Free Movement at Risk in Heart of Europe as Swiss Vote

The Swiss will vote Sunday on limiting immigration from the European Union, which, while not expected to pass, has sparked fears a shock “yes” could devastate relations with the bloc.The initiative backed by the populist right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) — Switzerland’s largest party — has seen dwindling public support in recent polls.The most recent survey showed 65% of those questioned opposed the call to tear up an agreement permitting the free movement of people between Switzerland and the surrounding European Union.It seems unlikely the initiative will garner the double majority needed to pass, winning both the popular vote and most of Switzerland’s 26 cantons.But the SVP has eked out surprise victories in the past in its drawn-out war against tightening relations with the EU, fueling concern that Switzerland’s relationship with its biggest trading partner could be in jeopardy.The initiative, put to a vote as part of the direct democracy system, calls for Switzerland to revise its constitution to ensure it can autonomously handle immigration policy.The SVP, which has built its brand by condemning immigration and EU influence, warns that the wealthy Alpine country is facing “uncontrolled and excessive immigration.”‘Betrayal’While not an EU member, Switzerland is bound to the bloc through an array of intricately connected bilateral agreements.If the SVP initiative passes, authorities would have one year to negotiate an end to the 1999 agreement on the free movement of persons between Switzerland and the bloc.The proposal goes even further than a similar measure, also backed by the SVP, that narrowly passed in February 2014, demanding that Bern impose quotas on the number of work permits issued to EU citizens.That vote threw Swiss-EU relations into disarray, with Brussels warning any curbs on immigration by EU citizens would put a whole range of bilateral agreements at risk.Bern struggled for years to find a way to respect the vote without permanently alienating EU neighbors.After lengthy talks, the agreement reached in late 2016 stopped far short of an initial quotas plan, which Brussels had fiercely rejected.Instead Bern opted merely to require Swiss employers to jump through a few bureaucratic hoops before hiring from the bloc, and to prioritize Swiss job seekers, at least ostensibly.The SVP condemned that compromise as a “betrayal” and launched its new initiative.Votes on the SVP’s initiative and several other issues had been scheduled to take place in May but were postponed since the coronavirus lockdown measures prevented campaigning.’Enough!’As soon as those measures began lifting a few months ago, the SVP rolled out its campaign posters, including one showing a jeans-clad behind with an EU-starred belt sitting heavily on a map of Switzerland, under the words: “Enough is enough!”While the 2014 vote still looms large in Switzerland’s collective memory, opinion polls hint that anxiety over immigration has lessened.The SVP also finds itself more isolated than ever, with the government, parliament, unions, employer organizations and all other political parties urging voters to reject the initiative.Opponents stress the importance of the EU relationship for the country’s economy.And the government has cautioned that if Switzerland unilaterally voids the free movement accord, a “guillotine” clause will come into force to freeze the entire package of Swiss-EU deals, including on trade.Sunday will also see Swiss voters cast ballots on a range of other issues, including whether to dish out 6 billion Swiss francs (5.6 billion euros) for new fighter jets, and whether to grant two weeks’ paternity leave to new fathers.Most Swiss vote in advance in the popular polls and referenda held in the country every few months, and ballot boxes generally open for just a few hours on voting day for those wishing to cast their vote in person.Polls open at different times in different cantons but will all close by midday (1000 GMT), with initial results expected by early afternoon.

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Paris Stabbing Attack Termed Act of Islamist Terrorism

French police said on Saturday they had detained a person believed to be a former roommate of the man who attacked two people in Paris near the former offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.Late Friday police released a 33-year-old Algerian man who was a witness and had “chased the assailant,” after the investigators corroborated the man’s account.
 
As of Saturday morning, a total of seven people remained in custody in connection with the Friday’s attack, including the suspected perpetrator.
 
The attacker was identified as an 18-year-old Pakistani man, who arrived in France three years ago as an unaccompanied minor.
 
French authorities launched an anti-terrorism investigation after the attack on Friday.In an interview with France 2 television station, French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said the attack was “clearly an act of Islamist terrorism.””Manifestly, the method was one of an Islamist terrorist. There is little doubt this is a new bloody attack against our country, against journalists, against our society, which you already mentioned in your report… a great amount of difficulties and emotions over the past few years and I would like the extend my support to them as well,” Darmanin said.France’s counterterrorism prosecutor, Jean-Francois Ricard, said the young man was arrested with another person not far from where the attack took place.Ricard said the attacker did not know the victims – a woman and a man from a documentary production company on a smoke break.The motivation for the attack and whether it had any connection to Charlie Hebdo is unclear.Islamist militants attacked the Charlie Hebdo offices in 2015, killing 12 people.A terrorism trial for 14 people accused of being accomplices in that attack is currently going on in Paris.Charlie Hebdo angered many Muslims by publishing cartoons featuring the Prophet Muhammad, and ahead of the trial it recently reprinted some of the same cartoons.Last week, police moved the magazine’s head of human resources from her home after she was the target of death threats around the start of the trial.
 
  

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Ukraine’s President Orders Prompt Investigation of Military Plane Crash

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Saturday the causes of a military plane crash which killed 26 people would be investigated promptly and impartially.A military transport plane carrying air force cadets crashed and burst into flames near a highway in northeastern Ukraine on Friday evening.The State Emergency Service of Ukraine said 27 people had been on board the plane – seven crew members and 20 students. Only one cadet managed to survive.“Yesterday, as a result of a terrible tragedy… Ukraine lost 26 of its worthy sons,” Zelenskiy said on Facebook. “I insist that the causes of this plane crash be promptly clarified and that the investigation be objective and impartial.”He declared Saturday a day of mourning.Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visits a military hospital to meet with cadet Vyacheslav Zolochevskyi, who survived the crash of the Antonov An-26 aircraft, in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Sept. 26, 2020. (Presidential Press Service via Reuters)The Antonov An-26 aircraft crashed while trying to land during a training exercise, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said, adding that the black boxes with flight data had been found.Ukrainian authorities said they were investigating four possible causes of the crash — a technical malfunction involving the aircraft; improper performance by the crew; improper performance by flight control; and inadequate maintenance.The State Security Service, a Ukrainian law enforcement agency, said the plane crashed five minutes after the crew commander asked to land after the left engine of the twin-engine plane failed.“According to the preliminary information, the cadets did not directly control the aircraft – all flights were performed by the crew commander,” the State Security Service said in a statement on Saturday.The crash happened around 2 km from a military airport.The cadets were from the Kharkiv Air Force University, which is run by the Defense Ministry.The government said training flights on similar types of aircraft had been suspended. 

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2 Stabbed in Paris Attack Termed Act of Islamist Terrorism

French authorities launched an anti-terrorism investigation Friday after an attacker stabbed two people in Paris near the former offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.In an interview with France 2 television station, French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said the attack was “clearly an act of Islamist terrorism.””Manifestly, the method was one of an Islamist terrorist,” he said. “There is little doubt this is a new bloody attack against our country, against journalists, against our society, which you already mentioned in your report… a great amount of difficulties and emotions over the past few years and I would like the extend my support to them as well.”Darmanin said the chief suspect in Friday’s stabbings came to France, apparently from Pakistan, three years ago as an unaccompanied minor.France’s counterterrorism prosecutor, Jean-Francois Ricard, said the young man was arrested with another person not far from where the attack took place.Ricard said the attacker did not know the victims — a woman and a man from a documentary production company on a smoke break.The motivation for the attack and whether it had any connection to Charlie Hebdo is unclear.Islamist militants attacked the Charlie Hebdo offices in 2015, killing 12 people.A terrorism trial for 14 people accused of being accomplices in that attack is currently going on in Paris.Charlie Hebdo angered many Muslims by publishing cartoons featuring the Prophet Muhammad, and ahead of the trial it recently reprinted some of the same cartoons.Last week, police moved the magazine’s head of human resources from her home after she was the target of death threats around the start of the trial.

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At Least 22 Die in Ukraine Plane Crash

A Ukrainian military plane crashed and burst into flames on Friday evening, killing at least 22 people on board, authorities said.The aircraft crashed while trying to land at Chuhuiv’s airport in the Kharkiv region, about 400 kilometers east of the capital, Kyiv.”There were 27 people on the aircraft,” said Oleksii Kucher, Kharkiv governor. “There were seven officers and 20 military students. We can say for sure now that 22 people died. Two people are in hospital. And there are three people missing.”One pilot reported failure in one of the plane’s two engines, Kucher said, adding that it should not have been a critical situation for an experienced pilot.The Antonov An-26 aircraft was conducting training exercises and most of those on board were air force cadets at the defense ministry’s Kharkiv University of Air Force.Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s office said a state commission is being established to identify the circumstances and causes of the incident.

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Lufthansa Cuts Jobs, Plans to Expand COVID-19 Testing

German airline Lufthansa says it will have to make more staff cuts in addition to the previously announced reduction of 22,000 full-time positions — despite receiving a $10.5 billion (9 billion euro) government bailout in June. The airline said it would put some of its fleet into long-term storage and permanently decommission its seven remaining Airbus A340-600s. VOA correspondent Mariama Diallo has this story.

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UN Urges Belarus to Release Opposition Figure Kolesnikova

Independent human rights experts from the United Nations on Friday urged the Belarusian government to free leading opposition figure Maria Kolesnikova, saying she faces a five-year prison term after being charged with undermining national security.The musician and political activist was jailed recently amid ongoing mass protests against the country’s authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, who was re-elected August 9 in a vote that opponents allege was rigged. The rights experts said Kolesnikova was “snatched off the streets” of Minsk, the capital, September 7, threatened with death or deportation and secretly imprisoned.The statement noted that after three days with no information on her whereabouts, authorities announced that Kolesnikova was in pre-trial detention. It added that on the 16th, she was officially charged.“It is particularly troubling that the authorities have resorted to enforced disappearances in an effort to quash protests, stifle dissent and sow fear,” the U.N. experts said, adding, “We urge the authorities not to use national security concerns to deny individuals their fundamental rights, among others the rights to opinion, expression, or peaceful assembly and association.”The rights experts also said in their statement they wanted authorities to bring to justice those responsible for her disappearance. They noted she had campaigned for opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who fled with her children to Lithuania for safety.Kolesnikova was a key member of a council set up by the opposition to push for new elections. Separately, another activist, Olga Kovalkova, said that authorities forced her out of the country and that she was dropped off at the Polish border.Lukashenko said he won the August 9 election in a landslide. He claimed the beginning of his sixth term Wednesday, following an inauguration ceremony held in secret. The president, who has ruled Belarus for 26 years, said the protesters were being backed by foreign powers.
 

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Thousands March in Berlin Climate Rally

Thousands of mostly young people gathered Friday in Berlin to demand more action on climate change, part of a global day of action for the environment.Defying gray skies, the participants, many on bicycles, brought placards and banners to a rally near the iconic Brandenburg Gate. Most wore face masks as a COVID-19 precaution. COVID-19 is the disease caused by the coronavirus.Germany is a focal point for the demonstrations in Europe because it holds the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union, which together with Britain accounts for 22 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions caused by humans.The climate has made headlines around the world recently, from melting Arctic ice to record Siberian heat to wildfires in California and elsewhere.German climate activist Luisa Neubauer told the crowd, “We’re here because we know that climate justice is possible as long as we keep fighting for it. That’s why we’re here today.”Fridays for Future activists protest calling for a “Global Day of Climate Action” in Berlin, Germany, Sept. 25, 2020.The demonstration was one of 3,000 scheduled to be held around the world Friday, as part of the youth activist movement “Fridays for Future.” COVID-19 restrictions forced many of the activities online.In Stockholm, the person considered to be the founder of the movement, teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, was in her usual location, in front of the Swedish parliament. She told a reporter the main goal of the protests was to raise awareness and sway public opinion on the urgency of climate issues.She said, “We need to treat the climate crisis as a crisis. It’s just as simple as that. The climate crisis has never once been treated as a crisis, and unless we treat it as a crisis, we won’t be able to so-called ‘solve’ it.’ ”In 2018, at age 15, Thunberg began skipping school on Fridays and going to the parliament to hold demonstrations for legislation on climate change. Soon, she was joined by others, and the protests eventually went viral through social media.
 

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Eight in 10 Britons Ignore COVID-19 Self-Isolation Rules, Survey Finds

A new survey indicates more than 80% of people living in Britain with COVID-19 symptoms or who have had contact with someone who has tested positive are ignoring self-isolation guidelines.
 
The survey, released Friday and conducted by Kings College London and the National Health Service (NHS), found that only 18.2% of people who reported having symptoms of COVID-19 in the previous seven days have stayed isolated since their symptoms developed, and only 11.9% requested a COVID-19 test.
 
The research also shows fewer than half those surveyed were able to identify the symptoms of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus.
 
The research also found that only 10.9% of people told to self-isolate after close contact with a COVID-19 case had done so for 14 days as required.
 
In a statement, the survey’s senior author, Kings College researcher Dr. James Rubin, said the research indicated that while the public seems to have good intentions to adhere to the test, trace and isolate guidelines, financial constraints are the most common reason given for non-compliance, among other factors.
 
Britain this week introduced fines of up to $12,780 for breaking self-isolation rules, and it is offering nearly $640 in support payments to low-paid workers who lose income from quarantining.
 
The study shows other reasons for non-compliance ranged from not knowing government guidance to being unable to identify the symptoms.
 
Kings College says the data was collected through surveys conducted among 30,000 people living in Britain between March and August of this year.
 

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London Police Officer Fatally Shot While Detaining Suspect

A London police officer was shot and killed early Friday inside a London police station while detaining a suspect, officials said.
 
In a statement, London’s Metropolitan Police said the incident occurred at 2:15 am London time at the Croydon Custody Center on the city’s south side.  
 
The British Broadcasting Corporation reports the 23-year-old suspect as being detained, he produced a weapon, shot the officer, and then turned the weapon on himself. Officials say no police weapons were fired.
 
Police say the suspect is being treated at a London hospital, where he is in critical condition. The officer has not been identified while police notify his family.  
 
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, on Twitter, offered his condolences to the officer’s family and colleagues as did London Mayor Sadiq Khan.
 
Britain has strict firearms laws, and it is rare for police officers there to be shot and killed.
 
The BBC reports the Croydon officer is the 17th on the London police force to have been killed by a firearm since the World War II.
 
The broadcaster reports since the beginning of the 20th century, only 73 police officers have been shot and killed by criminals in Britain, excluding all deaths in Northern Ireland. The majority of the deaths – more than 50 – have occurred since 1945. 

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Why is Italy Seeing Fewer COVID Cases Than Its Neighbors?

Coronavirus cases are surging across most of Europe. France, Spain and Britain are seeing precipitous increases. But some countries, notably Italy and Germany, have yet to see a second wave of the pandemic, although their numbers are also rising, but far less steeply.In the past two weeks, Italy recorded slightly fewer than 35 new cases per 100,000 inhabitants, compared to nearly 315 in Spain, around 200 in France, and 76.5 in Britain, where the number of people testing positive for the coronavirus is now almost three times as many as at the end of August, according to British government data.Italy was the first European nation to be struck by the coronavirus pandemic and suffered one of the world’s worst death tolls earlier this year. But the rolling average of new cases in Italy the past week has remained at just under 1,500 infections a day. In Britain, it is nearly 4,000 a day, and more than 10,000 in both France and Spain.For British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the reason for Britain’s big surge in infections is because it is a “freedom-loving country.” Britons are less inclined to follow government-dictated rules voluntarily, he noted this week. But he is now urging them to do so, with the added incentive of tough fines if they fail to comply.Johnson’s comments that the British are more liberty-loving than Italians or Germans prompted outrage in Italy.“Italians also love freedom. But we also care about seriousness,” Italian President Sergio Mattarella said.But many public health officials and infectious disease experts say there is, in fact, little evidence that Italians or Germans have been any better at voluntarily observing mask-wearing rules than the British, French or Spanish, especially when it comes to the young.Disdain for pandemic rules was evident among young Italians this summer. In Lazio villages and towns surrounding Rome, and further afield in Umbria and Marche, traditional piazza gatherings outside bars for an evening aperitivo were full of young people with masks pulled down, despite their close proximity to each other, VOA found on several trips over the past three months.“The clock stopped for us for months,” Paolo, 25, an unemployed college graduate, told VOA. “No longer,” he added, downing a beer in a village square in Sutri, half an hour’s drive from Rome.In northern Lazio in August, frustrated town mayors and the provincial president of Viterbo issued a joint statement urging citizens to obey the rules, warning that police had been instructed to enforce mask-wearing and social-distancing regulations.“There is no evidence that individual and social behaviors like the use of masks, social distancing or no gatherings have been better in Italy than elsewhere,” Dr. Nino Cartabellotta, a leading public health expert, told digital news website The Local this week.Other experts disagree and maintain voluntary compliance has been higher in Italy than many other European countries, especially in large cities in the north of the country, which were especially hard-hit by the pandemic earlier in the year.Either way, Italian police are ready to enforce the rules more rigorously than their counterparts in Britain, who have been reluctant to do so on grounds that they do not have the workforce.On Monday, Italy’s Interior Ministry announced that police had carried out more than 50,000 checks nationwide on people to ensure they were observing rules and visited nearly 5,000 businesses to ensure compliance with pandemic protocols.More than 200 people were fined by police for non-compliance. Three companies were ordered to shut.Early lockdown, states of emergencyAside from more rigorous police enforcement, many infectious disease experts suspect Italy is seeing a slower uptick in cases largely because it is reaping the benefits of ordering a nationwide lockdown earlier than other European countries, and because the government has reopened far more gradually and cautiously than its neighbors.Many restrictions are still in place or are reintroduced quickly when case numbers warrant. Italian authorities closed schools much quicker than other European countries earlier in the year, and they have been much slower in reopening them.In mid-August as confirmed case numbers climbed, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte moved quickly to shutter bars and nightclubs.Italy’s central government has been able to move quicker than some other European governments when pandemic circumstances warrant it, largely due to state-of-emergency powers that allow Conte to rule by decree. The government secured parliamentary approval for a six-month state of emergency on January 31, when the first two cases of coronavirus were confirmed in Rome.In July, the state of emergency was extended to the end of October, and Conte has made it clear he is ready to ask Parliament for another extension of special powers, which make it easier for ministers and regional governors to declare red zones, close businesses and direct more resources to hospitals.Emergency powers allowed the government to move quickly last month to require Italian vacationers returning from viral hot spots overseas to undergo coronavirus tests on arrival at airports and seaports or within 72 hours after arriving at their homes.Contact tracingExperts also credit the slower uptick in case numbers in Italy to better contact tracing and ensuring that self-isolation requirements are observed.Italy is testing about 100,000 people a day, far fewer than Britain, which is testing around 250 million daily. But Italian authorities have been more effective in tracing the contacts of those infected, said Italy’s deputy health minister, Pierpaolo Sileri. He credits Italy’s testing and tracing system in helping to avoid the dramatic resurgence of the virus seen elsewhere in Europe.Italian government officials say more than two-thirds of Italians who tested positive for the coronavirus in the past few weeks took tests not because they had symptoms but because they were identified through contact tracing.Track and trace in Italy is the responsibility of local and regional health authorities — a far more decentralized approach than that adopted in Britain, whose centralized system has struggled to trace the contacts of those infected.According to Bing Jones, a doctor in the English town of Sheffield who is involved in test and tracing, few contacts are identified.“We probably are at less than 10% and falling,” he told Britain’s Independent newspaper.Germany’s test-and-trace method is also managed at local and regional levels and being credited with helping to keep a viral resurgence at bay. According to a recent study of Britain’s Imperial College, an effective testing and tracing system can reduce the reproduction rate of the virus by around a quarter.Italian and German public health officials warn that their countries are unlikely to escape a second wave of the pandemic. They just hope they can do a good job subduing it more quickly. 

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British Bars, Restaurants Close Early to Curb Virus Surge

Last call came early Thursday at pubs and bars in England and Wales, as Britain tightened the rules to try to curb a coronavirus surge.The new restrictions, announced Tuesday by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, mean that any establishment serving food or drink must close by 10 p.m. (2100 GMT).The new rules apply in Scotland from Friday, while Northern Ireland is still considering a curfew.British pubs traditionally close at 11 p.m. But some stay open later, depending on their location and the day.”I don’t think it’s gonna help, it’s too little too late, as usual,” Joyce, a skeptical drinker in her 50s at a pub in the East London neighborhood of Dalston, told AFP.”You’re just displacing the problem,” she said.Britain announced 6,634 new cases Thursday, the biggest daily number since the pandemic began. Britain is performing about 220,000 tests a day.Across the English Chanel, European Union health officials urged member states Thursday to “act decisively” to put in place and utilize measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus and a potential surge in cases like the one earlier this year that prompted widespread lockdowns.“We are at a decisive moment. All member states must be ready to roll out control measures, immediately and at the right time, at the very first sign of potential new outbreaks,” said Stella Kyriakides, commissioner for health and food safety. She added, “This might be our last chance to prevent a repeat of last spring.”More than 3 million cases have been reported across the EU and Britain since the pandemic began, according to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control.Kyriakides noted some EU countries are experiencing higher numbers of new infections than they had in March at the peak of the outbreak in the region, saying, “It is abundantly clear that this crisis is not behind us.”France’s health ministry reported Thursday the number of people hospitalized in intensive care units due to the coronavirus surpassed 1,000 for the first time since early June.In the Netherlands, health officials said Thursday the number of new infections rose to 2,544, a record high for a single day.Poland’s health ministry also reported a record daily rise in cases and attributed the trend to people making more contact with others after restrictions were lifted.Sweden, which opted not to put in place many of the stricter coronavirus lockdown measures seen elsewhere in Europe, is experiencing a situation Prime Minister Stefan Lofven called worrying.”The caution that existed in the spring has more and more been replaced by hugs, parties, bus trips in rush hour traffic, and an everyday life that, for many, seems to return to normal,” Lofven told reporters.He said people will be glad about the right steps they take now and suffer later for what is done wrong.Lofven urged people to follow social distancing guidelines and hygiene measures, and said, if necessary, the government would introduce new measures to stop the spread of the virus.A similar message about the need for continued vigilance and good practices came Thursday from Indonesia’s COVID-19 task force as that country saw another record increase in new cases. COVID-19 is the illness caused by the coronavirus.”Over time, we’ve seen that the people have lowered their guards,” task force spokesman Wiku Adisasmito told reporters. “It’s almost like they don’t have empathy even when they see every day so many new victims.”The governor of the capital, Jakarta, extended coronavirus restrictions there until October 11 in order to help hospitals cope with demand.In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Thursday that the country is returning to a full lockdown, effective Friday, and lasting for two weeks as its infection rate spirals out of control.Schools, entertainment venues and most businesses will be closed, while restaurants will be limited to delivering food. Residents will be required to stay within 500 to 1,000 meters of their homes, except for work and shopping for food and medicine, while outdoor gatherings will be strictly limited to 20 people. 

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