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Defense Secretary Resigns As New Details Emerge Following Attacks in Sri Lanka

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  • ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attack that has now killed at least 250 people, while investigations to verify their ties are ongoing.
  • Authorities are still searching for suspects and fear that more attacks could follow.
  • As a result, citizens have been warned to avoid all places of worship.
  • The Defense Secretary has also resigned after reports revealed that authorities received several warnings leading up to the attacks.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that the death toll of the terrorist attack stood at 359. The country’s Health Ministry has since reduced the number by about 100. Sri Lankan Deputy of Defense Minister Ruwan Wijewardene said morgues had provided inaccurate figures. The Director General of Sri Lanka’s health services, Anil Jasinghe, said, “It could be 250 or 260. I can’t exactly say.”

Defense Secretary Resigns

Sri Lanka’s Defense Secretary resigned Thursday, following the terrorist attack that killed at least 250 people on Easter Sunday.

Defense Secretary Hemasiri Fernando‎ handed in his resignation to President Maithripala Sirisena, following the president’s request.

A government spokesperson confirmed that security forces had been warned of the attack at least 10 days before it occurred. Several reports also alleged that one of the suicide bombers had been previously arrested, then released.

After learning the news, President Sirisena asked for the resignations of Secretary Hemasiri, as well as the National Police Cheif, saying he could find replacements in as soon as 24 hours.

I am confident that with such reorganizations of [the] security sector and with the assistance of foreign expertise, the threat of terrorism could [be] curbed soon,” President Sirisena said in a statement.

The National Police Chief has not yet turned in his resignation.

Previous coverage of the attack in Sri Lanka.

ISIS Claims Responsibility

While the government initially said the bombings were orchestrated by a local extremist group by the name of National Towheed Jamaath, they also believed a larger organization must have been behind it as well. On Tuesday, ISIS posted a video, claiming the attack.

The video featured men that they claimed were the attackers. While most of the men had their faces covered, one could be seen. He was identified as a man who was known as an extremist in Sri Lanka with ties to NTJ.  They posted no other evidence to support their claim, and authorities are investigating their ties to the attack.

Government officials also said that the bombings were a response to the recent terrorist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, where a gunman killed 50 people at two mosques, marking the worst shooting in the country’s history.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern claimed, however, that she had received no information to support this.

“Look, I have seen reports of those statements,” she said during a press conference. “We haven’t received anything officially, nor have we received any intelligence reports that corroborate what has been said in Sri Lanka.”

Officials Warn of More Potential Attacks

Investigations into whether or not more attacks might be carried out are also ongoing, particularly in the capital city, Colombo.

On Thursday, the U.S. Embassy in Colombo tweeted out a warning, telling citizens to refrain from going to places of worship this weekend

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said that suspects of the attack could still be at large. Police have been shutting down streets in Colombo while searching for two people they believe were supposed to carry out suicide bombings on Easter Sunday. They suspect they might have plans to carry out potential upcoming attacks.

Despite this, the government is advising citizens not to be alarmed, and to work with authorities as they investigate. They issued a statement from a Police Spokesperson telling people the public to “not panic.”

“Sri Lanka Police advises the general public not to panic as security forces are conducting search operations across the country,” the statement read. “The public is requested to cooperate with security forces personnel carrying out the searches.”

The country is also re-issuing a nation-wide curfew that applies from 10:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m. The ban on social media sites, which is supposed to help stop the spread of misinformation, is still active.

See what others are saying: (Al Jazeera) (Associated Press) (Reuters)

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Protests Continue in Belarus Following Contested Election

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  • Nationwide protests have been raging throughout Belarus after President Alexander Lukashenko, who has served for 26 years and is widely considered Europes “last dictator,” won an election many believed was rigged.
  • In addition to controlling the vote count, media, and security forces, Lukashenko also arrested many of his political opponents in the race leading up to the election, forcing the rest to flee.
  • He was challenged by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of one of the men he arrested, and despite overwhelming popular support for her, she only won 10% of the vote. 
  • When she went to contest the results, she was held in a room for several hours an then disappeared, reappearing on video the next day to announce that she had fled the country. 
  • Since Sunday, protests have continued all over the country. Security forces have responded violently and arrested over 6,000 people.

Protests Continue

Protests continued in cities and towns across Belarus on Wednesday for the fourth consecutive day following the re-election of the country’s long-term leader, Alexander Lukashenko.

On Sunday, following the news that Lukashenko had won another term, demonstrations broke out nationwide in what has been described as the biggest anti-government protests the country has seen in decades.

Thousands of people took to the streets of Minsk and other cities on Sunday. According to reports and footage, security forces responded by trying to break up protests by force, beating the demonstrators and using tear gas, stun grenades, rubber bullets, water cannons, and other projectiles.

Also on Sunday, the country was hit with massive internet and cellular blackouts, and many social media sites were blocked. While Lukashenko denied that the government had shut down the internet and blamed the outage on a large cyberattack from abroad, experts have said there is no evidence of that.

Intermittent outages resumed throughout the week, though on Wednesday it was reported that the internet had largely been restored. The protests, however, still continued, and security forces have kept clashing violently with protesters, using force at demonstrations in multiple cities.

In one city, officials said police used live ammunition after protesters tried to attack them with steel bars. Government authorities said Wednesday that they have arrested more than 6,000 nationwide in the last three days alone.

Anti-Lukashenko Movement Grows

The unrest follows months of smaller protests leading up to the election, where Lukashenko, who has served as the president of Belarus for more than 26 years, was running for his sixth term.

He was first elected when the office was established in 1994, which, not by coincidence, was also the last election in the country that outside observers have said was free and fair.

Since taking office, Lukashenko, who has been described as Europe’s “last dictator,” has kept tight control over the elections. In addition to controlling vote counting, he also controls Belarus’ huge security system as well the state media, which always publishes news favoring him and criticizing his opponents.

Throughout his authoritarian rule, the government has continually and frequently suppressed opposition, but heading into last Sunday’s election, Lukashenko was experiencing the largest and most significant opposition to his rule since he assumed power.

Over time, his policies have become more and more unpopular as they have failed to modernize and grow Belarus’ economy. Lukashenko was also facing a lot of anger over his handling of the pandemic, which he had repeatedly downplayed, even suggesting at one point that drinking vodka could cure the coronavirus.

In the months leading up to the election, protesters took to the street to demonstrate against Lukashenko, who responded by cracking down. He claimed that the protests were part of a foreign plot and began mass arrests.

According to Viasna, a Belarussian human-rights group, there were more than 1,500 arbitrary detentions throughout the whole election campaign, which started in early May.

In addition to protesters and journalists, Lukashenko also began arresting several of his major political opponents in the upcoming election on charges widely believed to be false.

Then in July, with all his opponents either in jail or forced to flee the country to avoid being in jail, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of a popular YouTuber who was one of Lukashenko’s jailed opponents, registered to run. She became the united opposition candidate and received backing from the others who were unable to run.

For weeks, she went around the country campaigning, sometimes drawing crowds estimated at over 60,000, making them some of the largest political rallies in Belarus since the fall of the Soviet Union.

But even before Election Day, the opposition expected the results would be illegitimate. On Sunday, the state-run election authority declared that Lukashenko had won with 80% of the vote and that Tikhanovskaya had only won just under 10%.

Tikhanovskaya Flees

Immediately, the opposition and many other international governments dismissed the outcome as clearly rigged. Tikhanovskaya’s campaign and independent observers reportedly claimed that there was widespread ballot stuffing and falsifications.

As she had indicated before, Tikhanovskaya said she would refuse to accept the results. On Monday, she went to the Central Election Commission headquarters to formally contest the vote count. 

According to a supporter who said she went with her, Tikhanovskaya was in a room for three hours with two senior security service officials. About an hour into the meeting, the supporter said she saw several people enter the room with black bags that contained what looked like video equipment.

After another two hours, she was told that Tikhanovskaya had left through another entrance. She did not see her after that. 

On Tuesday, Tikhanovskaya posted a video on YouTube saying she had fled the country, and that she did so for the sake of her two children.

“I made a very hard decision, I’ve made this decision on my own,” she said. “I know that many people will understand me, many will judge me and many will hate me but god forbid you will ever have to face the choice that I had to face.” 

However, the same day, another video of Tikhanovskaya was released that many speculate was clearly taken under duress, likely while at the commission headquarters.

In the video, reading from a prepared notecard, she called on the people to Belarus to stop protesting and insisted “the nation has made its choice” and Lukashenko had won.

While Tikhanovskaya did not say where she had fled to, her campaign said she was in Lithuania, a fact that was later confirmed by the country’s Foreign Minister.

See what others are saying: (The Associated Press) (BBC) (The Guardian)

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Skepticism Emerges After Russia Approves First Covid-19 Vaccine

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  • Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia has developed a coronavirus vaccine, and officials in the country anticipate that tens of thousands of people will receive it in the next few months.
  • Russia is planning a mass rollout of the vaccine in October, with teachers and healthcare workers having the ability to volunteer to get it even sooner.
  • However, health officials are concerned that Russia rushed through the vaccine process, as the vaccine has not been through Phase 3 trials. That months-long process involves testing thousands of individuals and is considered essential in developing a vaccine.
  • Others have also expressed skepticism over the vaccine as Russia has yet to release data from its initial clinical trials.

Russia Announces Vaccine

President Vladimir Putin announced Tuesday that Russia has developed a coronavirus vaccine, prompting concerns from health officials who believe the country’s process in doing so was rushed and lacked crucial tests. 

“A vaccine against coronavirus has been registered for the first time in the world this morning,” Putin said while delivering the Tuesday announcement. “I know that it works quite effectively, it forms a stable immunity.”

The vaccine, which has been dubbed “Sputnik V,” was developed by The Gamaleya Institute and was funded by the Russian Direct Investment Fund. Officials say there could be a mass rollout for it in October, but prioritized individuals like teachers and healthcare workers could volunteer to get it sooner. Tens of thousands are expected to receive the vaccine in the next few months. One of his daughters has already received it.

“Of course, what counts most is for us to be able to ensure the unconditional safety of the use of this vaccine and its efficiency in the future. I hope that this will be accomplished,” Putin added in his address. 

As the Associated Press explained, this vaccine uses a different virus, the common cold-causing adenovirus, and modifies it to carry genes for the “spike” protein that coats the coronavirus. Scientists in China and the U.K. are working on a similar vaccine.

However, Russia approved the vaccine before it ever went through Phase 3 trials, which is a crucial step that involves administering the vaccine to thousands of people. Phase 3 trials could last for months, and while Russia said they will be conducting them and doing trials in countries like the UAE, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, and maybe Brazil, the vaccine will still be offered to volunteers who want it in the meantime. 

Health Officials Express Concern

Health experts fear that distributing the vaccine before Phase 3 results are in could be dangerous. They fear Russia was racing to be the first country to offer up a vaccine, as Putin has previously said he wanted one by September. 

According to the AP, human trials started back in June with 76 volunteers, half of which were injected with a liquid vaccine and the other half given on in the form as a soluble powder. Some of those volunteers were recruited from the military, prompting concerns that they may not have been volunteers at all, and were actually pressured into participating. 

“Normally you need a large number of people to be tested before you approve a vaccine. I think it’s reckless to do that if lots of people haven’t already been tested,” Peter Kremsner, an expert at Germany’s University Hospital in Tuebingen told Reuters.

Kremsner was not alone, other health officials told Reuters that releasing a vaccine at this stage is “unethical” and could lead to the pandemic only being worsened. On top of this lack of testing, Russia has also not released any data from its initial clinical trials. 

“It is not possible to know if the Russian vaccine has been shown to be effective without submission of scientific papers for analysis,” Keith Neal, a specialist in the epidemiology of infectious diseases at Britain’s Nottingham University said in a statement. 

Vaccine Response from U.S. Leaders

Even before Russia touted its new vaccine, there were concerns about how the country was developing it. While testifying to Congress in July, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he was worried about a lack of testing. 

“I do hope that the Chinese and the Russians are actually testing the vaccine before they are administering the vaccine to anyone,” he said. “Because claims of having a vaccine ready to distribute before you do testing is, I think, problematic at best.” 

Since Russia’s announcement, other U.S. officials have also expressed their fears. Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar criticized the pace at which it was produced while speaking with Good Morning America on Tuesday. 

“The point is not to be first with a vaccine, the point is to have a vaccine that is safe and effective for the American people and the people of the world,” he said. “We need transparent data, and it’s gotta be Phase 3 data.” 

Azar’s remarks line up with statements recently made by Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn.

“Let me assure you that we will not cut corners,” Hahn said while speaking to the American Medical Association on Monday. “All of our decisions will continue to be based on good science and the same careful deliberative processes we have always used when reviewing medical products.”

Vaccine Hesitancy in the United States

Releasing a vaccine too early could lead to a number of consequences. Say the process was rushed and the vaccine is ineffective or dangerous, it could lead to people being too nervous to get one when it is actually safe to do so. Reservations about a coronavirus vaccine are widespread, and go further than just the usual anti-vaxx crowd. 

Polling on the subject shows scattered numbers, but most indicate that many are uninterested or paranoid when it comes to a COVID-19 vaccine. An August Gallup poll found that if a free FDA approved vaccine were ready today, one in three Americans would still refuse it. Polling from Yahoo and YouGov shows that back in May, 55% of U.S. adults planned on getting vaccinated, but by the end of July, that fell to 42%.

See what others are saying: (Washington Post) (Wall Street Journal) (Business Insider)

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Lebanon’s Government Resigns Following Beirut Explosion Protests

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  • On Monday, the Prime Minister of Lebanon announced that he and his cabinet were resigning following a weekend of huge protests in Beirut.
  • Thousands of people took to the streets, calling for the government to resign after an explosion last week killed 200 and injured over 6,000 others. The explosion was believed to have been caused by a chemical stockpile that the government knew existed.
  • Protesters threw rocks and other projectiles, clashing violently with police who responded by firing tear gas and rubber bullets.
  • The protesters view the explosion as symbolic of years of government corruption, but many experts say the resignations will do little to change the country’s political system without widespread reforms.

Lebanese Government Steps Down

Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced Monday that his government was resigning following the massive explosion that shook the capital city of Beirut last week.

Speaking in a televised statement, Diab said that the explosion was the result of “endemic corruption” and that he was “heeding people’s demand for real change. Today we will take a step back in order to stand with the people.” 

The explosion, which killed 200 people and injured 6,000 others, is believed to have been caused by a fire that set off 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse at the port. It has since been confirmed that many government officials knew about the dangerous stockpile for years and did nothing to address it.

The move follows a weekend of protests, where thousands of demonstrators took to the streets to call for the government to resign. 

For many, the explosion was seen as yet another result of years of government corruption and mismanagement by the country’s ruling elite, who have been lining their own pockets while other people suffer. 

Even before the blast, Lebanon was experiencing its worst economic crisis in decades as well as surging coronavirus cases. Both factors contributed to an already heighten distrust in the government that has only been augmented by the explosion.

Protests Break Out

Those sentiments appeared to boil over as protests over the weekend rocked the capital.

Droves of protesters gathered in downtown Beirut on Saturday, where some set up mock gallows and they hung cardboard cutouts of top politicians. Others chanted “The people want the fall of the regime,” and “Revolution! Revolution!” as they marched in the streets.

Confrontations broke out between protesters and police after demonstrators threw rocks at security forces who responded by firing tear gas and rubber bullets. There were also some reports of security forces firing live rounds and protesters throwing fireworks, Molotov cocktails, and other projectiles at police.

Fires burned in the streets and protesters stormed three government ministries, even taking over the Foreign Ministry for a few hours before the army reclaimed the building.

The anti-government protests continued Sunday, and again police fired tear gas at rock-throwing demonstrators who were blocking a road near Parliament. Lebanese TV footage also showed a fire breaking out at an entrance to Parliament Square as protesters tried to break into a sectioned-off area.

Also on Sunday, international leaders met at a virtual summit where they pledged $298 million to help Lebanon in the aftermath of the blast. According to reports, French President Emmanuel Macron’s office said that while the aid was unconditional and would be given out regardless of political or institutional reforms, other pledges for longer-term support would depend on government reforms.

Lebanese officials have said the explosion caused upwards of $15 billion in economic losses.

Next Steps

Despite the fact that the resignation of the cabinet appears to heed the protesters’ calls, experts have warned that the move will result in more short-term political instability, but it is unlikely to create any long-term change.

“Not only do we have an absence of government and a political vacuum, but we’re going to have a severe problem with the function of the state of Lebanon,” Imad Salamey, a political scientist at Lebanese American University in Beirut told the Wall Street Journal. “We are heading toward the unknown.”

While the ministers have resigned, they are not gone. Instead, they will create a caretaker government that will exist until a new one is established, allowing them to “form the backbone of a new administration,” as The Guardian explains.

According to reports, the protesters, who continued their demonstrations on Monday, did not widely cheer Diab’s announcement.

For them, this is more of the same. Diab and his cabinet had been the political figures ushered in after a similar wave of anti-government protests prompted the former prime minister to step down in October.

After months of haggling, Diab and his government assumed power in January. Eight months later, he now leaves his people even worse off than before.

See what others are saying: (The Wall Street Journal) (The Guardian) (Al Jazeera)

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