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Nagorno-Karabach villagers burn down their houses before Azerbaijan handover


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Villagers in Nagorno-Karabakh set their houses on fire Saturday before fleeing to Armenia ahead of a weekend deadline that will see parts of the territory handed over to Azerbaijan as part of a peace agreement.

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Residents of the Kalbajar district in Azerbaijan that was controlled by Armenian separatists for decades began a mass exodus this week after it was announced Azerbaijan would regain control on Sunday.

Fighting between the separatists backed by Armenian troops and the Azerbaijan army erupted in late September and raged for six weeks, leaving more than 1,400 dead and forcing thousands to flee their homes.

In the village of Charektar, on the border with the neighbouring district of Martakert which is to remain under Armenian control, at least six houses were on fire Saturday morning with thick plumes of gray smoke rising over the valley, an AFP journalist saw.

"This is my house, I can't leave it to the Turks," as Azerbaijanis are often called by Armenians, said one resident as he threw burning wooden planks and rags soaked in gasoline into a completely empty house.

"Everybody is going to burn down their house today… We were given until midnight to leave," he said.

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Fresh ceasefire agreement

On Friday at least 10 houses were burned in and around Charektar.

The ex-Soviet rivals agreed to end hostilities earlier this week after previous efforts by Russia, France and the United States to get a ceasefire fell through.

A key part of the peace deal includes Armenia's return of Kalbajar, as well as the Aghdam district by November 20 and the Lachin district by December 1, which have been held by Armenians since a devastating war in the 1990s.

Russian peacekeepers began deploying to Nagorno-Karabakh on Wednesday as part of the terms of the accord and took control of a key transport artery connecting Armenia to the disputed province.

Russian military officials said the mission consisting of nearly 2,000 troops would put in place 16 observation posts in mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh and along the Lachin corridor.


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Austria goes into national lockdown Tuesday as Covid-19 cases rise


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Austria will introduce a national lockdown on Tuesday in a bid to bring its soaring coronavirus infections under control, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said on Saturday.

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Non-essential shops will close and the current curfew from 8pm to 6am will be expanded into an all-day requirement to stay at home, with specific exceptions such as shopping for essentials or exercise, Kurz said. People should work from home wherever possible, he added.

The lockdown is due to last almost three weeks, with the last day set for December 6.

The Austrian government had so far used a lighter touch in dealing with the second wave of coronavirus cases than the first.

A nighttime curfew this month failed to stop infections from accelerating. Daily new cases hit a record of 9,586 on Friday, nine times higher than at the first wave's peak.


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France records sharp rise in Covid-19 deaths as Europe tightens restrictions


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The number of confirmed new Covid-19 cases and deaths in France rose sharply in the last 24 hours, according to French health ministry data published Saturday as a number of European countries announced new restrictions to stem a deadly second wave.

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France registered 32,095 new Covid-19 cases over the previous 24 hours to reach a total of 1,954,599. Deaths in hospitals in France from Covid-19 rose by 359 over the previous 24 hours to reach a total of 44,246 so far, according to French health ministry figures.

The rise in infections and deaths in France came as a swathe of new restrictions were announced or came into force in a number of European countries.

Schools closing in Austria and Greece

Austria on Saturday announced schools and non-essential shops would close from Tuesday, just two weeks after a partial lockdown was imposed.

"There are still many who say that infections don't happen at school, in shops or services," Chancellor Sebastien Kurtz told a news conference.

"But the truth is the authorities can no longer trace 77 percent of new infections, which means they no longer know where contamination is happening."

Greece, battling a saturated national health system, announced it would shut all schools after imposing a nationwide night curfew from Friday.

"Closing elementary schools was the last thing we wanted to do. This is a measure of how serious the situation is," Health Minister Vassilis Kikilias said. Secondary schools had already been shuttered.

In Italy, the regions of Tuscany and Campania — of which Florence and Naples are the respective capitals — plunged into "red zones" of tough restrictions, which now cover 26 million of the 60 million population.

"There is no other way if we want to reduce the numbers of dead," Health Minister Roberto Speranza said, as the country's death toll rose by 544 to 44,683, one of Europe's worst.

New anti-virus curbs also came into force in Ukraine on Saturday, with all non-essential businesses ordered closed for the weekend.

'Don't kill the economy'

There were protests in several Germans cities against enforced mask-wearing, with police saying they used water cannon to disperse nearly 1,000 people in Frankfurt.

France's Riviera resort of Nice saw 1,500 take to the streets to demand a more coherent set of restrictions to fight the disease.

Hundreds of demonstrators also turned out in Portugal, defying a weekend curfew imposed on seven out of every 10 of the population of 10 million.

The curfew bans driving on public roads after 1 pm on Saturdays and Sundays.

"The pandemic is on and we have to be protected, but without killing the economy," said 33-year-old Carla Torres, who works in Lisbon's hospitality industry.

Poland became the latest country to report record figures with 548 coronavirus deaths over 24 hours, just days after the government decided against introducing a nationwide quarantine.

EU body expects favourable opinion on vaccines

Lifting the gloom, the European Medicines Agency added to growing hopes that an effective vaccine could be available soon.

The EU body said it expected to give a favourable opinion on a vaccine by the end of the year if test results proved positive. That would allow distribution from January.

But if the hurdles of testing and distribution are overcome, another challenge awaits: will people take a vaccine?

"My fear is that not enough French people will get vaccinated," French Prime Minister Jean Castex told Le Monde newspaper.

French restaurant and bar owners announced legal action against government measures which closed them from the end of October.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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Marie Antoinette’s silk shoe goes on the block in Versailles


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A silk shoe that belonged to Marie Antoinette, the last queen of France who was executed during the French Revolution, will go up for auction on Sunday with a starting price of €10,000 ($11,800).

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The sale takes place in the Palace of Versailles, where the queen – who has gone down in history as a symbol of the excesses of the French monarchy – and King Louis XVI held court before they were guillotined in 1793.

The shoe bears her name on its heel and Jean-Pierre Osenat, of the auction house that is conducting the sale, said she is thought to have worn it regularly during daily life at the palace.

During the French Revolution, the shoe ended up in the possession of Marie-Emilie Leschevin, a close friend of the queen's head chambermaid, and whose husband was later killed by the guillotine.

Her family held on to it for generations before it came to auction 227 years after her death.

"This auction is coming at a time when French people are facing real uncertainties regarding their values, and many of them are clinging onto the history of France," said Osenat. "Marie Antoinette is someone who arouses the interest of the whole world."

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS and AFP)

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WHO dashboard documents record daily Covid-19 cases


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The World Health Organization's coronavirus dashboard on Sunday showed a record daily number of new Covid-19 cases over the weekend as France registered 27,228 new cases and a further 302 deaths over the past 24 hours, according to health ministry data.

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The WHO's figures for Saturday showed that 660,905 coronavirus cases were reported to the UN health agency, setting a new high watermark.

That number, and the 645,410 registered on Friday, surpassed the previous daily record high of 614,013 recorded on November 7.

Within Saturday's new case numbers, the WHO's Americas region registered a one-day record high of 269,225 new confirmed cases.

Within each week, the pattern of cases being reported to the WHO tends to peak towards Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and dip around Tuesday and Wednesday.

According to the WHO's figures, there have been more than 53.7 million confirmed cases of the disease in total since the start of the pandemic, while over 1.3 million people have lost their lives.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned Friday that there was "a long way to go" in getting the virus under control globally.

France sees slight fall in new case rate

France meanwhile registered 27,228 new confirmed cases of Covid-19 and a further 302 deaths from the disease in the last 24 hours, health ministry data showed on Sunday, although there were signs of a fall in the rate of new cases.

France has now recorded 1,981,827 confirmed COVID-19 cases in all, while 44,548 people have died from the virus – the seventh-highest death toll in the world.

Nevertheless, the data marked a slight decrease compared with the previous day's Covid-19 figures in terms of new confirmed cases and deaths.

France is in the middle of its second, national lockdown aimed at curbing the spread of the virus, following its March-May shutdown.

President Emmanuel Macron's government has set a December 1 deadline for this lockdown, although the government has said it could extend it beyond that if it feels the numbers are not falling fast enough.

The government is coming under pressure from shops and businesses to loosen restrictions in time for the Christmas shopping period.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)

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VkusVill: Russian retail chain criticised for removing LGBT family from ad campaign


A Russian retail chain has been criticised for removing and apologising for an advert that featured a lesbian family.

VkusVill, an organic grocers chain, initially ran the ad on Wednesday as part of a series spotlighting their regular customers.

The image of a lesbian family was displayed on the company’s website under the company’s slogan “Recipes for family happiness”.

But on Sunday, after their site was targeted with a series of hate messages, the ad was removed and VkusVill posted an apology.

A new advert prominently featured photographs of heterosexual couples and seemed to blame a small group of its staff for the original choice of photos.

“There was an article in this place that hurt the feelings of a large number of both our customers and employees,” a statement read.

“We regret that it happened, and we consider this publication a mistake that became a manifestation of the unprofessionalism of individual employees.”

“Our company’s goal is to enable our customers to receive fresh and delicious products daily, not to publish articles that reflect any political or social views. By no means we wanted to become a source of discord and hatred.”

The statement and apology were signed by VkusVill’s founder and several other senior executives.

But the decision to replace the original advert has been strongly condemned online by LGBT+ campaigners and other users.

Dominic Cummings: Ex-PM advisor says UK COVID-19 strategy was ‘out of control’


Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, said that the UK prime minister considered COVID-19 to be a “scare story” and that the government’s strategy had failed the British public.

Johnson said key people in government and in No 10 were skiing in the middle of February 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic began to take hold.

Speaking to a parliamentary committee on Wednesday, Cummings said: “The government and No 10 was not operating on a war footing in February. Lots of people were literally skiing,” he said.

Cummings is giving evidence to the committee about the British government’s response to COVID-19.

He told the committee that the COVID-19 response was a case of “lions led by donkeys” and that senior officials including Johnson, Health Secretary Matt Hancock, and himself had failed the public.

Over the past few weeks, he has made explosive claims about the government and Johnson’s own response to the pandemic, including claims that Johnson said that he was willing to let “bodies pile up in the streets” rather than take the UK into a third lockdown.

‘A scare story’

Asked on a number of occasions about that quote, which Johnson has denied, Cummings did not elaborate on it.

But Cummings did say that Johnson saw COVID-19 as “a scare story” in February 2020 and compared it to swine flu.

He also said that the controversial idea of herd immunity – letting people get sick with COVID-19 to enable natural immunity build-up in society – was very much part of the government’s strategy in March 2020 because Johnson believed the British public would never accept a lockdown.

When Hancock said on March 15, 2020: “We have a plan. Herd Immunity is not part of it” he was lying, Cummings said.

“I am baffled as to why No. 10 is trying to deny it,” Cummings told the committee.

‘We’re completely f**ked’

He said that he had repeatedly called for Hancock to be fired for lying to the British public and to officials in meetings, as well as for procurement during the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cummings also said that officials in No. 10 realised as late as mid-March that there was no strategy for dealing with COVID-19.

“There is no plan. We’re in big trouble. We’re going to kill thousands of people. I think we are absolutely f**ked,” a senior official said.

He described the strategy in Whitehall as “an out of control movie”.

‘Nuclear Dom’

Cummings is referred to in the UK media as ‘Nuclear Dom’ due to his outspoken and controversial pronouncements. He outlined much of what he planned to say in a 42-tweet tirade posted between May 17 and May 22.

Cummings was the former director of the Vote Leave campaign which led the campaign to take the UK out of the European Union. When Johnson became prime minister, he joined him in Number 10 as an advisor but was sacked by Johnson in November 2020.

His own actions during the pandemic have seen him make headlines, including when it emerged that he had broken the government’s lockdown rules to go on a drive to a castle in northeast England. In a widely ridiculed press conference he later said he did so to test his eyesight.


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Mark Rutte’s party gains most seats in Dutch general election


Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s political party won the most seats in the Dutch parliament, according to a preliminary forecast by ANP news agency based on a count of 88.5% of the votes.

“I note that the result of this election is that Dutch voters gave my party an overwhelming vote of confidence,” Rutte said as exit polls were released.

Voting stopped on Wednesday after being spread out over three days due to the pandemic. The general election came a few months after the government’s resignation over a child welfare benefits scandal.

Yet caretaker PM Rutte’s centre-right People’s Party looks likely to win 35 seats in the 150-seat parliament, increasing their current number of seats by two, according to the preliminary forecast.

This means Rutte will likely form his fourth coalition government and become the country’s longest-serving prime minister. He has already been in office for over a decade.

The liberal party Democrats 66 (D66) came in second in ANP’s forecast with 24 seats, an increase of five seats compared to 2017.

The Party for Freedom, a right-wing nationalist party, was set to win 17 seats, which would be three seats fewer than they won four years ago.

The Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) was expected to gain 15 seats compared to their previous 19 seats in parliament in 2017.

The GroenLinks (GL) and Socialist Party (SP) both looked likely to reduce their seats, winning nine seats compared to 14 for both parties in the last election. The Labour Party (PvdA) was also set to win nine seats, according to the forecast.

The forecast also suggested that the right-wing Eurosceptic party Forum for Democracy (FvD) will increase their seats from two in 2017 to eight.

The Party for the Animals which stands for animal welfare looked likely to win six seats.

There were also several parties that won seats for the first time, including the pro-European Volt Party which was likely to win three seats, according to the forecast.

Turnout was at 82.6 per cent, according to exit polls.

Forming a government could take weeks as Rutte’s party needs to build a coalition. The Prime Minister has said coalition talks would likely start with the D66 party and the CDA.

Rutte’s government resigned in January ahead of the general election over a welfare benefits scandal. It had emerged that the tax authorities wrongly accused 26,000 families of fraud and demanded the repayment of thousands of euros between 2013 and 2019.

The government also faced large protests over COVID-19 restrictions; Rutte has nonetheless been viewed as a steady and modest leader.


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Dutch election: Will voters plump for change during a pandemic?


The fallout from a political scandal, an ongoing global pandemic, an economic downturn, simmering civil unrest: any one of these challenges would make for a fraught election campaign.

But in the run-up to this week’s national election (COVID-19 has seen voting spread out over three days, from March 15-17), political parties in the Netherlands were confronted with the reality of all four happening at once.

Unease at scandals and ongoing social issues aside, the Dutch electorate appears to be keenly aware of the need for stability during a time of crisis that is gripping the whole world, not least the Netherlands.

Some, though, are concerned with the country’s direction and are railing against what they see as regressive measures to combat the spread of coronavirus.

In short, while the result is broadly expected to be an endorsement of continuity, some are seeing Wednesday’s pandemic poll as a bellwether election for other major elections across Europe later this year.

EMA speaks on safety of AstraZeneca vaccine


Europe’s medicines regulator is to give an update into its investigation on whether there is a link between the use of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine and serious blood clotting issues after multiple countries suspended its use.

Emer Cooke, Executive Director at the European Medicines Agency (EMA), is to deliver remarks at 14:00 CET. The press briefing will be played live in the video player above.

In a statement released on Monday, the EMA said it retains the view that “the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine in preventing COVID-19, with its associated risk of hospitalisation and death, outweigh the risks of side effects.”

The World Health Organisation (WHO) also issued the same opinion on Monday with its chief scientist, Dr Soumya Swaminathan, affirming that the rates at which blood clots have developed in people who received the AstraZeneca vaccine “are in fact less than what you would expect in the general population.

Over a dozen European countries have temporarily suspended the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Austrian authorities were the first to issue such an order on March 7, suspending the use of a batch of the jab after a vaccinated woman died as a result of multiple thromboses — formation of blood clots within blood vessels. Estonia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Latvia also suspended the use of the same batch.

Last week, authorities in Denmark, Norway and Iceland suspended the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine as a precautionary measure.

They were followed on Sunday and Monday by Ireland, Germany, France, Spain, Portugal and Slovenia.

Authorities in the UK, where more than 11 million doses of the AstraZeneca jab have been administered, continued to urge people to get the vaccine on Monday, underlining that “the number of blood clots reported after the vaccine is not greater than the number that would have occurred naturally in the vaccinated population.”


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