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Syrian military helicopter shot down amid tensions with Turkey | World news

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A Syrian military helicopter has been shot down over the last major rebel bastion in the northwest of the country, the second such incident in a week of high tensions with neighbouring Turkey.

The attack on Friday in a region where Turkish troops and Russian-backed government forces have engaged in multiple clashes came as Washington urged Ankara to look to its western allies in light of Moscow’s actions.

Syrian and Russian forces have conducted a deadly offensive against the shrinking pocket in the country’s northwest since December, claiming the lives of eight civilians on Friday.

“At approximately 1:40pm (local time), one of our military helicopters was hit by a hostile missile in the western countryside of Aleppo,” Syrian state news agency SANA said.

“This led the helicopter to crash, killing all crew on board.”

It said the aircraft was downed near the town of Urum al-Kubra, where Turkey-backed rebels operate, but did not say who fired the missile.

The Turkey-backed National Liberation Front rebel group claimed responsibility in a statement posted on the Telegram app.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the helicopter’s two pilots were killed.

Three days earlier, another Syrian military helicopter was downed over Idlib province, killing at least three crew members.

Turkish media blamed that attack on rebels, but the Observatory said Ankara’s troops had fired rockets at the aircraft over the village of Qaminas, southeast of Idlib city.

Turkey did not claim responsibility.

Since December, Syrian government forces have undertaken a blistering assault on the last major rebel pocket in the northwestern Idlib region and parts of neighbouring Aleppo and Latakia provinces.

Syrians meet Turkish troops outside their base near the village of Binish, in Idlib province. Turkey, backer of Syria’s opposition, has been deploying equipment and troops in the region, to halt the Syrian military’s advances.



Syrians meet Turkish troops outside their base near the village of Binish, in Idlib province. Turkey, which backs Syria’s opposition, has been deploying equipment and troops in the region, to halt the Syrian military’s advances. Photograph: Ghaith Alsayed/AP

The Observatory said eight civilians, including three children, were killed in the bombardment on Friday, adding that five died in Russian raids near the almost deserted city of Atareb.

Government forces are within 5km of the city, the monitor said.

The assault has sparked the largest wave of displacement in the nine-year conflict, with 800,000 people fleeing since December, according to the United Nations. Among them, some 82,000 people are sleeping rough in sub-zero temperatures.

European members of the UN Security Council called Friday for an immediate end to the Idlib offensive to save lives.

“We demand that the parties, especially the Syrian regime and its allies, immediately end their military offensive, establish a genuine and lasting ceasefire,” said permanent member France and non-permanent members Belgium, Estonia and Germany.

“There can be no sustainable military solution to the Syrian conflict,” they said in a joint statement.

The unprecedented exodus of civilians has triggered alarm in Turkey, which fears an influx across its border.

Turkey first sent troops to Syria in 2016 and has sent reinforcements to the northwest in recent weeks to contain the assault.

That has led to a series of confrontations, including deadly clashes this week that saw government shelling kill five Turkish troops.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened the Syrian government in recent days, saying the offensive violates a 2018 deal with Russia meant to prevent a broad military operation.

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Experts fear false rumours could harm Chinese cooperation on coronavirus | World news

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World-leading experts on the novel coronavirus have signed a statement of support for their Chinese colleagues, who are being attacked on social media and even threatened with violence as false rumours circulate about its origins.

There is a real risk that the open and transparent relationship between the Chinese scientists and their western counterparts will come to an abrupt end, impeding the sharing of data and the hunt for treatments and vaccines against Covid-19, warned Dr Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance in the United States, whose research into emerging diseases led to the identification of the bat origin of Sars, among others.

Daszak is one of 27 prominent public health scientists from nine countries who have signed the statement published by the Lancet medical journal. They include Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust in the UK, Jim Hughes, former director of the National Center for Infectious Diseases in the USA, Rita Colwell, former head of the US National Science Foundation and other leaders in infectious disease research and public health.

“We work very closely with the Chinese scientists. We have had incredible openness with the labs in China for the last 15 years, since Sars,” said Daszak. “We collaborate on what are dangerous viruses and get incredible information that helps public health around the world. That is all under threat right now.”

The Chinese scientists and their families have been abused on social media and threatened with violence. They are saying, said Daszak, “we are not going to talk, because every time we speak we get criticised and threatened”.

Conspiracy theories circulating on social media claim the coronavirus was artificially manufactured in a lab conducting bioweapons research. They are “crackpot theories that need to be addressed, but in the age of social media it is just impossible,” said Daszak.

As with the conspiracy theories around MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccination, those promulgating the rumours are in their own social media echo chambers.

And as with anti-vaxx theories, the unfounded rumours have then been amplified by mainstream politicians such as the US senator Tom Cotton, and international news platforms such as the Daily Mail.

The signatories to the statement, says Daszak, have put their reputations on the line in support of their Chinese counterparts who are being targeted. “There are scientists out there trying to save our lives,” he said. “They have been doing this for 15 years since the Sars outbreak.”

The Lancet letter is a “statement in support of the scientists, public health professionals, and medical professionals of China combatting Covid-19”.

“The rapid, open, and transparent sharing of data on this outbreak is now being threatened by rumours and misinformation around its origins. We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 does not have a natural origin. Scientists from multiple countries have published and analysed genomes of the causative agent, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (Sars-CoV-2) and they overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife, as have so many other emerging pathogens,” it says, linking to all the scientific evidence published so far.

The director general of the World Health Organization, Dr Tedros Adhanom, has also warned against rumours and misinformation, speaking of the “infodemic” that needs to be fought alongside the epidemic.

The statement continues: “Conspiracy theories do nothing but create fear, rumours, and prejudice that jeopardise our global collaboration in the fight against this virus. We support the call from the director-general of WHO to promote scientific evidence and unity over misinformation and conjecture. We want you, the science and health professionals of China, to know that we stand with you in your fight against this virus.”

It calls on other scientists to sign up to the statement. The signatories have also launched a change.org petition for public support.

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Hanau: ‘Eight dead’ in mass shooting in Germany

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Police at scene of shooting in HanauImage copyright
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Police officers and helicopters are at the scene

Eight people are dead following two shootings in the western German city of Hanau, local media report.

Five others were reportedly injured after an unknown attacker opened fire on two shisha bars in the city.

The first shooting was at a bar in the city centre, while the second was in Hanau’s Kesselstadt neighbourhood, according to the reports.

Officials say the suspects fled the scene and are currently at large, Bild newspaper says.

Police officers and helicopters are patrolling both areas.

Three people were killed in the first shooting, and five in the second, regional broadcaster Hessenschau reports. The motive for the attack is unclear.

Hanau, in the state of Hessen, is about 25km (15 miles) east of Frankfurt.

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Tensions mount between EU members ahead of budget talks | World news

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European Union leaders are preparing for acrimonious talks on the bloc’s seven-year budget, amid deepening divisions between the self-styled “frugal” club versus a larger number of countries fighting cuts.

The EU’s 27 leaders will attempt to agree a budget for 2021-27 at a special summit on Thursday, the first such exercise since Brexit blew a €70bn (£58bn) hole in the finances. “It is an exercise in the division of loss, a bit like Brexit,” a senior EU diplomat said.

European council president Charles Michel has taken the high-risk strategy of calling the special one-day summit, which could drag into the weekend if there is a chance of a deal. “We don’t have the intention to keep them imprisoned,” an EU official said. “They are there for the time it will take.”

Brussels budget squabbles are nothing new, but Thursday’s summit threatens to be the most difficult yet. The EU is seeking to spend more on tackling the climate emergency, research and border security, while facing demands to maintain spending on farmers and infrastructure for poorer member states, and dealing with the Brexit black hole. “The facts are the facts,” said the EU official. “We face a €60-75bn gap [over 2021-7] because of Brexit, we are facing new challenges and demands for which money is needed and … the member states have a tight budgetary situation. So realism is needed.”

Adding another layer of division, western countries want better oversight of EU funds, so governments that flout the rule of law, by weakening independent courts, would lose EU funds. Some claim that Michel has gone too far in weakening an original mechanism to ensure that recipients of cohesion funds act in accordance with the rule of law.

The budget battle pits the self-styled “frugal four” – net payers Austria, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands – against “the friends of cohesion”, 15 southern and eastern European countries that seek at least to preserve current agricultural and infrastructure spending.

The two largest net payers (by size of contribution) are outside both camps. France wants to maintain agricultural spending and boost EU defence funds. Germany wants a speedy agreement, to avoid having to solve the budget during EU presidency in the final six months of the year. “The Germans face a dilemma,” said the senior EU diplomat. “They don’t want to own this hot potato. But will they pay up just to avoid it?”

As well as the Brexit gap, the UK leaves another poisonous legacy: the rebate. After Margaret Thatcher secured the British rebate in 1984, some other countries were granted one, effectively a discount on their EU membership fee. While the European commission proposed sweeping away all “corrections”, Michel has proposed that five net payers should keep their rebates. “The rebate is not there just for fun. It is there, because otherwise, things would really get out of hand and off the scale,” said a diplomat from one country that gets a rebate.

Other countries, including net payers such as France, think the rebate has had its day. “Why these five countries? Just because they already had one [a rebate],” said another diplomat. “It is very unfortunate that we continued with this tinkering.”

Although the arguments are big, the sums are relatively small. The “frugal four” want to limit the EU budget to 1% of the EU’s economy, as measured by gross national income (GNI). The European commission proposed 1.11% GNI, while Michel has almost split the difference with his 1.07% compromise plan.

“We have a plan”, said an EU diplomat from one of the self-styled frugal member states. “Plan A is the 1% and the rebate. And we have a plan B which is 1% and the rebate”. The “frugal four” argue that while content to be net payers to the seven-year budget the additional contributions being sought by Michel put an intolerable burden on their taxpayers. The Dutch estimate that the proposals put forward would increase their contribution by 20%.

The battle threatens to be even more ferocious than 2013, when David Cameron helped force through the first-ever cut in the EU’s budget. EU diplomats, outside the frugal camp, argue the previous austerity budget means a low starting point. “Is there really a collective will to act?” asked one diplomat. “We are facing a failure of collective ambition.”

The diplomat said 22 countries think the Michel compromise is not enough, while five find it too much, adding: “the balance is not necessarily in the middle.”

But the frugal four insist they won’t compromise, despite being a minority: “Whose money are you going to spend? In any negotiation you need the investors on board otherwise you won’t get an agreement,” said one frugal diplomat.

Hours ahead of the summit, few EU insiders are banking on a deal. Michel has warned EU leaders in private meetings that failure to find agreement imperils current and new EU programmes due to start in 2021.

“It looks like quite a big gap to reach,” said one of the frugal diplomats. “If not, then we will have to come back a second time, which is not something special because it’s quite normal to not manage it.”

Another diplomat, worried about “unpleasant” media headlines, asked: “Do we want such a fiasco when the numbers are going to be the same in March and April?”

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