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In heat emergency, Greece adds checks for fires, power cuts

ATHENS (AP) — Greek authorities ordered additional fire patrols and infrastructure maintenance inspections Friday as the country grappled with a heat wave fed by hot air from Africa that is expected to last more than a week.
The emergency measures will also include efforts to create more air-conditioned areas open to the public in cities around Greece and at refugee camps, though the efforts are complicated by COVID-19 pandemic-related limits on how many people can gather together.
Temperatures in Greece and nearby countries in southeast Europe are expected to climb to 42 degrees Celsius (107.6 F) in many cities and towns on Monday and ease only later next week.
Officials said the additional inspections were aimed at preventing water and power outages, with the increased use of air conditioning testing the country’s energy capacity.
Sporadic outages were reported in parts of greater Athens on Friday, but some had been planned by the grid operator for maintenance work.
“This is a dangerous weather phenomenon. We have been saying it from the start of the week,” said Theodoris Kolydas, director of Greece’s National Meteorological Service.
“The conditions will be stubborn and only subside gradually… very hot air masses from the shores of Africa are heading toward our region.”
Workers most exposed to the heat, including those in construction, manual labor, catering and elsewhere, will be given longer breaks next week between midday and 4:00 p.m. Employers were also instructed by the Labor Ministry to provide water and air-conditioned rest areas.
As the temperatures rose, three separate wildfires damaged homes in southern Greece this week, outside Athens and the western city of Patras.
Civil protection chief Nikos Hardalias said climate change was raising the fire risk.
“On average (in mid-summer), we are dealing with about 50 fires per day, and many of those are under difficult conditions. That number is clearly increasing each year,” Hardalias told private Antenna television.
“It’s a phenomenon that’s gradually getting worse. Climate change is now a climate threat. I say it everywhere I go. We all have a responsibility to protect the country,” he said.

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Man pleads guilty to assaulting England’s top doctor in park

LONDON (AP) — A man who accosted England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty in a London park pleaded guilty Friday to assault and was ordered to pay the scientist 100 pounds ($140).
Lewis Hughes, 24, and another man filmed themselves harassing Whitty, who has become a nationally recognized figure through appearances at televised coronavirus briefings. One man is seen on video putting his arm around Whitty as they apparently drunkenly ask him for a photograph.
Prosecutor Kalsoom Shah said the incident in St. James’s Park in June was “completely unacceptable” and Hughes’ behavior “was both shocking and disgraceful.”
Hughes pleaded guilty to assault by beating during a hearing at Westminster Magistrates’ Court. He received an eight-week suspended prison sentence and was told to pay 100 pounds in compensation.
The second defendant, 24-year-old Jonathan Chew, pleaded not guilty and is scheduled to stand trial in November.

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UN: 100,000 children in Ethiopia’s Tigray face deadly hunger

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — More than 100,000 children in Ethiopia’s embattled Tigray region could face the most extreme and life-threatening form of malnutrition in the next year, the United Nations children’s agency warned on Friday, as humanitarian aid remains blocked from the region of some 6 million people.
The U.N. estimate, a tenfold increase over the usual caseload in Tigray, is based on “essentially the scenario we’re seeing now, in which the conflict escalates and food access is restricted,” Marixie Mercado with UNICEF’s emergency response team told The Associated Press.
The warning comes as high-level officials from the U.N. and United States visit Ethiopia over the next several days to press the government to lift what the U.S. has described as a “siege” of Tigray and as some 200 food-laden U.N. trucks are stuck on the only remaining road into the region.
The world’s worst hunger crisis in a decade is unfolding in Tigray, where the U.S. says up to 900,000 people now face famine conditions and international food security experts say the crucial planting season “has largely been missed” because of the war.
The UNICEF estimate, based on screenings of more than 430,000 children during the nine-month conflict, comes after a rare visit to two districts in Tigray that had been “virtually inaccessible,” Gijet and Wajirat. While the AP has reported on scores of people dying of starvation in another inaccessible Tigray district, Mercado said she did not hear of any starvation deaths on her visit.
But she warned of “horrifying numbers of acutely malnourished” people and expressed frustration as food, fuel, cash and other supplies are in short supply. While access inside Tigray has improved after a dramatic turn in the war in June as Ethiopian soldiers withdrew and the government declared a unilateral cease-fire, the U.N. has said aid workers are running out of the means to help.
“You can’t bring services to people without fuel,” an exasperated Mercado said, adding that during the visit to the previously inaccessible districts “we were just overwhelmed by the numbers of mothers and children who showed up and desperately wanted some help.”
UNICEF also said screening data shows that 47% of all pregnant and breastfeeding women in Tigray are acutely malnourished, meaning more risk to both mothers and children.
Ethiopia’s government has blamed the aid blockade on the resurgent Tigray forces who have retaken much of the region and crossed into the neighboring Amhara and Afar regions, but a senior official with the U.S. Agency for International Development this week told the AP that is “100% not the case.” USAID administrator Samantha Power is set to visit Ethiopia next week to press for access.
Meanwhile, new U.N. humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths is visiting Tigray as part of a six-day tour in Ethiopia meant to spotlight the crisis, while there is little sign of negotiations in sight between Ethiopia’s government and the Tigray forces who had long dominated Ethiopia’s government and military before being sidelined by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
A U.N. humanitarian update on Friday spelled out some of the latest aid challenges, including harassment and intimidation: No aid convoys have reached Tigray since July 12, even as up to 600 supply-laden trucks are needed weekly. Aid workers on the first U.N. passenger flight to Tigray on July 22 were “extensively searched” and not allowed to bring some essential medicines. And no such flight has received government clearance since then.
Also on Friday, the U.N. special adviser on the prevention of genocide, Alice Wairimu Nderitu, condemned “inflammatory statements used by top political leaders and associated armed groups,” saying the use of terms such as “cancer” and “weed” to refer to the Tigray conflict was of “utmost concern.” Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, earlier this month described the Tigray forces as “weeds” and a “cancer,” further alarming ethnic Tigrayans who have alleged that thousands of non-combatants have been detained during the conflict because of their identity alone. And Tigray forces spokesman Getachew Reda replied by calling the Abiy Ahmeds of the world “cancers to be removed at all costs.”

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Death toll in wildfires that hit southern Turkey rises to 4

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — The death toll in wildfires raging in southern Turkey rose to four as fire crews on Friday battled blazes that burned down homes and forced people to evacuate villages and beach resorts.
Firefighters were still tackling wildfires in 14 locations in six provinces in Turkey’s Mediterranean and southern Aegean region, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters. A total of 57 other wildfires that broke out amid strong winds and scorching heat have been brought under control since Wednesday, he said.
The worst fires were in the Manavgat and Akseki regions in Antalya province, where strong winds pushed the fire toward settlements on Wednesday. An 82-year-old man and a married couple died, more than 50 people were hospitalized and dozens of homes were incinerated. More than 25 neighborhoods or villages were evacuated.
Meanwhile, a 25-year-old volunteer died in another fire near the Turkish resort of Marmaris, 320 kilometers (200 miles) west of Antalya late Thursday, raising the death toll in the fires to four. The state-run Anadolu Agency said the man was taking drinking water to firefighters but got in a motorcycle crash and perished in the fire.
The mountainside fire in Marmaris briefly threatened holiday homes and hotels on Thursday while guests at a luxury hotel in the Aegean beach resort of Guvercinlik, near the town of Bodrum, were evacuated in boats, reports said.
Azerbaijan announced it would send 500 emergency workers, helicopters and other equipment to help Turkey, a close ally, battle the blazes. Erdogan said Azerbaijan would also provide an amphibious firefighting aircraft, in addition to firefighting planes sent from Russia and Ukraine. Neighboring Greece also offered help.
In Greece, authorities on Friday ordered additional fire patrols and infrastructure inspections as the country grappled with a heat wave fed by hot air from Africa that is expected to last more than a week. Temperatures in Greece and nearby countries in southeast Europe are expected to climb to 42 degrees Celsius (107.6 Fahrenheit) Monday in many cities and towns and ease only later next week.
Turkish authorities launched investigations into the fires on Thursday. The mayor for Marmaris said he couldn’t rule out “sabotage” as a cause for the fire there. Erdogan said Friday that the Interior Ministry and intelligence services were “engaged in an intense effort” to shed light on the wildfires.
Wildfires are common in Turkey’s Mediterranean and Aegean regions during the arid summer months, though some previous forest fires have been blamed on arson or outlawed Kurdish militants.
In other Turkish provinces, authorities declared a ban on people entering forests in a bid to prevent more fires.

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Roberto Calasso, Italian publisher and literary figure, dies

ROME (AP) — Roberto Calasso, a towering figure in European publishing as the driving force behind an esteemed Milan-based publisher, as well as an inquisitive and prolific author himself, has died at 80, his company said.
Italian news media, quoting his publishing house Adelphi, said Calasso died Thursday in Milan following a long illness and a wake was held Friday in the publishing house’s Milan headquarters.
Directing Adelphi since 1971 and being its chairman since 1999, Calasso adhered to the philosophy choosing books to publish not on how they might sell but on whether they had something important to say.
A native of Florence, who grew up with parents steeped in the classics, Calasso also wrote his own books, using a fountain pen for all but the final draft. His 1988 “Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony,” a readable, imaginative exploration of Greek mythology, was his best-known work.
Calasso’s tastes in determining what titles Adelphi would publish were eclectic.
Among his literary finds was an Italian physicist, Carlo Rovelli. Calasso started a new imprint to offer readers Rovelli’s 2016 “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics.”
In an article Friday in the Corriere della Sera newspaper, Rovelli recalled their first meeting as emblematic of Calasso’s attitude toward publishing.
“‘Carlo, I read what you wrote. I like it. Whatever you write that you think important, send it to me. Don’t think about writing books that sell, think only if you have true things to say. I’ll publish them,” Rovelli wrote.
“What more can you hope to have from your own publisher?” Rovelli wrote, adding that the “extraordinary care with which he published books is mythical.”
His U.S. editor, Jonathan Galassi of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, called Calasso “one of the great literary publishers of postwar Europe.”
“He was also a prolific writer of wide and deep imagination and insight,” Galassi said in a statement. “Basically, his life’s work was all one project: to plumb the inter-connectedness of human culture across time and across civilizations. There was no one like him.”
Starting with Adelphi when he was 21, Calasso developed the publishing house. Among those he published were Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia and the Czech-born Milan Kundera.
Adelphi was essentially the invention, in 1962, of a Trieste intellectual, Roberto Bazlen, who quickly enlisted the efforts of Luciano Foa’ and the young Calasso, then living in Rome. Italian industrialist Roberto Olivetti helped finance the venture.
Corriere della Sera recalled that Bazlen used to say of Adelphi’s mission: “We’ll only publish the books we really like.” Calasso became editorial director, and later administrator and owner of Adelphi, a kind of “father-master,” the newspaper wrote.
The Paris Review in an 2012 interview with Calasso called him a “literary institution of one” and lauded Adelphi as “Italy’s most prestigious publishing house.”
In that interview, Calasso reminisced about his father, Francesco Calasso, a staunch anti-fascist and a history of law professor at the University of Florence who, in 1944, was almost executed by the then German occupying forces. Calasso reminisced growing up in a “house lined with books.” His mother, Melisenda Codignola, who earned a doctorate with a thesis on one of Plutarch’s works, translated the classics.
In a poignant turn of events, the publisher died just as two of his works, described as his most auto-biographical, went on sale in Italy’s bookshops: “Meme’ Scianca,” which draws on his Florentine childhood in a household of intellectuals, and “Bobi,” about the life of Bazlen.
The subjects of Calasso’s writing were wide-ranging, reflecting his curiosity, and included artist Giambattista Tiepolo and author Franz Kafka.
Of Calasso’s own books, “it’s difficult to say in particular what they spoke about, not because they wander but because they follow an internal logical that knows no borders,” the Italian news agency ANSA wrote.
Calasso also wrote about what he called the fascination with technology, bemoaning how the digital age was “the gravest assault that the inclination to expose oneself to the shock of the unknown has known.”
Wrote Corriere della Sera in its tribute, “for Calasso, the unknown is the essence of literature.”

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Tunisia’s turmoil is being watched warily around the globe

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Days of political turmoil in Tunisia over a crippled economy and surging coronavirus infections have unnerved allies in Europe and the United States, while garnering the support of key Mideast partners watching to see if Islamists and Tunisia’s fragile democracy will survive.
European countries -– most notably nearby Italy — worry about a flood of migrants should Tunisia slide further into chaos.
Autocratic leaders from Egypt to Saudi Arabia hope this week’s power grab by Tunisian President Kais Saied spells doom for the region’s Islamists. But they also fear a reignited Arab Spring, like the region-wide uprisings kindled by Tunisia a decade ago.
And around the world, pro-democracy campaigners wonder if a country they held up as a beacon is losing its promise of democratic rule, as other nations roiled by Arab Spring protests have.
“The ball is now in the people’s court,” said Egyptian activist el-Ghazaly Harb in a Facebook post. “They are able to correct the path without abandoning the peaceful democratic model that we all hope they can see to the end,” he said. “The answer will always be Tunisia.”
Tunisia, with only 12 million of Africa’s 1.3 billion people, holds outsized symbolism as a nation that designed a democracy from scratch and earned a Nobel Peace Prize after its largely bloodless revolution.
Without warning on Sunday, Saied froze the nation’s parliament, fired top ministers and took over executive powers and supervision of public prosecution, saying he had to save the country, which is suffering from its worst outbreak of the virus to date and a failing economy. While many Tunisians welcomed his move, critics called it a coup. Media and human rights groups expressed alarm at the closure of the Al-Jazeera news bureau in Tunis.
In recent days, Saied has moved against allegedly corrupt lawmakers and tycoons and strengthened military oversight of the nation’s response to the coronavirus. He and his aides held a flurry of meetings with foreign allies, promising that his power grab is temporary.
But his next steps are unclear.
The main victim of his decision -– the Islamist party Ennahdha -– promises to resist, peacefully.
Tunisian analysts don’t expect an army-driven takeover like that seen in Egypt, or a return to the autocratic past, thanks in part to a population that’s no longer afraid to speak out. But the situation is volatile, and new protests may occur Saturday.
Pro-government voices in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are celebrating the moves as a victory over political Islam, which they see as a threat to their governing systems – notably in Gulf states where political parties are banned.
Egypt is watching carefully; It was the first to follow Tunisia in an outburst of mass protests in 2011. In the aftermath, the highly organized Muslim Brotherhood rose to power, but was ousted in 2013 amid a military-backed popular uprising led by Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, who was supported by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
El-Sissi has embarked on economic reforms and brought some political stability to the Arab world’s most populous country, but his tenure has been marred by the jailing of tens of thousands of people.
Leading Brotherhood figures now face death sentences or life in prison. The group has been outlawed and branded a “terrorist group” in Egypt and the UAE, which itself has detained dozens of Emirati Islamist figures.
Some activists worry Tunisia could head down a similar path, despite Saied’s credentials as an independent technocrat.
“Coups are not only started by the military; they can be started by a civilian and completed by officers,” said Shady Lewis Boutros, an Egyptian novelist and writer who lives in the U.K., in a Facebook post.
Abdelrahman al-Rashed, who runs a Saudi-owned media group and is close to the royal court, said Saied is saving the country from returning to the chaos sparked by the Arab Spring. In a column for the Arabic Ashraq al-Awsat newspaper, he wrote that political turmoil in Tunisia marks the “death of the Muslim Brotherhood’s authority.”
Ennahdha itself has distanced itself from more militant Islamists, and its leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, told The Associated Press this week that its critics are using it as a scapegoat for Tunisia’s problems. He noted that his party has played a major role in parliament in the decade since the revolution, which opened the way for his return from 22 years of exile in London, and won the most seats in the last legislative elections.
Some question whether the Gulf states had a role in Tunisia’s current tensions. But others argue that Tunisians are more focused on day-to-day concerns than the discourse around the Muslim Brotherhood.
Meanwhile, Tunisia’s strategic importance to the European Union cannot be overstated.
From 2014-20, the bloc invested 1.6 billion euros ($1.9 billion) in Tunisia to build democracy and provide social and economic aid. It has given 330 million euros ($392 million) to help the country recover from the impact of coronavirus restrictions. Another 600 million euros ($712 million) in EU macro-financial assistance was agreed to in May.
Most significantly, Tunisia is a key partner in limiting the flow of migrants from Africa to the EU. The 27 member states are hopelessly divided over how to manage the arrivals of those seeking a better life in Europe, so the bloc has resorted to outsourcing the challenge to other countries.
However, Tunisians now make up one of the largest groups of people seeking asylum in Europe. And the “Tunisia corridor” is a growing concern for the EU’s border and coast guard agency Frontex.
From 2019 to 2020, the number of people reaching Italy from Tunisia grew by almost 400%, to more than 13,000 people, according to some nongovernmental organizations. That includes a period when COVID-19 restrictions significantly reduced migrant movements.
Saied had a “frank discussion on irregular migration” in Brussels last month with top EU officials, and they agreed to work more closely against smugglers and on border management. The latest turmoil adds to concern in Europe that things might get worse.
On Tuesday, the EU’s top diplomat called for Tunisia’s constitutional order to be restored, without directly apportioning any blame.
The U.S. government also is watching closely. In addition to supporting its democracy, the U.S. has helped fund Tunisia’s efforts to tamp down violent Islamic extremism.
Just hours after Saied’s announcement, he spoke with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who urged him to “adhere to the principles of democracy and human rights” and “maintain open dialogue with all political actors and the Tunisian people.”
Tunisians themselves want jobs and opportunity, which have remained elusive since their revolution, and many support the president — at least for now.
While there is a risk of new mass unrest, Tunisian political scientist Mohamed-Dhia Hammami said “there are strong political actors in Tunisia who can play the role of counterbalance,” including labor unions. And unlike in Egypt, Tunisia’s military has little control over the economy.
Omar Oudherni, a retired Tunisian army brigadier and security expert, said the Tunisian people “will not be silent on any tyrant.”
“Doing what is good will receive support, and if (Saied) wants dictatorship, the people will sweep him up, as they swept others,” he added.

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Tunisian police detain lawmaker, Islamist party officials

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Tunisian authorities jailed an opposition lawmaker Friday and briefly detained four members of the powerful Islamist movement Ennahdha in the wake of the president’s decision to seize exceptional powers, according to Tunisian media reports.
The Ennahdha members were brought before investigating magistrates and accused of trying to incite violence outside the parliament building after President Kais Saied’s announcement Sunday, according to party official Riadh Chaidi.
The four were questioned but later released for lack of proof of violence, Chaidi told The Associated Press.
The president suspended parliament, lifted the immunity of parliament members, fired the prime minister and took control of the executive branch. He said the move was necessary to save the country amid public anger at the government over joblessness, rising prices and one of Africa’s worst coronavirus outbreaks.
But Saied’s decision raised concerns about Tunisia’s young democracy. Critics — most notably Ennahdha — accused him of a coup. Ennahdha has been a major player in Tunisian legislative elections since the country’s 2011 revolution, which unleashed the Arab Spring uprisings across the region.
The next day, Ennahdha supporters skirmished with backers of the president outside parliament, but the crowd was eventually dispersed by police.
Among those detained Friday were the bodyguard of Ennahdha leader and parliament speaker Rachid Ghannouchi, his protocol officer and a member of the party’s advisory council.
The four were accused of inciting people from a working-class neighborhood close to parliament to bring sticks to carry out acts of violence during the rally, according to the official TAP news agency.
“There was no link with violence,” said Chaidi, a member of the party’s executive bureau. “Violence is not a choice of Ennahdha.”
He sought to minimize the detentions, and played down concerns that they were a sign of a government crackdown singling out his party.
Also Friday, outspoken legislator Yassine Ayari was arrested outside his home, according to a Facebook post by his party, the Hope and Action Movement.
His lawyer Mokhtar Jemai said Ayari was apparently arrested in connection with a June 30 court conviction, but was not informed of the reason for conviction. Ayari has spoken out against the military and the government and faced legal problems in the past, but no longer enjoys parliamentary immunity because of the president’s decisions.
On Thursday, the president named a new interior minister, his first major appointment since the shakeup. Ridha Gharsallaoui, a former national security adviser to the presidency, will now head the Interior Ministry, which oversees domestic security, including policing.

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At small Serbia border village, migrants describe pushbacks

MAJDAN, Serbia (AP) — At first sight, this tiny village in Serbia seems sleepy and almost abandoned, like many others across the Balkan country.
But a closer look reveals a parallel reality lived by its temporary migrant residents, who are struggling to cross from Serbia over heavily guarded borders with neighboring European Union states Romania and Hungary.
Majdan has been one of the hubs along Serbia’s border with EU neighbors where migrants remain stranded, often for months, while making dozens of thwarted attempts to cross the border and move on toward Western Europe. It encapsulates their problem: they can’t go forward and they can’t go back.
Authorities deny it, but the migrants tell stories of being repeatedly pushed back at the border in what is an illegal anti-migrant strategy.
Here, empty or abandoned houses serve as temporary homes to people who fled their own homes in the Middle East, Africa or Asia with the aim of starting a new life somewhere else. At the moment, Majdan is hosting about 200 migrants — just slightly fewer than the village’s own registered population.
“Border closed, border with Romania (is) big problem,” said 24-year old Palestinian Marsel Abohosein, speaking in English. He added that in the past month he has tried 20 or 30 times to cross and was pushed back every time. “Police catch me and (send) back to Serbia.”
Groups of migrants walking in scorching heat through corn or sunflower fields toward the border with Romania are a common sight in Majdan.
The migrants’ persistence reflects both their determination and their hardship in their quest for a better future.
Because Hungary’s border with Serbia is strongly fenced to prevent crossings, migrants in Majdan go toward Romania first and then Hungary from there. Thousands of others stuck in Serbia also aim for Croatia in the west, or go to Bosnia first and then Croatia, an EU member with a reputation for police brutality against migrants that authorities have denied.
Despite numerous allegations of abuse, nations along the migrant routes into Europe have rejected pushback and violence claims, which are very hard to verify independently.
Aadam Ahmed from Somalia said that police in Romania and Hungary have pushed him back to Serbia nine times in the past month. He shares a village house in Majdan with his fellow Somalis and with Syrians, including an 8-year-old boy.
“I have no house in Somalia, I am a poor man. … I want to go to Europe,” he said. “I come (to) this house and I wash my clothes, I cook my food, but another time I will go. Try again.”
Human rights activists have repeatedly warned that pushbacks are a violation of both international and EU norms, which ban forcible returns of people to other countries without looking into their individual circumstances or allowing them to apply for asylum.
A report released in July by several organizations listed the Majdan area as one of the flashpoints that involved one or more forms of ill-treatment and violation of human rights, including physical abuse, abusive and degrading treatment and denied access to asylum procedures,
The report included incidents in April-June 2021, involving 3,403 persons in various countries and alleged also that parents are being separated from their children by different border authorities and pushed back.
The report was the work of a partnership between the Danish Refugee Council and six civil society organizations.
“The numbers alone are outrageous, but behind the statistics are real children, women and men,” said DRC’s Secretary General Charlotte Slente. “And often, these people have had not one, but multiple such experiences, at the same or different borders.”
In Majdan, most migrants were reluctant to speak to The Associated Press, apparently fearing retribution or that talking to journalists could harm their efforts. Unable to cross on their own, migrants often seek help from people smugglers to guide them over the borders.
A man from Somalia, who said his name is Abdifitah Ahmed, said he left his country a year ago and has been in Serbia for the past five months. In what migrants have dubbed “a game,” he has tried to cross the border 14 times and failed.
“(I will try) Romania to Hungary another time for good luck,” he said. “Police Romania catch (me) … back to Serbia.”
Meanwhile, a fellow migrant was preparing scrambled eggs in an old pot on an improvised fire in the yard. Washed clothes and sneakers could be seen drying in the sun, while a rear view mirror from a car was hanging on one of the walls, now serving as a small wall mirror.
At the other end of the village, in another house, migrants were using an old sofa to sit outside during the day. Inside, makeshift beds and personal belongings could be seen lined by the walls. An old ceiling in one of the rooms has started to crumble.
Ahmed said it was still all worth it, compared with the life he had left behind.
“Somali life no good,” he said. “Europe life is good.”

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US Navy says drone strike hit oil tanker off Oman, killing 2

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — U.S. Navy explosive experts believe a “drone strike” targeted an oil tanker that came under attack off the coast of Oman in the Arabian Sea, killing two on board, the American military said Saturday.
The strike Thursday night on the oil tanker Mercer Street marks the first-known fatal attack after years of assaults on commercial shipping in the region linked to tensions with Iran over its tattered nuclear deal. While no one has claimed responsibility for the attack, Israeli officials alleged Tehran launched the drone strike.
While Iran did not directly acknowledge the attack, the strike comes as Tehran now appears poised to take an even tougher approach with the West as the country prepares to inaugurate a hard-line protégé of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as president.
The American nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and the guided missile destroyer USS Mitscher were escorting the Mercer Street as it headed to a safe port, the U.S. Navy’s Mideast-based 5th Fleet said in a statement early Saturday.
“U.S. Navy explosives experts are aboard to ensure there is no additional danger to the crew, and are prepared to support an investigation into the attack,” the 5th Fleet said. “Initial indications clearly point to a (drone)-style attack.”
The 5th Fleet statement did not explain how it determined a drone caused the damage, although it described its explosive experts finding “clear visual evidence that an attack had occurred” aboard the Mercer Street. The U.S. military’s Central Command did not immediately respond to a questions on the evidence.
The drone attack blasted a hole through the top of the oil tanker’s bridge, where the captain and crew command the vessel, a U.S. official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as an investigation into the attack still was ongoing.
The Mercer Street is managed by London-based Zodiac Maritime, part of Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer’s Zodiac Group. The firm said the attack killed two crew members, one from the United Kingdom and the other from Romania. It did not name them, nor did it describe what happened in the assault. It said it believed no other crew members on board were harmed.
British maritime security firm Ambrey said the attack on Mercer Street had killed one of its team members on board the vessel.
The Mercer Street, empty of cargo, had been on its way from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, at the time of the attack, Zodiac Maritime said. The attack targeted the tanker just northeast of the Omani island of Masirah, over 300 kilometers (185 miles) southeast of Oman’s capital, Muscat. Oman’s state-run news agency late Friday described the area as “beyond Omani regional waters” and said its forces responded to the tanker’s mayday call.
Zodiac Maritime described the Mercer Street’s owners as Japanese, without naming them. Shipping authority Lloyd’s List identified the vessel’s ultimate owner as Taihei Kaiun Co., which belongs to the Tokyo-based Nippon Yusen Group.
Israeli officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren’t authorized to talk to the media, blamed Tehran for the attack. They offered no evidence to support their claim.
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid tweeted late Friday that he spoke with British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab about the “need to respond severely” to the attack, although he stopped short of directly blaming Iran.
“Iran is not just an Israeli problem, but an exporter of terrorism, destruction and instability that affects the whole world,” Lapid wrote. “We can never remain silent in the face of Iranian terrorism, which also harms freedom of navigation.”
Other Israel-linked ships have been targeted in recent months as well amid a shadow war between the two nations, with Israeli officials blaming the Islamic Republic for the assaults.
Israel meanwhile has been suspected in a series of major attacks targeting Iran’s nuclear program. Also, Iran saw its largest warship recently sink under mysterious circumstances in the nearby Gulf of Oman.
Thursday’s attack comes amid heightened tensions over Iran’s tattered nuclear deal and as negotiations over restoring the accord have stalled in Vienna. The series of ship attacks suspected to have been carried out by Iran began a year after then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the accord in 2018.
The attack on the Mercer Street also came the night after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking from Kuwait, warned Iran that talks in Vienna over the nuclear deal “cannot go on indefinitely.”
This is the second time this month a ship tied to Ofer apparently has been targeted. In early July, the Liberian-flagged container ship CSAV Tyndall, once tied to Zodiac Maritime, suffered an unexplained explosion on board while in the northern Indian Ocean, according to the U.S. Maritime Administration.

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European economy grows 2%, ending double-dip recession

FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) — Europe emerged from a double-dip recession in the second quarter with stronger-than-expected growth of 2.0% over the quarter before, according to official figures released Friday, as pandemic restrictions eased, consumers started spending built-up savings and major companies showed stronger results.
But the economy in the 19 countries that use the shared euro currency still lagged behind pre-pandemic levels and trailed the faster recoveries in the U.S. and China, as the highly transmissible delta virus variant cast a shadow of uncertainty over the upturn.
The growth figure for the April-June quarter announced by the European Union’s statistics agency Eurostat compared to a drop of 0.3% in the first quarter of 2021, as eurozone nations endured a double-dip recession after a rebound in mid-2020. The second-quarter growth figure was stronger than the 1.5% foreseen by market analysts.
Much of the improvement came from southern European countries that had earlier been hit hard by large COVID-19 outbreaks and a loss of tourism revenue.
Italy, which endured 128,000 pandemic deaths and a deep recession, was a major positive surprise in the last quarter, growing 2.7% as consumer spending revived. Portugal boomed with 4.9% growth. Meanwhile, growth returned in Germany, the EU’s largest economy, which saw output increase by 1.5% after a sharp drop of 2.1% in the first quarter.
German auto companies in particular have shown strong profits despite a shortage of semiconductor components as global auto markets recover, particularly for the higher-priced vehicles sold by Mercedes-Benz and by Volkswagen’s Audi and Porsche luxury brands.
In another sign of rebounding activity, European plane maker Airbus this week raised its outlook for deliveries this year.
Yet over the long haul, the eurozone recovery lags the one in the U.S., where the economy surpassed its pre-pandemic level during the second quarter in 2021 with growth of 1.6% over the previous quarter.
Friday’s figures leave the eurozone 3% smaller than before the virus outbreak, according to Capital Economics. China, which was hit first by the outbreak of coronavirus, was the only major world economy to continue growing during the pandemic year of 2020.
The stronger performance in southern Europe may be the result of households increasing their spending as restrictions are eased, said Andrew Kenningham, chief Europe economist at Capital Economics.
Spain, with growth of 2.8% and consumer outlays up 6.6%, illustrated the rebound as well as underlining how far it has to go. Gross domestic product there remains 6.8% below where it was before the pandemic.
A slow vaccination rollout held back the European economy in the first months of the year. But Europe has made steady progress since, in recent days passing the U.S. in total vaccinations adjusted for population.
Still, the spread of the highly contagious delta variant has led to predictions that it may slow, though not derail, Europe’s economic upturn. Travel and tourism are recovering but remain subdued.
“Given its reliance on tourism, the Spanish economy looks especially vulnerable to the delta variant that is forcing several regions in the country to impose new restrictions, while foreign governments are discouraging trips to the Iberian Peninsula,” said Edoardo Campanella, economist at UniCredit Bank in Milan.
Other figures released Friday showed eurozone unemployment at 7.7% in June, down from 8.0% in May. Inflation rose to 2.2% in July from 1.9% in June.
The eurozone economy has been sustained by heavy government spending on pandemic relief, including subsidies for companies that keep furloughed workers on the payroll.
The European Central Bank is adding monetary support by keeping interest rate benchmarks at record lows and by purchasing 1.85 trillion euros ($2.2 trillion) in government and corporate bonds through at least March 2022. That step drives down longer-term borrowing rates and helps keep credit flowing to businesses and governments.