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Iran’s sole nuclear power plant undergoes emergency shutdown

Nuclear emergency closure

Iran’s sole nuclear power plant has undergone a temporary emergency shutdown, state TV reported on Sunday.

An official from the state electric energy company, Gholamali Rakhshanimehr, said on a talk show that the Bushehr plant shutdown began on Saturday and would last "for three to four days.”

He said that power outages could result. He did not elaborate but this is the first time Iran has reported an emergency shutdown of the plant, located in the southern port city of Bushehr. It went online in 2011 with help from Russia.

In March, nuclear official Mahmoud Jafari said the plant could stop working since Iran cannot procure parts and equipment for it from Russia due to banking sanctions imposed by the U.S. in 2018.



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Crash, "likely" due to storm, kills 10 in Alabama

Storm led to fatal crash

Tropical Depression Claudette claimed 12 lives in Alabama as the storm swept across the southeastern U.S., causing flash flooding and spurring tornadoes that destroyed dozens of homes.

Ten people, including nine children, were killed Saturday in a two-vehicle crash, according to Butler County Coroner Wayne Garlock, who said the vehicles likely hydroplaned on wet roads. Butler County Sheriff Danny Bond said multiple people were also injured. The victims were not immediately identified.

Meanwhile, a 24-year-old man and a 3-year-old boy were killed when a tree fell on their house Saturday just outside the Tuscaloosa city limits, Capt. Marty Sellers of the Tuscaloosa Violent Crimes Unit told The Tuscaloosa News. Sellers did not immediately identify the victims and a medical examiner could not be reached early Sunday.

The deaths occurred as drenching rains pelted much of northern Alabama and Georgia late Saturday. As much as 30 centimetres of rain was reported earlier from Claudette along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

A tropical storm warning was in effect in North Carolina from the Little River Inlet to the town of Duck on the Outer Banks. A tropical storm watch was issued South Santee River, South Carolina, to the Little River Inlet, forecasters said.

Top winds remained near 45 km/h National Hurricane Center forecasters predicted Claudette would strengthen back to tropical storm status Monday over eastern North Carolina as it went out to sea in the Atlantic Ocean.

Flash flood watches on Sunday were posted for northern Georgia, most of South Carolina, the North Carolina coast and parts of southeast Alabama and the Florida Panhandle.

More than 20 people were rescued by boat due to flooding in Northport, Alabama, WVUA-TV reported. The Tuscaloosa County Emergency Management Agency tweeted that local Red Cross volunteers were on hand to help those who were affected. A shelter was opened in Northport.

Village Creek in Birmingham rose above flood stage to four metres, the National Weather Service in Birmingham tweeted.

The system was located about 35 kilometres west of Atlanta. It was moving east-northeast at 20 km/h, the National Hurricane Center said in advisory Sunday morning.

Claudette was declared organized enough to qualify as a named tropical storm early Saturday morning, well after the storm’s center of circulation had come ashore southwest of New Orleans.

Shortly after landfall, a suspected tornado spurred by the storm demolished or badly damaged at least 50 homes in a small town in Alabama, just north of the Florida border.

Sheriff Heath Jackson in Escambia County said a suspected tornado “pretty much leveled” a mobile home park, toppled trees onto houses and ripped the roof off of a high school gym. Most of the damage was done in or near the towns of Brewton and East Brewton, about 77 kilometres north of Pensacola, Florida.

“It kind of affected everybody,” Jackson said. “But with those mobile homes being built so close together it can take a toll on them a lot more than it can on houses that are spread apart.”

Tornadoes were also reported in southwest Georgia.

Damage from the storm was also felt in north Florida, where winds — in some cases reaching 137 km/h — caused an 18-wheeler to flip on its side.

The storm also dumped flooding rains north of Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana and along the Mississippi coast, inundating streets and, in some areas, pushing water into homes. Later, the storm was drenching the Florida Panhandle and, well inland, a broad expanse of Alabama.

Forecasters said the system could still dump five to 10 centimetres of rain in the region, with isolated accumulations of 20 centimetres possible.

Separately, Tropical Storm Dolores made landfall on Mexico’s west coast with near-hurricane force. As of Sunday morning, it had dissipated over Mexico. Its remnants had maximum sustained winds of 35 km/h, and it was centered about 275 kilometres east of Mazatlan, Mexico.

Heavy rainfall totals up to 38 centimetres were expected across the southwest and western coastal areas of Mexico throughout the weekend. Forecasters were warning of the potential for flash flooding and mudslides.



Tropical Storm Claudette brings rain, floods to Gulf Coast

Rain, floods on Gulf Coast

Tropical Storm Claudette formed Saturday morning along the U.S. Gulf Coast, bringing heavy rains and flooding to coastal states including Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

The National Hurricane Center in Miami said in a 4 a.m. CDT advisory that the storm was located 75 kilometres southwest of New Orleans with maximum sustained winds of 75 km/h.

Flooding had already begun overnight Friday into Saturday, with local reports of high water over roads and stranded vehicles. Flash flood warnings dotted the coast while flood watches were in effect well inland for parts of Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, and central and northern Georgia.

With virus restrictions loosened and summer near, business owners across the Gulf Coast — everyone from restaurateurs to swamp boat operators — had been anticipating an influx of tourist cash after a year of lost revenue due to the coronavirus pandemic and relentless storms. But those hopes have been dimmed by the storm.

“My biggest concern is that it drives away a busy weekend, and may just end up being a lot of rain,” said Austin Sumrall, the owner and chef at the White Pillars Restaurant and Lounge in Biloxi, Mississippi. He had 170 reservations on his books for Sunday, but was concerned some patrons would cancel. “We saw, especially last year, the rug can get jerked out from under you pretty quickly,” he said.

The storm churning northward in the Gulf of Mexico was expected to move inland early Saturday. It's likely to dump anywhere from 13 centimetres to 25 centimetres of rain along parts of the Gulf Coast — even 38 centimetres in isolated areas, according to forecasters at the National Hurricane Center.

A tropical storm warning extended from Morgan City, Louisiana, to the Okaloosa-Walton County line in the Florida Panhandle. Coastal surge flooding was possible and flash flood watches extended along the coast from southeast Louisiana into the Florida Panhandle and well inland into Mississippi, Alabama and into parts of central and northern Georgia.

Louisiana swamp tour boat captain Darrin Coulon spent Friday securing boats to docks, having already canceled popular weekend tours.

“I’m sure the area’s going to have some flooding,” Coulon lamented.

Dealing with tropical storms is nothing new for Coulon, who said he jokingly tells people he's from the “cone of uncertainty,” referring to a term that forecasters use.

In Louisiana, the threat came a month after spring storms and flooding that were blamed for five deaths, and as parts of the state continued a slow recovery from a brutal 2020 hurricane season. That included Tropical Storm Cristobal that opened the season last June, hurricanes Laura and Delta that devastated southwest Louisiana, and Hurricane Zeta that downed trees and knocked out power for days in New Orleans in October.

The latest storm, moving north toward Louisiana, carried tropical storm-force sustained winds of 72 km/h but forecasters said it couldn't be classified as a tropical storm because it lacked a single, well-defined centre.

“I hope it just gets in and gets out,” said Greg Paddie, manager of Tacky Jack’s, a restaurant at Alabama’s Orange Beach.

Paddie said the restaurant still has sandbags left over from its preparations for last year’s Hurricane Sally. That September storm, blamed for two deaths, threw ships onto dry land and knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of people in Alabama and in the Florida Panhandle.

Disappointment was evident in the voice of Seneca Hampton, an organizer of the Juneteenth Freedom Festival in Gautier, on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. He spent weeks arranging food trucks, vendors, a bounce house, face painting and free hamburgers and hot dogs for the event. It was highly anticipated because last year’s was canceled due to the pandemic and because of Juneteenth's new designation as a federal holiday.

“It’s something that means a lot to people, and there were people that were bummed out, like ‘I already had in my mind I was coming out there to celebrate,’” said Hampton.

The Gautier event was postponed until next month. A Juneteenth event in Selma, Alabama, was postponed until August.

By Friday evening, storm clusters were dumping rain up to 10 centimetres an hour along parts of the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts, said Benjamin Schott, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service office in Slidell, Louisiana. Radar showed more heavy rain moving ashore over Alabama and the Florida Panhandle. The National Hurricane Center said the system was about 65 kilometres south-southeast of Morgan City, Louisiana, on Friday night, moving north at 17 km/h.

Mexico, while getting rain from the storm in the Gulf, also was threatened by a storm in the Pacific. Tropical Storm Dolores formed Friday with landfall expected on its west-central coast Saturday evening, possibly near hurricane strength, according to the National Hurricane Center.



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Palestinians call off 1 million dose vaccine transfer from Israel

Palestine doesn't want vax

The Palestinian Authority called off an agreement whereby Israel would transfer 1 million doses of coronavirus vaccines to it in exchange for a similar number later this year, hours after the deal was announced on Friday.

The Palestinians said the doses, which Israel began shipping to the occupied West Bank, are too close to expiring and do not meet their standards. In announcing the agreement, Israel had said the vaccines “will expire soon” without specifying the date.

Palestinian officials had come under heavy criticism on social media after the agreement was announced, with many accusing them of accepting subpar vaccines and suggesting they might not be effective.

Israel said Friday it will transfer around 1 million doses of soon-to-expire coronavirus vaccines to the Palestinian Authority in exchange for a similar number of doses the Palestinians expect to receive later this year.

Israel, which has fully reopened after vaccinating some 85% of its adult population, has faced criticism for not sharing its vaccines with the 4.5 million Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

The disparity has played out across the globe as the bulk of vaccines went to wealthy countries. As those countries have made progress containing their own outbreaks, they have recently begun pledging supplies for poorer countries that were left behind for months.

The new Israeli government, which was sworn in on Sunday, said it would transfer Pfizer vaccines that will expire soon, and that the Palestinian Authority would reimburse it with a similar number of vaccines when it receives them from the pharmaceutical company in September or October. Up to 1.4 million doses could be exchanged, the government said in a statement.

“We will continue to find effective ways to cooperate for the benefit of people in the region,” Foreign Minister Yair Lapid tweeted after the deal was announced.

COGAT, the Israeli military body that coordinates civilian affairs in the occupied territories, said it had coordinated the delivery of the first 100,000 doses to the West Bank on Friday.

The Palestinians portrayed the agreement differently, saying Pfizer had suggested the transfer as a way of speeding up its delivery of 4 million doses that the PA had already paid for in an agreement reached directly with the drug company.

“This is not an agreement with Israel, but with the Pfizer company," Palestinian Health Minister Mai Alkaila said earlier Friday, before the deal was called off, according to the official Wafa news agency.

At a press conference Friday evening, she said Alkaila said that health officials who inspected the vaccines found they “did not meet standards and so we decided to return them.”

Government spokesman Ibrahim Milhim said that Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh has ordered the cancelation of the agreement and return the vaccines to Israel. He said the Palestinians would not accept “about-to-expire” vaccines from Israel.

Israel has carried out one of the most successful vaccination programs in the world, allowing it to fully reopen businesses and schools. This week, authorities lifted the requirement to wear masks in public, one of the last remaining restrictions.

Rights groups have said that Israel, as an occupying power, is obliged to provide vaccines to the Palestinians. Israel denies having such an obligation, pointing to interim peace agreements reached with the Palestinians in the 1990s.

Those agreements say the PA, which has limited autonomy in parts of the occupied West Bank, is responsible for health care but that the two sides should cooperate to combat pandemics. Israel has offered vaccines to the more than 100,000 Palestinians from the occupied West Bank who work inside Israel, as well as Palestinians in east Jerusalem.

Gaza is ruled by the Islamic militant group Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization by Israel and Western countries. Israeli officials have suggested linking any supply of vaccines to Gaza to the return of two Israeli captives and the remains of two soldiers held by Hamas.

The PA has said it is acquiring its own supplies through agreements with private companies and a World Health Organization program designed to aid needy countries.

To date, around 380,000 Palestinians in the West Bank and around 50,000 in Gaza have been vaccinated. More than 300,000 infections have been recorded in the two territories, including 3,545 deaths.

Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians want a state in all three territories. There have been no substantive peace talks in more than a decade.



Votes in Iran presidential poll tipped in hard-liner's favour

Votes tip to hard-liner

Iranians voted Friday in a presidential election dominated by a hard-line protege of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei after authorities disqualified nearly all of his strongest competition, leading to what appeared to be a low turnout fueled by apathy and calls for a boycott.

Opinion polling by state-linked organizations along with analysts indicated that judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi — who is already under U.S. sanctions — was the front-runner in a field of just four candidates. Former Central Bank chief, Abdolnasser Hemmati, is running as the race’s moderate candidate but hasn’t inspired the same support as outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, who is term-limited from seeking the office again.

By late afternoon, turnout appeared far lower than in Iran’s last presidential election in 2017. State television offered tight shots of polling places, several of which seemed to have only a handful of voters in the election’s early hours.

Those passing by several polling places in Tehran said they similarly saw few voters. In addition to the disqualifications, voter apathy has also been fed by the devastated state of the economy and subdued campaigning amid a monthslong surge in coronavirus cases. In images on state TV, poll workers wore gloves and masks, and some wiped down ballot boxes with disinfectants.

If elected, Raisi would be the first serving Iranian president sanctioned by the U.S. government even before entering office over his involvement in the mass execution of political prisoners in 1988, as well as his time as the head of Iran’s internationally criticized judiciary — one of the world’s top executioners.

It also would put hard-liners firmly in control across the Iranian government as negotiations in Vienna continue to try to save a tattered deal meant to limit Iran's nuclear program at a time when Tehran is enriching uranium at its highest levels ever, though still remains short of weapons-grade levels. Tensions remain high with both the U.S. and Israel, which is believed to have carried out a series of attacks targeting Iranian nuclear sites as well as assassinating the scientist who created its military atomic program decades earlier.

Whoever wins will likely serve two four-year terms and thus may be at the helm at what could be one of the most crucial moments for the country in decades — the death of the 82-year-old Khamenei. Already, speculation has mounted that Raisi may be a contender for the position, along with Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba.

Polls opened at 7 a.m. local time for the vote, which has seen widespread public apathy after a panel overseen by Khamenei barred hundreds of candidates, including reformists and those aligned with Rouhani. Some, including former hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who had been barred from this election, urged voters to boycott the poll.

Khamenei cast the first vote from Tehran, urging the public to take part.

“Through the participation of the people the country and the Islamic ruling system will win great points in the international arena, but the ones who benefit first are the people themselves," Khamenei said. "Go ahead, choose and vote.”

Raisi, wearing a black turban that identifies him in Shiite tradition as a direct descendant of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, voted from a mosque in southern Tehran, waving to those gathered to cast their own ballots. The cleric acknowledged in comments afterward that some may be “so upset that they don’t want to vote.”

"I beg everyone, the lovely youths, and all Iranian men and women speaking in any accent or language from any region and with any political views, to go and vote and cast their ballots,” Raisi said.

But few appeared to heed the call. There are more than 59 million eligible voters in Iran, a nation home to over 80 million people. However, the state-linked Iranian Student Polling Agency has estimated a turnout will be just 44%, which would be the lowest ever since the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Fears about a low turnout have some warning Iran may be turning away from being an Islamic Republic — a government with elected civilian leadership overseen by a supreme leader from its Shiite clergy — to a country more tightly governed by its supreme leader, who already has final say on all matters of state and oversees its defence and atomic program.



UN re-elects Antonio Guterres as secretary-general

UN re-elects Guterres

The United Nations General Assembly elected Antonio Guterres to a second term as secretary-general on Friday, giving him another five years at the helm of the 193-member world organization.

Ambassadors in the assembly chamber burst into applause as Assembly President Volkan Bozkir announced Guterres’ re-election by acclamation.

Just before the announcement, Estonia’s UN ambassador Sven Jurgenson, the current Security Council president, read a resolution adopted by the 15-member council recommending Guterres for a second term.

Under the UN charter, the General Assembly elects the secretary-general on the recommendation of the Security Council.



EU envoy: Ethiopian leadership vowed to 'wipe out' Tigrayans

Vowed to 'wipe out' Tigray

Ethiopia’s leaders in closed-door talks with a European Union special envoy earlier this year said “they are going to wipe out the Tigrayans for 100 years,” the envoy said this week, warning that such an aim “looks for us like ethnic cleansing.”

The remarks by Pekka Haavisto, Finland's foreign minister, describing his talks with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and other ministers in February are some of the most critical yet of the Ethiopian government's conduct of the conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region. They came in a question-and-answer session Tuesday with a European Parliament committee.

Ethiopia’s foreign ministry dismissed Haavisto’s comments as “ludicrous” and a “hallucination of sorts or a lapse in memory of some kind.”

Haavisto’s special adviser, Otto Turtonen, told The Associated Press that the envoy “has no further comment on this matter.”

For months, Haavisto has served as the EU's special envoy on Ethiopia. In February he said he had “two intensive days in substantive meetings” with Abiy — the Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2019 — and other “key ministers” about the growing humanitarian crisis in Tigray, where thousands of civilians have been killed and famine has begun in a region of some 6 million people. Ethiopian and allied forces from neighboring Eritrea have been accused of atrocities while pursuing fighters supporting Tigray's former leaders.

It is not clear from Haavisto’s remarks this week which Ethiopian officials made the comments about wiping out ethnic Tigrayans.

“When I met the Ethiopian leadership in February they really used this kind of language, that they are going to destroy the Tigrayans, they are going to wipe out the Tigrayans for 100 years and so forth," the envoy said.

“If you wipe out your national minority, well, what is it?" Haavisto added. "You cannot destroy all the people, you cannot destroy all the population in Tigray. And I think that’s very obvious, that we have to react, because it looks for us like ethnic cleansing. It is a very, very serious act if this is true."

In comments shortly after those February meetings, Haavisto had warned that the crisis in Tigray appeared to be spiraling out of control.

The United Nations human rights office has said all sides in the conflict have been accused of abuses, but witnesses have largely blamed Ethiopian and Eritrean forces for forced starvation, mass expulsions, gang rapes and more.

Haavisto's remarks emerged as Ethiopia prepares to vote in a national election on Monday, the first major test at the polls for Abiy as he seeks to centralize power under his Prosperity Party.



Israel strikes Gaza after Hamas fires incendiary balloons

Gaza violence flares up

Israel launched airstrikes on the Gaza Strip late Thursday for a second time since a shaky cease-fire ended last month's 11-day war. The strikes came after activists mobilized by Gaza's militant Hamas rulers launched incendiary balloons into Israel for a third straight day.

There were no immediate reports of casualties from the strikes, which could be heard from Gaza City. Israel also carried out airstrikes early Wednesday, targeting what it is said were Hamas facilities, without killing or wounding anyone.

The military said fighter jets struck Hamas “military compounds and a rocket launch site” late Thursday in response to the balloons. It said its forces were preparing for a “variety of scenarios including a resumption of hostilities."

Tensions have remained high since the cease-fire, even as Egyptian mediators have met with both Israeli and Hamas officials to try and shore up the informal truce.

Israel and Hamas have fought four wars and countless smaller skirmishes since the Islamic militant group seized power from rival Palestinians forces in 2007. Israel and Egypt have imposed a crippling blockade on Gaza, which is home to more than 2 million Palestinians, since Hamas took over.

Earlier, Israeli police used stun grenades and a water cannon spraying skunk water to disperse Palestinian protesters from Damascus Gate in east Jerusalem, the epicenter of weeks of protests and clashes in the run-up to the Gaza war.

After the crowds were dispersed, Palestinians could be seen throwing rocks and water bottles at ultra-Orthodox Jews walking in the area.

Calls had circulated for protesters to gather at Damascus Gate in response to a rally held there by Jewish ultranationalists on Tuesday in which dozens of Israelis had chanted “Death to Arabs” and “May your village burn." The police had forcibly cleared the square and provided security for that rally, part of a parade to celebrate Israel's conquest of east Jerusalem.

In a separate incident, a Palestinian teenager died Thursday after being shot by Israeli troops in the occupied West Bank during a protest against a settlement outpost, the fourth demonstrator to be killed since the outpost was established last month.

The Israeli military said Wednesday that a soldier stationed near the wildcat outpost in the West Bank saw a group of Palestinians approaching, and that one “hurled a suspicious object at him, which exploded adjacent to the soldier.” The army said that the soldier fired in the air, then shot the Palestinian who threw the object.

The Palestinian Health Ministry said Thursday that Ahmad Shamsa, 15, died of a gunshot wound sustained a day earlier.

Settlers established the outpost, which they refer to as Eviatar, near the northern West Bank town of Nablus last month and say it is now home to dozens of families. Palestinians say it is built on private land and fear it will grow and merge with other large settlements nearby.

Nearly 500,000 Jewish settlers live in some 130 settlements across the occupied West Bank. The Palestinians and much of the international community view the settlements as a violation of international law and a major obstacle to peace.

Israeli authorities have evacuated the outpost on several occasions. They appear reluctant to do so this time because it would embarrass Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and other right-wing members of the fragile government sworn in over the weekend.

Palestinians from the nearby village of Beita have held several protests in which demonstrators have hurled stones and Israeli troops have fired tear gas and live ammunition. Four Palestinians have been killed since mid-May, including Shamsa and another teenager.

The Israeli military also shot and killed a Palestinian woman on Wednesday, saying she had tried to ram her car into a group of soldiers guarding a West Bank construction site.

In a statement, the army said soldiers fired at the woman in Hizmeh, just north of Jerusalem, after she exited the car and pulled out a knife. The statement did not say how close the woman was to the soldiers, and the army did not release any photos or video of the incident.

The family of Mai Afaneh insisted she had no reason or ability to carry out an attack.

In recent years, Israel has seen a series of shootings, stabbings and car ramming attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians in the occupied West Bank. Most have been carried out by Palestinians with no apparent links to organized militant groups.

Palestinians and Israeli human rights groups say the soldiers often use excessive force and could have stopped some assailants without killing them. In some cases, they say that innocent people have been identified as attackers and shot.

The Palestinians seek the West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority exerts limited self-rule in population centers, as part of a future state along with the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. Israel captured all three territories in the 1967 war and says Jerusalem is indivisible. There have been no substantive peace talks in more than a decade.



UK records over 10,000 virus cases for first time since Feb

UK case counts surging

The U.K.'s latest surge in coronavirus infections gathered pace Thursday with new confirmed cases rising above 10,000 for the first time in nearly four months as a result of the spread of the more contagious delta variant.

Government figures showed another 11,007 cases were reported. That's the highest daily number since Feb. 19, when 12,027 cases were recorded, and cements talk that the country with Europe's highest virus-related death toll is in the midst of a third wave of the pandemic.

The government’s chief medical adviser, Professor Chris Whitty, said the height of the current surge is “still uncertain” but that it “will definitely translate into further hospitalizations and, unfortunately, it will undoubtedly translate into further deaths.”

Daily cases have risen fairly sharply over the past few weeks after fluctuating around the 2,000 mark earlier. The delta variant, which was first identified in India and is considered by government scientists to be between 40% to 80% more transmissible than the previous dominant strain, accounts for around 95% of all new cases in the U.K.

Most of the new confirmed cases are among younger age groups which have not yet gotten COVID-19 vaccines. The U.K.’s widely praised rollout of vaccines is being extended to all adults over the age of 18 starting Friday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock confirmed.

The spread of the variant upended government plans to lift all remaining restrictions on social contact in England starting next week. On Monday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson delayed the move until July 19, saying now was the “time to ease off the accelerator” so more people could get vaccinated and prevent thousands more deaths.

Johnson laid out his hope that by July 19, two-thirds of the U.K.’s adult population will have been offered two vaccine shots, including everyone over 50.

The government's figures Thursday showed that another 19 people died after testing positive for the virus, the highest daily death toll reported since May 11. It takes the U.K.’s total deaths in the pandemic to 127,945, the most in Europe.

In addition to warning about further deaths in the near-term, Whitty, the government's chief medical adviser, said the country should brace itself for further waves of the virus to come.

"In terms of the medium-term, my expectation is that we will get a further winter surge, late autumn/winter surge, and that is because we know that winter and autumn favor respiratory viruses, and therefore it’d be very surprising if this particular highly transmissible respiratory virus was not also favored,” he said in a speech to health professionals.

Many blame the Conservative government for the spike in infections, saying it acted too slowly to impose the strictest quarantine requirements on everyone arriving from India, which has endured a catastrophic resurgence of the virus.

The hope is that the rollout of vaccines will turn the latest spike around and allow the next easing in the lockdown to take place. As of Thursday, around 63% of the British population had received at least one dose of vaccine, while around 46% has received two.

An analysis on Monday from Public Health England showed that two doses of the main vaccines the U.K. is using are highly effective against hospitalization from the delta variant — 96% in the case of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and 92% for the AstraZeneca jab.



St. Louis gun-waving couple pleads guilty to misdemeanors

Gun-waving couple pleads

A St. Louis couple who gained notoriety for pointing guns at social justice demonstrators last year pleaded guilty Thursday to misdemeanor charges and agreed to give up the weapons they used during the confrontation.

Patricia McCloskey pleaded guilty to misdemeanor harassment and was fined $2,000. Her husband, Mark McCloskey, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor fourth-degree assault and was fined $750.

When several hundred demonstrators marched past their home in June of 2020, the couple waved weapons at them. They claimed the protesters were trespassing and that they feared for their safety.

The McCloskeys, both of them lawyers in their 60s, wore blue blazers and spoke calmly in answering questions from Judge David Mason during Thursday’s hearing. Mason asked Mark McCloskey if he acknowledged that his actions put people at risk of personal injury. He replied, “I sure did your honor.”

Mark McCloskey, who announced in May that he was running for a U.S. Senate seat in Missouri, was unapologetic after the hearing.

“I’d do it again," he said from the courthouse steps in downtown St. Louis. "Any time the mob approaches me, I’ll do what I can to put them in imminent threat of physical injury because that’s what kept them from destroying my house and my family.”

The McCloskeys' defense lawyer, Joel Schwartz, said after the hearing the couple had hoped to raise money by donating Mark’s rifle to charity, but acknowledged that it was an unusual request.

Because the charges are misdemeanors, the McCloskeys do not face the possibility of losing their law licenses and can continue to own firearms.

“This particular resolution of these two cases represents my best judgment of an appropriate and fair disposition for the parties involved as well as the public good,” special prosecutor Richard Callahan said after the hearing

The protesters, Callahan said, “were a racially mixed and peaceful group, including women and children, who simply made a wrong turn on their way to protest in front of the mayor’s house. There was no evidence that any of them had a weapon and no one I interviewed realized they had ventured onto a private enclave.”

The June 28, 2020, protests came weeks after George Floyd's death under a Minneapolis police officer's knee. Mark McCloskey emerged with an AR-15-style rifle, and Patricia McCloskey waved a semiautomatic pistol, according to the indictment. Cellphone video captured the confrontation. No shots were fired and no one was hurt.

The McCloskeys were indicted by a grand jury in October on felony charges of unlawful use of a weapon and evidence tampering. Callahan later amended the charges to give jurors the alternative of convictions of misdemeanor harassment instead of the weapons charge. Under that alternative, the evidence tampering count would be dropped.

An investigation by St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner’s office led to the initial indictments — and harsh backlash from several Republican leaders. Then-President Donald Trump spoke out in defense of the couple, whose newfound celebrity earned them an appearance via video at the Republican National Convention. Republican Missouri Gov. Mike Parson has said that if the McCloskeys are convicted, he’d pardon them.

Callahan, a longtime judge and former U.S. attorney, was appointed special prosecutor after a judge in December ruled that Gardner created an appearance of impropriety by mentioning the McCloskey case in fundraising emails before the August Democratic primary. Gardner went on to win reelection.



Zambian founding father Kenneth Kaunda dead at age 97

Zambia's first president dies

Zambia's first president and champion of African independence Kenneth Kaunda has died at the age of 97, the country’s president Edgar Lungu announced on Facebook Thursday evening.

Zambia will have 21 days of mourning, said Lungu.

Kaunda's son, Kamarange Kaunda, also gave the news of the statesman's death on Facebook Thursday.

“I am sad to inform we have lost Mzee,” Kaunda’s son wrote, using a Swahili term of respect for an elder. “Let’s pray for him.”

Kaunda had been admitted to the hospital on Monday and officials later said he was being treated for pneumonia.

The southern African country is currently battling a surge in COVID-19 cases and the country’s founding president was admitted to Maina Soko Medical Center, a military hospital which is a center for treating the disease in the capital, Lusaka.

At the time Kaunda asked for “all Zambians and the international community to pray for him as the medical team is doing everything possible to ensure that he recovers,” according to the statement issued by Kaunda’s administrative assistant Rodrick Ngolo.

Kaunda was a leader of the campaign that ended British colonial rule and he became Zambia’s first democratically elected president in 1964. He led the country, which became a one-party state, until 1991 when he was defeated in an election following the introduction of multiparty politics.

During his rule, Kaunda made Zambia a center for anti-colonial groups fighting to end white minority rule in southern African countries including Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Kaunda allowed the guerilla organizations to maintain military bases, training camps, refugee centers and administrative offices.



Fauci: US to spend $3.2B for antiviral pills for COVID-19

$3.2B for COVID antivirals

The United States is devoting $3.2 billion to advance development of antiviral pills for COVID-19, officials said Thursday.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, announced the investment during a White House briefing as part of a new “antiviral program for pandemics” to develop drugs to address symptoms caused by potentially dangerous viruses like the coronavirus.

The pills, which would be used to minimize symptoms after infection, are in development and could begin arriving by year’s end, pending the completion of clinical trials.

Fauci said the new program would invest in “accelerating things that are already in progress” for COVID-19, but also work to innovate new therapies for other viruses.

“There are few treatments that exist for many of the viruses that have pandemic potential," said Fauci.

But he added, “vaccines clearly remain the centerpiece of our arsenal.”

News of the administration's plans for the pill was first reported Thursday by The New York Times.



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