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US ambassador in Moscow heads home for consultations

MOSCOW (AP) — The U.S. ambassador to Russia said Tuesday he will head home for consultations — a move that comes after the Kremlin prodded him to take a break as Washington and Moscow traded sanctions.
The Kremlin emphasized that it couldn’t order Ambassador John Sullivan to leave for consultations and could only “recommend” that he do so amid the current tensions.
Sullivan said in a statement that he is returning to the United States this week to discuss U.S.-Russian ties with members of President Joe Biden’s administration. He emphasized that he would come back to Moscow within weeks.
“I believe it is important for me to speak directly with my new colleagues in the Biden administration in Washington about the current state of bilateral relations between the United States and Russia,” Sullivan said in a statement issued by the embassy. “Also, I have not seen my family in well over a year, and that is another important reason for me to return home for a visit.”
Sullivan’s departure comes after Russia on Friday stopped short of asking Sullivan to leave the country but said it “suggested” that he follows the example of the Russian ambassador to the U.S., who was recalled from Washington last month after President Joe Biden described Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “killer.” Russia has set no time frame for Ambassador Anatoly Antonov’s return to Washington.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the ambassadors’ departures reflect current tensions in the relationship between the United States and Russia.
“The relations now have hit the bottom,” Peskov said. “There are certain consequences of the unfriendly measures taken against our country and the retaliatory measures taken by us.”
On Thursday, the Biden administration announced sanctions on Russia for interfering in the 2020 U.S. presidential election and for involvement in the SolarWind hack of federal agencies — activities Moscow has denied. The U.S. ordered 10 Russian diplomats expelled, targeted dozens of companies and people and imposed new curbs on Russia’s ability to borrow money.
Russia denounced the U.S. move as “absolutely unfriendly and unprovoked” and retaliated by ordering 10 U.S. diplomats to leave, blacklisting eight current and former U.S. officials and tightening requirements for the U.S. Embassy operations.
While ordering the sanctions, Biden also called for de-escalating tensions and held the door open for cooperation with Russia in certain areas.
Biden emphasized that he told Putin that he chose not to impose tougher sanctions for now and proposed to meet in a third country in the summer. Russia said it was studying the offer.
“I will return to Moscow in the coming weeks before any meeting between Presidents Biden and Putin,” Sullivan said in Tuesday’s statement.
On Monday, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan had a call with Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the Russian presidential Security Council, to discuss the prospect of a U.S.-Russian summit and they “agreed to continue to stay in touch,” according to a statement from U.S. National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne.
Peskov noted the Sullivan-Patrushev call, adding Tuesday that “if it becomes expedient, the ambassadors will come back and resume their duties.”
“As for the Russian ambassador, the president of Russia will decide when such expediency comes,” Peskov said during a conference call with reporters.
He said, “Russia certainly can’t order” the U.S. ambassador to return home for consultations but can recommend that he do so.
John Sullivan is a rarity in the U.S. diplomatic corps: a non-career Trump administration political ambassadorial appointee whom Biden has asked to stay on.
His return to Washington for consultations comes not only at a moment of soaring tensions with Moscow over the new sanctions and Russia’s troop buildup along the Ukraine border, but as the Biden administration is gradually assembling its Russia policy team.
Just last week, the Senate confirmed Wendy Sherman to Sullivan’s previous job as deputy secretary of state, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to vote on Wednesday on the nomination of Victoria Nuland, a Russia hawk and expert on the country, to the State Department’s number 3 position, undersecretary of state for political affairs.
Sherman, who played a leading role in U.S. negotiations with North Korea during the Clinton administration and with Iran during the Obama administration, and Nuland, who as assistant secretary of state for European Affairs, incurred Moscow’s wrath during the 2014 Maidan uprising in Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, are both expected to be heavily involved in formulating strategies for dealing with Russia. In addition, Biden has nominated a former senior National Security Council official, Karen Donfried, to Nuland’s old post running European affairs at the State Department.
All three women will be primary points of contact for Sullivan in Moscow and he has yet to meet any of them in person in his current position.
While the new U.S. sanctions further limited Russia’s ability to borrow money by banning U.S. financial institutions from buying Russian government bonds directly from state institutions, they didn’t target the secondary market. The Biden administration held the door open for more hard-hitting moves if need be.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said that “we are in the very beginning of analyzing the situation” regarding Biden’s summit proposal and no specifics have been discussed yet. “A big question is what course the U.S. will take,” Ryabkov said in remarks carried by Russian news agencies.
Fyodor Lukyanov, a leading Moscow-based foreign policy expert, said while the Kremlin’s advice to Sullivan to leave for consultations stopped short of expulsion, it reflected Moscow’s dismay about the new sanctions.
“If the political contacts have been reduced to zero, and economic ties never were close enough, why have so many people in the embassies?” Lukyanov said in a commentary. He predicted that ties will continue to deteriorate despite Biden’s offer to hold a summit.
“During the past Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States at least shared a certain mutual respect and a recognition of each other’s political legitimacy, and it’s no longer the case,” Lukyanov observed.
“Each party sees the other as heading toward decay and lacking the moral and political right to behave as it does,” he said.

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Russia’s feared prisons follow system from Soviet Gulag era

MOSCOW (AP) — Some Russian prisons might be mistaken for vacation destinations based on their nicknames, with animal appellations that include the Black Dolphin and the Polar Owl. But a hunger strike by jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny cast a spotlight on the fear and torment that critics say are the signatures of Russia’s prison system.
Amid reports about his declining health, Navalny was transferred Sunday from a penal colony known for its particularly strict treatment of inmates to a hospital unit in another prison.
Russia’s penal institutions house nearly 520,000 inmates, by far the largest number in Europe though a slightly smaller proportion of the general population than prisoners represent in Turkey. Most of the country’s prisons are collective colonies, a system dating back to the Soviet Gulag era, with inmates sleeping in dormitories and working in production facilities.
Russian President Vladimir Putin “is satisfied with such prisons….He wants to have a frightening instrument in his hands. You need to have a place where everyone is afraid to go,” Olga Romanova, head of the prisoners’ rights group Rus Sidyashchaya (Russia Behind Bars), said.
In the penal colony where Navalny had been held since March, metal bunk beds stand in long rows in a room with aqua-painted walls that resembles a low-budget backpackers’ hostel, according to a report from Russia’s state-funded RT television. RT correspondent Maria Butina, who served 18 months in the United States for a conviction of being a foreign agent, claimed the prison was “more like a Scout camp” and far better than what she experienced in a U.S. federal prison.
Konstantin Kotov, who spent time in the penal colony 85 kilometers (53 miles) east of Moscow while serving an 18-month sentence for participating in an unauthorized protest, said RT’s portrayal is accurate but superficial. The prison officially is called IK-2 — IK being the acronym for Ispravitelnaya Koloniya or Corrective Colony — and hasn’t been given a nickname.
“As to living conditions, they are normal in principle….Everything is on a pretty good level – renovated facilities, more-or-less decent food – but that’s it in terms of positive things,” Kotov told The Associated Press.
Medical care is slow and inadequate, he said, recalling that he had to wait two months to see a doctor about a rash that prison medics said was an allergy but turned out to be scabies, a mite infection.
Kotov said the only up-to-date medical equipment he saw in the prison was an X-ray machine used to examine inmates for tuberculosis. The disease is a persistent problem in Russian prisons, although the current infection rate of about 500 per 100,000 prisoners is far lower than the 3-in-10 infection rate of the 1990s, according to epidemiologist Olga Vinokurova of People’s Friendship University.
Navalny began his hunger strike on March 31 to protest what he said was poor medical care for severe back pain and loss of feeling in his extremities and to demand the authorities allow a visit by his personal doctor.
Other hunger strikers in Russian prisons have attracted wide international concern. Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov lasted 145 days, taking only glucose and vitamins, before abandoning his strike under the threat of forced feeding.
Kotov said the guards at the prison appear eager to harass inmates by finding niggling procedural violations, such as failing to greet an officer or using gloves during an outdoor roll call in cold weather.
“What’s most important about these reprimands is that they use them to strip you of a chance to get parole. So you fail to greet an officer and will stay behind bars to the end of your term,” he said.
Dmitry Demushkin, a Russian nationalist leader who also served time in the penal colony, said the physical demands could be excruciating.
“Much worse than beatings is the detention regime. You either stand for six to eight hours a day or you sit with your back straight, legs together, arms on your knees and nothing can be done,” Demushkin told RT in a program that aired about two years before its broadcast about Navalny’s prison conditions.
“For any action, for example, if you want to scratch your nose, you have to get permission from the ‘activists,'” he said, using the term that prisoners apply to inmates who cooperate with the guards and report on fellow prisoners’ behavior.
Occasionally, images leak of inmates living a much different, even lavish, sort of life. A year ago, photos emerged appearing to show Zaur Dadayev, who was convicted of the 2015 assassination of leading opposition figure Boris Nemtsov, sitting along with other prisoners at a long table laden with food. Prison authorities promised to open a probe but never reported the findings.
Neither Kotov nor Demushkin reported being beaten, but beatings and torture of inmates are common in other prisons.
While the colony in the town of Pokrov is an example of so-called “red” prisons where regulations are meticulously observed and authorities watch over inmates’ every step, violence reportedly is widespread in “black” prisons where inmates set their own rules and authorities look the other way.
Human rights groups periodically release videos showing prisoners getting beaten and tortured. In February, independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported on videos from a penal colony that it said showed beatings in 2016-2017, including of one inmate who died a month later.
The beatings took place at the same prison that figured in a 2018 case that led to the convictions of 13 prison guards who beat an inmate as he lay facedown on a table. The guards received sentences of three or four years, and the prison’s director and deputy were acquitted.
In the most-severe prisons, such as the Black Dolphin, routine procedures appear to come close to actions that are considered unacceptable torture under international human rights laws. Video from Russian television shows prisoners shoved down corridors while blindfolded, forced to bent over with hands cuffed behind them and their arms raised high.
Romanova, the prisoner rights activist, said she thinks the cruelty stems from the kind of people who gravitate to work in the penal system.
“People go to work there according to the leftover principle — when they no longer can be taken anywhere else. And they themselves often live the same way as prisoners,” she said by email. “They are so used to it and do not understand that it is possible to be otherwise.”

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Egypt fires top railway official after deadly train crashes

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt’s transportation minister on Tuesday said he sacked the country’s top railway official, following three train accidents in less than a month that left at least 29 people dead and some 320 injured.
The firing of Asharf Raslan, head of the railway authority, was part of a wide ranging overhaul of the rundown railway system’s leadership amid public outcry over repeated train crashes.
Raslan, who headed the railway authority since July 2018, was replaced Mustafa Abuel-Makarm, the office of Transportation Minister Kamal el-Wazir said in a statement.
The changes included the main departments of the railway authority that manages train traffic in the Arab world’s most populous country.
The overhaul was designed to “inject a number of competent professionals” amid efforts to upgrade the poorly-maintained network.
The changes came after a passenger train derailed Sunday north of Cairo, killing at least 11 people and injuring at least 98 others. That followed another train crash in the Nile Delta province of Sharqia last week that left 15 people wounded.
After Sunday’s crash, President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi announced the establishment of an official commission to investigate its causes. Prosecutors also launched their own probe.
On March 25, two passenger trains collided in the southern province of Sohag, killing at least 18 people and injuring 200 others, including children. Prosecutors blamed gross negligence by railway employees for that crash.
The country’s railway system, one of the world’s oldest, has a history of badly maintained equipment and poor management.
The government says it has launched a broad renovation and modernization initiative, buying train cars and other equipment from European and U.S. manufacturers to automate the system and develop a domestic railcar industry.
El-Sissi said in March 2018 that the government needs about 250 billion Egyptian pounds, or $14.1 billion, to overhaul the run-down rail system.
Hundreds of train accidents are reported every year. In February 2019 an unmanned locomotive slammed into a barrier inside Cairo’s main Ramses railway station, causing a huge explosion and a fire that killed at least 25 people. That crash prompted the then-transportation minister to resign.
In August 2017, two passenger trains collided just outside the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, killing 43 people. In 2016, at least 51 people were killed when two commuter trains collided near Cairo.
Egypt’s deadliest train crash was in 2002, when over 300 people were killed after a fire broke out in an overnight train traveling from Cairo to southern Egypt.

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1st woman applies to run for Syria’s presidential elections

BEIRUT (AP) — A woman from the capital Damascus has applied to run for Syria’s presidential elections, the parliament speaker said Tuesday, becoming the first female to make a bid for the country’s top job in a largely symbolic vote certain to be won by President Bashar Assad.
The presidential election, the second since the country’s civil war broke out 10 years ago, is to be held May 26. Syrians abroad will vote on May 20.
Speaker Hammoud Sabbagh said Faten Ali Nahar, a 50-year-old resident of Damascus, has nominated herself for the post. Little is known about Nahar. The parliament speaker provided her age, place birth and her mother’s name in the announcement. There were no reports on who she is on social media.
Two other candidates have submitted their names, including a businessman who applied to run against Assad in 2014. Then Assad won nearly 90% of the votes.
While Assad has not yet applied, he is widely expected to run for a fourth seven-year term. He has held power since 2000, when he took over after the death of his father who ran the country for 30 years.
Syria only allowed multi-candidate votes in the last elections in 2014, where competition with Assad was symbolic and seen by opposition and Western countries as a sham aimed to give the incumbent president a veneer of legitimacy.
The international community is unlikely to recognize the legitimacy of the upcoming elections. According to the UN resolution for a political resolution of the conflict in Syria, a new constitution is supposed to be drafted, approved in a public referendum before a U.N.-monitored presidential elections are to take place. But little progress has been made on the drafting committee while Assad continues to have the backing of Russia and Iran.
Last month, the Biden administration said it will not recognize the result of its presidential election unless the voting is free, fair, supervised by the United Nations and represents all of Syrian society.
Syria has been in the throes of civil war since 2011, when Arab Spring-inspired protests against the Assad family rule turned into an armed insurgence in response to a brutal military crackdown.

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Laschet wins battle to lead Merkel’s bloc in German election

BERLIN (AP) — Armin Laschet, the governor of Germany’s most populous state, emerged victorious Tuesday from a bruising power struggle and became the candidate of Angela Merkel’s center-right bloc to succeed the longtime chancellor in the country’s September election.
Laschet, 60, now faces another big battle: to connect with voters and win over frustrated fellow conservatives who backed his more popular rival, Markus Soeder.
Their Union bloc was the last major political force to nominate a candidate for chancellor in the Sept. 26 parliamentary election. Merkel isn’t seeking a fifth term after nearly 16 years in power.
The race turned into a heated duel after both Laschet, the leader of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, and Soeder, who leads its smaller Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, declared their interest in succeeding Merkel.
“The die is cast: Armin Laschet will be the chancellor candidate of the Union,” Soeder said Tuesday, conceding after the CDU leadership backed Laschet in a late-night vote. “Only a united Union can be successful,” he added.
“We will support him without a grudge, with all our strength,” he told reporters in Munich.
Parts of the CDU strongly favored Soeder, while others vehemently opposed his bid to elbow Laschet aside for the top job. Soeder has much better poll ratings, but Laschet was elected in January to lead by far the bigger of the sister parties. It was primarily a conflict of personality and style rather than policy.
Laschet is the governor of the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Soeder is the governor of Bavaria.
Early last week, Laschet informally rallied the CDU leadership behind his bid. But Soeder said the matter shouldn’t be resolved “only in a small back room.”
After days of talks failed to produce a solution but laid bare deep divisions in the CDU, Soeder said Monday that the bigger party must decide the matter and he would respect a “clear decision.”
At a turbulent CDU leadership meeting, 31 of its members voted for Laschet, nine for Soeder and six abstained, news agency dpa reported. That prompted Soeder to concede.
The Union bloc campaigns together in federal elections and has a joint parliamentary group in Berlin. The CSU exists only in Bavaria, while the CDU runs in Germany’s other 15 states.
The Union leads polls ahead of the environmentalist Greens, who on Monday nominated Annalena Baerbock as their first candidate to be chancellor. The struggling center-left Social Democrats nominated Finance Minister Olaf Scholz as their candidate months ago.
Laschet, a miner’s son from Aachen, a city on Germany’s border with Belgium and the Netherlands, served as a member of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2005.
He was elected in 2017 as governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, a traditional center-left stronghold.
Supporters frequently point to that victory when asked about his poor poll ratings — along with his success in the race to lead Merkel’s party, in which he beat conservative favorite Friedrich Merz.
They also emphasize his conciliatory nature. Laschet governs his home region in a coalition with the pro-business Free Democrats, the CDU’s traditional ally, but likely could work smoothly with a partner further to the left. Current polls suggest the Greens could hold the key to forming the next government, even if Baerbock doesn’t win the chancellery.
Still, Laschet hasn’t had a honeymoon as CDU leader. In recent weeks, he drew criticism for appearing to dither over how to manage a resurgence in coronavirus cases, while Soeder has cultivated an image as a decisive backer of tough action. Last month, the CDU lost two state elections.
National polls have shown the Union giving up gains it made on the strength of Merkel’s management of the early stages of the pandemic. There has been discontent with a slow start to Germany’s vaccination campaign and a scandal over some Union lawmakers’ alleged profiteering from mask-procurement deals last year.

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Afghanistan withdrawal draws concerns over abducted American

WASHINGTON (AP) — As the U.S. moves to withdraw its military from Afghanistan over the next five months, concerns are growing about one American who risks being left behind.
Mark Frerichs, a contractor from Lombard, Illinois, believed held for more than a year by the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network, was not mentioned in President Joe Biden’s address on Afghanistan last week. Nor was the troop withdrawal, scheduled to be complete by Sept. 11, conditioned on his release from custody, fueling concerns that the U.S. could lose bargaining power to get Frerichs home once its military presence is removed from the country.
“Any leverage that we had, we’ve just now announced to the world and to the Taliban and the Haqqanis that we’re going to pull out. Not only is it our leverage, it’s our military capability to rescue him,” Rep. Michael Waltz, a Florida Republican and Green Beret who served in Afghanistan, said in an interview with The Associated Press. “So it’s just utterly disheartening.”
The Biden administration has said it regards the return of hostages to be a top priority. Despite this, the fate of a single captive is unlikely to sway the broader policy interest in ending a 20-year war that began in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. It’s not uncommon for detainee issues to be eclipsed by other foreign policy matters, as appeared to happen last week when the administration didn’t mention Russia’s detention of two Americans, even as it announced reasons for taking punitive action against Moscow.
Even so, for Frerichs’ family, the failure to make his return a factor in the withdrawal is a source of frustration, as is the fact that the Trump administration signed a peace deal in February 2020, just weeks after Frerichs vanished in Afghanistan while working on engineering projects in the country.
His sister, Charlene Cakora, said in a statement that the military withdrawal “puts a time stamp on Mark. We have 150 days to get him home or our leverage is gone.”
Frerichs’ home-state senators, Democrats Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin, had raised similar concerns in a letter earlier this year to Biden.
In an interview Monday, Duckworth said she’s been reassured by the administration that Frerichs has been part of the discussions and that officials are aware of his case. She said she spoke privately with Biden himself last Thursday, handing him a note with information about the case.
“He said he was very well aware and he asked me to also let the family know that he was aware and was on top of it,” Duckworth said.
The U.S. has not disclosed much about Frerichs’ fate or status but confirmed Monday that it was in active negotiations with the Taliban.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement that U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, working closely with Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, “has continued to press the Taliban for Mr. Frerichs’ release, and continues to raise his status in senior level engagements in Doha and Islamabad. We place a high priority on Mark Frerichs’ safety and will not stop working until he is safely returned to his family.”
The AP reported in January that the Taliban during the Trump administration had sought the release of a combatant imprisoned on drug charges in the U.S. as part of a broader effort to resolve issues with Afghanistan. The request prompted dialogue between the State Department and the Justice Department about whether such a release could happen, though it ultimately did not.
Duckworth, who has spoken about the case with Khalilzad, said the Taliban remained “insistent” on that release and not moved off that condition.
The announced withdrawal from Afghanistan was one of two significant foreign policy moves announced by Biden last week. The other involved sanctions on Russia for election interference and for the hack of federal government agencies.
The White House did not use that opportunity to call out Moscow for what U.S. officials say is the unjust detention of at least two Americans: Paul Whelan, a corporate security executive from Michigan sentenced to 16 years in prison on espionage charges, and Trevor Reed, a Marine veteran who was convicted in an altercation with police in Russia and sentenced to nine years.
Whelan’s brother, David, said in a statement that he was hopeful for rapprochement between Moscow and Washington but also concerned that the tit-for-tat actions — Russia responded to the U.S. sanctions with its own diplomatic sanctions — may have made that more challenging.
“First, the sanctions continue to make it difficult for the two nations to create the relationship and dialogue necessary to create conditions that might lead to Paul’s release,” Whelan wrote. “Second, the winnowing of US Embassy staff in Russia will make the difficult work of consular support even harder.”

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Amid US strains, China’s Xi warns against ‘unilateralism’

BEIJING (AP) — Chinese President Xi Jinping on Tuesday called for more equitable management of global affairs and, in an implicit rejection of U.S. dominance, said governments shouldn’t impose rules on others.
Xi’s speech at an economic forum comes amid rising tension with China’s neighbors and Washington over its strategic ambitions and demands for a bigger role in making trade and other rules.
Without mentioning the United States, Xi criticized “unilateralism of individual countries” and warned against decoupling, a reference to fears U.S.-Chinese tension over technology and security will split industries and markets into separate, less productive spheres with incompatible standards.
“International affairs should be handled by everyone through consultation,” Xi said by video link to the Boao Forum for Asia on the southern island of Hainan. “Rules made by one or more countries should not be forced upon others.”
Xi called for stronger cooperation in research on coronavirus vaccines and steps to make them available to developing countries.
Xi’s comments reflected the ruling Communist Party’s desire for global influence to match China’s status as the second-largest economy and frustration at what party leaders see as U.S. efforts to block its ambitions.
Those sentiments have been fueled by sanctions imposed by former President Donald Trump that block access to U.S. processor chips and other technology for Chinese tech giant Huawei and some other companies.
Some of Xi’s comments clashed with Beijing’s stepped-up military activity in the South China Sea and other areas where its territorial claims conflict with those of Japan, the Philippines, India and other countries.
“No matter how far it develops, China will never seek hegemony, expand, seek spheres of influence or engage in an arms race,” Xi said.
China’s military spending is the second-highest after the United States. Beijing is developing nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, submarines, stealth fighters and other weapons to extend its military reach.
The annual Boao forum, founded in 2001, is modeled on the Davos gathering of business leaders in Switzerland.
Xi warned against decoupling, a stance that clashes with Beijing’s promotion of its own standards for telecoms, high-speed rail and other fields and pressure on companies to use Chinese suppliers instead of global sources, even if that increases costs.
Speeding up a two-decade-old campaign to make China self-reliant in technology has been declared this year’s top economic priority by the ruling party.
“Building walls and decoupling violate economic and market rules, harming others,” Xi said.

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Cape Town fire burns university library, students evacuated

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — A wildfire raging on the slopes of Cape Town’s Table Mountain spread to the University of Cape Town, burning the historic campus library and forcing the evacuation of students Sunday.
Orange flames lit up the windows of the library that houses considerable archives and book collections while firefighters sprayed jets of water to douse the blaze. At least two floors of Jagger Library burned, according to local news reports.
Other campus buildings also caught fire, and a historic windmill nearby burned.
Just off-campus on the slopes of Table Mountain, wind spread the flames across dry brush, and part of the Rhodes Memorial Restaurant caught fire, Cape Town media reported.
More than 100 firefighters and emergency personnel were deployed to the university campus and to Table Mountain National Park. Four helicopters were being used to drop water on threatened areas, officials said.
One firefighter was injured and being treated at a hospital, according to the Cape Town fire and rescue department.
Residents have been cautioned to be on alert, Charlotte Powell, spokeswoman for the city’s disaster risk management center, said in a statement.
“At this stage, there’s no cause to evacuate, but we ask that residents adhere to the following: close all windows to prevent draft and reduce heat, damp down your garden using a hose or irrigation system,” Powell said.

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Egypt says 11 killed in train crash north of Cairo

CAIRO (AP) — A passenger train derailed Sunday north of Cairo, killing at least 11 people, Egyptian authorities said. It was the latest of several rail accidents to hit the country in recent years.
Four train wagons ran off the railway at the city of Banha in Qalyubia province, just outside Cairo, the railway authority said in a statement. Videos on social media showed wagons overturned and passengers escaping to safety along the railway.
The train was travelling to the Nile Delta city of Mansoura from the Egyptian capital, the statement said.
The Health Ministry said in a statement that besides the dead, at least 98 people were injured, with most of them suffering from broken bones, cuts and bruises.
At least 60 ambulances were sent to the scene and the injured were taken to nearby hospitals, the ministry added.
Salvage teams could be seen searching for survivors and removing the derailed wagons. It was not immediately clear what caused the train to derail. Prosecutors said they were investigating the causes of the crash.
The state-run Ahram daily reported that authorities have detained at least 10 railway officials, including the train driver and his assistant, pending an investigation into the crash.
At Banha University hospital, people lined up to donate blood for the crash victims. Families were also present looking for loved ones who had been travelling on the train.
“We were surprised by the strain speeding up,” said Tarek Gomaa, one of the injured. “We found ourselves on top of each other.”
Sunday’s train accident came three weeks after two passenger trains collided in the province of Sohag, killing at least 18 people and injuring 200 others, including children.
Prosecutors said they found that gross negligence by railway employees was behind the deadly March 25 crash, which caused public outcry across the country.
Train wrecks and mishaps are common in Egypt, where the railway system has a history of badly maintained equipment and mismanagement. The government says it has launched a broad renovation and modernization initiative. President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi said in March 2018 that the government needs about 250 billion Egyptian pounds, or $14.1 billion, to overhaul the run-down rail system.
Hundreds of train accidents are reported every year. In February 2019 an unmanned locomotive slammed into a barrier inside Cairo’s main Ramses railway station, causing a huge explosion and a fire that killed at least 25 people. That crash prompted the then-transportation minister to resign.
In August 2017, two passenger trains collided just outside the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, killing 43 people. In 2016, at least 51 people were killed when two commuter trains collided near Cairo.
Egypt’s deadliest train crash was in 2002, when over 300 people were killed after a fire broke out in an overnight train traveling from Cairo to southern Egypt.

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High-ranking Iranian general dies of heart disease at 65

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — A high-ranking general key to Iran’s security apparatus has died, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps announced on Sunday.
Brig. Gen. Mohammad Hosseinzadeh Hejazi, who died at 65, served as deputy commander of the Quds, or Jerusalem, force of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard. The unit is an elite and influential group that oversees foreign operations, and Hejazi helped lead its expeditionary forces and frequently shuttled between Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.
Born in 1956 in the city of Isfahan, Hejazi joined the Guard after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and came to lead the paramilitary Basij volunteer corps for a decade — a tenure that saw the force transform into a pillar of the country’s security and political apparatus.
Hejazi took up the position of deputy commander of the Quds Force in April of last year after leading the Guard’s paramilitary forces in Lebanon. Iranian media reported that he joined forces fighting against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The Guard statement said he died of heart disease, without providing any further details.