Russia Accused of Trying to Steal COVID-19 Vaccine Information

Britain, Canada and the United States have accused Russia of trying to steal COVID-19 information from academic and pharmaceutical institutions.Britain’s National Cyber Security Center announced Thursday in coordination with the U.S. and Canada the attempts to steal vaccine and treatment research is being conducted by the hacking group APT29, which is said to be part of the Russian intelligence community.The NCSC said the hacking group, also known as Cozy Bear, is continuing its attacks with spear-phishing, custom malware and a variety of other tools and techniques.The U.S. and Britain said two months ago that networks of hackers were targeting organizations worldwide that were responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, but did not explicitly link the efforts to Russia.U.S. intelligence agencies widely suspect that Cozy Bear hacked Democratic Party computers before the 2016 election, with the intent of helping President Donald Trump win the election. 

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Record Rain Causes Flash Floods in Sicilian Capital, Palermo

Officials in the southern Italian regional capital of Palermo said a record-setting rainstorm Wednesday caused flash flooding that turned streets into rivers and trapped motorists in their cars.Palermo’s mayor, Leoluca Orlando, told reporters the rainstorm – which the Italian news agency ANSA referred to as a “water bomb” – dropped as much rain in two hours as the Sicilian capital gets in a full year. Media reports say as much as one meter of rain hit the city. Residents posted video and pictures to social media showing submerged cars and streets that looked like raging rivers.Italian news agency ANSA reports firefighters worked all night searching for missing people in a flooded highway underpass. The intense rainfall sent streams of mud and water sweeping away cars and leaving them blocked in the underpass. Some drivers and passengers left their vehicles and swam to safety, but a witness reported seeing two people disappear in the roiling water. At dawn on Thursday, firefighter teams brought in pumps to drain the flooded area below the underpass.Initial reports said the two people had died in the floods, but Palermo police and firefighters said Thursday they could not confirm the deaths.

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Pro-Western Party Claims Victory in North Macedonia Election 

A suspected hacking attack caused the site of North Macedonia’s electoral commission to crash for hours after polls closed in national elections Wednesday, delaying preliminary results that showed the pro-Western Social Democrats narrowly leading the center-right opposition. The commission said early Thursday that with nearly 94% of the vote counted the Social Democrats have 36% and VMRO-DPMNE follow at more than 34%. The ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration was third at 11%, while a coalition of two smaller ethnic Albanian parties followed at nearly 9%. The Commission gave no projections on how many seats each party stood to win in the 120-member parliament. Shortly afterwards, Social Democrats leader Zoran Zaev declared victory. Addressing cheering supporters in the capital Skopje, he promised fast reforms to help the country’s European Union accession hopes end revive the battered economy. Electoral commission head Oliver Derkoski said the suspected hack affected the official website designed to give fast online results. Vote counting was proceeding normally as the commission’s central server was not affected, he said. Derkovski added that police have been informed and will investigate the attack and who might be behind it. Another official told The Associated Press that “an outside hacker attack spread a virus … so the public cannot see the results online.” “Our technical team is working to solve the problem,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to discuss the matter with the media. The election — delayed for months due to the pandemic — was held amid a resurgence of the coronavirus in the small Balkan country, with voters donning obligatory masks. Polling stations closed later than usual to encourage turnout, and authorities also organized two days of advance voting to allow people in quarantine or at greater risk from the virus to cast their ballots from home. North Macedonia, a former Yugoslav republic with a population of around 2 million, reported more than 8,500 cases, including 393 deaths, as of Wednesday, with 198 new cases and four deaths reported over the previous 24 hours. The country saw new cases rise in recent weeks after infection-control restrictions were lifted. Election authorities said turnout had reached 50.8% half an hour before polls closed, which is lower than in previous elections. Zaev’s governing Social Democrats called the early parliamentary election when he resigned as prime minister in January after the European Union failed to give North Macedonia a start date for EU membership talks. Zaev faced a strong challenge from VMRO’s Hristijan Mickoski. The party has softened its earlier opposition to a landmark 2018 deal with Greece that saw the country change its name from Macedonia to North Macedonia, clearing objections for it to join NATO earlier this year. Zaev, 45, ran much of his campaign on the accomplishment of securing the agreement with Greece that ended a dispute of nearly 30 years. “I believe our positive campaign has won over citizens,” Zaev said after voting. North Macedonia has had a caretaker government since his resignation as prime minister in January. Election campaigns were limited by social distancing rules and calmer than in past elections, which produced vitriolic animosity between the two main parties. The Social Democrats have governed since 2016 after beating populist conservative Nikola Gruevski of VMRO-DPMNE, who fled to Hungary to avoid serving a two-year jail sentence for abuse of power and corruption. Gruevski’s successor, Hristijan Mickoski, moved the party toward the center-right but aimed his campaign at voters are still disappointed by the country’s name change. “People are going to the polls in large numbers from what we can see,” Mickoski said. “They are ready for a big change.” If neither party can achieve an outright victory, the winner will most likely have to seek a power-sharing deal with parties representing the country’s large ethnic Albanian minority. The election is being monitored by a team of international observers.  

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Scores of Anti-Putin Protesters Arrested in Moscow, Monitor Says

Russian police arrested more than 100 demonstrators protesting constitutional reforms that could keep Vladimir Putin in power for 16 more years, a human rights monitoring group said.About 500 people, many wearing face masks branded with the word “no,” marched down a major street Wednesday in the Russian capital.Some waved banners demanding that Putin resign, while others called the Russian president a “thief.”OVD-Info, an independent political monitoring group, reported more than 100 arrests, but police and Russian officials made no comments.“I came here to sign the petition against the constitutional reforms because I am a nationalist,” one protester told Reuters, while a teenage girl blamed Putin for “the poverty in our country.”Russian voters this month approved changes to the constitution that allow Putin to remain president until 2036. Without the amendment, he would have been required to step down in four years.The opposition said the vote to amend the constitution was rigged.Putin has been in control in Russia as president or prime minister for 20 years. 

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Police Detain Dozens in 2nd Day of Belarus Election Protests

A Belarusian human rights group says police detained dozens of demonstrators in the capital and the city of Borisov on Wednesday as protests against the exclusion of two opposition candidates from the presidential ballot roiled the country. In Minsk, thousands of people stood in a 3-kilometer-long (2-mile-long) line outside the national elections commission to sign complaints about the removal of Viktor Babariko and Valery Tsepalko from the ballot for the Aug. 9 election.  The two candidates were seen as the strongest challengers to authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, who is seeking a sixth term. Police closed off the center of Minsk, and the human rights group Vesna said at least 20 people were arrested. Another 15 demonstrators were detained in the city of Borisov, the group said.  Belarusian police officers detain a man in Minsk, Belarus, July 15, 2020.Thousands of people also took to the streets of Minsk and other cities in protest on Tuesday, and police said 250 were detained. The central election commission of Belarus allowed five presidential candidates to be named on the ballot, denying spots to Tsepkalo, founder of a successful high-technology park and a former ambassador to the United States, and former banker Babariko. The decision eliminated any serious competition for Lukashenko, who is seeking reelection after already spending a quarter-century in power.  Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994, stifling opposition and independent news media. He accused protesters of plotting a revolution and promised to protect the country from one. “We will be defending the country with any lawful means. We will not surrender our country to anyone,” he said. People stand in a line outside the national elections commission to sign complaints about the removal of Viktor Babariko and Valery Tsepalko from the ballot for the Aug. 9 election in Minsk, Belarus, July 15, 2020.Amnesty International on Wednesday condemned mass detentions as provoking violence and violating protesters’ rights in Belarus.  “The police sought to disperse peaceful gatherings, with excessive and unnecessary use of force and in many cases deploying police officers in plainclothes. This provoked violent responses from some protesters who tried to prevent others being arrested and beaten,” Aisha Jung, Amnesty International’s senior campaigner for Belarus, said in a statement.  “However, according to eyewitnesses and widely available video footage, the gatherings remained largely peaceful, and many of those arrested were peaceful protesters,” Jung said.  Belarusian Interior Ministry spokeswoman Olga Chemodanova said Wednesday that police demonstrated “self-restraint and high professionalism” despite “the aggression of certain individuals.” The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said in a statement that it won’t be deploying an election observation mission to Belarus due to a “lack of invitation” from the country’s government. 
 

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British PM Defends COVID-19 Response to Opposition

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson Wednesday defended his government’s COVID-19 response and preparations for a potential second wave of the pandemic as he fielded pointed questions from opposition lawmakers in parliament.In the House of Commons, opposition Labor leader Keir Starmer, referring to a report commissioned by the Government Office for Science, asked Johnson about the report’s recommendation that tracking and tracing of COVID-19 cases be expanded throughout July and August to prepare for a possible winter surge.Johnson said they were preparing for the possibility of a second wave but did not say the government was specifically following the report’s recommendations. Starmer questioned if Britain’s track and trace program was up to the task.The prime minister insisted the track and trace program was “doing fantastic work” and is as equal to or better that any system in the world. He said the program has resulted in 144,000 people across the nation agreeing to isolate themselves to fight the spread of the coronavirus.Starmer noted the most recent statistics show the program is slipping, contacting 70 percent of the people it needs to, while it was at 90 percent just a few weeks earlier. He questioned whether Johnson had read his own government’s report, which set out the worst-case scenario for the pandemic in the months ahead and what to do about it.  Johnson said he was “aware” of the report and the government was taking every reasonable step to prepare.   The prime minister was asked if his government would commit to an independent public inquiry to access its response to the pandemic. He said certainly there would be an inquiry, but the middle of combating the pandemic was not the appropriate time for it.  Britain has reported one of the world’s highest numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths.On Tuesday Britain’s government said it will demand people wear face coverings inside shops.

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EU Leaders Seek Agreement on COVID-19 Recovery Fund

European heads of state will seek agreement over a proposed $856 billion pandemic recovery fund — and to discuss the bloc’s next multiyear budget — when they meet Friday in Brussels. Neither issue promises to be easily resolved. Backing the recovery package are hard-hit southern countries like Italy and Spain, which would benefit most from their proposed mix of loans, aid and grants. On the other side are the so-called “frugal four” — the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark and Sweden — which warn spending must be responsible.  German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting in Berlin, Germany, July 15, 2020.Europe’s traditional powerhouses, France and Germany, have joined forces to support the package. Even so, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany — which currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency — expressed uncertainty earlier this week that a deal will be struck at the Brussels summit.”I think Angela Merkel is pretty determined to reach an agreement,” said Rosa Balfour, director of the Carnegie Europe research organization in Brussels. “What she has said to be cautious is that if it’s not this weekend, it will be in the coming weeks.”At stake are many things — European unity, the direction of financial markets, but also lightening up a heavy EU agenda that includes other key issues, such as finishing up Brexit, Britain’s departure from the European Union.Tara Varma, head of the Paris office for the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the final funding agreement may look quite different from the original proposal.”But if ultimately they make it, that is quite a breakthrough,” she said. “And honestly, it’s a big move forward for the Germans, to implement the rest of their agenda, which is quite massive.”There are other stumbling blocks. Some researchers warn the rescue fund will siphon green investments needed to meet the EU’s ambitious climate goals. And Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban said he may veto any deal linked to rule-of-law criteria.Analyst Balfour said EU leaders might bow to Hungary’s demands — at least this time.”But in the long term, I do think it’s an existential threat to the EU, because the EU is so tied to the fact it is formed by democracies,” she said.The two-day summit takes place amid EU estimates the bloc’s economy will shrink 8.3 percent this year, before growing in 2021.  
 

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Belarus Leader Criticizes West After Protests Over Election Bans

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko dismissed Western criticism on Wednesday after his two main challengers were barred from next month’s presidential election and police detained over 250 protesters.The European Union delegation to Belarus said excluding the two rivals “undermines the overall integrity and democratic nature of the elections,” and Europe’s election watchdog expressed concern about “key aspects of the electoral process.”Hundreds Protest Opposition Candidates’ Lockout in Belarus Election commission refuses to place two top candidates on presidential election ballot, assuring another term for Alexander Lukashenko Defending the police handling of protests over the ban on the two challengers on Tuesday, Lukashenko said countries such as France and the United States had used greater force against protesters and accused the West of double standards.”Criticize (President Donald) Trump, the U.S. for the lack of democracy. Try to do it with Russia,” Lukashenko, 65, said during a meeting with supporters in the city of Vitebsk.”We don’t want anyone to tell us how to live. We know how to do that ourselves. Solve your own problems first, and there are many of them,” state-run Belta news agency quoted him as saying.Lukashenko, who has allowed little dissent in his 26-year rule, is all but certain to win the Aug. 9 election but public frustration is growing over the economy, human rights and his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.The central election commission refused to register banker Viktor Babariko because of a criminal case against him and barred former ambassador Valery Tsepkalo after disallowing some of the signatures supporting his candidacy.Their exclusion prompted protests in the capital Minsk and, according to social media reports, in other cities.Police said over 250 people had been detained and rights group Vesna 96 put the total at 302. The police said six police had been hurt and the state investigative committee launched a criminal case against the protest organizers and protesters.The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s election watchdog, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), said it would not send monitors for the election after not receiving a “timely invitation.”Expressing concern that Belarus had not addressed problems previously identified in the electoral process, the ODIHR urged Minsk to take “concrete and immediate steps to protect the exercise of fundamental freedoms.”

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