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After Lebanese revolt’s fury, waning protests face long road

BEIRUT (AP) — A year ago, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese took to the streets protesting taxes and a rapidly deteriorating economic crisis. A spontaneous and hopeful nationwide movement was born, denouncing an entire political establishment that had for decades pushed Lebanon toward collapse.
Today, as crises multiply and the country dives deeper into uncertainty and poverty, protests seem to have petered out. Even widespread anger over a devastating explosion at Beirut’s port on Aug. 4, blamed on government negligence, failed to re-ignite the movement.
It is both bewildering and frustrating for those who believe only a sustained popular uprising can bring change in Lebanon.
Some argue the protests lost momentum because of the political elite’s moves to hijack and weaken the movement. Protesters have been met with violence, arrest and intimidation. Others say Lebanese have become numb to incompetence and corruption among the political class.
But Lebanon’s confessional-based power-sharing system also proved difficult to bring down. A revolt against the status quo means breaking a sectarian patronage network cultivated by the ruling elite that many in the divided population benefit from. Even if dissatisfied, some blame other factions for the country’s problems or fear change will give another sect power over them — a fear politicians eagerly stoke.
“We don’t have one head of state, it’s a group of men, they have agreed to divide the spoils of the state at every level. It’s a system that you can hardly topple,” said Carmen Geha, associate professor in public administration and an activist. She compared the dismantling of Lebanon’s system to the dismantling of Apartheid in South Africa, a long and arduous process.
For all its limitations, the protest movement that erupted on Oct. 17, 2019 had successes.
Even after street demonstrations dissipated, grassroots networks quickly mobilized following the Beirut explosion, which killed nearly 200 and wrecked tens of thousands of homes. Authorities almost completely left the public on its own to deal with the aftermath, with no government clean-up crews in the streets and little outreach to those whose homes or businesses were wrecked.
So activists stepped in and took charge of rebuilding.
“You find people more mobilized toward helping each other … that is another face of the revolution,” Geha said. “We need to show people how inept politicians are and provide them with an alternative system, one focused on services.”
The protests showed Lebanese could march against politicians of their own sect. In unprecedented scenes, large crowds turned out even in cities like Tripoli, Sidon and Nabatiyeh, which have been strongly affiliated to traditional sectarian parties, including Hezbollah. Politicians considered untouchable gained something of a pariah status, named and shamed in public or even chased out of restaurants.
“We broke the sectarian barriers and the taboo of opposing these warlords, we broke their halo,” said Taymour Jreissati, once a prominent protester, now living in France. Jreissati left in the summer, for the sake of his children, he said, and after being threatened by politicians and security agencies.
Two governments were toppled under the pressure of the streets — one last October, the other right after the Beirut explosion.
Jad Chaaban, an economist and activist, says the protest movement was thwarted by the political elite.
“The politicians cemented their alliances again and distributed the roles to protect each other,” he said. “The counter-revolution was at the level of the economy, allowing it to deteriorate .. (and) on the streets through a fierce police crackdown.”
The political factions in power have generally claimed to support the protesters’ goals of reform and an end to corruption. At the same time, they have made no move to enact reform, often depicting the protesters as agents of instability.
In a speech to his party faithful last week, former Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil — who is the son-in-law of the president and who was particularly vilified in protesters’ chants as a symbol of the ruling class — called on “the true, sincere movement” to join his party in forming a program of change. But he also warned that Lebanese are threatened “with being brainwashed by ‘revolutions’ fabricated and financed from abroad.”
The protest movement also failed to offer solid leadership. From the start, protesters shunned calls to do so, worried leaders could be targeted or co-opted. With time, that absence became a constraint.
Some experts see the protesters’ chief demand as unrealistic — typified in the chant, “All of them means all of them,” meaning all politicians in the establishment must step down.
That addressed the wrong issue and was “a dilution of the problem,” said Nadim Shehadi, from the London-based think tank Chatham House.
“The problem in Lebanon is not the system of governance, it has its flaws but it is not the cause of the problem, Hezbollah is,” said Shehadi, who is also executive director of the New York headquarters and academic center at the Lebanese American University.
At various protests, supporters of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah and its Shiite ally Amal attacked demonstrators. Hezbollah and its political allies have also snarled efforts to form a more reformist government since the port explosion — wary, critics say, of changes that could impact its strength as an independent armed force and support system for its Shiite community.
The uprising tripped over a myriad of crises. The coronavirus pandemic undermined turnout. The breakdown of the economy — and then the port explosion — threw people into survival mode, drained by their inability to make ends meet.
People may eventually go back to street protests. The Central Bank is expected to end subsidies of basic goods in coming weeks, throwing more people into poverty.
But many activists now focus on the grassroots level, building an alternative to the patronage system to deliver basic needs. With time, they hope more people will break with their traditional leadership.
“It’s a long road,” says activist Lina Boubess, a 60-year-old mother who has not missed one protest since October.
“I am the civil war generation, but this new generation gives me hope. I believe in a tomorrow, I don’t want to give up.”

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Dark déjà vu for European economy as virus cases spike

LONDON (AP) — Europe’s economy was just catching its breath from what had been the sharpest recession in modern history. A resurgence in coronavirus cases this month is a bitter blow that will likely turn what was meant to be a period of healing for the economy into a lean winter of job losses and bankruptcies.
Bars, restaurants, airlines and myriad other businesses are getting hit with new restrictions as politicians desperately try to contain an increase in infection cases that is rapidly filling up hospitals.
The height of the pandemic last spring had caused the economy of the 19 countries that use the euro to plunge by a massive 11.8% in the April-June quarter from the previous three-month period. About 1.5 million more people registered as unemployed during the pandemic. The damage was contained only by governments’ quick decision to spend hundreds of billions of euros (dollars) to keep another 45 million on payrolls and companies running.
While the new restrictions are so far not as drastic as the near-total shutdown of public life imposed in the spring, they are kicking an economy that’s down. For many Europeans, there is a foreboding sense of déjà vu.
“It is a disaster,” says Thomas Metzmacher, who owns a restaurant in Germany’s financial hub, Frankfurt, of the government’s decision to impose an 11 p.m. curfew.
He noted that even before the new restrictions many people in his industry could only just about survive. The curfew means people who come in for a meal don’t linger for a few extra beers or schnapps, which is where restaurants make most of their profits. “Now it is: go for a meal, finish your drink, pay, go home,” he says.
Experts say that the global economy’s course depends on the health crisis: Only when the pandemic is brought under control will it recover.
Countries like China, which have so far avoided a big resurgence like Europe, are faring better economically. The U.S. never quite got its first wave under control and its economy remains hobbled by it.
Europe had reduced the number of infections much faster than the U.S. and managed to keep a lid on unemployment. But the narrative that contrasted Europe’s successes against the Trump administration’s failure to subdue the pandemic is being quickly revised.
As coronavirus cases rise anew in Europe, economists are slashing their forecasts.
Ludovic Subran, the chief economist at financial services firm Allianz, says there is a high risk that the economies of France, Spain, and the Netherlands will contract again in the last three months of the year. Italy and Portugal are also at risk. While Germany is seeing an increase in infections, too, it is not as bad and the economy appears more resilient.
“We see an elevated risk of a double dip recession in countries that are once again resorting to targeted and regional lockdowns,” he said.
The pandemic is worsening just as governments were trying to ease off the massive amounts of financial support they have been giving households and business owners.
Many governments have programs where they pay the majority of salaries of workers who are redundant in the hope that they will be able to quickly get back to work after the pandemic. In France and Britain that covered a third of the labor force at one point, and 20% in Germany. They also gave cash handouts to households and grants to business owners.
Now governments are phasing out some of that support and aiming to provide more targeted aid to people directly affected by new restrictions. That will not help people whose jobs are affected indirectly. A pub facing a curfew, say, would be eligible to get wage support for its staff but the brewery supplying it might not.
The impact will vary between countries — while Britain is shifting to a less-comprehensive wage support plan, Germany has extended its program.
As with the pandemic’s initial surge in the spring, the sectors in Europe most affected by limits on public life are services including travel and hospitality — those that depend most on face-to-face contact between people.
Countries like Spain, Portugal and Greece rely heavily on tourism. It accounts for almost 12% of Spain’s economy, compared with less than 3% for the U.S. and about 7% for France.
Major airlines in Europe expect to operate at about 40% of normal levels this winter and are again cutting the number of flights. Lufthansa, British Airways and others are cutting tens of thousands of jobs as they expect no quick return to how things were before the pandemic — even with government aid.
Even where there are no hard restrictions, the health hazard scares customers away, so shops are likely to see less business.
The EU is giving 750 billion euros ($880 billion) in financial support to member countries to cope with the fallout. Governments like Spain’s were planning to invest in long-term projects such as renewable energy and technology. It now appears they will have to spend more on just keeping the economy afloat. The European Central Bank is injecting 1.35 trillion euros ($1.6 trillion) into the economy, which keeps borrowing cheap even for countries with weak finances like Spain and Italy.
But the longer the pandemic drags on, the more the decisions on how to spend financial aid will become political, says Subran, the economist. Political parties are fighting over how to deploy the resources, and unions are going on strike to influence the debate. It mirrors the turmoil in the U.S., where a badly needed stimulus package has been delayed.
For Ludovic Nicolas-Etienne, a Parisian shopping for food among the stalls of the central Bastille square, it is a tragedy foretold. He blames the people who during the summer disregarded safety recommendations to party and socialize after months of lockdown.
“I was expecting this,” he says, wearing a mask outdoors the day after France announced a state of emergency. “Some people are not responsible enough, so the good people are paying for the bad ones.”

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Bangkok shuts down transit systems as protests persist

BANGKOK (AP) — The authorities in Bangkok shut down mass transit systems and set up roadblocks Saturday as Thailand’s capital faced a fourth straight day of determined anti-government protests.
The protesters have been doing their best to elude the authorities, using social media to assemble followers before police have time to block them. The government has announced plans to take legal action against Twitter and Facebook accounts that announce the protests, but fresh calls to action were posted Saturday.
The protesters are calling for Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to leave office, the constitution to be amended to make it more democratic and the nation’s monarchy to undergo reform. The protests have been called in defiance of a state of emergency imposed on Thursday.
All stations of Bangkok’s elevated Skytrain mass transit system were ordered closed Saturday afternoon in an effort to thwart protests. A line of the underground MRT system was also shut, and police blocked off several roads. Organizers had called for their followers to meet at Skytrain stations pending further instructions.
Groups of protesters met at many of the stations that were closed, in effect establishing a protest presence across the city. In a further twist, organizers issued a fresh advisory for followers to gather at three stations outside the city’s central area, where access was easier, especially for people living in the suburbs.
Police on Friday had also tried to block demonstrators, but failed when protest organizers announced a last-minute switch of venue.
Friday’s rally was broken up by a large contingent of riot police backed by water cannons after at least 1,000 people had gathered. It was the first time the authorities have employed such forceful tactics against the student-led protests. Both Thursday’s and Friday’s protests were held in normally busy areas of central Bangkok.
“The government has been pushing us to the cliff and now we have nowhere to go. We need to stand right now; if not now, then we don’t know when,” said one protester, a 26-year-old who declined to give her name for fear of getting in trouble with the authorities..
Police took control of Friday’s rally site after about an hour, though continued to engage with some stragglers. Flash protests were launched in solidarity at several universities around the country.
“From the dispersal of protesters on the evening of October 16, we have learned that the government and military have established themselves as the enemy of the people,” said a statement issued after Friday’s events by the People’s Party, the umbrella organization for the protesters. Most of its top leaders have been arrested.
The call by the protesters for reform of the monarchy has significantly raised the political temperature in Thailand, angering many older conservative Thais for whom any critical discussion of the monarchy is tantamount to treason.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn and other key members of the royal family are protected by a lese majeste law that has regularly been used to silence critics who risk up to 15 years in prison if deemed to have insulted the institution.
Prayuth’s declaration of a state of emergency said the measure was necessary because “certain groups of perpetrators intended to instigate an untoward incident and movement in the Bangkok area by way of various methods and via different channels, including causing obstruction to the royal motorcade.”
He was referring to an incident Wednesday that showed some members of a small crowd heckling a motorcade carrying Queen Suthida and Prince Dipangkorn as it slowly passed.
On Friday, two activists were arrested under a law covering violence against the queen for their alleged part in the incident. They could face up to life in prison if convicted. They denied any wrongdoing.

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Azerbaijan: Armenian missile killed 13, wounded over 50

BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) — Azerbaijan on Saturday accused Armenia of striking its second-largest city with a ballistic missile that killed at least 13 civilians and wounded 50 others in a new escalation of their conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.
The Armenian Defense Ministry denied launching the strike, but the separatist authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh put out a statement listing alleged “legitimate” military facilities in the city of Ganja, although they stopped short of claiming responsibility for the attack.
Azerbaijani officials said the Soviet-made Scud missile destroyed or damaged about 20 residential buildings in Ganja overnight, and emergency workers spent hours searching in the rubble for victims and survivors.
Scud missiles date back to the 1960s and carry a big load of explosives but are known for their lack of precision.
In a televised address to the nation, Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, denounced the missile strike as a war crime and warned the leadership of Armenia that it would face responsibility for that.
“Azerbaijan will give its response and it will do so exclusively on the battlefield,” Aliyev said.
While authorities in both Azerbaijan and Armenia have denied targeting civilians, residential areas have increasingly come under shelling amid the hostilities that have raged for three weeks despite Russia’s attempt to broker a cease-fire.
Stepanakert, the regional capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, came under intense shelling overnight, leaving three civilians wounded, according to separatist authorities.
Nagorno-Karabakh lies within Azerbaijan but has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since a war there ended in 1994. The latest outburst of fighting began on Sept. 27 and has involved heavy artillery, rockets and drones, killing hundreds and marking the largest escalation of hostilities between the South Caucasus neighbors in more than a quarter-century.
Aliyev announced Saturday that Azerbaijani forces have taken the town of Fizuli and seven villages around it, gaining a “strategic edge.”
Fizuli is one of the seven Azerbaijani regions outside Nagorno-Karabakh that was seized by the Armenian forces during the war in the early 1990s.
Russia, which has a security pact with Armenia but also has cultivated warm ties with Azerbaijan, hosted top diplomats from both countries for more than 10 hours of talks that ended with Saturday’s cease-fire deal. But the agreement immediately frayed, with both sides blaming each other for breaching it.
Azerbaijan has insisted it has the right to reclaim its land by force after efforts by the so-called Minsk group of international mediators that comprises Russia, the United States and France failed to yield any progress. Azerbaijan has actively pushed for its ally Turkey to take a prominent role in future peace talks.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar spoke on the phone with his Azerbaijani counterpart, congratulating Azerbaijan on “liberating Fizuli from the occupation” and downing the Armenian jets.
The Azerbaijani military declared Saturday that they downed an Armenian Su-25 jet, a claim quickly dismissed by Armenia’s Defense Ministry.
Drones and rocket systems supplied by Turkey have given the Azerbaijani military an edge on the battlefield, helping them outgun the Armenian forces that rely mostly on outdated Soviet-era weapons.

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New virus restrictions in Europe; Merkel warns of hard days

BERLIN (AP) — Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Germans to come together like they did in the spring to slow the spread of the coronavirus as the country posted another daily record of new cases Saturday.
“Difficult months are ahead of us,” she said in her weekly video podcast. “How winter will be, how our Christmas will be, that will all be decided in these coming days and weeks, and it will be decided by our behavior.”
Meanwhile, new restrictions went into effect in several other European nations in an effort to staunch the resurgence of the pandemic.
In Paris and eight other French cities, restaurants, bars, movie theaters and other establishments were being forced to close no later than 9 p.m. to try to reduce contact among people. The country was deploying 12,000 extra police officers to enforce the new rules.
In Britain, a three-tier regional approach to battle the pandemic introduced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson this week went into effect, with each level bringing in progressively tighter restrictions.
On Saturday, tier-2 cities like London and York were subject to a ban on socializing with people from other households indoors, while the county of Lancashire joined Liverpool in tier 3 with the tightest restrictions.
Among other things, that means pubs have been forced to close and socialization with others is banned even in many outdoor settings.
In Northern Ireland a “circuit breaker” lockdown lasting four weeks came into force Friday in an attempt to quickly tamp down the spread of the virus. All pubs and restaurants must close except for takeaway services, and schools will close for two weeks for an extended half-term holiday.
Data from Friday showed that a further 136 people died in the U.K. within 28 days of testing positive for coronavirus, bringing the total official toll to 43,429.
On Friday, the World Health Organization warned that intensive care units in a number of European cities could reach maximum capacity in the coming weeks if the number of infections is not slowed.
In Germany, which was widely lauded for being able to rapidly slow the spread of the pandemic when it first broke out, the numbers have been climbing rapidly recently.
On Saturday, the country’s disease control center, the Robert Koch Institute, reported 7,830 cases overnight, a new record.
Like most countries, Germany has been grappling with how to keep schools and businesses open, while trying to prevent people from coming into close contact with one another.
Germany has registered a total of 356,387 coronavirus cases, though a relatively low 9,767 deaths.
With the numbers again rising, however, Merkel urged Germans to avoid unnecessary travel, cancel parties and remain at home whenever it is possible.
“What brought us so well through the first half year of the pandemic?” she asked. “It was that we stood together and obeyed the rules out of consideration and common sense. This is the most effective remedy we currently have against the pandemic and it is more necessary now than ever.”
In the neighboring Czech Republic, the number of new infections surpassed 10,000 for the first time, surging to 11,105 on Friday, the Health Ministry said.
That was almost 1,400 more than the previous record set a day earlier and the country has now registered a total of 160,112 cases, including 1,283 deaths.
After a series of new restrictive measures adopted by the government to slow down the surge, Health Minister Roman Prymula said he still expects a rise of those testing positive for about two weeks.
Italy’s northern Lombardy region, where the European coronavirus outbreak began in late February, has taken new measures to contain rebounding infections, limiting bar service and alcohol sales, banning contact sports and closing bingo parlors.
The regional government late Friday also called for high schools to adopt hybrid schedules, with students alternating in-person with online learning.
The measures were taken after Lombardy, Italy’s most populous region, once again become the most affected in the COVID-19 resurgence, adding more than 2,000 infections a day. Hospitals are coming under strain and intensive care units are filling up.
The new measures allow only table service for bars from 6 p.m., ban takeout alcohol sales from that time and prohibit all consumption of booze in public spaces, an effort to eliminate crowds from forming in piazzas with takeout drinks.
Italy’s other hardest-hit region, southern Campania, has taken similarly strict measures, including a shutdown of schools for two weeks. After parents protested, the regional governor backed off Friday and allowed daycare centers to remain open.

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Japan’s populist, pragmatic new PM Suga pushes Abe’s vision

TOKYO (AP) — Japan’s new prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, leaves Sunday on his first overseas foray since taking over from his former boss Shinzo Abe last month, heading to Vietnam and Indonesia.
The choice to visit Southeast Asia underscores Japan’s efforts to counter Chinese influence and build stronger economic and defense ties in the region, much in line with Abe’s vision.
It also reflects pandemic realities. With the U.S. tied up with domestic politics ahead of the Nov. 3 election, Suga was unable to head to Washington straight away for talks with Japan’s most important ally after he rose to power, replacing Abe, who resigned for health reasons.
As he emerges from Abe’s shadow with promises to “work for the people,” Suga is proving in some ways to be even more hard-line. That has raised hackles within Japan and carries the potential to rile neighbors who already were disgruntled by Abe’s nationalist agenda.
Abe had vowed to restore Japan’s waning diplomatic stature and national pride by promoting ultra-nationalistic policies such as traditional family values and amending the post-World War II pacifist constitution to allow a greater overseas military role and capability for Japan.
While Abe traveled abroad relentlessly during his nearly eight years in office, often as Japan’s top salesman, Suga mostly stayed home to manage bureaucrats to push economic, security and other domestic policies.
Suga is expected to sign a bilateral defense equipment and technology transfer agreement with Vietnam as part of Tokyo’s efforts to promote exports of Japanese-made military equipment. It’s a signal that Suga is certain to follow Abe’s footsteps in diplomacy.
Meanwhile at home, Suga, best known for his behind-the-scenes work pushing Abe’s agenda as chief Cabinet secretary, has deftly used his modest background as the son of a strawberry farmer and a teacher and his low-profile, hardworking style to craft a more populist image than his predecessor.
With much of the world, including Japan, occupied with battling the coronavirus pandemic, Suga is focusing more on delivering results back home.
So far, he appears to be striving to distinguish himself from Abe by pumping out a hodge-podge of consumer-friendly policies meant to showcase his practical and quick work.
He cannot afford to waste time, with national elections expected within months.
(asterisk)What is always on my mind is to tackle what needs to be accomplished without hesitation and quickly, and start from whatever is possible … and let the people recognize the change,” Suga told reporters Friday as he marked his first month in office.
Suga has ordered his Cabinet to rush through approvals of several projects such as eliminating the requirement for Japanese-style “hanko” stamps widely used in place of signatures on business and government documents. He is forging ahead with his earlier efforts to lower cellphone rates and promote use of computers and online government and business.
Tackling Japan’s low birthrate and shrinking population head-on, he favors granting insurance coverage for infertility treatments.
“So far, Prime Minister Suga is working on policies that are easy to understand and popular to many people, as his administration apparently aims to maintain high support ratings,” said Ryosuke Nishida, a sociologist at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. “He is boldly tackling reforms one after another, and that’s his strategy to make his government look as if it is achieving results.”
At the same time, Suga’s refusal, without explanation, to approve the appointments of six professors out of a slate of 105 to the state-funded Science Council of Japan has drawn accusations that he is trying to muzzle dissent and impinge on academic freedoms.
The flap looks unlikely to balloon into a serious crisis for Suga, who has not given any explanation apart from saying that his decision was legal and that the group of academics that advises and checks government policies should be acceptable to the public.
But it has added to concerns that Suga might be more forthright than Abe in quashing opposition: The council, set up in 1949, has repeatedly opposed military technology research at universities, most recently in 2017. Its objections to government funding for such research is contrary to Abe’s efforts to build up Japan’s military capability.
Many Japanese, especially academics, are wary of abuse of power given the country’s history of militarist repression before and during World War II and anti-communist campaigns after the war.
Historian Masayasu Hosaka, writing in the Mainichi newspaper, described it as a “purge.”
The surprise decision sent support ratings for Suga’s Cabinet to just above 50% last week from well above 60% shortly after he took office.
Adding to unease over possible interference in academic freedom, the education ministry urged public schools to display a black cloth symbolizing mourning along with the national flag and to hold a moment of silence to show respect for the late Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, whose state-funded funeral was held Saturday.
Such moves would come as no surprise under Abe, who as grandson of wartime leader Nobusuke Kishi and heir to a political dynasty stuck to his ultra-conservative agenda.
But while Suga’s own personal ideology is unknown, he followed Abe’s example in making ritual donations of religious ornaments Saturday to the Yasukuni Shrine to pay respect to the war dead. China and South Korea consider the shrine, which also commemorates executed Japanese war criminals, a symbol of Japan’s militaristic past.
Suga “seems to be a person with no ideology or political vision,” said Nishida. “His failure to articulate a mid- to long-term goal is worrisome … It seems everything he does is for electoral gain.”
That could prove risky, some analysts say. Heavyweights within the governing Liberal Democratic Party gave Suga, a self-made politician not affiliated with any of the party factions, their backing when Abe suddenly stepped aside.
Suga could lose their support just as easily, despite his carefully designed Cabinet and party executive lineups, which show he is mindful of his precarious situation, said Koichi Nakano, an international politics professor at Sophia University in Tokyo and outspoken critic of Abe.
(asterisk)Basically, the LDP is a party of hereditary politicians, and that’s Mr. Suga’s weakness,(asterisk) Nakano said.

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German water utility pulls plug on Tesla over unpaid bills

BERLIN (AP) — A German utility company says it has shut down the pipes supplying Tesla with water for the construction of a factory near Berlin because the automaker hasn’t paid its bills.
A spokeswoman for the company WSE said Thursday that Tesla was given repeated warnings its water supply would be turned off.
“The 14-day notice period has expired,” Sandra Ponesky told The Associated Press. “We can’t treat Tesla any differently than other customers.”
Tesla is building it first European factory outside the German capital and aims to eventually build 500,000 electric vehicles there.
It wasn’t immediately clear how the lack of water would affect construction work at the site in Gruenheide, which has been taking place at breakneck speed.
Tesla didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Ponesky said that as soon as the company pays its bills, a worker would be sent out to turn the tap back on again. She declined to say how much Tesla owes.

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Nagorno-Karabakh volunteers get weapons as clashes intensify

MARTUNI, Nagorno-Karabakh (AP) — As the fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces rages on in the separatist territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, its residents are joining volunteer squads to defend their towns.
The Ovanisyan family and their neighbors were called Wednesday to receive their Kalashnikov rifles to help protect Martuni, a town close to the front line in the eastern part of the region.
“I was summoned to the recruitment office to give me a gun so I can defend my land. I am always ready to fight for the well-being of my children,” said Valery Ovanisyan, a 64-year-old Martuni resident.
His 41-year-old relative Edik, who owns a shop, admitted he has never loaded a gun before.
“I’m doing this nonsense for the first time in my life,” he said while inserting cartridges into the magazine.
Overhearing him, Karen Musaelyan, quickly retorted: “This is not nonsense! This is our bread!”
The recent fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh erupted on Sept. 27 and has since killed hundreds. It marked the biggest escalation of a decades-old conflict over the region that lies within Azerbaijan but has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia.
The violence — involving heavy artillery, rockets and drones — has continued to rage despite Russia’s attempt to broker a truce.
Russia, which has a security pact with Armenia but also has cultivated warm ties with Azerbaijan, hosted top diplomats from Armenia and Azerbaijan for more than 10 hours of talks that ended with Saturday’s cease-fire deal. But the agreement immediately frayed, with both sides blaming each other for breaching it.
On Thursday, Azerbaijan again accused Armenian forces of shelling several of its regions and claimed that one of the strikes hit a cemetery, killing three people. The claim was immediately supported by Turkey, which has publicly sided with Azerbaijan in the conflict.
“Armenia continues to disregard the humanitarian cease-fire announced on Oct. 10 for the exchange of prisoners and victims,” Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement, adding that the country’s forces “do not even allow our Azerbaijani brothers to bury their dead.”
Armenian authorities, in turn, said Azerbaijan had breached the truce, alleging that its forces killed two people in an attack on its territory on Wednesday. Nagorno-Karabakh officials also reported new strikes on Stepanakert, the territory’s capital, that came under intense shelling last week.
In Martuni, houses and buildings have been badly damaged by the shelling.
The family of Benik Osepyan, 91, combed the rubble of their home, picking up things spared by the strike.
Martuni residents got their Kalashnikovs a day after Nagorno-Karabakh’s leader, Arayik Harutyunyan, announced regulations on the “participation of the militia forces” in the fighting.
On Thursday, he also introduced travel restrictions for those who are eligible for the draft, allowing them to leave the region only under special circumstances and with a permit from the authorities.
Valery Ovanisyan said his grandchildren have departed for Armenia, but he was staying behind for their sake,
“They are small, 3 years and 5 years. They shouldn’t be here. I’m here, holding ground (to protect) them,” he said.

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Mexico’s ex-defense secretary arrested in Los Angeles

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Former Mexican defense secretary Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, who led the country’s armed forces for six years under ex-President Enrique Peña Nieto, has been arrested at Los Angeles International Airport, Mexico’s top diplomat said Thursday.
Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard did not say on what charges Cienfuegos was detained. He wrote on his Twitter account that U.S. Ambassador Christopher Landau had informed him of the general’s arrest.
Ebrard wrote that Mexico’s Consul in Los Angeles would be informing him about the charges “in the next few hours,” and that Cienfuegos had a right to receive consular assistance. He did not specify if the general was arrested at the airport arriving or leaving the country.
Cienfuegos served from 2012 to 2018 as secretary of defense under Peña Nieto. He is the highest-ranking former Cabinet official arrested since the top Mexican security official Genaro Garcia Luna was arrested in Texas in 2019. Garcia Luna, who served under former President Felipe Calderón, has pleaded not guilty to drug trafficking charges.
Cienfuegos is 72 years old and has retired from active duty. Mexico’s Defense Department had no immediate reaction to the arrest.
Whatever the charges, it will be a tough blow for Mexico where the army and navy are some of the few remaining respected public institutions.
While current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has vowed to go after corruption and lawbreaking under past administrations, he has also relied more heavily on the army — and charged it with more tasks, ranging from building infrastructure projects to distributing medical supplies — than any other president in recent history.
Under Cienfuegos, the Mexican army was accused of frequent human rights abuses, but that was true of both his predecessors and his successor in the post.
The worst scandal in Cienfuegos’ tenure involved the 2014 army killings of suspects in a grain warehouse.
The June 2014 massacre involved soldiers who killed 22 suspects at the warehouse in the town of Tlatlaya. While some died in an initial shootout with the army patrol — in which one soldier was wounded — a human rights investigation later showed that at least eight and perhaps as many as a dozen suspects were executed after they surrendered.

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Brazil Catholics drawn to worship despite downsized services

APARECIDA, Brazil (AP) — Inside, there was nothing massive about the Mass: Just 1,000 people were spaced carefully across the pews of a vast basilica that normally holds 35,000 as the Roman Catholic Church tried to protect parishioners from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yet such caution wasn’t apparent outside the doors. Thousands of people found themselves unable to stay away from Aparecida on one of the most important weekends of the Brazilian church’s calendar, the celebration of the country’s patron saint.
A similar scene played out far to the north in Belem, near the mouth of the Amazon River, where even the formal cancelation of a usually immense religious celebration didn’t discourage some worshippers — underscoring the church’s challenge of trying to practice precautions at a time when many Brazilians are weary of them.
The sanctuary complex in Aparecida, some 110 miles (175 kilometers) north of Sao Paulo, hummed with activity on Sunday, even if it was far less busy than in past years. People filed into a snaking line to catch a glimpse of the image of Our Lady of Aparecida; they wore masks, but distancing was negligible.
Many visited a mall filled with 380 shops and a food court. Cable cars whisked people from the basilica to a hilltop with a 23-meter (75-foot) steel cross.
Jhony Gomes, 31, carried a cross over his shoulder on the highway as he drew near to Aparecida. He said he was surprised to find so many fellow pilgrims on the road during the pandemic, but said it reflected the sanctuary’s importance.
“Even if the church had closed, I would’ve brought the cross and left it at the door. … It’s a moment of faith, a time when the world needs more prayer, with all this madness,” he said. “All the pain is worth it. When you see the basilica, it gives you the desire to run. It’s like it pulls on you.”
For the main Mass itself, the church limited each pew to just two worshippers sitting on either end. Church authorities instead asked Brazilians to make their own altar and tune in from home on television or radio, write a letter and share photos on social media of oneself watching services.
Nevertheless, huddled just outside was Zenaide Maria de Jesus, one of several listening to the muffled service through thick, closed wooden doors. She had driven 2½ hours because she needed thank God for, among other things, sparing her son from COVID-19.
“I thought he was going to die. I despaired when he tested positive,” she said. “I asked God to help him make it through and he made it through, thanks to God, and I think I lost a bit of the fear. But even so, you have to take care.”
After the pandemic hit the country in mid-March, Brazil’s National Conference of Bishops suspended in-person Masses and indoor celebrations. But people have grown weary of hunkering down, particularly as the numbers of daily confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths have declined somewhat from an elevated, months-long plateau.
Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, who is Catholic, throughout the pandemic has encouraged religious leaders to challenge quarantine measures — siding with a sizable number of evangelical pastors who encouraged people to show up for in-person services.
Governors and mayors started relaxing restrictions in June, but it remains rare to find Catholic churches packed in major cities like Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
Catholic priest Rodrigo Flaibam works in Paulinia, a prosperous city of 100,000 residents in the countryside of São Paulo state. Once a Bolsonaro supporter, he drifted away during the pandemic as he received messages from conservatives insisting he should reopen his church in June.
“Followers were questioning why we were closed if the evangelicals were still open. I was accused of denying the sacrament. It hurt, a lot,” Flaibam said. He reopened for three weeks then decided to close again in July as cases in Paulinia surged.
“The atmosphere of denial was already about, so it was much harder to close that time. And this was created by the president and his allies in evangelical churches, no doubt,” he said.
But even Catholic leaders have grown more relaxed following a long spell of restrictions led by Pope Francis, who lost part of one lung to illness when he was a young man.
The pope set a global example for Catholics by spending months in quarantine to avoid the coronavirus even as leader of many other religions balked at shutdowns. But the pontiff resumed general audiences on Sept. 2.
Critics on social media have complained that he has shunned a mask during his Wednesday general audience, which was held indoors last week. He was seen shaking hands with clerics and otherwise mingling with the masked crowd.
His bodyguards were similarly maskless, and four Swiss Guards, who stand by during papal Masses, have tested positive for coronavirus and were showing symptoms, the Vatican said Monday, as the surge in infections in surrounding Italy penetrates the Vatican walls.
Meanwhile, the Brazilian church cancelled this year’s Procession of Our Lady of Nazareth, which normally draws millions in Belem on the second Sunday of October.
Even so, thousands showed up in the northern Brazilian city to follow the traditional 3.6-kilometer (2-mile) route, some advancing on their knees.
“I survived COVID-19 thanks to you, Mother,” read a sign one woman held in her hand. With her other arm, she held a wax sculpture of a lung.
___ David Biller and Marcelo de Sousa contributed from Rio de Janeiro