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Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny detained after landing in Moscow

Kremlin critic detained

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was detained at a Moscow airport after returning from Germany on Sunday, the prison service said.

The prison service said he was detained for multiple violations of parole and terms of a suspended prison sentence and would be held in custody until a court makes a decision in his case.

Navalny, who is President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent and determined foe, had spent the previous five months in Germany recovering from a nerve agent attack that he blamed on the Kremlin. Navalny decided to leave Berlin of his own free will and wasn’t under any apparent pressure to leave from Germany.

The prison service made the announcement after the flight carrying Navalny landed in the Russian capital, though at a different airport than had been scheduled. It was a possible attempt to outwit journalists and supporters who wanted to witness Navalny's return.

Russia’s prison service last week issued a warrant for his arrest, saying he had violated the terms of suspended sentence he received on a 2014 conviction for embezzlement. The prison service has asked a Moscow court to turn Navalny’s 3 1/2-year suspended sentence into a real one.

After boarding the Moscow flight in Berlin on Sunday, Navalny said of the prospect of arrest: “It’s impossible; I’m an innocent man.”

The Kremlin has repeatedly denied a role in the opposition leader’s poisoning.

Navalny supporters and journalists had come to Moscow's Vnukovo Airport, where the plane was scheduled to land, but it ended up touching down at Sheremetyevo airport, about 40 kilometres (25 miles) away. There was no immediate explanation for the flight diversion.

The OVD-Info group, which monitors political arrests, said at least 37 people were arrested at Vnukovo Airport, although their affiliations weren't immediately clear.

Vnukovo banned journalists from working inside the terminal, saying in a statement last week that the move was due to epidemiological concerns. The airport also blocked off access to the international arrivals area.

Police prisoner-detention vehicles stood outside the terminal on Sunday.

The independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta and opposition social media reported Sunday that several Navalny supporters in St. Petersburg had been removed from Moscow-bound trains or been prevented from boarding flights late Saturday and early Sunday, including the co-ordinator of his staff for the region of Russia’s second-largest city.

Navalny fell into a coma while aboard a domestic flight from Siberia to Moscow on Aug. 20. He was transferred from a hospital in Siberia to a Berlin hospital two days later.

Labs in Germany, France and Sweden, and tests by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, established that he was exposed to a Soviet-era Novichok nerve agent.

Russian authorities insisted that the doctors who treated Navalny in Siberia before he was airlifted to Germany found no traces of poison and have challenged German officials to provide proof of his poisoning. They refused to open a full-fledged criminal inquiry, citing a lack of evidence that Navalny was poisoned.

Last month, Navalny released the recording of a phone call he said he made to a man he described as an alleged member of a group of officers of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, who purportedly poisoned him in August and then tried to cover it up. The FSB dismissed the recording as fake.





Dog and goat serving as mayor raise money for a playground

Dog and goat elected mayor

A goat and a dog who were each elected mayor have helped raise money to renovate a Vermont community playground.

The oddball idea of pet mayor elections to raise money to rehabilitate the playground and to help get local kids civically involved came from a local town manager.

In 2018, Fair Haven residents elected Lincoln the goat as its honorary mayor. Lincoln helped raise about $10,000 while the current mayor, Murfee, a Cavalier King Charles spaniel, has raised $20,000, Town Manager Joe Gunter told the Rutland Herald. The town chipped in another $20,000.

Murfee’s owner, Linda Barker, said that when she was talked into having Murfee get involved in politics, she thought it would be easy to raise money through T-shirts. Then the pandemic struck.

So she shifted to masks. She's made nearly 1,000 of them, and will be making another round of them for Valentine's Day. She raised more than $5,000 from the masks and a similar amount from basket raffles.

The town was also recently awarded a $50,000 grant from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, she said.

Ironically, the honorary mayor is not welcome on the playground. Barker said there's a "no dogs allowed" sign.

“Murfee is going to take that up with the town,” Barker said Sunday with a chuckle. “He's going to contest that.”



Phil Spector, famed music producer and murderer, dead at 81

Phil Spector dead at 81

Phil Spector, the eccentric and revolutionary music producer who transformed rock music with his “Wall of Sound” method and who later was convicted of murder, has died. He was 81.

California state prison officials said he died Saturday of natural causes at a hospital.

Spector was convicted of murdering actress Lana Clarkson in 2003 at his castle-like mansion on the edge of Los Angeles. After a trial in 2009, he was sentenced to 19 years to life.

Clarkson, star of “Barbarian Queen” and other B-movies, was found shot to death in the foyer of Spector’s mansion in the hills overlooking Alhambra, a modest suburban town on the edge of Los Angeles.

Until the actress’ death, which Spector maintained was an “accidental suicide,” few residents even knew the mansion belonged to the reclusive producer, who spent his remaining years in a prison hospital east of Stockton.

Decades before, Spector had been hailed as a visionary for channeling Wagnerian ambition into the three-minute song, creating the “Wall of Sound” that merged spirited vocal harmonies with lavish orchestral arrangements to produce such pop monuments as “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Be My Baby” and “He’s a Rebel.”

He was the rare self-conscious artist in rock’s early years and cultivated an image of mystery and power with his dark shades and impassive expression.

Tom Wolfe declared him the “first tycoon of teen.” Bruce Springsteen and Brian Wilson openly replicated his grandiose recording techniques and wide-eyed romanticism, and John Lennon called him “the greatest record producer ever.”

The secret to his sound: an overdubbed onslaught of instruments, vocals and sound effects that changed the way pop records were recorded. He called the result, “Little symphonies for the kids.”



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In cold weather, anti-Netanyahu protests continue in Israel

Anti-Netanyahu protests

JERUSALEM - Hundreds of protesters braved a cold night in Jerusalem on Saturday to press on with their calls for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to step down over corruption charges against him.

Demonstrators gathered at a Jerusalem square near Netanyahu’s official residence.

The weekly protests have been taking place for over seven months.

Netanyahu is charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in three cases involving billionaire associates and media moguls, charges that he denies.

The protesters insist Netanyahu cannot properly lead the country while under indictment for corruption.

His trial is set to begin evidentiary hearings next month.

Israel will hold its fourth national elections in two years in March, in what will likely be another referendum on Netanyahu as he faces a challenge from defectors within his Likud party.

The protesters also say Netanyahu and his government have bungled the coronavirus response.

The country has seen its economy hit hard by virus restrictions throughout the year and is again under a nationwide if partial lockdown amid surging infection rates.

Netanyahu and his allies have used Israel’s vaccination drive, in which more than a tenth of its population has been immunized, to try to belittle the protesters and their cause. They say the prime minister is working to end the outbreak while they hold demonstrations.



Vaccine skepticism hurts East European anti-virus efforts

Vaccine skeptics slow efforts

Vaccines from the West, Russia or China? Or none at all? That dilemma faces nations in southeastern Europe, where coronavirus vaccination campaigns are off to a slow start — overshadowed by heated political debates and conspiracy theories.

In countries like the Czech Republic, Serbia, Bosnia, Romania and Bulgaria, vaccine skeptics have included former presidents and even some doctors. Serbian tennis champion Novak Djokovic was among those who said he did not want to be forced to get inoculated.

False beliefs that the coronavirus is a hoax or that vaccines would inject microchips into people have spread in the countries that were formerly under harsh Communist rule. Those who once routinely underwent mass inoculations are deeply split over whether to get the vaccines at all.

“There is a direct link between support for conspiracy theories and skepticism toward vaccination,” a recent Balkan study warned. “A majority across the region does not plan to take the vaccine, a ratio considerably lower than elsewhere in Europe, where a majority favours taking the vaccine.”

Only about 200,000 people applied for the vaccine in Serbia, a country of 7 million, in the days after authorities opened the procedure. By contrast, 1 million Serbians signed up for 100 euros ($120) on the first day the government offered the pandemic aid.

Hoping to encourage vaccinations, Serbian officials have gotten their shots on TV. Yet they themselves have been split over whether to get the Western-made Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine or Russia’s Sputnik V, more divisions in a country that is formally seeking European Union membership but where many favour closer ties with Moscow.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic on Saturday greeted a shipment of 1 million doses of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine, saying he will receive a shot to show that it is safe.

“Serbs prefer the Russian vaccine,” read a recent headline of the Informer, a pro-government tabloid, as officials announced that 38% of those who have applied to take the shots favour the Russian vaccine, while 31% want the Pfizer-BioNTech version — a rough division among pro-Russians and pro-Westerners in Serbia.

In neighbouring Bosnia, a war-torn country that remains ethnically divided among Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats, politics also are a factor, as the Serb-run half appeared set to opt for the Russian vaccine, while the Bosniak-Croat part likely will turn to the Western ones.

Sasa Milovanovic, a 57-year-old real estate agent from Belgrade, sees all vaccines as part of the “global manipulation” of the pandemic.

“People are locked up, they have no lives any longer and live in a state of hysteria and fear,” he said.

Djokovic has said he was against being forced to take a coronavirus vaccine in order to travel and compete but was keeping his mind open. The top-ranked tennis player and his wife tested positive in June after a series of exhibition matches with zero social distancing that he organized in the Balkans. They and their foundation have donated 1 million euros ($1.1 million) to buy ventilators and other medical equipment for hospitals in Serbia.

Serbian Health Ministry official Mirsad Djerlek has described the vaccine response as “satisfactory,” but cautioned on the state-run RTS broadcaster that “people in rural areas usually believe in conspiracy theories, and that is why we should talk to them and explain that the vaccine is the only way out in this situation.”

A study by the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group, published before the regional vaccination campaign started in December, concluded that virus conspiracy theories are believed by nearly 80% of citizens of the Western Balkan countries striving to join the EU. About half of them will refuse to get vaccinated, it said.

Baseless theories allege the virus isn’t real or that it’s a bioweapon created by the U.S. or its adversaries. Another popular falsehood holds that Microsoft founder Bill Gates is using COVID-19 vaccines to implant microchips in the planet's 7 billion people.

A low level of information about the virus and vaccines, distrust in governments and repeated assertions by authorities that their countries are besieged by foreigners help explain the high prevalence of such beliefs, according to the Balkans think-tank .

Similar trends have been seen even in some eastern European Union countries.

In Bulgaria, widespread conspiracy theories hampered past efforts to deal with a measles outbreak. Surveys there suggested distrust of vaccines remains high even as coronavirus cases keep rising. A recent Gallup International poll found that 30% of respondents want to get vaccinated, 46% will refuse and 24% are undecided.

Bulgarian doctors have tried to change attitudes. Dr. Stefan Konstantinov, a former health minister, joked that people should be told neighbouring Greece would close resorts to tourists who don't get vaccinated, because “this would guarantee that some 70% of the population would rush to get a jab.”

In the Czech Republic, where surveys show some 40% reject vaccination, protesters at a big rally against government virus restrictions in Prague demanded that vaccinations not be mandatory. Former President Vaclav Klaus, a fierce critic of the government's pandemic response, told the crowd that vaccines are not a solution.

“They say that everything will be solved by a miracle vaccine,” said the 79-year-old Klaus, who insists that people should get exposed to the virus to gain immunity, which experts reject. “We have to say loud and clear that there’s no such a thing. … I am not going to get vaccinated.”

Populist authorities in Hungary have taken a hard line against virus misinformation, but rejection of vaccines is still projected at about 30%. Parliament passed emergency powers in March that allows authorities to prosecute anyone deemed to be “inhibiting the successful defence” against the virus, including “fearmongering” or spreading false news. At least two people who criticized the government's response to the pandemic on social media were arrested, but neither was formally charged.

Romanian Health Minister Vlad Voiculescu said he is relying on family doctors to “inform, schedule and monitor people after the vaccine” and that his ministry will offer bonuses to medical workers based on the number of people they get onboard. Asked if such incentives would fuel anti-vaccination propaganda, Voiculescu said: “I am interested more by the doctors’ view on the matter than I am about the anti-vaxxers.”

Dr. Ivica Jeremic, who has worked with virus patients in Serbia since March and tested positive himself in November, hopes vaccination programs will gain speed once people overcome their fear of the unknown.

"People will realize the vaccine is the only way to return to normal life,” he said.

___

Associated Press writers Veselin Toshkov in Sofia, Bulgaria; Karel Janicek in Prague, Czech Republic; Justin Spike in Budapest, Hungary; and Vadim Ghirda in Bucharest, Romania, contributed.

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Follow AP coverage of the coronavirus pandemic at:

https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic

https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-vaccine

https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak



Egypt unveils ancient funerary temple south of Cairo

Ancient temple unveiled

Egypt’s former antiquities minister and noted archaeologist Zahi Hawass on Sunday revealed details of an ancient funerary temple in a vast necropolis south of Cairo.

Hawass told reporters at the Saqqara necropolis that archaeologists unearthed the temple of Queen Neit, wife of King Teti, the first king of the Sixth Dynasty that ruled Egypt from 2323 B.C. till 2150 B.C.

Archaeologists also found a 4-meter (13-foot) long papyrus that includes texts of the Book of the Dead, which is a collection of spells aimed at directing the dead through the underworld in ancient Egypt, he said.

Hawass said archaeologists also unearthed burial wells, coffins and mummies dating back to the New Kingdom that ruled Egypt between about 1570 B.C. and 1069 B.C.

They unveiled at least 22 burial shafts up to 12 metres (40 feet) deep, with more than 50 wooden coffins dating back to the New Kingdom, said Hawass, who is Egypt’s best known archaeologist.

Hawass, known for his Indiana Jones hat and TV specials on Egypt’s ancient sites, said work has been done at the site close to the Pyramid of Teti for over a decade.

The discovery was the result of co-operation between the Antiquities Ministry and the Zahi Hawass Center at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

The Saqqara site is part of the necropolis at Egypt’s ancient capital of Memphis that includes the famed Giza pyramids as well as smaller pyramids at Abu Sir, Dahshur and Abu Ruwaysh. The ruins of Memphis were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1970s.

In recent years, Egypt has heavily promoted new archaeological finds to international media and diplomats in the hope of attracting more tourists to the country.

The vital tourism sector suffered from years of political turmoil and violence that followed a 2011 uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak.



Indonesian teams find more bodies from quake that killed 78

Quake death toll rises to 78

Indonesian rescuers on Sunday retrieved more bodies from the rubble of homes and buildings toppled by a strong earthquake, raising the death toll to 78, while military engineers managed to reopen ruptured roads to clear access for relief goods.

More heavy equipment reached the hardest-hit city of Mamuju and the neighbouring district of Majene on Sulawesi island, where the magnitude 6.2 quake struck early Friday, said Raditya Jati, the National Disaster Mitigation Agency’s spokesperson.

A total of 67 people died in Mamuju and 11 in Majene, said the director of preparedness for the National Search and Rescue Agency, Didi Hamzar.

Power supplies and phone communications have begun to improve in the quake areas.

Thousands of people were left homeless and more than 800 were injured, with more than half of them still receiving treatment for serious injuries, Jati said.

The disaster agency’s data showed that nearly 27,850 survivors were moved to shelters. Most of them went to makeshift shelters that have been lashed by heavy monsoon downpours. Only a few were lucky to be protected by tarpaulin-covered tents.

They said they were running low on food, blankets and other aid, as emergency supplies were rushed to the hard-hit region.

“We are unable to return to our destroyed homes,” said a father of three who identified himself only as Robert. He said he fled from his bed while being treated at Mamuju’s Mitra Manakarra hospital, which was flattened by the quake. He and his family are among thousands of displaced people who took shelter in a hilly area.

He said his bed was shaking when he awoke and realized that it was an earthquake. He then removed a drip from his hand and ran out. He had seen several nurses helping patients who were unable to move before the building collapsed.

“I cried when I saw the hospital where I was being treated collapse with people still inside. I could have died if I got out late,” he said.

Rescuers managed to retrieve four survivors and four bodies from the rubble of the flattened hospital, according to the Search and Rescue Agency.

Jati said that at least 1,150 houses in Majene were damaged and that the agency was still collecting data on damaged houses and buildings in Mamuju.

Mamuju, the provincial capital of nearly 300,000 people, was strewn with debris from collapsed buildings. The governor's office building was almost flattened by the quake and a shopping mall was reduced to a crumpled hulk.

The disaster agency said the army corps of engineers cleared the road connecting Mamuju and Majene that had been blocked by landslides. They also rebuilt a damaged bridge.

The disaster agency’s chief, Doni Monardo, said authorities were trying to separate high- and lower-risk groups and provided tens of thousands of masks for refugees to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in the crowded camps. He said authorities would also set up health posts at the camps to test people for the virus.

People being housed in temporary shelters were seen standing close together, many of them without masks.

“In this emergency situation ... it is difficult for us to observe health protocols," said Fatimah Zahra, a Mamuju resident who moved to a makeshift shelter.

West Sulawesi province has recorded more than 2,500 cases of the coronavirus, including 58 deaths. Indonesia has confirmed nearly 908,000 cases and almost 26,000 fatalities.

Many on Sulawesi island are still haunted by a magnitude 7.5 earthquake that devastated Palu city in 2018 and set off a tsunami that caused soil to collapse in a phenomenon called liquefaction. More than 4,000 people were killed, including many who were buried when whole neighbourhoods were swallowed in the falling ground.

Indonesia, home to more than 260 million people, is frequently hit by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis because of its location on the “Ring of Fire,” an arc of volcanoes and fault lines in the Pacific Basin.

A massive magnitude 9.1 earthquake off Sumatra island in western Indonesia in December 2004 triggered a tsunami that killed 230,000 people in a dozen countries.



Trump administration carries out 13th and final execution

13th and final execution

The Trump administration early Saturday carried out its 13th federal execution since July, an unprecedented run that concluded just five days before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden — an opponent of the federal death penalty.

Dustin Higgs, convicted of ordering the killings of three women in a Maryland wildlife refuge in 1996, was the third to receive a lethal injection this week at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.

President Donald Trump’s Justice Department resumed federal executions last year following a 17-year hiatus. No president in more than 120 years had overseen as many federal executions.

Higgs, 48, was pronounced dead at 1:23 a.m. Asked if he had any last words, Higgs was calm but defiant, naming each of the women prosecutors said he ordered killed.

“I’d like to say I am an innocent man. ... I am not responsible for the deaths,” he said softly. “I did not order the murders.”

He did not apologize for anything he did on the night 25 years ago when the women were shot by another man, who received a life sentence.

As the lethal injection of pentobarbital began to flow into his veins, Higgs looked toward a room reserved for his relatives and lawyers. He waved with his fingers and said, “I love you.”

Louds sobs of a woman crying inconsolably began to echo from the witness room reserved for Higgs’ family as his eyes rolled back in his head, showing the whites of his eyes. He quickly became still, his pupils visible with his eyelids left partially open.

A sister of Tanji Jackson — one of the murdered women who was 21 when she died — addressed a written statement to Higgs after his execution and mentioning his family.

“They are now going to go through the pain we experienced,” she said. “When the day is over, your death will not bring my sister and the other victims back. This is not closure.” The statement didn't include the sister's name.

The number of federal death sentences carried out under Trump since 2020 is more than in the previous 56 years combined, reducing the number of prisoners on federal death row by nearly a quarter. It’s likely none of the around 50 remaining men will be executed anytime soon, if ever, with Biden signalling he’ll end federal executions.

The only woman on death row, Lisa Montgomery, was executed Wednesday for killing a pregnant woman, then cutting the baby out of her womb. She was the first woman executed in nearly 70 years.

Federal executions began as the coronavirus pandemic raged through prisons nationwide. Among those prisoners who got COVID-19 last month were Higgs and former drug trafficker Corey Johnson, who was executed Thursday.

In the early Saturday execution of Higgs, officials inside the execution chamber were more diligent about their keeping masks on after a federal judge expressed concern that officials at Johnson's execution were lax about coronavirus precautions. When a marshal called from a death-chamber phone to ask if there were any impediments to proceeding with Higgs' execution, he kept his mask on and shoved the receiver under it.

Not since the waning days of Grover Cleveland’s presidency in the late 1800s has the U.S. government executed federal inmates during a presidential transition, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Cleveland’s was also the last presidency during which the number of civilians executed federally was in the double digits in one year, 1896.

In an opinion piece in The Washington Post earlier this week, Martin Luther King III, the eldest son of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, noted that Higgs, a Black man, was scheduled to die Friday — his father’s birthday. With last-minute appeals, it was delayed into early Saturday.

“The federal government should not be needlessly taking more Black lives, and to do so on my father’s birthday would be shameful,” he wrote.

Pressure is already building on Biden to follow through on pledges to end the federal death penalty. The ACLU released a statement after Higgs' execution urging Biden to invoke his presidential powers after he is sworn in.

“He must commute the sentences of people on the federal death row to life without parole, and he must drop death from all pending trials," the ACLU said.

In 2000, a federal jury in Maryland convicted Higgs of murder and kidnapping in the killings of Tamika Black, 19; Mishann Chinn, 23; and Tanji Jackson.

Higgs’ lawyers argued it was “arbitrary and inequitable” to execute Higgs while Willis Haynes, the man who fired the shots that killed the women, was spared a death sentence.

In a statement after the execution, Higgs’ attorney, Shawn Nolan, said his client had spent decades on death row helping other inmates.

“There was no reason to kill him, particularly during the pandemic and when he, himself, was sick with Covid that he contracted because of these irresponsible, super-spreader executions,” Nolan said.

Higgs had a traumatic childhood and lost his mother to cancer when he was 10, Higgs’ Dec. 19 petition for clemency petition said.

Higgs was 23 on the evening of Jan. 26, 1996, when he, Haynes and a third man, Victor Gloria, picked up the three women in Washington, D.C., and drove them to Higgs’ apartment in Laurel, Maryland, to drink alcohol and listen to music. Before dawn, an argument between Higgs and Jackson prompted her to grab a knife in the kitchen before Haynes persuaded her to drop it.

Gloria said Jackson made threats as she left the apartment with the other women and appeared to write down the license plate number of Higgs’ van, angering him. The three men chased after the women in Higgs’ van. Haynes persuaded them to get into the vehicle.

Instead of taking them home, Higgs drove them to a secluded spot in the Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge, federal land in Laurel.

“Aware at that point that something was amiss, one of the women asked if they were going to have to ‘walk from here’ and Higgs responded ‘something like that,’” according to court documents.

Higgs handed his pistol to Haynes, who shot all three women outside the van, Gloria testified.

“Gloria turned to ask Higgs what he was doing, but saw Higgs holding the steering wheel and watching the shootings from the rearview mirror,” said the 2013 ruling by a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Chinn worked with the children’s choir at a church, Jackson worked in the office at a high school and Black was a teacher’s aide at National Presbyterian School in Washington, according to The Washington Post.



India starts world's largest COVID-19 vaccination drive

Largest vaccination drive

India started inoculating health workers Saturday in what is likely the world's largest COVID-19 vaccination campaign, joining the ranks of wealthier nations where the effort is already well underway.

India is home to the world’s largest vaccine makers and has one of the biggest immunization programs. But there is no playbook for the enormity of the current challenge.

Indian authorities hope to give shots to 300 million people, roughly the population of the U.S and several times more than its existing program that targets 26 million infants. The recipients include 30 million doctors, nurses and other front-line workers, to be followed by 270 million people who are either over 50 years old or have illnesses that make them vulnerable to COVID-19.

For workers who have pulled India’s battered healthcare system through the pandemic, the shots offered confidence that life can start returning to normal. Many burst with pride.

“I am excited that I am among the first to get the vaccine,” Gita Devi, a nurse, said as she lifted her left sleeve to receive the shot.

“I am happy to get an India-made vaccine and that we do not have to depend on others for it,” said Devi, who has treated patients throughout the pandemic in a hospital in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh state in India's heartland.

The first dose was administered to a sanitation worker at the All Indian Institute of Medical Sciences in the capital, New Delhi, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi kickstarted the campaign with a nationally televised speech.

“We are launching the world’s biggest vaccination drive and it shows the world our capability,” Modi said. He implored citizens to keep their guard up and not to believe any “rumours about the safety of the vaccines.”

It was not clear whether Modi, 70, had received the vaccine himself like other world leaders to try to demonstrate the shot’s safety. His government has said politicians will not be considered priority groups in the first phase of the rollout.

Health officials haven’t specified what percentage of India's nearly 1.4 billion people will be targeted by the campaign. But experts say it will almost certainly be the largest such drive globally.

The sheer scale has its obstacles and some early snags were identified. For instance, there were delays in uploading the details of healthcare workers receiving the shots to a digital platform that India is using to track vaccines, the Health Ministry said.

Shots were given to at least 165,714 people on Saturday, Dr. Manohar Agnani, a Health Ministry official, said at an evening briefing. The ministry had said that it was aiming to vaccinate 100 people in each of the 3,006 centres across the country.

News cameras captured the injections across hundreds of hospitals, underscoring the pent-up hopes that vaccination was the first step in getting past the pandemic that has devastated the lives of so many Indians and bruised the country's economy.

India on Jan. 4 approved emergency use of two vaccines, one developed by Oxford University and U.K.-based drugmaker AstraZeneca, and another by Indian company Bharat Biotech. Cargo planes flew 16.5 million shots to different Indian cities last week.

But doubts over the effectiveness of the homegrown vaccine is creating hurdles for the ambitious plan.

Health experts worry that the regulatory shortcut taken to approve the Bharat Biotech vaccine without waiting for concrete data that would show its efficacy in preventing illness from the coronavirus could amplify vaccine hesitancy. At least one state health minister has opposed its use.

In New Delhi, doctors at Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, one of the largest in the city, demanded they be administered the AstraZeneca vaccine instead of the one developed by Bharat Biotech. A doctors union at the hospital said many of its members were a “bit apprehensive about the lack of complete trial” for the homegrown vaccine.

“Right now, we don’t have the option to choose between the vaccines,” said Dr. Nirmalaya Mohapatra, vice-president of the hospital’s Resident Doctors Association.

The Health Ministry has bristled at the criticism and says the vaccines are safe, but maintains that health workers will have no choice in deciding which vaccine they will get themselves.

According to Dr. S.P. Kalantri, the director of a rural hospital in Maharashtra, India’s worst-hit state, such an approach was worrying because he said the regulatory approval was hasty and not backed by science.

“In a hurry to be populist, the government (is) taking decisions that might not be in the best interest of the common man,” Kalantri said.

Against the backdrop of the rising global COVID-19 death toll — it topped 2 million on Friday — the clock is ticking to vaccinate as many people as possible. But the campaign has been uneven.

In wealthy countries including the United States, Britain, Israel, Canada and Germany, millions of citizens have already been given some measure of protection by vaccines developed with revolutionary speed and quickly authorized for use.

But elsewhere, immunization drives have barely gotten off the ground. Many experts are predicting another year of loss and hardship in places like Iran, India, Mexico and Brazil, which together account for about a quarter of the world’s COVID-19 deaths.

India is second to the U.S. with more than 10.5 million confirmed cases, and ranks third in the number of deaths, behind the U.S. and Brazil, with over 152,000.

More than 35 million doses of various COVID-19 vaccines have been administered around the world, according to the University of Oxford.

While the majority of the COVID-19 vaccine doses have already been snapped up by wealthy countries, COVAX, a U.N.-backed project to supply shots to developing parts of the world, has found itself short of vaccines, money and logistical help.

As a result, the World Health Organization’s chief scientist, Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, warned this week that it is highly unlikely that herd immunity — which would require at least 70% of the globe to be vaccinated — will be achieved this year.

“Even if it happens in a couple of pockets, in a few countries, it’s not going to protect people across the world,” she said.



Damaged roads, lack of gear hinder Indonesia quake rescue

Still trapped after 'quake

Damaged roads and bridges, power blackouts and lack of heavy equipment on Saturday hampered rescuers after a strong earthquake left at least 49 people dead and hundreds injured on Indonesia's Sulawesi island.

Operations were focused on about eight locations in the hardest-hit city of Mamuju, where people were still believed trapped following the magnitude 6.2 quake that struck early Friday, said Saidar Rahmanjaya, who heads the local search and rescue agency.

Cargo planes carrying food, tents, blankets and other supplies from Jakarta landed late Friday for distribution in temporary shelters. Still, thousands of people spent the night in the open fearing aftershocks and a possible tsunami.

The National Search and Rescue Agency's operations director, Bambang Suryo Aji, said rescuers recovered three more bodies in the rubble of collapsed homes and buildings in Mamuju late Saturday, raising the death toll to 49. A total of 40 people were killed in Mamuju, while nine bodies were retrieved in neighbouring Majene district.

At least 415 houses in Majene were damaged and about 15,000 people were moved to shelters, said National Disaster Mitigation Agency spokesperson Raditya Jati.

Bodies retrieved by rescuers were sent to a police hospital for identification by relatives, said West Sulawesi police spokesperson Syamsu Ridwan.

He said more than 200 people were receiving treatment at the Bhayangkara police hospital and several others in Mamuju alone. Another 630 were injured in Majene.

Among those pulled alive was a young girl who was stuck in the wreckage of a house with her sister.

The girl was seen in video released by the disaster agency Friday crying for help. She was being treated in a hospital.

She identified herself as Angel and said that her sister, Catherine, who did not appear in the video, was beside her under the rubble and was still breathing.

The fate of Catherine and other family members was unclear.

The quake set off landslides in three locations and blocked a main road connecting Mamuju to Majene. Power and phone lines were down in many areas.

Mamuju, the capital of West Sulawesi province with nearly 75,000 people, was strewn with debris from collapsed buildings. A governor office building was almost flattened by the quake and a shopping mall was reduced to a crumpled hulk. A large bridge collapsed and patients with drips laid on folding beds under tarpaulin tents outside one of the damaged hospitals.

Two hospitals in the city were damaged and others were overwhelmed.

Many survivors said that aid had not reached them yet due to damaged roads and disrupted communications.

Video from a TV station showed villagers in Majene, some carrying machetes, forcibly stopping vehicles carrying aid. They climbed onto a truck and threw boxes of instant noodles and other supplies at dozens of people who were scrambling to get them.

Two ships headed to the devastated areas from the nearby cities of Makassar and Balikpapan with rescuers and equipment, including excavators.

State-owned firm AirNav Indonesia, which oversees aircraft navigation, said the quake did not cause significant damage to the Mamuju airport runway or control tower.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo said Friday that he instructed his Cabinet ministers and disaster and military officials to co-ordinate the response.

In a telegram sent by the Vatican on behalf of Pope Francis, the pontiff expressed “heartfelt solidarity with all those affected by this natural disaster.”

The pope was praying for “the repose of the deceased, the healing of the injured and the consolation of all who grieve.” Francis also offered encouragement to those continuing search and rescue effects, and he invoked “the divine blessings of strength and hope.”

International humanitarian missions including the Water Mission, Save the Children and the International Federation of Red Cross said in statements that they have joined in efforts to provide relief for people in need.

On Thursday, a magnitude 5.7 undersea quake hit the same region, damaging several homes but causing no apparent casualties. It was followed by more than 30 aftershocks, including the deadly quake.

Indonesia, home to more than 260 million people, is frequently hit by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis because of its location on the “Ring of Fire,” an arc of volcanoes and fault lines in the Pacific Basin.

In 2018, a magnitude 7.5 earthquake in Palu on Sulawesi island set off a tsunami and caused soil to collapse in a phenomenon called liquefaction. More than 4,000 people were killed, including many who were buried when whole neighbourhoods were swallowed in the falling ground.

A massive magnitude 9.1 earthquake off Sumatra island in western Indonesia in December 2004 triggered a tsunami that killed 230,000 people in a dozen countries.



In Mexico, women take the front lines as vigilantes

Women take the front lines

In the birthplace of Mexico’s vigilante “self-defence” movement, a new group has emerged entirely made up of women, who carry assault rifles and post roadblocks to fend off what they say is a bloody incursion into the state of Michoacán by the violent Jalisco cartel.

Some of the four dozen women warriors are pregnant; some carry their small children to the barricades with them. The rural area is traversed by dirt roads, through which they fear Jalisco gunmen could penetrate at a time when the homicide rate in Michoacán has spiked to levels not seen since 2013.

Many of the women vigilantes in the hamlet of El Terrero have lost sons, brothers or fathers in the fighting. Eufresina Blanco Nava said her son Freddy Barrios, a 29-year old lime picker, was kidnapped by presumed Jalisco cartel gunmen in pickup trucks; she has never heard from him since.

“They have disappeared a lot of people, a lot, and young girls, too,” said Blanco Nava.

One woman, who asked her name not be used because she has relatives in areas dominated by the Jalisco cartel, said that cartel kidnapped and disappeared her 14-year-old daughter, adding, “We are going to defend those we have left, the children we have left, with our lives.”

“We women are tired of seeing our children, our families disappear,” the vigilante said. “They take our sons, they take our daughters, our relatives, our husbands.”

That is, in part, why the women are taking up arms; men are growing scarce in Michoacan’s lime-growing hotlands.

“As soon as they see a man who can carry a gun, they take him away,” said the woman. “They disappear. We don't know if they have them (as recruits) or if they already killed them.”

Beside the barricades and roadblocks, the female vigilantes have a homemade tank, a heavy-duty pickup truck with steel plate armour welded on it. In other towns nearby, residents have dug trenches across roadways leading into neighbouring Jalisco state, to keep the attackers out.

Alberto García, a male vigilante, has seen the medieval side of the war: He is from Naranjo de Chila, a town just across the river from El Terrero and the birthplace of the Jalisco cartel leader Nemesio Oseguera. Garcia said he was run out of the town by Jalisco cartel gunmen because he refused to join the group.

“They killed one of my brothers, too,” said Garcia. “They hacked him to pieces, and my sister-in-law, who was eight months pregnant.”

El Terrero has long been dominated by the New Michoacán Family and Viagras gangs, while the Jalisco cartel controls the south bank of the Rio Grande river. In 2019, the Viagras hijacked and burned a half-dozen trucks and buses to block the bridge over the river to prevent Jalisco convoys from entering in a surprise assault.

And that same year, in the next town over, San Jose de Chila, the rival gangs used a church as an armed redoubt to fight off an offensive by Jalisco gunmen. Holed up in the church tower and along its roof, they tried to defend the town against the incursion, leaving the church filled with bullet holes.

It is that stark divide where everyone is forced to chose sides — either Jalisco, or the New Michoacán Family and the Viagras — that has many convinced that the El Terrero vigilantes are just foot soldiers for one of those latter two gangs.

The vigilantes bitterly deny allegations they're part of a criminal gang, though they clearly see the Jalisco cartel as their foe. They say they would be more than happy for police and soldiers to come in and do their jobs.

El Terrero is not far from the town of La Ruana, where the real self-defence movement was launched in 2013 by lime grower Hipolito Mora. After successfully chasing out the Knights Templar cartel, Mora, like most of the original leaders, has distanced himself from the so-called self-defence groups that remain, and is now a candidate for governor.

“I can almost assure you that they are not legitimate self-defence activists,” said Mora. “They are organized crime. ... The few self-defence groups that exist have allowed themselves to be infiltrated; they are criminals disguised as self-defence.”

Michoacán's current governor, Silvano Aureoles, is more emphatic. “They are criminals, period. Now, to cloak themselves and protect their illegal activities, they call themselves self-defence groups, as if that were some passport for impunity.”

But in some ways, Mora says, the same conditions that gave rise to the original 2013 movement remain: Authorities and police fail to enforce the law and don't guarantee residents peace.

Sergio Garcia, a male member of El Terrero vigilante group, says his 15-year-old brother was kidnapped and killed by Jalisco. Now, he wants justice that police have never given him.

“We are here for a reason, to get justice by hook or by crook, because if we don't do it, nobody else will,” Garcia said.



Official: 2 insider attackers kill 12 Afghan militiamen

Insider attack kills 12

At least two members of an Afghan militia opened fire on their fellow militiamen in the western Herat province, killing 12, in what provincial police on Saturday described as an insider attack.

Herat police spokesman Abdul Ahad Walizada said the attackers fled with the slain militiamen's weapons and ammunition, adding that Afghan government forces had regained control of the area.

A Taliban spokesman Yousaf Ahmadi in a tweet claimed responsibility for the insider attack, which took place late Friday.

Meanwhile, a sticky bomb attached to an armoured police Land Cruiser SUV exploded Saturday in the western part of the capital, Kabul, killing two policemen and wounding another, Kabul police spokesman Ferdaws Faramarz said.

Faramarz did not specify the identities of the casualties. However, two members of the Afghan police force, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media, said Kabul's deputy police chief Mawlana Bayan was wounded in the attack.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the bombing in Kabul.

In the southern Helmand province, a suicide car bomber targeted a police compound late Friday, killing one policeman and wounding two others, provincial police spokesman Zaman Hamdard said. The attack took place in Lashkar Gah district on the highway between Helmand and Kandahar provinces.

Also in Kandahar province, a suicide car bomber and multiple gunmen attacked an auto workshop belonging to the Afghan intelligence agency on Saturday but inflicted no casualties, provincial governor Rohullah Khanzada said. He said at least four attackers were killed and that an operation to clear the workshop compound was ongoing.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks in Helmand and Kandahar.

The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for multiple attacks in the capital in recent months, including on educational institutions that killed 50 people, most of them students. IS has claimed responsibility for rocket attacks in December targeting the major U.S. base in Afghanistan. There were no casualties.

The violence comes as the representatives of the Taliban and the Afghan government earlier this month resumed peace talks in Qatar. However, the negotiations were off to a slow start as the insurgents continue their attacks on Afghan government forces while keeping their promise not to attack U.S. and NATO troops.

The stop-and-go talks are aimed at ending decades of relentless conflict. Frustration and fear have grown over the recent spike in violence, and both sides blame one another.

There has also been growing doubt lately over a U.S.-Taliban deal brokered by outgoing President Donald Trump’s administration. That accord was signed last February. Under the deal, an accelerated withdrawal of U.S. troops ordered by Trump means that just 2,500 American soldiers will still be in Afghanistan when President-elect Joe Biden takes office on Jan. 20.



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