say.

By 1993, it was only found in a few pockets of Assam's Manas National Park, which borders Bhutan. The Pygmy Hog Conservation Programme, involving several organisations including from state and national governments, established a captive breeding scheme with six hogs in 1996 to try and revive their population.

"This time we are releasing 12 pygmy hogs including seven male and five female," the programme's field scientist Dhritiman Das told AFP at the release site in Manas National Park on Saturday.#photo1

Eight of the hogs were released in Manas on Tuesday and four more on Saturday. Some 14 were released last year.

The programme looks after around 70 captive hogs and is breeding more to be released.

The past week's releases take the number of pigs reintroduced into the wild by the programme to 142.

The wild population is estimated to be less than 250, conservationists say.

"In next four years, we target to release 60 hogs... so that they can build their own population in the wild," Das added.

The programme has also sought to rehabilitate the grasslands home to the tiny creatures, which measure about 25 centimetres (9.8 inches) in height and 65 centimetres in length and weigh around 8-9 kilogrammes (17.6-19.8 pounds).

The species' survival has been threatened by the loss and degradation of its habitats due to human activity such as settlement and agriculture, and the improper management of such areas, experts say.

© 2021 AFP
Germany: Cannabis legalization becomes election campaign issue

Millions of people regularly use illegal drugs. After Germany's upcoming parliamentary election, drugs legalization looks set to be a new issue on the political agenda.

In Germany, one in three adults have smoked cannabis at least once

With watershed elections looming in Germany, some politicians are talking about a new approach to drug control.

The opposition Free Democrats (FDP), for whom civil liberties are a major issue, have called for the limited and legal sale to adults of "cannabis for leisure consumption." In view of growing global sales of cannabis for medical purposes and private pleasure, the business-friendly FDP is even looking to turn "Cannabis Made in Germany" into a lucrative export product.

Watch video04:36 The race to legalize marijuana

Things are really beginning to happen in the debate over illegal drugs — and, above all, cannabis. Half a century of restrictive drug policies across Europe has not helped to significantly stifle demand or slash supply. Even the coronavirus pandemic has had no real effect on the flourishing black market.

Despite lockdowns and border checks, "at the beginning of 2020, the European drug market was characterized by the widespread availability of a diverse range of drugs of increasingly high purity or potency," said a report published in mid-June by the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA).

Cannabis: Drug of choice

Sales of illegal drugs in Europe are now reported to be worth some €30 billion ($15.5 billion). And, just like in other countries around the world, cannabis is also by far the most popular prohibited drug in Europe. Despite all the bans and crackdowns, EMCDDA figures suggest that nearly 30% of all adult Europeans will try smoking cannabis as a joint or with a pipe at least once in their lives. In Germany, too, every third adult has smoked cannabis at least once in their lives, indicating there is a high level of acceptance for the drug in many sectors of society.

This explains why a growing number of lawyers and prosecutors, criminologists, police officers, and social workers are questioning the reasoning behind prohibitionist policies. Politicians are also beginning to ask whether the police and state prosecutors are the right instruments for protecting people's health. The discussion has been fueled by one key trend: In more than a quarter of all US states, adults are now permitted to buy quantities of their favorite narcotic — legally.

Four of the six parties currently represented in the Bundestag, the German parliament, are committed to backing an end to the prohibition policy.

Finding the right strategy

Of course, there are differences between the various political parties. But the Green party and the FDP, the Left Party, and the Social Democrats (SPD) all agree that present drug strategies based on prohibition are a failure. They are all calling for new approaches to pave a path between strategies like legalization, decriminalization, and regulation.

Wieland Schinnenburg, the FDP's parliamentary group spokesman on drug and addiction policy, told DW that there are an estimated 4 million regular cannabis users in Germany. And their fates are being left to the ruthless forces of the black market, where there are no quality standards.

What's more, says Schinnenburg, the state is losing out on sizeable revenue. "If the market were to get official approval, the state would of course take in tax income that could, in turn, be spent on prevention and therapy."

So just how much money are we talking about here? Well, in 2018, that was precisely what Justus Haucap, professor of economics at Düsseldorf University, decided to find out.

He calculated the combined sum that could be saved in police and legal services plus income through tax revenue totaled around €2.6 billion.

The Greens are the only party to so far come forward with comprehensive draft legislation designed to tackle the problem. Their "Cannabis Control Bill" is mainly based on the controlled distribution of cannabis to adults at designated sales points. The idea is to dry out the black market, provide better protection for youngsters, remove some of the burdens from the shoulders of police and the legal system, and bring in tax revenue that could be used for prevention and treatment. But, last October, the Bundestag rejected the bill.

Criminalized consumers

Heino Stöver says new initiatives in drug control policies are "long overdue." The Frankfurt-based social scientist is a familiar face for members of the Bundestag's Health Committee, where he regularly provides expert reports and testimony.

Speaking to DW, Stöver pointed to the high number of criminal cases on police records. "We have registered an all-time high with over 358,000 so-called narcotics offenses." Nearly four-fifths of that total, he continued, involve actual consumption. In other words: a user has been caught in possession of just a few grams of marijuana and a heroin addict with his daily shot. What happens is: harmless consumers are criminalized — often with devastating consequences for their workplace, a training position, or in their circle of friends and relatives.

Watch video06:46Growing cannabis under police surveillance

Police and the criminal justice services find themselves buried beneath an avalanche of ultimately petty cases.

Not to forget the perils of the black market and the uncontrolled products that are sold there. The European Drug Report includes plenty of examples for the resultant horrors: Gangsters, for instance, who mixed inferior quality marijuana with lethal synthetic cannabinoids, leaving over 20 people dead in Hungary in the summer of 2020.

Heino Stöver dismisses any prospect of a drug-free, abstinent society as mere fiction: "And the majority of people in society don't share in that vision in the first place," says Stöver, pointing to the pleasure principle that is central to drug consumption. There are, he adds, very few societies in human history that have not actually resorted to drugs.

Daniela Ludwig, the German government's drug commissioner, only recently spoke out against an initiative to legalize cannabis — referring to the primary obligation to protect children.

But Ludwig, a conservative from the Bavarian CSU party, "did concede that deploying the full force of the law against somebody caught for the first time in possession of cannabis is counterproductive." She pointed to Portugal's policy of

"decriminalization, that is moving away from the application of criminal law and towards understanding that what we are seeing are petty offenses. A real alternative if coupled with binding counseling options."

But Germany's conservatives are far from united on such a strategy. In their 140-page manifesto for the upcoming election, there is not a single mention of the word cannabis.

However, when the dust finally settles on the autumn election and negotiations to form a new government coalition get underway, it will simply not be possible to sweep the many pressing questions surrounding drug policies under the carpet.

This article has been translated from German.

Cuba's COVID vaccine rivals BioNTech-Pfizer, Moderna

Cuba's health authorities said this week the domestically produced Abdala vaccine has proven to be 92% effective against the coronavirus in clinical trials. DW takes a closer look.

The Abdala vaccine is named after a poem by independence hero Jose Marti

In a measure of its ambitious efforts to be vaccine self-reliant, Cuba has named one of its homegrown jabs Abdala, after a famous dramatic verse by independence hero and national icon Jose Marti. In the verse, the young hero, Abdala, heads to war to defend his fatherland, full of patriotic fervor no matter how strong and powerful the enemy.

From the perspective of many Cubans, it's the perfect name for the first COVID-19 vaccine to be developed in Latin America. And the perfect imagery for the story of a tiny island of 11 million inhabitants eager to show it can't be broken by a deadly virus and a 60-year economic blockade by the United States, and a country that boasts several brilliant scientists of its own.

Cuba's new scientist star

One of them is Gerardo Enrique Guillen Nieto, director of biomedical research at the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB) in Havana where Abdala was developed.

Last Sunday on Father's Day, Cuban television ran a commercial featuring the 58-year-old Guillen Nieto. Accompanied by melodramatic music, it opened with the scientist in his clinic while his son talked off camera about how his father works tirelessly for his family and the people.

Guillen Nieto said he gathered researchers from all fields to develop the vaccines

"We have worked full time since the beginning of the pandemic, every Saturday, every Sunday, from early in the morning until late at night, without even a moment's rest," the highly respected scientist said in the clip. "And we are very euphoric because the results have exceeded all our expectations. We knew the vaccine was very good, but not even I expected such a result."

Charting its own course

According to the state-run biotech corporation, BioCubaFarma, Abdala has proven about 92.28% effective against COVID-19 in clinical trials, which would put it the same league as the most effective vaccines BioNTech-Pfizer and Moderna. Huge applause erupted in the auditorium of the CIGB this week when the impressive results were announced.

Since then, Guillen Nieto has been inundated with interview requests. The whole world wants to know Abdala's formula for success. The Cuban vaccine is neither a vector vaccine nor does it work with mRNA technology. Instead, it's a so-called protein vaccine. That means it carries a portion of the spike protein that the virus uses to bind to human cells. It docks onto the receptors of the virus' own spike protein, thus triggering an immune reaction. The scientists are using yeast as a receptor-binding domain.

The government vaccination program was rolled out in mid-May with Abdala and the second homegrown vaccine, Soberana 2, even before the completion of the third phase of clinical trials. These are the first vaccines on the island since Cuba declined importing any shots from Russia or China. Cuba has also decided against joining the UN-backed COVAX initiative, a global project aimed at getting COVID-19 shots to countries regardless of their wealth.

Watch video01:51 
Cuba's cigar-makers optimistic despite COVID

"We know that in the end we always have to rely on ourselves, on our own strengths and abilities," said Guillen Nieto, alluding to the political isolation caused by the US embargo. "The result is a health care system that is not only free of cost but also centrally controlled, and that has perfected the ability to respond quickly to disasters, be it with clinical trials, with vaccination campaigns or even the production of a vaccine."

Vaccinations to curb rising COVID infections

According to Guillen Nieto, 2.2 million Cubans have already received their first vaccination, 1.7 million their second and 900,000 the third dose.

Abdala is administered in three doses, with two weeks between each vaccination. Based on the government's ambitious plans, 70% of country's population should receive their shots by August.

It's a race against time because the number of new infections on the Caribbean island is steadily rising with more than 2,000 cases a day. Nearly 1,200 people have died of COVID-19 in Cuba. Guillen Nieto is counting on the vaccination campaign to give him a decisive advantage over all other countries in the world in the fight against the virus.

Cuba rolled out its vaccination campaign in mid-May

"Here there is an unprecedented level of trust in the Cuban health system," he said. "For example, we never have problems finding volunteers when it comes to clinical trials. In Cuba, people are extremely eager to be vaccinated. No one here would think of not getting inoculated because everyone knows how important vaccinations are."

An independent panel of experts in Havana will now scrutinize the Abdala vaccine, and official emergency approval is expected in the next two weeks. After that, Cuba could also apply to the World Health Organization (WHO) for approval of Abdala for international use. Bolivia, Jamaica, Venezuela, Argentina and Mexico have already signaled interest.

But is Abdala really the miracle vaccine that the numbers promise? Perhaps Jose Moya is the man best placed to assess this. The Peruvian doctor started out as an epidemiologist 30 years ago in his native Ayacucho, and then worked for Doctors Without Borders in Guatemala, Mozambique and Nigeria.

For the past two years, Moya has been the representative in Cuba of PAHO (Pan American Health Organization), a regional organization of the WHO with 27 country offices. And, he trusts the Cuban figures.

"The CIGB Research Institute has 30 years of experience in vaccine research. I trust the results that have been published. These are serious studies, with the participation of researchers and institutions committed to science," Moya said.

Watch video12:01 Facing Latin America's worst outbreak

The best proof is the fact that 80% of all of Cuba's vaccines are produced in the country itself, Moya said. He was not surprised by the high efficacy of Abdala, saying it was simply the logical consequence of a health care system that had been performing steadily well for decades. "Already, the results published by the scientists beforehand showed a good response in terms of antibody production," he said.

Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel, however, does not want to dwell on scientific assessments of the new vaccine. For him, the country's drive to pursue homegrown solutions rather than importing foreign vaccines are a triumph of Cuba's biotech industry.

"This success can only be compared to the greatness of our sacrifices. It is an example of the pride with which a country treats its pharmaceutical industry, which has been living with the US economic embargo since 1962," he said.

This article has been translated from German

My Europe: What we can learn from Yugoslavia's collapse

The war that destroyed Yugoslavia began on June 26, 1991. Today, a number of multiethnic states face the same challenges that led to its disintegration.

Vukovar, November 19, 1991: Survivors leave the ruins of the Croatian city after three months of fighting

Was it worth it? A decade of war? Flight? Displacement? If you could find a representative group among those living in the seven countries that rose out of the rubble of Yugoslavia — among the elders that experienced the fall of the country, or younger ones that know only a post-Yugoslav reality — most would say "no."

But no such group exists. There is no longer a Yugoslav society for it to even represent. If you ask individuals in the different former republics, you get extremely different answers. In fact, the only citizens who seem to have fond memories of the multiethnic state are those in Slovenia.

They say it was OK, actually quite good, adding that it's too bad that some aspects of it disappeared. Still, they contend, it couldn't last forever. That sentiment is widespread but is it true? Were things really OK in Yugoslavia?

"Yugo-nostalgics" are essentially non-existent among Kosovo Albanians, for instance. For them, the last decade of Yugoslavia's existence was too traumatic. Although the war did not rage in Kosovo as it did elsewhere during that time, citizens there were subjected to police terror. On the other hand, in Serbia, North Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro and even — albeit in a whisper after a third beer — in Croatia, many people publicly lament the fall of Yugoslavia.

For instance, in large surveys conducted more than 10 years after the war and independence, the majority polled listed Josip Broz, better known to the world as "Tito" — the figurehead of the much maligned former republic — as the greatest Croat of all time.

Attempts to put Franjo Tudjman, the father of Croatian independence, into that spot have been largely dismissed. And Stjepan Mesic, for example, the country's second president after independence, proudly titled his memoirs, How We Destroyed Yugoslavia. The move didn't go down well and the title was changed to How Yugoslavia Was Destroyed in its second printing.

Watch video04:44 Bosnia's children of war

Diversity wasn't the problem

Yugoslavia carried the seeds of its own demise for years. But it wasn't the cultural diversity of its populous that was the problem — other nations, from India to Switzerland or the United States, known as an "immigrant country," have been able to master far greater differences. Rather, the issue was how the country dealt with that diversity.

In its first iteration as the Kingdom of Yugoslavia from 1918-1941, the approach was to ignore national, religious and cultural differences. But the opposite manifested itself: As difference was declared unimportant, the relative majority — made up of Serbs — spread its influence far and wide.

The end of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia: German soldiers march Yugoslav prisoners of war through Belgrade in 1941

Communist caution

When communists took over the country in the wake of Nazi Germany's invasion and a civil war that broke down along ethnic lines, they swore they would not make the same mistake. Old national identities were keenly respected during the Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia, and new ones — Macedonians, Bosniaks and ultimately even Roma — were added.

As long as national identity operated along the folkloric lines, following the Soviet model, and all political decisions were made by a central communist government, the system worked. But as communism began to lose credibility to parliamentary democracy around the globe — and when the lore of partisan war glory faded — national identities gained political importance.

Yugoslav partisans in Bosnia with their leader Tito (center, in dark uniform with light coat) in 1942

Ethnicity, not democracy

Whether political posts, jobs, financing, freeway construction, factory locations — in socialist Yugoslavia, ethnicity was the "key" that was to be observed. Majority decision-making became impossible because one national identity always trumped another.

Although every decision was aimed at achieving optimal balance, it could never be one that was stable. When that balance began to tip, as it did in Croatia in the early 1970s, all that needed to be done was for Tito to give the word and those disturbing the peace were quickly jailed.

A replacement for the great national umpire Tito would have to have been a person with forebears from all Yugoslav nationalities. But that was an impossibility. In theory, the eight-person collective state presidency designed to take on that role would allow for majority decisions. Still, when one nation was outvoted there were immediate cries that the republic was falling apart. But when the "reformer" Slobodan Milosevic gained power and he and his "Serbian bloc" ignored such considerations, the republic was indeed at its end.

Croatian President Tudjman (left) and his Serbian counterpart Milosevic took part in the Dayton peace conference in 1995

The logic of division

Yugo-nostalgics praise the former republic's multiethnic state as a model for the future. They say the original was destroyed by jealous foreign powers or evil politicians — depending on who you talk to. But a society that distributes its riches and power along ethnic lines should not be surprised when ethnic conflict eventually dominates every aspect of life.

In the end, dividing the crumbling republic was the logical step. In Yugoslavia, as elsewhere in the world, there were plenty of evil politicians willing to lead the experiment to its bloody conclusion.

That isn't to say that Yugoslavia never had a chance. In the late 1960s, when democratic optimism swept the world, young Yugoslavians, too, stood up to fight for liberal values. Most were primarily concerned with civic rather than national equality.

But Tito and the old guard that surrounded him had no desire to introduce more democracy. Instead, it was decided that the best route would be to more finely tune the republic's ethnic balance. In the end, everyone felt exploited by everyone else, and rightly so.

Yugoslavia will never exist again. But other multiethnic countries and quasi-states are facing the same challenges that faced the republic before its collapse — reason enough to avoid any hint of arrogance when looking back.

Watch video 02:38 Sarajevo marks war anniversary

Norbert Mappes-Niediek is the author of several books on the region and has been a Southeastern Europe correspondent for various German media outlets for 30 years.

This article has been translated from the German by Jon Shelton
Afghanistan: Power struggle in the Hindu Kush

NATO forces are withdrawing from Afghanistan. But Kabul's neighbors have conflicting interests. The omens are not good for a country that has often suffered from its strategic location. What lies ahead for Afghanistan?

As the NATO troops withdraw, the problems remain

For over four decades now, Afghanistan has been ravaged by war. In all that time, one thing has been unchanged: Afghanistan remains a "graveyard for empires," a view once again highlighted by the pullout of US forces and their allies. And one factor is a cruel constant in this country's desperately troubled history: its central strategic location.

Afghanistan is a country of many peoples and even more neighbors — both directly and indirectly. And they could not be more different: from Iran in the west, the two hostile nuclear powers Pakistan and India in the east, China in the northeast, the oil- and gas-rich states of central Asia in the north.

For a variety of different reasons, war-ravaged Afghanistan is of crucial interest to all of these players. And for all of them, the strategic options will change when — after a military intervention that lasted 20 years — there are no longer any Western forces stationed in the Hindu Kush.

No wonder, then, that these neighboring countries are beginning to step up their activities. Thomas Ruttig of the Afghan Analysts Network does not expect any significant calming of the situation in the near future.

"The individual countries have seriously conflicting interests and many of them are playing out bilateral or multilateral rivalries or tensions on Afghan territory," Ruttig told DW.

Indian and Pakistan: Dangerous disputes

Regional tensions are particularly intense between India and Pakistan. India is one of the Afghan government's main allies and, not only because of its connection with the Kashmiri terrorist organizations including Lashkar-e Taiba, Delhi views the Taliban as a threat to its own security.

Meanwhile, despite all the denials from Islamabad, Pakistan continues to see the Taliban as "its best card in the Afghanistan game," said Ruttig. He believes that Islamabad sees Afghanistan as its own backyard and therefore tries all it can to have a profound influence on how the country is governed.

"As far as Afghanistan is concerned, it would not be advisable to invest too much faith in Pakistan's goodwill," said Ruttig.

Concern ahead of US troop departure

Pakistan's regional influence could get an additional boost, with the country being talked about as a possible location for a new US military base. "This is being hotly debated in Washington," said Andrew Watkins, an Afghanistan analyst from the International Crisis Group.

"What we're talking about is the deployment of air assets and not sizable ground forces — about maintaining the ability to conduct a drone war or even deploy standard Air Force assets. Because that is highly controversial in domestic politics in Pakistan, it will be something that they do in relative secret and that most of us will only learn about years after the fact," he said.

While the Pakistani government has publicly denied any intention of giving US forces access to its military facilities, the Taliban came out at the end of May with a preventive statement urging Afghanistan's neighbors not to host US bases.

Pakistan sees the Taliban as its 'best card' in Afghanistan, as Prime Minister Imran Khan meets with Taliban leaders

China: Security 'free rider'?

For its part, Beijing views the US withdrawal from Afghanistan with very mixed feelings. Gu Xuewu, director of the Center for Global Studies in Bonn, Germany, said that on the one hand, China welcomes the decision to pull back forces from its immediate neighborhood. At the same time, however, China has profited from US efforts over the last two decades to contain the influence of the militant Islamist Taliban.

"The main fear is Xinjiang. As far as I can see, for Beijing everything else is secondary," said Gu. Xinjiang is a northwestern region of China, inhabited by the Muslim Uyghur people, which borders Afghanistan.

Islamist Uyghur groups, also operating in Afghanistan, are viewed as a serious concern in China — above all since the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) has been active in the Hindu Kush, said Angela Stanzel of the Berlin think tank German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).

"IS has directly threatened China with retaliation for the persecution of the Muslim minority in China itself," she said. "Which again exacerbates Beijing's anxiety about a power vacuum in Afghanistan that could give IS the territory it needs to spread its presence in China and above all across central Asia."

The Chinese Embassy in Kyrgyzstan was hit by a suicide attack by an Uyghur group in August 2016

In the past, China was often described as a "free rider" in Afghanistan. Beijing, it was suggested, was allowing NATO forces to be responsible for the security of its economic interests. This initially included, for example, plans for investment in the exploitation of the raw materials that bitterly poor Afghanistan has at its disposal in large quantities that, however, simply go unused.

Nevertheless, Stanzel said there is no reason to believe that Beijing will step in and guarantee security in the region after the US withdrawal.
Mixed reaction in Tehran

In Tehran, the response to the American withdrawal from the Hindu Kush has been ambivalent. The undoubted foreign policy priority for Iran is the conflict with the United States, and in western Afghanistan US forces and their bases had been shifted close to the Iranian border.

"Iran wants to see the United States fail in any of its regional endeavors," said Crisis Group expert Watkins. "And Iran wants to see the US withdraw from the region because it also views the US presence in Afghanistan as an encroachment. But what they don't want is to see the potential for total collapse or for a humanitarian disaster."

In recent decades, millions of Afghans have sought refuge in Iran as well as in Pakistan.

Uprooted by war, Afghan refugees have found shelter in a camp in Iran

"Tehran actually appreciated the stabilizing impact of Western forces — even if it is something that the Iranian authorities would never have admitted to," said Ruttig of the Afghan Analysts Network.

This may also be applicable to Moscow. In the Russian imagination, Afghanistan has since the 19th century been seen as a southern strategic flank, as a gateway to the Indian Ocean, as a backdrop for rivalries with the West — or all of this together.

For a long time, following the withdrawal of Russian troops from Afghanistan in 1989, Moscow kept its distance from the region. In the meantime, however, Russia has again established relations with a number of players in Afghanistan, including the Taliban.

Moscow's interests are focused on security across its southern flank, measures to prevent a resurgence of Islamic movements and participation in any attempt to reach a political solution to the conflict.

More than 30 years ago, Soviet forces left Afghanistan after years of bloody combat

Hope for Afghanistan's future?

There will be no resolution of the conflict in Afghanistan unless it has the backing of the nations of the region. But, according to Watkins, each country "could put a finger on the scale and throw the entire situation in Afghanistan out of balance."

But Delhi and Islamabad do have one shared interest: both are looking to secure access to the vast energy resources of Central Asia. Since the 1990s, there have been negotiations concerning a possible pipeline project to bring gas from Turkmenistan via Afghanistan and Pakistan and all the way to India. The acronym for the project is TAPI, after the names of the four nations involved.

A visit by a Taliban delegation to Turkmenistan at the beginning of February was interpreted as a sign that the pipeline project is still viable. The Taliban reiterated their support for the pipeline and promised to guarantee its security.

"For Afghanistan and all the other participants, one can only hope that this project will be realized — in a peaceful environment," said Ruttig. "It is the only realistic large-scale economic project that they have got."

Migrant workers flee capital as Bangladesh tightens Covid lockdown

Issued on: 27/06/2021 
Tens of thousands of migrant workers fled Bangladesh's capital on the eve of a tightened lockdown Munir Uz zaman AFP

Sreenagar (Bangladesh) (AFP)

Tens of thousands of migrant workers fled Bangladesh's capital Sunday on the eve of a tightened lockdown that will curtail most economic activity and confine people to their homes as coronavirus infections soar.

Restrictions on activities and movement have been in place since mid-April as cases and deaths jumped.

Infections declined in May but started to rise again this month, with just over 6,000 daily cases on Thursday and 108 deaths on Friday, according to the health ministry -- the highest in more than two months.

The resurgence has prompted the government to toughen restrictions in stages from Monday, with economic activity -- including shops, markets, transportation and offices -- to shut down by Thursday.

People will be ordered to stay at homes while only emergency services and export-oriented factories continue operations.

The coming closure has sparked an exodus from Dhaka, the capital.

With public inter-city transportation already suspended since June 22, people have squeezed into rickshaws, hopped onto motorbikes and even hired ambulances to make their way to their villages.#photo1

Ferries have been operating on overdrive, with some running services 24 hours a day and cramming more than 1,000 passengers onto each trip.

"We don't want them to overcrowd the ferry. But they don't listen," said police sub-inspector Mohammad Reza. "There is a mad rush of people."

A senior official at the state-run Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Corporation told AFP that at least 50,000 people had crossed the river by ferries on Sunday alone.

At a river station in the rural town of Sreenagar about 70 kilometres (43 miles) south of Dhaka, thousands queued from early Sunday to cross the Padma, a tributary of the Himalayan river the Ganges.

"We did not have any choice but to leave the city," Fatema Begum, 60, told AFP while waiting for a ferry.#photo2

"During lockdown, there is no work. And if we don't work, how do we pay rent? So we packed up everything and are going back to our village."

Mohammad Masum, 30, a street vendor in Dhaka, said it was better to return home and "spend the time with family" than be confined in the capital.

Bangladesh has reported more than 880,000 infections and just over 14,000 virus deaths, but experts say the actual toll could be much higher due to possible underreporting.

© 2021 AFP
More than 100 killed in Yemen as fighting over oil-rich Marib region continues

Issued on: 27/06/2021 - 
A Yemeni government fighter backed by a Saudi-led coalition fires his weapon during clashes with Houthi rebels on the Kassara front line near Marib, Yemen on June 20, 2021. © Nariman El-Mofty, AP

Clashes between rebels and Yemeni government fighters killed at least 111 in Marib in three days, pro-government sources said, following a renewed offensive by Huthi insurgents.

The Iran-allied insurgents escalated their efforts to seize Marib, the government's last stronghold in northern Yemen, in February, and the fighting has killed hundreds on both sides.

The fighting between Thursday and Sunday killed 29 pro-government personnel and at least 82 rebels, three pro-government sources told AFP. Rebel forces have not confirmed the toll.

Yemeni government officials said that since Thursday, the Huthis had mounted intensive attacks from the north, south and west, but were unable to breach government defences which were supported by air cover from a Saudi-led military coalition.

"These areas witnessed fierce fighting amid artillery shelling from both sides and intense coalition air raids," one government military official said.

Control of the oil-rich region of Marib would strengthen the Huthis' bargaining position in peace talks, but the battle has also raised fears of a humanitarian catastrophe, as many Yemenis had fled to the area to escape fighting in other parts of the country.

Millions displaced amid conflict

Yemen's conflict flared in 2014 when the Huthis seized the capital Sanaa, prompting the Saudi-led intervention to prop up the government the following year.

While the UN and Washington are pushing for an end to the war, the Huthis have demanded the re-opening of Sanaa airport, closed under a Saudi blockade since 2016, before any ceasefire or negotiations.

As well as the bloody offensive in Marib, the Huthis have also stepped up drone and missile strikes on Saudi targets, including its oil facilities.

This month the outgoing UN envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths told the Security ouncil his own efforts over the past three years to end the war had been "in vain".

The fighting has killed tens of thousands and left some 80 percent of Yemenis dependent on aid, in what the UN calls the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

The war has also displaced millions of people and left many on the brink of famine.