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Crush at Israeli religious festival kills 44

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(Last Updated On: April 30, 2021)

At least 44 people were crushed to death at an over-crowded religious bonfire festival in Israel on Friday, medics said, in what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described as a “heavy disaster”.

The crush occurred as tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews thronged to the Galilee tomb of 2nd-century sage Rabbi Shim Bar Yochai for annual Lag B’Omer commemorations that include all-night prayer, mystical songs and dance.

Witnesses said people were asphyxiated or trampled in a tightly packed passageway, some going unnoticed until the PA system sounded an appeal to disperse, as crowds packed the Mount Meron slope in defiance of COVID-19 warnings.

Helicopters ferried injured people to hospitals and the military said search-and-rescue troops were scrambled.

Medics said 103 people had been injured in what they described as a stampede. Casualties included children, witnesses said. The site is mostly gender-segregated and bystander video suggested the crush took place at one of the men’s sections.

“We were going to go inside for the dancing and stuff and all of a sudden we saw paramedics from (ambulance service) MDA running by, like mid-CPR on kids,” Shlomo Katz, 36, told Reuters. He then saw ambulances come out “one after the other”.

Videos posted on social media showed chaotic scenes as Ultra-Orthodox men clambered through gaps in sheets of torn corrugated iron to escape the crush. Bodies lay on stretchers in a corridor, covered in foil blankets.

A police spokesman said overall capacity at Mount Meron was similar to previous years but that this time bonfire areas were partitioned-off as a COVID-19 precaution. That may have created unexpected choke-points on foot traffic, Israeli media said.

One pilgrim who gave his name as Yitzhak told Channel 12 TV: “We thought maybe there was a (bomb) alert over a suspicious package. No one imagined that this could happen here. Rejoicing became mourning, a great light became a deep darkness.”

“Rabbi Shimon used to say that he could absolve the world … If he didn’t manage to cancel this edict on the very day of his exaltation, then we need to do real soul-searching.”

With the site cleared, rescue workers collapsed against railings, some weeping as their colleagues comforted them.

Netanyahu called it a “heavy disaster”, adding on Twitter: “We are all praying for the wellbeing of the casualties.”

The White House and European Union offered condolences.

As rescue workers tried to extricate the casualties, police shut down the site and ordered revellers out. The Transportation Ministry halted roadworks in the area to enable scores of ambulances and pilgrims’ buses to move unhindered.

The Mount Meron tomb is considered to be one of the holiest sites in the Jewish world and it is an annual pilgrimage site. The event was one of the largest gatherings in Israel since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic more than a year ago.

Private bonfires at Mount Meron were banned last year due to coronavirus restrictions, but lockdown measures were eased this year amid Israel’s rapid COVID-19 vaccination programme that has seen more than 54% of the population fully vaccinated.

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Erdogan says Turkey plans to buy more Russian defense systems

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(Last Updated On: September 27, 2021)

President Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey still intended to buy a second batch of S-400 missile defense systems from Russia, a move that could deepen a rift with NATO ally Washington and trigger new U.S. sanctions, Reuters reported.

According to the report Washington says the S-400s pose a threat to its F-35 fighter jets and to NATO’s broader defense systems. Turkey says it was unable to procure air defense systems from any NATO ally on satisfactory terms.

“In the future, nobody will be able to interfere in terms of what kind of defense systems we acquire, from which country at what level,” Erdogan said in an interview that aired on CBS News’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday.

“Nobody can interfere with that. We are the only ones to make such decisions.”

The United States imposed sanctions on Turkey’s Defense Industry Directorate, its chief, Ismail Demir, and three other employees in December following the country’s acquisition of a first batch of S-400s, Reuters said.

Talks continued between Russia and Turkey about the delivery of a second batch, which Washington has repeatedly said would almost certainly trigger new sanctions.

“We urge Turkey at every level and opportunity not to retain the S-400 system and to refrain from purchasing any additional Russian military equipment,” said a State Department spokesperson when asked about Erdogan’s comments.

“We continue to make clear to Turkey that any significant new Russian arms purchases would risk triggering CAATSA 231 sanctions separate from and in addition to those imposed in December 2020,” the spokesperson added, referring to the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.

The spokesperson also said the United States regards Turkey as an ally and friend and seeks ways to strengthen their partnership “even when we disagree.”

Erdogan will meet with President Vladimir Putin in Russia on Wednesday to discuss issues including the violence in northwestern Syria, read the report.

Erdogan also said that U.S. President Joe Biden never raised the issue of Turkey’s human rights track record, seen as extremely troublesome by international rights advocacy groups, confirming Reuters reporting from earlier in September.

Asked whether Biden brought up the issue during their June meeting on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Brussels, Erdogan said: “No he didn’t. And because we don’t have any problems of that nature in terms of freedoms, Turkey is incomparably free.”

Turkey is among the top jailers of journalists, according to figures from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), while Human Rights Watch says Erdogan’s authoritarian rule has been consolidated by the passage of legislation that contravenes international human rights obligations, Reuters reported.

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Putin ends self-isolation with Siberian fishing trip

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(Last Updated On: September 27, 2021)

Russian President Vladimir Putin has spent several days on holiday in Siberia where he was hiking and fishing, the Kremlin said on Sunday, following a short spell in self-isolation as a precautionary measure against COVID-19, Reuters reported.

Putin said in the middle of September he would have to spend “a few days” in self-isolation after dozens of people in his entourage fell ill with COVID-19. He had to cancel his trip to Tajikistan for a security summit.

According to the report Putin has cultivated a macho image, appealing to many Russians, and has previously been pictured riding a horse bare-chested and in sun glasses, as well as carrying a hunting rifle and piloting a fighter jet.

This time, his outings were more mundane.

The Kremlin published 20 photos of Putin standing in a river and catching a fish, walking through lush meadows and talking to Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, his usual holiday companion, read the report.

Putin, 68, has had two shots of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine. The Kremlin has said he was feeling healthy.

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Lavrov says Mali asked private Russian military company for help

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(Last Updated On: September 26, 2021)

Mali has asked a private Russian military company to help it fight against insurgents, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said on Saturday at the United Nations, Reuters reported.

Mali’s year-old military junta is close to a deal to recruit the Russian private military contractors the Wagner Group, sources have told Reuters, triggering opposition from France, which has said it was “incompatible” with a continued French presence in the West African state.

“They are combating terrorism, incidentally, and they have turned to a private military company from Russia in connection with the fact that, as I understand, France wants to significantly draw down its military component which was present there,” Lavrov said of Mali’s junta during a news conference.

According to the report the French defence ministry declined to comment. Paris has started reshaping its 5,000-strong Barkhane mission to include more European partners and earlier this month began redeploying from bases in northern Mali.

Mali’s military junta has said it will oversee a transition to democracy leading to elections in February 2022.

Mali’s Prime Minister Choguel Maiga told the U.N. General Assembly on Saturday that his country felt abandoned by the French move and signaled they were seeking other military help “to fill the gap which will certainly result from the withdrawal of Barkhane in the north of the country.”

“The new situation resulting from the end of Operation Barkhane puts Mali before a fait accompli – abandoning us, mid flight to a certain extent – and it leads us to explore pathways and means to better ensure our security autonomously, or with other partners,” he said.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on Friday that he told Lavrov and his counterpart from Mali this week in New York that the potential deployment of the Wagner Group would be a “red line” for the European Union, “and it would have immediate consequences on our cooperation.”

EU foreign ministers discussed the issue on Monday during a closed-door meeting on the sidelines of the annual gathering of world leaders for the U.N. General Assembly in New York, Reuters reported.

Lavrov said the Russian government had nothing to do with any deal between the private military company and Mali.

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