Pope hopes truce on wars can come from Paris Olympics 

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis said on Sunday he hoped the Paris Olympics would be an occasion for truces in the world’s conflicts, urging athletes to be messengers of peace and models for young people.

The games start on July 26 with an opening ceremony on the River Seine that will feature about 10,500 athletes and over 100 heads of state and government.

During his weekly address to the crowds in St Peter’s Square, the pope said he hoped that “according to the ancient tradition, the Olympics will be an opportunity to establish a truce in wars, by demonstrating a sincere desire for peace.”

He mentioned the conflicts in Ukraine, Gaza, Myanmar and other countries, saying “let us not forget war is a defeat.”

Last month the final statement of a Group of Seven (G7) leaders’ meeting held in Italy included a unanimous call for a truce in global conflicts during the Olympic Games.

Zelenskyy calls for long-range weapons after drone attack on Kyiv

KYIV — Ukraine needs long-range weapons to protect its cities and troops on the frontline from Russian bombs and drones, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Sunday after a massive overnight drone and missile attack.

Russia launched its fifth drone attack on Kyiv in two weeks overnight, with Ukraine’s air defense systems destroying all the air weapons before they reached the capital, Ukraine’s military said.

Ukraine’s air force said on Telegram that its air defense systems destroyed 35 of the 39 drones and two cruise missiles that Russia had launched overnight. The weapons, the air force said, targeted 10 of Ukraine’s regions.

It was not immediately clear how many drones were launched at Kyiv. There were no casualties and no significant damage reported, Serhiy Popko, head of the Ukrainian capital’s military administration, said on the Telegram.

“During last night alone, the Russian army used almost 40 ‘Shaheds’ against Ukraine. Importantly, most of them were shot down by our defenders of the sky,” Zelenskyy said on Telegram, referring to the drones.

He said it was necessary to destroy Russian bombers at Russian air bases to protect Ukraine from air raids.

“Our sufficient long-range capabilities should be a fair response to Russian terror. Everyone who supports us in this supports the defence against terror,” Zelenskyy said.

Zelenskyy renewed his call for Western allies to allow long-range strikes on Russia on Friday in London, saying Britain should try to convince its partners to remove the limits on their use.

NATO members have taken different approaches to how Ukraine can use weapons they donate. Some have made clear Kyiv can use them to strike targets inside Russia while the United States has taken a narrower approach, allowing its weapons to be used only just inside Russia’s border against targets supporting Russian military operations in Ukraine.

Russia launched three Iskander ballistic missiles, Ukraine’s air force said, without saying what happened to them.

The military administration of the Sumy region in Ukraine’s northeast bordering Russia said on Telegram that a Russian missile damaged critical infrastructure in the Shostkynskyi district of the region.

The administration did not provide detail on what infrastructure was hit.

There was no immediate comment from Russia about the attacks. Moscow says it does not attack civilian targets in Ukraine.

“These systematic attacks … with drones, once again prove that the invader is actively looking for an opportunity to strike Kyiv,” Popko said. “They’re testing new tactics, looking for new approach routes to the capital, trying to expose the location of our air defense.”

Belarus in talks with Berlin about German man on death row

Warsaw, Poland — Belarus and Germany are holding “consultations” over the fate of a German man reportedly sentenced to death by a court in Minsk last month, Belarus’s foreign ministry said Saturday. 

Rico Krieger, 30, was convicted under six articles of Belarus’s criminal code including “terrorism” and “mercenary activity” at a secretive trial held at the end of June, according to Belarusian rights group Viasna. 

“Taking into account a request from the German Foreign Ministry, Belarus has proposed concrete solutions on the available options for developing the situation,” Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Anatoly Glaz said. 

“The foreign ministries of the two countries are holding consultations on this topic,” he added. 

Few details have been published about the case. 

Part of the court proceedings were held behind closed doors, the exact allegations against the man were not immediately clear and there has been little information in Belarusian state media about the trial. 

According to a LinkedIn profile that Viasna said belonged to Krieger, he worked as a medic for the German Red Cross and had previously been employed as an armed security officer for the U.S. Embassy in Berlin. 

A source at the German Foreign Ministry told AFP on Friday that it and the embassy in Minsk were “providing the person in question with consular services and are making intensive representations to the Belarusian authorities on his behalf.” 

The source added that “the death penalty is a cruel and inhuman form of punishment that Germany rejects under all circumstances.” 

Belarus is reported to have executed as many as 400 people since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, according to Amnesty International.  

But executions of foreign citizens are rare.  

The country is run as an authoritarian regime by long-time leader Alexander Lukashenko, who has detained thousands of dissidents and civic activists who oppose him. 

Part of Cyprus mourns, the other rejoices 50 years after split

Nicosia, Cyprus — Greek Cypriots mourned and Turkish Cypriots rejoiced Saturday, the 50th anniversary of Turkey’s invasion of part of the island after a brief Greek inspired coup, with the chances of reconciliation as elusive as ever.

The ethnically split island is a persistent source of tension between Greece and Turkey, which are both partners in NATO but are at odds over numerous issues.

Their differences were laid bare Saturday, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attending a celebratory military parade in north Nicosia to mark the day in 1974 when Turkish forces launched an offensive that they called a “peace operation.”

“The Cyprus Peace Operation saved Turkish Cypriots from cruelty and brought them to freedom,” Erdogan told cheering crowds who gathered in north Nicosia.”We are ready for negotiations, to meet, and to establish long-term peace and resolution in Cyprus,” he said, adding that Greek and Greek Cypriot calls to reunite Cyprus under a federal umbrella — which are prescribed in U.N. resolutions — are no longer possible.

Greek Cypriots want reunification as a federation. Turkish Cypriots want a two-state settlement.

“We have one aim: a Republic of Cyprus with a single sovereignty, a single international personality, a single nationality, in a bizonal, bicommunal federation, a single state where all citizens will be Cypriots and Europeans, without a foreign occupation army, without outdated guarantees,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told a somber event in the southern parts of Nicosia in remembrance of 1974.

Greece and Turkey recently agreed to discuss how to improve relations, but “the fact that we have been discussing doesn’t mean that we agree and, more importantly, that we back down,” Mitsotakis said.

Remembering the dead

Cyprus gained independence from Britain in 1960, but a shared administration between Greek and Turkish Cypriots quickly fell apart in violence that saw Turkish Cypriots withdraw into enclaves and led to the dispatch of a U.N. peacekeeping force.

The crisis left Greek Cypriots running the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus, a member of the European Union since 2004 with the potential to derail Turkey’s own decadeslong aspirations of joining the bloc.

It also complicates any attempts to unlock energy potential in the eastern Mediterranean because of overlapping claims. The region has seen major discoveries of hydrocarbons in recent years.

Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides, whose office represents the Greek Cypriot community in the reunification dialogue, said the anniversary was a somber occasion for reflection and for remembering the dead.

“The condemnable and unacceptable events we see happening in Ukraine today … were perpetrated 50 years ago in Cyprus and we are living its consequences every day,” he said.

Across the south, church services were held to remember the more than 3,000 people who died in the Turkish invasion.

“It was a betrayal of Cyprus and so many kids were lost. It wasn’t just my son, it was many,” said Loukas Alexandrou, 90, as he tended the grave of his son at a military cemetery.

In Turkey, blanket state television coverage focused on violence against Turkish Cypriots prior to the invasion, particularly on bloodshed in 1963-64 and in 1967.

Turkey’s invasion took more than a third of the island and expelled more than 160,000 Greek Cypriots to the south.

Reunification talks collapsed in 2017 and have been at a stalemate since. Northern Cyprus is a breakaway state recognized only by Turkey, and its Turkish Cypriot leadership wants international recognition.

Azerbaijan’s president vows to help French territories secure independence

SHUSHA, Azerbaijan — Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev pledged Saturday to help France’s overseas territories secure independence, the latest in a series of incidents pitting his ex-Soviet state against Paris over long-running conflicts in the Caucasus region. 

Aliyev accuses France of interfering in its affairs over its contacts with Armenia, against which it has waged two wars in 30 years linked to disputes over Baku’s breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh. 

In recent months, Azerbaijani leaders have focused on France’s South Pacific territory of New Caledonia, gripped by weeks of violence over the objections of Indigenous Kanak activists to a contentious electoral reform. 

Aliyev made his latest comments at a media forum days before the opening of the Olympic Games in Paris and just after the staging in Baku of a congress bringing together pro-independence groups from New Caledonia and other French territories. 

“We will support you until you are free,” Aliyev told the forum, citing French territories that he said were still subject to colonialism. 

“Some countries are still suffering from this. The Comoros islands, Mayotte are still under colonial rule. It has been our duty to help these countries liberate themselves from this revolting remnant from the past.” 

Accusations of meddling

Earlier this week, an “initiative group” staged a congress in Baku attended by pro-independence groups from New Caledonia and other French territories, including Corsica and Caribbean and Pacific islands. 

French media accounts of the meeting said participants sharply criticized French authorities and an Azerbaijani delegation was invited to visit New Caledonia. 

France accused Azerbaijan in May of meddling and abetting unrest in New Caledonia by flooding social media with what it said were misleading photos and videos targeting French police. 

Azerbaijan has denied the allegations. 

Azerbaijani authorities accuse France of bias in favor of Armenia in efforts to achieve a peace treaty to end three decades of conflict and in signing defense contracts with authorities in Yerevan. Azerbaijan expelled two French diplomats last December. 

Beleris returns to prison in Albania after European Parliament opening

TIRANA, Albania — A member of Albania’s ethnic Greek minority returned to prison Saturday after a five-day reprieve to attend the opening session of the European Parliament where he was elected to represent Greece’s ruling party.

Fredis Beleris, who holds dual Greek-Albanian citizenship, is serving a two-year prison sentence for vote-buying in municipal elections last year in Albania. He denies the charges, and Greece has described the case against him as being politically motivated.

“I am not sorry to go back to the cell,” said Beleris upon landing at Tirana International Airport.

The 51-year-old politician won the European Parliament after getting a place on Greece’s governing New Democracy party ticket in last month’s European elections. He received 238,801 votes, the fourth among the seven members elected for the party.

European Parliament members enjoy legal immunity from prosecution within the 27-state bloc, even for allegations relating to crimes committed prior to their election. But Albania is not an EU member yet.

Beleris was arrested two days before the May 14, 2023, municipal elections in Himara, with a large ethnic Greek minority in the town on the Albanian Riviera, 220 kilometers (140 miles) southwest of the capital Tirana. He was charged with offering about 40,000 Albanian leks ($390) to buy eight votes.

He won last year’s municipal election with a 19-vote lead, backed by the ethnic Greek minority party and others opposing Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama’s governing Socialists. But he never took office, being detained until his court conviction in March.

An appeals court upheld the ruling last month, and Albanian authorities stripped Beleris of his post as mayor of Himara, where a new election will be held August 4.

Airlines resume services after global IT crash wreaks havoc

Paris — Airlines were gradually coming back online Saturday after global carriers, banks and financial institutions were thrown into turmoil by one of the biggest IT crashes in recent years, caused by an update to an antivirus program.

Passenger crowds had swelled at airports Friday to wait for news as dozens of flights were canceled and operators struggled to keep services on track, after an update to a program operating on Microsoft Windows crashed systems worldwide.

Multiple U.S. airlines and airports across Asia said they were now resuming operations, with check-in services restored in Hong Kong, South Korea and Thailand, and mostly back to normal in India and Indonesia and at Singapore’s Changi Airport as of Saturday afternoon.

“The check-in systems have come back to normal [at Thailand’s five major airports]. There are no long queues at the airports as we experienced yesterday,” Airports of Thailand President Keerati Kitmanawat told reporters at Don Mueang airport in Bangkok.

Microsoft said the issue began at 1900 GMT on Thursday, affecting Windows users running the CrowdStrike Falcon cybersecurity software.

CrowdStrike said it had rolled out a fix for the problem, and the company’s boss, George Kurtz, told U.S. news channel CNBC he wanted to “personally apologize to every organization, every group and every person who has been impacted.”

It also said it could take a few days to return to normal.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s team was talking to CrowdStrike and those affected by the glitch “and is standing by to provide assistance as needed,” the White House said in a statement.

“Our understanding is that flight operations have resumed across the country, although some congestion remains,” a senior US administration official said.

Other industries

Reports from the Netherlands and Britain suggested health services might have been affected by the disruption, meaning the full impact might not yet be known.

Media companies were also hit, with Britain’s Sky News saying the glitch had ended its Friday morning news broadcasts, and Australia’s ABC similarly reporting major difficulties.

By Saturday, services in Australia had mostly returned to normal, but Sydney Airport was still reporting flight delays.

Australian authorities warned of an increase in scam and phishing attempts following the outage, including people offering to help reboot computers and asking for personal information or credit card details.

Banks in Kenya and Ukraine reported issues with their digital services, while some mobile phone carriers were disrupted and customer services in a number of companies went down.

“The scale of this outage is unprecedented and will no doubt go down in history,” said Junade Ali of Britain’s Institution of Engineering and Technology, adding that the last incident approaching the same scale was in 2017.

 

Flight chaos

While some airports halted all flights, in others airline staff resorted to manual check-ins for passengers, leading to long lines and frustrated travelers.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration initially ordered all flights grounded “regardless of destination,” although airlines later said they were reestablishing their services and working through the backlog.

India’s largest airline, Indigo, said operations had been “resolved,” in a statement posted on social media platform X.

“While the outage has been resolved and our systems are back online, we are diligently working to resume normal operations, and we expect this process to extend into the weekend,” the carrier said Saturday.

A passenger told AFP that the situation was returning to normal at Delhi Airport by midnight on Saturday with only slight delays in international flights.

Low-cost carrier AirAsia said it was still trying to get back online and had been “working around the clock toward recovering its departure control systems” after the global outage. It recommended passengers arrive early at airports and be ready for “manual check-in” at airline counters.

Chinese state media said Beijing’s airports had not been affected.

In Europe, major airports, including Berlin’s, which had suspended all flights earlier on Friday, said departures and arrivals were resuming.

‘Common cause’

Companies were left patching up their systems and trying to assess the damage, even as officials tried to tamp down panic by ruling out foul play.

CrowdStrike’s Kurtz said in a statement his teams were “fully mobilized” to help affected customers and “a fix has been deployed.”

But Oli Buckley, a professor at Britain’s Loughborough University, was one of many experts who questioned the ease of rolling out a proper fix.

“While experienced users can implement the workaround, expecting millions to do so is impractical,” he said.

Other experts said the incident should prompt a widespread reconsideration of how reliant societies are on a handful of tech companies for such an array of services.

“We need to be aware that such software can be a common cause of failure for multiple systems at the same time,” said John McDermid, a professor at York University in Britain.

He said infrastructure should be designed “to be resilient against such common cause problems.”

EU’s Middle East envoy vows to push for two-state solution

Jerusalem — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s stubborn opposition to a Palestinian state does not deter the European Union’s Middle East peace envoy from believing a two-state solution remains achievable.

Sven Koopmans, in an interview with AFP, said with the Gaza war ongoing and Israel needing international support, Netanyahu’s government cannot indefinitely disregard European views on resolving the conflict.

Netanyahu and some ministers in his right-wing government staunchly oppose the creation of a Palestinian state, which many argue has become even more urgent since the October 7 Hamas attacks sparked the devastating war.

“I think that recently he was very explicit about rejecting the two-state solution,” Koopmans said. “Now, that means that he has a different point of view from much of the rest of the world.”

The Dutch diplomat said one side’s rejection of “the outcome that we believe is necessary” does not mean efforts to seek a solution should cease.

Last month the European Union invited Israel to discuss Gaza and human rights.

Israel agreed to a meeting after July 1, when Hungary, which supports Netanyahu’s government, assumed the EU presidency.

“It is important that we have that discussion,” said Koopmans. “I am sure that in such a meeting, there will be very substantive discussions about what we expect from our partner Israel. And that relates to things that we do not see at present.”

‘Relevant actor’

Koopmans said it was “completely unacceptable” for there to be thousands of aid trucks waiting at the Gaza border.

The envoy also raised concerns about Israeli settler violence in the occupied West Bank, saying some attacks amounted to “genuine terrorism.”

Named as special representative for the peace process in 2021, Koopmans said the European Union was one of the most energetic institutions pushing for a two-state solution.

Koopmans said his work was guided by the EU’s 1980 declaration recognizing the “right to existence and to security” for Israel and “the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people.”

The declaration called Israeli settlements on Palestinian land “a serious obstacle to the peace process.”

The European bloc was only nine members then, and Koopmans acknowledged divisions within the 27 existing members on the Middle East strife.

But he insisted the bloc “should not make ourselves smaller than we are.”

He highlighted that the 27 countries, with a combined population of 450 million people, were Israel’s largest trading partner and the top aid donor to the Palestinians.

“We are the biggest political neighbor to both of them. Of course, we are not the biggest security provider, let’s be honest. But we are a big and relevant actor,” he said.

EU nuances

Koopmans listed his top priorities as ending the suffering in Gaza, preventing a regional war between Israel and Hezbollah, and reviving the peace process to establish “a free state of Palestine living alongside a safe and secure Israel.”

The envoy acknowledged the “different nuances” of EU members on the Middle East.

Spain and Ireland joined non-EU member Norway in recognizing a Palestinian state this year.

Hungary and the Czech Republic have on the other hand sought to block EU sanctions against Israeli settlers in the West Bank.

The Palestinian state recognitions infuriated Israel, while Koopmans said the move could “contribute” to a solution to the conflict.

The European Union is also a major backer of the Palestinian Authority, which many countries say Israel seeks to undermine.

“We want to see the P.A. thrive. We want it to have an ability to govern in an effective and legitimate manner,” said Koopmans. “We want to strengthen the PA also so that it can again take over in Gaza when the time is there.”

The European Union met with foreign ministers from Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in May, and Koopmans said there were “positive reactions” to its proposals.

Paris police seal off Seine River ahead of Olympics

PARIS — A special kind of iron curtain came down across central Paris on Thursday, with the beginning of an Olympic anti-terrorism perimeter along the banks of the River Seine sealing off a kilometers-long area to Parisians and tourists who hadn’t applied in advance for a pass. 

The words on many lips were “QR code,” the pass that grants access beyond snaking metal barriers that delineate the security zone set up to protect the Olympic Games’ opening ceremony on July 26. 

“I didn’t know it started today,” said Emmanuelle Witt, a 35-year-old communications freelancer who was stopped by police near the Alma bridge while biking across town. She desperately went on her phone to fill out the online form to get her QR code, unaware that the vetting process could take several days. 

Those with the precious code — either on their phones or printed out on pieces of paper — passed smoothly through police checkpoints at gaps in the barriers taller than most people. 

Those without got mostly turned away — with no amount of grumbling and cajoling making officers budge. 

“That’s too much, that’s over the top, that whole thing is a pain,” grumbled Nassim Bennamou, a delivery man who was denied access to the street leading to Notre Dame Cathedral on his scooter. 

“Even the GPS is confused, I have no idea how I’m going to work today,” he added. 

While authorities announced the code system last year and have been meeting with local residents for months to explain the restrictions, not everyone was aware. Officers patiently explained to visitors without the pass how to reach iconic Paris monuments without going through the restricted zone. 

“We had no idea we needed a QR code,” said Takao Sakamoto, 55, who was denied access to the Eiffel Tower near the Bir Hakeim Metro station. Visiting from Japan with his wife, he took a photo of the tower from a distance, behind fences and police cars. “That will do,” Sakamoto remarked with despair. 

On the other hand, visitors who were lucky enough to come across officers who leniently let them pass without QR codes and others who’d equipped themselves with them were treated to the sight of near-empty riverside boulevards that, in normal times, heave with traffic. 

“There’s no one around!” sang a happy cyclist on a street he had largely to himself. With police seemingly everywhere, another man walking past a riverside café with fewer than usual customers loudly quipped: “You can leave your money and cell phones on the tables, there’s definitely no thieves!” 

“It’s surreal, it really feels like we’re the only ones here,” said Sarah Bartnicka from Canada. Enjoying a morning jog with a friend, the 29-year-old took a selfie with a police officer on the deserted Iéna bridge to capture the moment. 

Paris has repeatedly suffered deadly extremist attacks, most notably in 2015. Up to 45,000 police and gendarmes as well as 10,000 soldiers are being deployed for Olympic security. 

“I understand why they’re doing this,” said Carla Money, a 64-year-old American who managed to pass the barriers with her family. 

Some business owners inside the security zone grumbled that sharply reduced foot-fall would hurt their bottom line. 

“They’ve locked me up like a prisoner,” said Raymond Pignol. His restaurant, L’Auberge Café, near the Pont Neuf that spans the Seine, is just inside the metal fencing. 

The perimeter went into effect early Thursday morning and will last through the ceremony. As an exception, Paris has decided to hold the opening of its first Games in a century on the river rather than in a stadium, like previous host cities. Most of the river security measures will be lifted after the show. 

Officers were under instructions to be polite and patient as employees on their way to work and others dealt with the perimeter and the passes for the first time. But Paris police chief Laurent Nunez said that after the initial 24 hours of being accommodating, officers would apply the rules much more firmly, with no more looking the other way for those without QR codes.

Germany aware citizen sentenced to death in Belarus, foreign ministry says

Leader of Belarus marks 30 years in power after crushing dissent

TALLINN, Estonia — For three decades, European leaders have come and gone by the dozens, but Alexander Lukashenko remains in absolute control of Belarus.

His longevity is due to a mixture of harshly silencing all dissent, reverting to Soviet-style economic controls and methods and cozying up to Russia, even as he sometimes flirted with the West.

Lukashenko, 69, was dubbed “Europe’s last dictator” early in his tenure, and he has lived up to that nickname.

On Saturday, he marks 30 years in power — one of the world’s longest-serving and most ruthless leaders.

As head of the country sandwiched between Russia, Ukraine and NATO members Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, Lukashenko was elected to his sixth term in office in 2020 in balloting widely seen at home and abroad as rigged.

Months of mass protests that followed were harshly suppressed in a violent crackdown that sent tens of thousands to jail amid allegations of beatings and torture. Many political opponents remain imprisoned or have fled the nation of 9.5 million.

But the strongman shrugged off Western sanctions and isolation that followed, and now he says he will run for a seventh five-year term next year.

Lukashenko owes his political longevity to a mixture of guile, brutality and staunch political and economic support from his main ally, Russia.

Most recently, in 2022 he allowed Moscow to use Belarusian territory to invade Ukraine and later agreed to host some of Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons.

“Lukashenko has turned Belarus into a fragment of the USSR, dangerous not only for its own citizens but also threatening its Western neighbors with nuclear weapons,” said independent political analyst Valery Karbalevich.

He described the Belarusian leader as “one of the most experienced post-Soviet politicians, who has learned to play both on the Kremlin’s mood and the fears of his own people.” 

In power since 1994

When the former state farm director was first elected in July 1994 just 2½ years after Belarus gained independence following the USSR’s collapse, he pledged to fight corruption and boost living standards that had plunged amid chaotic free-market reforms.

An admirer of the Soviet Union, Lukashenko pushed soon after his election for a referendum that abandoned the country’s new red-and-white national flag in favor of one similar to what Belarus had used as a Soviet republic.

He also quickly bolstered ties with Russia and pushed for forming a new union state in the apparent hope of becoming its head after a full merger — an ambition dashed by the 2000 election of Vladimir Putin to succeed the ailing Boris Yeltsin as Russian president.

Under Lukashenko, Belarus’ top security agency retained its fearsome Soviet-era name of the KGB. It also has been the only country in Europe to keep capital punishment, with executions carried out with a shot to the back of the head.

In 1999 and 2000, four prominent Lukashenko critics disappeared, and an investigation by the Council of Europe concluded they were kidnapped and killed by death squads linked to senior Belarusian officials. Belarusian authorities stonewalled European demands to track down and prosecute the suspected culprits.

“Lukashenko never bothered with his reputation,” said Anatoly Lebedko, leader of the now-outlawed United Civil Party of Belarus. “He relished in calling himself a dictator and bragged about being a pariah even when he was publicly accused of political killings and other crimes.”

Lukashenko initiated constitutional changes that put parliament under his control, removed term limits and extended his power in elections that the West didn’t recognize as free or fair. Protests following the votes were quickly broken up by police and organizers were jailed.

His Soviet-style centralized economy depended heavily on Russian subsidies.

“Instead of helping Belarus, cheap Russian oil and gas have become its curse, allowing Lukashenko to receive windfall profits from exporting oil products to Europe and freeze the situation in Belarus,” said Alexander Milinkevich, who challenged him in a 2006 election. “Opposition calls for reforms and movement toward the European Union literally drowned in the flood of Russian money.”

But even while relying on Moscow, Lukashenko repeatedly clashed with the Kremlin, accusing it of trying to strong-arm Belarus into surrendering control of its most prized economic assets and eventually abandoning its independence.

While maneuvering for more subsidies from Russia, he often tried to appease the West by occasionally easing repressions. Before the 2020 election, the U.S. and EU lifted some sanctions as Belarus freed political prisoners.

Turning point

The balancing act ended after the vote that sparked the largest protests ever seen in Belarus. In the subsequent crackdown, over 35,000 people were arrested, thousands were beaten in police custody, and hundreds of independent media outlets and nongovernmental organizations were closed and outlawed.

While Putin had been annoyed by Lukashenko’s past maneuvers, he saw the protests as a major threat to Moscow’s influence over its ally and moved quickly to shore up the Belarusian leader, who came under Western sanctions.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who challenged Lukashenko in that election and then fled the country to lead the opposition from exile, said the vote marked a watershed as it became clear that he had “lost support of the majority of the Belarusians.”

“Lukashenko has survived primarily thanks to Russia, which offered him information, financial and even military support at the peak of the protests,” she told The Associated Press. “The Kremlin’s intervention prevented a split in the Belarusian elites. Now Lukashenko is paying back that support with the country’s sovereignty.”

Belarus’ leading human rights group, Viasna, counts about 1,400 political prisoners in the country, including group founder and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Bialiatski, who has been held incommunicado like other opposition figures.

“Lukashenko has created a harsh personalist political regime in the center of Europe with thousands of political prisoners where civic institutions don’t function and time has turned back,” said Bialiatski’s wife, Natalia Pinchuk. “Torturous conditions in which Ales has been held are emblematic for thousands of Belarusian prisoners and Lukashenko’s path in politics.”

In one of the most vivid episodes of the crackdown, a commercial jet carrying a dissident journalist from Greece to Lithuania was forced to land in Minsk in May 2021 when it briefly crossed into Belarusian airspace in what the West condemned as air piracy. The journalist, Raman Pratasevich, was convicted of organizing protests and sentenced to eight years in prison. He later was pardoned and became a Lukashenko supporter.

The future for Lukashenko

The Belarusian leader is sometimes blustery and mercurial. He once praised Adolf Hitler for “raising Germany from ruins.”

Lukashenko shrugged off the COVID-19 pandemic as “psychosis” and advised people to “kill the virus with vodka,” go to saunas and work in the fields because “tractors will cure everybody!”

Amid the 2020 crackdown, Lukashenko declared that “sometimes we shouldn’t care about the laws and just take tough steps to stop some scum.”

He kept his youngest son, 19-year-old Nikolai, at his side at official events, fueling speculation that he could be nurturing him as a successor.

Lukashenko maintained a tough-guy image by playing hockey, skiing and doing other sports. After contracting COVID-19, he said he recovered quickly, thanks to physical activity.

But he’s become visibly less energetic in recent years amid rumors of health problems that he denied with his usual bravado.

“I’m not going to die,” he said last year. “You will have to tolerate me for quite a long time to go.”

Ukrainian leader to address Britain’s government to appeal for support

France’s divided National Assembly keeps centrist speaker 

PARIS — France’s divided National Assembly on Thursday kept a centrist member of President Emmanuel Macron’s party as speaker after a chaotic early election produced a hung legislature. 

Speaker Yael Braun-Pivet, 53, has been at the head of the National Assembly since 2022 and she retained her post Thursday after three rounds of voting in the lower house of parliament. 

She received the support of Macron’s centrist allies and of some conservative lawmakers seeking to prevent her leftist contender from getting the job. Braun-Pivet won 220 votes, while communist lawmaker Andre Chassaigne got 207. 

The parliamentary election earlier this month resulted in a split among three major political blocs: the New Popular Front leftist coalition, Macron’s centrist allies and the far-right National Rally party. None won an outright majority. 

“We need to get along with each other, to cooperate. We need to be able to seek compromises,” Braun-Pivet told lawmakers in a speech following her election as speaker. “You will always find me by your side to do this, to dialogue with you, to innovate with you, to find that new path that the National Assembly must take.” 

Thursday’s opening session of the lower house of parliament came two days after Macron accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Gabriel Attal and other ministers but asked them to handle affairs in a caretaker capacity until a new government is appointed, as France prepares to host the Paris Olympics at the end of the month. 

Leaders of the New Popular Front on Thursday evening again urged Macron to turn to them to form the new government, insisting they won the most seats in the National Assembly. 

Yet the members of the coalition, which includes the hard-left France Unbowed, the Socialists, the Greens and the Communists, are still feuding among themselves over whom to choose as their prime ministerial candidate. 

Chassaigne, who was the joint candidate of the New Popular Front, criticized the job of speaker going to Macron’s centrists as a vote “stolen by an unnatural alliance.” 

It “gives us even more strength,” he added. 

Chassaigne blamed conservative members of the Republicans party for participating in “tactics that led to not changing anything,” describing the move as “giving nausea.” 

Speaking from Woodstock, England, where he was attending a summit of leaders from Europe, Macron declined to comment on the French political situation and refused to say when he intends to name a new prime minister. 

“I will not answer that question,” he said. 

Politicians from the three main blocs and smaller parties had waged a battle for the job of speaker, with each camp seeking to make a show of force in the hope that it would influence Macron’s decision. 

Unions and left-wing activists staged protests Thursday across the country to “put pressure” on Macron to choose a prime minister who comes from the New Popular Front. 

There is no firm timeline for when the president must name a new prime minister.

Threat to Europe, US will not end with Ukraine, officials warn

washington — Ending the war in Ukraine will likely not be enough to end the threat to Europe or even the United States, in the view of several top European diplomats and the top U.S. general in Europe.

The officials, speaking Thursday at the annual Aspen Security Forum in Aspen, Colorado, described the war and their nations’ support for Ukraine as existential, but said a Ukrainian victory against invading Russian forces would be just the start.

“The outcome on the ground is terribly, terribly important,” said U.S. General Christopher Cavoli, who heads U.S. European Command and serves as the supreme allied commander for NATO.

“But we can’t be under any illusions,” Cavoli said. “At the end of a conflict in Ukraine, however it concludes, we are going to have a very, very big Russia problem. … 

“We are going to have a situation where Russia is reconstituting its force, is located on the borders of NATO, is led by largely the same people as it is right now, is convinced that we’re the adversary, and is very, very angry.”

Germany’s foreign and security adviser was equally blunt.

“By the choice of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, we are entering a phase of a long, drawn-out conflict with Russia,” Jens Plötner told the audience in Aspen.

“Its bloodiest manifestation, at the moment, is the war in Ukraine. But obviously it’s not the only one,” Plötner said. “We have seen hybrid activity across Europe. We have seen hybrid activity in the United States. We have seen Russia reaching out to Africa. We have seen Russia rekindling ties with Tehran or, even worse, Pyongyang.

“So, I think all of this is part of the bigger picture, which we need to acknowledge.”

Plötner declined to comment directly on a Russian plot, first reported by CNN earlier this month, to kill the chief executive of Rheinmetall, one of Germany’s leading defense companies. But he said arrests have been made and that Germany’s security agencies are on high alert.

“We know that the ones [plots] we have been able to thwart were not the last ones,” he said.

Russia has denied any involvement in the plot to kill the Rheinmetall executive, dismissing the news reports as fake.

“Such reports cannot be taken seriously,” said Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov.

Germany and other European countries have increasingly raised concerns about Russian-linked networks working to erode support for Ukraine.

In April, German authorities arrested two Russian-German men on espionage charges, alleging one of them had agreed to carry out attacks on U.S. military facilities to sabotage the delivery of military aid to Ukraine.

Earlier this month, U.S. intelligence officials alleged Russia was again seeking to interfere in the upcoming U.S. presidential election in an effort to boost candidates perceived as favorable to Moscow, especially with respect to the war in Ukraine.

Jonatan Vseviov, secretary-general at Estonia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, warned Thursday that now, especially, the West must be wary of Putin’s mind games of “fear and false hope.”

“His foreign minister, I think yesterday, talked about peace. This is him laying a trap,” Vseviov said in Aspen. “And it would be enormously foolish for us to fall into this. [Putin’s] not interested in peace. He’s interested in derailing our policy.”

Vseviov also warned against allowing Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling to paralyze Western decision-making and support for Ukraine.

The comments by Vseviov, Plötner and Cavoli came against the backdrop of the Republican National Convention, where supporters of Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump briefly distributed signs reading “Trump will end the Ukraine war.”

Trump’s choice for vice president, Ohio Senator J.D. Vance, has argued in favor of a negotiated peace between Russia and Ukraine.

Some Europeans accuse Vance of downplaying the threat posed by Putin. And at a security conference in Munich earlier this year, Vance said, “The best way to help Ukraine, I think, from a European perspective, is for Europe to become more self-sufficient.”

Some European officials have pushed back against criticism that Europe is not doing enough for its self-defense, pointing to an initiative to develop a European deep-strike precision missile capability to counter Russia’s own missile buildup.

The top U.S. general in Europe, Cavoli, also rejected the Republican criticism.

“This is a different Europe than the Europe we complained about for years,” he said. “This is a Europe that recognizes what the burden is and that it’s got to be shared. And it’s got organizations that are preparing the sharing.

“This is exactly the partner we’ve been looking for for three decades. It’s exactly the time when U.S. contribution will produce the most value,” he said.

US Army honors Nisei combat unit that helped liberate Tuscany in WWII

ROME — The U.S. military is celebrating a little-known part of World War II history, honoring the Japanese-American U.S. Army unit that was key to liberating parts of Italy and France even while the troops’ relatives were interned at home as enemies of the state following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. 

Descendants of the second-generation “Nisei” soldiers traveled to Italy from around the United States – California, Hawaii and Colorado – to tour the sites where their relatives fought and attend a commemoration at the U.S. military base in Camp Darby ahead of the 80th anniversary Friday of the liberation of nearby Livorno, in Tuscany. 

Among those taking part were cousins Yoko and Leslie Sakato, whose fathers each served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which went onto become the most decorated unit in the history of the U.S. military for its size and length of service. 

“We wanted to kind of follow his footsteps, find out where he fought, where he was, maybe see the territories that he never ever talked about,” said Yoko Sakato, whose father Staff Sgt. Henry Sakato was in the 100th Battalion, Company B that helped liberate Tuscany from Nazi-Fascist rule. 

The 442nd Infantry Regiment, including the 100th Infantry Battalion, was composed almost entirely of second-generation American soldiers of Japanese ancestry, who fought in Italy and southern France. Known for its motto “Go For Broke,” 21 of its members were awarded the Medal of Honor. 

The regiment was organized in 1943, in response to the War Department’s call for volunteers to form a segregated Japanese American army combat unit. Thousands of Nisei — second-generation Japanese Americans — answered the call. 

Some of them fought as their relatives were interned at home in camps that were established in 1942, after Pearl Harbor, to house Japanese Americans who were considered to pose a “public danger” to the United States. In all, some 112,000 people, 70,000 of them American citizens, were held in these “relocation centers” through the end of the war. 

The Nisei commemoration at Camp Darby was held one week before the 80th anniversary of the liberation of Livorno, or Leghorn, on July 19, 1944. Local residents were also commemorating the anniversary this week. 

In front of family members, military officials and civilians, Yoko Sakato placed flowers at the monument in memory of Pvt. Masato Nakae, one of the 21 Nisei members awarded the Medal of Honor. 

“I was feeling close to my father, I was feeling close to the other men that I knew growing up, the other veterans, because they had served, and I felt really like a kinship with the military who are here,” she said. 

Sakato recalled her father naming some of the areas and towns in Tuscany where he had fought as a soldier, but always in a very “naive” way, as he was talking to kids. 

“They were young, it must have been scary, but they never talked about it, neither him nor his friends,” Sakato said of her father, who died in 1999. 

Her cousin Leslie Sakato’s father fought in France and won a Medal of Honor for his service. “It was like coming home,” she said of the commemoration.